Having been hauled off after just 45 minutes in last week’s defeat at Southampton, it is safe to say that Hatem Ben Arfa is playing for his future at Newcastle United.
Once heralded as a £15million talent on Tyneside, the mercurial French talent now struggles to even command a starting spot in the side. In the remaining games of the season, Ben Arfa needs to prove that he is a luxury that Newcastle can afford to keep.
For a player so evidently gifted in possession of the football, the Frenchman’s frequent omission from the Magpies starting eleven bemuses many football fans. But with Alan Pardew’s expectations of defensive discipline and work rate, Ben Arfa has failed to convince in his capabilities off of the ball.
Can Newcastle really afford to select a player that won’t bust a gut to track back and regain possession? In the club’s great run of results in November and December, Ben Arfa was on the bench as Pardew regularly selected a hard-working and disciplined eleven. With Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran working the wide areas impressively both forwards and backwards, the Magpies were tough to beat and secured impressive victories at the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United.
Unlike Eden Hazard’s development at Chelsea this season, it is unlikely that Ben Arfa will ever be coached into restraining his instincts and applying himself in a mould similar to Sissoko and Gouffran. But when a player is so evidently gifted in the attacking third, should the coaching staff really be trying so hard to alter his natural game?
It ultimately boils down to whether this product of the prestigious Clairefontaine academy produces enough moments of magic to compensate for these defensive deficiencies. According to Who Scored, Ben Arfa has managed just three goals and three assists to in the Premier League this season. The Frenchman has evidently struggled for his best form since the hamstring injury which sidelined him for much of the previous campaign.
But in the player’s defence, Pardew’s management of the enigmatic talent has left a lot to be desired. Ben Arfa has made just thirteen starts and a further twelve appearances off of the bench.
How can a flair player ever be expected to produce his best when he is denied a regular run in the team? And when he is selected, there is the sense that Pardew regularly scapegoats the player, sometimes unfairly, for the team’s misfortunes.
With Yohan Cabaye’s departure and the club’s failure to sign a replacement, Ben Arfa should have instantly been recognised as Newcastle’s main playmaker and been selected accordingly. Although they are two players in very different moulds, the latter should have been identified as the only real creative force left at St. James’ Park.
In recent weeks, former Magpies Nolberto Solano and Rob Lee have both publicly labelled Ben Arfa as the most creative player at the club. Rather than pulling the strings from deep like Cabaye, the former Lyon and Marseille star at his best will beat several players at a time and create space and opportunities for others through his dribbling.
Instead, Ben Arfa continues to frequently warm the bench while Newcastle have unsurprisingly struggled to create much in an attacking sense. Since Cabaye’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, the Magpies have failed to hit the back of the net on all too many occasions.
Like all flair players, Ben Arfa is guilty of at times losing possession too often or looking to beat the extra man when the pass was a better option. And against the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea, the Frenchman may be best utilised as an impact substitute. But in so many other fixtures, Ben Arfa should be utilised as the creative hub of the side.
How many other Newcastle players could have honestly produced the dribble and cross for Papiss Cisse’s recent winner against Crystal Palace?
As the manager, Pardew needs to solve the dilemma of how to get best out of the player. Whether it is as a number ten or out wide, the manager needs to figure out how to get the best out of the most gifted individual at St James Park.
With just five league games left, Ben Arfa needs to prove that he is a luxury that will produce more often than not on Tyneside. But at the same time, the Frenchman needs his manager to grant him the opportunity to perform in a system which will allow him to flourish in the final third. Then and only then can a true judgement on Ben Arfa be made.