Obviously, when a team which should be nestling somewhere the middle of the table is actually third it’s hard to argue. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said (or wrote, I’m not sure), “Success is the most convincing talker in the world”. This is certainly true, at least for the moment, in Pardew’s case; though as we already know, he could blather for England anyway! However, even in the midst of success, there are always problems to be solved, and one of Pardew’s is how does he solve a problem like Hatem Ben Arfa?
He is undoubtedly one of the most talented players we have, on the ball he is almost certainly THE most talented. However, since finally returning from his double injury nightmare with his appearence against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, he has only made four fleeting substitute appearences in the Premiership (out of six games).
Although Ben Arfa has been seen primarily as a left sided player in the past, he is also highly versatile, having the abilty to play right across the centre of the park from left flank through central midfield to right flank, and also potentially as a “trequartista” (three quarter) style Number 10 player like Maradona, Zidane, Pele and several others who have been hailed as all time greats of the game. However Pardew seem’s to go against conventional wisdom about the player’s talents on the flanks, seemingly seeing him more exclusively in that most glamourous of positions, the very highly gifted tecnnical player who can bridge the gap between midfield playmaker and forward.
Pardew has made several pronouncements on this issue including:
“My view is that he can’t play out wide. He has not got the relish for it and his best football comes through the middle.” and:
“To me, Hatem Ben Arfa is a number ten.
“I won’t play him on the side. I don’t think he wants to play there, I don’t think he enjoys playing there and therefore my gut feeling is that footballers won’t play their best if they’re not happy in the position they’re in.”
Looking at things from Pardew’s side, though Ben Arfa has mostly been described as a “winger” in the past, this has usually meant as the left sided attacking player in a 4-3-3 formation as opposed to what many people would describe as a “true” winger. There has also being something of a defensive element to Pardew’s first choices in the wing department, Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan, with Guti in particular earning much deserved praise for his tracking back and his ability to work in harmony with the left back, whether it’s Ryan Taylor or Jose Enrique before him. Of course, Joey Barton also had a strong defensive element to his game when he was playing on the right flank too. Defence certainly isn’t the strongest element of Ben Arfa’s play, and it isn’t supposed to be either.
On the other hand, he certainly didn’t look too shabby against Everton, when he scored one of the goals of the season, the goal which gave us three points against the Toffees in an otherwise tight game. Going back to the other side though, he did cut in to a more central midfield position quite often, including for the above mentioned wonderstrike. However his fellow fancy Frenchman, Yohan Cabaye certainly seems to have the central playmaking role nailed down currently, formimg a considrable partnership with Ivorian hatchet man, Cheik Tiote. One other factor is that unlike Ben Arfa, Cabaye also has a more defensive side to his game too. Despite this, it should also be noted that when Tiote had to withdraw through injury, his place was taken by Danny Guthrie, a respectable “box-to-box” 4-4-2 Johnny English type who, like Cabaye, can get stuck in if necessary.
It could be said that whilst the current pairing upfront, Demba Ba and Leon Best, have been a good pairing, helping each other out with some good hold up, link play and the odd assist where necessary, it is still a completely different situation to having Ben Arfa playing trequartista with a solitary hitman. It is arguable that Pardew would indeed have to change the whole structure / formation of the team to fit him in a more regular role while he steadfastly refuses to employ him in on one of the flanks, or disrupt the central midfield “A-Team” pairing of Yohan “face man” Cabaye and Cheik “Mr.T” Tiote. It would involve moving to something like a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 formation which would still employ the dynamic duo. Which brings us back to the beginning, Pardew’s “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.
So the paradox remains: Ben Arfa is quite simply too good a player to leave out for too long, but if Pardew slips him in and our so far unbeaten record slips, it will be on his head. So it will probably be a downturn in our fortunes results wise, something that is highly likely bearing in mind our next three opponents (Man City, Man United and Chelsea) which finally force Pardew’s hand. Time will tell.