here was a touch of the bittersweet for David Moyes about West Ham’s progress in Europe in midweek, the Scot delighted to be taking the club on tour again, but admitting he already has concerns about the Thursday-Sunday schedule the Irons will once again make their default in the coming months.
On this showing, it is not difficult to see why. Less than 72 hours on from securing Europa Conference League qualification in Viborg, for 74 unremarkable minutes, his side looked to be spluttering their way to a first Premier League point of the season in what had been, to that point, a real pig of a football match.
But then Pablo Fornals found space to shoot, found a helpful deflection and found the back of the net – and on such fortuitous moments can a season ignite. At full-time, Declan Rice sank to his knees and beat the turf, as much in relief as anything.
The captain has not hit the highs yet this term and has cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks. Suspended for both legs of the Viborg tie, this was the first time the 23-year-old had tasted victory since inheriting the armband on a permanent basis from Mark Noble and he recognised the significance of this ugly triumph.
There had been mitigating circumstances for the Irons’ sluggish start but with two huge matches, against Tottenham and Chelsea, to come next week, it was in danger of drifting towards an outright rut. Four games without a win might swiftly have become six, but all of a sudden Moyes’ men have an ounce of momentum to take into that derby double-header.
A side playing with more confidence and rhythm themselves might have taken better advantage of West Ham’s sluggishness, particularly before the break, than Villa managed to, with Steven Gerrard’s side eventually booed off at the final whistle, the former Liverpool man under increasing early season pressure.
One win will not solve Moyes’ problems either, the Scot again not helped by the fact that some of last season’s most reliable performers have crawled out of the blocks this term while he puzzles with how best to integrate a raft of new signings.
Gianluca Scamacca, for instance, has had to watch most of the Hammers’ Premier League campaign so far from the bench and, despite being handed a first League start here, the Italian dealt with similar levels of involvement for the best part of an hour.
Both he and Jarrod Bowen – once again way below his scintillating form of last season – were left isolated by a 3-5-2 formation that too often felt like an 8-0-2 and was abandoned at half-time.
Tomas Soucek and Fornals were charged with filling the chasm between front and back but couldn’t, outplayed by the impressive Boubacar Kamara, while Declan Rice was resigned to collecting the ball off the toes of his centre-halves, West Ham unable to play through the lines.
The introduction of Said Benrahma at the break helped, but Bowen wasted a rare opening, hesitating and trying to cut-back when the winger of a few months ago would have raced clear to score.
It did not prove costly, though, as Fornals’ effort looped off Ezri Konsa, over Emiliano Martinez and in to finally end West Ham’s goal drought and lift them off the bottom.
Concerns over Johnson injury
Moyes revealed this week that Ben Johnson has inherited Noble’s gig of sweeping the dressing room after every fixture and on the pitch, the youngster has been proving something of a utility man, too.
Johnson’s versatility has been crucial to helping West Ham weather an early season injury crisis in defence, with the 22-year-old filling in at centre-back, in a back-three and four, as well as in his preferred positions, at full-back and wing-back.
The sight of the academy graduate limping off midway through the first half will therefore have troubled the Irons boss, who is already without Craig Dawson and Nayef Aguerd because of injury, while Angelo Ogbonna is still being eased back from a lengthy ACL absence.
The arrivals of Thilo Kehrer and Emerson Palmieri have plugged some gaps but Johnson gives Moyes a degree of flexibility in terms of tactics and selection that no other member of his squad can match.
With the fixture list about to go into overdrive for the foreseeable future, West Ham must hope his injury does not prove serious.