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!

What next West Ham? Carabao Cup reflections and a look ahead to Villa

I am old enough to remember when the League Cup was called the League Cup. Of course it’s now called the EFL Cup or is currently known as the Carabao Cup for sponsorship reasons. For the first 20 years or so there was no sponsor but since then there has been a succession of them, Rumbelows, Coca Cola etc. Back in the early days teams used to put out their strongest sides, but in recent times it has been considered the least important of the trophies on offer, and managers make wholesale changes, even in the latter stages of the competition.

On Wednesday night Guardiola made nine changes from the side that started their last game, but he was still able to field ten full internationals plus Cole Palmer, a top prospect who has already featured and scored in the Champions League and as an under 21 international, such is the quality of the strength in depth of the Manchester City squad.

Not to be outdone David Moyes made eight changes himself which is an indicator of how far West Ham have come in the last year or so. The game itself was described by some as one of the best 0-0 draws they had seen. It says something when perhaps our two most influential players, Declan Rice and Michail Antonio were rested completely and not even on the bench. I loved a tweet from Rodney Marsh before the game that would have come back to haunt him. It was along the lines of ‘No Rice, No Antonio, No Chance’.

It was no surprise that City had the greater possession and shots etc., but we gave them a good game and defended relatively comfortably to deny them a goal. We had our chances too, but when the game ended at 0-0 I feared the worst, knowing that City had not lost a penalty shootout for 13 years, which was seven successful ones in that time.

But our penalties were superb, Foden dragged his one wide, and as a result we progressed to the quarter-finals. One thing that came out of the penalties for me was that Aaron Cresswell, who I have long advocated should be high on our list of potential penalty takers, should definitely be on the shortlist, as should Craig Dawson if he is on the pitch.

23 different teams have won the League Cup but we are not one of them. We’ve been in the final twice, in 1966 (the last season that the final was a two-legged affair) and 1981, but runners-up is the best we’ve managed, although we were unlucky in 1981 in particular, when as a second-tier side we took Liverpool to a replay. Will this be our year?

It’s back to Premier League action this weekend when we visit Villa Park. Villa, who cashed in on Grealish in the summer, have made a disappointing start to this campaign and currently sit in 13th place, having lost their last three games. On the other hand we have remained undefeated in our last seven Premier League away games (3 at the end of last season and 4 to begin this one). When did that last happen? I doubt that it ever has in the Premier League. I looked back to our record breaking season of 1985-86 (my go-to when looking at records) and found a run of nine unbeaten away league games in succession which stretched from a defeat at Old Trafford on August 26 to a loss at White Hart Lane on December 26. Let’s hope that we can stretch our current unbeaten away run to eight this weekend.

Thinking back to the City game in midweek, the whole team defended as a unit to keep our opponents from scoring but particular credit must go to the keeper, Areola (arguably man of the match) and the back four of Johnson, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, who all had excellent games. Ironically, after such good performances, perhaps only one of the five aforementioned players (Cresswell) may be in the starting line-up against Villa. I fully expect Fabianski, the fit-again Coufal, Zouma and Ogbonna to resume their places in the eleven chosen to start the game. That’s yet another testament to the strength of the squad being put together by the manager.

Last season (in February) we won 3-1 in the corresponding fixture with a couple of goals from Lingard. Surely he must be frustrated to get so little game time in the Manchester United team that has performed so poorly of late? I wonder if he will be one of the players that we target in the upcoming transfer window? It would be great to think that our owners wanted to splash out to strengthen our strong squad still further. But will the new Head of Recruitment be allowed to do so? Once again we are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game. A repeat of last season with West Ham winning the game 3-1 is priced at around 20/1. What are the chances?

We Got Knocked Down, But Can West Ham Get Up Again For Their Visit To Villa Park

Reality called at the weekend with an emphatic defeat to the league champions. The Hammers must now show their character in tonight’s tough Aston Villa test

Ultimately it was a bridge too far. It was meant to big our big moment. Talked up in the media, the final game of a perfect January, a place in the top four beckoning, and facing a jaded, injury ridden opponent struggling to find enough competent defenders. The higher the expectations built, the more disheartening the fall when it came.

It was no disgrace to be outplayed by what turned out to be a very good Liverpool performance, but it was disappointing that West Ham didn’t give a better account of themselves. Where the visitors passing was smart, crisp and incisive, the Hammers were unable to break the press, were funnelled into cul-de-sacs and invention was limited to hopeful first-time flicks.

Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek found themselves outnumbered in midfield and were unable to offer the usual solid foundation to build upon. Not the first time this has happened against an opponent playing 4-3-3, so perhaps a Plan-B is required for such occasions.

As the game progressed, it seemed a scoreless draw was the best we could hope for, but a moment of poor judgement by Aaron Cresswell allowed Salah the gilt edged opportunity needed to put an end to his scoring drought. The goal played out like watching an accident in slow motion. We all knew what Salah was hoping to do and yet he was allowed to execute it without challenge. After that, there was no way back.

In different circumstances, the last two Liverpool goals would have merited a polite round of applause, even from opposition fans. The breakaway goal was a thing of beauty and a more worthy goal of the season contender, in my opinion, than the usual 30-yard pile-driver.

What we need now from West Ham is to see a positive reaction. It is not uncommon, once the momentum of a good run is lost, that it has a debilitating effect on the player’s mentality. The last thing we want is to do a Southampton – and the next few games will be a true test of the player’s character. Bouncebackability as Iain Dowie once termed it.

No surprise that the transfer window came and went without putting a dent in the West Ham war chest. An already skeletal squad ending the day a net one down in its senior player complement (Haller and Snodgrass out; Lingard in). It turns out that the myriad worldwide striker links in the media and the teasing in-the-know insights from ExWHUtealady and others, were all just made-up in someone’s bedroom.

I do understand David Moyes pragmatic position on transfers. Better to spend what limited money might be available in the summer than on a Sullivan-special now. Sullivan loves to parade an exotic name in a misguided attempt to impress and appease the fans. Moyes has done a fantastic job with the resources he has to work with, but progression at the club is constrained by ongoing mismanagement in the boardroom – and the consequences of the big sums wasted by Pellegrini on players patently unsuited to the Premier League.

Perhaps the inactivity will provide an opportunity for selected academy players – Ben Johnson, Jamal Baptiste, Connor Coventry, Nathan Holland, Mipo Odubeko – to stake a claim during the remainder of the season. High time that the ‘Academy of Football’ delivered the goods.

Today’s opponents, Aston Villa, leave me heavily conflicted. They are having a fine season, have invested (mostly) wisely in the squad, play attractive and enterprising football and can boast arguably the most creative midfielder in the country. Yet all those positives are undone by their ever whinging manager, Dean “VAR ate my hamster” Smith, and the unashamed cheating antics of Jack Grealish. The outlandish dive by Grealish in this season’s reverse fixture, conning the referee into awarding a yellow a card to Pablo Fornals, simply has no defence. Any self-respecting sport that was interested in cleaning up its act would find a way to take retrospective action over such incidents.

Tonight, is going to be a tough game. I don’t see many changes to the West Ham line-up except a first glimpse of Jesse Lingard in a West Ham shirt, probably from the bench.  Goals will again prove a problem for the Hammers and any thoughts that Villa are vulnerable at the back are dispelled by their having the second lowest goals against in the league right now. We will do well to come away with a point and I am liking the look of 1-1 draw. COYI!

The Hammers visit Villa Park hoping to start another winning run

Our run of consecutive winning games (which had reached six in number) had to come to an end at some stage, and I guess it was inevitable that the Premier League champions, who had found some form when visiting our North London neighbours just a few days ago, would be the team to end the sequence. We went into the game full of confidence, but right from the outset appeared to me to show the Merseysiders too much respect. We didn’t play as well as we might, and our lone striker (Antonio), despite having an excellent season so far, seemed a bit below par for the second game running. Perhaps he needs a rest, although the lack of alternatives to fit into the lone striker role is a definite worry for the remainder of the campaign.

Liverpool’s first goal came as a result of allowing Salah to come inside and curl a shot into goal with his left foot. He should have been forced to go on the outside; a defensive error. The second goal resulted from an excellent counter attack from our corner as we chased the game from a losing position, but despite the brilliant execution of the goal I was disappointed that we let it happen. It reminded me of other counter attacks where we have conceded in recent seasons (goals from Arsenal and Manchester City come to mind).

The game and the result provided a reality check to those fans talking us up into a potential top four finish and showed the gulf between the very best (Liverpool and Manchester City in my opinion) and those chasing them. Liverpool showed that not only their best eleven are a very good side, but that they have strength in depth that we do not possess.

Nevertheless we need to put the game behind us, learn from our mistakes, and move on to the Villa match, and try to recapture the form that has enabled us to climb the table. The Midland claret and blues, like ourselves, have performed beyond expectations in the season to date. But when you look at the form table for the last five games, they have lost three of them, whereas we have twelve points, second only to Manchester City in the Premier League.

It will be interesting to see if the manager makes any changes for this game to try to freshen up the team, although I’ll be surprised if he does. He tends to stick with largely the same players who have taken us to fifth place, and it is hard to argue against the success of the season to date. I’m always surprised by the substitutions he makes (or doesn’t make), but he stands or falls by those decisions.

As far as the bookmakers are concerned Aston Villa are favourites at 6/5 to take the spoils, with both a West Ham win and the draw available at around 23/10. The favourite “correct score” is a 1-1 draw, and this is a likely outcome, although wearing my optimistic hat, I’ll take us to sneak a 2-1 win. I just hope that the referee is not fooled by diving antics which were a feature of the game when the sides met at the London Stadium, with one player in particular (and we all know who he is) guilty of falling to the ground very easily.

So 2-1 is my prediction plus we are overdue being awarded a penalty kick. What are the chances?