Losing a game heading for a goalless draw is nothing like a positive sign. Losing against West Ham in such a fashion was a desperately bad look for Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa. A dire first half had suggested a stalemate 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 16th, behind Villa on goals scored, West Ham 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 afterwards. David Moyes will be suffering no such fate.
“The performance was not the most important thing; the result was,” said Moyes, who confirmed Lucas Paqueta had taken a medical with a view to completing a move from Lyon. “It’s one win but you have to start somewhere.”
The pendulum of pressure swings instead to Gerrard ahead of six days in which his team face Manchester City, then Arsenal. “I’ve got ears,” said Gerrard, acknowledging Villa fans’ post-match rancour. “I’ve been in the game long enough to know if you lose three games from four it’s not the start you want.”
The winning goal was a litany of small details: the previously shackled Declan Rice allowed to surge onwards, Matty Cash slow to track Fornals’ run and Konsa also perhaps slow to read the danger. On such margins tight matches are won and lost and pressure comes to bear on managers.
It barely helps when an attack is as blunt as Villa’s was against a West Ham defence that for the first half struggled with an unfamiliar shape. Having lost to Brighton last week, Moyes employed a back five, Emerson Palmieri debuting at left wing-back. Moyes also handed Gianluca Scamacca a first Premier League start at centre-forward but both experiments would prove short-lived. “Villa thrived in it,” Moyes admitted of his first-half blue-sky thinking.
Gerrard said: “You can say it was cruel and it was bad luck but we had 90 minutes to score goals.” said Gerrard. He added that his team had lacked that “bit of imagination” in proving incapable of opening up an opponent undergoing a first-half identity crisis.
Risking Emiliano Buendía in creative tandem with Philippe Coutinho continues to be off-limits and a big part of Coutinho’s detail was to stick as close to Rice whenever Villa were out of possession, the West Ham captain struggling with such close attention. Coutinho was, though, far less successful in finding the runs of Danny Ings. Villa did get the ball in the net in the 14th minute, Konza stabbing home, but their celebrations were curtailed when the assistant referee pointed out Lucas Digne’s corner had bent out of bounds.
West Ham’s five-man defence became four at half-time as Emerson was replaced by Saïd Benrahma. An improvement followed and only Digne’s last-ditch intervention stopped Jarrod Bowen breaking away on the counter.
Just past the hour Scamacca got a first sight of goal, only for Calum Chambers’ challenge to take the sting out. The hulking Italian was soon subbed off for Michail Antonio, Moyes admitting: “We gave him nothing. Scamacca left the field just as Coutinho, pulling up with cramp, departed to be replaced by, of course, Buendía.
And when Rice strode forward to set up Fornals’ goal he was no longer being shadowed. Clearly missing the memo, Buendía was nowhere near and Emiliano Martínez could only watch as the ball spun beyond his reach and in. Loud disquiet from Villa Park’s Holte End soon followed and there were further groans as Leon Bailey and Jacob Ramsey smashed late shots wide.
The final whistle brought relief for West Ham and Moyes and yet angrier boos for Villa and Gerrard. “We saw our supporters’ frustration,” said the beaten manager. “There’s no one more frustrated than me. I’m all in to make it work, and my staff are, too.”