Favorable results elsewhere have left the window open just a crack for Aston Villa, but seizing opportunity has not been one of this team's strong points this season. Can that trend change against a tough West Ham side?
That scoreboard watching has been a regular part of this Aston Villa season isn't something anyone's too happy about, but it's the current reality of this team's situation. And on Saturday, things couldn't have gone much better. QPR, Wigan and Reading meaning three points would lift Villa into 17th, while Newcastle's defeat to Spurs kept the Toon nominally in the relegation battle. The only bad result from Villa's perspective was Southampton's victory over Manchester City, but much like Newcastle it's tough to see the Saints staying close to the drop zone deep into the season. Wins are always a good thing, but when a team finds themselves in a position like Villa's they've got to take advantage of opportunities such as this one. But against a West Ham team that never makes things easy for the opposition, they'll have to display the same kind of quality they did last week against Everton without letting the game slip away in the end as has become a particularly nasty habit.
These two sides have of course already faced off this season, all the way back in week one. Those were much more optimistic times, and though the 1-0 loss to the newly promoted Hammers wasn't the most auspicious beginning to the Paul Lambert era it was easy (at the time) to chalk the result up as largely bad luck. West Ham's goal came from a set piece on one of their few opportunities in the first half, while Villa crafted plenty of chances and just weren't able to put them away. There were some defensive lapses, but such things were to be expected from a team that didn't know each other all that well just yet. It was a downer, but certainly nothing to worry about.
Of course, the past six months have shown that there was indeed a whole lot to worry about, far more than was evident from a display in that first game which, in retrospect, looks significantly less encouraging. For West Ham, it was a showing that was something of a sign of things to come. This isn't a side that has won many games by lopsided scorelines, but they've managed to grind out a sufficient number of wins to have amassed 30 points and carve out a comfortable spot for themselves in the middle of the table. And for those that haven't watched the Hammers much this season, they've done so in a manner that might not meet their expectations. When the situation calls for it West Ham is perfectly happy to sit back, get stuck in and play the kind of fast-paced kick and rush one would expect from a team managed by Sam Allardyce. But when given license they've played some really nice football as well, and though no one will be confusing them for Swansea City any time soon West Ham is not a pack of grunting lump-kickers. At least not all the time.
That's significant, because it shows a flexibility to adjust to different circumstances, and teams that are comfortable doing so have given Villa a lot of trouble this season. When comfortable, this team has shown the ability to be quite formidable. But as soon as the state of the game shifts slightly, Villa has shown a propensity to collapse with stunning predictability. Last week's game against Everton was a perfect example; Paul Lambert's initial gameplan was a strong one and it was executed well, but as soon as the Toffees adjusted and began playing a much higher-pressure style Villa looked like an unorganized mess.
It isn't as though Villa can have success with just one approach. They've won playing to counter and they've won with high-pressure attacking football. They've won with a flat 4-4-2 and an unbalanced 5-4-1. It hasn't been about the tactics or the formations, it's been about adjusting to changes to the game. Changing the game is one of West Ham's strengths; if the initial approach isn't working, they'll switch things up and a lot of the time they'll do it successfully. And if Villa is going to survive this season, they're going to have to learn to do the same thing.
Can they? We'll see. Despite the continuation of a winless streak that has now spanned eight games and nearly two months, there's been a lot to be encouraged by over the past few games. But until this team actually manages to put in a complete performance, it's easy to remain skeptical. There's talent there, and there's clearly a desire to win. But wanting to win and actually managing to pull it off are very different things. West Ham is a beatable side, and this Villa team ought to have some confidence given the flashes (sometimes extended) that they've shown in the past few games. But they can't continue to let off the gas or lose concentration at vital times and expect to win games. Eventually, they've got to grow up and see out results. And until they do, a cloud of gloom is going to continue to hang over this club.