Newcastle (1), Aston Villa (0) – Villa fail to show-up for the game at St. James Park

Just four days after a dramatic performance at home to Leeds, an almost identical Villa line-up showed very little enthusiasm against a Newcastle team fighting to stay in the Premier League.  The replacement by newly acquired Calum Chambers for Ezri Konsa, serving a one-game suspension for his two-yellow cards in the midweek game, had a material effect in the only goal scored but was a symptom, and not the cause, of the overall malaise.

The raucous home fans certainly made a difference for the Newcastle players’ commitment.  The opening 30 minutes of the game featured almost no quality moves, and certainly no chances created, as both teams emphasized closing down the other team.

In fact, the Magpies were so motivated to beat our Villans to the ball that Keiran Trippier elbowed his teammate, Fabian Schär, in the head causing an extended delay for the Swiss defender to recover.

From that point, the 4th minute, our boys appeared unenthusiastic to compete for headers and loose balls of which there were many.   This applied to Watkins who found himself up against 6’ 6”, newly acquired Dan Burn as well as Trippier.  That Ollie had little involvement in the game should not be surprising.

The early forays down the right wing for Matty Cash to run onto, were equally unrewarding with Javier Manquillo, a product of the Athletico Madrid system, robustly clearing the ball and Cash on their first interaction.  This physicality should not have been a surprise to Villa manager Gerrard, as he and Manquillo were former teammates at Liverpool.

Our Villans had some success down their left wing where Trippier was showing his defensive vulnerability.  With lots of support around and Watkins being forced towards the corner-flag, the England fullback unnecessarily clattered Ollie and gave up a freekick in a dangerous location.  Luiz’s cross appeared to be aimed at the Villan at the far post, who was not there, Ezri Konsa!  It ran out for a goal kick.

Even more promising were three chances for Digne and Ramsey to make the most of possession just wide of the Newcastle goal.  The first saw Digne head a cross that came to him at the edge of the penalty area for Ramsey to run onto.  It was slightly too strong for Jacob to reach before it crossed the goal line.  Then, a delightful Coutinho flick-on saw Digne bundle into Ramsey who was in the same space.  They ended up both on the ground as the ball rolled over the line to safety to the great amusement of Newcastle fans.  When a similar opportunity arose just a few minutes later, both hesitated for each other, and possession was lost.  Their unfamiliarity with each other was plain for all to see.

Unfamiliarity also played a role in Calum Chambers leaving a leg hanging in front of Joe Willock on the edge of the area in the 32nd minute.  Lacking confidence in Mings and Martinez and, perhaps, seeing that he was just outside the box, could have emboldened the new boy into stopping Willock in his tracks.

Of course, the odds that even Trippier could beat a defensive wall and Martinez from that location were very low.  What Villa did not defend against was the strategy that the Magpies employed.  They placed two players in the line who moved aside as Trippier struck the ball.  Our Villa had one player stationed for such an eventuality and that was Buendia.  Not a good selection.  Two players of the larger variety made more sense.  Buendia attempted to raise his right leg to block the shot but, instead, deflected it in the opposite direction that Emi dove.  The ball was in the back of the net in the 35th minute.  Newcastle 1, Aston Villa 0.

Considering that our Villans had responded to Leeds taking a 1-0 lead by scoring the next three goals should have been reassuring, but it wasn’t.  Villa did up-the-tempo but three errors by different player negated any chance to tie the game before the half and almost made our task more difficult.

First, Ramsey mid-controlled a pass inside the Newcastle penalty area and let the ball run out for a goal kick.  Then Cash attempted to dribble past Joelinton in the Newcastle penalty area, lost possession, and an opportunity to shoot.  Soon after Luiz lost possession in his own half and gifted an excellent chance for Newcastle’s Chris Wood to shoot to that he, fortunately, blasted high and wide.  Not a Leeds game-like response.

The closest our Villans came to a shot on target was a Mings header from a corner that was well off-target.

The second half started with Villa showing more urgency, but still deficient in guile.  Noticeable, was that McGinn and Ramsey switched sides allowing Ramsey to track Saint-Maximin which he did to good effect.  Meanwhile, our favorite Scot was still off-the-pace as if still recovering from the Leeds game.

On the plus side, Villa must have been relieved when Trippier announced that he was injured by clearing the ball out of play and sitting down.  Krafth came on from the bench and the game continued.

 Villa opportunities were limited by excellent backtracking with Shelvey intercepting a “pull-back” to Coutinho with the Brazilian ready to pull the trigger.  Magpies’ Saint-Maximin was less committed to defense and Cash had lots of time to pick out the far corner when beautifully set-up by Coutinho, only to miss by a couple of yards.  It was not Matty’s best outing.

Then, when the Magpies gave up a direct freekick just outside the penalty area, Luiz approached the shot with the demeanor of being more concerned about blazing the shot into the wall or over the top and the goalie barely had to move to gather the ball.  For that, Luiz was awarded a shot on goal, Villa’s lone effort.

Then, Coutinho executed a perfect back-heeled flick as Villa penetrated on the left and Digne’s cross was deflected right to Watkins at the far post for an easy nod into the goal in the 61st munute.  The Magpies backline immediately raised their arms for offside only for it to appear that Krafth had been caught dallying at the near post.  In fact, to the human eye the two players were on a line, but the VAR system gave the decision to Newcastle.

Soon after the restart Villa had a break on the left where Digne was fed by Mings in lots of space.  As he approached area, Coutinho was available just inside the area while Watkins and Buendia were options on the far side of the box.  Digne looped a high cross and Buendia, competing with Manquillo, did well to get a header in the general direction of the goal, but not close.  A pass to Coutinho would have been a better decision.

Shortly after, our Villans were awarded a freekick when Watkins was bundled over by Burn.  The spot was not conducive, being too central, and Luiz passed laterally to McGinn’s usually reliable left foot to direct to Mings near the left post.  Instead John, yet again, was errant in his direction putting the ball directly out of play.

As wasteful as Villa were with most of the possession, the Magpies were even worse.  They could not even gain possession for more than a few seconds.  Newcastle manager, Eddie Howe, must have been concerned that Villa would eventually put the ball in the back of the net for a legitimate goal and he signaled to his goalie who immediately collapsed to his knees feigning injury.  That allowed Howe to take advantage of the time-out to advise his team and slow Villa’s momentum.

Soon after Gerrard sent on Ings for Watkins and Leon Bailey for Buendia, hoping the fresh legs might sharpen the offense.  It worked as Bailey forced Joelinton to bring the Jamaican international down just outside the area on the right.  Once again, our Villans failed to execute a dead ball opportunity and the cross was blocked.

Ings was certainly energetic but was caught offside when not paying enough attention.  Then Cash, with lots of time to find the range for a long cross into the penalty area, totally overhit the ball into the grateful grasp of Dúbravka.

The final whistle came as a relief from the frustration.  The only good news for the team is that they have a week to prepare for their next game, at home, against a team with an even worse recent record than Villa’s (only two points in their last 5 games).  That would be Watford. 

The bad news is that this Villa team appears dispirited, and Gerrard needs a total team effort to avoid this becoming a disastrous run that undermines the chance to attract the key new personnel (e.g., a Bissouma or a Ndidi) in the post-season.

Newcastle: Dúbravka, Trippier (Krafth 48′), Manquillo (Dummett 50′), Burn, Schär, Willock (Guimarães 90’ +2), Shelvey, Joelinton, Saint-Maximin, Fraser, Wood

Unused Subs: Longstaff, Darlow, Murphy, De Bolle, Gayle, Almirón

Aston Villa: Martinez, Chambers, Mings, Cash, Digne, Douglas Luiz, McGinn (Chukwuemeka 85′), Ramsey, Buendía (Bailey 72′), Watkins (Ings 72′), Philippe Coutinho

Unused Subs: Sanson, Iroegbunam, Hause, Young, Chrisene, Olsen

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