So there I was; pen in hand, performance analyses tables drawn up – ready to dissect and detail the strengths and weaknesses of an attacking Aston Villa team at St. James’ Park… But sometimes, we don’t need facts and figures. Sometimes, we don’t need blind spots highlighted and it goes without saying that the pen and paper I was using were fired sorely in the bin quicker than Kevin MacDonald’s hopes of acquiring the permanent position disintegrated before his very eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to heap all the blame on our caretaker boss and he certainly didn’t get the rub of the green as big John still waits for the ball to return from orbit after his penalty shot, and Newcastle’s third goal from the corner curled about 2 feet behind the byline before entering the box (yet went bizarrely unnoticed on ESPN). But on his only test to date, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Scot failed – failed miserably.
What a ball from Stan, by the way, to unleash Ashley Young who rounded the goalkeeper before being swiped to the ground. Young, incidentally, still looked remarkably dangerous and truly thrived playing off the front man despite his team going 6 goals to the worse. But it now begs the answer of what we do with Stephen Ireland – who admittedly, had a very quiet debut, but certainly looks more assured and effortless than anyone playing in claret and blue for a long time.
Now, I don’t know who takes the blame for Carew’s appointment as penalty-taker: manager or player? Because as I seen him lift the ball to place it on the spot, I was immediately vocal and frustrated in my opposition to the Norwegian getting the nod. Yes, he has scored a few in his time – but each have been cowardly blasts down the middle of the goal, and I for one knew what was coming (of course no one could estimate the proportions of failure which we were about to witness). I’ve said it so many times before and I unfortunately have to say it yet again: If you are going to hit a penalty down the middle, don’t hit it at all. A penalty kick should be left to someone who has the confidence to put the ball where the keeper can’t get it, and not left to chance by a bottler looking to hammer it down the goalie’s throat.
I’m not annoyed at the ball being skied, it is the risk the kicker runs when shooting in such a saveable area which really gets my goat. And if I knew, after having zero dialogue with big J.C, that he was going for more of the same – then surely his day-to-day manager, Kevin MacDonald, could have spotted this as well and elected someone different. Similarly, it is also up to the set-piece taker to put his hands up and say that he has no intention of aiming for the ‘unsavable zone’, rather he is going to close his eyes, blast the ball as hard as he can, and leave the outcome to the uncertain hands of a lottery-esc fate. But naturally, a forward wants a chance at another mark in their stats tally so it should be up to the manager to assign the player best prepared to consistently put the ball in the corner of the net.
I’ve probably spoken at great length about one incident which ultimately seems irrelevant in the magnificently grand scheme of things in the Newcastle massacre; but had we converted our 12 yard golden opportunity, we may well have made use of our early dominance and confidence and produced another scintillating display for the second week running to collect 6 points from our opening two games for the first time in 11 years. But now, we will never know.
Instead, we allowed ourselves to be sucker punched just two minutes later and truthfully, we failed to ever really mentally recover from the drain of being one goal behind as opposed to be one up (we crumbled like we did at Stamford Bridge). And on that point: I’m all for the attraction of attacking football and I dream of seeing Villa play the beautiful game the way it should be played, but this should never serve to neglect the fundamental responsibility of defence. Yes, Barton’s goal was a bit of a piledriver but boy, did he have time to tee himself up. In fact, it was embarrassing that a top 6 club afforded an opponent so much time and space 20 yards from goal.
A lot of fans were angered at O’Neill’s uber-defensive mentality of piling 10 men behind the ball and from a football purist’s point of view, maybe we did over-commit to defending our goal throughout the MON era. However, the change in emphasis of our tactics should not grant a licence to our midfield to casually stroll back whenever they please. It should not permit the Villains to maraud forward with reckless abandon however they want. At times last year, it was annoying to see Downing and Young pinned back so far in their own half and the new lease of freedom for the wingers last Saturday at Villa Park was refreshing. But when I see Albrighton fail to track the attacking fullback for the Magpies’ second goal, when I see Dunne and Clark give-and-go as if they’re playing a 5-aside recreational game (leaving the heart of defence wide open for Carroll’s second), and when I consider the pressure mounted on Warnock all afternoon without backup, I was more disappointed thinking of how the players were taking the new regime for granted and that they expected an easy ride for the remaining 37 games.
Interestingly, at 3-0 down after 45 minutes, I wasn’t too downhearted. I recognised how things could have been different and I appreciated that we were still controlling large chunks of the game – unlike the past. And I viewed the half time break as MacDonald’s chance to shine. If he could muster a response from his side, if he could provide direction and concentration into an outfit which had clearly thrown in the towel, then Kevin could surely be the one for us. Unfortunately, the second half performance was much, much worse and the caretaker manager’s half time talked served only to ensure another 3 conceded goals against newly promoted Newcastle.
As a Villa fan, there is always an unpleasant wake up call around the corner as soon as you even begin to have the audacity to be confident. We were good against The Hammers, but I had questioned the role of MacDonald in that result and I think it’s also time to question the ability of West Ham.
Blinded by a good performance, Villa fans (including myself) had forgotten the drastic necessity of the club to spend in the transfer market this summer.
Just because we acquired Stephen Ireland (at the expense of Milner), it doesn’t excuse the need for a goalscoring forward. Just because we swapped a central midfielder for another, we are not suddenly devoid of the requirement to strengthen our wing options. Albrighton has definitely been a class act in the opening two games, but in matches like today, we can’t be looking to a 20 year old to pull us out of the gutter. And after losing Milner, our midfield was completely dominated by last year’s Championship winners and maybe Ireland should not be confined to the centre afterall – meaning our central midfield problem needs sorting and the decision to move Young to the wing or not is still up in the air. Perhaps against better teams, we will not have the luxury to give Ashley a free role and will need to play him on the flanks to accommodate the new signing but the requirement of a quality number 8 and the bonus of having an extra attacking option are matters in which I hope Randy and the boardroom will not ignore – and appoint a fulltime manager immediately to sort it out.
Finally, I often complained at Cuellar’s selection at right back last season – but my oh my, did Luke Young look lightweight throughout the St James’ drubbing. Too slow and unaware, and bullied too easily, I would deem the signature of a better right back extremely obligatory as well.
So the great ‘Kevolution’ has come to a massively premature, and horrific ending; but instead of dwelling on it and indeed on this disastrous result, Aston Villa needs to act swiftly, very swiftly, to ensure that this mortification will never, ever happen again.