Brilliant Ben Arfa key to Newcastle's lofty league position
French winger the catalyst for club's rise up the table
On the Newcastle United training ground recently, Hatem Ben Arfa took the ball round a goalkeeper. Nothing unusual in that. However, what he did next – waiting for the goalkeeper to return to his position so he could beat him again – was. That is Ben Arfa's instinct.
What has been done in recent weeks, with stunning effect, has been to harness the flair within the system (which in a nutshell is what Alan Pardew has done so well this season).
Much will be written about the great revival of Newcastle United – and there are many reasons as to why a genuine, big club is punching its weight among England's elite once more – but sat among them is the control Pardew has put in place for his team, and the ethos he has forged inside his dressing room.
It is not so long ago that Ben Arfa was not in that team, and this is a player who has been feted to be one of the best in the world since childhood. Footage exists of the player when he was young, jinking in a similar manner to that which left Bolton grounded on Monday.
His move to England, one he helped orchestrate by saying he would not play for Marseilles anymore, was not supposed to lead to cameo roles warming up on the sidelines at St James' Park.
Pardew would repeatedly tell the £5m player in private, and then the supporters when he spoke to the media, that this mercurial talent had to buy into his team spirit and that he had to bring work-rate to the table to sit alongside his unquestioned talent.
"It was important [he bought into the team spirit] or he wasn't going to get a game," said the Newcastle manager. "It's not just about Hatem, its about the team and he understands that. His contribution to the team for this period has been outstanding."
On the long road to recovery, after Ben Arfa had his leg snapped in two places in a challenge by Nigel de Jong in 2010, a text would regularly arrive on Ben Arfa's phone. It was usually a casual "how are you doing" or "keep going", but it showed that Laurent Blanc, the current French manager, had not forgotten l'enfant terrible.
Ben Arfa has a past, and it includes training ground bust-ups with team-mates at the two clubs he played for before he moved to Newcastle. His had been a temperamental talent in the past, and this season has had meetings to sort out his situation.
For Pardew to have got so much from Ben Arfa (three goals in his last five games) as well as a flurry of assists is testament to some seriously good man-management. When Ben Arfa has been withdrawn in the last two games at St James' Park, he has been met on the sidelines by a manager hugging him, and smiling, even grabbing the player's face to make sure he, too, was as happy with life as his manager was.
"The French manager needs to understand that not only did he get the goal [against Bolton], he had a hand in the second and his work rate was phenomenal," added Pardew. "I don't give him too much information offensively. It is his world when he has the ball. My world is when he hasn't got it. That is where I focus on him."
It is a moot point that Ben Arfa is not even playing in his natural position just off the striker. As part of a triumvirate, along with the free-scoring Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, Newcastle have new potency as they come charging into Champions League contention. It is a stage that would suit their French forward.
Life now is vastly different from the goldfish bowl to which his native country had become. A Tyneside apartment is a world away but perhaps that has allowed him the opportunity to refocus.
"I believe that I have found the serenity that will allow me, as soon as I have regained all my physical ability, to go forward. How far, I don't know," he said.
"I have matured and grown, especially with this long injury but, deep down, I remain the same. The other day in training everybody shouted at me because after tricking the goalkeeper I then waited again to trick him again and then shot wide. I know it annoys everyone and I know I won't change. But, it's that kind of football that I like.
"However, I am adapting and I am correcting myself to fit into the professional mould because I know I am paid to win matches and not to amuse myself, but learning to adapt doesn't mean I will forget my instinct.
"I feel right here. I do not want to leave England. This is real football, it is here that you have it, with passion, excitement, and the public. I have already played in Milan, Madrid and Barcelona but it is here that I feel right on the pitch. And also it is here that the players are respected. You need to realise and can you believe it that when Newcastle was relegated in 2009, the players did a lap of honour and the fans still applauded them during that last match .
"Since I was a young child, everyone is waiting for me to produce. To resist all that, you have to be more solid. The problem is that I often feel I have disappointed more than pleased people."
At the moment, that particular comment is no longer true.
Hatem's French rivals
Ben Arfa sits behind a number of players in the French pecking order, having played just twice in four years.
Florent Malouda Came off bench to score in Germany. Has 74 caps.
Samir Nasri Has featured in all of the European qualifiers. Won 28 caps.
Marvin Martin Sochaux play-maker scored on his debut. Nine caps.
Mathieu Valbuena Another fringe player, but has won 10 caps to Ben Arfa's eight. Scored v England in 2010.
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