Tyne-Wear derby: Four tactical worries Rafa Benitez must solve for Newcastle to beat Sunderland
Rafa Benitez has already stamped his tactical mark on Newcastle after a more solid-looking performance in the 1-0 defeat against Leicester City on Monday night.
However, there are still a number of areas he must address ahead of the Tyne-Wear derby this weekend.
Get the best out of Jonjo Shelvey:
Shelvey - one of Benitez’s last signings as Liverpool manager - was entrusted with the captain’s armband for the Spaniard’s first game in charge, and gave a disciplined performance at the base of midfield, alongside Vurnon Anita in the double pivot role.
However, sitting deep and restricting the space Leicester had to play in nullified any creative or attacking play from the England international.
Benitez likes his central midfielders to be able to control and dictate a game.
Shelvey may not have the consistency - nor the ability - of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso or Ruben Baraja, but he is arguably Newcastle’s most incisive passer.
His through balls set up goals for Aleksandar Mitrovic (West Brom) and Ayoze Perez (Bournemouth) in United’s last two home games.
With the lack of creativity in Newcastle’s team, Benitez must decide whether he must sacrifice solidity to allow Shelvey licence to play higher up the pitch.
Where does he play Moussa Sissoko - if anywhere?
No player divides opinion on Tyneside these days like Moussa Sissoko. In fact, scrap that - there seems to be less divide these days than before - most fans just want him out of the team.
The Frenchman was utilised surprisingly in a left-wing position against Leicester and while his performance was a vast improvement on recent weeks, it still flattered to deceive.
Benitez seemed impressed, however, saying "I was really pleased with Sissoko. I was telling him he had to go and get into the box. He was there and had one or two chances."
A header off target in the opening stages, getting in Mitrovic’s way, a volley which could have won Newcastle a penalty on another day - they were all rightly examples of Sissoko trying to affect the game in the opposition box, but his lack of quality and confidence shone through, no more so than when he burst into the penalty area and could have passed to Gini Wijnaldum or Mitrovic, or shot, and instead did neither.
Sissoko ended the game playing centrally, but could return to the right against Sunderland now that Andros Townsend is fit. Or is it time for the big Frenchman to be dropped? Sissoko hasn’t scored a goal all season and Newcastle need end product in the final third.
How to get Aleksandar Mitrovic looking like a goalscorer:
I took a bit of stick on Twitter on Monday night. No change there, mind, but I’d stated that Mitrovic could have played until Thursday and wouldn’t have scored.
People replied saying he’d been living off scraps and the service is poor into the big Serb, and that’s fair comment. But even accounting for that, even in games where Newcastle have created chances, the 21-year-old doesn’t look like a goalscorer.
Benitez’s options are limited. Seydou Doumbia looks like the panic signing we feared, way out of his depth at this level, while Ayoze Perez isn’t the type of forward to lead the line. I’m not even going to comment on Emmanuel Riviere. So until Papiss Cisse gets fit, Mitrovic will have to carry the burden up front.
When Sir Bobby Robson took over at Newcastle in 1999, the first job he did was correct a couple of technical flaws in Alan Shearer’s game, importantly getting him facing the opposition goal more rather than playing with his back to it so often, and making him play the width of the 18-yard box.
Benitez could do worse than offer similar advice to Mitrovic.
Stop sloppy defensive errors - including giving away silly free kicks
Newcastle’s defence isn’t the strongest but there’s no doubt Benitez made an impact in terms of tightening them up and making them more compact against Leicester.
They still lost, however, after switching off for a second and not properly clearing their lines for the Foxes’ goal.
That passage of play came after a silly free-kick was given away by Jack Colback on the touchline, allowing Leicester to pile men into the box.
It’s an area Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce is an exponent of. The Black Cats are a threat at set-pieces thanks to Wahbi Khazri’s delivery and the physical nature of new boys Lamine Kone, Dame N’Doye and Jan Kirchhoff - typical Allardyce signings.
Newcastle need to make sure they don’t give away cheap fouls in their own half.
Leicester had a couple of free-kicks on the edge of the Newcastle box and while United survived those scares, Khazi and Seb Larsson’s prowess in those positions, plus the Magpies’ struggles to deal with second phase play, make it a must that they avoid those situations.