The pressure on Steve Bruce grew heavier with this emphatic defeat to his former club, who swaggered back into the top half of the table thanks to goals by Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traoré. Newcastle have not won for eight league matches and although they are seven points above 18th place, they are far from safe from relegation. Bruce’s position looks even more precarious.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, climbed to eighth, with two matches in hand over most of the teams above them. On the pitch and off, buoyant Villa stand as almost a perfect contrast to Newcastle.
Dean Smith watched from the naughty step in the stands after his red card for protesting too stridently during Wednesday’s defeat at Manchester City, but there was no doubt that Bruce came into this game as the manager most in trouble. Even he has taken to lambasting his team recently and although he insisted this week that he has done as good a job at Newcastle as his “mighty” predecessor, calls for him to be replaced intensified following news that Rafa Benítez may be available again after leaving his post in the Chinese Super League because of the pandemic.
The good news for Bruce was that he was able to include Newcastle’s most creative player for the first time in more than two months, Allan Saint-Maximin having recovered from coronavirus. The Frenchman began on the bench, while Bruce made four alterations to the lineup that started Monday’s anaemic 3-0 defeat to Arsenal.
Smith’s only personnel change was in the centre, where Marvelous Nakamba replaced the suspended John McGinn.
Supporters’ most bitter gripe against Bruce is not so much that he errs on the side of caution but rather that he digs himself in there, but at Villa Park his team made an enterprising start, with their wing-backs committed to attack. The visitors even worked the first shooting opportunity, but Miguel Almirón’s piffling effort from 20 yards did nothing to suggest the talented Paraguayan was about to banish frustration with his chronically weak finishing. Emi Martínez made an easy save.
Karl Darlow made an equally straightforward stop to foil Matt Targett two minutes later after a Villa corner came to the full-back at the edge of the area. Targett threatened in more familiar fashion in the 10th minute, when he ran on to a pass down the left wing and served a delicious cross that Watkins just failed to reach. Newcastle ignored the warning. Soon came the punishment.
Targett combined with Grealish down the left before curling over another cross towards Watkins. Fabian Schär tried to intercept but succeeded only in looping the ball into air with a touch that made any offside appeal moot. Watkins reacted faster than Darlow, who seemed unsure as to whether he could use his hands to claim what might have been construed as a back pass. The striker had no doubt what to do and duly nodded into the net from close range for his seventh league goal of his first season in the top flight.
Newcastle remained slow-witted for the next few minutes and almost fell further behind when Ross Barkley sent a header just wide from a free-kick.
Then Newcastle perked up for a bit. Andy Carroll steered a diving header wide after a pair of excellent passes by Schär and Javier Manquillo. Carroll caused havoc from another cross by Manquillo moments later but Martinez tidied up after a fumble.
Newcastle’s mini-uprising was soon put down. Traoré made it 2-0 before the break. After a corner by Jack Grealish was half-cleared, Grealish regained possession and played a low pass into the path of Traoré, who ran on to it and guided a lovely shot in off the underside of the crossbar from 16 yards.
Villa, by now dominant, nearly made it 3-0 early in the second half, with Watkins denied by Darlow before Douglas Luiz shanked wide. Newcastle’s defenders were again conspicuous by their confusion. Going forward, Villa continued to radiate energy and invention, whereas Newcastle looked increasingly limited.
Bruce cast on Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser with 20 minutes to go. Fraser had a chance to make an instant impact after being put through by Almirón, but the ever-reliable Ezri Konsa got back to block his shot. Martínez went through the whole second half without making a save.