Early-season pressures meant this was never likely to be an end-to-end classic. Rather than must-win, must-not-lose appeared the order of the day. A dire first half suggested a goalless draw was set in stone, only for Pablo Fornals, via the heel of Ezri Konsa, to end West Ham’s scoring drought.
In climbing off the bottom of the table to 17th, behind Villa only on goals scored, the Hammers avoided becoming only the second team in Premier League history to lose their first four matches without scoring a goal. The previous team, Crystal Palace in 2017, removed their manager Frank de Boer immediately. David Moyes will surely not now suffer such a fate. Instead, it is Steven Gerrard who looks under the greater pressure.
Moyes had refreshed his team after losing deservedly to Brighton last week, employing a back five, new arrival Emerson Palmieri at left wing-back outside of Aaron Cresswell. Gianluca Scamacca’s Conference League goals had convinced Moyes to hand the Italian his first start at centre-forward. Both experiments would prove short-lived as West Ham’s manager reverted to the tried, trusted and eventually successful.
Gerrard’s programme notes had been littered with words like “tough”, “determination” and “character”. His team reflected those descriptions, without ever looking like a team capable of opening up their opponent. Risking Emiliano Buendía in tandem with Philippe Coutinho continues to be off-limits and with the Brazilian leaving the field with a muscle injury, is likely to remain so for a while yet.
The stakes were already too high for the type of freeform experimentation that neither Moyes nor Gerrard are known for. It took until the 13th minute for any sort of opening to be created, Ollie Watkins fizzing in a shot that was deflected behind.
Villa did get the ball in the net from the resultant corner, Konza stabbing home but the celebrations were curtailed when the assistant referee pointed out that Lucas Digne’s corner had been bent out of play. That began a period of Villa pressure where West Ham’s reconfigured defence creaked. As Ben Johnson left the field with an injury halfway into the first half, there were heated discussions between Cresswell and Kurt Zouma.
Part of Coutinho’s detail for the afternoon was clearly to stick as close to Declan Rice whenever Villa were out of possession, and the Hammers captain struggled with the attention. Coutinho was far less successful in his attempts to link up with Danny Ings in the first half even as Villa enjoyed by far the greater share of possession. When Fornals shanked wide in the 43rd minute, the away fans ironically sang “we’ve had a shot”.
West Ham’s five-man defence became four at half-time as Emerson was replaced by Said Benrahma and there came a noticeable improvement. When John McGinn conceded possession in midfield, he set up a Jarod Bowen counter that required the last-ditch intervention of Digne to stop the visitors taking the lead.
Just past the hour, Scamacca at last got his first sight of goal, only for Calum Chambers’ tackle to take the sting out of his shot. The hulking Italian was soon enough replaced by Michail Antonio, leaving left the field at the same time as Coutinho, who had pulled up lame and been replaced with, of course, Buendía.
When Rice strode forward in the move that set up Fornals’ goal, he was no longer being picked up. Buendía was nowhere near him. A neat pass found the Spaniard, and the unfortunate Konsa could only watch as the ball span over Emiliano Martinez. As Fornals’ skills set up a chance that Bowen ought to have headed home for a second, there was loud disquiet in Villa Park’s Holte End and further groans when Leon Bailey and Jacob Ramsey smashed shots wide.
The final whistle brought relief for West Ham and Moyes, boos for Villa and Gerrard, against whom the doubts are growing.