Dec 28, 2011

Hatem Ben Arfa: what we can learn from Chelsea

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…

The drifter
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.

Formation change
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.

Cabaye remembers
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.


  • This is fantastic! I have had many of these ideas, but not as clearly thought out or as clearly worded. Why not push Ben Arfa to the wing, keep Ba in the middle, and have Jonas pushing up front with a 3 man midfield behind? I really do think having a bit of 4-1-2-3 combo with Tiote in that CDM spot would really be using him to his full potential and make an already fantastic defense even better. Plus Guthrie and Cabaye like to get forward and feed the guys up front, and we already know Tiote can link wonderfully with them.

    I adore the fluidity Pardew has tried to put into this side, and it has largely worked. For me, however, we still end up being too reliant on the wings to create chances while NOT on the break (such as both Bolton goals) and end up relying on a much more traditional pounding into the box in a 4-4-2 style. And realistically, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best for what this team COULD be but maybe the best for what we’ve got right now, Ba can be so much more than just a centre forward who heads it in and picks up the garbage goals, as we’ve seen, and I think we need to come up with more inventive ideas of giving him the ball outside of crosses and some pieces of Cabaye magic.

    Just some thoughts to follow up your great post. Thought provoking stuff for sure.

  • Completely agree with everything said. However, will never happen. Pardew has already said he will never play Ben Arfa on the wing, and has been extremely stubborn in keeping that promise. Several times he has had the opportunity to play him out wide (Obertan/Marveaux injury, Jonas suspension) but has instead opted to play sammy. Even in the last 2 games he has brought Shola on and played him on the right rather than put Ben Arfa there. As much as we believe Ben Arfa can have an impact on the wing I guarantee it will never happen

  • Great thoughts. Love the articles and insight.

  • I want to admit something, i really enjoy watching Tottenham playing it’s footy this year ( but i never take Man U as my team then i play FIFA 12 thou 😀 ), so i came up with an idea which formation would be the most similar with our squad In the long run, and could play than beautifully-effective all pitch controlling and ball rolling passing game (i know spurs are not playing only short-passing, they are top of the league in long passes too) :




    ======VUKCIC===BEN ARFA===OBERTAN======

    ================DEMBA BA===============

    Two attacking Fullbacks (as i said in the long run. Travenier could come better than Raylor. He is super fast and hard working, full of potencial young lad. ) Tottenham plays Walker and Essou-Ekoto there and i believe in the future Travenier and Santon could be far better players then spurs duo.

    Two holding midfielders (Against Norwich London club played Parker and Sandro) And we Have Tiote – Cabaye (there’s nothing more to say on this issue, it’s clear that we are better in this department even now + we have Ahbeid and Inman in reserves)

    Van der Vart (VDV) is a natural second striker with an eye for the goal (i can see Vukcic playing like him, and being better than VDV,because he is still very young and is looking like a real good footballer even now ) Vukcic also is a good finisher and can cross the ball very well too.

    Obertan is not a Gareth Bale ofcourse, but he is fast and improving rapidly, he is more skilful than Bale, Gabby just need a lot more confidence which will come with game practice, and also work more on his crossing and shooting. But all in all he has all the potential to be a really good footballer even if not becoming Gareth Bale (Different style don’t mean worse player. Gabby Ronaldo?m? 🙂

    Also i think modric role could be perfect for Ben Arfa. Then fit Hatem is equal as good creator as Coratian International, moreover IMO Hatem ben Arfa has even better shot than Mr.Modric, which means our star is even a bigger threat to opposition’s deffender and keeper.

    Lastly two strikers: Demba Ba and Adebayor. Ha ha! Who would you pick? (I now me too ;D )

    P.s we have Marveaux coming back from injurie too so our future is really looking bright at the moment.

    All in all i believe we will strengthen our squad much more during next year, because playing in European competitions football great team depth. 😉 What do you thin guys?


  • NUFC blog varying from inane rantings to precision statistical analysis. Alternative match previews & reports plus a broader based (and heavily biased) footballing opinion on anything worthy of annoyance.

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