Few players have lit up St. James’ Park in recent years in quite the same way that Hatem Ben Arfa has. When he’s on the pitch there’s a tangible excitement amongst the Toon Army that is unrivalled by any other Newcastle United player. Capable of the truly magical when he has the ball at his feet, the 26 year old Frenchman has the ability to win a football match at a moment’s notice.
Recently, however, he has found his opportunities rather limited. He has played only 4 hours of the last 12 available on the pitch and there is a growing weekly clamour amongst fans to give Ben Arfa the playing time he deserves. But is Alan Pardew correct in omitting the man affectionately dubbed “Le Wizard” from the starting line-up?
The prevalent opinion is that Hatem Ben Arfa doesn’t prioritise his defensive duties and becomes a liability to the team as a result. When you compare his defensive contribution to that of Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sisssoko and Yoan Gouffran – arguably the three players who have claimed the positions in which Ben Arfa can play – it’s clear to see that there is a striking difference in what they offer to the team in terms of defensive abilities.
Obviously these players have all had different amounts of game time, so the only way to give the fairest, most accurate representation of their statistics was to calculate how often they were successful in each of their actions on average (ie. “Minutes per…”)
Hatem Ben Arfa has had 975 minutes game time.
Moussa Sissoko has had 1,983 minutes game time.
Yohan Cabaye has had 1,571 minutes game time.
Yoan Gouffran has had 1,562 minutes game time.
(All sourced from The Guardian statistics. Minutes include added time.)
Table courtesy of Squawka.com
It goes without saying that Ben Arfa is Newcastle’s most proficient dribbler, not only in terms of volume, but also in success rate. He successfully completes 59% of his dribbles, greater than the likes of Sissoko (48%), Cabaye (46%) and Gouffran (38%).
Another area of Hatem’s game which is lauded by fans is his creativity. When in need of a goal, the Toon Army are praying for the ball to land at Ben Arfa’s feet in hope of him conjuring up a piece of brilliance. However, these expectations may be misguided based on the current season’s stats:
As you can see in the table above, Hatem Ben Arfa registers the largest minutes-per-chance-created ratio of all of the players vying for a spot in the starting line-up. What is perhaps even more shocking for someone with a supposedly ‘gung-ho’ attitude is his pass direction statistic:
Graphic courtesy of Squawka.com
The supposedly ‘all-out-attack or nothing’ Ben Arfa essentially plays an equal number of passes backwards as he does forwards. Whilst playing a higher percentage of forward passes than Yoan Gouffran (46.6%), it’s nonetheless fewer than both Moussa Sissoko (54.2% forward) and Yohan Cabaye (67.8% forward). So if he’s not creating chances or encouraging attacking play – two of his supposed biggest weapons in his arsenal – what other redeeming factors does he have from an attacking standpoint?
Whilst his crossing accuracy (23%) is greater than Cabaye’s (18%) and Gouffran’s (7%), all fall some way short of Moussa Sissoko’s hugely impressive total (29%). Hatem Ben Arfa also currently has the worst shooting accuracy of all of these players, and were it not for his penalty goal against Crystal Palace his shot conversion rate would drop to just 6.9%.
In terms of his overall direct contribution to goals, Hatem Ben Arfa also fails to show his supposedly-superior offensive credentials that would compensate for his defensive inadequacies.
So where has all the hype generated itself from? Well, Hatem Ben Arfa is as enigmatic as they come. When he plays to his full potential he’s more or less unplayable from an opposition perspective. The fact that he currently occupies a top 10 spot for ‘Most Man of the Match’ awards in the current season tells everyone that he has the ability to treat the football pitch like a school playground on his day.
Table courtesy of WhoScored.com
Unfortunately, the problem is that he requires a full 90 minutes on the pitch to deliver any worthwhile performances as of late, with a huge proportion of his better performances and all 3 of his MOTM awards coming in games where he played the entirety of the match:
Courtesy of WhoScored.com
Courtesy of WhoScored.com
Both graphics above show the little impact that Ben Arfa has on a game when he’s brought on as a substitute. As you can see, his best performances have been registered when he plays on the right hand side of midfield and it’s here where Newcastle United will need to utilise him in order to reap the rewards. This, however, would mean dropping Moussa Sissoko – somebody who has been one of this season’s most ever-present, consistent players. Sissoko leads the entire club’s assists charts whilst also putting in the highest proportion of accurate crosses and having the best minutes-per-chance-created ratio of any Newcastle player. On top of this, Sissoko doesn’t also come with the unfortunate-yet-accurate stigma of being a defensive liability. Unfortunately for Hatem Ben Arfa, it’s a no-brainer.
So should Pardew drop Yoan Gouffran instead? Somebody of such solid defensive reliability who fights for the team, whilst also possessing the priceless knack of scoring and creating goals at a greater rate than Ben Arfa? Of course not.
The fact is that Newcastle United have statistically performed better without Hatem Ben Arfa on the pitch. Of the 9 games that he started, Newcastle United would go on to lose 4 of those games and draw 1, giving the team a win percentage of 37.5%. Included in those defeats were the particularly embarrassing losses to Hull City and the Tyne-Wear derby game at St. James’ Park.
On the other hand, of the 13 games where Hatem has not started, Newcastle United have won 8 of their games including huge victories over Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United. The win percentage for when he’s not in the starting eleven shoots up to 57%.
To give a fairer representation, take a look at one last table below. It contains information about every goal scored and conceded for every minute of the 975 Ben Arfa was on the pitch and the 1,124 minutes he wasn’t in the Premier League this season thus far. To reiterate, this takes into account when he was substituted on or off each match and the goals are recorded accordingly (eg. In the Newcastle/Everton game, when Ben Arfa was ‘On the Pitch’ Newcastle scored 0 goals and conceded 3. When Ben Arfa was substituted, thereby being ‘Off the Pitch’, Newcastle scored 2 goals and conceded 0.)
If anything, this is the one table that should carry the most weight and credibility when considering whether Alan Pardew is right in his decision to bench the mercurial Frenchman.
The table clearly shows that when Ben Arfa is on the pitch Newcastle United concede goals at a greater rate than they are scoring them – effectively making Newcastle a losing team. On the other hand, when he is off the pitch Newcastle United score goals at a far superior rate than they concede them – the essence of a winning team.
The difference between the number of minutes it takes for a goal to be scored when ‘On the Pitch’ and ‘Off the Pitch’ is not too significant; just 10 minutes. In stark contrast to this, Newcastle United ship goals in at a hugely alarming rate when Hatem Ben Arfa is on the pitch as opposed to when he’s off it; over twice as often. The bottom line is that the attacking advantage that Ben Arfa affords is negligible compared to the vast defensive disadvantages he burdens the team with.
Would attractive football be preferred? Of course it would. In an ideal scenario everybody would love to go and see footballers like Hatem Ben Arfa take to the pitch and attempt to wow the crowd. He’s a throwback to Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’, and that’s why he’s such a popular figure at St. James’ Park. But as the cliché goes; the most important thing is the 3 points. And unfortunately for Newcastle United, they have their best chance of achieving it with Ben Arfa off the pitch.
What do you think? Is Pardew right to leave HBA out of the starting XI?