WHEN Hatem Ben Arfa gingerly stepped off the St James’ Park turf a fortnight ago, it seemed like Newcastle’s season was spinning from bad to worse.
Instead, the loss of their maestro has been the catalyst for a reinvention that might just have kickstarted United’s troubled campaign.
Ben Arfa’s forced absence prompted a tactical rethink from Alan Pardew that has achieved the dual goals of satisfying supporters who were calling for a return to 4-3-3 while also reaffirming the ability of Newcastle’s coaching team to come up with fresh solutions to pressing tactical problems.
Monday’s line-up wasn’t quite a 4-3-3, but it did involve three players pushed forward into offensive positions. Demba Ba was given the central role while Papiss Cissé peeled off him on the right and Jonás Gutiérrez appeared to be back in an advanced left-wing role.
With Sylvain Marveaux parachuted in just behind a front two and Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tioté bolstering the midfield, there is a pleasing freshness and fluidity about this formation.
It is also getting the best out of players who have underperformed this year, with Anita, Ba and Gutiérrez all posting better performances over the past couple of matches.
Newcastle looked more robust against Stoke last week, but it was against the 10 men of Wigan where they finally asserted the control that Pardew has been craving.
Too often this season, he feels, they have allowed other teams to grasp the ascendancy in key areas, but they made the most of the extra time and space that they were afforded by Maynor Figueroa’s early sending-off.
All of this leaves Pardew with a fresh set of problems – not least the thorny issue of how to accommodate Ben Arfa when he returns at Fulham. The France forward must play but will it be at the expense of Marveaux, who is playing the best football of his black-and-white career?
It is a difficult call, but Pardew will be thankful that his choices are now positive ones – rather than simply scanning the squad for available bodies.