Despite the purse strings being tightened considerably there has been an influx of new players post relegation.
Nearly all of them have come in as unknown entities to the vast majority of fans. The jury is still out on most signed this summer. But of all the signings in recent times there has been one who came with a weight of expectation from the word go. Hatem Ben Arfa.
Those who don`t watch French football or fans relatively unaware of him prior to his move to Newcastle may have heard the name but had not seen him play. Fortunately I had the pleasure of watching him for a few years previous to the move and could not believe we managed to sign such a promising talent, albeit on loan at first.
Ben Arfa is my type of player. A mixture of pace, skill and a certain arrogance about how he plays the game. It doesn’t matter whether his marker is two yards away or twenty, he wants the ball and his first instinct is nearly always to get turned and run at the opposition. There are very few players I have witnessed with the ability to go by players as if they were not there. Ben Arfa is one of them.
Obviously he has not fulfilled expectations attached to him as a teenager but being put in the same sentence as names like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the time was, to say the least, quite a large compliment. Not every player can reach the heights of the aforementioned and Ben Arfa is not in the same league lets be honest, but he is not a million miles off in that he is the rare breed of player that has the ability to single handedly change or win you a game.
Hatem’s main problem growing up has always been his attitude not his ability. He has fallen out with players both at Lyon and Marseille in his time as well as causing all sorts of headaches for managers. This has obviously led to him being out of favour and confined to appearances from the bench for a decent chunk of his early twenties and given the circumstances I can see why. There is more to being a professional footballer than ability alone.
The impression I get is that like may who fall by the wayside slightly he was tipped for the top too young. He did fancy himself as a world beater and felt his development was hindered while in France, and maybe it was. More often than not he had to play second fiddle to experienced players like Sylvain Wiltord because of it and this made things worse, but to be honest if I was a young lad with the potential he had I would be annoyed at that too.
That said I think he did need to grow up a bit and learn the hard way, and I would hope that he has. Then again he may be the type of player that just has that trait. The need to be the main man. An arm around the shoulder, pat on the back type player who needs to know others think he is a world class footballer. Normally I would say this is a bad thing. If he was at a top European side it might well be. However I think for Newcastle it may work for us rather than against.
It is no secret that Newcastle fans are itching to see Ben Arfa back playing. Most rate him as the type of player we have been missing for years. Even more think our season hinges on him staying fit, especially now that we failed to secure a quality striker in the window. I wouldn’t argue it for a second. I think we have the makings of a very good side, but I do think without a striker we are very reliant on Ben Arfa to be that ever present attacking threat.
In fact looking at our side, the formation change, tactics and style of play promoted by Alan Pardew in pre-season, and even some of the signings we have made, it is clear to me that all of these factors have been planned with Ben Arfa in mind as the No 10 playing in the hole. It is obviously a slight risk to do so considering he has been out for a while but looking at it optimistically this could work for everyone concerned.
From Ben Arfa`s perspective he gets what he wants. He is now the centre of attention, the main man. If he performs he will be seen as our best player by far and loved by 50,000 Geordies every time he gets on the ball. He is playing in a central role where the ball will be fed to him as much as possible and will be asked to do what he does best, turn, run and scare the life out defences.
From a Newcastle perspective we get what we need. A player to sit in front of Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye and be a link between defence and attack. A focal point to take the pressure off and be fed balls to feet instead of being restricted to long ball tactics. Someone who will counter attack at pace and has no problem taking on a defence without a massive amount of support.
His dribbling ability and potential to play this role are not in question as far as I`m concerned. End product is vital though and something that would have been my only criticism of Ben Arfa when watching him in Ligue 1. As a winger his crossing was at times very erratic and when going it alone would have too much to do when coming from a wide position.
He would beat the winger and full back with relative ease against most sides but would sometimes then try to take on two or three more to score what would be a best goal of all time contender. No matter how good you are these scenarios don`t work out that way very often. Even the supreme beings of football in Ronaldo and Messi don`t get away with that on a regular basis.
However any time I have seen Ben Arfa play in a central role it has eliminated erratic displays for the most part and his end product does seem to improve. His game changes from beating two and crossing, or trying to beat another three, to beating two and finding himself in a great position to shoot, and for anyone that has seen some of his goals in Ligue 1, the one against Norway last year or obviously the screamer against Everton, can tell you the lad can definitely strike a ball.
There is another concern for some, the injuries. True, ever since he has been a Newcastle player he has played something like four games in total, but when I hear people band about the term “injury prone” it frustrates the life out of me to be honest. Ben Arfa in the last year or so has suffered two injuries. A double leg break and complications afterwards which he done well to come back from at all.
The second, another extremely bad challenge which would have injured any player in my opinion. The ligament injury had no connection to the leg break whatsoever and anyone that has had a similar injury will know it takes a bit of time to come back from and play comfortably, never mind play top league professional football.
In Ben Arfa`s career these two injuries have been two spots on an otherwise blank canvas of injuries. The lad is not injury prone at all and at this point it is laughable to consider him crocked. Some will say he may be hit by the Newcastle injury curse and we could have another Dyer on our hands. I personally don`t think he will but it`s all conjecture really, time will prove one side of the argument wrong.
For the moment I am looking forward to seeing him back in action and think our performances in an attacking sense will be vastly improved by his presence. I also think although there is a lot of pressure on him to be “The Man”. there is nobody I have seen in a Newcastle shirt since the likes of David Ginola or Peter Beardsley with the potential to be just that.
Apart from that I think not only has Ben Arfa got something to prove, to himself and the footballing world, he has a debt of gratitude to Newcastle fans for standing by him and showing so much support during his time out with a broken leg. I think it is something that meant a lot to him and he wants to repay the fans for it.
I only hope people can send the same good wishes and support his way in the week or two leading up to his return so when he does walk onto the pitch in the black and white again he will know the fans are behind him 110% and haven’t written him off as just another Kieron Dyer.
Pressure to perform is certainly on but I for one think he can rise to the occasion.