For many Newcastle United fans, seeing their team taken apart by an Eden Hazard masterclass over the weekend might have provoked a feeling of despair or weary resignation.
I was at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and the Belgian was absolutely remarkable. All of a sudden people are starting to mention him in the same conversations as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and proclaiming him the best young player in the world, and when you see him play like that, it’s not difficult to imagine him getting to that level.
Well here’s some good news for Newcastle fans who have hardly enjoyed the happiest of New Years: in Hatem Ben Arfa, you’ve got a player capable of doing the same things.
I don’t say that lightly and I know that it will raise eyebrows because at the moment Ben Arfa is absolutely nowhere near it. In fact he’s absolutely miles away from Hazard’s level for a number of reasons, not least the fact that – in my opinion – he still looks four or five pounds overweight.
There’s no getting away from the problems Ben Arfa is having at the moment, but my message is that Newcastle United and their supporters cannot give up on him. He is a massive, massive talent and he’s got a big role to play in Alan’s restructuring now that Cabaye has gone.
It won’t happen for him by accident. He’s got to take the chance now and Alan has got to persevere even though it might not seem like he’s offering an awful lot at the moment.
One of the benefits of Newcastle’s season fizzling out a bit is that we will now have four months to see whether Ben Arfa is the real deal or whether it just isn’t going to happen for him at St James’ Park.
Relegation isn’t an issue and that top four is too far away for Newcastle, so use this part of the season to prepare for next year – and find out what Ben Arfa is really about.
The brutal truth is that Newcastle look very workmanlike at the moment, but that was bound to happen when you take Loic Remy and especially Yohan Cabaye out of their team.
To be honest, I thought Newcastle were getting away with a few things even back when they were on that great run.
That is not to knock Alan, but his system was heavily loaded to make the most of Cabaye’s huge talent. It said to me he was a manager who was looking at his squad and not seeing the quality in his wingers that he wanted.
So his response was to go quite simplistic. He had Cabaye and Cheick Tiote in the centre and he’d obviously looked at Moussa Sissoko and thought ‘He’s got the legs and discipline to do a job down the wing’ so he was out on the right.
That works as long as you’ve got someone like Cabaye in the middle offering something a bit different, because Sissoko probably isn’t going to offer you that spark from the wide areas. And while it wasn’t always pretty it worked, which Newcastle’s position in the league showed.
What was forgotten during that period was Ben Arfa. It was a trust issue: Did Alan trust him to play in that No 10 role? Did he trust him to play on the right? Looking at the number of times he was left out, the answer was no. Between now and the end of the season, Alan will have to use him.
Now when I see Ben Arfa, I see a top-class player but I also see someone who is just not fit at the moment. I look at him and think: ‘If you had been playing every week, training as intensely as the others and flying in games you’d be four or five pounds lighter than you are now’.
When it comes to body shape and physique, it is a mistake to think all players are the same and I would put Ben Arfa in the same category as Wayne Rooney. When he’s not playing or coming back from an injury he can look like a Sunday league player while he’s getting himself back into shape.
I think back to Euro 2012 and Rooney playing against Ukraine when he’d been suspended for the first two games. He’d been in Las Vegas to unwind and there was a moment early in that game when he was given the ball and it bounced underneath his foot. If he’s fully fit and match-sharp, believe me, that doesn’t happen.
It was just that second or two that he was slower and the effect of that on a player can be absolutely devastating: if you know you’re not physically right then mentally you’re not going to be as sharp as you were.
That is where Ben Arfa is at the moment. For an outsider it looks awful but you can’t judge him until he is sharp, he’s fit and everything is back on track again. At the moment he’s off and he looks miles off.
In terms of a maverick player, the closest I came was Paolo Di Canio at West Ham – who I touched on the other week. He could be a nightmare at the training ground but the one thing he made sure of was that he was fit. I was recovering from a long-term injury at West Ham and he was out for a month.
He was desperate to be fit for when he came back and he worked night and day. Now it is up to Ben Arfa to do the same: to take care of himself away from the pitch, eat the right things, work hard on the training ground and believe that he can be the main man now Cabaye has gone.
I think Ben Arfa still believes he can be one of the best in the world and play for a team like Real Madrid. At the moment his focus has to be on Newcastle because this is the opportunity he has been waiting for.