Aston Villa (1) West Ham (3) – Villa Pay for Lack of Intensity

Perhaps it was inevitable after a draining period on the road and the heart-stopping end to the Southampton game, but our Villans chose the wrong time to bring their B-game. West Ham’s improvement from last year is rated as impressive as Villa’s and the addition of Jesse Lingard (on-loan from Man. U) added even more spring to their step.

Much of the improvement coincided with the acquisition of Craig Dawson, on loan from Watford, as he has forged an effective partnership with Ogbonna while contributing with three set piece goals for his team in just seven appearances. That might not be as significant as the coincidental change that manager David Moyes made to the line-up when he adopted the 4-2-3-1 that has worked so well for the Villa. That Moyes plugged Lingard into the same central attacking role as Ross Barkley only added to the sense that this might not be coincidental.

We did not have to wait long to feel uneasy. Used as Villa fans are to seeing their team playing with enthusiasm and confidence, even against elite teams, West Ham brought out ennui from the Villans. Warm-up drills have been more energetic. When Konsa made an uncharacteristic error in the 12th minute, the team was fortunate that Antonio was surprised, and his gifted shot was aimed right at Martinez.

Even going forward there was a lack of intensity. Matty Cash, a total workhorse, was languid with a cross that was nowhere near a teammate. Were they having an identity crisis and confused by playing against another Claret and Blue team wearing the same away strip as Villa – black? Even Cresswell felt emboldened to join the offence and try a volley.

Perhaps that was too much for the Villans because, soon after, they seemed to turn on a switch. As often happens, it started with Watkins (almost as much as with Grealish). This time, Cash put over a perfect cross and Watkins, their ever-improving striker, peeled back away from Dawson and got good power and direction to a header that he intended for the top right corner. Fabianski was moving back to the center of the goal and watched nervously as the ball arced just over the bar behind him. Ollie gave his usual wry smile as he does when he knows he just missed getting it perfect.

Not to worry, chances come to those who covers as much ground as this great addition from Brentford. When Mings gained possession on the touchline, deep in his own half, the youngster took off down the left channel, instantly controlling the ball in-stride and getting a half a step on Dawson struggling to keep apace. As Watkins entered the penalty area and made the turn before the goal line, the ex-WBA defender used geometry to stretch a leg and get the barest of touches to force the ball out for a corner.

That round went to Dawson, but soon after he almost made a catastrophic error. Receiving a lateral pass from a teammate, his first touch let the ball run towards Grealish who was on it in a flash and feeding Watkins. To his credit, Dawson recovered to block the striker’s route to goal but could do nothing about the curler that he fashioned to the far corner of the Hammer’s net. Fabianski could only stare and hope, and when it failed to curl enough, he berated his sloppy defenders. Watkins grimaced in frustration as did Villa fans recognizing that a 1-0 lead at the 27th minute mark was all they probably needed.

Barkley followed with a couple of hopeful efforts, but nothing to worry Fabianski and West Ham seized the initiative. Villa manager, Dean Smith, addressed the most pressing problem in his squad at halftime by bringing on Traore for El Ghazi who had been almost completely innocuous in the first half, a surprise based on his most recent form. Certainly, the Burkinabe international was quicker out of the gate though he also had difficulty getting traction with West Ham controlling the mid field and Grealish stifled by a harassing Coufal.

Then, almost out of nothing, West Ham grabbed the lead. Villa had possession in the midfield and were poised to attack when Watkins was beaten to a header by Dawson who headed thirty yards directly to Antonio. With Mings leaning over him, the Hammers’ striker laid a neat pass back to Benrahma, who noting that Soucek was already sensing the opportunity to split Mings and Targett, crafted a perfect pass into that channel. By the time the Villa defenders responded, the Czech international had the ball and a yard on them and was heading into the penalty area on the right.

Most Villa fans would have bet on Martinez to keep any shot by the midfielder out of his net given the angle and the pressure from Mings. That would have been underestimating the new scoring phenomenon that Soucek has become. He remained calm and struck the ball with tremendous power and accuracy, low and just a foot to the goalie’s right. There was no opportunity to get down in time. The ball was in the net and it was Aston Villa 0 West Ham 1, in the 51st minute.

If there was good news, there was another 39 minutes to go. Unfortunately, the ease with which they gave up that goal seemed to unnerve the Villans, and they lost their poise. While not frenetic, they were distracted enough to turn a good opportunity into a fast break for the Londoners.

Following a Villa freekick that was partially cleared, some skillful footwork by Targett had let him shed the attentions of Benrahma, Lingard, and Antonio. Ahead of him, Watkins was uncovered just inside the penalty area and anxious to receive the ball. A moment’s hesitation in the pass allowed Dawson to close in so that when the ball arrived, Watkins’s attention was on his marker. The pass was missed, and it came to Dawson who now had three Hammers ready to counterattack, which they did with alacrity.

With Mings and Konsa still up for the freekick, Matty Cash and Luiz were outnumbered, and backpedaled as Benrahma carried the ball before pushing it to Antonio on his right. Cash moved over to cut off the striker’s route to goal and Luiz attempted to cover both Benrahma and Lingard. Antonio instinctively saw that Lingard would have the best opportunity to shoot if he could get the ball to him. The pass was arced over Luiz and, Lingard, the captain for the game, chested it down to his left and laced a shot as the ball hit ground.

Again, this looked like a save Martinez could make. In his defense, the ball was bouncing as he dove and extended his left arm. Instead of the shot rebounding out, it bounced of his arm and over it, and, in the process, out of John McGinn’s valiant slide to block it. Only five minutes from their first goal and it was Aston Villa 0 West Ham 2.

If Villa were rattled after the first Hammers goal, they are at sixes and sevens after the second! That necessitated a couple of dramatic plays by Mings that almost made a game of it. At the 62nd minute, Antonio beat the Villa offside trap for a Cresswell pass, running behind Konsa and with Martinez rushing out to cut down the angle, he deftly lifted the ball from a bounce for what should have been the third goal. Instead, it was an opportunity for Mings to display another of his prodigious talents – saving certain goals. Racing towards the open goal he managed to slide on his right-leg and hook the ball with his left-leg, up and away just a couple of feet from the goal line, then clattering painfully into the back of the net.

Mings wasn’t done. A few minutes later he blocked another Antonio effort. This may have inspired his teammates. In the 75th minute, Grealish, who had yet to have an impact, took a freekick from 25 yards out and curved his shot around the wall, but just a wisp wide of the right upright. Then, McGinn found Watkins in space and the striker immediately dispatched the ball out to Grealish on the right touchline while picking up his pace to run between Ogbonna and Dawson towards goal.

Grealish’s pass was immediate and measured and allowed Ollie to slide into a right-footed scoop that carried the ball around Fabianski who had raced out to cut off the angle. The goalie never did get set for the shot that was now nestled in his net. In the 81st minute, it was Aston Villa 1 West Ham 2. There were ten minutes left, plenty of time to even the score.

That would presume that Martinez, having failed to deal with a couple of challenging shots would, at this juncture, not let in a howler. The goal came from less than nothing. Antonio received a pass and headed towards a Villa backline of Cash, Konsa, and Mings with only Lingard in support on his right. Mings, being overly protective, pinched towards Konsa, and gave Lingard more space. Antonio, naturally, passed to his teammate. As the loanee, emboldened by having already scored, entered the penalty area he had one thing on his mind, to take another shot. Mings was closing him down when the one-time phenom, blasted a shot that Martinez got down to but could not beat away. The ball deflected high into the top corner with Mings staring aghast. In the 83rd minute, it was Aston Villa 1 West Ham 3, just two minutes after Watkins’s goal.

That was it for the Villans who were looking forward to an arguably tougher home fixture, to Arsenal, with only three days to prepare. Manager Smith will have lots of questions to ponder. There were so many below standard performances from his squad, that no line-up change seems likely to generate a significant improvement. We can only hope.

See you Saturday, fans.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Tom Heaton, Ahmed Elmohamady, Bjorn Engels, Marvelous Nakamba, Trezeguet (69’, for Barkley), Keinan Davis, Bertrand Traoré (46’, for El Ghazi), Morgan Sanson (80’, for Luiz), Jacob Ramsey

WEST HAM: (4-2-3-1): Fabianski, Coufal, Dawson, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Fredericks, Lingard, Benrahma, Antonio

SUBS: Martin, Balbuena, Yarmolenko, Fornals (84′, for Fredericks), Lanzini, Diop, Bowen (90’, for Lingard), Johnson (88’, for Benrahma), Odubeko

Leave a Reply

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