Paul Lambert’s Villa upgrade looked worryingly like another ticket for a season of turbulence on Saturday.
Villa were largely outplayed by Newcastle and, one month and four games on from their headline-making opening day at the Emirates, it’s all starting to look a little familiar for a disappointed Villa Park.
Lambert has enjoyed just five home wins since taking over at Villa and they’ve hardly come against Premier League royalty – relegated Reading and QPR were beaten last season along with strugglers West Ham and Sunderland.
His first Villa Park success, over Swansea during the early weeks of Michael Laudrup’s regime, came exactly a year ago but Saturday’s setback by Newcastle left Villa a long way short of suggesting any significant advances have been made.
Still the team struggles to control the rhythm and tempo of games; still they appear much happier as a counter-attacking force relying hugely on an undoubtedly pacy and powerful front three.
But it’s a one-dimensional, not to say predictable, package and Newcastle were more than a match for it as they produced on the pitch the kind of cohesion and harmony which eludes the club off it.
No Villa supporter will be surprised to learn that it is in midfield where the team continues to look lightweight and lacking in presence. Hatem Ben Arfa’s eye-catching creativity stole the headlines but it was Moussa Sissoko’s power and drive which so overwhelmed Villa, bringing dominance for Newcastle in the all-important midfield battleground. In contrast Ashley Westwood and, particularly, Karim El Ahmadi looked lightweight and pedestrian.
Newcastle dominated the flow of the game, save for Villa’s best spell at the start of the second half, and deserved a victory which came despite Lambert’s men briefly revitalising their performance with a Christian Benteke equaliser to Ben Arfa’s opener.
It left the home support wondering when they will again see their side deliver a grandstand performance amid the company Villa used to keep because, based on this struggle, the next two Premier League home games against Spurs and Manchester City do not appear rich with potential.
At the moment, Lambert is starting only two of his seven summer signings, an entirely judicious process of assimilation for so many newcomers. Central defender Jonas Okore lasted barely half an hour before retiring with injury although not before two flaky passes loaded with jeopardy as Newcastle pounced on their inaccuracy.
Left-back Antonio Luna is also finding out about the physical intensity of English football. He took a terrible clattering off Mathieu Debuchy in the second half and was calling for treatment.
But with Villa at that point enjoying their best momentum of the game, Westwood could be seen urging the Italian to “get up and get on with it” in an effort to keep the pressure on Newcastle.
How much difference Lambert’s other new faces can make is for the months ahead to answer, but until the team can bring some authority and composure to their possession the worry must be Villa are in for another season of “Benteke or bust.”
The Belgium international, starved of a consistent supply with which to demonstrate his powers, had been a virtual by-stander throughout a first half in which it took Villa 41 minutes to register a meaningful strike at goal, a difficult far-post half-chance by Okore’s replacement Ciaran Clark which he placed wide.
Fabian Delph’s occasional bursts from deep were an infrequent highlight but it was Newcastle who drove the game, taking advantage of some weak defending by El Ahmadi and Matthew Lowton down Villa’s right to strike in the 18th minute as Loic Remy cut through much too easily.
For all the profusion of fresh faces under Lambert, some things at Villa never change and a second-half assault towards the Holte can always be expected to prod the team into life. It might have borne more fruit than the 67th minute Benteke equaliser, a direct header from Westwood’s corner, because Luna and Gabby Agbonlahor had already squandered openings having being played clear by Delph and Andreas Weimann respectively.
Agbonlahor’s miss was particularly disbelieving – a glaring close-range chance placed wide by his weaker left foot – and did nothing to support Stan Collymore’s assertion in the matchday programme that England once again beckoned for Villa’s long-serving forward. But although Lambert threw on Libor Kozak to try to further de-stabilise Newcastle, it was the visitors who regained control for Yoan Gouffran to calmly supply the winner eight minutes later.
It’s all too easy to poke fun at Newcastle’s enduring ability to shoot themselves in the foot as the ‘Joke Kinnear’ banners their supporters held aloft confirmed. But there were precious few laughs at Villa after a performance that renewed the doubts about the pedigree of Lambert’s men.
By Martin Swain