It is well known at this stage that I am a big fan of Hatem Ben Arfa and think that, if utilized correctly, he could be the next iconic Newcastle player.
I also believe that Alan Pardew got it right in saying that he believes Ben Arfa to be an ‘in the hole’ player rather than a winger, and that is the position we will get the best out of him.
The fact is though, since his return, aside from a cameo against Blackburn he has only shown very brief glimpses of what he is capable of. The majority of appearances in recent times have seen him all but marked out of games and caught in possession when he does get on the ball and try and make something happen.
For some it has started to frustrate given the hype and to an extent those annoyed at his largely anonymous displays are justified in being so given the lads ability on the ball. I do think however some of the criticism is slightly harsh given the circumstances.
Those who have played the position in the past or coached in any capacity will know that it is one of, if not the most, difficult position to play on the pitch. The focus is firmly on you to be the link between defence and attack, and is a position generally occupied by the star of a team.
Hatem Ben Arfa is seen by many Newcastle supporters as potentially just that, a star. With that being the case, why has he not set the world alight since his return? Some of it is no doubt down to time away from the game injured but I personally think our tactics are the main reason.
This season we have seen our wingers used more as defensive protection than chance providers. In most of our games this season, Gutierrez especially has been assigned to protect Ryan Taylor at full back and spends very little of the ninety minutes attacking the opposition on the ball.
Gabriel Obertan has been required to do this job on the right hand side too. Although I do think he has more license to go forward and counter attack I think his passing and decisions when we have limited support up with him leave an awful lot to be desired.
In the middle at full strength we have had Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye. The former is an old style defensive midfielder. Not gifted in a creative sense but instrumental in protecting our defence. The latter, a great blend of midfielder to go with Tiote and potentially Ben Arfa. So why has it not worked?
Yohan Cabaye has been the signing of the season for me. He has a bit of everything. Dogged hard work off the ball, ever-willing to get stuck in and on the ball a real class act to watch. His passing range and more so decision making in passing the ball is as good as is out there.
Unfortunately Cabaye has been restricted somewhat, especially without Tiote of late, in his opportunity to push higher up the pitch and bring wingers and front men into a short, intricate passing game. He has often sat deep and sprayed long balls, to good effect, but it does not suit an ‘in the hole’ player.
I honestly think in time we will see Ben Arfa get back to his best but it is largely dependent on the improvement of certain positions. If all goes well we should see players at full back who do not need such a high level of protection which will allow our wingers to be more attack-minded.
If this comes to fruition it will give us a different dimension going forward and aid Ben Arfa’s cause greatly. The opposition will no longer be comfortable in the knowledge that the majority of attacks will come through the centre and will have to adapt to our increased threat from wide positions.
If this is the case, teams will not be able to man mark or even double mark Ben Arfa in the centre and essentially nullify the threat of a player who is not good in the air but can do serious damage if he finds that bit of space to turn and run in the centre of the pitch.
Space to manipulate and get turned and running on the ball in the centre can also be aided by very good full backs. In a complete flip to what we see at the moment for Newcastle, most strong sides have full backs who are nearly as much of an attacking threat as their wingers.
What this does to opposition sides, as you may have seen happen to Newcastle many times this season, is the wingers have to come back to defend, and when they cannot the central midfielders have to come across to double up with the full back.
We have seen this happen a lot against Newcastle, especially against the bigger sides with Guthrie and Cabaye being dragged wide. Using Chelsea as an example it allowed Juan Mata to drift inside and cause all sorts of problems.
I think if we can achieve the balance between attacking threat and defensive strength on the wings it will bode well for Ben Arfa and we will see him improve. As well as this, with a player like Cabaye sitting in the centre, no better man to be able to supply him and link to.
The final aspect in getting the most out of this position, and in our case Ben Arfa, I think is the front man. Not only do they have to be good in the air but definitely have to be a ball player too, with good movement, touch, a bit of skill and the ability to come short and play off the shoulder of the last man.
I think we have this tailor-made in Demba Ba. He has been unbelievable so far this season and long may it continue but if we are to get the most out of Ben Arfa he has to develop an extremely good understanding with Ba and be able to consistently supply him with chances.
Much like Ben Arfa’s ability, we have seen small glimpses of a budding partnership so far, but not often enough, not even close. The obvious one that springs to mind is the quick interchange and clever disguised pass by Ben Arfa to put Ba through against Man City, only for Hart to make a great save.
Hopefully we will see a lot more of that in future but at the moment, whether it be due to the aforementioned contributing factors, a lack of match sharpness on Ben Arfa’s part or a lack of playing time together as a pairing, there is a lot of room for improvement.
I fully expect some to disagree with me completely on this one and be much more harsh on Ben Arfa than I have been, and his individual performances to date give them more than enough reason to be. That said I do think there is more to it and can only hope in time I am proved right.
In the meantime though there is an ever-growing question of whether he deserves to be starting every game and if so, where should he play? As I said I genuinely think the ‘in the hole’ position is his best but with our current style of play he may be more suited to playing wide with two big men up front.
Given Obertan’s recent dip in form I would personally give Ben Arfa a shot on the right hand side against Swansea and West Brom. He could prove myself and more importantly wrong in thinking he should play through the middle. At the very least he will put pressure on Obertan to perform.
What do others think? Should he start against Swansea? Is his form down to circumstances? Is it more due to the long lay off and lack of game time? Has he in fact lost something he had before the injury and will never be the same player? Or given time will he become the player we all want him to be, the next Toon superstar?
Feedback and comments much appreciated as always.