West Ham (2) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa Games Get Stranger

Aston Villa fans had reason to look forward to a trip to London Stadium with some confidence, especially after their recent difficulties. For one, this was where they won that all-important point that saved them from relegation back in July. For another, they were on away turf with a winning streak to protect. As for the rain, that was reminiscent of the Arsenal game.

It could so easily have been the continuation of that away winning streak, another multi-goal performance by Villa striker Ollie Watkins and the eradication of the monkey off Trezeguet’s back that is causing him to panic when chances present themselves in the penalty area (and it is remarkable how many chances he gets).

All this could have been credited to the remarkable skills of Jack Grealish. If the scintillating shot that handcuffed West Ham goalie, Fabianski, had opened the scoring, the rest would have fallen into place. The neat passing play in which one-touch passes left Watkins with a swinging volley into the ground that could have so easily bounced inside the post instead of just outside. The pressure to score from the penalty spot would have been a non-issue and the shot would have hit the target instead of the crossbar. If not those two, he would have been able to finesse Ogbonna’s wrestle-hold avoid the offside ruling on that exquisite finish from a Targett cross.

With the lead, poor Trezeguet’s heartrate would have allowed him to wait for the cross from Watkins with only Fabianski to beat instead of rushing ahead of the pass and having the shot saved. With their 16 shots and 66% of the play, they would have been good for a 3-0 win or more, with West Ham only managing two shots on target and both headers.

So, what went wrong? The Villans somehow contrived to start both halfs as if they were part of a warm-up. In the 2nd minute, West Ham won a corner and Villa’s defense were undoubtedly preoccupied with the dangerous Soucek. While he drew three markers as he ran to the 6-yard box, Ogbonna was left wide open to attack the ball unimpeded. As the Italian defender rose at the back post, he flattened Targett, trying to defend on his own. The header overpowered Martinez who was barely able to move his arms. West Ham 1-0 Aston Villa.

The shock was apparent and universal. The commentators, the Villans, the Hammers, and even the scorer, Ogbonna. Not even two minutes gone, first shot and 1-0. Unreal. Of course, it should not have been a surprise. It is safe to say that out of their four losses this season, the Villa defense has been most vulnerable to the first on-target effort!

That they had been able to equalize from their initial deficit against Brighton offered some encouragement and the team had lots of time to right the ship. In fact, they did so admirably. They took over possession and, for the most part, were passing to feet and finding openings. Starting in the 18th minute the lads from Brum started to insert the screws. First, Grealish ran at the Hammers’ rearguard at his favorite spot, the left corner of the penalty area and, with everyone’s eyes transfixed on today’s most creative player, he casually sprayed a pass across the edge of the box to an open Trezeguet. The Egyptian winger swung outside of Cresswell and managed to get off a shot that headed wide but was judged to have been deflected.

Grealish set up to take the corner while Villa’s aerial threat arrived. Instead of centering the spot kick, Grealish picked out Targett heading in and he converted the impeccably weighted into a cross that was on-the-money for Konsa to meet with his noggin wide of the far post. A foot lower and it would have found the top left corner of the net. Instead, his header landed on, and bounced off, the roof of it.

A couple of minutes later Watkins beat his marker to a long ball channeled down the left touchline and held the ball until McGinn arrived for the lay-off that was immediately dispatched to the always moving Trezeguet. As he is wont to do, the winger arrived just ahead of a tackle, this time by Cresswell, and tumbled. While a little hard on the fullback, it was a legitimate freekick and in an excellent location, twenty yards out and a little to the right of goal.

It was a moment made for Connor Hourihane’s dangerous left foot. Grealish was the right-footed decoy and the Cork man hit the ball with enough velocity and curl around the outside of the wall that it was heading just inside the far post before Fabianski, still a top-flight goalie, got his fingertips to it with a full-stretch dive, deflecting it for a corner.

The wind in their sales, Grealish sought a pass from a throw-in on the right, Cash obliged, and Jack immediately headed with purpose towards the penalty area, splitting two Hammers. With the backline retreating, he uncoiled himself into a shot that flew off his right foot and would likely have overpowered Fabianski with its top spin. Ironically, the Hammers’ goal-scorer (Ogbonna) made a difficult save impossible with the tiniest of nicks. The ball hit the inside of the far netting with the Polish international goalie well beaten. At 24 minutes, it’s West Ham 1-1 Aston Villa.

West Ham did there best to wrest back control of the game and gained more possession, but never looked dangerous. Antonio was looking forlorn with little support and the wet conditions were hampering him and the home team in general.

Meanwhile, the Villa continued probing passes into channels with Luiz and McGinn particularly tenacious and quick. It was McGinn who carried the ball deep into Hammers’ territory, then exchanged a give and go with Watkins who stood at the edge of the area, then to Hourihane whose pass to Watkins was deflected by a defender only to allow Trezeguet to chest it down to the Villa striker, now near the penalty spot. Watkins instinctively turned and hit the bouncing ball into the ground and towards the open right corner of the net only for it to spin just wide with Fabianski scrambling. At 37 minutes, a Villa goal was deserved and would likely set them on their way to victory.

Still, their territorial domination continued, and the Villa came close a couple of minutes later. With McGinn quicker than Antonio, the Scot was caught by the Jamaican heritage striker leading to another freekick in an even better (closer) spot than earlier in the half. The usual suspects stepped up, only this time Hourihane passed it to Grealish who stopped the ball a yard to the left. This allowed Hourihane a look on-goal and Fabianski had barely moved when the ball hit the net. Unfortunately, it was to the outside of the post.

With only two minutes left in the half, the Villa appeared to have all the momentum but a little bit of cockiness by Mings almost cost them dearly. With time winding down, the center back had possession on the edge of his own penalty area and attempted to dribble past Declan Rice. Not a good idea. The England international nicked the ball and fed Bowen who had plenty of time to line up a dangerous shot. Fortunately, Konsa smelled the danger and got his body in the way, deflecting the ball away from goal.

Halftime and the Hammers’ manager, David Moyes, showed his disappointed with his team’s first half performance by a double change. Replacing Antonio with Haller and Masuaku with Benrahma, he was hoping the fresh legs of Haller and the speed and dribbling of the Algerian might make a difference.

In less than a minute, Moyes looked like a genius. Gaining possession out on their left, Benrahma carried the ball towards the Villa penalty area with the defense scrambling to get organized and wary of his pace. With a cluster of players ahead of him they were backed in too far and left him with the option of a chip-cross towards Haller, probably. Before it got to Haller, Bowen who had joined the group from the right-wing got a head (and shoulder) to the ball and looped it towards goal.

Martinez, meanwhile, perhaps remembering that he had been stationary on the line for the first goal, moved forward just as the ball looped over his head and into the top corner of his net. Not a good moment for the goalie. He was handcuffed by both goals. Only 48 seconds into the second half and it is West Ham 2-1 Aston Villa.

That shock could so easily have been redressed within a couple of minutes. The genesis was predictably Villa’s captain receiving the ball wide on the left and him teasing defenders as he dragged the ball inside. Inevitably, every set of eyes were on Grealish’s magical feet. Will he cut into the penalty, will he split the defense with a precision pass, or will he catch the goalie off his line and curl a 25 yarder into the top corner.

This time with everyone dragged to the left half of the field, even Trezeguet and Cresswell, there was yawning space in the vacated area. McGinn was off in a flash and as he reached the danger zone there was Jack’s pass, on a platter, and space to reach shooting distance unimpeded. The whole right side of the goal faced him with Cresswell the only defender between him and the goal, and to the left of Fabianski.

The optimum shot would have been a drive into the top right corner, balancing power and direction. Perhaps unused to having so much time and space, the Scot went for power, low and to the left. The ball did not even beat Cresswell who easily blocked it.

This seemed to be symptomatic of Villa’s recent woes. A lack of poise when chances were created that translated to failure to be clinical in finishing. Fortunately for these Villans, the presence of Grealish guarantees that opportunities will continue and, if nobody else can convert, he can do that too.

In fact, in the 62nd minute, an even better opportunity arrived, and the profligacy continued. With West Ham threatening, Grealish gained possession at the edge of his own penalty area and, rather than hoofing it clear, he evaded a couple of challenges and slipped a short pass to McGinn who had more room, again on his right. The Scot took off down the open wing with Grealish progressing inside in parallel.

A Hammer saw the prospect of a break and was in the process of holding McGinn back, but Grealish anticipated and gathered the loose ball as his teammate went down. A few steps from the halfway line, Grealish looked over and saw what he expected, the fast and quick-thinking Watkins running wide of Balbuena on the left, just on-side. A perfect 50-yard curved pass was dispatched, equidistant between Fabianski and the striker that another goalie would have gone for, but not the experienced Polish international. With a wet surface and competing with the fleet-of-foot Ollie, the goalie stayed home.

With the ball and Watkins meeting just inside the left corner of the area, the full of running Trezeguet was a yard behind the play and clear of the nearest Hammers. Without slowing, Watkins feinted in and then headed to the goal line before pulling back the ball for the Egyptian to tap-in from the edge of the six-yard box, unchallenged. That was assuming that the winger would slow and have his wits about him. Once more, a Villan was forced into a desperate maneuver. Running too fast, the ball was at Trezeguet’s back foot and while he was able to get contact, the effect was to hit the ball into the ground and make it bounce up. Fabianski, meanwhile, had anticipated the ball being tucked into the far corner and was diving that way but was still able to parry the ball before it crossed the line and Balbuena cleared the danger. Trezeguet was now entangled in the back of the net and Watkins held his head. He appeared to be incredulous! So was everyone watching.

The home team seemed to have it figured out. Do not let Grealish shoot. When a Villa corner was returned to sender (Grealish, of course), he made sure to slip into the area from where he tormented four defenders, none of whom was foolish enough to put a foot in. A truce was recognized and Grealish put over a perfect cross that only Watkins could reach. Well positioned, his timing was off, and the header cleared the crossbar.

Soon after, Grealish and Luiz conspired to find an open Trezeguet rushing, as usual, into space deep in the box. Declan Rice foolishly grabbed the winger’s shirt on the way, and another calamity followed. Trezeguet went down and Rice fell over him, kicking the prone body in the head. As the Villa medical staff addressed the bloody wound, the referee awaited the VAR ruling. Yes, it was a penalty. With the game on the line and having to wait an interminable amount of time, it was not surprising that Watkins, taking only his second Premier League penalty, hit the crossbar – no goal!

That was in the 70th minute and when the clocked reached injury time, it seemed that nothing could save the visitors from their first away loss. Then an amazing thing happened. A great cross by Targett was met at the near post by an open Watkins who calmly bulged the back of the net, easy as you like.

Of course, we already suspected that this was not the end of it. It was obvious that in getting free to reach the ball, Watkins was being manhandled by Ogbonna. If he had failed to get to the ball, there would definitely have been a penalty call. Since he had reached the ball, the advantage rule applied.

This got us into another jurisdictional concern. Was there a part of Watkins’ body that was offside and was it a part that he could legally have scored with? His feet, chest, and head were clearly behind Ogbonna and his left hand and arm were definitely offside, but none-scoring. It all came down to the armpit. His armpit was offside and, not that there is a recorded case of an armpit goal, this was judged to have been reason enough for an offside call. No Penalty! Final Score: West Ham United 2 – 1 Aston Villa

Now, let’s take a deep breath and make sure to be ready this Saturday for Wolves. Note they are Jimenez’ less!

WEST HAM (3-4-2-1): Fabianski, Balbuena, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Coufal, Rice, Soucek, Masuaku, Bowen, Fornals, Antonio

SUBS: Benrahma (46′, for Masuaku), Lanzini, Noble (79′, for Bowen), Haller (46′, for Antonio), Diop, Johnson, Randolph

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Conor Hourihane, Ollie Watkins, Trezeguet, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady (88′ for Cash), Marvelous Nakamba, Anwar El Ghazi (73′, for Trezeguet), Bertrand Traore (74 mins., for Hourihane)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *