Newcastle United analysis: Back three provides a solid platform but Magpies' home form must improve
For the best part of 80 minutes Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka barely had a save to make.
Ten minutes remained of the Magpies’ Premier League clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers when the Slovakian international made his first significant stop, keeping out Matt Doherty’s powerful effort low to the keeper’s right.
Up until that point Dubravka had done little more than pick the ball out of his own net, after he was briefly left exposed by his defenders, who allowed Diogo Jota to open the scoring on 17 minutes.
But the fact Dubravka’s overall contribution was so low showed just how comfortable his team had been, operating efficiently in a compact 3-5-2 formation.
Even when the Magpies were reduced to ten men in the 57th minute, Wolves initially failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage.
That was before all hell broke loose and the grandstand finish which followed, starting with Ayoze Perez’s penalty appeal which was turned down after the striker appeared to be elbowed in the face Wolves defender Willy Boly.
Then, following Doherty’s aforementioned strike, the Wolves defender had the last laugh, heading home a stoppage-time winner after Dubravka repelled Jota’s original effort.
But 11v11, man for man, Newcastle had the beating of their opponents, playing a similar system which Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo has deployed all season.
Yes Wolves are a newly promoted side but yesterday’s win takes them back into the top half of the table, following their victory over Chelsea before the trip to St James’s Park.
Their side is full of talent too, from the highly-rated Ruben Neves to the mercurial Adama Traore, yet both spent most of yesterday’s game on the fringes.
It wasn’t the first time Benitez had set-up his side to play with three at the back, and the system was similar to the formation which worked so well at Burnley last month.
A back three provides extra protection and allows an additional centre-backs to help snub out danger in wide areas.
Newcastle were brutally exposed when West Ham visited St James’s Park just over a week ago, but this was a stark contrast - before the frantic finale.
The three-man backline isn’t quite the finished article just yet, but has the credentials to become a well-oiled machine.
In Federico Fernandez Newcastle have a defender who is comfortable on the ball and is capable of starting attacks from the back.
Benitez can only hope the Argentine’s injury, which forced the defender off at half-time, isn’t too serious.
Yesterday Fernandez was accompanied by skipper Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark, and with Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune to come back, Benitez has plenty of options.
The 3-5-2 system also gives Newcastle’s more creative players a chance to express themselves - not least Ayoze Perez - who was awarded Sky Sports’ man of the match award for his tireless display.
Not only did the Spanish forward score his side’s equaliser in the 23rd minute, but he was also a constant threat, taking advantage of the pockets of space which appeared in front of Wolves’ backline.
Perez had a point to prove after his substitution against West Ham was cheered by sections of the Newcastle crowd.
He certainly proved a point on Saturday and reacted to his goal, a glancing header past goalkeeper Rui Patricio, by cupping his hands to his ears.
Perez’s link-up play with striker Salomon Rondon was also something which should encourage Benitez.
But while there were plenty of positives to draw upon for Newcastle, this was their seventh home defeat in nine Premier League games.
Only Southampton, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield have worse home records this campaign, and all three have played less home games than the Magpies.
That can’t continue if Newcastle are to stay away from the bottom three, and after squandering an opportunity to bridge a gap, Benitez’s side are just three points above the drop zone once again.