While the amount of effort shown by Paul Lambert’s team cannot be disputed, the Aston Villa defence proved fragile and it was two moments of hesitancy which condemned them to a third straight Premier League defeat, this time against a Newcastle United side who made a mockery of the supposed discontent on Tyneside with a stylish display.
Again Villa showed plenty of promise in the final third, with much of the good play coming down the left flank – particularly when Andreas Weimann supplied a fine cross for Gabriel Agbonlahor in the second-half, only for the chance to be missed. But Newcastle, led by the impressive Hatem Ben Arfa, exposed the weaknesses in defence that have been seen too regularly under Lambert.
The Frenchman was on hand to convert a simple chance in the first-half, but the goal was easily avoidable. Karim El Ahmadi lost the ball cheaply in his own defensive third and the cross that eventually came in was met with indecision by a panicky Villa defence, lacking in basic organisation.
Villa looked to have the momentum in their favour when Christian Benteke headed in a perfectly weighted corner from the right, just seconds after new signing Libor Kozak came on for his debut. However, the goal proved to be a false dawn, as Newcastle soon retook control of the game.
Crucially for Villa, it was clearly apparent that they had not done their homework on the skilful Ben Arfa. Just as he did for his winning goal against Fulham, he cut inside and was always going to pull the trigger, as the defence committed the cardinal sin of backing off. Despite Brad Guzan making the save, Yoan Gouffran scored from the rebound, reacting quicker to the loose ball than Matthew Lowton, who could only look on, flat-footed.
And thus, the game was lost, and undoubtedly Lambert will be immensely frustrated by the manner of the two goals conceded. The Villa defence continues to be hindrance, with this the 26th consecutive Premier League match without a clean sheet, meaning that there is too much pressure on the forward players to produce the goods.
In his attempts to end that terrible run Lambert has tried several combinations in central defence, with captain Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, Jores Okore, Ciaran Clark, and Chris Herd all given a chance, but to no avail. That Guzan was the club’s Player of the Season for 2012-13, despite conceding the third highest number of goals in the Premier League spoke volumes about the issues at the back.
Despite that, there is an argument that the defence is not completely at fault as Lambert’s system leaves them vulnerable. With three in central midfield, and a three-pronged attack, the full-backs are given very little protection, with Agbonlahor and Weimann unlikely to get back and provide some cover. Perhaps changing to a more conventional 4-4-2 would allow for more solidity.
It cannot be denied that Villa are an exciting team to watch. They can go a long way, but at the moment, the problems in defence are holding them back, and clean sheets are badly needed to ease the pressure on the forward line.
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