The pressures of the start of the season meant that it would probably never be an end-to-end classic. Rather than winning, not losing has appeared on the agenda. A disastrous first half suggested a goalless draw was set in stone, only for Pablo Fornals, via Ezri Konsa’s heel, to end West Ham’s drought.
Climbing from the bottom of the table to 17th place, behind Villa only on goals scored, the Hammers avoided becoming only the second team in Premier League history to lose their opening four matches without scoring a goal. The previous team, Crystal Palace in 2017, immediately sacked manager Frank de Boer. David Moyes will surely no longer suffer such a fate today. Instead, it’s Steven Gerrard watching under the greatest pressure.
Moyes had refreshed his side after losing deservedly to Brighton last week, employing a back five, newcomer Emerson Palmieri at left-back outside Aaron Cresswell. Gianluca Scamacca’s Conference League goals convinced Moyes to give the Italian his first start as a centre-forward. Both experiences will prove short-lived as the West Ham manager will return to what has been proven, trusted and ultimately successful.
Gerrard’s program notes were littered with words like “tough,” “determination,” and “character.” His team reflected those descriptions, never looking like a team capable of opening up their opponent. Risking Emiliano Buendía in tandem with Philippe Coutinho remains forbidden and the Brazilian leaving the field with a muscle injury, should remain so for some time.
The stakes were already too high for the kind of free-form experimentation that neither Moyes nor Gerrard are known for. It took until the 13th minute for something of an opener to be created, with Ollie Watkins fizzing in a shot that was deflected behind.
Villa managed to put the ball in the net from the resulting corner, Konza stabbing home, but the celebrations were cut short when the assistant referee pointed out that Lucas Digne’s corner had been bent out of play. It started a period of pressure from Villa where West Ham’s reconfigured defense cracked. As Ben Johnson left the field with an injury midway through the first half, there were heated discussions between Cresswell and Kurt Zouma.
Part of Coutinho’s detail for the afternoon was clearly to stay so close to Declan Rice whenever Villa were out of possession, and the Hammers captain struggled to get attention. Coutinho was far less successful in his attempts to link up with Danny Ings in the first half, although Villa enjoyed by far the greater share of possession. When Fornals pulled away in the 43rd minute, away fans sarcastically chanted ‘we had a chance’.
West Ham’s five-man defense became four at half-time as Emerson was replaced by Said Benrahma and there was a noticeable improvement. When John McGinn conceded possession in midfield, he set up a Jarod Bowen counter that required Digne’s ultimate intervention to prevent the visitors from taking the lead.
Just after the hour mark, Scamacca finally got his first goal sight, only for Calum Chambers’ tackle to dull the sting of his shot. The towering Italian was soon replaced by Michail Antonio, leaving the field at the same time as Coutinho, who had stopped limping and was replaced by, of course, Buendía.
When Rice moved forward in the move that set up Fornals’ goal, he was no longer supported. Buendia was not near him. A neat pass found the Spaniard, and the unfortunate Konsa could only watch the ball pass over Emiliano Martinez. While Fornals’ skill created a chance that Bowen should have gone home for a second, there was loud trepidation in Villa Park’s Holte End and further moans as Leon Bailey and Jacob Ramsey smashed wide kicks.
The final whistle relieved West Ham and Moyes, booed Villa and Gerrard, against whom doubts are growing.
Pablo Fornals ends West Ham goal drought with winner at Aston Villa