Despite their lowly league position, Newcastle United can boast some very talented players, most of whom were acquired through smart, at least in hindsight, business on the transfer market. While the quoted prices for player transactions can be confusing and misleading to most fans because of the intricacies often involved in structuring deals, the judgment shown by Newcastle purely on the calibre or quality of players they pursue has been noticeably astute.
Once the targets have been identified the manager has the responsibility or in some cases the freedom to prioritize and focus the club’s efforts on acquiring players according to the squad’s present or anticipated needs. Newcastle seem to have excelled in this process over the past two years and the manager deserves credit for this. The scouts however, have a few of us fooled.
Praise was heaped upon Newcastle’s chief scout Graham Carr following the signatures of Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse. In the case of Ben Arfa, he’s an exceptional talent. This is a player who represented France at every youth level, was the subject of a Clairefontaine feature on Telefoot (a French equivalent of MOTD) aged 14 then moved to Lyon’s academy as part of the famed class of 87’ along with Karim Benzema amongst others.
It’s worth noting that from the inevitable comparisons between these two, given both are of North African descent and attacking players, that Hatem was deemed to be the more talented of the pair. In 2004 he signed his first professional contract, at the time there was speculation in France on a potential move to England with Chelsea and Manchester United cited as long term admirers. During his time at Lyon he won four league titles, the French cup and was introduced to English football fans via an impressive Champions League appearance against Manchester United. In 2008, he moved to Marseille for 14M Euros where he also won the league in his first season and was very much the marquis signing to appease the ferociously impatient Marseille supporters.
So how much credit do Newcastle really deserve for signing Ben Arfa? It’s a no-brainer, right? Not exactly. In fact it was a massive gamble. There were several reasons the traditional European giants chose not to cement their interest in Ben Arfa . His tendency to retain the ball longer than he should was the first concern at Lyon. This became more apparent at Marseille and in League 1 this type of sin is always addressed by pundits and usually mutates from poor decision making into a character flaw. Ben Arfa, unfortunately for him, found himself involved in a number of reported training ground spats, most notably with Sebastien Squillaci who was at the time a senior player and respected dressing room presence, add to this alleged tension with Karim Benzema, a well publicised strike to force his way out of Marseille, breaking a gentlemen’s agreement with Didier Deschamps in the process (Deschamps agreed to let him go as soon as he found a replacement) and you have enough to put off potential buyers, and rightly so. The player himself admits that this was a difficult period in his life that almost turned to disastrous when his interest in Sufism and subsequently meeting French slam artist Abd El Malik led him to what he describes as a cult in Morocco, claiming that only his pride saved him. (Hatem gave a fascinating interview to L’equipe on January 16, 2012 revealing details of his near miss).
In a recent interview with L’equipe, Sir Alex Ferguson spoke of the importance of choosing the right characters and revealed his belief in extensive background checks on potential transfer targets. The challenge is to find players that will fit in to a new environment and manage to replicate the level of performance that got them “noticed” by the potential buyer, in a new team. With this also comes tactical and cultural considerations, especially with the Premier League because of the focus on a more direct approach to attacking football or what we usually describe as the pace of the league which is unique in Europe. This is what Newcastle has done so well recently, they gambled on Ben Arfa, but there was no need to unearth him. This gem was in plain view to anybody who took a minute to glance outside the Premier League bubble.