Thursday, 18 September 2014

From X-Factor to Ex-Factor: The demise of Hatem Ben Arfa

Following Hatem Ben Arfa's much publicised exit from Newcastle United, Sam Winter looks at where it all went wrong for the fans' favourite.

"There is magic in his feet, it is his world when he is on the ball. Not many players in this division can score goals like that. It was very clever. There are not many blessed with that kind of talent."

Alan Pardew, waxing lyrical about his prized possession in 2012 following one of the greatest goals witnessed at St James' Park. That prized possession was of course Hatem Ben Arfa. Newcastle had once again won, spearheaded by the brilliant Frenchman, and Champions League qualification was a real possibility. 

Star man: Ben Arfa was a genius at best, a prized asset of his Manager

 Fast forward 29 months and Ben Arfa wears a different set of stripes, Newcastle play a less scintillating brand of football, and Alan Pardew's popularity is at an all time low. What rubber-stamped Ben Arfa's unpopular departure we might never fully know. However what cannot be denied is that there has been a serious decline in Ben Arfa's performance, and his relationship with Alan Pardew.

The Best of Hatem Ben Arfa

"Hatem’s very focused about being a professional footballer. A lot of players could learn from him in terms of that – although he’s still a maverick. You never know quite what he’s going to do. He gives the team an X-factor, which is important.” 

At his best Hatem Ben Arfa was a magician, unplayable, drawing comparisons with Lionel Messi. He would frighten defenders with his unpredictability, wriggle out of any situation, and completely change gear and burst past all who tried to stop him. He got into endless chance-creating positions and his form propelled Newcastle to another level in their 2012 Champions League chase. 

He destroyed West Brom and Liverpool notably, he dug Newcastle out of sticky patches on regular occasions - putting Sunderland on the back foot at St James', majestically equalising against Blackburn in the FA Cup, and blasting important goals against the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and, more recently, Fulham in front of his adoring faithful. 

Magician: Ben Arfa saved his best for the adoring faithful at St James'

His best moment was that breathtaking goal against Bolton Wanderers at St James' Park; skill, pace, power, poise, and balance - one of the greatest goals Tyneside had seen. Once again it was his magic that got Newcastle going against a dogged Bolton side. 

At this height of his form Ben Arfa was praised by his manager for his "immaculate" focus and professionalism. Praised for eventually buying in to the team ethic; chipping in with tackles, tracking back, winning the odd header. The way he carried and kept of hold of the ball gave his team-mates a rest but also a platform to build attacking intent.

And he thrilled the fans. St James' Park adored him, demanded him when he wasn't playing, and the volume would increase several notches at his mere presence. His best moments will always be remembered on Tyneside, that's how good he could be.

The Worst of Hatem Ben Arfa

On reflection, Hatem Ben Arfa's deserved call-up to the France squad for Euro 2012 was perhaps a turning point in his Newcastle United career. A much publicised bust-up in the French camp involving Ben Arfa saw his "enfant terrible" tag rear its head. 

Ben Arfa returned to Newcastle noticeably unfit, missing pre-season completely but drove Newcastle to an opening day victory over Spurs and sending a scorching equaliser into the top corner against Aston Villa. All seemed well but Ben Arfa's lack of fitness caught up with him and injury took him out of a Newcastle side desperate for his invention. 

Ben Arfa struggled for fitness in 2012/13, but still provided some magic moments

On a fleeting return he scored a beauty at Craven Cottage but was injured again, not returning until March with Newcastle in and out of a relegation battle. Aside from some flashes of skill and a crucial penalty at Loftus Road, Ben Arfa was never the same again.

His fitness has always been an issue in parts, not helped of course by an awful broken leg. But since returning at the start of 2012/13 there have been niggling injuries and questions of fluctuating weight. He has never once looked like the lean, sharp, lethal Hatem Ben Arfa that performed so wonderfully at the back end of the previous campaign.

Which raises the issue of professionalism.

Alan Pardew has very often praised Ben Arfa for his professionalism - his improved professionalism. His improved work-rate, teamwork, tracking back, dedication. A constant public arm-round-the-shoulder. Praise was certainly merited, but Pardew made sure that he mentally mothered his prized possession to remind him of his required duties as a team player.

Rash: Ben Arfa lost focus, and his place in the team

But the professionalism waned; Ben Arfa became rash, erratic. He became increasingly careless in possession, a danger to the team - dispossessed before opposition goals. Too often he blazed shots into the stands, perhaps blinded by an eagerness to please, and made bad choices in bad areas. Too often he was hauled off at half-time, too often deservedly so.

Who is to blame?

Many people blame Alan Pardew, and naturally so. The most creative talent on Newcastle United books not getting a look in, not allowed to train with the first team, not playing in front of his adoring crowd. The biggest frustration was the silence, no explanation of why. 

Pardew's back was against the wall after the sale of Yohan Cabaye. Let down by the hierarchy his annoyance spilled alarmingly at Hull. Perhaps he retreated into a damage limitation mode, afraid of risking the adventurous approach of Ben Arfa. If he did, it didn't work.

Rumours of a bust-up between Ben Arfa and a frustrated Pardew seem to be a factor. Another poor cameo from the equally frustrated Frenchman. However Ben Arfa appeared again at Stoke, which reportedly was the final straw for many senior players including Fabricio Coloccini. He has never appeared in the senior shirt again. It is a far cry from the days of Ben Arfa being Pardew's favourite son.
Further issues of form and fitness blighted Ben Arfa's final season on Tyneside

Still the crowd call for Ben Arfa and direct anger at Pardew. But the Manager cited the players lack of professionalism when quizzed on a reported pre-season overweight fine. 

Whoever is to blame, the mercurial Frenchman never hit consistent heights that his potential craved. We have to remember that Ben Arfa only got regular starts in a blinding final third of 2011/12; he couldn't get an extended run in a team that had maintained a lofty position all season. Newcastle's best spell last season also lacked the winger. There never even seemed to be any solid talk of a contract extension during his spell at the club, unlike his team-mates around him.

Ben Arfa's inconsistency was incredibly frustrating. Early on last season he was "unplayable" at Villa but barely two weeks later was atrocious at Everton. His impressive displays became all too rare and when Newcastle really needed him most, following Cabaye's au revoir, he failed to deliver all too much. It reached a point where his appearance from the bench in games Newcastle led last season actually filled me with dread; that he would lose the ball in a key area with a lead so precious at stake.

45 league starts in a very inconsistent three or so years on Tyneside underline why Hatem Ben Arfa will never reach the heights of the greats he has been compared with. He will never reach the heights that so many were convinced he would. We will all be wondering "what if?" in years to come.

Time to move on

Now he is gone, and there is nothing that can be said or done to bring him back. It remains to be seen how he will do at Hull City. I imagine there will be flashes of brilliance, of course there will, and that will hurt Newcastle fans. But I would be very surprised and disappointed if he ever nears the best form that wooed St James Park. 

Time to go: Ben Arfa has gone, but he will forever be a favourite on Gallowgate

Whether its his fault, Pardew's fault, Mike Ashley's fault, or whoever's, no single player is bigger than Newcastle United. And if the Manager and several first team players were against his inclusion, then that is enough for me. Ben Arfa's open letter on departure and his halted "meet and greet" in the summer suggests a last ditch plea to fans from a man knowing it was all too late. 

Players' come and go, but Newcastle United lives on. Farewell Hatem Ben Arfa, a Newcastle United favourite indeed, but a Newcastle United player no more. Those fleeting, fantastic memories will live long. 

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