Newcastle dominated the first half, attacking down the flanks; Sissoko's presence centrally played a major role in drawing first blood. Villa used two substitutes at halftime, changed to a 4-3-3 and improved, but brilliant Tim Krul denied them a result.
Darren Bent got a rare start for Aston Villa, partnering Christian Benteke in attack. Slightly behind this striking duo, Charles N'Zogbia roamed around in attacking third of Villa's 3-4-1-2.
Alan Pardew handed debuts to Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran; the former played in the hole and the latter on the left wing of 4-2-3-1. Papiss Demba Cisse led the attack. Defender James Perch played in support of Yohan Cabaye in central midfield.
Paul Lambert's side were dreadful in the opening stages. They found it hard to get out of their own half when they had the ball. In order for their 3-4-1-2 to work, their wing-backs--Joe Bennett and Matthew Lowton--to push forward and join the attack, but they were pinned back as Newcastle attacked down the flanks with both sets of wingers and fullbacks. This meant that Villa's back-three looked more like a back-five and Bent and Benteke got little support from wide areas in offense.
Meanwhile, Newcastle's three attacking midfielders behind Cisse--Gouffran, Sissoko and Jonas Gutierrez--moved fluidly across the attacking third, interchanging positions to create space and to allow their fullbacks, Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy, to come forward. At the end of the first half, Santon and Debuchy finished with second (20/21) and fourth (18/27) highest passes completed out of the two teams, indicating their deep involvement in the game.
But Villa were also having problems centrally. Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannon shielded their three center-backs, but they failed of press Sissoko who buzzed around freely in the central midfield zone and had time and space to supply telling passes for Cisse to run onto. In scenario A, the French man lobbed a pass over the Villa defense and into the path of his striker; luckily for Villa, the offside flag went up this time. Again in scenario B, Cisse sneaked in between the two defenders to get on the end of a decisive through-ball from Sissoko. This time the flag stayed down; the Senegalese kept his composure and scored the opening goal.
These were simple defensive errors from the home side. In both cases, they had seven men behind the ball and they should be able to deal with Newcastle's attack, but they failed to (a) press the passer and (b) track the runner. Thus, they deservedly got punished. Villa gradually improved but they would need a drastic change to turn their fortunes around.
Three key points from the first half: (1) Villa pinned back by Newcastle's attack down the flanks; (2) Bent and Benteke had little support upfront; (3) lack of pressure on Sissoko proved to be costly.
Lambert made two changes at halftime. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann stepped in for Bent and Bennett. These two substitutes took up wide attacking position and the team changed its shape to a 4-3-3 with N'Zogbia slightly ahead of Bannan and Westwood in central midfield. This changed worked for a couple of reasons.
First, Agbonlahor and Weimann brought pace and aggressiveness that Villa lacked in the first half. With the ball, they were very direct, running at the Newcastle fullbacks, always looking to deliver crosses into the box. Without the ball, they pressed hard, putting the fullbacks under pressure, forcing them into making mistakes. That combination of pace and energy was what won Villa a penalty in the 48th minute to get a goal back; Agbonlahor pressing Debuchy hard and drawing a foul.
Second, the presence of wingers on both sides allowed Beteke to operate solely in the central zone where he is at his most effective. While sharing the attacking duty with Bent in the first half, Benteke would often drift to the left wing to receive passes and to fill in the spot for his wing-back who's pinned back in his own half (see chart above). The Belgium understandably was not comfortable on the wide areas and Villa's attack suffered. But with two speedy wingers in the mix after the break, Benteke was back to doing what he does best as the target man down the center.
Third, the natural width provided by Agbonlahor and Weimann in the second half meant that Villa could make crosses into the box where Beteke was a constant threat. With momentum on their side, even the Villa fullbacks joined in the attack, more often than the wing-backs did in the previous 45 minutes. The sheer difference in number of crosses made in either side of the break shows the impact of Lambert's substitutions.
Newcastle, meanwhile, would be disappointed with their second half performance. We can expect a team to take the foot of the gas a bit when they are 2-0 up, but Pardew's side weren't able to slow down the tempo of the game when they had the ball nor were they able to pose real threat from counter attacks. They made three substitutions in the later stages of the game but did not alter their shape.
Three key points from the second half: (1) Villa changed shape to 4-3-3 and got more width; (2) Agbonlahor and Weimann brought pace and energy to the game; (3) Newcastle played reactive football and hung on to the win.