How could you possibly begin to describe the performance of Hatem Ben Arfa in Newcastle’s victory at West Brom last Sunday. Virtuoso, Exquisite, Genius or all of the above? Quite frankly there aren’t enough superlatives at one’s disposal to begin to offer a definitive conclusion of the Frenchman’s sparkling display in the West Midlands that had the Geordie supporters purring in delight. After a stop-start year and a half at St James’ Park this was the moment when Ben Arfa finally delivered in a black and white shirt after tantalising the Toon Army with flickers of his talent since arriving from Marseille in August 2010.
It’s been a long and sometimes frustrating process for boss Alan Pardew who’s had to carefully integrate Ben Arfa into English football following his return from a double leg break. Finding a suitable position for the enigmatic 25-year-old has been a laborious trial and error exercise with Pardew initially declaring that the Gallic maestro would be deployed in the hole behind the central striker despite calls from supporters for him to play out wide. A series of deflated displays in the early part of the season forced Pardew into rethinking his master plan with Ben Arfa finding himself shunted out to the right of midfield as the clock ticked into 2012. It bore instant results as the winger soon started to rediscover the form that once prompted interest from a handful of leading European clubs. A few flashes of brilliance soon turned into consistent streams of magnificence. Sunday’s triumph over the Roy Hodgson’s side saw Ben Arfa debut in a new role on the right of an attacking prong also containing Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba. His influence in the final third was devastating with Albion unable to cope with his artistry as he scored one and set up both goals for Cisse.
Heavy expectation rested on the shoulders of the Toon Army number 10 on the back of ‘that’ goal against Everton until his horrific double leg break curtailed his chances of making any sort of impact in Newcastle’s first year back in the top flight. The long and winding road back to form and fitness hit its peak at the Hawthorns as he tore West Brom to shreds. Frustration had threatened to bubble over following a string of mediocre starts interceded with uninspiring substitute appearances that left his Magpies’ career seemingly hanging in the balance. The fact he was a young man still recovering from a serious injury whilst struggling to acclimatise to a new country and physically demanding league was forgotten. Through Pardew’s careful nurturing and shrewd usage Ben Arfa has gradually assimilated himself into Premier League life. A change of mentality has transformed him from a solo posturer into a team player that carries out his tasks without complaint.
He’s benefitted considerably from being able to string a consistent run of games together which has aided both his fitness and attitude towards playing for Newcastle United and not just Hatem Ben Arfa. The completion of his metamorphosis came to a head against West Brom with a breathtaking exhibition of his talents. His rapid turn of pace, quick feet and mesmerising close control saw him compared to Tyneside legend Peter Beardsley. I’d even go as far to say that Ben Arfa is better. The end product to his attacking slaloms was devastating with Cisse benefiting twice from the Frenchman’s artistry. When it came to getting his own name on the score sheet he was ruthless. Credit must be levelled at the door of Pardew for having the patience to keep plugging away with a player that can excite and exasperate in equal measure.
The position he’s conjured for Ben Arfa allows him to drift in from the right and punish teams with a left foot that was honed into a deadly weapon at the famed Clairefontaine academy. He put the Baggies firmly to the sword on Sunday sparking jubilant scenes in the away end at the Hawthorns. He saluted the crowd after putting the finishing touches to a stunning counter attack – he lifted an arm to the supporters basking in the spring afternoon sunlight acknowledging the part they’ve played in his recuperation and rebirth. It was his way of announcing to the Geordie masses that he’d finally arrived.