The Thriller With The Villa: West Ham Tilting At Top Five Spot

The world’s two most famous claret-and-blues battle for a place at the business end of the table. Can West Ham spoil Aston Villa’s 100% away record and become the first team to score against them on the road?

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!

Ninth plays Seventh as West Ham take on Villa

In the season that finished in July, Villa were the visitors on the final day and needed results to go their way to stay in the top flight. As it was, West Ham put in a rather lacklustre performance, having achieved safety with eleven points from their first six games in the month, and were virtually on the beach by the final game of the strangest season we had ever known, a campaign which lasted 50 weeks with no games played from early in March until late June. The game ended 1-1, and the teams could go away for the shortest of close seasons.

Villa came back with all guns firing, and despite their opening fixture against Manchester City being postponed, at one stage early on they led the league picking up maximum points from their opening four games with wins at home to Sheffield United (1-0), and Liverpool (7-2), as well as away wins at Fulham (3-0) and Leicester (1-0). The wins against Liverpool and Leicester were particularly notable and certainly not expected.

With three of their next four games at home they would have hoped to progress further. But they came down with a bump, losing all three, 3-0 to Leeds, 4-3 to Southampton, and 2-1 to Brighton. I watched that game and thought that they were totally outclassed by the Seagulls who deserved their win. Ironically in between those home fixtures, a visit to London saw them collect three points with an emphatic win at Arsenal.

So in their three away games this season they have nine points, having scored seven goals and yet to concede. Food for thought but not particularly surprising in a season that has seen its fair share of surprise results and victories on the road, possibly due to the absence of spectators in grounds. It will be interesting to see if things change when we start to see fans in the stands from next week, albeit just 2000 in ten of the Premier League grounds that are situated in tier 2. Those clubs in tier 3 cannot have any spectators of course, which some are claiming interferes with the integrity of the competition.

Following our splendid 1-0 win at Sheffield United we climbed to eighth place in the table after just nine games, with virtually a quarter of the season completed. It took our run to 14 points from the last seven games, with just one defeat in that time, the narrow 2-1 defeat at Champions Liverpool. After nine games last season we had 12 points, so we are already two points ahead of the same stage last season. But is that a reasonable comparison? It doesn’t take into account the strength of the opposition in games, and perhaps a better comparison is something called Equivalent Fixture Analysis (EFA) where the results are compared to the equivalent matches that were played last season.

It is not possible to do this exactly because three of the teams that we faced last season, Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth were relegated and replaced by Leeds, West Brom and Fulham. We collected 16 points in games against the three teams that went down, so we need to pick up at least five wins and a draw in the fixtures against the three promoted sides to match that. So far so good with the home win against Fulham.

Equivalent Fixture Analysis of our first nine games shows that we have 14 points against 3 in the same games last season (substituting Fulham for one of the relegated sides). That puts us 11 points up, and projecting forwards, if we can just match last season’s equivalent fixtures from now to the end of the season, we would finish on 50 points, which in the last campaign would have been good enough for 12th place after 38 games. Of course, we hope we can do better than that, and at least maintain the eighth position that we have currently reached. Last time, 57 points were needed for an eighth place finish, and just three more (60) for a top six finish and qualification for Europe.

A number of pundits are beginning to tout us for a potential finish in the top half dozen, and whilst that may be premature, it must be the aim to look upwards, rather than over our shoulders. To reach 60 points we may need to better the equivalent fixtures from last season by 21, so effectively we are already halfway there after just nine games. I’ll be analysing this as the season progresses, and for the time being I have looked ahead to the end of December, after which we will have completed 16 fixtures. Ironically in the seven games until the turn of the year this time (Monday’s game followed by six matches in December), we managed 14 points in the equivalent fixtures last season, a similar record to what we have achieved in the last seven games. So we will be hard pressed to make inroads into the 21 that we need to better from last season to reach my hoped for 60. But even if we just match the results that we achieved last time in these seven games, that would put us on 28 points from 16 games, and still well on course for a potential top six finish. A win against Villa would be two more points gained on the equivalent fixture last season, and put us 13 points up after just ten games.

Of course there is still a lot of football to be played in this strange season, and who knows what will happen? We are talking West Ham after all! Nevertheless I can allow myself to dream of a top six finish can’t I?

It will be interesting to see how David Moyes picks the starting eleven for this game. Following his superb strike which must have given him a lot of confidence, Haller would be extremely disappointed to be left out. His performance in each game shows a small improvement, but we are not playing to his strengths with the way we set up. The manager doesn’t seem to believe in changing a team that is winning and performing well, so can we expect the same line up for this game? It’s hard to imagine that the back five will be changed. Diop must be itching to get back in after his Covid isolation, but Balbuena has taken his chance and performed solidly. Along with Cresswell, who was receiving massive criticism just a few weeks ago, they have made it hard for the manager to leave them out. According to the statistics that I have seen, Cresswell has created more chances than any other defender in the Premier League, and the defence (of which he is part of course) are on top of the “clean sheets league”. Ogbonna has been playing better than ever this season too.

In fact everybody is playing well. The whole team realise that we have a strong bench and cannot afford to let their performance slip. Benrahma must be keen to show what he can do, but while we continue to win he will need to bide his time. I wonder if Antonio will play if he is now fully fit? Some are calling for him to play with Haller, not just one or the other. We have been relatively fortunate so far with a lack of injuries compared to how many we normally seem to have, and long may it continue. But no doubt as the season progresses the numbers will mount, and then most of the squad will get the chance to show what they can do.

We are slight favourites to win the game according to the bookmakers, at around 13/10, with Villa at about 2/1. The favourite score is 1-1 at 5/1, no doubt influenced by the closeness of the teams in the league, and the result in the final game of last season. One intriguing bet that I saw and have taken is for West Ham to win the game, Villa to have the most cards, and West Ham to have the most corners. At 9/1 that’ll do me. An entertaining game, a good performance, and three points. That’ll do me too! What are the chances?