Newcastle: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Ben Arfa?
With ten points from their last five games, it’s fair to say that Newcastle have surprised a few people recently. With tough fixtures against Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, even the most optimistic Newcastle fans would not have predicted two wins and a draw against the trio of Premier League big guns. Yet incredibly, that’s exactly what happened.
In last few weeks Newcastle have been excellent. As a team they have been hard-working, determined, organised and clinical; with performances reminiscent of the form that saw them finish fifth in 2011.
With a new 4-4-2 formation in place, Newcastle have found a system that really suits the personnel. With Gouffran and Sissoko utilised on the left and right flanks respectively, Remy up top with Shola, and Cabaye and Tiote in the middle, Alan Pardew has stumbled across a team with real balance and a great mix.
Gouffran offers the pace and the work ethic to be any full-backs dream foil and partner. Sissoko offers the same effort and determination, but also adds real power to the offense. Cabaye, and a returning to form Tiote, know each other’s game well and are the perfect satin and steel midfield mix. Up front, Shola is still as infuriating as ever, but he does give the opposing centre backs enough to think about in order to provide Remy the space he can so effectively expose.
Whilst it seems the perfect mix player-wise, this upturn is built upon a firm foundation of hard work. In the last few games Newcastle have, to a man, ran themselves into the ground and given their all. Pressing high up the pitch, forcing the opposition into errors, passing and moving effectively, and thanks the quality of Remy, punishing opponents when an opportunity arises.
The defence is also benefiting from this newly discovered work ethic and formation. With two clean sheets in the last two games, the back four and keeper are looking a far stronger unit. In the middle, Yanga-Mbiwa and Williamson are looking a solid and sound partnership, and with the wide-men now fully supporting the full backs, incredibly the defence is now looking reasonably sound.
After taking a little while to get used to the speed of the Premier League, Yanga-Mbiwa and Debuchy in particular are now looking the real deal and the players we hoped they’d be when they arrived.
And as for the ‘keeper, well thanks to his performance at White Hart Lane, it seems that Tim Krul is now fully over his injury problems of last season and is showing that he is easily one of the most reliable keepers in the league.
So with Newcastle in such good form, the conundrum for Alan Pardew now is how he takes this team to an even greater level by somehow incorporating their most talented player – the gifted yet temperamental, Hatem Ben Arfa.
In over twenty years as a Newcastle season ticket holder, I can safely say that Ben Arfa is one of the most talented players I have ever seen pull on a Black and white shirt. The sort of player you pay to watch and one who can produce moments of pure genius when it really matters most. They say on Tyneside that comparisons with Messi are ridiculous... Messi’s good, but he’s certainly no Ben Arfa!
So what’s the problem? Why is Hatem kicking his heels on the bench and not in the team?? Well the answer is simple, as with many creative playmakers, Ben Arfa simply does not work hard enough for the team. He has no interest in defending, or playing a specific role in the team; he is a maverick and as such plays like one.
He does what he wants, goes where he wants and tries what he wants. Whilst this is fantastic when it comes off (as it has many times before) for all his quality, when it’s not his day and when things are not going well, he can become that frustrating eccentric, trying to do it all himself and not working hard enough we when the opposition have the ball.
His problem now is that the Newcastle side of recent weeks is built firmly on hard-graft, with each player knowing and fulfilling their role until their bodies can physically offer nothing more. At the moment Hatem does not do this, and as such, is often a passenger when he plays. In this most tight of Premier Leagues, teams like Newcastle cannot afford passengers, no matter how talented they may be.
Ben Arfa needs to learn that if he is to truly fulfil his undoubted potential and become the great player he is capable of becoming, he needs to learn to work for the team. In recent years the likes of Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery have gone from being good players to great players by following Messi’s lead and realising that hard-work, pressing and defensive cover is equally as important as creative play.
Next up for Newcastle are two winnable home games against Norwich then West Brom; opposition that will try to do to us what we have done to Chelsea and Spurs and try catch us on the counter. The question for Pardew now is, does he stick with a winning side, or does he go more offensive at home and possibly improve the team by bringing in Hatem? If he does, just where does he fit in?
Whilst Newcastle have looked a solid unit of late, Shola Ameobi alongside Loic Remy continues to flatter to deceive. Shola is big and strong, but is not, and never will be, the powerhouse centre forward he should be. Whilst he is a still a handful for defenders, his control is poor and his goal scoring worse. Playing Ben Arfa off Remy instead of Shola is the only way I can see him breaking back into the team.
To be fair to Hatem, he has often been used out wide on the wing. This approach benefits no one. Too often Ben Arfa wonders out of position trying to make something happen, then as a result he leaves his full back exposed and inadvertently causes extra problems for his team. This is a trend often targeted and exploited by opposing managers. He is not a winger; he is a playmaker, a number 10 and as such should operate through the middle.
In my eyes, I firmly believe that there is a place for Ben Arfa in this team, he is just too talented for there not to be - but that place comes at price. Ben Arfa is capable of becoming the Ballon d'Or winner he dreams of, but he needs to realise that the match is not all about him – it’s about the team.
He needs to learn to be part of the team and realise that a 40-yard sprint back to cover the full-back is equally as important as a 40-yard jinking run toward the opposition’s box. Only once this penny eventually drops can Hatem Ben Arfa finally fulfil his limitless potential and become the great player that he is truly capable of being.