The Agenda: Why Hatem Ben Arfa could be the most important person at NUFC

Chief sports writer Mark Douglas explains why Hatem Ben Arfa could be Newcastle United's most important person next season

Stu Forster/Getty Images Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United
Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United

After the initial collateral damage inflicted on Tyneside, Hurricane Joe has laid dormant for a while.

He met club staff on Monday and it was cordial: pleasant, even. Before that, there were several hours with club secretary Lee Charnley getting up to speed with contracts and negotiations over targets.

It was hard to believe that three weeks before, the shockwaves that followed Kinnear’s appointment – and two dreadfully ill-advised live interviews – unseated Derek Llambias and pushed Graham Carr to the brink too.

In this maelstrom, it is easy to forget that Newcastle’s fortunes next season will rise and fall on players – not larger-than-life personalities or proud but misguided boasts. They have been overshadowed by more calamitous decisions of late, but their return for pre-season this week might just shift the focus back to something more substantial than Kinnear’s flexible relationship with the truth.

Against this tide of negativity, it is also far too easy to let it slip that the best of Newcastle’s players remains at the club. Given his past life as a whirling dervish of ego and perceived petulance, Hatem Ben Arfa is an unlikely oasis of calm in this black and white storm, but if United fans want something to cling on to, his sturdy shoulders are not a bad place to start.

Away from the whirr of the cameras, Ben Arfa has been busy this summer. In a private training camp in France, he has been working to try to remedy the fitness problems that blighted him last season. Apparently he has lost some weight – but the word from within his camp is that he still harbours a burning desire to repay the faith of Newcastle’s fans.

With some, this can be regarded as easy and political point-scoring. Lest we forget, Jose Enrique left Newcastle a few weeks after he said he wanted to spend his life on Tyneside – and Yohan Cabaye may yet break hearts by negotiating his own way out of St James’ Park this summer.

With Ben Arfa, it appears different. According to those in France who know him best, his loyalty to United is a simple point of principle. He has found football a bemusing and contradictory sport to operate in yet at Newcastle, the public understand him. They give him the benefit of the doubt. And that is why he hasn’t entertained Monaco, Liverpool or Paris Saint Germain’s overtures.

Next season represents an opportunity. It is three-and-a-half years since he joined Newcastle, partly through his own force of will as he journeyed to Tyneside without the permission of Marseille.

He has – according to those close to him – mellowed and matured. Not completely, of course, for the maverick tendencies that make him such a good footballer can still make him an infuriatingly contrary person to coach.

He also needs to rediscover his mojo and prove that he is capable of delivering a full season of consistently strong performances. A source close to him reckoned it would be worth “10 to 15 points” if he dodged injuries this year.

An over-exaggeration? Well Ben Arfa’s biggest impact as a Newcastle player came in the second half of the season that United finished fifth.

Papiss Cisse is usually pinpointed as the catalyst for Newcastle’s explosion into Champions League contention that campaign, but what is often overlooked is that when United started to flag, Ben Arfa came into the team. He played 20 games and scored six times, changing games against Sunderland and West Brom.

Cisse fired the bullets, but Ben Arfa loaded the gun.

Last season, his potency was dimmed by injuries and Alan Pardew’s tactical shuffling. What had suited Ben Arfa the season before – a free role as part of a three-pronged forward line – was deemed unsuitable when Demba Ba expressed a desire to play through the middle.

Cisse, again, seemed to be the fall guy but Ben Arfa suffered too.

Ask them in France where he should play and the answer is “complique”. There is no unanimity but second striker appears to be the consensus – with freedom to roam. Newcastle have demanded – quite rightly – a better work-rate from Ben Arfa over the last 18 months but he will never be the kind of player who dominates games through possession or pressing.

He wins matches through sparks of inspiration – two or three every 10 minutes when he’s on his game – so their job should be to allow him to get into positions where the ball can be delivered to him.

Ten years ago, this would have been common sense. Watch re-runs of Italia ’90 and you’ll see Paul Gascoigne appear to the right or left of David Platt, or just behind Gary Lineker. Sometimes he seems to be lying deep as a holding midfielder just to get the ball. Bobby Robson knew that when you have a maverick, he might think differently and he indulged him.

These days, the art of being a maverick is dying out. The Premier League has ability and skill in abundance but players like Ben Arfa are now as rare as hen’s teeth. “Football in France and beyond has become tactical. It’s a chess match,” one French analyst told me.

What does it say about Newcastle that they have one of these mavericks in their squad? It says that they have a gem that needs to be polished and, perhaps, indulged a touch – tactically if not off-the-field.

Fit, firing and free of complications, Ben Arfa can be the difference next season.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer