The FourFourTwo Preview: West Ham vs Aston Villa
#BigSamIn vs #LambertOut
WEST HAM FORM
- Stoke 2-2 West Ham (Prem)
- West Ham 2-1 Man City (Prem)
- Burnley 1-3 West Ham (Prem)
- West Ham 2-0 QPR (Prem)
- Man Utd 2-1 West Ham (Prem)
ASTON VILLA FORM
- Villa 1-2 Spurs (Prem)
- QPR 2-0 Villa (Prem)
- Everton 3-0 Villa (Prem)
- Villa 0-2 Man City (Prem)
- Chelsea 3-0 Villa (Prem)
If Aston Villa's beleaguered fans need inspiration on how to kick-start a managerial protest with an old bedsheet and a tin of paint, they might want to have a word with the West Ham hardcore come Saturday afternoon.
Just six months ago, a group of Hammers unveiled a banner reading 'FAT SAM OUT – KILLING WHU' during their side's defeat to West Brom. It caused a right stir – with even some West Ham fans scuffling in the stands over it – but those responsible would no doubt claim it served a purpose.
Big Sam didn't leave, of course, but he was handed a transfer kitty of almost £30 million in the summer, which he spent very shrewdly on Enner Valencia, Diafra Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyate.
What's more, Allardyce ditched the 'one-big-man-up-top' formation that had become painful to watch, and the results have been hugely impressive, with West Ham flying high in fifth place after 10 games.
But can they stay up there? The club's co-owner David Sullivan has no doubts, and this week even dared to mention not just Europe, but the big one.
"The Champions League is not impossible," he said. "Look at where Southampton are. I think there is every chance one of the lesser clubs can break into the top four this year. And you know, we have got a good chance of doing that."
Woooooah, hold your horses, David. With 28 games to go, the Hammers are still 50/1 long shots to pull that off, but Sullivan and Allardyce do have every reason to be positive.
Having already faced Liverpool, Tottenham, Southampton and both Manchester clubs, they now enter a pre-Christmas run of seven games that should hold little fear: Villa, Newcastle, Swansea and Leicester at home; Everton, West Brom and Sunderland away.
West Ham's key tactical change has been Big Sam deploying a pair up front, and further evidence of how this suits his side was evident at the Britannia last weekend.
With Sakho injured, Allardyce reverted to last season's setup by starting with one up top in Valencia, and the Hammers struggled to break Stoke down, going two – then very nearly three – down to Mark Hughes' side.
But a second-half switch from a 4-3-2-1 to a 4-3-1-2, with Carlton Cole brought on for Morgan Amalfitano and Stewart Downing moved into a free role, worked wonders, even without Sakho on the pitch.
The 2-2 turnaround made it 10 points from the last 12, with the point being their first from a losing position away from home since 2012/13.
Many reasons for the Irons to be cheerful, then, but such is the ruthless nature of life in the Premier League, things can change very quickly for the man in the dugout. Just ask Paul Lambert, whose Aston Villa side sat in second place on September 13, before a run of six successive defeats turned the spotlight on the Scot – to the point where he's almost neck and neck with Harry Redknapp in the Premier League sack race.
Villa showed some signs of improvement against Tottenham last Sunday – although Spurs helped them with a shambolic display – and if it wasn't for the stupidity of Christian Benteke, shown a straight red for facepalming Ryan Mason, Villa could well have stopped the rot.
At least they found the target, Andreas Weimann ending a nine-hour goal drought to halt the Twitter torment about how many Cristiano Ronaldo had scored since the Villans last found the net (final count: 20).
Before his dismissal, Benteke had proved a real handful, holding the ball up well and striking the Spurs crossbar. With only one club wasting a higher percentage of their goalscoring chances than Villa this season (Burnley), the Belgian could yet save Lambert from the sack as the striker continues to find full fitness – assuming the Scot's still at the helm when he returns after a three-game suspension.
With in-form West Ham and Southampton up next, Villa owner Randy Lerner might have hit the ejector seat button by then, with eight defeats in a row surely pushing the owner's patience too far.
Villa's recent record in the capital doesn't bode well – they have won none of their last seven Premier League away trips to London (D1 L6), losing the last five – but West Ham have caused them fewer problems than most down south: Villa have lost just five of their last 27 Premier League meetings with the Hammers (W9 D13 L5).
The possible return of Andy Carroll is normally big news in E13, but if the rampaging Geordie is match fit on Saturday following his ankle injury, he'll probably start on the bench, with in-form Sakho expected to have recovered from his shoulder knock. Even if he's stuck with the subs, Carroll will still be all smiles, having confirmed his engagement to former TOWIE star Billi Mucklow earlier this week.
Back in the world of football, Allardyce will also be buoyed by the availability of Winston Reid, who hobbled off with a dead leg against Stoke, although Guy Demel is out though with a thigh problem.
For Villa, with Benteke suspended, Gabby Agbonlahor should be back in the frame alongside Weimann in attack. Alan Hutton (ankle) and Philippe Senderos (thigh) are not yet fit, while Fabian Delph (shoulder) and forgotten man Libor Kozak (leg) will both be out for a few more weeks.
Key battle: Stewart Downing vs Carlos Sanchez
Downing's form this season has been such that the 30-year-old's return to England duty after a two-year absence was met with nodding heads, rather than shaking fists.
Against Stoke he was undoubtedly the star performer after moving into a free role in the second half, first crossing superbly for Valencia to score with a diving header before levelling the game.
“You can see how he handles the ball,” purred Allardyce, who deserves praise for allowing Downing the freedom to roam. “It doesn’t matter whether people mark him or don’t mark him, he can receive and go either way and he’ll twist and turn and get his way out of trouble, and then start running at people’s back four which is better than running in a wide position because it’s much more dangerous for the opposition.”
On Saturday, Downing will face the club that signed him for £10m in 2009 from boyhood team Middlesbrough, and Villa will employ 'The Rock' to try and stop him in his tracks. Colombian Sanchez showed his class at the World Cup this summer, but has since admitted to being surprised at the intensity and pace of the Premier League in his first seven appearances, as demonstrated against Spurs.
The 28-year-old defensive midfielder was full of energy and made more ball recoveries than any of his team-mates (8), yet he also committed the most fouls (4), with one needless challenge resulting in Spurs' winner.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Villa 0-2 W Ham (PL, Feb 14)
- W Ham 0-0 Villa (PL, Nov 13)
- Villa 2-1 W Ham (PL, Feb 13)
- W Ham 1-0 Villa (PL, Aug 12)
- W Ham 1-2 Villa (PL, Apr 11)
Big Sam's been showing off his big smile on his big face a lot in recent weeks, and he'll be further pleased with Sullivan revealing that West Ham are to discuss a new contract at the end of the season. Presumably that's not on the proviso that he qualifies for the Champions League. In the other claret and blue corner, Lambert looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders (no change there, then), but at least he can console himself that he has five games to go before matching Villa's worst ever run – 11 defeats on the spin in 1963 under Joe Mercer. And as for his new contract, he's already signed a four-year one, just three months ago. Result.
Facts and figures
- Villa have lost 6 consecutive league games for the first time since August 1967.
- Kevin Nolan has scored 3 goals in 4 Premier League games for West Ham against Aston Villa.
- West Ham have played 36 times against Villa in the Premier League without ever earning a red card, the most games by a team who has not picked up a dismissal against a certain opponent.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
More arms-aloft celebrations in the dugout for Sam; more staring at the floor for Paul. 2-0