A performance lacking enthusiasm and intent means Villa’s seventeen year winless run at St James’ Park continues, with Eddie Howe’s resilient Newcastle United side mounting an impressive second half of the season resurgence.
Let’s take a look at the main talking points from a dismal day on Tyneside...
It just won’t stick...
Playing through the press and mounting attacks from the deck has been a staple of the attacking build-up at Aston Villa in recent weeks, and has been an element of play that Steven Gerrard has tried to implement since his arrival at the club — none of which was apparent in the first half at St James Park.
The technical capabilities of both Jacob Ramsey and Philippe Coutinho were on show in the mid-week fixture against Leeds United, which had many Villa fans excited and looking forward to future link-ups between the creative two. This was nowhere to be seen in the first 45 minutes though, and the duo simply could not get anything going for their side.
Newcastle United, in fairness, deserve a lot of credit for their willingness off the ball and their coordinated press in which, time after time, drove the Villa back-line into panic and unrest. Far too often was the ball lumped forward to a solitary Ollie Watkins, and the isolated striker stood no chance against the towering figures of both Fabian Schär and Dan Burn. Watkins was a frustrated figure up top for the claret and blues, and was frequently forced to drop into the midfield to get on the ball, leaving very little offensive presence further up for the away side.
The form of both John McGinn and Douglas Luiz has undeniably declined over recent weeks, and with that, this fixture presented itself as a chance for the two to make their comeuppance and prove their worth in the starting side. They did themselves no favors however, being physically beaten time after time and second to every ball.
Players such as Morgan Sanson and Carney Chukwuemeka will surely be licking their lips and hopeful of being given a chance after witnessing their comrade’s dull performances, and Steven Gerrard faces a tough decision whether or not to rearrange his midfield for next week’s game against Watford at Villa Park.
Gerrard’s side totaled just three attempts in the first half, none of which were on target and showed no sign of troubling Martin Dúbravka in net. Given the money spent on transfer fees and the recognized abilities of the front-men, more has to be demanded from them. Zero shots on goal, and an absence of creativity against a side beneath them in the league table is unacceptable, and has to be pointed out and accentuated in the game’s debrief.
Where was the desire to play the ball short into either Emiliano Buendía or Philippe Coutinho? Where was the eagerness of the entire midfield to run in behind and catch the Magpies’ defense out? Why didn’t anybody take a risk and drive at an opposing player to spark a chance? It was a totally lackluster first half showing from Aston Villa, which ultimately lacked the footballing basics throughout.
Another game-week in the Premier League provides yet another opportunity for controversy surrounding VAR’s (Video Assistant Referee) involvement in tough in-game decisions.
Unfortunately for Aston Villa, they would be the team at the forefront of a dispute this time around, when play was momentarily paused following Ollie Watkins’ 61st minute equalizer.
After some of their best build-up in the game, Aston Villa had the ball in a dangerous position down the left, with full-back Lucas Digne poised to deliver a ball into the box. The Frenchman executed a low driven ball in the direction of the anticipating Philippe Coutinho, whose shot rebounded off Fabian Schär and into Watkins’ air space for an easy tap-in with his head.
The goal originally seemed fair, and there was very little dispute from the Newcastle team, touchline and fans as the claret and blue shirts of Aston Villa raced back towards the half-way line, eager to get play restarted in search for a winning second.
However, like many goals in the modern game, it was celebrated too early, and after a tedious couple of minutes, the officials team at Stockley Park ruled the goal out, deeming the goalscorer’s toe marginally offside in contrast to Swedish defender Emil Krafth’s back-leg.
The decision was close and having been given originally, many believe the goal should have remained, especially given the lack of a ‘clear and obvious’ claim, and the fine lines separating both Ollie Watkins and the last defender.
Whilst the away side may not have necessarily deserved an equalizer due to their poor hour-long showing, it is simply unequivocal that the call to rule out the goal was unfortunate, and once again, the technology that was brought in to aid referees and treat ‘clear errors’ has been used out of accordance.
Piling on the pressure...or not
When a goal down and with time against them, the losing team in football typically begins to rejuvenate and find a second-wind, particularly when the opposition drops back, in search of that precious goal.
Aston Villa, however, did the opposite, and when provided with an opportunity to pile on the pressure and mount attack after attack on the Newcastle United defense, were instead sloppy in possession and struggled to create chances and produce shots at goal.
A component of Steven Gerrard’s managerial persona, that many believed was an upgrade or step-up on Dean Smith’s, was his game management and effectiveness in difficult, game-defining moments of the match. This was evidenced in his first couple of matches in charge, including the debut game against Brighton when introducing the experienced Ashley Young to help see the game over the line.
In this case though, there appeared to be an absence of tactical change or inspired resurgence from the touchline to make a difference and contribute to the game.
Gerrard introduced both Leon Bailey and Danny Ings with around 20 minutes to go, and whilst being positive, attacking changes, neither player affected the game and made a difference upon arrival. Again, credit can be awarded to the home side who defended valiantly throughout the duration of the tie, but neither player seemed as if they had entered the field with a specified instruction to make an impact, and the intent behind the changes were somewhat ambiguous.
Ultimately, there wasn’t a clear tactical alteration made to the team that looked like it would benefit the side’s chances of revival, which is an incredibly worrying observation when in a vulnerable and distressing position so late into a match.
Steven Gerrard was quick to judge his side’s uninspired performance following the defeat, by starting his post-match interview with VillaTV with the following: “since I've been in the door that’s our worst performance, I think we are way off the level by far...”
The full interview can be viewed below, with the takeaway comment from the manager being “there needs to be a drastic improvement, individually and collectively”.
"There needs to be a drastic improvement, individually and collectively."— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) February 13, 2022
Steven Gerrard reflects on #NEWAVL. ️ pic.twitter.com/MZxqCTf0x5
Steven Gerrard is evidently underwhelmed with his side, and his disappointment with the performances of all of his players is telling. The former Liverpool captain fears his side “can be dragged down quickly” if they are not careful, and he, more than anyone, will be hopeful of a reaction in the Villans’ next game at home to Watford on Saturday.
Is there a major cause for concern, or is the defeat to Newcastle United merely a blip?