The Thriller At The Villa. Hammers Looking To Extend Amazing Awayday Advantage

Unbeaten on the road for over six months, the West Ham tour bus rocks up in Birmingham to face a faltering Aston Villa

The two big domestic transfer stories during the summer were the prospective moves of Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish to the money-no-object ranks of Premier League champions, Manchester City. As we know, only one of these transfers came about when the Kane move was blocked when the selling club’s Chairman failed to honour an alleged gentleman’s agreement.

In a week where West Ham encountered each of the three clubs involved in those sagas it is interesting to reflect on how they worked out for all concerned.

Peak schadenfreude has almost been reached from the dramas currently playing out in N17. Getting one over on the old rivals, as we did last week, is always sweet, and to see it followed up with another pitiful performance yesterday has been spectacular. From self-styled European Super League heavyweights to crisis Premier League makeweights in the blink of an eye. Riddled with debt, saddled with an unsuitably dull manager and a group of players who look like they would rather be anywhere else, the situation is priceless. If Daniel Levy thought he had a gentleman’s agreement requiring Harry Kane to ‘give a toss’ during the remainder of his enforced stay, he now knows he was very much mistaken. Kane’s work-to-rule is a reminder that it is the players who now have the upper hand.

Few would be surprised to see Kane heading up north to the Etihad once the new year sales start. It is quite remarkable that despite the richness of their resources, Manchester City have even fewer strikers than West Ham. The Hammers gave an excellent defensive performance in midweek to finally put an end the visitor’s League Cup domination. But City do appear a lot less threatening at the moment, even if you know they will dominate the ball for long periods. For all Guardiola’s presumed tactical genius, his players recruitment has been very hit and miss. Hopefully, none of that is down to Rob Newman.

Ultimately, league cup success came down to a tense penalty shootout with Phil Foden wayward attempt being the sole failure. Does anyone look more like a ‘Manc’ than Foden? If he fails to get over his spot kick miss, there is a role in the remake of the Royle Family waiting. Huge congratulations to all the West Ham penalty takers for holding their nerve in the shootout. A quarter final tie at Tottenham now awaits.

The one who, of course, got away in the summer was the big money transfer of Grealish to Manchester City. Not sure he has yet provided value at City but as Villa’s talisman and overwhelming creative force, he has been a tough act to follow. The cash was quickly used to bring in three big money signings – Danny Ings, Leon Bailey, and Emiliano Buendia – but attempts to shoehorn them into an effective formation has so far proved to be a struggle. The Ings/ Watkins partnership looks formidable on paper but has yet to take off. Hopefully, it will remain grounded again today.

Things have rarely been better at West Ham. To the extent that I worry they may be going too well. Has David Moyes sold his soul to the devil in return for seven wishes. Will it all fall apart when the wishes run out?

It is an unfamiliar feeling approaching any game with a high degree of positivity – an expectation that West Ham might win rather than a forlorn hope that they won’t lose. I’m not sure that my anxiety levels have reduced come kick-off, however. Though they are anxieties about losing touch with the leading pack rather than getting sucked into a relegation battle. A win today and it will be halfway to the forty point minimum from just ten games.

Success breeds confidence but it can also lead to complacency. The manager’s balanced public persona provides some reassurance. Happy to praise the performance while looking for certain aspects of our game to improve. The return of the set piece threat is very welcome, but more goals are also needed from open play.

There will be no surprises in the starting eleven today with the team pretty much picking itself. Right back may be the only area of contention assuming both Valdimir Coufal and Ben Johnson are available to play. Johnson would be very unlucky if he has to settle for a place on the bench after recent performances. But competition for places is great!

Central attacking midfield is still the problem position for me. Both Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma have done their best work when playing out wide and struggle to impose themselves enough in the central role behind Michail Antonio. Nikola Vlasic may be better suited to that position but needs to be fitter and faster (in both body and mind) before being considered a realistic starter.  

The other major development during the week has been the apparent interest in buying a stake in the club by Czech businessman and billionaire (and Sparta Prague President), Daniel Kretinsky. New investment rather than new ownership is more in line with David Sullivan’s immediate objectives and is more credible than an outright sale. How it might work in practice depends very much on the personalities of those involved and how they would get along. Do they have a shared love of Cossack hats? At face value, the deal is more appealing than being owned by a despotic overseas state. The Hammers go into today’s game in high spirits, having won four consecutive games in all competitions, as well as being unbeaten on the road this season. In contrasting fortunes, Villa have lost three on the trot since their win at Old Trafford at the end of September. Dean Smith is something of a gung-ho manager, hoping to outscore the opposition to compensate for weaknesses in defence. With Ings and Watkins they have the potential to do that but are currently lacking the creativity in midfield. Their open style of play should play to the Hammers counter-attacking strengths, as witnessed in last season’s 3-1 win. I’m hoping for a repeat score-line today. COYI!