After an unbeaten pre-season and having bolstered the squad with further expensive recruits, optimism was high ahead of an opening day fixture away at Newcastle United.
Our hosts, having qualified for the Champions League and after careful recruitment in the close season, presented a more than reasonable test from which to gauge our aspirations for 2023/24.
What transpired over 90 minutes was the stuff of footballing nightmares. It was an experience which we must learn from quickly, however much we might simply want to forget.Embed from Getty Images
Newcastle 5-1 Aston Villa
It’s not a scoreline one wishes to say too loudly, type, or hastily paint onto a bedsheet to adorn The Holte End any time soon.
It is just one game ahead of a long season. There were some contentious moments. But, this was not a display that can merely be brushed off with a simple cliche such as a ‘bad day at the office’.
Let’s address the bad fortune first.
The loss of Emi Buendia to a horror knee injury (sustained in training) just days before the new campaign cannot be understated. The Argentine had found his verve under Emery and was central to his plans. The 26-year-old is anticipated unlikely to appear until next term in what can only be considered a major blow.
The other bad fortune came during the game itself. Mings, chasing down what turned out to be a dead ball before the referee’s assistant flagged, fell awkwardly after an innocuous battle with Isak.
Mings appeared in immediate distress, beating the ground in pain and requiring a full 5 minutes of on-field treatment in visible agony before being stretchered off. The impact was twofold to a Villa side already struggling in the contest, with a number of players immediately more muted and as a collective lacking their leader.
The Mings injury certainly had its impact, without question, but also risks in some quarters as over-simplifying the explanation for a dreadful all-round team display.
The fact was that we were under immense pressure from the first minute, and little was done to contain a crescendo of Newcastle attacks that built from Tonali’s brute force opener inside 6 minutes.
Our attempts to play in a style and manner that exude calm are admirable, but when a team is fired up and so capable in the early exchanges, to combat it with a high press and relentless energy, we need to be more adaptable.
The promise and capability is of course there for us too, as evidenced by the superb Luiz ball to Digne, before Diaby illustrated his potential with a fine debut goal to equalise. It was sadly massively offset by what followed.
Newcastle’s second was more than contentious in terms of offside, but the goal stood. Offside (or not), Villa’s confused on-field arrangements to defend the threat was ultimately the root cause. There were huffs and puffs up front, with Watkins scuffing an effort wide when well placed before Diaby erred by firing into the near post side netting instead of across Pope.
In truth, the break came as respite.
We knew our luck was out close to the hour mark, when Konsa had done the hard work in chasing down Isak before inexplicably losing control of the ball. The predatory striker made no mistake, lifting the ball beyond an equally astonished Martinez to make it three.
Emery did look to affect the game, but Villa were rocking and there were just too many amongst the ranks that looked ill-equipped for riding out storms such as this. This is a concern for those moments when the chips are down in football, and is a character trait that separates the top sides from the remainder.
Torres, on for the injured Mings, saw Diego Carlos appear as Villa switched shape. With Cash and Digne struggling on the flanks, the thinking was to shore up Newcastle’s recurring foray’s forward. It didn’t work, with the hosts exploiting the space and confusion to add a fourth via substitute Wilson, before new signing Barnes completed our humiliation with a fifth in second half injury time.
It could have been worse, with Emi Martinez making at least 3 excellent last gasp stops when the Geordies seemed destined to score.
Emery is a thinker and has clearly improved the Aston Villa he inherited massively. He has also suffered incredible bad luck with injuries to Ramsey, Buendia and now Mings. But he must have been at a loss to fathom the displays of a number of key and high-profile first-team players.
Bailey remains a genuine enigma. McGinn, our captain but out of position, was anonymous for significant phases. Watkins was largely a spectator. Kamara, both lost and leggy. Torres and Carlos, looked miles off the pace for what they encountered.
Bad results happen, but it’s now how we react to this one, with an immediate opportunity against Everton next weekend.