Aston Villa returned to winning ways in the Premier League, beating Newcastle United 2-0 on Monday night.
Conor Hourihane and Anwar El Ghazi scored the goals in the first half, separated by five minutes, as Villa capitalised on poor Newcastle defending.
But who were the key winners and losers?
Winner: Conor Hourihane
Having been such an important player for Aston Villa in the Championship, Hourihane hasn’t had the best start to life in the Premier League.
In Villa’s opening 12 games, Hourihane had made seven appearances, only four of which had come from the start. The past three games saw Hourihane accumulate just 17 minutes on the pitch and he was an unused substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Wolves prior to the international break.
But on Monday night the Irishman was handed his fifth league start and he made sure to show Dean Smith what he can do.
32': Conor Hourihane scores from a set-piece
37': Conor Hourihane assists from a set-piece
That left foot is a weapon. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/uWvcv0KPVh
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) November 25, 2019
While Jack Grealish ran the show from open play, Hourihane was a danger from set pieces and it was no surprise when he opened the scoring just after the half-hour mark. In a slightly wide position just outside the area, Hourihane curled the ball around the wall beautifully – with help from a neat one-two with Grealish – beating Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal.
Less than five minutes later he was involved again with a free-kick in a similar position, but this time his cross into the box evaded everyone except El Ghazi who was on hand to double Villa’s lead from close range. While fingers will be rightly pointed at Newcastle’s defence, this should not take anything away from the teasing nature of Hourihane’s cross.
Loser: Steve Bruce
It must be tough returning to a former club, especially when things didn’t exactly end well. Shortly before Steve Bruce was sacked by Villa in October 2018, a fan had thrown a cabbage at the former Manchester United – the peak of a big fallout between manager and support.
Bruce had already faced Villa prior to Monday’s match, while manager of Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, but this was his first return to Villa Park since his departure.
And it was one he’ll want to forget. Newcastle were a disaster on Monday night, not really looking like a cohesive unit. Having one unpredictable player in your XI can be brilliant, but when every player seems to be unsure about what their teammates will do next, it’s a problem.
When Newcastle went forward, they didn’t look like hurting Villa and at the back they had no idea how to defend. Both of Villa’s goals, as good as they were, came from Newcastle mistakes – needless fouls in dangerous areas on the edge of the box. What DeAndre Yedlin was thinking when he pushed Grealish, we’ll never know.
And that opening goal only caused Newcastle to unravel, allowing more mistakes to slip in, including the disastrous defending for El Ghazi’s strike. Bruce has now lost three of his last four games in all competitions against sides he’s previously managed and Newcastle’s mini revival is over.
Winner: Jack Grealish
Another player back in the Villa team, Grealish had missed the defeats to Liverpool and Wolves prior to the international break through injury and Smith’s side sorely missed his talent.
Against Newcastle on Monday night Grealish was unplayable, barely giving the Magpies defence a moment’s rest. Starting on the wing alongside Wesley and El Ghazi, Grealish very rarely stuck to his position, sometimes moving more central and at others dropping deeper to play a creative, holding role.
But wherever he was on the pitch, Grealish caused problems with his dribbling and slick passing. Unstoppable by legal means, Grealish won five fouls against Newcastle, more than any other player on the pitch. And two of those were vital.
Only Kevin De Bruyne (9) and Andy Robertson (5) have provided more Premier League assists than Jack Grealish this season (4).
Incredible vision. 😉 pic.twitter.com/63UdIhPXXp
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 25, 2019
The first came as he was racing into the Newcastle box, inviting a challenge from Yedlin with the American bringing Grealish down with a mixture of a push and tangling of legs. Grealish worked well with Hourihane on a neat free-kick routine, recording the easiest assist he will ever get, stopping the ball for the Irishman’s effort.
And just five minutes later, another run towards the area brought a foul from Federico Fernandez. Hourihane sent the resulting free-kick into the area and El Ghazi doubled Villa’s lead.
Even at 2-0 Grealish kept pushing, as any good captain would, this time trying to get a goal for himself. It didn’t come, but the English midfielder will undoubtedly be happy with his performance. An England call up on the cards next year?
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Loser: Miguel Almiron
When Newcastle broke their club record fee for the first time in 14 years to sign Miguel Almiron in January, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the £20m man.
Almiron had been part of the MLS team of the year for 2017 and 2018 and scored 13 goals to help Atlanta United with the MLS Cup. And he was showing signs of promise under Rafa Benitez, getting into decent positions though his end product left quite a bit to be desired.
But under Bruce, Almiron looks bereft of any confidence or ability – apart from his pace. And against Villa on Monday night, Almiron had one of those games, the kind of performance Newcastle fans have grown used to seeing from him. He created two chances but managed just one shot in the opening five minutes.
His game was summed up in the first half as he managed to keep pace with Allan Saint-Maximin in a quick Newcastle break, looking like he could give the away side the lead. But when the ball arrived at Almiron’s feet, he was unable to control a simple pass, allowing the Villa defence to recover.
Almiron was replaced by Christian Atsu just over 10 minutes to go, bringing an end to another frustrating night. There is surely a good player in there, but right now Almiron does not look like showing it.
Winner: Dean Smith
Going into Monday’s game, Villa were on a torrid run of form against Newcastle United. They had last beat the Magpies in April 2011, a 1-0 win coming at Villa Park. Since then, Newcastle had won six and there had been six draws.
Villa were also winless in their last six home league games against Newcastle, failing to score in the past two in the Premier League – both ending in 0-0 draws. Not to mention Villa’s current losing streak in the Premier League that stood at three.
Since the start of last season, Jack Grealish has won at least 50 more fouls in the league than any other Championship of Premier League player.
207 in total, one every 19.1 minutes on average. 🤕 pic.twitter.com/NJLcNrxhmT
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 25, 2019
But all that came to an end with a wonderful display from Villa. Manager Smith got his tactics perfect to exploit Newcastle’s weaknesses, deploying Grealish far up the pitch where he can mimic Liverpool’s front three without harming his defence.
As a result of the win, Villa have moved slightly further away from the relegation zone to 15th, four points ahead of Norwich in 18th. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a step in the right direction.
After 13 games in the Premier League, only Watford (8) have scored fewer goals than Newcastle’s 11. And on Monday’s showing it’s easy to see why.
Another of the club’s record signings, Newcastle spent £40m to bring Joelinton in from Hoffenheim on a six-year deal. But in 13 appearances, the Brazilian has managed one goal. Yes, it was a goal Newcastle fans will remember, sealing their 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in August, but it’s a terrible goal return considering the money spent – no matter how the rest of the team are performing.
Against Villa on Monday, Joelinton had a night to forget, really struggling to hurt the home defence. He had three shots in total but failed to hit the target once, having just 33 touches of the ball. The Brazilian did win five aerial duels, a tally bettered only by compatriot Wesley, but they were for nought as he failed to link up with his fellow attackers.
Joelinton was taken off with just under 20 minutes remaining and replaced by Dwight Gayle with Bruce favouring Andy Carroll as the target man – not a confidence-building call for the Brazilian, but one that can be agreed with.