A Premier League manager gave a masterclass in man-management this week. He dealt with two problem players and came up with solutions that were in the best interests of everybody involved. One was a wayward talent, a creative force who has been criticised for a lack of application, of being lazy even, and who splits opinion amongst his club’s fans. The other was a player with a long-running grievance over non-selection which had meant the breakdown of the relationship between player and manager. Unfortunately for fans of Newcastle United I’m not talking about Alan Pardew, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, but Neil Warnock, new manager of Crystal Palace, and his players Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon.
On taking up his post last week, one of the first things Warnock did was arrange a loan from Manchester United of former Palace player Zaha. Zaha had hardly set Manchester on fire in his time there so far and had an underwhelming time on loan at Cardiff last season culminating in the kind of uninterested display we witnessed at St James Park in our last home game of 13/14. Responding to the many criticisms of Zaha, Warnock stated that the impression of the player as lazy was a superficial one, in fact his attitude had been ‘fantastic’ and that his creativity could provide a much-needed spark to the side. The player came off the bench against Newcastle at the weekend, looked dangerous every time he got the ball and scored a late equaliser to salvage a deserved point for Palace.
Earlier this year, Puncheon had publicly accused Warnock of corruption while the manager of QPR, where at the time Puncheon had been on loan. The situation had deteriorated to the point of threats of legal action against Puncheon for his unsubstantiated claims. On Warnock’s appointment as Palace manager, the most likely outcome seemed to be Puncheon leaving with some haste. However, according to Puncheon the manager had immediately sought a private meeting with him and told him that he would be playing in the Newcastle game, that neither player or manager were bigger than their club, and that they should forget the past. Puncheon was Palace’s stand-out player last year in avoiding the drop under Tony Pulis and Warnock will be aware that he would struggle to recruit someone to replace him should he have left. Puncheon was excellent on Saturday, skilful and energetic in attack, strong and committed in defence. Getting him on-side was vital to Palace’s prospects for having a good season and Warnock did what he had to do. I still don’t like him but he could hardly have had a better first week in his new job, and it is all down to skilful man-management.
Contrast that with the actions of Alan Pardew over the last few months. Certain elements of the situations at Palace and Newcastle are very similar. Ben Arfa, like Zaha, is perceived as lazy and unreliable. His relationship with Pardew had become poisonous after being frozen out of the first-team and a rumoured bust-up between the two, much like Puncheon. Newcastle look leaden, pedestrian in their play at the moment and someone with the talents of Ben Arfa motivated and pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team could have made a real difference. Someone needed to remember what Warnock had, that the club was bigger than personal differences, but instead of offering an olive branch Pardew chose to perpetuate their bust up. Moving Ben Arfa on to a probable rival makes little sense other than to strengthen Pardew’s own position at the club by removing a dissenting voice. Yanga-Mbiwa too hadn’t had a sniff of the first team for some time and wanted to cut his losses and get out, we are led to believe by newspaper reports. Again, Newcastle were desperate for experienced cover at centre-half but instead of trying to reintegrate him into the squad, to persuade him he had a future here, Pardew chose to cut him out and send him on loan. If it’s true that Newcastle are still paying 80% of his wages then this one makes even less sense than Ben Arfa’s loan. Newcastle gain virtually no benefit from the deal. Roma have an option to buy, so there’s obviously no intention of getting him back. Top-class match practice is not the reason he’s gone, nor is reducing the wage bill.
Pardew evidently didn’t rate either player enough to make it worthwhile to bend a little and bring either back into the fold. He’s the manager of course and is paid to make those kind of decisions. However I refuse to believe that he thinks either is worthless. He must know there are situations when both would be useful to have around. Though Ben Arfa obviously isn’t blameless for what has happened, he is also always capable of a good day on the pitch nevertheless. Pardew ‘s ego means he’s reluctant to look small by allowing Ben Arfa to criticise him and stay in the team, he doesn’t want to let him win. Conversely, just like Warnock did I think he’d appear a bigger man had he done so but that’s neither here nor there. Yanga-Mbiwa in particular is a French title-winning captain and international, who has moved to one of the top teams in Serie A to play in the Champions League, replacing a £20m player in Mehdi Benatia who has just moved to the European Champions Bayern Munich. Try and think of a time he played a couple of games on the trot in his favoured position of centre back while paired with Mike Williamson, as he seemed unable to form a partnership with Coloccini. Actually I can think of two games that happened last season: NUFC 2 Chelsea 0 followed by Spurs 0 NUFC 1, after which he was dropped for the returning club captain. He simply didn’t get a fair crack of the whip at Newcastle. From the very off he was played everywhere but at centre-back and I get the impression Pardew never wanted him and never knew what to do with him. Rather than not rating him at all though, getting rid of him enables Pardew to make a point in a power game he may feel he is playing with Graham Carr. In Pardew’s mind, Carr recommended the signing and moving him on now enables him to say the player wasn’t a success here and wasn’t suited to the Premier League. He is telling Mike Ashley Carr is not infallible and that Pardew is not merely a coach for the players Carr buys. It suits Pardew to get both out and if that is to the detriment of the club when looking at the larger picture then so be it.