Report: Villa frustrate but salvage draw against Newcastle. Time to scrutinise Di Matteo.

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Roberto Di Matteo surely breathed a sigh of relief, like the entire home support, when Aaron Tshibola headed in the equaliser at The Holte End.

For this was a game that Villa fought their way back in despite Di Matteo’s best efforts to add a fourth league defeat to a stuttering Championship campaign.  

There are growing and justified concerns about the Italian’s approach at Villa Park, and with a watchful owner he must urgently address what appears to be consistent tactical shortcomings.

Central to our scary performance appeared to be our dubious set-up, baffling selection of players for positions and a misreading of how Newcastle would approach the fixture.

The first half saw Villa adopt an awkward 3-5-2 formation.  

It’s a formation that when chosen with the right players can be effective [”It’s flawless, or it’s tragic.”], but given that new signing Albert Adomah was deployed in an untested wingback role & the unfamiliar three across the back, it was an unmitigated disaster. 

So disastrous that it nullified our previously potent attacking threat which has developed through the early season and also left us in defensive disarray repeatedly.

Newcastle enjoyed recurring success down either flank and the freedom of the middle third; Villa laboured, whilst Di Matteo sat either motionless in the dugout or hands in pocket on the touchline.  

Despite our glaring ineffectiveness, our manager cut an oblivious spectator as proceedings panned out in front of him.

Rafa Benitez, whilst certainly not above ridicule, was by contrast a visible presence for the Geordies.  Their control and organisation in the first half was clear for all to see and can be reasonably attributed to the Spaniard physically managing his side…

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Whilst at the outset of this piece The Villa Underground speculated that Di Matteo must have been relieved at fulltime, he must equally have been astonished we were only a single goal behind at the interval.

Twice rookie goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini came to the rescue, in arguably his best performance in a Villa shirt.

The first, during a period of indecisiveness (Shock-horror!) at the back, saw the 21 year old judge the situation well.  Opting not to wade into the melee of players, he positioned himself well to save when only a goal seemed plausible.

Soon after, Tommy Elphick, who possibly had one of the worst performances from a Villa player in recent memory, gifted the ball away 30 yards from goal.

Gollini again saved superbly, with the odds stacked firmly against him.

The opening goal was straightforward for the visitors, a dangerous, but defendable ball was fizzed across the box.  Elphick’s inexplicable attempts to clear the danger with the wrong foot ensured the former Bournmouth Captain turned the ball past the helpless Gollini.

It was a soft, preventable goal to concede, after a dismal period of play.

It really was a dreadful first half performance, which left one wondering what the second 45 might bring.

The second half, worryingly, started in a similar fashion.

Di Matteo opted to remove Baker to introduce Tshibola and attempt to redress the balance.  Any number of players could have been sacrificed, with Westwood, Bacuna, Jedinak & Elphick having absolute ‘mares.

Despite the change, Villa continued to struggle to establish a footing in the game.  As with most fixtures this season, it was difficult to determine what the plan was.  Indeed, was there a Plan A?  Let alone a Plan B?

For instance: Substituting Adomah, ordinarily a winger, totally wasted at wing back, to then introduce Rudy Gestede, who thrives off crosses?  The logic applied utterly baffles. 

The reason for considering this is that we witnessed, not for the first time this season, players taking it upon themselves to individually affect the outcome of the game.

It wasn’t a coordinated team effort.  It was the likes of Ayew, Gestede, Kodjia and Tshibola deciding to take the game to Newcastle in the absence of the manager setting us up to do so.

With this came Villa’s route back into the game; the individual determination the catalyst alone.

Where Newcastle previously had time, space and threat, they suddenly looked vulnerable.  Who would have guessed that Ciaran Clark may not be the best centre half in world football when pressed?

Finally Villa threw the kitchen sink at the visitors.

Ayew, a peripheral, frustrated figure for much of the game came to life.  Showing the type of trickery we see all too infrequently he ghosted amongst the Newcastle players, almost scoring a sublime goal after cutting across the penalty area, agonisingly striking the face of the post.

Jedinak, whose distribution was a real cause for concern all afternoon became a menace.  The tall Australian first had a headed goal disallowed for offside before wasting perhaps the best opportunity of the game late on, firing the ball beyond everyone when well placed to either shoot or show greater composure in the cross.

Tshibola, now pulling the strings in midfield as the game drew late, leaped highest from an Ayew corner, nodding beyond the poor Sels.  Tshibola’s late goal was at the very least reward for his efforts to drag Villa back into the contest.

It was therefore a strange feeling to deliver a hammer blow to a side after so many late goals conceded by ourselves already this term.

It certainly is a good point salvaged given how woeful we had been until around the 75th minute.

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Villa now go into games against Barnsley and Preston with an urgent need to put wins on the board.

Draws against Newcastle may not be undesirable when looking at singular games across our season, but it’s now time to build momentum.

This will only be achieved by harnessing the talents of the players whom have been recruited, but Di Matteo has to improve how he uses them.

Be it Adomah as wing-back against Newcastle, Kodjia being used out wide, anchoring Jedinak and the lack of settled positions for Amavi, Bacuna or our formation in general.  It’s not good enough.

The evidence is there that the firepower is recruited, our midfield has a bright spark in Tshibola and the defence has the capacity to perform when properly protected.  Indeed, Gollini, a real concern for The Villa Underground in previous fixtures, has demonstrated that despite his inexperience that there is a shot-stopper lurking within.

A fifth of the season has gone & Aston Villa lie 17th, 11 points (4 clear wins) behind league leaders Norwich.  The fact is, irrelevant of what anyone thinks of Di Matteo, 1 win in 9 in not acceptable.  

Given the investment.

Given the improvement in squad personnel

& given the standard of some of the opposition we have surrendered to.

Would we have remained so stoic had the manager been Tim Sherwood or Paul Lambert?

It’s necessary to improve immediately, dismiss the excuses and start winning football matches again.  

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