Five key things Rafa Benitez learned from Newcastle's defeat against Spurs

Dele Alli scores Tottenham's second goal against Newcastle.
Dele Alli scores Tottenham's second goal against Newcastle.

There was a sense of deja vu as Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham left St James' Park with all three points on the opening day of the season.

Just like at the start of the 2017/18 campaign, Newcastle produced a spirited and dogged performance against one of the strongest sides in Europe, let alone the Premier League, only to fall a little short for the second year running.

But what else did we learn from a gripping contest?

Here are five things we noticed.

Newcastle are making progress

When Newcastle faced Tottenham this time last year, Rafa Benitez’s side registered just 27 per cent possession.

Yes, Spurs didn't make a breakthrough until the 61st minute after Jonjo Shelvey’s costly red card.

Even so, the Magpies offered next to nothing as an attacking force that day and were always clinging on for a point.

This time around, as captain Jamaal Lascelles pointed out after the game, Newcastle went toe-to-toe with Tottenham, and were unfortunate not to equalise late on.

The hosts packed much more of a punch going forward, with Joselu leading the line and Matt Ritchie and Kenedy threatening from the flanks.

Joselu can compete with Rondon for a starting spot

Joselu in particular was a real handful for Spurs’ physical defensive duo Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez, both of whom impressed at this summer’s World Cup.

In the 11th minute, the Spanish striker evaded the two centre-backs to head home Newcastle’s equaliser, powerfully steering the ball past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

Joselu battled, scrapped and led the line admirably for the 59 minutes he was on the field, before being replaced by new signing Salomon Rondon.

Minutes after half-time, Joselu also showed his technical ability by threading an excellent pass through to Kenedy, only for the Brazilian's first touch to let him down.

It is likely Rondon, who joined on a season-long loan from West Brom, will be Benitez’s first-choice number nine this season, however Joselu has shown he is more than capable when called upon.

New signings have improved the squad

Another sign that Newcastle are making progress was the performances of their summer signings.

Five of the players who started the game on Saturday also lined-up against Spurs on the opening day of last season.

Still, there’s no question Newcastle look like a better team twelve months down the line.

Goalkeeper Martin Dubravka signed permanently in the summer and is a significant upgrade on Rob Elliot, as shown by a brilliant save to deny Moussa Sissoko in the second half.

Newcastle also snapped up Kenedy after an impressive loan spell at the club last season, and the Brazilian winger vindicated that decision with a energetic display on the left.

Benitez resisted the temptation to start new signings Rondon and Yoshinori Muto from the start but both looked lively after coming off the bench, with the former hitting the crossbar five minutes from time.

Midfielders need to be more forceful from the off

One area where Newcastle fell particularly short, especially in the first half, was in central midfield.

Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame were regularly outnumbered by Spurs’ midfield trio of Sissoko, Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen.

When Dele Alli was also thrown into the mix, drifting inside from the left flank, Newcastle were simply overpowered in the middle of the park, causing them to retreat and defend for long periods.

Spurs did drop off slightly in the second half and Newcastle took advantage.

Even so, against lesser oppositions, Benitez’s side will need to be more forceful and look to dominate the midfield engine room.

Crosses need to be rectified

Benitez also has cause for concern about the way his side defended crosses, after Vertongen and Alli both benefited from slack marking to score for the visitors.

Sanchez could have added a third for Spurs from Erikesn’s corner, when the Colombian defender once again escaped his marker.

Newcastle players were applauded off the pitch at full-time, and fans can be assured that they are making progress under Benitez - despite the club’s lack of spending in the transfer market.

Unfortunately there’s no guarantee they will match or improve on last season’s 10th-place finish, with other clubs significantly strengthening.

Even so, if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, Newcastle are ready for the battle.