Stood in front of the Milburn stand with his number 10 held aloft, Hatem Ben Arfa prepared to enter the field of play as a second half substitute against Blackburn; his first Premier League appearance since suffering a double leg break almost a year previous at Manchester City.
His adoring fans rose to their feet to herald the long awaited return of their Gallic favourite; in excitement and in recognition of his undoubted ability and courage to battle back from a potential career threatening injury.
Yet, it’s fair to say that Ben Arfa’s first team progress since has stuttered. Not a slur on the player, but more that his manager, Alan Pardew, appeared to be adopting a safety-first approach regarding his star player’s return from a lengthy injury lay-off. Or so it appeared..
As the saying goes, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and for some Newcastle fans, the longer Ben Arfa remained on the sidelines, when fit for selection, the more they called for his inclusion.
The chants began most audibly during December’s 0-0 draw against Swansea. ‘Hatem-Ben-Arfa’ sang sections of the St James’ Park crowd, but Pardew was unrelenting, he ‘didn’t think the situation was right, and so Newcastle’s number 10 sat the remainder of the game out on the bench.
Just over a week later and Newcastle traveled to the Reebok Stadium to face Bolton on Boxing Day. With the score at 0-0, and Newcastle appearing devoid of ideas, the Ben Arfa chants began to ring out from the traveling support again just after half time. This time, unlike against Swansea, the Newcastle fans got their wish. Ben Arfa came on, turned the game in Newcastle’s favour and scored in a 2-0 victory for the Magpies.
Surely now he would merit a starting place? Not so, as he was again named on the bench against Liverpool in the following fixture with youngster Haris Vuckic named in Ben Arfa’s designated ‘number 10′ role.
Speculation began to mount that Pardew had fallen out with the enigmatic Frenchman, something which the Newcastle manager was keen to play down, whilst also giving a typically honest assessment of the situation: “I know there have been suggestions, rumours, that he isn’t happy here, but it’s just not true. He’s fine, I think he knows he’s not at his best yet and the stats in the game he has played, I would expect better from him because of what a good player he is. He just needs to come up a level.”
Looking for answers, attention turned to Pardew’s tactics, none more so than the often hyperbolic #nufc clan on Twitter, and his apparent inability to find a place for Ben Arfa in his rigid 4-4-2 formation. ‘Why is Best/Shola playing ahead of Ben Arfa?’, How come Obertan is still getting his game?’, ‘James F*&kin Perch!!’, and so on..
All warranted subjects of discussion, perhaps, yet for all the focus on selection and tactics (yes, there was plenty of that from this domain..) little recognition was paid to Pardew’s man-management skills and ability to ‘get inside a player’s head’, as a factor for his non-selection of Ben Arfa.
After all, this was a player who, in going on strike to force his move to Newcastle, had shown himself to be something of an anti disciplinarian. And given that the football world, excluding Alan Shearer, had been keen to talk up his undoubted potential from an early age, it would not be incomprehensible should Ben Arfa have developed an ego that would make Nicklas Bendtner blush.
Pardew was within his rights as manager of Newcastle United football club to have some reservations over Ben Arfa’s character and ability to fit into Newcastle’s fairly new-found team ethos, togetherness and spirit. Not to ‘rock the apple cart’ if you will, which perhaps explains Ben Arfa’s so far sparse appearances.
Not only that, by keeping Ben Arfa out of the side, Pardew has shown that he will not be dictated by name and reputation and Ben Arfa, accustomed to being a guaranteed starter, has had to humbly bide his time on the bench. And, to be fair to him, he has quietly accepted that as the way of things at the club who stuck by and supported him during his recovery from injury; to play in this Newcastle side, he must play for this Newcastle side.
25 minutes here, half an hour there, will have no doubt whet Ben Arfa’s appetite and built up a hunger that may not have been as prevalent had he went straight back into the first team when fit.
FA Cup 3rd round vs Blackburn and that goal
Against the same side that he made his Premier League comeback, Ben Arfa was handed a start in the FA cup third round against Blackburn last weekend. Months of frustration and patience on the sidelines, coupled with a determination to impress, culminated in one of the greatest goals in recent memory as Ben Arfa danced through 5 or 6 Blackburn players, in a Messi-esque fashion, before eventually smashing the ball home from close range – a sensational way to mark his arrival.
In the week since, Pardew has been forthcoming in his praise for Ben Arfa and that goal:
“It is technically the greatest goal I have ever seen, you can smash them in from 40 yards but to score a goal like that you have to be a special talent and it was an unbelievable goal and I am really pleased for Hatem”.
“Hatem has to understand it is about the team and where we think he is best, but his talent was there for everyone to see today. He is doing everything in his power to make himself a success here and that is great for us”.
But these quotes aren’t merely sound bites, as is often the case nowadays in an over-saturated world of 24/7 football coverage and managers keen to grab more air time than Kerry Katona – looking at you ‘Arry. No, when Pardew speaks, he is always cerebral, open and honest. He is media-savvy, maintains a strong relationship with his players, and his praise for Ben Arfa is not only merited but intended to show his player that he has his backing; to show encouragement while at the same time giving no illusions about the level of performance expected.
Losing Demba Ba to the African Cup of Nations is a blow, but in his place Newcastle now have a fit, firing and full of confidence Frenchman ready to fill the role of Newcastle’s primary goal threat. It would be disingenuous to label this as a coincidence. Pardew has kept Ben Arfa on a leash (not literally, Jamie), like an angry pit bull terrier that’s raring to be let off, as was seen against Blackburn last weekend.
While the debate will rumble on about what Ben Arfa’s best position is – is he better as a number 10 or a winger? – his understanding of his role and what it takes to be a ‘current Newcastle player’ couldn’t be clearer, and for that the credit must lie at Pardew’s door.
While it may have appeared that Pardew has, at times, cut his nose off to spite his face in his none selection of Ben Arfa, I trust his judgement, as I do his management of the much maligned Gabriel Obertan. He has shown himself to be an excellent man manager with his players rarely, if ever, complaining in public, and he knows what makes his players tick.
He has played the patient and psychological game with Ben Arfa, keeping him hungry for a taste of the action, and Newcastle fans should now start to reap the benefits of this approach in the Premier League, starting with this Sunday’s home fixture against Q.P.R.
Finally, a small public service announcement…
Regular eagle-eyed readers of the site and our Twitter followers may have noticed that the Man United report and QPR preview weren’t uploaded to the site. We have made the decision to take a break from match previews and reports as they were becoming more of a chore, almost like homework, which was never the intention when we started the site in 2010. Naturally, we appreciate all the comments and feedback that we’ve had but for it to be enjoyable again, we’ve agreed to write on a more ad-hoc basis and when it feels appropriate, rather than when fixtures dictate. Although we still plan to write regularly; you aren’t getting away from our spiel that easily…Cheers, RD and Smith.