It wasn't an unfamiliar scene. Aston Villa began the game brightly, taking it right at Newcastle and it was pretty fun to watch. It paid off rather quickly with Gabriel Agbonlahor continuing his excellent early season run of form by putting the home side ahead with yet another very nice goal, this time set up by Barry Bannan. Newcastle were the better side early on and Villa's goal came against the run of play, but with the way the defense has been playing and the attacking talent Villa have they can counter punch out of nowhere. The important thing is that Villa were trying to score, pushing for a goal and getting one. They've done that quite a bit this season, at least at home; out of the gates swinging and usually scoring early. There's talent in this side.
And then, in a wholly different but equally familiar scene, once the goal was gotten that was that for Villa's interest in goal, at least until Newcastle grabbed an equalizer in the 57th minute. Even after three points became one Villa didn't press with all that much enthusiasm; as the clock ticked closer to 90 it increasingly became all about preserving the draw. At home. Against a solid but unspectacular Newcastle side. Stats don't tell the whole story of course, but they can be illustrative. Let's take a look at the possession; 59%-41% in favor of Newcastle. And again, I have to stress that this game was in fact taking place at Villa Park. Teams can still be exciting and dangerous teams while surrendering a great deal of possession to the opposition as a great many counter-attacking sides can attest, but Villa weren't especially interested in beating the visitors on the break and being opportunistic. They played a lot of men behind the ball and when they managed to regain possession it was rare to see any real attempt to catch Newcastle's back line off-guard.
I'm trying not to be negative, I really am. (Definitely harder than McLeish it would seem.) Maybe this game was more annoying because I've known the result for 24 hours, seen the complaints about the tactical approach and jut spent two hours of a lovely Sunday morning watching something I knew would be frustrating. And please believe that I can recognize the positive developments we've seen so far this season; Richard Dunne and James Collins look once again to be a top-tier central defense pairing. As a whole the team looks more comfortable with the style they're being asked to play, and in no universe could being undefeated in your first five games be considered a bad thing. I can think of a couple of clubs playing in North London that would probably kill to have Villa's start replace theirs. And it's not as though Villa has been completely anemic this season; only six teams have scored more goals to this point.
But there's no denying that Alex McLeish's tactical approach is beginning to wear a bit thin. His decision to start Barry Bannan was encouraging and the wee one acquitted himself quite well, but it's tough to really flourish and let your creativity shine when you're functionally playing as a defender for the better part of the game. Darren Bent is quite clearly not fit and with Gabriel Agbonlahor looking back to (and perhaps even better than) his previous best there's no sense in delaying Bent's recovery by playing him for 86 minutes. Charles N'Zogbia looks out of position and a bit lost in McLeish's system. But more than anything, it's the negative approach once Villa had their lead. Were this Manchester United Villa were playing that certainly changes things. But against Newcastle, on your own pitch? It's shocking.
The optimist in me says that Alex McLeish came into a difficult situation at a club that didn't have a great deal of confidence and he recognizes the importance of getting everyone back to their best and comfortable in his system before really letting loose the attack. But the pessimist in me sees a manager doing the exact same things he did at Birmingham that made the Blues one of the most dreadful teams to watch in the world but with far better players at his disposal. Right now the optimist in me is still coming out ahead. But with each performance like yesterday's, the pessimist gets just a little bit louder.