After an encouraging start to the season, Aston Villa faced Newcastle United in their first game of the new campaign in which they were viewed by anyone as favorites to take all three points. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. Villa's performance could charitably be described as uninspired, with their only goal coming from Christian Benteke from a set piece against the run of play, and though the team responded well to equalizing they were unable to use that momentum to get another and instead conceded six minutes later. Those six minutes were the only period of time that Villa were the better side, and after falling behind they never really threatened again and went down meekly. It wasn't a disastrous showing by any stretch, but it did feel like a performance that took some of the wind out of Villa's sails. The challenge now for Paul Lambert: figure out how to keep it from happening again.
One of the principal concerns expressed in the wake of Villa's better-than-expected showings against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool centered around their ability to create danger in the attack against teams of lesser quality. It's no secret at this point that Villa's at their best on the counter, and against opposition that tends to dominate possession and play high up the pitch-teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool-an approach that places an emphasis on counterattacking play can be quite effective. But that's not Newcastle's game, nor is it most teams'; that's not to say that that those opportunities will never be there, and indeed Villa did have a few very nice moves on the break in this game. But the volume of opportunities isn't there, and Villa's inability to create chances from the buildup was very much on display in this game.
The "lack of a true #10" meme was pretty extensively hammered on after the close of the transfer window, but that's not an absolute necessity to creating chances. But in Villa's case, there's not much going on through the middle and there's even less going on from the wings, meaning that in general Villa's best opportunities are going to come on the break or from strong individual efforts from their strikers. Christian Benteke can't reliably be completely taken out of the game by even the most stringent man-marking, but without his teammates posing much of a threat the big man can at least be contained. The end result is often going to be a game in which Villa can manage to control possession but are unable to do much in the final third, depending on moments of brilliance and their danger from set pieces (that aren't going to come quite as often without a credible attacking threat) to provide the goals.
Good teams can and do succeed with attacks similar to Villa's, but those teams typically have a much stingier defense. Villa's back line wasn't a disaster against Newcastle, and for much of the game they dealt admirably with a pretty steady stream of threatening play. The defense has been consistently better since its lowest point in the winter of 2012, and with so many promising young players showing consistent growth there's reason to believe that this unit could eventually be quite good. But occasionally they'll do something to remind you that they aren't the most experienced group, and on two occasions against Newcastle it lead directly to goals. And at this point, those mistakes happen often enough and the strict bunker-and-counter isn't an especially palatable option.
There were, as usual, positive signs from this game. Fabian Delph-recklessness aside-continues to look very much as though he has turned the corner, and if he can play at the same level for the remainder of the season he'll almost certainly force his way into the conversation about England's squad for Brazil. And though Villa didn't create much in the way of opportunities and suffered lapses in defense, they weren't really outplayed to a significant extent; if that game is played ten times Villa likely win at least a few, and the effort was probably more deserving of a loss than a draw. There's a tendency among both fans and pundits to focus on results rather than performances when crafting narratives, but ultimately this wasn't a hiding by any stretch. Newcastle created a bit more and they were more clinical with their chances, while Villa looked at times as though they were incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn. Days like this happen, and it's certainly no cause for panic.
But it wasn't encouraging, either. Whether it's a tactical change, personnel swaps, or something else, Paul Lambert needs to figure out how to get this attack clicking a bit more. Teams in the Premier League adjust, and if the approach Newcastle took to this game is implemented by other teams and is similarly successful, the changes might need to be more radical. This wasn't something that was difficult to identify as a possible issue going forward, and Lambert has shown an ability to tactically counter-punch just as well as the opposition. This is a bump in the road, and not a particularly nasty one at that. But it's the clearest evidence we've had this season that this team is still very much a work in progress.