BIRMINGHAM — One defeat ought to do little to check Aston Villa’s momentum, even a 3-1 defeat that marks the end to an 11-month undefeated Premier League streak at Villa Park, unusually quelled even before Fabian Schar’s double broke the hosts’ resolve.
Tottenham lurk in their rearview mirror, primed to claim fourth with a win over Brentford on Wednesday. Put a run together and West Ham, maybe even Chelsea and Manchester United might find themselves in the mix. Still, there is the quality across Unai Emery’s side to suggest that they can stay the course in the battle for Champions League qualification; prior to Tuesday’s game, they sat fifth in expected goal difference with a 12-point cushion over the side ahead of them on that particular metric, Chelsea.
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It does, however, offer Emery a lengthy list of matters to resolve if this side has serious aspirations of a first season in the European Cup since the one after they won the thing. The much-vaunted high line, one missing the authoritative Pau Torres, was all too easily penetrated by Newcastle’s sweeping passes from the right channel, unlocking the pace of Anthony Gordon. Having a rejuvenated Kieran Trippier certainly helps and trying to beat the offside trap from wide seemed a shrewd move from Eddie Howe, probing the weak point in a Villa midfield four that tend to drift inside.
Equally Villa’s line held out so well against Manchester City two months ago because of the ferocious pressure that they applied to the ball. It is all well and good to know there is space to attack in behind but if you have John McGinn or Boubacar Kamara charging at you. On Tuesday night, that aggression was nowhere to be seen off the ball and Bruno Guimaraes could simply glide through the center of the pitch.
Ultimately it was not the open play work that really cost Villa but instead a string of sloppily defended dead balls that had set piece coach Austin MacPhee going berserk on the touchline. Schar had two players draped on his back when Trippier’s free kick dropped at his feet in the 33rd minute but none between him and the ball, the Swiss center back poking beyond Emiliano Martinez.
Within four minutes he was on a hat trick. Villa had no one in place at the edge of the box to close down Gordon when a corner broke loose — the visitors would consistently place one or two bodies 20 yards from goal without any sign that Villa were reacting — and his shot deflected wickedly so that Martinez did well to palm it onto the bar. Might someone in claret and blue have got to the rebound before Schar? If they had this game might well have been within reach of a Villa side who fought back manfully once Emery turned to the bench in the second half, Jacob Murphy having turned in Miguel Almiron’s cross at the back post to give the Magpies an 8-1 aggregate lead across the two meetings between these sides this season.
Instead, Villa find themselves with the league’s 19th-best record for defending set pieces, nine goals conceded, five of which have come in the afterglow of their stunning wins over last season’s top two. From Keane Lewis-Potter’s poacher’s effort to the flick-on and finish Burnley got on Dec. 30, none are particularly impressive feats of dead ball engineering from opponents, merely sloppy errors that Champions League aspirants should have stamped out long ago.
Emery will hope that he does not have to add Ollie Watkins to his list of worries. The England international’s deft flick off a Leon Bailey cross briefly sparked hopes of an unlikely comeback that might extend the unbeaten streak to 18 games. The scorer himself clearly believed it was on, clipping over Martin Dubravka moments later only to be adjudged offside by VAR. He might have ended the game with just one but Watkins really needed just his second goal in his last 10 games.
After his explosive start to the season, the 28-year-old had slipped into a pretty noticeable slump of late. His first 14 games of the season had brought an average of 0.6 non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes. The last eight saw that crater to 0.2. For an hour it looked like the dry run would continue, Watkins not even getting a shot away until he drilled one right at Schar, no less vital to Newcastle’s win in his own box as he was in Villa’s.
Villa’s great problem tonight was their insistence on forcing moves to a clearly struggling Watkins, shackled well by Schar and Sven Botman until this game was all but won. Moussa Diaby in particular would turn his nose up at shooting chances in a bid to force the ball to his No. 11. Not until Bailey brought leading man energy off the bench did Villa have anyone else to pose a secondary threat to the visiting backline. It is no wonder a striker such as Watkins is so talismanic for Villa. When he finds his form he is a true all-round test, as capable of blowing by a defender on the dribble as beating them in the air. But if quelling him can so hinder Villa then plenty of others will look to ape Newcastle.
That might be easier said than done. In picking holes in Villa it is worth noting that this particular iteration of Newcastle looked more like last season’s fourth-placed side than the one who has slipped to midtable amid a raft of injuries. Even they only seem to ease momentarily, Alexander Isak limping out in the first half just as he had been warming up to this contest. The side of December and early January might have been blown off course, this ode to 2022-23 Newcastle responded with altogether more steel. Authoritative and organized in defense, explosive in transition: you could see how this side got into the Champions League in the first place.
In that sense, they might just serve as the benchmark for Villa. Emery’s men might look a long way from it now but it is not so long ago that they were backflipping over it on a weekly basis. A few tweaks and there is nothing stopping this team holding firm in the Champions League race.