How To Solve The “Selection Headache” Of Midfield
By Steve
Thursday 19 Jan 2012 08:54:00
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Thanks to a very strong start to the season that has shocked some, but not all (at this stage in my points predictor I had us on two more than we have) Newcastle's once much-maligned squad is being called strong quite frequently, and Alan Pardew now finds himself interviewed on the positive problems of selection “headaches.” And all media exaggeration aside, the midfield does look a very competitive area of the squad, with Yohan Cabaye and Cheikh Tiote looking immovable in the centre, and Jonas Gutierrez busting a gut to prove his various, vocal detractors wrong with a string of useful performances. So far, only the right-hand side looks open to debate, though Gabriel Obertan has done well for a new signing even when faced with the poisoned chalice of replacing Joey Barton.


So where does that leave the others – Dan Gosling, Danny Guthrie, Sylvain Marveaux, Haris Vuckic, and most importantly Hatem Ben Arfa? Some would suggest playing Ben Arfa as the second striker behind Demba Ba or Leon Best, but a free role would suit the French marvel far better, allowing him to provide the link between the occasionally too-deep-lying centre midfield pair, playing as the point of a central ball-playing triangle with the extra strength of the combative pair behind him.


In attack, Ben Arfa would then be able to push on, travelling with the ball rather than always relying on Cabaye or the wingers to throw the ball forward to hit one of the strikers and expect them to hold onto the ball and wait for support. I'm not suggesting that that is how we have predominantly played so far this season, but that added dynamism, and the extra fluidity through attacking midfield would seem the next piece in the puzzle for the style the team has adopted with such success so far this season. It would give Ben Arfa the freedom to play at his own pace, which his skill allows, changing gear rapidly and punishing teams from a position that suits his style, rather than in a front two where he may be more likely to hide from the action.


It would also fit Alan Pardew's manifesto for ball retention, and the transition for the strikers to go from fighting for two places down to one wouldn't be too much of a stretch since Leon Best seems to thrive when playing like a lone striker anyway, and Demba Ba's ability in holding the ball up would suit a partnership with Ben Arfa better than it currently does with Best. And if they are unhappy at losing a spot to Ben Arfa despite their scoring exploits so far, they would be best reminded about the effect that he had during his brief, brilliant cameo against Blackburn.


Currently, Ba and Best are too similar in style to combine as the best attacking option available at the club, and the possibility of unleashing Ben Arfa in an advanced Peter Beardsley style role is too good an opportunity to let pass by without exploration. Wayne Rooney effectively plays in that position now, and his classification as a “striker” is not entirely accurate given how long he spends working at the front of ManUtd's midfield (and defending with the team when necessary) – combining with a more advanced, more conventional centre forward, like Hernandez, Wellbeck or even Owen or Berbatov he can be devastatingly effective. And even more crucially, his influence, and his vision from slightly deeper actually makes the other striker playing ahead of him look better. Which is why Wellbeck, who looked like a typical sunderland player last season, now looks like a contender for Capello's England squad every time he plays.


If, as with Wolves, the option of playing Ben Arfa in the attacking midfield play-maker role doesn't suit the robust physicality of the opposition, then employing the twin towers of strength of Best and Ba may be more appropriate, and we already know that they can combine at the front of our talented midfield to get their names on the score-sheet.

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