Jack: Troubled times for latest mercurial maverick on Tyneside

Kristian Jack
10/6/2013 2:14:34 PM
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He wore a white coat but he didn't really need to stand out any more than he already did.

Its 1987 and a Brazilian playmaker, known as Mirandinha, is being paraded around St James' Park to the passionate Newcastle fans.

There was no YouTube for the fans to watch his videos, no social media to tap into for scouting reports, but the Geordies were already in love.

The first ever Brazilian to sign for an English club had picked Newcastle and a fan base that loved their players to show some flair.

It was a love affair that lasted four years before Mirandinha headed for warmer shores, where no white coats were needed, but the trailblazer had made his mark and more creative players arrived from foreign soil and went straight into the hearts of the Geordies.

Faustino Asprillia and David Ginola would come and go, leaving behind them some wonderful moments in a black and white shirt that live longer in memories than the agonizing moments they caused their managers.

Both men were frustrating geniuses. Say their names to anyone in Newcastle, even today, and you'll put an instant smile on their face but their charismatic ways led them down a path of inconsistency and that meant the end of the road for their time at St James' Park.

It is not difficult to think of someone like Ginola and wonder what will become of a similar, creative, yet frustrated, genius currently at Newcastle United.

This was supposed to be the season when Hatem Ben Arfa would take another step up, progress to a level where he is more consistent, performing at a high level each week for the Geordies who love him as much as they once loved Asprillia and Ginola.

It has been less than two months, featuring just seven Premier League games, but we have already seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of Ben Arfa's time in the iconic black and white shirt.

Newcastle started the season without a goal in their first 265 minutes and then, with five minutes remaining in their third game, with it still scoreless, Ben Arfa cut in from the right flank, glided past two Fulham defenders, and smashed the ball into the left corner of the goal.

The Magpies had secured their first win and afterwards manager Alan Pardew summed up Ben Arfa's day: "In the end Hatem scores, frustrating day today, he did some really poor things with his decision making, you are thinking cross it, he cuts in but he comes up with the goal and that's the maverick he is, you have to take the rough with the smooth."

Ben Arfa, not used by French boss Didier Deschamps since he took the job in 2012, would spend the international break hearing all about his up-and-down showing against Fulham. Football means everything to the people of Newcastle and with no game for two weeks the press took Pardew's comments and ran with them for days.

Next up was a match at Aston Villa and the Frenchman was ready to play. His display at Villa Park that day was one of the best he'd produced during his time in England as he scored one and set up the other, in a 2-1 win, but he was more than just spectacular on the two goals.

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Ben Arfa was intelligent in his decision making and tormented Villa left back Antonio Luna with his explosive pace and skill on the ball, forcing his manager afterwards to come to his defence regarding his inconsistency against Fulham.

"I thought there was an over the top reaction to his performance (in the last match) because I think he was ok. Today he was magnificent, if you want to pay money that is what you want to see, he held on to the ball, burst past two, a third, his concentration was terrific and if he keeps that up not only will we get fifty-two thousand every week, he'll be pushing for the French side."

Newcastle returned home for match against Hull the following week in front of a crowd of 51,523 who watched the Magpies surrender two leads and lose 3-2. Ben Arfa had been poor defensively on the right flank, standing and watching an unmarked Robbie Brady in front of him score an equalizer, and then not helping his right back out on the game's final goal when George Boyd was allowed to cross easily for Sone Aluko's stunning winner.

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The loss was not just on Ben Arfa, though, and was a perfect example of a side struggling to find an identity. Pardew has spoken at length this season about his desire to get his team back playing the offensive style they showed on their way to finishing fifth in the 2011/12 campaign, yet with that comes collective issues as a defensive unit.

Newcastle are a predominantly 4-2-3-1 side, with the central member of the 3 sitting deeper when opponents have the ball to make it a 4-3-3, but it is in the transition game, when they lose the ball, that has caused problems for their wide attacking players.

With Yohan Cabaye fit and happy again, the biggest issue Pardew now has is who to play in the wide attacking positions. Ben Arfa kept his place at Everton, following the loss to Hull, but after 45 minutes Pardew had seen enough. At half-time the manager stood in the visitors dressing room at Goodison Park disgusted with his team, down 3-0. Ben Arfa, playing on the left, was replaced after more goals had been conceded from his flank.

"We don't want to see what happened in the first half ever again," said Pardew.

It was no surprise then that the team that performed better in the second half at Everton started at Cardiff on Saturday. Without Ben Arfa, Newcastle once again scored two goals in a half and produced some of their best football this season.

So where does this leave the maverick?

"I think he's one of those players that we're looking at for consistency and to get consistency from him," Pardew said.

"We've got a great player, no doubt about that. Consistency is all I'm looking for from any player. He's proved he can perform for this club."

Pardew's job at St James' Park is far from secure and his decision to drop Ben Arfa is a gamble, one that paid off, at least for now, on Saturday. Newcastle does not have a quiet fan base and many were screaming for Ben Arfa to start even after the horror show at Goodison.

The manager's desire to get the team to be more dangerous going forward is commendable but he may have come to the realization that he cannot play Ben Arfa as well as Papiss Cisse and Loic Remy at the same time. Remy, scorer of both goals at Cardiff, seems comfortably on the left, coming central to help Cisse when he can, providing the player on the right flank doesn't regularly do the same.

Ben Arfa's best chance to start may come if Remy plays centrally instead of Cisse, who has no goals in his last 13 league games, but that's what happened at Everton and that memory is still far too fresh for Pardew.

With big personalities, in the form of owner Mike Ashley and director Joe Kinnear, known as "Joke Innear" in the North East for his outrageous comments, looking closely over Pardew, it will be fascinating to watch if he relies on the supporters' idol, who could help him solidify or relinquish his position as Newcastle manager.

The next four league games are against giants Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and a fierce derby game versus rivals Sunderland. Clearly, Pardew must pick players who he thinks will give him the best chance to win those matches.

Recent evidence suggests that does not include Ben Arfa but Newcastle fans will only tolerate that if the team is good.

"Are we really good or are we really bad? I am not really sure," joked Pardew after the win at Cardiff.

For large parts on Saturday they looked really good, even without Ben Arfa. If they start to look really bad without him, Pardew could be walking out the same door Ginola and Asprillia did even quicker than the mercurial maverick.

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