Newcastle v Crystal Palace preview: Divorce beckons, but we will miss Ben Arfa

Ben Arfa placed on notice by Pardew - but why would any team in need of creativity want to leave him out?

Mark Runnacles/Getty Images Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United
Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United

Since Hatem Ben Arfa signed for Newcastle United the club have played 169 games. He has started fewer than a third.

To be exact, he has been named in the starting XI just 51 times and been involved in 76 of those games.

Crunch the numbers and thanks to debilitating injuries that’s just 45% of the matches United have played since he arrived at Newcastle Airport with the sort of insouciant swagger which left you in no doubt he was going to be one to watch at St James’ Park.

In spite of his lack of game time, you will notice something bizarre about the Ben Arfa era – he has remained centre stage throughout, whether in the team or out of it.

Other players have scored more goals, crafted more assists and quite simply, played better than Ben Arfa.

Yet the mercurial France forward has come to symbolise the second stage of the Mike Ashley better than anyone – perhaps because he represents the unfulfilled potential of the club itself.

As anyone who has seen Ben Arfa in full flow would attest, there is little he can’t do.

Yet for all his undoubted star quality, the rumblings around the forward have always been defined by mistrust of a player who has failed to ever nail down a regular starting spot at Newcastle.

Again today, he will be on the sidelines as the action unfolds at St James’ Park. As if to prove a point, though, his name has not been far from his manager’s lips over the last few days.

“He needs a good end to the season and he’s aware of that for a number of reasons,” Pardew confirmed ahead of his slated return to the match-day squad this afternoon.

Has he really been that bad, though? For all that this has been painted as an annus horribilis for Ben Arfa his contribution – when involved – has not been significantly worse than it was last year.

In 2012/13 he scored four goals, created 25 chances and enjoyed 81% pass accuracy. This season he’s scored three, created 25 chances and benefited from 84% pass accuracy

He’s been equally involved, too, attempting 368 passes this season as opposed to 352 last term.

Yet Pardew mutters darkly about a player who must convince not only him that he belongs in the team, but also his team-mates. Something, quite clearly, is amiss.

It is a problem which needs to be sorted before this summer’s squad overhaul, which represents the biggest chance to change course since the summer of 2011 – when Newcastle made a definitive break from the approach which had brought experienced, Premier League-ready players to Tyneside.

That close season they signed Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Demba Ba as the team was given a reboot. This summer will be similar, with Mike Ashley understood to have signalled this week that he is willing to sanction funds for a major overhaul.

Pardew entered Tuesday’s transfer summit with his own list – made up largely of players he would be prepared to allow to leave St James’ Park this summer. Ben Arfa’s name is understood to have featured, something he as good as admitted in Thursday’s press conference. The problem for Ben Arfa (pictured left) is the mitigation is starting to evaporate.

While the stats suggest he has been important, even his biggest supporter couldn’t make a convincing case he deserves to walk back into this Newcastle team. Weight issues do not speak well of his professionalism.

There is another explanation. Scalded by Newcastle’s slide last season – with shipping seven goals at Arsenal last Christmas at the forefront of his mind – Pardew has taken steps to tighten United up over the last 12 months. For the most part it has worked – United have kept ten clean sheets in domestic competion this term as opposed to just six last season.

The explanation for that is simple: Pardew took his inspiration from the Europa League run when he formulated his blueprint for this season.

They work harder, they play with less width and they are centred around the industry of Cheick Tiote rather than the mercurial talents of players like Marveaux and Ben Arfa.

It is not a system which works for the France forward and both his confidence and application have slipped during his exodus.

He’s now caught between two stools: not playing well enough to make a case for the manager changing the way the team plays but hampered by the set-up.

A sad divorce beckons, as does the end of the mad, bad but frequently brilliant Ben Arfa era. It is difficult to get away from the feeling on Pardew’s watch Newcastle are moving away from Ben Arfa and closer to a system which incorporates players like Luuk de Jong – solid, efficient and occasionally spectacular. It will be less off-the-cuff but it might give them a better chance of success.

Pardew addd: “I like Luuk’s application and he’s given us a bit of presence up top. He needs to convert that into goals and I think that pressure is building as it does on Papiss (Cisse) week by week when they don’t score.

“That happens with all strikers because they can come alive.”


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