We headed to Villa Park for our 14th televised Monday night away fixture in a row. A stat that frankly beggars belief, and illustrates the sheer contempt shown to our travelling fan base who are seemingly punished for having the cheek to basically sell out most away ends every other week. Speaking of which… another sell out away end greeted us as we arrived, an impressive effort and in full voice throughout.
Newcastle arrived in a bit of form after two wins on the bounce and maybe a little hope things were starting to click for this side. The impression from their fans I spoke to on the train over to the ground (which is quite a hike outside the city centre – just to make this Monday night fixture even more inconvenient) was, despite their recent form losing their last three, they fancied getting at us tonight and saw this as a winnable fixture.
That is pretty much how the opening exchanges panned out, allowing us a couple of chances on the break, including another ASM lung busting run up the pitch, only to find Almirón who scuffed his shot, a situation with a now quite worrying and predictable end to it. Unfortunately that was, essentially, it for us as we let them dictate the play. Grealish given far too much space and respect by our midfield two of Shelvey and Hayden who were ineffective all night, and comfortably second best.
For all they were controlling the game however, Villa didn’t create a great deal and the hope was if we could keep it tight we were always in with a chance on the break. That hope evaporated in the space of four minutes, with two unnecessary fouls given away on the edge of our own box. First Grealish was clumsily brought down by Yedlin at around thirty minutes, and the resulting free kick despatched smartly by Hourihane (a neat one two to change the angle and get it around the wall at the near post). Four minutes later and another silly foul, this time by Fernández in a similar area, and the resulting free kick whipped into the 6 yard box to find El Ghazi who, unmarked, had the simplest of tap ins. Really poor defending for that one and we couldn’t help thinking it was a gap Lascelles would have covered had he been if fit.
The rest of the first half was mainly Villa growing into the game as we kept getting pushed back, with no real answer or hope of creating anything from open play. Our best chance to change the game came a few minutes before half time, a Fernández header from a corner brilliantly tipped away by Heaton. But 2-0 it stayed.
If Steve Bruce (and all the other Steve’s we now seem to employ…) were hoping for a reaction in the second half they certainly did not get it. Bar a shot from outside the box in the first 5 minutes from ASM, again smartly saved by Heaton, we offered very little in all departments. Villa, and Grealish in particular, dictated the majority of the second half and if not for a few Dúbravka saves it could easily have been more. We did try and change it up, bringing on Carroll, Gayle, and then Atsu, but to no avail – it seemed like a little bit of Bruce just chucking on attacking players at random, ending the game 4-4-2 with little and large up front. Felt like going back in time a bit.
Overall this wasn’t quite Leicester proportions (another game I had the misfortune of being at), but a concerning performance nonetheless, and a reminder after a couple of good wins that it is going to be a long seasons of ups and downs… probably more often the latter. There will no doubt be talk this week about the front three again, one goal between them in 13 games this season and again unable to create much at all tonight. Joelinton looked isolated and Almirón is coming up to 11 months without a goal or an assist. Is it time for a change? Gayle back in? Muto? Carroll who probably can’t last 90 mins? You can see why it’s isn’t straightforward; I would persevere as is for now but it could be a very tough Christmas period if we’re relying on centre-halves to score the goals.
Only Man City up next though…. stranger things have happened I guess?!