After defeat on the opening day, what’s the mood like in the North East?
Pretty negative, but it doesn’t take much for things to turn sour on Tyneside in the current climate, with frustration the order of the day among the fanbase. The non-takeover, a lack of transfer activity, a mistrust of Steve Bruce and 14 years of anger towards owner Mike Ashley made for a unique juxtaposition at SJP on Saturday. While crowds increased across the land, fans overjoyed at the long-awaited full return to football, the home attendance at United decreased. It didn’t impact on the atmosphere however, with United playing well for an hour, but come the end, few left the cathedral on the hill with any doubt this side could well flirt with relegation again under Bruce due to defensive deficiencies.
Can they take any positives into the Villa game off the back of the West Ham defeat?
United’s possession stats were better than last season, they had more touches in the opposition box than most, if not all games in 2020/21 and Callum Wilson got off the mark. Allan Saint-Maximin looks bang up for it from the off and they looked a threat even without the legs of Joe Willock in the side. That must be tempered with the fact that defensively this Newcastle side look at sixes and sevens.
What kind of impact do you expect Joe Willock to have?
Massive. He was the beating heart of the end of season revival (as well as coach Graeme Jones). Willock’s eight goals in 14 games was impressive enough, but to look alone at that stat does not do his impact justice. United have not had a midfielder who closes down, wins the ball high and recovers possession like Willock since Mo Diame, and have not had a player arrive in the box so perfectly since Gini Wijnaldum. Villa must also watch out for Willock’s runs from deep. His speed with ball at feet, breaking the lines from unexpectedly uncomfortable positions makes him a tough man to mark. If, of course, he starts.
What would represent a successful season for Steve Bruce & Co?
Newcastle United as a club could and should want for more than Ashley’s version of themselves. However, avoiding relegation is seen as success by the United hierarchy. How very exciting. United fans can only look on with green eyes at club’s like Villa, or Leicester, Leeds or Everton - clubs with upward aspirations, hope and belief. In Bruce’s favour, he has focused on the cup competitions more since his arrival, something written off as an unwelcome distraction in securing safety - and the cash rumbling in - by those in the halls of power. Twelfth and a cup run. That’d do it.
Looking at Villa’s likely XI, where do you see them posing Newcastle problems?
United can be got at by teams who attack the spaces in behind the attack-minded full-backs and less than mobile wide central defenders. Emi Buendia tore United to pieces the last time Norwich were in the Premier League. This may be the day he comes to the party for Villa.
Any injuries, expected absences or players returning?
Jonjo Shelvey is out with a calf problem, meaning United will lack their passing threat and ability to find their runners - ASM, Callum Wilson, Miguel Almiron, Willock - from deep. Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow remain out, meaning Freddie Woodman will continue in goal. Elsewhere, Paul Dummett, a key cog in the defence, is also sidelined.
Likely starting XI (5-3-2): Freddie Woodman; Jacob Murphy, Federico Fernandez, Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie; Isaac Hayden, Joe Willock, Miguel Almiron; Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2 Newcastle United 1. Unfortunately for NUFC, I think Villa will have too much in the final third. I also believe the midfield battle will be tough to win, without Shelvey, despite his flaws and many critics.