Saturday 28th August
Newcastle United sign Hatem Ben-Arfa on loan
To overestimate the importance of this deal would be impossible. In Ben-Arfa (HBA) the Magpies have suddenly acquired the dazzle they need to go with their razzle, the salt to go with their already-ample pepper and the touch of class needed in order to make this season a success.
There's no doubt that HBA is a technically skilled and proficient player; in fact he automatically assumes Kevin Nolan's role as the creative hub of the side (eeew – I just wrote the words “Kevin Nolan” and “creative hub” in the same sentence), but his game does come with a few downsides. First of all, he's a notorious head case capable of destroying dressing room harmony in as much time as it takes for Steven Taylor to get injured. Secondly, he's a lightweight player in the same vein as fellow Marseille product, Samir Nasri. His lack of stature is of secondary importance however as in Nolan, Smith & Barton he's surrounded by several big bodied players able to both take physical punishment and should needs arise, defend him; in fact having a small-bodied creator should provide enough offensive change-up that this potential drawback can only be labeled “potential” rather than “as certain as Joey Barton is mad”.
To say he becomes the jewel in Newcastle's crown is misguided – there really aren't any other jewels on Tyneside to which he can be compared – just a bunch of solid players. Chris Hughton seems to have taken the “Every dog has his day” approach – and assembled a bunch big, solid hounds in midfield, hoping that on any one day an outstanding Kevin Nolan or Joey Barton game can see them competitive. But Ben Arfa's different, a wonderfully-skilled player capable of perhaps unlocking regularly the better defences in the Premiership.
His attributes aren't really the point here. What's going to prove crucial to the fortunes of Newcastle and their supporters is whether HBA is able to harness his immense talent in this Magpie side. ESPN's Bill Simmons has long purported the “Knucklehead theory” where any team is able to have one clown without trouuble. But as soon as that side invests in a second knucklehead, they play off each other creating malady after malady for management. Ben Arfa comes with “damaged goods” stamped prominently across his shipping crate, why else would Marseille have let him go? His well-documented dalliances with “suits” and teammates alike – he's come to fisticuffs with at least four separate teammates and hasn't spoken to Marseille manaager Didier Deschamps for six months – prove he has at best the temperament of a pro athlete, at worst that of a badly spoiled child. Mis a healthy dose of this into ample helpings of Joey Barton and Andy Carroll? The challenge for Toon management is obviously now to balance his top-drawer skills with his bottom-drawer attitude, and Hughton's the kind of “players' manager” who could either bring out the best in HBA or simply be fried by season-long exposure to a loaded ballistic missile. Suffice to say the season of Newcastle just got more interesting.