By Dean Gregory
Newcastle vs Aston Villa
After a deflating loss to Chelsea on Sunday, Villa are on the road to Newcastle who are sitting comfortably in 13th. Only a single point and a -3 goal difference stands between Villa and safety. Yet Villa supporters have been alarmed by their teams lack of desire and fight during the two restart games so far.
With the trio of games against Wolves, Liverpool and Manchester United following their trip to Tyneside, defeat against the Toon Army may leave Villa in distinct peril.
There can be no more gutless displays, as it’s very much the End Game for Dean Smith and his players in terms of Premier League survival.
Can Villa turn their fortunes around?
Newcastle – L L D W W
Aston Villa – L L L D L
Steve Bruce on season restart and atmosphere
“It’s always good to get off to a good start. It’s been a long time so well done to all my staff & the players because they looked in good nick.
“But it is totally strange playing in an empty SJP. Without supporters, it’s not the same.
“It is totally strange for all of us, of course. I think it just goes to show without supporters, it’s simply not the same and if ever we need reminding it’s all about the supporters.
“Without them, there really wouldn’t be football.”
Dean Smith on Jack Grealish
“Listen, he’s a top player and he gets targeted hence getting 11 fouls yesterday. He got nullified in the game because of that as well.
“Myself and Jack have got to find other ways around that. The one thing it does is if they’re fouling him in good areas it allows us to get people up for set pieces. We scored from one yesterday and almost scored from another one when Kortney Hause headed over the bar.
“People do target him in our team because he has been playing very well this season. I felt in the last two games we haven’t been as reliant as Jack but we haven’t come away with the wins we should have.
“He can play a number of positions. He can play as a No.8 very well. He can play as a No.10 very well and he can play off the left. What you’ve got to do is feed him the ball. (Against Chelsea) we didn’t have enough of the ball to feed him.
“I thought his game against Sheffield United was one of his quietest games. But, after two games, I expect him to be right at it against Newcastle now. As I’ve said, he can play any of them positions mentioned very well.”
While he has tried a handful of formations, Steve Bruce has rarely fiddled with his 5-4-1 with Joelinton up front, Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey behind him and Federico Fernández, Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummet in the middle of the defence.
In a Steve Bruce team, a solid defence is king. They see an average of only 41% of the ball and sport a passing accuracy of 74.5%. 17% of the passes they play are long – they are set up to defend, defend, defend, only attacking when opportunity knocks.
They are the direct opposite of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team.
Playing this way is a tested method of playing the odds across a season: the idea is there are less teams in the league that can consistently overwhelm a solid defence than there are teams who will struggle to break them down, exposing themselves in the process. Their comfortable mid-table position supports the theory, as well as the low amount of goals scored (28) and the medial amount of goals conceded (41, the league average being 40.6).
Their attacking output is exactly as it should be – 28 goals from 28.39 xG is neither an over or underperformance, meaning they create few opportunities to score but they make use of them efficiently. Their playing style is reliant on an exceptional defence, however, and they have one. The 41 goals they have conceded come from an xGA of 54.45, showing they invite pressure but withstand it very well.
Newcastle are a team that could be much higher in the table, not for a lack of attacking prowess but more because they simply do not take risks going forward. Their usual setup of five defenders and four midfielders sit deep and stay rigid as much as possible, relying on Joelinton as an out-ball to spring counterattacks. 10.4 shots per game suggests they prefer to shoot only when reasonably sure the chance is a good one, where other teams might try their luck and see what happens.
Steve Bruce teams are often accused of lacking any sort of ambition, preferring to do the bare minimum required to fade into mid-table mediocrity and simply survive in the league. It may not be a great tactic in the long run, but for a team crying out for stability, it works.
One to Watch
Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey has emerged as Newcastle’s main attacking force this season – he leads the team in goals scored with five, although he has not contributed with any assists. This is not for lack of trying, however – he chips in with 1.8 shots and 1.7 key passes per game, both of which are towards the top of the whole squad’s attacking output.
Newcastle do not attack much, but it seems when they do, Shelvey is the man their attacks go through.
Newcastle 0-3 Aston Villa – 02-04-2005
Wins at St James’ Park are few and far between for Villa, this one being the most recent. A bizarre game was decided by a very early Juan Pablo Angel goal and two penalties from Gareth Barry, with Newcastle receiving three red cards in the process.
Aston Villa 2-0 Newcastle – 25-11-2019
In a game where the headlines cast Steve Bruce as the victim of injustice bravely returning to the scene of a crime, Villa won fairly convincingly thanks to two first half goals in quick succession.
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How it could play out
The first thing most people will notice coming into this match is the fact that Newcastle swept aside a Sheffield Utd side that Villa simply could not break down. The stats paint a picture of two similar games, with Sheffield (despite having a player sent off) seeing slightly more of the ball, limiting their opponent’s chances and only registering one shot on target in each game.
Looking deeper, 11 of Newcastle’s 12 shots were in open play, versus only three of Villa’s 14. Villa relied on set pieces, mostly corners, to forge their chances. A lot can be said for set pieces, and seeing Villa make use of them to take shots on goal is good – that said, the fact that they found taking shots in open play so difficult is troubling. It shows a lack of imagination in breaking down the opposition’s defence, and when a team is so defensively adept, you can be sure they are well drilled at dealing with set pieces of all kinds.
This is a problem which will carry into the match with Newcastle – their defence is not as rigid as Sheffield’s, but it is strong and well-drilled nonetheless. Breaking down a defence like that is a balancing act between launching an all-out siege on their goal, while making sure you are not vulnerable to a counter.
This is Villa’s other obvious problem – with the worst defence in the league, do they have the faith in their back line required to apply heavy pressure? Trying and getting it wrong will likely play into Newcastle’s hands, but the alternative is to not take risks – against a team that plays the cautious game much better than Villa, that is a one way ticket to a bore draw.
Villa also can’t rely on trying to play Newcastle at their own game – Villa walk a tightrope between safety and danger which requires affirmative action, while Newcastle can be safe in the assumption that they will still be in the league next season regardless of what happens here.
Simply put, the impetus is on Villa to make something happen without leaving themselves exposed.
Are they up to the challenge?
Newcastle 0-1 Aston Villa
As hard to beat as they may be, Newcastle cemented mid-table status with their win against the Blades, so will hopefully be thinking about the beach, or whatever the lockdown equivalent is nowadays. Villa have beaten them once already this season and with belief, there is no reason to think they can’t do it again.
Villa’s problem is not an intrinsic lack of ability – instead, it is the difficulty they have faced in finding a system where the ability will flourish. The danger of getting it wrong will weigh heavily on the minds of the players, and there will likely be no better opportunity to get three in the coming weeks than this.