Sometimes it feels like Premier League management resembles a Chinese fingertrap – the harder you work to try to put it right, the tighter the vice around your neck becomes.
Alan Pardew is working hard right now: desperately trying to convince anyone in sight that he deserves a chance to rehabilitate both his own and Newcastle United’s reputation next season. There is a lot of talk, plenty of theories and a lot of different systems and configurations as he tries to catch a break. Each one only seems to succeed in hammering another dent in the theory that he is the man to take the club forward.
On Monday, despite evidence to the contrary, he insisted United had played well at Arsenal. All the while, Hatem Ben Arfa was killing him softly in a Quayside hotel in an interview that was set up by a PR agency who used to manage David Beckham’s brand.
It was a cute move by Ben Arfa, who circumnavigated United’s self-imposed media blackout on their squad to return his name to the top of the black-and-white agenda. Try as he might, Pardew cannot lance the Ben Arfa-shaped boil that has grown since Yohan Cabaye left for Paris with the last vestiges of Newcastle’s creativity with him.
Say what you will about the Frenchman, but he is acutely aware of our ongoing fascination with him. The Journal alone has published 611 articles that feature him prominently since he joined the club in 2010, which is some ratio for a midfielder who has started just 55 games for Newcastle and had a direct influence on even fewer.
Having worked with him day-in and day-out, Pardew and his players probably wander what all the fuss is about. The last time he started, at Southampton, he was whipped off after 45 minutes and it felt as if Pardew was giving the midfielder the rope with which to hang himself.
But it misses the point, doesn’t it? Ben Arfa’s name does not ring out from the away end at the Emirates because of any great contribution he has made in the last six months.
It is what he represents they’re calling for: that dash of creativity, the frisson of excitement and electricity that has been singularly missing from Newcastle for most of the Pardew years. On his day Ben Arfa is a class act but there is no room for mavericks in Pardew’s set-up – and not really much hope these days either.
The harder Pardew has tried to make his Newcastle side compact and resolute the worse it has become in recent weeks. Every week after each of the six defeats he has drawn up a new plan but they all seem to centre around stopping the opposition from running through his team so easily. Whatever happened to other teams worrying about Newcastle?
I don’t doubt that Ben Arfa can be a nightmare. I’m sure he can be unmanageable, moody and impossible at times. He’s probably not that popular with some of his team-mates either. Joey Barton was too though, and Pardew managed to accommodate him – even when it became quite blindingly obvious that he had talked his way out of favour with Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias. “I want him to stay,” the manager said about Barton in the summer of 2011 – not words you’re likely to hear about Ben Arfa. Yet I know who the better, more imaginative player is.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Pardew arrived at Newcastle promising an attacking team to get supporters off their feet. These days managing Newcastle seems like a damage-limitation exercise from a manager working furiously to stem the avalanche that is heading his way.