West Ham (1) vs Aston Villa (1) – In the end, a point earned feels good

Sunday, March 17, 15:00 – London Stadium

Referee: Jarred Gillett

Well, we knew continuing our winning streak in London would not be easy.  Still, few would have foreseen that we would have to rely on two VAR decisions, one in injury time, to hang on to a tie!   There again, hardly any Villa fans would have expected our two stars in the Thursday win over Ajax in the Europa Conference League quarterfinals second leg (Cash and Diaby) to start on the bench.  Sanity seemed to return when Emery inserted both players in the Villa line-up in the second half.

In fact, our Villans’ win over Ajax had much to do with our performance against the Hammers on Sunday.  To start with, our main man, Ollie Watkins, had to pass a late fitness test to confirm that the gash to his knee he suffered in that game, was healed enough to play.  That Watkins, less than 100%, was not his influential self was unsurprising.  Nor was anybody surprised that Jhon Durán, being paired with Ollie, for the first time, did not work well – probably not even Emery.  That the pairing might have eased some of the focus on our number 11 was probably an initial consideration.

It appears that Unai Emery was having to experiment on the fly given the number of players injured and the heavy schedule.  It would explain why two left-footed center backs (Lenglet and Torres) were paired up, while Konsa, a natural right-footed player was available and playing in an unnatural position at right back instead of Matty Cash.  As for filling the gap left by John McGinn’s suspension for three games, Zaniolo and Iroegbunam both appeared more likely candidates to start than Morgan Rogers.

However, it should be noted that it was Emery who gave Bukayo Saka his first Premier League start at Arsenal and, based on that alone, we should defer to the Spaniard who, as well as vast experience, sees first-hand how players are developing.

All that said, like Villa fans everywhere, I watched the game to see how our makeshift line-up would pan out with more hope than conviction.

So, what happened?  Shortly after the kickoff Bailey and Watkins combined effectively on the right, and Ollie snapped one of his patented instant strikes that almost caught Areola, off-guard.  The goalie spontaneously stuck out a left foot and diverted the shot around the post and breathed a sigh of relief.  For a while, our Villans seemed to have the Hammers’ number and they let us control the game.

Then, with our Villans attempting to pass out from the back, Durán received a pass but was careless in controlling and a Hammer nicked it away.  The ball was immediately swung out to Coufal, on the right.  When Rogers closed in, the Czech international feinted to cut inside, but went wide and attempted a cross.  Rogers blocked, but at the cost of a corner.  The last game that Jacob Ramsey played was at Fulham and it was in Rogers’ position.  On that occasion, our Villans only gave up 4 corners in the whole game whereas at West Ham on Sunday, this corner was the first of 10 they would concede.

As it was, the corner was punched clear by Martinez, with Bailey helping it on its way and Watkins pushing it on for Durán.  Coufal had been caught up by the counter and only Bowen, racing back from taking the corner, stood between our Colombian and an open wing ahead of him.  Durán was again careless and showed too much of the ball, letting the Hammers’ striker push the ball out of play to end the threat.  Durán swung his arm in frustration.  The home fans roared their approval, as much for our player’s annoyance as anything.

Later, when our Villans had Paquetá trapped deep in his own half, Rogers unnecessarily fouled the Brazilian and allowed the home side to regroup.  To confirm his naivety, as the Hammers progressed down the left wing, Rogers stood ball-watching as Coufal waved that he was open ten yards behind our novice who never looked behind him.  Eventually, Bowens pulled the ball back through the penalty area and, when it looked as if Moreno might intercept just outside the 6-yard box, Rogers immediately leaned toward the home end, anticipating a break and not what might happen if Alex did not gain possession. 

Rogers’ first instinct, when defending, should have been to ensure that his team had control of the ball.  Instead, when Moreno misjudged and missed the ball, Coufal had an open lane and a free shot on goal.  Fortunately, between Lenglet and Martinez they prevented the ball hitting the back of the net.

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the ball was again swung out to Coufal on the wing and Rogers, again, failed to close him down, allowing the Czech to curve a cross around his body for Antonio to run on to at the edge of the 6-yard box and pick out the far corner with a diving header. West Ham 1, Aston Villa 0, in the 29th minute.

With our Villans now behind, seemingly lacking ideas and the ability of the midfield to control possession, the Hammers should have added to their lead, but the home team decided to play conservatively and let our Villans off the hook.

After the break, a different Villa squad came onto the field.  Lenglet was withdrawn with Konsa taking his center back position while Cash replaced Konsa at right back.   The frustrated Durán was reprieved by an optimistic looking Diaby.

Expecting an immediate improvement, we were disappointed.  Within a couple of minutes of the restart, Tielemans rolled a lazy pass towards Bailey, inviting Emerson to slide in and steal possession.  A couple of passes later, Rogers had conceded another corner to Coufal.  Bowen took his usual whipped corner and Martinez and his defenders allowed three Hammers to reach the ball as it descended into the 6-yard box with Antonio getting the final touch to direct into the back of the net.

That looked like another visit to Nottingham Forest with us beaten before the second half got going.  However, lucky us.  VAR noted that the ball struck Antonio’s arm and that negated a goal.  Our Villans immediately played with more belief and confidence.  For the next Hammer corner, Konsa placed himself in the spot that Bowen consistently hit and, this time, was able to clear convincingly.

An attack spearheaded by Luiz, saw him find Watkins in space at the left corner of the Hammers penalty area.  Quick crisp passes between Ollie, Diaby, and Bailey, resulted in Leon seeing an open corner to shoot at, only for Emerson to slide and block the shot out for a corner.  An attempt to short pass from the corner led to our Villans losing possession and time for Emery to make more changes.

Digne came on for Moreno and Zaniolo for Rogers in the 63rd minute and our Villans’ performance, already better than the first half’s, notched-up again.  Konsa and Torres were solid as center backs, Cash and Digne were able to penetrate down the wings and get back as needed.

Diaby, recently selected for France, played at his early season level, coming back to receive passes from Konsa and Tielemans, and interplaying with Bailey on the right to good advantage.  Zaniolo on the left was generating a similar amount of energy and interplaying with Digne and Watkins.

It did not come as a big surprise when a pass from Tielemans split the defense and Diaby took it to the goal line before pulling it back for Zaniolo to brush off opponents and hit the ball by Areola’s legs and into the net.  West Ham 1, Aston Villa 1, in the 79th minute.

The Hammers had paid the price of trying to hold onto a one goal lead.  Except, they almost won it after the introduction of Ward-Prowse (for Paquetá) in the 84th minute.  First, Kudus broke down the right and pulled back for Ward-Prowse to pick his spot from twelve yards out only for Cash to slide into harm’s way from nowhere.  The ball bounced off our Polish international to safety at 90+2’ minutes.

West Ham had another bite of the cherry when Luiz obstructed Kudus’ attempt to cut inside from the right just two minutes later.  Ward-Prowse’s freekick was exquisite as Mavropanos, Bowen, and Soucek overwhelmed Martinez on his line and saw the ball, again end up in the net.

The only problem was that this was the same story as the scramble at the beginning of the second half, a Hammer hand, this time Soucek’s, propelled the ball into the net.  After five minutes of review, the VAR officials, and the referee both confirmed that it was not a goal.

When the dust settled, the point gained was significant.  It leaves our Villans with a three-point advantage and a one-goal differential advantage on Spurs who have a game advantage (but, an away game).

It does appear that, as experts suggest, our Villans have the most challenging remaining games, followed by Spurs, with Man U. having the easiest schedule, marginally.   Still, having points in-hand is always a good place to be.

The tie also kept our streak of not having lost two Premier League games in a row intact, something we need to continue until the end of the season if we want to qualify for the Champions League. 

West Ham (4, 2, 3, 1): Areola, Coufal, Mavropanos, Zouma, Emerson (Cresswell 84′), Álvarez, Soucek, Bowen, Lucas Paquetá (Ward-Prowse 84′), Kudus, Antonio (Johnson 66′)

Unused Subs: Fabianski, Phillips, Ings, Ogbonna, Aguerd, Earthy

Aston Villa (4, 4, 2): Martínez, Konsa, Lenglet (Cash 45′), Torres, Moreno (Digne 63′), Bailey, Tielemans, Douglas Luiz, Rogers (Zaniolo 63′), Durán (Diaby 45′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Diego Carlos, Chambers, Olsen, Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam

Leave a Reply

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