Ben Arfa shows Villa what's missing

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Hatem Ben Arfa puts Newcastle ahead against Villa.PA PhotosHatem Ben Arfa puts Newcastle ahead against Villa.

The Villa Park faithful have waited many a month to watch a top class playmaker in action, and on Saturday, one such player graced the famous old ground with a gifted and inspired performance. Unfortunately for the home support, that player was not clad in claret and blue, but the black and white stripes of Newcastle United: Hatem Ben Arfa was the outstanding individual, chiefly responsible for delivering all three points for the visiting Magpies.

While there was much to admire about Ben Arfa's craft, his display underlined the fact that Villa are without such a player, and emphasised frustration among supporters that the club were unable to recruit a No.10/playmaker during the summer. Paul Lambert may have signed seven new players since the 2012-13 campaign concluded but none who can run a game, dictate the pace, influence proceedings or win a game with a sparkle of magic, in the manner that Ben Arfa did. Villa tend to play in lines, and don't have anyone who operates between them. This can make Lambert's side look one dimensional, on occasion, and Saturday afternoon was one of those occasions.

Newcastle and Villa finished last season level on points and while the summer sideshow surrounding Joe Kinnear's appointment as Director of Football (or whatever his title is) provided good material for comedy, it shouldn't have detracted from the quality the Magpies have in their squad; the depth may be lacking a little but Alan Pardew's first-choice XI is undeniably strong. The starting line-up Pardew announced against Villa couldn't have been far off that, and man-for-man, Newcastle possessed superior players in almost every department. Certainly, the likes of Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko are a cut above anything Villa have, while Mathieu Debucy, Davide Santon and Fabrizio Coloccini provide a defensive solidity to the Newcastle defence that continues to elude Lambert's porous side.

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Just as they did in January, in this same fixture, Newcastle started on the front foot, gained early ground and scored first. While Villa's fans may still bemoan the lack of a playmaker, the manager will be more concerned with the malaise which seems to affect his team in the first half of matches. Lambert can do nothing about further signings until January 2014; his urgent priority is to get his players going from the first minute and not the 41st, and to arrest the alarming deficiencies which see Villa concede soft goals, week in, week out.

Newcastle's opener was pitifully poor from a Villa point of view. Karim El Ahmadi was hassled into losing possession near the right touchline, allowing Loic Remy to break and run at Matt Lowton. But as Remy crossed the ball, Villa had seven players covering just two Newcastle forwards, and yet still the ball broke for Ben Arfa to score. That was in the 17th minute, meaning Villa have yet to reach even the 22nd minute of a Premier League this season without conceding (Liverpool taking 21 minutes to score on August 24).

The Newcastle winner was barely any better. Ben Arfa, who had earlier stung Brad Guzan's palms from long range, jinked inside from the right, again, to shift the ball to his left foot and send in another strike. It was low and reasonably close to Guzan, but the Villa 'keeper pushed it back into his penalty area and directly to Yoan Gouffran, who scored. Guzan is one Villa player who has, rightly, avoided any kind of criticism over the last 12 months but the American should have done better.

At the other end, Villa were wasteful in front of goal - ten attempts but just one on target, which was Christian Benteke's equalising header. Lack of a genuine creative force or not, however, Villa couldn't have opened up Newcastle's defence more perfectly than when Andreas Weimann's right-wing cross presented a perfect chance for Gabby Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor's finish was horrible - six yards out and steered wide. If that's how Villa's front men continue to take a chance - and Weimann, like Agbonlahor, also had an off day, it wouldn't matter if Mesut Ozil suddenly pitched up at the club.

This was Villa's third successive defeat, and the euphoria following the opening day victory at Arsenal now seems forever ago. After a bright start, reality has dawned. This team still has a lot of learning to do.

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