Aston Villa moved above Chelsea and Southampton into eighth in the Premier League with a win over Newcastle which increased the pressure on manager Steve Bruce.
Despite playing a more positive 5-3-2 formation, the visitors were undone by a Villa team whose manager Dean Smith watched from the stands following his touchline ban.
His impressive outfit still showed the quick attacking interplay which has been a feature of their season as Ollie Watkins ended a run of nine league games without a goal when he headed in the opener following Fabian Schar’s mistake.
Newcastle, who have scored only once in their past eight games, lacked the sort of confidence in front of goal that Villa showed in doubling their lead.
Bertrand Traore played a one-two with Jack Grealish before cannoning a shot in off the crossbar.
There were opportunities for Bruce’s side, who introduced Allan Saint-Maximin – after a long coronavirus absence – and Ryan Fraser for the final 19 minutes.
But they did not trouble a Villa team who are now five points off fourth-placed Liverpool with two games in hand.
Defeat for Newcastle means they are winless in 10 games and slip to 16th, seven points above the relegation zone.
Newcastle fans, who have been critical of Bruce’s style, might point to Villa as a team who can play positive attacking football with similar resources.
The fact Villa have enjoyed an upward curve since Bruce left the club in 2018 will not be lost on them, and even though the Newcastle manager was right to say prior to this game that Smith has enjoyed the benefits of last summer’s investment in players, Villa have been a joy to watch this season.
In contrast, Newcastle, who started the season positively, have been in a rut. Debate about Bruce’s formations have been rife on Tyneside and his position came under further discussion on Saturday after former Magpies manager Rafael Benitez left his job in China.
But in picking a 5-3-2 formation, it did seem to offer a better balance. Jonjo Shelvey, Miguel Almiron and the deeper Jeff Hendrick made up the midfield, allowing Andy Carroll to support Callum Wilson up front.
For much of the first half it looked promising. But when getting into good positions, Newcastle were let down by poor crossing or finishing, with Carroll wasting two good opportunities.
Their dwindling confidence was not helped by Schar’s error when he failed to clear Matt Targett’s first-time cross, allowing Watkins to nod past a flapping Karl Darlow.
Traore’s finish put a comfortable distance between the two sides and Newcastle never looked like breaking through.
There was a brief lift once Saint-Maximin and Fraser came on with the latter almost getting on the end of Almiron’s through ball, but it was another dismal night for Bruce, who has plenty to ponder as he attempts to arrest a worrying slide towards the bottom three.
In losing three of their past four games, Villa have been on their worst run of the season.
Yet this performance, plus the fact that a draw and two defeats in the league came against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, showed that Smith’s team are still on the right track, especially after recovering from a coronavirus outbreak in their squad.
By moving above Chelsea and within touching distance of the top four, European ambitions must still feature in Smith’s plans.
Despite sitting in the stands on a freezing night after criticising the officials in the midweek defeat by Manchester City, his side will have provided fans with much optimism for the rest of the season with another efficient attacking display.
They might have been fortunate for the first goal, although Targett’s cross was excellent, but Traore’s fifth goal of the season three minutes before half-time typified their approach despite Newcastle claiming Darlow was fouled beforehand.
There could have been more for Villa, with the impressive Grealish curling one effort wide. The effervescent Watkins could also have added to his nine goals this season.
But with their defence well-marshalled by the vocal Tyrone Mings, and Douglas Luiz providing cover in midfield, Villa ran out comfortable winners.
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