If popular opinion is to be believed and last week’s goalless draw with Ukraine has left English football in need of a much greater understanding of attacking creativity - then Newcastle United’s Hatem Ben Arfa may prove a useful case study.
Studying the performance of Newcastle’s No10 in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Aston Villa offered a definition and example of attacking creativity.
After the former Lyon and Marseille man shimmied and jinked Newcastle to their second victory of the season, Magpies’ manager Alan Pardew described his mercurial winger’s performance as ‘unplayable’.
Given the 26 year-old scored the visitors’ opener, created Yoan Gouffran’s winner after 73 minutes and wreaked havoc for large parts in between, it was a fair summary.
Stationed on the right of Newcastle’s front three, the former Lyon and Marseille man demonstrated the benefits of deploying an ‘inverted winger’ – in this case a left-footer playing on the right wing.
In the opening exchanges, the French international repeatedly faked to beat his marker, Antonio Luna, on the outside before slipping inside onto his favoured foot to deliver diagonal passes and in-swinging crosses to attacking partners Papiss Cisse and the impressive Loic Remy - with whom Ben Arfa would combine to register the visitors’ opening goal.
Ben Arfa repeatedly used the same trick to create numerous shooting opportunities: deceptively casual and leisurely in possession, he would relax his marker before coming alive to dart inside and flash low shots across the face of Brad Guzan’s goal.
It would prove the method from which Newcastle would win the game; substitute Gouffran slotting home Newcastle’s winner after Guzan parried Ben Arfa’s stinging effort.
Although the Frenchman always had one eye on making an incisive runs inside, his unpredictability and varied repertoire of skills prevented Villa’s defence from growing wise to his attacking habits.
Having mastery of both body and ball allows Ben Arfa to keep his intention hidden until the last moment. For every disguised cross there was a mazy dribble; for every quick give-and-go, an early shot. Just as it looked like he would dart inside, a flash of black and white disappeared on the outside.
It meant Villa’s Spanish full-back, Luna, was regularly left bamboozled as he tried to second guess Ben Arfa’s display of perfectly balanced Chris Waddle-esque body swerves, shimmies and jinks.
Ex-Valencia midfielder, Pablo Aimar, beautifully summed up the art of dribbling, likening Lionel Messi’s ability with a football as an extension of a limb: "the ball is part of his body, it's under his skin." Although Ben Arfa isn’t quite ready to be categorised with such high-company, the Magpies’ creator-in-chief demonstrates an effortless familiarity with the ball.
Underpinning the performance was Pardew’s masterclass in maverick management. Arfa appeared mostly free from defensive duties for large periods of the second half, Pardew content for his playmaker to conserve his attacking energies.
Crucially, those who crave those rare moments of genius must also accept that the creative process also brings stray passes, failed stepovers and, in this case, Gallic shrugs.
Creative tension brings excitement and infuriation in equal measure and it is the task of the manager and coaching staff to bring the best of such talent.
It is these concluding points which are central to any discussion or definition on attacking creativity. At all levels of the game, are our coaches ready to design teams around creative talents, sacrificing work rate and endurance for a dash of something different?
Peter Glynn is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine. Peter is a journalist and has been with The Football Association for six years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.