Aston Villa (4), West Ham (1) – Our Villans march on, 11 Premier League home wins in a row

Sunday, October 22, 16:30 p.m., Villa Park

When our Villans hosted West Ham at Villa Park on Sunday, they had more than their claret and blue colors in common.  Both teams were in unfamiliarly positive territory in the league standings, Villa in 5th place and West Ham, just behind, in 7th place.

West Ham also had positive memories of recent encounters.  On last season’s visit to Birmingham, they had taken all three points with a 1-0 win and most current players for the London team would not have remembered ever losing to Villa (it happened in 2015). 

So, why were we Villa fans not concerned and, in fact, quite confident?  That was because our Villans had won ten Premier League games in a row, a streak that corresponded with the influence of the new manager, Unai Emery. Early on he won the support of the Villa faithful (the best supporters this side of St. James Park and Anfield) and, now, it’s currently a veritable love-in between the gaffer and the fans. The winning streak is a natural byproduct.

Against the Hammers, we expected the combination of the offensive threat spearheaded by newly capped Ollie Watkins, brilliant creative play led by Douglas Luiz, robust defense anchored by the best uncapped defender in England (Ezri Konsa), and world-class goalkeeping courtesy of Emi Martinez to prevail with a one or two goal margin.  Why so close?  That was because, under David Moyes’s leadership, his team had only been beaten twice this season, by Manchester City and Liverpool, and by the same score of 3-1.  It was un-Villa-like to assume we could outdo the likes of the two power-houses.  Perhaps we have to change our assumptions?

So, what actually happened?  It all started with Emery’s team selection.  While well award of West Ham’s improved play he must have concluded that they were less of a direct threat at Villa Park than Wolves were at Molineux as he replaced Diego Costa with Nicolò Zaniolo.  While our lineup was described as a 4-4-2 configuration, Nicolò was given license to support Watkins and Diaby on offense.

The impact is shown in the stats.  Against Wolves, we managed three shots on-target out of eight shots taken.  Against West Ham, it was seven on-target out of 15 shots taken – a big difference.  From the get-go, we were on the front foot and we never let up.

Right from the kick-off, Aguerd‘s speculative pass was met by Lucas Digne who headed towards the left wing where Ollie Watkins was the first to react.  With support arriving from Luiz, Digne crossed into the penalty area but the ball was easily headed clear.

Then Villa failed to regain possession, and the ball was forwarded to Paquetá who found Antonio in space on the right wing, behind Digne who was still racing back.  West Ham’s Jamaican international did well to cut inside Torres and find Paquetá who, in turn, found Bowen. The Hammers leading scorer took a reflex shot that had to be batted away by Martinez.

This all happened within the first minute of play but our defense was not unnerved by the quick transition and excellent offensive play as they had held a firm line, and the referee’s assistant raised his flag for offside.  With the incident immediately forgotten, Torres sprayed a pass across the field that was off the mark leading to West Ham regaining possession in our end.

That possession led to nothing and, when Torres had another opportunity with the ball, he strode forward and found Zaniolo with a perfect pass that allowed the Italian room to lead an attack only for the final pass to be off the mark.   This time when West Ham broke forward in transition, Luiz committed a professional foul to block Bowen’s progress gently enough to avoid a yellow card. It was a messy start, but Villa slowed grew into the game.

What followed was end-to-end action with Villa constantly probing while maintaining possession.  When West Ham did wrestle possession, our Villans were quick to get back and to close in on the ball, much like Man City at their best.  When Diaby broke on the right, he stretched the Hammers who rushed back en-masse, opening up space outside the area. 

Luiz cruised forward and had time to set himself to receive the perfect pass from Moussa at a distance of 25 yards, glance at the net, and wrap his right foot around the ball.  Without Areola’s giant leap the ball would have curled into the net, kissing both the crossbar and the keeper’s left upright on the way.  Spectacular.  As it was, the goalie’s strong right-hand clawed it away for a corner.  That was in the 11th minute.

From McGinn’s corner, the ball cleared the players in the 6-yard box but our ever-improving Ezri Konsa swooped in to catch it on the volley that the alert keeper did well to anticipate and clasp firmly.  It appeared that our Villans were warming to the task and a goal was around the corner.

A neat pass by Torres to Digne who had snuck behind Coufal almost led to a golden opportunity as Diaby settled around the penalty spot for the relay.  By the time Digne’s pass was on its way, so was Ward-Prowse who was able to intercept and clear.

Within seconds our Villans were at it again.  This time it was Kamara who passed to McGinn who immediately found Diaby in the inside-right channel. Moussa slid a pass that Ollie received and turned on a sixpence past Zouma and, one-on-one with the goalie, dragged the ball wide of the left post. Ollie shook his head and Emery applauded.  The manager knew that this would not be our star’s last chance at this rodeo.

Soon after, Antonio tussled with Konsa on the left wing for possession.  This very same scenario in West Ham’s game against Newcastle, was a win for Antonio and the Hammers turned the opportunity into a goal.  At Villa Park, Ezri reigns.  He muscled his way between Antonio and the ball, showed some ball skills and forced the Jamaican into a foul induced by frustration.

From Villa’s next possession a McGinn dink and an inciteful Diaby pass was headed to be a Watkins tap-in, but for Zouma sliding in and diverting for a corner.    The corner came to nothing.  In fact, it was to something, a painful block by Jarrod Bowens from a shot by Diaby.

Then, in the 27th minute, Martinez noted that Watkins was only being marked by Coufal and aimed a clearance to him.  Ollie backed up on the fullback to take the ball on his chest forcing the Czech into a foul.  Luiz took a quick freekick for Diaby to take a shot from distance but the effort, from his right foot, lacked conviction.

The sense was that it was a matter of time, not if.  Finally, Torres found a channel from deep in his own half to find Diaby open in the Hammer half in the inside-left channel.  Moussa quickly fed Watkins down the open left wing.  Ollie was not interested in manufacturing a cross because he was the center-forward.  Instead, he found Zaniolo who tested Coufal again on the outside and again won.

Meanwhile, Ollie was positioned to receive a pass in the box.  By the time the Italian’s pass was at his feet there were two Hammers closing in and one stationed between Watkins and the goal.  Immediately, Ollie laid off a pass to Luiz coming at a better angle and with a new-found reputation as a goal-scorer.

The shot was low and heavy, to the goalie’s right and picked-up a nick on the way.  It bulged the back of the net and Villa’s fans went wild.  Here we go again!  In the 31st minute, our Villans had taken another lead at Villa Park.  Aston Villa 1, West Ham 0.

A Moyes’ team is invariably prepared to take advantage of the best time to score in soccer game, that being immediately after their opponents score.  Goal-rush leads to the team scoring to experience natural euphoria and lack of focus and, true to form, our Villans exhibited a tiny amount, but enough for the Hammers to gain possession just outside Villa’s box.

However, as soon as Bowen turned with the ball, there was Torres to slide-tackle him out of possession.  The ball bounced around but every Villan in that area was in overdrive.  Cash was able to partially block an Antonio cross and McGinn was the first to get a head on the ricochet.  McGinn was being his Scottish best as he ferociously broke down a Hammers passing play while Diaby chased everything.

Eventually, Luiz received the ball and calmly found Watkins who carried into the Hammers half before passing to Diaby running outside of him. Moussa returned the favor as Ollie reached the penalty area.   With little room to maneuver, Watkins eased around Zouma and went for the short side that Areola covered with his large mitt.  Still, Villa had a corner and were back on the front foot.

In the lead, our Villans displayed confidence typified by a “chip-shot” pass that Kamara employed to find Zaniolo between the halfway line and Hammers penalty area.  The Italian took it on his chest turned and was on his way with intent forcing Ward-Prowse to clumsily bring him down.

Too far out for a shot and too straight for a cross, Villa’s special coaches came up with another trick play.  Digne and Diaby lined up as potential shooters while Luiz was positioned for a short pass.  At the whistle Luiz walked back, turned and passed to Kamara, standing just inside the box.  Kamara immediately laid a pass back for McGinn’s left-foot shot that went wide.  Nine out of ten for technical merit, one for execution.  Still, the fans loved the audacity.

In the 40th minute, West Ham got their first chance to threaten.  A mistake by Kamara had given a Soucek a chance to shoot only for a Villa defender to block for a corner.  From Ward-Prowse’s corner a Villa head cleared but only to Álvarez five yards outside the box. The Mexican midfielder caught the looping ball on the volley. 

A phalanx of Villa defenders were within a few yards and the shot was blocked.  Alvarez immediately threw his hand in the air.  Sure enough, the ball had hit Konsa’s arm and a freekick was awarded.  Villa fans who remembered Ward-Prowse converting two of these opportunities in the same game when playing for Southampton held their collective breaths.  This time, Ward-Prowse failed to get the shot above Torres.  That was in the 42nd minute. 

Our Villans played “contain” soccer until halftime, apparently comfortable that they could handle their opponent’s threat.

The intermission seemed to enliven our Villans.  Already outplaying the Hammers, the second half saw them with an added spring in their step.  A neat play on the right saw Diaby slott a perfect daisy cutter to Watkins on the edge of the 6-yard box that Watkins hit first time.  The only problem was that Zouma had done equally well and was sliding to block as soon as the ball left Ollie’s boot.

Our Villans took a short-corner, but Paquetá intercepted a pass into the box, and was carrying out, when he was closed down by Kamara. With no good options, he passed back to Alvarez.  The Mexican midfielder hesitated and our star defender, Konsa, showed his quickness, and reached the ball first.  Alvarez clumsily tried to shield Konsa from the ball but only succeeded in tripping him.  Referee Coote pointed to the penalty spot. 

Luiz, elevated to penalty taker this season, appeared even more confident than usual.  Why wouldn’t he be?  He had already scored in the game.  Sure enough, Luiz did his little “jog on the spot”, waited for Areola to dive to his right then blasted the ball down the middle.  Aston Villa 2, West Ham 0, in the 52nd minute.  The Holte End (Villa’s 12th man loved it).

Villa fans started their victory songs, and it did not feel inappropriate.  The Hammers seemed to lack imagination or a player who could make things happen.  Then, out of nothing our Villa conceded a fluke goal.  Bowen took a speculative low shot from well outside the area that clipped the heel of Pau Torres.  Martinez was leaning toward his left to gather the shot and could not dive fast or far enough to prevent it passing him on his right.  It was suddenly Aston Villa 2, West Ham 1 in the 56th minute.

While the West Ham fans responded well and gave their team excellent vocal support, our Villans responded well to the pressure.  The Hammers managed to create most of their corners in this period but our defense stayed robust and Martinez steady and confident.  Despite pressure, our defense was able to pass out from the back and the team maintained an overall 88% accuracy rate.  With limited possession the Hammers were never able to maintain a threat.

Then, just as easily as we gave up a two-goal lead, we gained it back.  Torres saw McGinn available in the inside channel and Torres, from his own penalty area, aimed a bullet pass.  Kudus, who had come on for Soucek, extended a leg to intercept but only succeeded in cushioning the ball.  McGinn said “thank you very much” and then curved a beautiful pass down the inside-left channel for Watkins to run onto.

Entering the area, Ollie had Zouma to his right and Diaby beyond Zouma but with two defenders in tow.  Ollie saw that his best option was a quick step-over that held Zouma from tackling and gave him the room and time to lash a drive with his left foot high to the near top corner of the net.  The shot, coming from close to the corner of the 6-yard box flew into the back of the net before Areola could move his right hand.  Zouma slid onto his knees in despair.  Aston Villa 3, West Ham 1 in the 75th minute.  Watkins was on the scoresheet and Emery was ecstatic, as were the fans.  A striker scoring goals, and creating assists, at this level, is gold for the team.

Zaniolo had given his all and it was time to give Leon Bailey a run.  Our Jamaican international did not seem to carry any baggage about not starting and he was quickly contributing on offense and defense.  In the 85th minute he was joined by Tielemans who came on for Diaby, who had also earned a break after another excellent performance.  This time Tielemans seemed to be relishing the run-about, even if it was for only five minutes.

The Belgian jumped into the thick of the play and was evidently pleased to be where the action was.  It seemed that he was suddenly the talented player we remembered from successful Leicester teams zipping accurate passes on the money, reading the game and being very creative.

Next thing you know he slid a pass into Bailey in a space Leon had found to the right of the goal and 12 yards, or so, away.  Leon took the pass on his left foot, feinted to go right of Aguerd and with the Moroccan falling for the ruse, stepped over the ball and dragged it back with that same left foot, then curved a shot into the top left corner.  Again, poor Areola had no chance.  Aston Villa 4, West Ham 1 in 89th minute.

Injury time of 7 minutes was added, and one might have expected our Villans to play out the clock.  Instead, they entertained the fans and demonstrated some impressive individual skills.  One passage started with Konsa receiving a pass next to Villa’s right corner flag.  Instead of just hoofing it clear, Ezri hit a pin-point pass to Watkins who had made himself available by running to that touchline.  With Aguerd in lockstep with him, our talented all-around striker cushioned the pass with the outside of his right foot and, in the same motion, redirected to Bailey who was free behind him and racing on his way into the Hammers half.

Ollie turned and accelerated up the touchline and received the ball back from Bailey. Watkins continued almost to the goal line before attempting to feed Bailey only to put his pass too close to the keeper.  The fans applauded, it was like an unexpected encore and much appreciated for the skill and the effort.

Both teams played at that tempo until the final whistle and thousands of Villa fans waited to applaud as the team waved back and did a circuit.  Very classy.

There were many encouraging takeaways from this game, in addition to the general quality of play, the clinical finishing, and the overall composure of our Villans.  For one, it was reassuring that Emery selected Zaniolo to start despite the betting scandal that surrounded his companion and teammate, Sandro Tonali.  Nicolò was adamant that he had not bet himself and Emery gave him the benefit of the doubt.  Zaniolo gave 100% and started the attack that led to our first goal.   Then, when Bailey and Tielemans cameo in, they played with the same level of belief. 

Emery has the team and the fans behind him.  The result is a Villa team playing at a level that, until this season, we only ever dreamed of.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Torres, Digne, McGinn, Kamara, Douglas Luiz, Zaniolo (Bailey 76′), Diaby (Tielemans 85′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Diego Carlos, Traoré, Chambers, Lenglet, Olsen, Dendoncker, Kellyman

West Ham: Areola, Coufal, Zouma, Aguerd, Emerson, Ward-Prowse, Álvarez, Bowen, Soucek (Kudus 67′), Lucas Paquetá (Ings 86′), Antonio

Unused Subs: Fabianski, Fornals, Mavropanos, Ogbonna, Benrahma, Kehrer, Mubama

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