Much noise was made last season about Paul Lambert’s tendency to adapt his tactics depending on the opposition. His modest Norwich side finished the season effectively tied 10th, with this ‘chameleon’ approach claiming wins over Tottenham, Villa, Swansea (twice) and Newcastle.
Lambert has carried this style over to his new club Aston Villa and against Newcastle he set out his side in a manner to minimise Newcastle’s biggest threats. Villa started with a narrow midfield diamond, new signing El Ahmadi anchoring, Bannan and Holman playing as wide midfielders further forward, and Ireland in the attacking midfield role.
Lambert clearly took notice of the strategy deployed by Spurs in Newcastle’s opening fixture – with Sigurðsson dropping into midfield to cram the space for Cabaye and Tiote, Newcastle struggled in the first half to create good possession. In that game, Pardew switched to a 3 man midfield at half time and the change led to much better triangles being created in the middle. The Villa midfielders task was clear – stay narrow and press aggressively when Newcastle played in the middle third. This aggression led to a count of 21 fouls by Villa (and 4 yellow cards), the majority being on Gutierrez whose ability to win free kicks remains unparalleled in the Premier League. Ben Arfa and Gutierrez are both inclined to drift infield from wide positions (see Michael Cox’s report of Newcastle v Tottenham) and this played right into Lambert’s diamond setup.
Danny Simpson’s injury just before halftime brought a tactical change from the reactionary Pardew.
Anita shifted to right back displaying his useful versatility (that is covered here) and Gael Bigirimana, an 18-year-old summer signing from Coventry came into the midfield anchor role. Cabaye and Gutierrez became wide midfielders ahead and Ben Arfa shifted centrally to match Villa’s diamond with Newcastle’s own.
2 mirrored diamond formations leads to lots of space down the wings for fullbacks. Santon and Simpson often had 30/40 yards of clear ground ahead of them during the time it took for Villa’s wide midfielders to shift wide to track them. Therefore, on a day when wide service became more important it was the story of Newcastle’s poor crossing that proved pivotal. 11 of Newcastle’s 36 attempted crosses were successful – an indication of the need for improvement in wide play. Ironic then, that the Aston Villa goal came via a set piece and an attack from a wide position. Awful marking and a numerical advantage in the box led to Ciaran Clark’s headed goal.
A talking point before the game was the inclusion of Brad Guzan ahead of Shay Given (against his former club). Guzan is taller and better at dealing with crosses than Given and vindicated Lambert’s decision to select him by having an excellent game, making a number of assured catches.
Aston Villa also dealt with the threat of in-form Ben Arfa well (despite his goal) by doubling up on him and showing him inside whenever possible.
Bannan’s workrate helped prevent Lichaj getting into vulnerable 1v1 situations. His goal illustrated that, defensively, despite doing everything to prevent them playing to their strengths, certain players will produce moments you simply cannot anticipate (Ben Arfa’s thunderbolt was with his rarely used right foot).
Positives for Newcastle would be the performances of Anita (especially after switching to right back) and Bigirimana. Both made excellent stops to prevent clear goalscoring opportunites for Darren Bent. Anita’s ability and confidence to play first time passes bodes well for a league which does not allow player’s any time. Bigirimana continues to impress after his solid Europa league performance and looks be a bigger part of Pardew’s plans for the season than most originally thought. Coloccini remains Newcastle’s best covering defender since Jonathan Woodgate and had another good game here. However, Newcastle’s lack of alternative forward options is a concern as well as their poor delivery from crosses in open play and set pieces on Sunday (Pardew visibly frustrated and commented on ‘discipline‘ after the game).
For Villa, the underrated Barry Bannan had another good game (comfortably switching to holding midfield later on in the game), Gabriel Agbonlahor returned from a worrying pre-season injury and the centre back partnership of Ciaran Clark and Ron Vlaar looked well-balanced.
Pardew on Anita: “We brought Vurnon in purely because he is so versatile. He went to right-back, he’s comfortable there, he got two great headers and some of his forward passing took us up another notch.”
Pardew on Bigirimana: “He’s 18, it’s his first top-flight game, we weren’t playing well, I took a gamble. But he’s paid me back because he was as good as anybody on the pitch.”
Pardew on set pieces: “The set-plays were awful, the delivery – we hit the first man five times. That’s why for a coach, it was frustrating. We were really frustrated that we weren’t hitting the areas. We are not brilliant at corners – our record suggests we haven’t got great assets to score from corners. (Mike) Williamson has never scored since he has been here; Steven (Taylor) has only got two or three; Colo hasn’t got many goals. We are not proficient, and maybe we have to re-think about how we are going to score from set-plays.”
With 4 games in 9 days coming up for Newcastle, including away trips to Everton, Portugal in the Europa League and Manchester United, this result will clearly be looked back on in regret for Newcastle. Conversely, it will lead to renewed optimism for Aston Villa’s season.
Analysis of other Premier League games this weekend here.