Here, we look at the impact of the rival coaches.
For the first time as Chelsea boss, Sarri felt able to restore star man Eden Hazard to the starting XI – an upgrade in any circumstances and one that yielded a typically clinical penalty.
There was also a middling first start for Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovacic as Ross Barkley and Willian dropped to the bench. They were joined there by England’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek following his absence from the matchday squad last week but he did not make the pitch.
Benitez was dealt a pair of injury blows, with captain Jamaal Lascelles and playmaker Jonjo Shelvey both ruled out.
Federico Fernandez, Ki Sung-yueng and Fabian Schar all made competitive debuts in the inevitable reshuffle, with Salomon Rondon in from the start up front.
Benitez, perhaps motivated by the loss of key personnel, adopted a tight, defensive shape and limited attacking ambition. That meant three centre-backs with DeAndre Yedlin and Paul Dummett tucking in to make a back five.
It was an unpretty but mostly effective decision, with the visitors taking 76 minutes to make the breakthrough with a dubious penalty and winning it with a Yedlin own goal.
Sarri continued to deploy his preferred 4-3-3 variant. The only real difference was the presence of Hazard, whose roaming style and ball-playing skill demand a freer role regardless of the system.
As ever the job of relaying the coach’s instructions and preferences fell to his old Napoli cohort Jorginho, a constant communicator in the middle of the park.
Both sides hooked their primary striker and neither Salomon Rondon nor Alvaro Morata can have much complaint.
Both replacements were involved in the equalising goal but while Olivier Giroud was left claiming a foul on the turf, Joselu was the most alert man on the pitch, sneaking in front of David Luiz to nod Newcastle level.
Willian – on for Pedro – floated in the free-kick from which Chelsea’s winner came, with Giroud winning a crucial far-post header. Ayoze Perez, a late arrival, blasted over from his only real chance.
Eden Hazard scored from the spot for Chelsea to open the scoring in the 76th minute before Joselu equalised.
Marcos Alonso’s shot was then deflected into his own net by DeAndre Yedlin three minutes from time.
Mateo Kovacic, on loan from Real Madrid, made his first start for the away side and here’s a closer look at his performance.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 0
Shots on target – 0
Touches – 116
Passes – 104
Key passes – 3
Pass success – 92.3%
Dribbles – 0
Tackles – 2
Kovacic replaced Ross Barkley on the left side of a central midfield three. The Croatia international initially had moments when he was caught by the intensity of the game and lost the ball in close quarters.
However, he grew into it and began punching balls through the channels. Kovacic was comfortable on the ball but wasn’t able to threaten Newcastle’s goal.
Passing – He did his reputation as an accomplished passer of the ball no harm at all. He attempted a total of 104 passes and completed 92.3 per cent of them. His three key passes were more than any other player on the pitch managed.
Shooting – Kovacic didn’t take a single shot all game. Given that he had 116 touches and operated primarily on the edge of Newcastle’s penalty area, that is disappointing. Even Antonio Rudiger had a pop from about 35 yards from goal.
Forward runs – With Chelsea attempting to break the deadlock, they needed to commit more numbers forward but Kovacic held back from forays into the box. He needs to provide a great goal-scoring threat, like Marek Hamsik did in the same position for Maurizio Sarri at Napoli.
There’s not too much Kovacic did wrong but he needs to offer a lot more in the role he’s been assigned. He picked up a booking for a late challenge as well. Can do better, a lot better.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Marcos Alonso won a penalty which Eden Hazard slotted away in the 76th minute to break the deadlock.
The hosts then equalised through Joselu seven minutes later before Yedlin deflected Alonso’s shot into his own net three minutes from time.
SARRI MUST ADAPT
Maurizio Sarri has graced the Premier League with his sophisticated brand of football, coaxing it out of Chelsea so early into his reign. When Roman Abramovich first bought the club, he dreamed of his team being like ‘Barcelona in blue’ – the Russian will be pleased that his dream is beginning to be realised.
The slick passing and possession play is undeniable, even irresistible at times. Chelsea enjoyed 82.1 per cent of the ball at Newcastle, registering 1,069 touches to the hosts’ 378. However, possession stats don’t always win games, as we are repeatedly reminded.
Jose Mourinho famously insists that a team can be in control of the game without the ball as well and it must be said that for large periods, Newcastle looked pretty comfortable.
Rafa Benitez must be credited for organising his side so well but Chelsea perhaps didn’t ask enough questions of their defence, relying on Hazard to create openings before getting a lucky break in the form a penalty.
Manchester City faced similar problems in Pep Guardiola’s first season at the club but then invested heavily in wing-backs and became better equipped to break down teams employing a low block.
Chelsea’s full-backs weren’t stretching the opposition’s defence enough. Perhaps a change in formation would’ve worked in their favour. City, for example, used a 3-4-3 system at home to Huddersfield with the wing-backs generating genuine width and stretching the back-line.
The wingers on the other hand, worked with the midfielders to exploit gaps in the inside channels. Quick switches of play also served to aid City’s cause, something Chelsea didn’t seem or weren’t able to do.
Benitez set up his side like a manager desperate not to give anything away, hoping to nick a point instead. The absence of key players like Jonjo Shelvey and Jamaal Lascelles didn’t make life any easier for the Spaniard.
The Newcastle boss deployed a 5-4-1 formation that nearly proved impenetrable save for a contentious penalty decision and late scrappy winner. Three centre-backs served to outnumber Alvaro Morata and with the full-backs tucking in as well, the half spaces did not go unmanned.
Few teams will be able to compete with Chelsea on the ball this season but the Magpies may have laid out a blueprint for other teams to follow in their efforts to negate ‘Sarri ball’.
CHELSEA SUSPECT IN DEFENCE
The Blues sit second in the table with three wins to open their campaign. However, Sarri must address the cracks that have already appeared at the back.
Despite dominating possession, Chelsea conceded several big chances against Arsenal and were fortunate to leak just two goals in the process. When Newcastle finally attempted to attack them, they got some joy as well, scoring from one of their five shots.
The manner of the goal conceded should offer future opponents plenty of encouragement. Alonso was lazy and his haphazard attempt to close down Yedlin’s cross was futile. David Luiz was typically unaware of the danger and allowed Joselu to nip in ahead of him at the near post and steer his header home.
It was far from a complicated manouevre but one that undid Chelsea nonetheless – perhaps too easily.
HAZARD IS KEY
If Jorginho is the man pulling the strings for Chelsea in midfield, Hazard is clearly the director in the final third.
Sarri has seemed especially wary of rushing the Belgian international back into the swing of things too early this season after his excursions at the World Cup and now it’s evident why.
Hazard is absolutely crucial to Chelsea, particularly against stubborn defences. Jorginho attempted a remarkable 173 passes in the game at St James’ Park with a 91 per cent success rate and while many of them served to facilitate the visitors’ persistent probing, few provided the incision required to split the defence.
On the other hand, Hazard operates with a sharper blade. His close control, dribbling and penetrative passing in the final third runs defences ragged. He makes little incisions all across the back-line as he drags defenders out of position along the way, creating spaces for him and his team-mates to exploit.