A little more than three weeks ago, Aston Villa sat a point behind Manchester United in the table. It’s a measure of the havoc that Covid-19 and dismal refereeing have had in the time since then that if Dean Smith’s side win their games in hand – against Tottenham Hotspur and Everton – they will find themselves trailing United by five points.

If an outbreak of the virus inconvenienced Villa’s fixture schedule, controversial decisions against Manchester City on Wednesday evening and United at Old Trafford at the start of the month have had an even more disruptive influence on their form, killing a run that had elevated Smith’s men into fifth.

It was their good fortune, then, that last night’s visitors to Villa Park were a Newcastle United outfit who came into the match off the back of a nine-game run without a win.

This fixture itself was a rearranged match due to a similar Covid outbreak at Newcastle at the start of last month. Jamaal Lascelles and Allan Saint-Maximin were the two Newcastle players to test positive back then and while the former has since returned to the starting line-up, the latter – his side’s most creative player – had not kicked a ball since the 2-0 defeat by Chelsea on November 20.

During the gifted Frenchman’s absence Newcastle have scored just five goals, a problem that has calcified during a recent seven-game spell in which they have failed to register a single counter.

Steve Bruce will have been mindful before kick-off that when Aston Villa have scored first this season they have not lost a game; therefore, he would have been disconcerted when left-back Matt Targett picked out Ollie Watkins hovering around the six-yard box after 11 minutes only for the Villa striker to miscue his header.

He would have been apoplectic when almost the exact same move ended up in a goal for Watkins, two minutes later. Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey switched off, didn’t track Targett’s run on to Jack Grealish’s pass and his cross was not dealt with adequately by Fabian Schaar, who instead looped the ball up in the air for Watkins to nod it over Karl Darlow and into the net.

It was Watkins’ ninth goal of his debut campaign in the Premier League and ended a nine-game drought without one. He thought he had doubled his output for the evening after the half-hour when he galloped on to Grealish’s through ball and fired a left-footed strike into Darlow’s far corner but the flag went up for offside.

The problem when a team plays as Newcastle does is that it all becomes a little too predictable and so sitting deep encourages players such as Grealish, something of a one-man Whack-a-mole, to pop up anywhere, drop the shoulder and drift past players with ease. Gaps that weren’t there suddenly seem like gaping chasms and then they’re in trouble. Such was the way in which Grealish set up Villa’s second. He went to fetch a return ball from Bertrand Traore, Villa’s left-sided attacker, drifted to the byeline, then pulled the ball back for the Frenchman and his first-time shot crashed off the underside of the bar to make it 2-0 after 42 minutes.

It looked at that stage as if Villa might score at any point they so desired. Another problem when teams play like Newcastle, is that eventually opponents work out that punting the ball up to Andy Carroll and hoping for knockdowns or trying to counter through insipid attackers is that tactically it’s pretty much all they’ve got. Is it Bruce or is it the players? The truth is it’s largely both.

More of the same followed in the second period. Watkins could have added his second just after the restart following a sweeping move instigated by Grealish and a final pass executed by Ross Barkley but Darlow saved well while Douglas Luiz squirted the rebound wide.

Newcastle gave a very good impression of a team that had simply given up. For the next 20-odd minutes, the tempo reduced to training-session pace with Villa boasting 65% of the ball.

When they did up their effort, Barkley almost made it three with a hooked backheel over the top from Watkins’ header across goal. But it was now gutless stuff from Newcastle’s players.

For Bruce, a treble winner at Manchester United in his playing days, you wonder just how much longer he can stomach watching performances such as this one or whether his boss, Mike Ashley, even cares.