It was a repeat of a popular black and white story this weekend. Once again, a swashbuckling midfield maestro from one of the most prestigious finishing schools in Europe kick-started a resurgence that saw Newcastle bank three precious points.
Only on Saturday it was Vurnon Anita – educated at Ajax’s famed Academy – rather than Hatem Ben Arfa who emerged from the bench to help Newcastle salve some of those raw derby wounds.
While Newcastle piled on the pressure, their Gallic genius piled on the layers to cope with the Arctic winds and sheet rain that battered St James’ Park. It was a strange and slightly disconcerting sight.
But increasingly, it feels like Anita is becoming the benched black and white cause célèbre while Newcastle struggle to find a coherent and consistent role for Ben Arfa, undeniably their most naturally-gifted player.
It feels like a reversal of the natural order on Tyneside but no one has come to symbolise United’s maddening inconsistency more than their balletic forward. Ben Arfa remains a folk hero on the terraces: a Gallic successor to Peter Beardsley with the talent to stroll into almost any Premier League side. The statistics, though, tell a different story as United look to find a way to integrate their maverick midfielder into a balanced and consistent midfield.
This season, Newcastle’s win percentage with Ben Arfa involved is 36% from 11 games, which includes two Capital One Cup encounters. Last season it was a worrying 18% from 22 appearances, a figure that includes nine defeats (which comes in at a weighty 40% loss ratio).
To put those statistics into context, it is worth measuring him against the other player pushing for a starting place. Anita’s win record this season – from ten games – is 40%. Last year, when Anita was widely viewed as getting to grips with the English game, United won 34% of the games while he was involved.
This is not intended as a savaging of a player who brings a dash of beguiling enterprise to Newcastle’s midfield when he is on song. United, after all, are still grasping for the consistency which characterised their surge into top-four contention in 2012, and that was largely down to the brilliance of Ben Arfa. That year, Newcastle won 12 of the 30 games he was involved in – an impressive 40% over the course of the campaign.
But shaping a system to make the most of Ben Arfa could be the key to whether this season dissolves into a midtable muddle defined by inconsistency, or takes on real urgency as the long nights bite.
Against Chelsea, Pardew’s short experiment with Ben Arfa in the so-called ‘false nine’ position was ditched. The maverick was sacrificed for the team and Newcastle, after an uninspiring first 45 minutes, responded with a performance of diligent discipline that put Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea off their stride.
That it was Anita rather than Ben Arfa who was called off the bench by Pardew when Cheick Tiote picked up an injury was telling. Although in public he is prepared to back Ben Arfa, his actions often tell a different story. Anita remains, in Pardew’s opinion, the safer option.
Yet there have been signs since Anita’s confidence was topped up by a run of games that he is far from a water carrier in the mould of Tiote. The Holland midfielder can play, and his dinked touch to take him past Ramires in the run-up to Loic Remy’s cathartic second goal is exactly the kind of moment that we would usually expect from Ben Arfa.
All of this matters for Pardew as he looks to discover a strategy that leads to some long-term consistency. United have the makings of a strong team that can challenge the top eight but need Anitas more than Ben Arfas at the moment, and it is their midfield which will either help or hinder them in their push for consistency.
A personal preference would be for Yoahn Cabaye, Anita and Ben Arfa to be factored into a midfield which would make the most of roaming full-backs Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy. Yoan Gouffran and Loic Remy could spearhead the attack while Moussa Sissoko and Cheick Tiote could battle it out for the remaining midfield role.
In this best-case-scenario XI, Fabricio Coloccini and one of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa or a fit and on-form Steven Taylor would be in the centre of defence. It looks strong but would rely on Ben Arfa making the most of playing to the right of a three-man midfield giving him an opportunity to cut in and do damage.
Therein lies the rub. Ben Arfa has a responsibility that outweighs his capacity for moments of brilliance. At Sunderland last weekend his performance was not up to scratch, his confidence looked shot and his unhappy knack of taking the wrong decision seemed to be catching in a second-half showing that fell short.
Undoubtedly he will come again: players of class and pedigree always do. However he must accept that the anxieties of some of the Newcastle coaching staff about him also have some justification. Ben Arfa’s contract is due to expire in the summer of 2015 and what they decide to do with him will tell us plenty about Newcastle’s future direction.
There are clear misgivings on the part of the management team about Ben Arfa’s ability to provide the consistency they are so desperately craving. Pardew repeated calls over the weekend for him to start making the right decisions for the team rather than him as an individual, although his instructions were a mite woolly.
“The truth with Hatem is we need a consistency in his play,” Pardew said. “The decision-making process of Hatem is sometimes crucial, taking players on or playing it quickly. It’s that balance that we are trying to get in the team.”
Balance is the word at the moment. United’s squad is good enough to be part of the conversation for European places. The nagging suspicion is that until they manage to unlock consistent performances from their best players like Ben Arfa, they will remain locked out of the race.