x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The French influence at Newcastle

Midfielder has settled quickly into his life on Tyneside, with an impressive start to the season and a lofty league position.

Cabaye, with Ben Arfa and Obertan, plus the Ivory Coast forward Ba, have added a Gallic flavour to the club, and filled the gaps left by some influential players.
Cabaye, with Ben Arfa and Obertan, plus the Ivory Coast forward Ba, have added a Gallic flavour to the club, and filled the gaps left by some influential players.

There are always urgent questions at Newcastle United. It goes with the territory, with the large and loyal band of supporters, with the club's habit of extreme plunges and leaps of fortune from one year to the next.

Yet the questions posed at the beginning of this season, Newcastle's second since being promoted back to the Premier League in 2010, seemed pertinent, not least because they were being posed by one the club's most popular players.

How, asked Joey Barton in July, were Newcastle going to replace Kevin Nolan, the captain who had been sold to West Ham United? By August, Barton had asked too many awkward questions and was moving on, too, to Queens Park Rangers.

How, it was left for others to ponder, would Newcastle fill the gaps left by both Barton and Nolan?

Here is a convincing reply: Yohan Cabaye. The 25-year-old Frenchman, recruited from Lille in the summer, has proved an instant success on Tyneside, offering to a more mobile, and currently top-four, Newcastle team much of Barton's admired gumption and bite, as well as Nolan's ambitious eye for goal.

"He's a genuine talent," Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, said, "and when he's on the ball he's great to watch." Pardew has also praised the midfielder's swift adaptation to the "crazy pace of the Premier League".

Cabaye has rapidly made himself at home, he says, because so many like-minds are around him. Newcastle are an increasingly francophone club, what with the French-speaking Demba Ba up front, the France international Hatem Ben Arfa coming back from a long injury and his compatriot Gabriel Obertan offering speed on the flank.

And English football is hardly impenetrable territory for a good French anchor midfielder. Many of the Premier League's best teams have been built around them, from Patrick Vieira at Arsenal to Claude Makelele at Chelsea.

Cabaye's football is not quite in their style. At 5ft 9ins (1.75m), he does not have the commanding physique or the telescopic reach in the tackle of a Vieira. And he is more forward-thinking than Makelele, as 13 Ligue 1 goals for Lille last season shows. He possesses an unusually powerful shot from distance, which has already scalded the palms of a few goalkeepers in England and skimmed crossbars and posts.

But it is his capacity for organising the game from his deep role that gains Cabaye most of his plaudits. He is an excellent first-time passer, and, that, coupled with a combative streak, is propelling him up the hierarchy in his national squad.

Cabaye was given his first France cap 14 months ago, on the debut of Laurent Blanc, the new national coach. Now, he is starting to look like Blanc's preferred choice in the centre of midfield: Cabaye can realistically expect to keep the first XI place he had in France's last match against Romania when Blanc's team take on Albania this Friday.

Before joining Newcastle, Cabaye had been a one club footballer. He comes from the north of France, and enrolled with Lille in his early teens. His father, Didier, had been a promising footballer when he was young, although a serious injury prevented him developing at Lens.

Cabaye was lucky in that he joined a Lille who were progressing. He made his Champions League debut at 19, and when the club appointed Rudi Garcia as their new head coach in 2008, he found his role redefined: he was asked to play the sentry less and the playmaker more, and, with his more attacking outlook, he and Lille thrived.

That season, he would reflect, contained several turning points. A red card in the derby against Lens, and subsequent ban, caused him "to think more responsibly".

He certainly took a great deal of responsibility for Lille's triumphant 2010/11 campaign. The club celebrated a double of French Cup and their first league championship for more than 40 years.

Newcastle acted fast to offer him a five-year contract. He arrived there thrilled with his freshly-minted winners' medals and would later say to French media he had been taken aback that in Tyneside, Lille's successes made little news.

"There's no French football shown on TV here," he said. He then realised the north-east of England can seem insular simply because its fans are so focused. "We played friendlies pre-season against Darlington and Leeds and first 6,000 and then 20,000 Newcastle fans travelled," he said, wide-eyed.

He approves of that. "If you show you are committed the fans get right behind you. What I like is that they even applaud you for doing the defensive tasks well. I'm convinced it's the best league in the world."

sports@thenational.a