West Ham will be hoping to make it three wins on the bounce when they welcome Aston Villa to the London Stadium on Monday.
After 1-0 wins over Fulham and Sheffield United, West Ham have cemented themselves in the top half of the Premier League. Aston Villa will prove to be a tougher task after their own good start. To get the inside track on the Villains, GSH spoke to journalist Luke Hatfield of the Express and Star.
Villa have had a positive start to the season, what has changed from last year?
It’s been a great start for Dean Smith’s side, yes – albeit with a couple of recent losses taking away some of the shine recently. But I think you could argue the real change took place during lockdown last season, after which we saw a more organised Villa make waves on the pitch
The summer of transfer business has obviously built on that since surviving on the final day, ironically at West Ham. Villa have added quality where they desperately needed it, mainly upfront, but also in some other attacking areas which somewhat reduces the reliance on Jack Grealish.
On top of that, Villa also made an addition behind the scenes in Craig Shakespeare, and I think his impact is worth mentioning too.
On the pitch though, Villa looks a more substantial attacking threat whilst also being much harder to beat than they were throughout the majority of last season. It’s promising times at the club and within the fan base. It looks as though Villa won’t be involved in a relegation scrap, and if they can battle in an around mid-table this season they’ll consider it a very good improvement.
Despite the good start, Villa have lacked consistency, are they the strangest team in the League this season?
It’s tough to say. Villa’s only game in which they’ve really struggled was at home to Leeds, otherwise, you could probably argue they’ve been a bit unlucky to get some of the results they’ve had.
They’re coming off a 2-1 defeat to Brighton, in which they really were masters of their own downfall, but for an extremely contentious VAR call in added time. But throughout the first half they were creating plenty of opportunities but simply couldn’t find the back of the net.
The game defeat to Southampton was one in which they were undone by two top-class free kicks and another worldy strike from miles out. Dean Smith often looks at expected goals and bases a lot of his thoughts on those kinds of stats to judge a performance. In both of those games, the stats showed Villa probably deserved more than they got.
You’re not wrong though in pointing out how strange Villa’s season has been so far. It’s looking like an exciting ride this year. Although I’m sure the coaching staff and players will want to find a bit more consistency in building a good run.
What Villa’s aims for the rest of the season?
I think for most fans and for those in the club, a solid mid-table finish with a half-decent cup run would be considered a realistic target. The wins over Liverpool and Arsenal did get some fans dreaming of a European push, but that might be a step or two ahead of the club right now.
Ultimately though, if Villa can keep their star men fit and firing they could certainly surprise some people. They sit seventh right now (with a game in hand against Manchester City), finishing up there after 38 games would be an incredible effort considering they only survived by the skin of their teeth last time around.
What have you made of West Ham’s start to the season?
Originally, I feared for the Hammers when I saw their first batch of fixtures before the campaign got going. I had them as one of my favourites for relegation, but they’ve so far proved me wrong.
Given just how tough that opening set of fixtures looked on paper, David Moyes has done a fantastic job in getting his side to eighth in the table – and like Villa, looking forward instead of over their shoulders.
I’ve been impressed by the manner of some of their results too, with the wins over Leicester and Wolves standing out in particular. I’ve revised my thoughts before the season got going and have the Hammers steering clear of trouble now. Although, with the situation behind the scenes there always seeming on the edge of boiling over, you never quite know what’s happening next at the London Stadium.
Who is Villa’s dangerman going into this match?
Pretty easy one this, and I’m sure every West Ham will know who the man to stop is for Dean Smith’s side. Jack Grealish.
The skipper signed a new five-year deal at the club and committed his future to the project in the Second City, and he’s started the campaign on fire. He controls play for Villa, creates chances, draws countless fouls and is a goal threat too, as you saw on the final day of the extended 19/20 season.
Slow him down, and you can cause Villa trouble, although players elsewhere in the side have been more visibly picking up the slack in recent times. Ross Barkley was also in fine form but will miss out through injury, so that will help West Ham’s cause.
What weaknesses can the Hammers exploit?
I think West Ham should probably look to exploit the absence of Ross Barkley by doing their best to double up on Grealish if they want to keep Villa quiet. When Barkley is playing, sides really struggle to keep both him and Grealish quiet. With only one of them to worry about this weekend, it makes the task more manageable.
Other than that, try and find a way to stretch Villa defensively. They’ve looked brilliant on their travels this season, but there have been defensive lapses at home, as shown in the defeat to Brighton.
Which West Ham player or players worry you the most?
One player I’ve always liked the look of, and often looks to cause sides problems when he’s fit is Michail Antonio. I’m not sure if he’ll be back fit against Villa, but he’s a player I’m always wary of.
Sebastien Haller‘s goal the other day was impressive, but if I was Dean Smith it’s the likes of Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek I’d be more careful of. Soucek looks a right player and a real threat in the air, whilst Bowen is a man who simply knows where the goal is.
A few players have turned out for both West Ham and Aston Villa such as Nigel Reo-Coker, Stewart Downing and Marlon Harewood, but which player is your favourite to play for both and why?
Robert Snodgrass for me. He spent a season on-loan at Villa and his impact on and off the pitch was something to behold.
He seems a great guy in the changing room and had Villa earned promotion via the play-off final, you could have bet your house on them doing whatever they could to get him back at Villa Park on a permanent deal. That ship has obviously sailed now, but he still holds a place in many Villa fans’ hearts.
The Scott scored a particularly brilliant winner in the dying moments against Sheffield United that season when Villa had been under the cosh for most of the game, it was an away day many fans remember him for.
Other than that, Reo-Coker and Downing both had their moments at B6, although the latter left under some pretty acrimonious circumstances, so isn’t too well-liked by many supporters. Harewood was a great player who had a bit of cult following at Villa but was a bit underused by Martin O’Neill.
What’s your match prediction?
I think it promises to be an entertaining game, which thankfully won’t have as much riding on it as it did on the final day of last season.
Both sides have started the season strongly, so hopefully, we’ll see a good game, with the big names shining on either side.
With it being under the lights on Monday night, the only thing that could make it better is if we could have fans in the ground, as those kinds of occasions normally make for a terrific atmosphere. Hopefully, we’re not too far from that in the coming months.
Villa have been terrific away from home, but this is such a tough one to call. I think Villa might just sneak it though, even without Barkley playing a part – and it would fit the mould this season too, with Smith’s side really going up and down in terms of results. Maybe 3-2?