As well as donning the claret and blue, Aston Villa are another club full
of tradition; they have an excellent youth system that has influenced the national side and they, like us, were unable to catapult themselves to great success following considerable investment from abroad – they suffered a similar ‘Icarus effect’ that has blighted many overly ambitious sides in the modern game.
Now the Hammers and the Villains will be going into the opening game at Upton Park brimming with hopeful expectation about the forthcoming Premier League campaign, with a little apprehension thrown in for good measure. Obviously for West Ham, being back in the top flight after our ‘gap year’ in the Championship is reason enough to be excited, and nervous, about the 10 months ahead.
Villa, though, are similarly aiming to prove they are worthy of their Premier League status after flirting with relegation last season. In fact, with just 38 points, including only seven wins all season, the Birmingham side finished only two points away from the drop-zone. Much like West Ham did following our relegation, Villa have rebuilt.
They started by terminating the contract of manager Alex McLeish less than 24 hours after the end of the season in which he had lead Villa to their worst points total in 25 years. Ironically, their next step was to install the man that had ensured Villa’s abysmal season ended on a low note – Norwich manager Paul Lambert.
Lambert has impressed many with the way he guided Norwich back into, the Premier League and then to a comfortable 12th place finish in their first season, and his final act as manager of the Canaries was to defeat Villa 2-0 at Carrow Road. Now he has the arduous task of turning the Titanic-sized ship of Aston Villa around. Villa are, after all, a huge club, and one West Ham have always struggled against.
Since the formation of the Premier League, West Ham have beaten Villa just six times out of the 32 league games they have played against each other. Villa have won 11. Mathematicians among you will know by now that the most common result is a draw. And a draw would probably please both sides.
Villa fans I have spoken to certainly would take a draw at Upton Park. They have realistic expectations about the coming season; basically believing that anything Lambert does is bound to be better than what they had to endure last season. Looking at the Villa side West Ham will face, though, we should really be pushing to get our first win back in the Premier League at the first time of asking. To put it simply, Villa look weak.
Predictably, Paul Lambert has not had a vast amount of money to spend on strengthening his squad. Villa have made four summer signings: Brett Holman from AZ Alkmaar, Karim El Ahmadi and Ron Vlaar both from Feyenoord, and Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United.
Holman is a winger who was voted Australian player of the year in June 2012. But, with the current crop of players the Socceroos have, that’s a bit like being voted as the tallest dwarf.
El Ahmadi and Vlaar also play at international level, for Morocco and the Netherlands respectively. El Ahmadi is a dynamic mid elder whose ability to halt opposing attacks is complimented by his capacity to spring a counter with his accurate passing, he’s not shy of a goal or two when getting forward either.
Vlaar, as you may have witnessed at Euro 2012, and could probably tell by his stature, is a defensive power house. His performance at the Euros was, like the entire Dutch side, disappointing. But his arrival at Villa Park made way for James Collins to come back to us at West Ham, and anyone that replaces the ‘Ginger Pele’ must be decent, right?
Nevertheless, Holman, El Ahmadi and Vlaar have impressed in the Dutch Eredivisie; whether they can adapt to the much more challenging Premier League will be interesting to see.
As a side that pride themselves on their young British talent, it is surprising that Matthew Lowton, a 23-year-old right-back, is their only English acquisition. Having skipped a division to come into the top flight from League 1, he is unlikely to make much of an impression to begin with, and is probably one for the future, but could get a look in if Villa’s injury problems – and Alan Hutton – get any worse.
In terms of fitness, Paul Lambert will have to start his tenure as Villa gaffer without the experience of veteran Richard Dunne and Villa’s longest serving player Gabby Agbonlahor. That’s not to mention Stiliyan Petrov, who, despite receiving the fantastic news that his leukaemia is in remission, is a long, long way from playing in the Premier League again.
To add to those problems, Marc Albrighton, the young winger who terrorised West Ham the last time we started the season against Villa, will be out for six to eight weeks with a broken metatarsal. Of course, their loss is our gain, but Villa will still have some strength with which they can test West Ham, namely Darren Bent. His excellent positional sense will be a huge thorn in the side of James Tomkins and James Collins, our most likely defensive partnership.
Although, at the time of writing Collins is struggling with a groin injury that has forced him to pull of out the Welsh national squad ahead of their friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. We can only hope that Collins recovers quickly and that he has learnt Bent’s secrets from their time training together, but even then the forward’s pace could cause a slow West Ham defence a lot of trouble.
With Lambert favouring a passing style, though, Villa will have to get past the West Ham mid eld before they can expose our defence. The arrival of Mohamed Diame and Alou Diarra to assist the likes of Kevin Nolan could ensure that West Ham are just too strong for a relatively small Villa midfield – Diarra will probably eat Barry Bannan’s body weight in his prematch meal on Saturday.
It may seem silly to suggest that a game in the biggest league in the world will come down to brawn, especially because Villa could just pass around lumbering idiots and make a mockery of them, but Villa won’t have become Swansea overnight and Big Sam has a knack of winning big games with big players.
Paul Lambert will have spent the summer doing his utmost to eradicate the bad habits that Alex McLeish ingrained in the Villa players. But that will take time, such was the level of damage done by ‘Big Eck’. Just look at how Bolton struggled when they tried to implement a cultural shift following the departure of the man we hope will steer us to Premier League safety.
Converting teams reliant on direct football to patient passing is like converting Britain from binge drinking to a European cafe culture, so Villa could take a while until they are giving us football as refreshing as an espresso.
As the side in the ascendancy, West Ham should have enough to beat a Villa team that is still in recovery. I expect West Ham to win, and if I had to name a score I’d say 3-1. I think that because we could terrorise a Villa defence that has very little time to work together as a unit, and has a shaky Shay Given behind it. Furthermore, the left-back position could prove to be a major chink in Villa’s armour.
Experienced number 3 Stephen Warnock failed to even make the plane to Germany for Villa’s final preseason friendly last Saturday, a 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen. The reason for this remains unknown, but Paul Lambert picked – whether his hand was forced or not – the inexperienced Irish 22-year-old Enda Stevens instead. Stevens may play against West Ham, or Lambert may go for more experience and choose to put central-midfielder Fabian Delph in the left-back position – something Gerrard Houllier had to do when Villa were blighted with injury during his time as manager.
Suffice it to say, Villa have a troubled defence, which could, and should, be exploited. But – just to cover myself in case we fail miserably – bear in mind that, no matter how West Ham go into a game against Aston Villa, nothing is easy against the club bearing the motto ‘Prepared’ on its badge.
When we started the 2010/2011 season at Villa Park on Saturday 14 August 2010, Martin O’Neill had left his post as Villa boss on the Monday before the big game. They were a rudderless ship then and still managed to be prepared enough to beat Avram Grant’s West Ham team 3-0. But the less we say about that day, that season, and Avram Grant, the better. Onwards and upwards – that’s how we ended last season and that’s how we should start this one.