By Jonathan Parkin
It is undoubtedly crunch time in Villa’s season, with eight games to go and 24 points to play for. With tough games on the horizon, Newcastle was earmarked as potentially one of the three or four wins needed to stay up.
The weekend offered few cheers for the claret and blue faithful, a lifeless performance accompanying a 2-1 loss to Chelsea. Questions were asked about the tactics, the desire of the players and of the recruitment team, after being beaten in such a miserable fashion.
Valuable points to gain and a poor performance in the rear-view mirror may have spurred many managers into drastic changes, but Dean Smith made only two for the clash with the Magpies. Conor Hourihane and Keinan Davis dropped to the bench, replaced by Trezeguet and Ally Samatta. The most notable difference however, was the position of skipper Jack Grealish, who had seemingly been moved into a more central role, where hopefully he could better exert his influence.
Newcastle were in high spirits before the fixture, having dispatched Sheffield United by three goals. On top of this, striker Joelinton was bound to be looking for more goals after breaking a lengthy goal drought against the Blades.
Villa managed to show a few glimpses early on, getting crossed balls into the danger zone, but never really looked like taking a chance. For the majority of the game, a Bruce managed Newcastle had more of the ball than Villa, and that says a lot about how Villa have struggled. Newcastle was arguably the easiest game that was left on the Villa fixture list.
The goal scored by substitute Dwight Gayle is exactly the kind of goal Villa have been conceding all season. A non-threatening throw in was turned into a dangerous attack by inept defending by Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause. They were dragged way out of position and Mings allowed Andy Carroll to turn unchallenged and play a ball to the onrushing Gayle.
An Ahmed Elmohamady goal snatched a point for the Villa, but it really isn’t enough. Again, a last chance saloon free kick in the dying embers (this time by Conor Hourihane) disappointed and suggested an ineptitude in terms of fighting for survival.
Villa arguably have the hardest run in of the teams they are competing with, and if you can’t win the games against poor opposition, you won’t stay up.
Villa look like they have no ideas, even Jack Grealish looks scared to gamble and take on an opposition player. The only positive that can come from the game is that Villa are miraculously still in the mix to stay up, and there are still seven chances to put a shift in and put things right.
Aston Villa Player Ratings
Orjan Nyland – 6.5
Orjan Nyland had a reasonable game between the sticks. He made a sharp save to deny Matt Ritchie in the first half, and even claimed and punched high balls well. Nyland certainly wasn’t the problem in regards to the goal.
Ezri Konsa – 6
Going forward, Ezri Konsa looked promising, making good runs forward from the back line. He played three key passes (including a peach of a ball that should have been an assist) and had the most accurate passing of the starting back four. The ex-Brentford man did fail to deal with Gayle as he ran through for the Newcastle goal though, but he shouldn’t have been put in that position by his teammates in the first place.
Kortney Hause – 5
Along with being dragged massively out of position for the Magpies goal, Kortney Hause made several other sloppy mistakes. In the first half he nearly cost a goal had it not been for Tyrone Mings, as Jonjo Shelvey easily dispossessed the 24-year-old. Then when the Villa pressure was mounting on Newcastle late on, the centre-half allowed Andy Carroll to again take the ball down unchallenged, before fouling him. This released all the pressure Villa were building and gave Steve Bruce’s men a chance to push out from their own box. These mistakes happen far too often from Hause, who is a defender that would be much better suited to a no-nonsense type system and not the passing style of play the Villa use.
Tyrone Mings – 5
England international Tyrone Mings made some good blocks and interceptions throughout the 90 minutes. The dreadful piece of defending that cost Villa, undid all of that work though. In such a monumental point in Villa’s season, mistakes and lapses in concentration like that can’t happen. The problem is it’s happened far too often this season.
Matt Targett – 5.5
Matt Targett was run ragged by Allan Saint-Maximin all game long. Villa’s left-back was lucky however as the young French winger didn’t have much end product. On the attacking front, Targett didn’t get forward very effectively, not making a single accurate cross.
Douglas Luiz – 6.5
The break seems to have had a positive effect on one Villa player at least. Douglas Luiz had another solid game as he sat at the base of the midfield and spread the play. He made a handful of important tackles, interceptions and blocks, which show the young midfielder’s positional sense has really improved.
John McGinn – 6
Still not quite at his sharpest, John McGinn put in a decent performance nonetheless. McGinn was the only Villa player to really take on a Newcastle player with the ball at his feet. The problem for Villa is that McGinn is getting back to full fitness too slowly, and when he is fully fit it will most likely be too late.
Anwar El Ghazi – 4.5
Winger Anwar El Ghazi did one positive thing in the entire time he was on the pitch, and that was a cross very early on in the game. Bruce had clearly told his side to show him onto his left foot, as El Ghazi crossed in horrific fashion again and again with that foot. Like Trezeguet’s free kick against Chelsea, Villa again got a free kick from 30 yards out against Newcastle. Up stepped El Ghazi to blast the ball into the wall. Currently Villa are a team that only look threatening from set pieces, so wasting opportunities to get the ball in the box like that is criminal.
Jack Grealish © – 6
Late on, Jack Grealish looked the most likely to create something to grab Villa all three points. Despite this, during the previous 85 minutes or so, Jack’s influence was limited. Teams in the Premier League have obviously done their homework on how to close and tackle Grealish out of the game. There was very little space for the midfield technician to operate in. Also, over the break Jack appears to have lost the directness to his game that made him such a threat, he didn’t register a single shot against the Magpies.
Trezeguet – 4
Trezeguet missed what was probably Villa’s best chance. This brings back the problems that plagued the Egyptian all season, lack of end product. After his miss he did virtually nothing. The winger had the least touches of any starting Villa player, and the worst pass completion. Players going missing is frustrating at the best of times, and Villa can’t afford to have passengers like Trezeguet proved to be. The rumours of an agreed loan deal back to Turkey if Villa are relegated don’t bode well either, and indicate a player that is looking to down tools when the going gets tough.
Ally Samatta – 6
Tanzanian striker Ally Samatta also missed a good chance early on, but continued to work hard for the team despite the miss. He was surprisingly effective when Villa were defending corners and linked play well when the ball made its way to him. His dragged effort in the dying moments wasn’t great, but the space for it was created by the pressure of having two strikers on the opposition defence, something Dean Smith should take note of.
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Off the Bench
Conor Hourihane (69) – 6
Conor Hourihane came off the bench and got the ball moving forward with his passing. He picked up the assist for the Elmohamady goal with a good delivery from a corner, but his final ball into the box in the last seconds was abysmal. Once again, a Villa player couldn’t produce the goods when it mattered.
Keinan Davis (69) – 6.5
Villa looked improved once Keinan Davis entered the fray. Just his presence opens up space for others, and his physicality is something that other players can’t replicate. Will Dean Smith ever go for it and start with Davis and Samatta? Seemingly every Villa fan would play two strikers in the next game.
Ahmed Elmohamady (76) – 6.5
He did score the goal that rescued a point for the Villans, but Ahmed Elmohamady didn’t do much else. It’s a shame he get to deliver one or two of his trademark deep crosses into the box, as Villa could definitely have done with them, as the went looking for a winner.
Marvelous Nakamba (76) – 5.5
Marvelous Nakamba came on to replace a tired John McGinn, but he didn’t really add anything to Villa’s cause other than saving the Scotsman’s tired legs. When Villa need to get the ball moving quickly up the pitch in attack, whenever it gets to Nakamba, the pace slows down.
Dean Smith – 4.5
This was the game Villa needed to be targeting to win, and they only just scraped a draw. Defensive mistakes are still happening and it doesn’t look like the Villa boys could ever score from open play. Once the wingers had been withdrawn and a striker added, Villa looked a much more cohesive unit. Though this was when Newcastle were sat back defending, playing two strikers is a risk worth taking, even against the tough upcoming opposition.
A lot has to be said for the duff hand Smith has been given this season by Jesus Pitarch, the Sporting Director. Opting for cheap signings like Trezeguet instead of Benrahma, and signing a striker in Wesley that had always played in a front two, to play as a lone striker. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is a miracle that Villa are still in the mix with seven games to go, having not won in their last seven league games, but they are. There is little point in sacking Smith now, and while Villa are still within touching distance of safety there is a faint glimmer of hope.
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