It really shouldn't have been this close. And I don't mean that just in terms of Villa needing to get more out of this game; I mean at worst it should have been 2-0 with a ~75% chance of 3-0. Darren Bent was wrongly judged to be offside, negating a goal that would have made it 2-0 just before the break. Just shy of an hour in Bent drew what looked to be a clear penalty only to have Stuart Atwell call for a goal kick. The refereeing was consistently atrocious all game long, and while it's somewhat cliched to complain about such things, in this case we have two clear, tangible decisions that cost Villa at least one goal. There were others and while they weren't nearly as important, the body of work was shocking. Plenty of games have a massive bad call or two and plenty of games are officiated consistently poorly without any clear-cut, game-changing bad decisions but it's rare to see both in one game. In the end Newcastle weren't able to equalize James Collins' 24th minute header but there's no way the last half hour of the game should have been so nerve-wracking.
Newcastle came out the better side, not doing much to trouble Brad Friedel but having more of the ball and working into dangerous areas. Villa to their credit were steadfast in defense and it was a theme that would repeat throughout the day; on numerous occasions Newcastle would break to counter and that old familiar feeling would creep in as the back line raced to cover, but they never let us down. The organization was solid and though Newcastle had more of the ball than Villa on the day they were able to do very little with it. Friedel was really only tested twice-once 20 minutes in and once 89 minutes in- and there was genuine frustration written on the faces and evident in the play of Newcastle's attacking players. The defensive shield was effective, Makoun and Petrov making up for what they might have lacked in terms of furthering the attack by providing a strong presence in front of the back line. Ashley Young made several huge clearances late on in the game and Darren Bent-Darren Bent!- had several nice defensive moments that led to Villa counters. Newcastle just weren't dangerous in the least; this wasn't a 1-0 win in the same manner as the Manchester City game, which was dependent on a lot of last-ditch tackles and brilliant saves. This was about as dominant as a 1-0 win can be.
I said during the game that this was the best game Villa have played all season and there was some disagreement. That's reasonable; it's clearly a subjective opinion, after all. And in fairness, the 3-0 victory against West Ham was probably more impressive; it's just that I can barely even consider that to be the same Villa team. What I probably should have said was that this is the best game Villa have played under Gerard Houllier. Everything worked today, at least tactically. The defense held up wonderfully as I said before and the set-piece defense was fantastic. There was real purpose to the attack, with everyone seemingly aware of exactly what they needed to be doing and executing accordingly. Agbonlahor looked downright dangerous out wide, cutting in when the lane was there and holding up in the corner when it wasn't and he looked far more comfortable at the position than at any other point this season. He was really the standout player offensively, which brings me to another point; aside from Gabby, none of the attacking players had their best day. Downing was far less dangerous than we've become accustomed to seeing and Young had his moments-including, amazingly, a wicked set piece which Collins headed brilliantly into the top corner for the game's only (official) goal-but he wasn't at his most electric. Petrov and Makoun's contributions came almost exclusively in the defensive phase. But in weeks past, a Villa team with such key players putting in such pedestrian performances in terms of quality almost certainly would not have taken all three points. Good players can have off days, but good teams know how to work around that. And that's what I was getting at with the "best game Villa have played all season" comment; there was a self-awareness, an attention to detail and a fire that has been sorely lacking at times this year.
Now, it's true that the opposition had a hand in this. The Newcastle side Villa faced today were severely weakened, and if this were their best XI over the course of the year they'd probably be one of the weaker sides in the league. But playing against weak opposition has never stopped Villa from dropping points before; this is, after all, a team that has lost to Wolves, Birmingham, Blackburn and Rapid Vienna so far this season. The difference was that they didn't play down to the level of their competition. Villa were the better side for the vast majority of the game, and though it would have been nice to see another goal or two I don't think that anyone watching the game could honestly say that they weren't deserving of all three points. I'm not saying that I'm comfortable. We're still 14th and just five points off the drop with several six-pointers left to play and Villa have given plenty of encouraging performances this year only to follow them up with absolute garbage the next time out. But I feel a whole lot better than I did three hours ago, and that's something.
Something that I think is notable about the tactical approach today; at the start, Villa were playing similarly to what we've seen from them since Houllier took over, trying to dominate possession and create from inside the final third. After a bit of early pressure that strategy's effectiveness seemed to wane and it was Newcastle that looked the more dangerous side. I think it's notable that after the Collins goal, which came well against the run of play, that Villa switched to a slightly more counter-attacking style of play. They weren't sitting on the lead, but instead using their advantage in pace and quality in wide areas to shift the focus of the attack. The familiar high defensive line moved noticeably deeper. Stilyan Petrov stayed back to function as something of a deep-lying playmaker and Makoun shifted into more of a box-to-box role. It was a very deliberate tactical shift, which I found both interesting and encouraging. I'm a fan of the style Houllier seems to want to play, and I think we've seen how dangerous it can be; the most recent Blackburn and Bolton games are prime examples of that. But today, it wasn't working all that well, and with Newcastle stifling things against such a high line, a goal from a counter seemed inevitable. I think that Houllier's tendency towards stubbornness is my least favorite trait of his, so to see him make that adjustment in spite of the stage of the game and a 1-0 lead was a pleasant surprise. Even the best teams in the world are going to have days where things aren't working as they'd like and find that adjustments are required, and Houllier identified the need for a change in approach and got things spot on.
We're not out of the woods yet, not by a sight. But we're getting there. Six games to go, 18 points on offer and a massive game away against West Ham in a week's time. This was as big a game as Villa have played all year and despite several key players at less than their best and some horrendous refereeing they were more than equal to the test. I still don't feel good about this team. I'm not an idiot. But I don't feel like I hate them, at least for right now, and that's an improvement.