In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.
With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.
The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.
Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.
Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.
Ben Arfa played in a variety of positions during his spells at Lyon and Marseille, having started his career as a striker, but he most often found himself on the left flank. Playing on the right, however, gives him a broader vista of the pitch and enables him to attempt a wider variety of passes and crosses. He may be heavily dependent on his left foot, which naturally draws him into the middle of the pitch, but as his astonishing solo goal against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup demonstrated, he is equally capable of beating opponents on the outside.
In the early days of his Newcastle career, Ben Arfa played on the left wing, with Chris Hughton opting to field Kevin Nolan behind Andy Carroll in a 4-4-1-1 formation. He started on the right for the first time at Manchester City in October 2010 but after five minutes of the game his left leg was broken in two places by Nigel de Jong and a long, lonely battle to regain fitness began. Had de Jong not brutally curtailed Ben Arfa’s introduction to English football, it is unlikely that Newcastle’s fans would have had to wait a further 18 months for the Frenchman to find his optimal position.
Ben Arfa’s recent outings have inevitably prompted calls for him to be included in France’s squad at Euro 2012. “He has got some individual ability that I would be very surprised if France have in the squad in terms of what he can do to a team,” said Pardew after the Liverpool game. The theme has been taken up in the French media, with L’Équipe opining recently that “if he continues playing like this, it will be impossible to ignore him when the time comes to announce the 23-man squad for the Euro”.
Laurent Blanc is already a known admirer, having ended Ben Arfa’s near two-year international exile by calling him up for his first game at the France helm, a friendly against Norway in Oslo in August 2010. Ben Arfa crowned his comeback with a superb goal, but less than two months later he encountered de Jong and he has not been called up again since.
Ben Arfa’s redeployment on the Newcastle right may hold the key to his hopes of forcing his way back into the France set-up, for it is the one attacking position in which no player has staked an irresistible claim for a starting place.
Mathieu Valbuena started on the right flank in February’s friendly win over Germany, but he has spent much of the season playing in a central role at Marseille and has performed well only intermittently in his country’s colours. Paris Saint-Germain’s Jérémy Menez delights and frustrates in equal measure and while Morgan Amalfitano is an international novice, Loïc Rémy is busy transforming himself into an out-and-out centre-forward. Florent Malouda, meanwhile, is in danger of falling off the map altogether.
Enter Ben Arfa. He proved against José Enrique last weekend that one-footed left-backs are particularly susceptible to being thrown off-balance by his weaving runs and there are few more one-footed left-backs than Ashley Cole, who will line up against France in England’s opening Euro 2012 game in Donetsk on June 11.
Pardew sees Ben Arfa being used as an “impact player”, but there is a starting role to be won if he can carry his form through to the end of the season. He could potentially complete a front four of enfants terribles alongside Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema – both fellow members of the feted génération 87; both of whom were left out of the 2010 World Cup squad partly due to concerns about their propensity for causing trouble – and Franck Ribéry, who continues to bear the brunt of public anger over what happened in South Africa. In theory at least, it would be some prospect – on and off the pitch.
“My time will come,” Ben Arfa told L’Équipe in January. “I have to be patient. I know that I’m ready, physically and mentally. I know what I have to do on the pitch… I want to remain the enfant terrible but I want people to say that I was the enfant terrible who was able to grow up.”
Having apparently found solace in Newcastle’s increasingly Francophone changing room and adopted a more serious approach to both his training and his defensive responsibilities, he may finally be plotting a path to maturity.