Alex Keble breaks down the tactical battle between Newcastle and Villa and explains why we could be in for a thriller…
Not long ago the prospect of Newcastle United v Aston Villa on TV would be a good excuse to do something else with your Sunday, but the arrival of Steven Gerrard at Villa, coupled with a new commitment to bolder football at Newcastle under Eddie Howe, makes this appointment television. Their respective midweek games ended 3-3 and 3-1, with a total of 61 shots between the two matches. That bodes well for a thriller at St James Park on Sunday.
Newcastle’s victory over Everton was a tactical one first and foremost as Howe accurately predicted that Frank Lampard would bring across the same flaws that defined his Chelsea team. His desire to play neatly and constantly out from the back made them vulnerable to a hard press, while the improvisational shape of Everton’s attacks ensured Newcastle could counter-attack quickly after the ball was won.
Villa aren’t as vulnerable, at least not in the same ways, although Howe is likely to continue with the same high-pressing system to capitalise on the good atmosphere around St James Park now the football is more aggressive, more lively. That should lure Villa into an end-to-end game, such is Gerrard’s desire to play in sharp vertical lines; as soon as one attack breaks down, another will start.
The most important battle is probably in the middle of the park. Newcastle’s 4-3-3 sees Joe Willock and Joelinton push on as box-to-box midfielders, who essentially man-marked Andre Gomes and Allan in midweek to shut down Everton’s passing moves and force their opponents to concede possession in dangerous areas – which led directly to two goals.
Villa, then, must work hard to avoid a similar fate. Douglas Luiz has been known to be a bit sloppy in these positions with his back to goal, while John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey are expected to turn on the ball and drive forward. A lot will rest on whether the Villa midfield can evade the pressure from their opposite numbers, opening up the pitch to Newcastle’s leaky defence, or whether the hosts will be as successful as they were against Everton.
Either way, it suggests an open game with plenty of chances, because the last thing that will happen is the two midfields shutting each other down. Both managers are too committed to attacking football for that.
Aside from the midfield battle, Villa’s greatest threat is Ramsey ghosting into dangerous positions as he makes one of his brilliant forward runs, the 20-year-old benefitting from Villa’s dual No.10s distracting the opposition. Philippe Coutinho was superb for 25 minutes against Leeds and another cameo like that should, with Ramsey in support, cause all sorts of problems through a Newcastle central midfield and central defence that is not at Premier League standard.
Jonjo Shelvey is not a defensive midfielder but will be the deepest player here, expected to somehow deal with Emiliano Buendia, Coutinho, and Ramsey when Villa break. It ought to give the visitors plenty of chances to score.
However, Newcastle also pose a significant threat, particularly through Allan Saint-Maximin on the left. Villa’s Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1 can be too narrow, which was exactly the problem against Leeds. Marcelo Bielsa’s side could easily attack directly down the vacated flanks where Villa only had their full-backs – often caught ahead of the play – to defend the entire wings. Saint-Maximin should be able to cause damage behind Matty Cash.
Worse still for Villa, Chris Wood is still awaiting his first Newcastle goal and will be relishing his head-to-head with Tyrone Mings, who was partially at fault for all three of Leeds United’s goals in midweek. Mings is a confidence player and his errors tend to come in flurries, suggesting he is vulnerable to Woods’ aerial prowess should Saint-Maximin carve out opportunities to cross into the box. Ezri Konsa’s suspension only complicates things further for the visitors.
Villa’s strikers are equally out of form and there is some suggestion that Ollie Watkins will be dropped for Danny Ings, who hasn’t found his feet this season. In an end-to-end game, he stands a decent chance of netting his fifth goal of the campaign and first since the beginning of January. The source is likely to be Cash, whose overlapping runs on the right will see him come up against the vulnerable Paul Dummett, back in the side due to Matt Targett being ineligible to play against his parent club.
In other words, those vacated wings could be used to Villa’s advantage just as much as Newcastle’s, and certainly it suggests we will see attacks swing from one end to the other. However, on balance there is an emerging sense of order at Newcastle, led most notably by Kieran Trippier, that points to the home side – undefeated in four – finding some control in this game before Gerrard’s side can.