x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Newcastle put their best foot forward against Aston Villa

The two clubs who have been realistic in the transfer market this summer show that caution can marry with progress as they maintain unbeaten starts.

Leon Best, left, scores Newcastle United's equaliser at Aston Villa.
Leon Best, left, scores Newcastle United's equaliser at Aston Villa.

BIRMINGHAM // Parsimony ahead of popularity has become the manner of things for this pair. Once vain glorious spenders in the pursuit of the Champions League elite, now they make their way with more limited ambitions, streamlined budgets and managers many of their supporters never wanted appointed.

Realism, though, need not equate with regression. Five matches into their first full seasons as manager of Aston Villa and Newcastle United, Alex McLeish and Alan Pardew have yet to lose a Premier League fixture.

Their positions in the upper half of the table are those required by owners now prepared to target steady progress over supercharged optimism, this well-balanced draw a reflection of hard-working efficiency.

"When you lose the likes of the players we have in Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and Andy Carroll, that is a lot of character, a lot of goals," Pardew said. "But we look a different type of team; we've got a lot of pace in the side.

"I thought we controlled the game today, more so than any away game last year. I think if I travelled down with the Toon Army today I'd have been very pleased with what I'd seen."

McLeish was similarly upbeat. "I don't think there is any doubt that we are moving forward," he said.

"I believe that the players can get even better but I can't say I'm disappointed with our start to the season at all. I've been really pleased with our application, they've been very receptive to the ideas, and we probably just need to be a wee bit more ruthless."

An economical approach to running a football club comes with a degree of compromise in recruiting.

McLeish was again without Jermaine Jenas, a loanee from Tottenham Hotspur who has struggled with fitness for several seasons. Pardew's notable absentee was Davide Santon, sidelined by a knee injury Newcastle sought to dissociate from the severe meniscus problem that halted the Italian's once vertiginous development at Inter Milan.

With Gabriel Agbonlahor moved in from the left wing, McLeish stationed Barry Bannan on the right.

Pardew made just one alteration to the team that held a third clean sheet of their nascent Premier League season on Monday, exchanging Shola Ameobi for Demba Ba. The manager's quip that he had photographed a league table that elevated Newcastle to the top four suggested he did not expect to remain there long.

An error was to allow Villa the lead. Drifting towards the left touchline, Bannan floated a reverse pass to Agbonlahor. Though Fabricio Colocinni seemed set to clear, the Argentine allowed himself to be muscled off-balance, ceding opportunity to the striker. On his 200th start, Agbonlahor took one steadying step then converted calmly.

Visibly confident on a first club start this season, Bannan attempted a first-time volley from the right wing that curled away late.

Pointedly reminded of past goalscoring prowess when in Old Firm opposition to McLeish in Scotland, Stiliyan Petrov attempted something similar from still further distance, while a long sequence of passes presented Darren Bent with a seven-yard shot the normally efficient finisher straight-batted out to touch.

With an injured Stephen Warnock struggling to control Gabriel Obertan on the left flank, Newcastle continued to force set pieces. Steven Taylor came closest, the central defender's spinning volley sending Shay Given leaping to his left.

Out early from McLeish's interval teamtalk, Villa almost doubled their advantage. This time Alan Hutton was the Scot providing from the right, swerving off his wing to combine with Charles N'Zogbia and Agbonlahor. Carrying two defenders with him, the striker ran into the angle for a shot that seemed netbound until its final roll.

Newcastle remained progressive and when the impressive Yohan Cabaye's strike from distance slapped off Given's crossbar the danger was not cleared.

Cheick Tiote's cross exploited a poorly positioned defensive line, providing Best a free header inside the six-yard box. Though the goalkeeper parried with his legs, Best's follow-up cannoned off them and into the Irishman's net. It was the unheralded striker's ninth goal in 12 Premier League starts.

"This is a guy who's been around the game a long time and not really had the opportunities at Premier League level that he feels he deserves," Pardew said of Best. "He has great belief in himself. He gets a start, he gets a goal and he keeps the shirt. Simple as that."

At these clubs, simplicity has its merits.