As he stepped towards the white line the crowd gave a roar, they had waited a year for this moment. Hatem Ben Arfa was now returning to the stage after a difficult first season in English football.
Over the past twelve months Newcastle fans have consoled themselves with Youtube clips and regaling the stories of ‘that day at Goodison park’. Time gives good memories a nostalgic gloss that is often hard to wipe away. Many still see the mercurial Frenchman glide across the turf leaving Everton players in his wake. The ultimate highlight of that day was without question his goal, and it was hard not to get lost in the potential player the club had just acquired.
Little were fans to know that less than a month later Ben Arfa would be clutching an oxygen mask after a somewhat reckless challenge by Nigel De Jong. Over 12 months on Ben Arfa has returned, but so much has changed since he first appeared in black and white. The team, the tactics, even the manager has changed. Admittedly the new surroundings all seem better suited to his talents.
As a fan it is difficult to stay objective with a player like Ben Arfa. He excites with his play and evokes memories of former gallic wingers like Laurent Robert and David Ginola, if for his passport more than playing style. Given the number 10 by Alan Pardew, the assignment gave connotations that Ben Arfa was to operate between the midfield and attack. He is seen as the link man who would be given the space to drive at defenders.
His first few outings have been mixed, the skill is still there but the fluency is lacking as you may expect with such a long term injury. It’s at this point I’m inclined to regress to that day at Goodison Park. Chris Hughton was somewhat rigid in his tactics, meaning Ben Arfa was played out wide, a role that actually seemed to benefit him.
We look back to our recent fixture at home to Chelsea and observe our then opponents to see that a modern wide man does not necessarily stay wide…
Juan Manuel Mata was a large part of Chelsea’s attack that day, embarrassing Danny Simpson at one point, his touches and awareness as well as his ability to play the pitch horizontally was a constant problem for Newcastle. On the traditional chalk board he operates on the left wing, but in truth he rarely stays there.
In years gone by Mata may have been lambasted for drifting inside, his forrays into the middle of the pitch may have been construed as a players lacking in discpline. However as fans witnessed first hand, for a team such as Newcastle that does not (at this moment in time) operate with a defensive midfielder, the drifting wide man can cause havoc in the pockets of space between midfield and defence (akin to David Silva at Manchester City).
Ben Arfa out wide
This is where I introduce Ben Arfa to the frame. Adopting him in a wide position he is essentially the antithesis of the opposing wing and Jonas Gutierrez. Not as hard working as the Argentine, he is more skillful and far more likely to create chances for Demba Ba or Leon Best.
Analyzing Mata’s chalkboard from the fixture in early December* (something we touched on in the match analysis at the time) we see that much of his passing is done down the left flank. He does however drift inside to the centre of the pitch and to the edge of Newcastle’s box.
We can draw similar conclusions from the chalkboard of the Newcastle-Everton game last season**. Whilst not a carbon copy of Mata’s game Ben Arfa was more prominent on the flank and on the edge of the box.
Pushing the concept further with particular reference to the Manchester United game this season***. Ben Arfa’s passing suggests a natural leaning to the right side of the pitch. Ergo in theory deploying him on the left should make him far more inclined to drift.
Fighting for space
It’s difficult to decide whether Chelsea came prepared for Ben Arfa, or if their natural formation is of detriment to an attacking midfielder. Either way their summer signing from Barcelona Oriel Romeu proved once again why he’s earning such rave reviews. Inhabiting the area between midfield and the back four he left little space for Ben Arfa to operate. On the rare occasion he did pick up the ball he was greeted by at least two or three blue shirts.
In the wider context of the starting eleven this move could also see a change of formation. If the game against Chelsea denoted one thing, it’s that Alan Pardew is not afraid of modify or tinker tactically. While I struggle to agree with his deployment of 4-3-3 against Chelsea given the players available, with a fully fit squad it may actually be the best tactical formation for Newcastle.
A midfield trio of Guthrie, Cabaye and Tiote should be able to dominate the middle of the park and offer the right blend of power and control. Supplement this with the strong work ethic of Jonas out right and Ben Arfa on the left the formation essentially mirrors that of Chelsea’s both in layout and the type of players used.
It should also be considered that the formation holds further benefit for another Frenchman, Yohan Cabaye. His title winning side at Lille operated in an almost identical fashion to the one proposed. In that side Gervinho and Eden Hazard were the compliments to Moussa Sow up front with Rio Mavuba operating in the role assigned to Tiote.
Of course the same could be achieved in a traditional 4-4-2. The concern there however, is the lack of cover for Danny Simpson. Tracking back is not a word readily associated with Ben Arfa meaning Simpson could be left exposed. This problem is rectified by having a defined three man midfield with Tiote moving across to cover.
With lesser defensive responsibilities Ben Arfa is allowed the freedom to create and occupy the opposition fullback. As many witnessed first hand on Saturday with Mata, this can have devastating consequences.
To slightly digress from statistics and cite a personal opinion, I believe that Ben Arfa out wide would be far more beneficial, especially when the opposition deploys a defensive midfielder.
To conclude, I believe patience will be key with Ben Arfa. Four games into his career when injury struck, he was still adapting to English football which much like a leg break has no definitive time frame of completion. Without question he is a talent, but I believe his true worth will not be seen until Alan Pardew is able to utilize him correctly.