By Dean Gregory
West Ham vs Aston Villa
After how the post-lockdown period of this season has panned out for Villa, who would have bet on them being in control of their own destiny on the final day? Beating Arsenal has lifted Villa into 17th, level on points with Watford and slightly ahead on goal difference.
When Villa were seven points adrift with just four games left, Villa supporters would have settled for just being in the picture on the last day with a sniff of a survival chance.
The situation may look less bleak than it did only a week ago, but Villa are not home and dry just yet – West Ham stand in their way, and can still ram the cork firmly back in the champagne bottle.
If Villa lose, then Bournemouth also have a chance of salvation, if they beat Everton at Goodison and Watford fail to get anything at the Emirates.
What Arsenal’s attitude is on the final day, with the Gunners having one eye on the FA Cup final, will play a big part. If they turn up, then a point for Villa should be enough on the last day.
A win against West Ham would all but guarantee safety though, and that should be the aim. Can Villa clear the final hurdle of their Great Escape?
West Ham – D L W W D
Aston Villa – L L W D W
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David Moyes on the relegation battle
“I don’t expect it to be easy. I think the way our players have played, we’ve done a great job to get into a safe position. We have to credit the players for that.
“I know how the manager there is feeling because I’ve felt it before. It’s incredibly stressful for the managers. There’s so much at stake and, thankfully for ourselves, we got ourselves out of it.
“I can only talk about West Ham. We’d have liked to not be in the bottom three but we were. But I can only really talk about us, not the other three teams that are now down there.”
Dean Smith on the final game
“The mindset is to play with the same belief and confidence as we have done over the last few weeks. If we go and do that, we can get a win at West Ham. We’re also mindful of the fact that although they’re safe now, they’ve been very good recently. They had a massive win against Watford and a big point against a really in-form Manchester United in the week.
“We control our own destiny and that’s what we wanted to have going into the last game. It was looking unlikely and that we’d have to rely on others, but results went our way in the week and we’re above the dotted line at the moment.
“The most important thing is to be above that dotted line on Sunday and we know we have to win to guarantee that. We’ll be going all-out to win.”
West Ham regularly switch between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1 formation, with either Michail Antonio or Sébastien Haller up front, Marc Noble behind them, Declan Rice shielding the defence and Issa Diop joining Angelo Ogbonna at the back.
They average 45% possession per game and have managed 75.9% passing accuracy across the season. Of these passes, 15% of them were played long – they have found themselves resorting to cutting out the midfield entirely at times when they have been pegged back, and they often have trouble imposing themselves on games.
They attack primarily down the wings, not particularly favouring one over the other. Most of this attacking play is entrusted to the wingers, most notably Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals and Robert Snodgrass, but their full-backs often join in to overlap and are guilty of leaving space wide open behind them. So while they are at their strongest when attacking the flanks, that is when they also leave themselves at their most vulnerable.
West Ham have scored 48 goals from 48.98 xG, showing they are consistent when it comes to making good use of the chances they create for themselves. They have conceded 61 goals from 70.85 xGA – They find themselves under a lot of pressure and while they can deal with it, no team can put up with too much for too long.
Their defensive fortitude and reliable attacking prowess holds them in good enough stead to be comfortably safe and makes them a tricky, dangerous side to come against. But their apparent lack of control over the midfield is their achilles heel; they allow themselves to be pushed back far too often, leaving far too much space on their flanks to be exploited, and no matter how strong and capable their defenders are, under immense pressure their cracks will show more readily. A lack of strength in midfield seems to be why they are not further up the table.
One to Watch
At the start of the season, Sébastien Haller looked like he would run away with all the plaudits for West Ham. However, as the season has progressed, it is Michail Antonio who has risen to the top.
He has amassed 10 goals and three assists in 1727 minutes of action this season. He takes 2.9 shots per game, completes 2.8 dribbles and chips in with 1.1 key passes on average. Four of his 10 goals came against Norwich only three games ago, so he is bang in form too. If anyone can stop Villa’s party before it begins, it is him.
West Ham 1-2 Aston Villa – 16-04-2011
Robbie Keane put the home side ahead after less than two minutes of play, but an equalizer from Darren Bent looked to share the spoils. A late goal from Gabby Agbonlahor sealed the three points for Villa.
Aston Villa 0-0 West Ham – 16-09-2019
Despite playing against 10 men for the last 23 minutes of the game, Villa were unable to overcome West Ham’s resolute defence.
How it could play out
At the start of this season, the general consensus amongst Villa fans was that a 17th place finish would be considered a job well done. Well here we are, on the final matchday, one result away from that promised land of safety. Nobody would have been surprised to see this situation become a reality.
Of Villa, Watford and Bournemouth only one team can survive the drop, and right now Villa are the ones in the driving seat. However being ahead of Watford on goal difference alone means that even a win against West Ham is not necessarily enough, if Watford manage to beat Arsenal by a sufficiently bigger margin.
So it is, then, that Villa will go into this game on the back of a win that was convincing by its professionalism, if not by its final score. They managed to hold Arsenal so effectively that they failed to register a single shot on target – a fine example of just how improved the defence has become at the 11th hour.
Something notable about that win was the performance of the midfield – John Mcginn and Douglas Luiz completely bossed the midfield, with Dani Ceballos and Lucas Torreira having no answer at all to their dominance. Even when Granit Xhaka came on, he couldn’t make a meaningful impact despite clearly improving their team.
As discussed above, West Ham’s midfield leaves a lot to be desired at times, and while there’s no guarantee that they will be pushovers, they are guilty of being beaten much easier than Arsenal’s are. Then of course, with Jack Grealish occupying one wing and Trezeguet starting to look more effective with each passing game, and with Frederic Guilbert looking strong on the right and Matty Targett looking less flimsy, West Ham will have to think twice about letting their full-backs wander up the pitch too far.
If Villa can win that midfield battle and exploit the space in behind the full-backs, they can get that vital result.
West Ham 0-1 Aston Villa
It comes down to this. Will Villa prove themselves worthy of a place in the Premier League next season, or will the pressure be simply too much to handle? If Arsenal turn up at the Emirates and lead early against Watford, then Villa may play a cautious game knowing a draw would seal the deal. Still, the aim has to be to win.