Villa returned from the international break to grab a solid win against Newcastle United. Conor Hourihane and Anwar El Ghazi gave Villa the two goals needed to see Steve Bruce away from Villa Park.
Here’s our talking points.
1. The narrative is dead - for now
Steve Bruce vs Aston Villa is a hyped occasion because there is a narrative. Newcastle vs Aston Villa is a hyped occasion because there is a narrative. After Monday night, the narrative - and any embers of a rivalry - have fizzled out. Villa verbals towards Steve Bruce were limited, and vice-versa.
Truth be told, there wasn’t much needle. Not as much as was foretold. Aston Villa vs Newcastle United is just another Premier League match. Steve Bruce is just another former Villa manager. There is no unneeded aggression and no extra drama.
2. Newcastle were close to awful
While they were probably good value for a lucky goal - Newcastle were never going to leave with a draw or the win. Steve Bruce has been given a good hiding away from home this season, and they are seemingly odds-on to concede a few goals each time they venture south.
If you didn’t watch the match and want a clear idea of how Newcastle performed - think of the darkest timeline version of Bruce’s Villa. There was no sustained energy, no ingenuity. In the end, Newcastle had to rely on knock-downs from Andy Carroll to Dwight Gayle (both substituted onto the pitch).
Bruce will be agonised to endure two set piece goals - if there’s some credit to give him, he can drill a team to defend against certain things - and that’s why they lost. Two easy chances from free-kicks denied his team a chance of anything.
They were bad.
3. The goalkeepers were excellent
The scoreline slightly flatters Newcastle, and while they may have ended up stealing a goal themselves, Villa were all over them and the only thing between NUFC and a true hammering was Martin Dúbravka in goal. In fact, if Newcastle were to somehow earn a point at Villa Park, then full credit would have to be reserved for the goalkeeper and not the goalscorer.
Now, Tom Heaton was class for Villa. He seemed to make a number of good saves to give Villa an earned clean sheet. This is what he does though, and the shots coming from the woeful Newcastle attack were from chances of low quality. Because they had a bit of spice and power doesn’t turn them into excellent finishes - because they didn’t end up in the net! Heaton wasn’t truly tested to the full extent.
Martin Dúbravka - on the other hand - put out one of the best goalkeeping performances of the season. He sprung to every shot with vigour and was a fairly confident player with all that was facing him. Both Ezri Konsa and Wesley had high quality chances that were denied in the face of goal by Dúbravka, who is increasingly looking like an elite talent between the sticks. He’s a late bloomer, for sure, but one that will earn Newcastle some real cash in the summer.
Both teams are blessed with talented goalkeepers that can keep their teams in games.
4. Wesley’s performance
I’ll put my neck on the line here. Facing a back-five, with three central defenders tasked with marking him out of the game, Wesley managed to perform well.
We can talk about the ‘miss’ all we want but it’s an instinctive finish - Wesley’s bread and butter - that was denied by some fairly excellent reflexes, but Wesley isn’t here just to score goals and that is clear. He’s on this team to hold the ball up, make runs forward and play in the inside-forwards and late running midfielders.
Wesley didn’t stop pressing on Monday night and did as much as he could to give Newcastle a hard time. With the attention of at least two centre-backs and Jonjo Shelvey, and the threat of an additional defender, Wesley - alone up top - had next to no chance of making an impact on the game. Yet, I think he did - it was minor - but it was enough.
After his chance to earn a goal was blocked, Wesley was met with encouraging applause and I think that is a good turning point in the ‘what is Wes?’ narrative. We all want him to succeed and there is no cost in continually affording him our full backing without sacrificing fair criticism. After all, he’s pretty much all we have.
5. El Ghazi is quietly rising to the top.
3 goals and 3 assists through 12 matches means that Anwar El Ghazi is fifty-percent of the way to matching his goal and assist totals from last year.
This fact has gone almost completely unnoticed - but Anwar El Ghazi can definitely turn it on for Villa when they play at home. If he can match his totals from his first season at the Villa through 24 games, that’s 6 goals and 6 assists from the wide position. Matching up with McGinn, Grealish and Trezeguet, it means that goals are coming from across the pitch for Aston Villa.
What this does is take the pressure from Wesley, and it also means that Villa aren’t a one-note team. There is threat across the front-three, no matter who is in it, and that threat is bolstered by the midfield and full-backs.
This is a promising situation for Aston Villa and El Ghazi.
6. Villa could’ve been their own worst enemies
Again - Newcastle didn’t offer much. Apart from a second-half burst, they weren’t in the game.
However, that second-half burst was escalated by a certain amount of complacency coming from Aston Villa. Both Tyrone Mings and Douglas Luiz were caught on the ball in their own half, giving the ball away to afford Newcastle a number of easy chances.
Now, if there is something that is a common thread between every team that has ever been relegated from the Premier League, it is giveaways in the defensive third. That kills teams, and there is almost no reason for it. Especially against a team that only seemed to have two pressing players at any one time.
While it was a safe game for Aston Villa, they should also count their blessings that the key giveaways didn’t result in disaster.
7. It’s Konsa’s position to lose
Ezri Konsa stepped back into the Villa lineup alongside Tyrone Mings and looked incredibly impressive at the back as Newcastle fired the ball to Joelinton, and then Andy Carroll. While this tactic is mocked, it’s still a difficult situation for defenders as it heaps physical pressure onto them. Konsa held himself well in his second Premier League start for Aston Villa, and looked close to commanding.
After a tough few games for Björn Engels, it looks like Konsa might continue with the starting role at RCB for a few games. I’d be surprised if he’s switched out for the next game.
8. You just can’t stop Conor
Conor Hourihane has, since his career began, been criticised more than most. He was named a ‘passenger’ at points last season, and that’s nothing new for Conor - unfortunately.
After being held-back as the deep midfielder in Villa’s 4-3-3, Hourihane has succeeded in a more advanced position since Jack Grealish was dragged out wide. He can get forward, operate in an advance passing triangle and challenge for a goal.
Conor had been redefined as a deep lying playmaker for the past year, so It’s easy to forget that the guy is an attack-minded playmaker, with an edge. He’s better for Villa as a more advanced player - and should start most games based on his set-piece ability alone.
Monday night against Newcastle was his game, and with Newcastle sitting deep for a point, Villa needed someone like Hourihane to open the game up.
How many times have we seen Monday night from Hourihane? It’s a zoetrope goal, constantly flickering on repeat. Norwich, Derby, Blackburn, Newcastle - Conor has cracked so many games open with his left foot, and has saved Villa time and time again. How many times have we seen the Hourihane Highlight Reel?
Far too many times for him to have to fight over and over for respect. He’s absolutely unstoppable on his day.
9. Jack Grealish - at it again
As neutrals slobbered over the performance of Jack Grealish, some Aston Villa fans aired their slight disappointment with the Villa playmaker. Now, that’s no negative - and it shouldn’t be viewed as one. Grealish has simply set the bar incredibly high for himself.
The Newcastle game was a bit odd for Grealish, who performed well in every area bar his shooting. He simply couldn’t get it right, despite having a number of chances to stun Newcastle. This perceived ‘lack of final product’ shouldn’t stain his game in general though, as he was barely pushed to the extreme by Newcastle.
What it truly was, however, was a showcase of his consistent attacking talent. He’s a threat and a natural ball-carrier. He is brilliant for Aston Villa and is getting better every single game.
10. If you come for a point, you won’t leave with a win
Sometimes you need to sit back and fight for a point - Villa learned that lesson the hard way against Wolves.
Sometimes, you need to respect the other team, press, push up and offer a good bit of fight. Newcastle learned that lesson the hard way against Villa.
If you leave five men in a flatpack back-five, you are not going to score a goal without some damn good luck. Newcastle’s threat was only truly clear in the impotent sprints of Allan Saint-Maximin, who ran into the brick wall of Frederic Guilbert before any black-and-white striped help arrived.
When Villa broke Newcastle down via two free-kicks, Steve Bruce had to push his team forward, undoing his game plan and allowing Villa to create chance-after-chance. The game was dead by 65 minutes for Newcastle, who had to change their entire gameplan and mentality to find the draw.
What do we learn from this? That your team must have some attacking impetus at all times, even with a back-five. There must be some clear direction in the transition from the low-block to the final third that isn’t a long kick to Joelinton. Newcastle scrapped their doggedness, their attacking quality, and any intention of a win to scrape a point - and that’s not good enough.
Well, for Villa it is!
11. Next up
Villa have a real chance of taking points against a beleaguered yet gutsy Manchester United side at Old Trafford. It’ll be a tough test and the odds are against Aston Villa, but if they bring their A game, and learn to see out a match, they can certainly expect a positive result in a tough environment against an old foe.
Up the Villa.