Work still to do
Newcastle may have broken a miserable run at home that stretches back to Boxing Day but there's still real work to be done at St James' Park. Loic Remy's late winner against Aston Villa will provide temporary cheer but Alan Pardew will be aware it was far from a vintage display
By Alex Dunn - @skysportsaldunn
Last Updated: 24/02/14 8:25am
In the 91st minute of a contest that will be forgotten before the end of the day Alan Pardew wore the expression of a man bracing himself for the haunting sound of no hands clapping. A run without a home goal at St James' Park that stretched all the way back to Boxing Day looked all set to be extended as Aston Villa's stoical if somewhat unadventurous approach appeared to have nullified Newcastle's bluntest of blunt attacks.
Cometh the (seven-and-a-half) hour (without a goal), cometh the man as Loic Remy sold Ron Vlaar a dummy after the ball fortuitously broke into his path before lashing past Brad Guzan. Shirts were disrobed and fists triumphantly pumped as Pardew and a beleaguered home crowd celebrated a first goal since Yohan Cabaye packed his bags for Paris.
It's been a remarkably lean spell for a side who up until the turn of the year had aspirations of a top-six finish and whilst Pardew will point to a final ten minutes of knocking at the door as proof his side were worthy of the spoils, Villa counterpart Paul Lambert will feel that for the most part his players more than achieved their pre-match instruction of getting the home crowd 'grumbling'. Opta inform us that for eighty minutes the sound of yawning topped their audible charts, but grumbles were most definitely present too.
And yet, such is the capricious nature of the Premier League this season Newcastle are now just five points shy of Manchester United and Everton. They've the healthiest spreadsheets too.
The return of the influential Fabricio Coloccini and Cheick Tiote from injury and Remy from suspension was key, but it was also interesting to note Pardew went with local lad Paul Dummett over Italy international Davide Santon. Steven Taylor, Sammy Ameobi and Luuk de Jong also made way following the 4-0 hammering by Tottenham.
Lambert made just two changes to the side which drew 0-0 at Cardiff last time out with Karim El Ahmadi and Andreas Weimann coming in for Joe Bennett and Marc Albrighton.
Story of the game
It wasn't quite Groundhog Day at St James' but had the Sky Sports cameras panned to the dugouts at any point and picked out Bill Murray in a Newcastle tracksuit barely an eyebrow would have been raised. Hangdog expressions all round then, at least until the 92nd minute.
Certainly by the time the fourth official had indicated there would be three minutes stoppage time added to an insipid first period, large swathes of the home crowd had already departed their seats in the pursuit of pies, drinks and prescription drugs.
For ten minutes, in both halves, it had looked as though the home side may just have woken from the nightmarish stupor that has seen Pardew's side break the type of records that wouldn't get you excitedly searching the phone book for Roy Castle. If they can sort out the 70 minutes in the middle they may just be on to something.
Remy's return at least offers a touch of élan and when he forked off out wide looking to cut in, Newcastle had their moments. A first minute stab for goal and some early link-up play with the hapless Papiss Cisse was cause for optimism but the narrowness of their system and formulaic, laboured avenues of attack were quickly worked out and nullified by Villa.
In the first half, Newcastle's use of inverted wingers when allied to Villa's diamond system made for a congested middle third, as the home side never once managed to reach the byline as crosses were routinely swung in from deep. Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko managed just a solitary cross between them, with Dummett responsible for six and a game high 13 in total from left-back. Willing as he was, nervy drifted balls in from midway in Villa's half are food and drink for Vlaar. Few would dispute, at this stage, that Santon is the superior of the two.
Newcastle's only genuine chance of note in the opening sparring saw Cisse scoop widely over from six yards from Remy's cross. It is now 22 games and counting without a goal from open play for the Senegalese.
To be fair to Villa it is not some strange quirk of fortune that has seen them pick up a Premier League high of 61 per cent of their points away from home. In a pre-match explanation of his decision to sacrifice width as El Ahmadi was preferred to Albrighton, Lambert spoke of his desire to ape the formation that Liverpool struggled to work out last month at Anfield.
In the Sky Sports studio Jamie Carragher argued it was job done for 45 minutes: "Aston Villa's system has flummoxed Newcastle. They're not quite sure what to do. A lot of the Newcastle players can't work out who they're supposed to be picking up."
Villa remain the quintessential work in progress, unless they spend significantly at some point it could prove to be a perpetual work in progress, but there's a neatness to the way they move the ball on the counter and whilst they were narrow throughout, there is a certain fluidity in the way midfield and forward players are comfortable in switching positions.
It's a measure of Ashley Westwood's progress of late and growing influence that he made more passes and won a higher percentage of duels (75 per cent from eight) than any of his team-mates, despite only being on the field for an hour - when injury intervened. He made 29 of his 42 passes in Newcastle's half in a performance that belies the accusation he simply sits at the base of Villa's midfield playing safe. That Niall Quinn's Man of the Match spent a third of the game sat down says a lot. It was, as Quinn pointed out, only when Westwood left the field that Newcastle turned the screw. His replacement Yacouba Sylla will have better days; though few worse.
The graphic below demonstrates how El Ahmadi (8), Weimann (10), Gabriel Agbonlahor (11) and Christian Benteke (20) all occupied similar central spaces and while they lacked the subtlety needed to break Newcastle down in the final third, repeated runs from deep did cause the home side problems.
Indeed, Newcastle were overrun in the middle third to such an extent that midway through the first half Pardew was forced to pull Cisse back into a wide right role, to leave Remy as a lone front man in a 4-5-1 formation to combat Villa's middle three.
Agbonlahor forced a decent stop from Tim Krul and dipped one just over the top of the Dutchman's bar, while two decent deliveries from El Ahmadi down the right would have been ideal for Benteke - last season. The Belgian remains shy of both form and confidence, with the Premier League tracking tool logging that he put in just 22 sprints, in comparison to Remy's 43. Newcastle's Frenchman was also his side's most industrious runner in covering 11.10km over 90 minutes (Benteke lagged on 9.04km in comparison). That Benteke managed not a solitary effort on goal is cause for further head scratching on Lambert's part.
Newcastle supporters are unlikely to be convinced the corner has been turned on the back of a late flurry that saw Remy strike the base of the post after some kamikaze defending on the part of Vlaar and, of course, bag a winner, but there will be a modicum of satisfaction gleaned from the fact they fought to the death.
It's slim pickings in truth, given Villa were at least partly responsible for their own downfall as they retreated further back as the game progressed, despite it being a contest that with a modicum of adventure was definitely winnable.
A trope throughout Villa's campaign has been a seeming acceptance that just to be in games is enough and with Lambert's side now having won just one of their last eight, it's a mindset that needs addressing.
Newcastle without Cabaye is a city without its cathedral. There's definitely talent for Pardew to work with but without a focal point, an anchor, they've become a side in transition. Leaders are desperately needed and in Pardew's defence, Sunday's return of Tiote, Coloccini and Remy provided a spine to his team that has been sorely missed. They were severely lacking going forward but at the back, at least, were protected well by Tiote's belligerent presence and Coloccini's learned experience.
Remy has the quality to step up to talismanic status but too often against a well organised but limited Villa side he was a sole source of invention. Whether he'll even be at Newcastle next season is far from certain and if he takes the view of Cabaye, that life on Tyneside is a stepping stone to better things, a serious rebuild could be on the cards over the summer.
Pardew knows all this, but convincing Mike Ashley that pushing the club forward can't be achieved on the cheap may yet prove to be his toughest challenge yet.
It was a very, very important goal because, although we have 40 points and are only five off Everton, who are meant to be having the season of seasons, in the scheme of the last few games it was an important win. The one class player on the pitch was Loic and, although we worked with diligence and showed what we have done in training, it was a bit of quality that won it.
I don't think we deserved to lose it. I think, especially in the first half, we created chance after chance and looked really threatening. In the second half I didn't think anybody was going to score, albeit Newcastle had a bit of pressure, but it was a defensive error that got punished. I thought a draw was probably fair.