April 26, 2012

There was a philosophical feel to Alan Pardew's postmatch news conference on a recent Monday afternoon. In the wake of his side's 2-0 victory over Bolton on April 9 he fielded the obvious questions about his side's opener -- a wonderful solo effort from Hatem Ben Arfa.

In among the superlatives and compliments Pardew gave telling insight into how you handle someone with a heavy backlog of misdemeanors -- which included going on strike to force through his move to Newcastle, and even visiting Tyneside without Marseille's permission.

"With Hatem, you've got to let him have his world," said Pardew, before adding, "It's his world when he has the ball, my world is when he hasn't." It's compromise, Ben Arfa is an individual, his desire to wear the No. 10 is a clear indication of how he views himself -- the creator. Newcastle's success is built on a hard working cohesive unit, admittedly more prominent during the tenure of Chris Hughton, but the team spirit and work effort remains a healthy part of the current success.

Those were not traits readily associated with Ben Arfa. The attacking flair he displayed on his debut at Everton in the 2010-11 after joining Newcastle on loan had ignited fans passions, but the leg break he suffered at Manchester City dampened the fires of excitement. At a considerably low ebb, many believe his year in rehabilitation is where the bond between player and club was formed and the man began to change.

Newcastle fans posted cards and well wishes in their droves to Ben Arfa and owner Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias paid him personal visits to check on his recovery (he was still a Marseille player at this point). He was even allowed leave to France and Tunisia for his recovery, provided he occasionally returned to Newcastle to be looked over by the club's medical staff.

It was give and take, and for once Ben Arfa wasn't just taking. Having given a number of interviews back in his native France recently, Ben Arfa has spoken openly and honestly about his situation. His leg break appears to have served as an epiphany for the man many feel is the most talented member of the '1987 generation' that included Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, and Jeremy Menez.

Of course the transformation was far from complete. An injury in preseason against Sporting Kansas City ruled him out for the opening few months of the season and left cynics questioning whether he would ever consistently stave off fitness issues. Pardew was careful in his approach- Ben Arfa had played less than a dozen Premier League games by August of 2011, and as a consequence was still grasping the nuances of the more physical English Premier League.

His eventual return as a substitute against Blackburn in September garnered a standing ovation from the home fans -- further building of the relationship between player and club.

Pardew still had reservations. Ben Arfa wanted a central role, but the rigid 4-4-2 Newcastle deployed simply didn't allow for it- -- as a consequence he often found his name among the list of substitutes. As fans clamored for him to replace the melancholic Gabriel Obertan out wide, the manager remained defiant.

Tensions grew. When Ben Arfa did play he was able to display his threat, an assist in a defeat to West Brom on Dec. 21, 2011 and a goal against Bolton a few days later that changed the game seemed to vindicate fan opinion -- and yet Pardew still confined him to the bench -- citing a lack of defensive discipline.

January's home game against QPR was the turning point. Replacing an injured Yohan Cabaye, Ben Arfa was a constant threat for the home side ,but more importantly he was chasing back. No longer the individual he was part of a cohesive unit that restricted QPR to few chances as the Magpies eked out a narrow win.

His work had not gone unnoticed, Pardew was keen to acknowledge his effort in his postmatch interview: "He's starting to maneuver into the first team. I think he's taken on board the team ethos that we've got here and in terms of tracking back and doing everything you need to do to play in our team."

More than just running backward, there has been a definitive change in mentality -- something teammate Demba Ba has duly noted. Speaking on French television Sunday he said: "Everyday in training [Ben Arfa] works really hard." More surprising however was Ba's claim that Ben Arfa does not like people seeing him working hard -- preferring to exude an attitude of nonchalance, something Ba says is not the case.

Ben Arfa is not entirely unrepentant about his former self. Now willing to admit that his reputation of arrogance was justified -- he explains that his overconfidence also saved him at one point. Mixing in questionable circles, Ben Arfa was close to joining what he describes as a cult -- his reluctance to acknowledge the leader as a superior being putting an end to his potential membership.

With Newcastle's formation changing in recent weeks to 4-3-3, Pardew has also found a way to finally accommodate his best players -- in particular Ben Arfa. His standout game against West Brom on March 25 highlighted his strengths with two assists and a well taken goal. His form of late has even seen him enter contention for France's Euro 2012 squad, something Pardew has championed him for via the media.

Yet just as the bandwagon begins to gather momentum Pardew cautions that tability and focus are what Ben Arfa requires. Talent has never been the issue for Ben Arfa. As a consequence Pardew has forbidden any more interviews for the rest of the season, a wise move from a man who seems to have learned a great deal in man management after his time with Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez at West Ham.

Now 25, Ben Arfa still has some way to go to prove all of his critics that he is a truly changed man, but with the potential stage of Euro 2012 just around the corner -- he may be able to prove that calling him "l'enfant terrible" should be just a thing of the past.

Kristan Heneage is a freelance sports writer who specializes in European soccer and MLS. You can find more of his work at http://krisheneage.tumblr.com/.

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