Like most Newcastle United fans, I have experienced both the agony and ecstasy associated with watching Hatem Ben Arfa play. On his day, his slaloming runs and rocket shots are a joy to behold. Only it hasn't been his day for some time.
He arrived at Newcastle in 2010, initially on loan, a cast-off from Marseille. He came with mixed reviews; as five successive Ligue 1 winners' medals and a French Young Player of the Year Award for 2008, were duly juxtaposed by a long-list of poor discipline and off-field gaffes.
Nevertheless, scoring a 25-yard screamer and putting on a man of the match display on his full debut soon endeared him to Geordie fans. Despite breaking his leg against Manchester City two games later, this glimpse was enough to convince incoming manager Alan Pardew to make Ben Arfa his first permanent signing in the January transfer window.
Owing to further injuries sustained during his rehabilitation, Ben Arfa spent nearly 11 months away from the first team, before eventually returning in a League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest. Understandably, it took a while for the winger to be at his best, but it wasn't too long before Newcastle fans realised what a coup he was.
A wondrous solo effort against Blackburn in the FA Cup was followed by a cool finish away at Arsenal and unplayable games against West Brom and Liverpool, which caused Pardew to make some rather lofty comparisons between Ben Arfa and Lionel Messi. Newcastle finished fifth that season, just narrowly missing out on a Champions League spot, with Ben Arfa playing a starring role.
Sadly, no honeymoon can last forever and despite two goals and an assist in the first three games of 2012-2013, Ben Arfa's fabled inconsistency finally began to show. For every match winning performance, there were several more anonymous games, while a recurring hamstring problem also served to hamper the Frenchman's form. Regardless of his and Newcastle's disappointing season, however, Liverpool were quoted £20m when they came knocking at Alan Pardew's door.
What a difference a year makes. 2013-2014 marked what is perceived to be Ben Arfa's worst season for Newcastle both on and off the field. There were flashes of his past brilliance against Fulham and Aston Villa, but ultimately his sharpness had waned. He put on weight and lost a yard of pace, became more selfish on the ball and wasn't tracking back. Add to the mix several very public fallouts with Pardew over being benched or played out of position; and it has seemed for some time that the winger's days at St James' Park are numbered.
Still, whether Ben Arfa is a waste of talent or talent wasted remains a contested matter on the Tyne. There are some who blame Pardew for failing to manage a maverick player or give him the licence to roam, while others point to Ben Arfa's poor disciplinary record. Indeed, if Ben Arfa is such a superstar, why were Marseille and Lyon before them, so readily willing to sell?
In reality, the blame can be shared. On the one hand, the grudge-bearing Pardew allowed his stubbornness to get the better of him and after the untimely sale of playmaker Yohan Cabaye, where Newcastle desperately lacked a creative touch, refused to use his wildcard. Ben Arfa was used sparingly by Pardew, yet often unfairly scapegoated after token cameos didn't work out. It seems unreasonable therefore that Pardew should expect much of the winger when he himself had denied him match fitness and defamed him so mercilessly in the press. But Ben Arfa is not guiltless - his public pleas to play have been somewhat undermined by a failure to at least keep himself in shape. This is the second pre-season running that the player has turned up overweight and for that Pardew cannot be blamed.
In any case, how to resolve the Ben Arfa situation has provided an irritating sideshow to an otherwise successful summer for Newcastle. The winger was left out of United's squad for their pre-season tours of New Zealand and Germany, has been fined for his weight gain and is currently training with the reserves. It has been said that the club are willing to listen to cut-price offers for Ben Arfa, who has just one year left on his current contract. Meanwhile, Pardew has already signed two apparent replacements in Remy Cabella and Siem De Jong.
Admittedly, it doesn't look good for the former Marseille man, but that there has been no concrete interest in signing him so far (probably due to discipline), I feel could present a smart solution. Ben Arfa has no doubt forfeited the right to a starting berth, but football nowadays is a squad game. While it is definitely right that Cabella and De Jong should start ahead of him, even a slightly podgy Ben Arfa offers a depth that Newcastle have not had for a long time.
For me, to let a player of such undeniable potential rot in the reserves ahead of a cut-price or bosman move elsewhere is all sorts of counterproductive. Even Ben Arfa's worst season at the club yielded eight assists, and if Pardew can bring himself to clear the air, he could be blessed with an impact sub to devastating effect. Of course, Ben Arfa will have to work hard to rediscover his form of two years ago, but I do feel that he should be given one last chance.
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