Arguably, Hatem Ben Arfa is Newcastle United’s most talented attacking player. In fact, I’d argue that it isn’t even arguable. In the 9 years I’ve been a season ticket holder at St James’ Park, there is no denying that HBA is the most technically gifted player to grace the field in Black and White (only Laurent Robert comes close). According to Alan Shearer in a recent interview with Talksport: “he has got skills that others haven’t”.
Yet, a debate continues to rage regarding the enigmatic Frenchman: particularly, his best position. For me, he is at his imperious best playing on the right, cutting in onto his favoured left foot and scoring/creating at will. Alan Pardew was quoted at the beginning of his tenure as saying that he would only use HBA behind a central striker: a plan which has since failed to materialise. Sylvain Marveaux is, in my opinion, more of a natural in that no.10 role than Hatem: the former seems to have more time on the ball, more of an ability to keep possession, while the latter is at his best dribbling at and terrifying full backs.
However, with a berth on the right of the four-man midfield which has been deployed by Pardew in recent matches – including the incredibly impressive victories over Chelsea and Spurs – comes a defensive responsibility. This is something which, rather unfortunately, is not in Ben Arfa’s natural game.
Indeed, part of the reason behind his departure from Marseille and arrival on Tyneside was his lack of work ethic: leading to an irreparable fall out with then-Marseille boss Didier Deschamps. In the very same aforementioned Talksport interview, Shearer bluntly comments that “he won’t work hard for you”, and that “work-rate is not something you associate with him”.
Thus, Pardew has opted for Moussa Sissoko on the right hand side. Despite being out of his usual position in the centre, Sissoko offers an energy and athleticism which Ben Arfa could only dream of, as well as an encouraging partnership with Mathieu Debuchy at right back. Debuchy’s defensive strategy is to push up tight on opposition wingers when they receive the ball: a high-pressing technique often associated with continental players. The potential drawback of this is that it can leave space in behind, but with Sissoko covering defensively and filling that space where Ben Arfa did not, it is no coincidence that Debuchy has looked a far more accomplished defender in recent times.
In fact, the team as a whole has looked more compact and solid playing this 4-4-2 system without HBA. This can be linked back to the first half of the 11/12 season, which set a platform for a remarkable 5th place finish. In the first half of that campaign during a long unbeaten stretch, Pardew opted for the vastly less-talented Gabriel Obertan on the right of midfield, with Hatem making only cameo appearances.
Could it be that Newcastle United actually perform better without their best player? The stats certainly seem to suggest so. In the Premier League in 12/13, NUFC won 4/19 when Ben Arfa was involved; as opposed to 7/19 when he was not. Accordingly, this season has seen us win just 3/9 with Ben Arfa and 2/2 without.
It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the 26 year-old Frenchman is deployed in the next two games: more than winnable home contests against Norwich and West Brom. Newcastle are renowned for struggling in these types of matches, as demonstrated by a disappointing result earlier in the season against Hull at SJP.
Undeniably, Ben Arfa is capable of producing a moment of magic which can unlock a defence, especially in games where Newcastle will have the lion’s share of possession and be expected to attack with regularity. However, ultimately, HBA’s selection will come down to whether or not naturally cautious manager Pardew trusts him at the other end of the pitch: this decision could make or break Hatem Ben Arfa’s Newcastle United future.
What do you think about Hatem? Would he be best utilised?