Newcastle reminded us all during their thrashing of Villa that they deserve to be judged on their own merits rather than in the context of their rivals’ recruitment…
This week, during the height of predictions season, many have grouped Newcastle with Aston Villa among the mob most likely to threaten the Premier League’s established elite. And, if their opening day win over the Villans is any indication, the Magpies took that personally.
Given Newcastle have already bloodied the noses of the bigger boys by finishing in the top-four last term, it is understandable if Eddie Howe’s men are feeling affronted. They have significantly strengthened this summer, yet the consensus seems to be that they could struggle to maintain the standards they have already set.
That must be more of a reflection on the huge sums being spent elsewhere and how predictable the identity of the top six has been over the years, even if the order might vary. Because, judging from the evidence Newcastle laid out on matchday one, there should be no reasonable expectation of a Magpies’ descent.
They have certainly put Villa in their place. Optimism abounded at both St James’ Park and Villa Park before kick-off, but for Unai Emery’s side, this was a chilling reality check on an evening when almost everything went wrong.
Individual and collective errors; structural flaws; and cruel misfortune with injuries – it was a truly wretched start for Villa as Newcastle highlighted how much further along their journey they are compared to their visitors.
Of course they are. Howe and Newcastle have been travelling together from a similar starting point for much longer than Emery and Villa. But, for the visitors, this thumping defeat represented a U-turn more than a wrong turn.
Villa’s success last season was built on solid defensive foundations laid by Emery after his arrival back in November. “Defensively, we were very strong last year,” Emery told Sky Sports ahead of going to Tyneside. “We need to keep doing the same and then improve things with the ball.”
They did neither. Defensively, they were a shambles. Villa weren’t helped by the unfortunate loss of Tyrone Mings to a serious-looking knee injury, this being the second season in succession they have lost a key defender in the infancy of the campaign. But they had already been too-easily breached – twice – when Mings was taken off the pitch and away to hospital.
Emery tried a raft of changes, in shape and personnel, as Villa fruitlessly chased a way back into the game, which was effectively over when Ezri Konsa boobed to allow Alexander Isak his second and Newcastle’s third. The way Villa capitulated in the wake of going 3-1 down ought to make for a long, silent journey back to the Midlands. But it wasn’t just off the ball they floundered. In possession, they struggled to beat Newcastle’s press, and when they did, they failed to make the most of some promising opportunities.
Because Newcastle weren’t as watertight as we came to expect from last season. The first half hour was a dizzying affair, to-ing and fro-ing from end to end. It was brilliant fun until Mings’ misfortune seemed to take the wind out of the players and the crowd.
Only the hosts recovered anything like the same urgency and tempo, clawed back by Sandro Tonali, Joelinton and Bruno Guimaraes winning the midfield battle against Villa’s out-numbered central pair. Tonali seemed a step ahead of Boubacar Kamara – the Italian certainly was when he slipped his marker to become the Premier League’s fastest-scoring debutant – and Douglas Luiz struggled to lay a glove on either of his Brazilian compatriots.
xG map for Newcastle – Aston Villa
can’t be letting Newcastle get into transition like that pic.twitter.com/gNFsqrvF4p
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 12, 2023
The only concern for Newcastle was when Villa played through or over the middle three into a front pair, featuring debutant Moussa Diaby, that too often was allowed to get at the hosts’ back four. Howe identified the problem and fixed it, with Guimaraes screening his centre-backs rather better and Newcastle’s front line stopping Villa providing the service from deep.
Nothing Emery tried came off. The longer the game went, the more bereft his side became. There is unlikely to be undue alarm at Villa Park other than perhaps a rethink of their recruitment with an already stretched squad losing two key players within days of one another. But that, or the pretence of early-season rustiness, should not be used as an excuse for such a meek capitulation.
Hardly surprisingly for a side that so mirrors the mood of their public, Newcastle thrived while Villa were wilting and the visiting fans made for an early exit. Isak’s double fights for prominence among the many positives with debut goals for Tonali and Harvey Barnes that bookended a statement victory. The ease of the last half hour makes it dangerous to draw dramatic conclusions over the Magpies’ prospects. But it is fair to assume that Newcastle, with a unity and cohesiveness that many of their more fancied rivals are yet to demonstrate, feel unfairly judged.