He kept Newcastle waiting, but Hatem Ben Arfa has finally made a major impact this season. Although he has been unstoppable of late, Alan Pardew thrust him into the line-up only after ensuring he is a polished player.
Jose Enrique was rampaging forward time and again down Liverpool’s left flank, hoping to outnumber Danny Simpson and find Liverpool’s opener. Each time Simpson called for help, there he was shadowing Enrique, providing cover to his right-back and sometimes, even coming out on top in a tussle for the ball. You would have been forgiven for thinking that the man being talking about was Gutierrez, Cabaye or Tiote. Rather, it was the new, refreshing, maverick turned team player Hatem Ben Arfa. His prudence has been perfectly illustrated in the heat map below.
It was the first of this month, when Newcastle’s European ambitions were to be be tested. Liverpool were in town and three old boys in Bellamy, Carroll and Enrique were trying to make a statement on why they had left their former clubs. However, as the match rolled on, the new boys on Tyneside dictated terms and one in particular, was running the Liverpool midfield into a frenzy. Apart from his attacking prowess, Ben Arfa was seen deep into his defensive half (above heat map) in order to shield his full back and collect the ball as well. The Geordies weren’t accustomed to such displays from the man.
The tags of ‘prodigy’ and ‘enigma’ have always been used with Ben Arfa ever since the ball had touched his feet as a child. But with such tags always comes some kind of volatility, which was in full display whilst he was nurturing his footballing skills in the Clairefontaine academy. The bust up between Ben Arfa and Abou Diaby, who is now his teammate in the French national team, was just the culmination. His career has been mired by bust ups and various incidents that have been all indicative of his selfish and sometimes preposterous nature.
His Newcastle career started off in that very essence as well. Very few remember that it was Ben Arfa who flew to Newcastle without the consent of Olympique Marseille, when he came to know of Newcastle’s interest in him. His bust up with Deschamps was a gift for Newcastle and the rest, as they say, is history. But the Premier League should take note; this is a new man with a refreshing attitude. Whether it has been Alan Pardew all along or the presence of more than a handful of French speaking players like Cabaye, Ba and Tiote , Ben Arfa has moulded himself into a player who is no longer a liability on either side of the pitch.
Ben Arfa’s career with Newcastle has been very short but has felt like forever for the Geordies, who have waited as patient audience to see the magician whip up some kind of trickery with his wand-like feet. And it has been worth the wait. After having his previous season cut short by a Nigel de Jong challenge, Pardew thought of playing him as an attacking midfielder. This really did ramp up the imagination of the Geordie faithful as they prepared themselves for witnessing some sort of wizardry from their French genius as they had seen from Ginola and Robert before. Alas! If only this game was played on the drawing board, Ben Arfa would have created aplenty not only for himself, but also for others around him.
But in reality, Pardew saw that his assessment of Ben Arfa wasn’t of the right order. Ben Arfa struggled to keep the tempo of passing and movement going in the team as he preferred to go on his trademark solo runs. He seldom played on the shoulder of the last defender, rather fancying taking on the defender in the middle of the pitch and often getting crowded out. Playing him as a central midfielder was too big of a defensive liability. So, Ben Arfa had to warm the bench for the early part of the season.
Again, credit where it is due. Pardew backtracked on his plans and decided to play Ben Arfa on the wings but didn’t let him into the side until he had shown his worth on the training ground. There were times when it seemed Ben Arfa might inevitably throw his toys out of the pram, but Pardew stuck at it. Not until recently, when Newcastle have had the correct personnel, has Pardew given Ben Arfa the license to romp forward from the right and it has paid him rich dividends.
With Gutierrez and Tiote acting as screens, it has allowed Ben Arfa to express himself offensively, while also tracking back when needed. This was typified in his performance against Swansea where the opposition had over 70% of the possession and Ben Arfa had to do most of his work off the ball. He had more touches in the defensive half than in the offensive half (as shown in the heat map above). But when he did have the ball in the offensive half, his was the decisive piece of play. He triggered two counter-attacks that resulted in both the goals.
He is now in the best form of his life, having scored five and set up five in his last 16 appearances and setting up number of other opportunities, which are not reflected in the stat sheets. His brilliant skills on the ball and the new found graft off the ball has been like a new signing for his club. Ben Arfa has been one of the primary reasons that Newcastle currently occupy a Champions League place.
Newcastle’s emergence this season has painted broad smiles into the faces of the Toon Army, but Hatem Ben Arfa’s coming of age has brought about smiles on the faces of virtually every football fan. He is thrilling to watch and his brilliance has given the Premier League an edge in pure skill and wizardry. And perhaps, a much needed one.
Written by Souvik Roy Chowdhury
Follow the author on Twitter @souvikrc
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