Former Coldstream Guard and peddler of Barbican alcoholic-free larger, Lawrie McMenemy, used to say that league tables shouldn’t be published until ten rounds of games had been played. Before that point, the big man reckoned, the table was misleading creating unrealistic expectations at the top and putting too much pressure on managers at the bottom.
Well, we are almost at the point, a quarter of the season has already come and gone, and the Premier League table makes surprising reading. It will not be lost on either of today’s teams that victory would catapult them into the top five. Even if it was only temporary, it could prove a memorable “I was there” moment to tell your grandchildren about. Almost cause for an open top bus parade if only we were in a Tier 1 Covid location.
Something that stands out, for me, in this most unusual of seasons is how away teams have taken the edge on victories – leading 42 to 35 with 19 draws. Liverpool are the only Premier League side yet to lose at home, as well as being the only team to be averaging more that two points per home game. Conversely, four teams are yet to lose on the road, while there are five averaging more than two points per game. Within that roll of top awayday performers are tonight’s opponents, Aston Villa.
Having played just three away games so far, Villa can boast a 100% record and have yet to concede a goal. It is a fascinating state of affairs when you consider they have managed to let in eleven goals across their five home games – more that West Ham have conceded in all nine of their games, home and away.
The home versus away riddle, I suppose, must be a consequence of crowd free stadiums, but it is still not easy to understand. I can see how a passionate crowd can act as an extra player, but does that explain everything? Shouldn’t the home team be better acquainted with (and capable of exploiting) the dimensions of their own pitch? Aren’t pitches prepared to suit the home style of play or to hinder the opposition?
Or is that, despite the absence of crowds, home team’s still feel the need to take the initiative, only to be undone by the counter-attack sucker-punch that is so prevalent in today’s game. There must be something psychological at play here!
Assuming no undisclosed injury problems, I don’t see much change to the Hammer’s starting line-up. The key decision will be to bring back Michail Antonio or stick with Sebastien Haller. Much may hinge on just how confident David Moyes is on Antonio’s return to fitness – too soon to risk him or not?
West Ham managed to stumble across the finishing line in each of the last two games Antonio missed, but he is by far the best fit with the overall Moyes game-plan. Haller is nowhere near as bad as some make-out although he has yet to get near £45m of value. He did OK in the Sheffield game, where a great strike to win the game disguised earlier limitations in the role he was being asked to play. For me, bringing back Antonio is a must. Although their defensive record on the road suggests otherwise, Villa are often wide open at the back, and Antonio is the one best placed to exploit that.
The other selection debate (at least among fans) is Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma? It is an interesting managerial conundrum. Fornals works his socks off for the team off the ball, but does he do enough on it? Benrahma looks to possess an excellent repertoire of skills and tricks, but can he be relied upon to put in the graft off the ball? I was disappointed not to see Benrahma get another 20 minutes or so last week, particularly when several players were starting to flag in the final quarter. I think we are all keen to see exactly what he can do, but I believe Moyes will keep him up his sleeve for now. He is not ready to fuilly release the brake and go full throttle just yet.
When West Ham played Villa in the final match of last season, the visitor’s determination for survival was enough to earn a deserved draw against their off-colour hosts. The Hammers were unable to get a grip on Jack Grealish and allowed him to run the show. They would be ill-advised to let him do so again this evening.
Grealish is something of a marmite character. Undoubtedly, one of the most skilful ball-players in the league but far too prone to the theatrical dive for my liking. Unfortunately, the game seems in thrall to players who engineer fouls out of nowhere on a regular basis. The irony of Grealish berating a Brighton player for simulation last week was right off the scale. Grealish was, of course, in court this week facing a charge of careless driving – a welcome change from careless diving, I suppose – after pranging several parked cars during a late night lockdown binge. With sentencing due in the next two weeks, perhaps it will be a case of locked down to locked up.
It will be interesting to have a close look at Ollie Watkins. One of the many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer (and a former team-mate of Benrahma) he has made an encouraging start at Villa. He will present a menacing goal threat if the supply line is not curtailed.
The runaway penalty glut has dried up a little in the past two weeks. I had mentioned previously that referees might be given a new directive to stem that particular over zealous tide. The current total sits at 44 awarded, a run rate equivalent to 175 for the entire season.
I have a feeling that this is a game that could have plenty of goals in it. An interesting clash of styles between Villa’s very open approach and the Hammer’s controlled smash and grab. Normally, whenever we are lured towards the rocks of over optimism (even against our better judgement) it ends in disappointment. We are like that old variety act where chairs are stacked on top of each other. We all know that eventually it will all come crashing down – just not when!
For today though, I will laugh in the face of fate and predict a thrill-a-minute, nail-biting, nerve-jangling, breath-taking 3-2 victory. We might even get a penalty. COYI!