Hatem Ben Arfa: His Best Friend and His Own Worst Enemy
He has frustrated about as many fans that have revelled in his brilliance. Thariq Amir looks at both sides of OGC Nice’s Hatem Ben Arfa.
For a player whose who has never quite realised his outrageous potential Hatem Ben Arfa has quite the medal collection. He’s won five Ligue 1 titles, the Coupe de France, the Coupe de la Ligue and three Trophées des Champions. Not a haul to be sniffed at.
However, despite the success, his career has been defined by conflict and controversy. Be it the Olympiques of Lyon or Marseille, Newcastle United or Hull City, Ben Arfa’s departures have never been happy and more often than not acrimonious.
Ben Arfa’s gift for quarreling rivals his undoubted football abilities. There was the famous episode at Clairefontaine when he and Abou Diaby, then just boys, were having a heated argument to put it mildly.
At Lyon he fell out with Karim Benzema and had a training ground scuffle with Sébastien Squillaci, which eventually forced the club to sell the temperamental star to Olympique Marseille. His stay at the south coast saw him fall out with Eric Gerets, Didier Deschamps and the club itself with l’OM cutting their losses, sending him over to Tyneside. Sadly, if not unpredictably, he got on the wrong side of Alan Pardew at Newcastle and managed to bamboozle Steve Bruce during his all too brief stay at Hull City.
His career has been a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. A mélange of wonder goals, training ground bust-ups, walkouts and weight issues. He looked a player fighting against the world, struggling to balance his footballing gifts with his all too combustible temperament.
That was until he was forced to sit out of the game for six months. At the beginning of 2015, Ben Arfa was looking for a way out from his Premier League nightmare. He appeared to secure an escape route and was set to sign for Nice until FIFA intervened, ruling that he could not play for the French club as he had already represented Newcastle and Hull in competitive fixtures. After a failed attempt to overturn the ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport the player, described as a ‘genius’ by Gérard Houllier, was forced to kick his heels for the remainder of the 2014/15 season. His world was crumbling.
Ben Arfa himself admitted that the decision to prevent him from playing was devastating but perhaps the enforced hiatus could now be looked at as a blessing in disguise.
From wondering whether to play football in the North Pole Ben Arfa took the more sensible decision to travel and reflect.
“I went back to Tunis where I grew up. It was important to go back. I found old childhood friends. In Tunis, I forgot I was a footballer. I lived a different life. I went to cafes. I found the images and sensations of my childhood,” Ben Arfa admitted.
If anything the time off allowed the former Lyon and Marseille star to escape the bubble of football, appreciate the wider world and gain a greater sense of perspective.
Happily for Ben Arfa he eventually signed for Nice and started off this season’s campaign in blistering fashion. He has hit the target 10 times in 21 league games whilst setting up another two. He looked like a player reborn.
Though the overall numbers look good, Ben Arfa’s form suffered a mid-season blip as the goals dried. He seems to have shaken off that torpor though with a welcome brace against surprise package Angers, albeit with both strikes coming from the penalty spot, and a fine finish against Lorient.
Ben Arfa is Nice’s top scorer but before he struck against Angers, the former Newcastle United man had not hit the back of the net nor notch an assist for his side since the 4-1 defeat of Stade Rennais in October.
In that barren spell which lasted 11 games Nice won three matches, drew four and lost four, scoring just nine times whilst conceding 12. Hardly Champions League-qualifying form.
Contrast this run with their first nine league outings. Nice emerged victorious five times, drawing and losing twice. They scored 24 goals, thumping Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne and Stade Rennais in the process (Ben Arfa scored five in those three matches alone), with his side winning on four occasions and finishing level in the other one.
To put it crudely, when Ben Arfa scores Nice prosper. If anything the game against Angers crystallised the point as Nice were 1-0 down until Ben Arfa’s late interventions from the penalty spot gave his team all three points. But is it realistic to expect a talent so mercurial yet so inconsistent to suddenly deliver on a regular basis all season long?
For a person who plays with a touch of the devil, Ben Arfa has thus far failed to tame his demons but at the Allianz Riviera he seems to have found the soothing yang to his raging yin.
“At Nice, I’ve found some kind of inner peace,” he said. “It’s been a long struggle, much like the 12 labours of Hercules. This is the first time in my life I’ve felt as serene in my head.”
Whether that serenity lasts will be interesting to see. Has he truly found peace or do the stables still need cleaning?
Maybe this season we’re seeing a different player. The responsibility of being Nice’s main man initially spurred Ben Arfa on and the realisation of what is demanded of him could spark around a turn in form.
Against Lille, Ben Arfa was involved in the build up that led to Niklas Hult’s equalizing strike for Nice. It’s easy to speculate but the Ben Arfa of old in all likelihood would have tried to do everything himself and end up giving possession away.
This bears the hallmarks of the next step in Ben Arfa’s journey to football maturity. He is by far Nice’s most gifted footballer and has been given the platform to express himself by Claude Puel.
However it’s no secret what Ben Arfa can do given time and space so opponents will pay special attention to him and deny him any room to manoeuvre. It partly explains why the goals have dried up.
Rather than let this attention frustrate him Ben Arfa could use his opponents’ tactics against them though he’ll have to be unselfish in order for that trick to succeed. If he can pull defenders, detailed to mark him, out of position by making selfless runs he can create space for his teammates. This leaves the opposition with a conundrum: do they focus on Ben Arfa and allow his teammates room to play or do they ignore Nice’s number nine knowing full well what he’s capable of.
Teams are aware of what kind of magic Ben Arfa can produce with the ball at his feet. If the ex-Newcastle forward can appreciate the value of not just creating space with the ball but making room without it for his teammates to exploit then he could take himself to a higher plateau.
He’ll also need to lay on more chances for his colleagues if only to ease the goalscoring burden from himself. This season he’s created 17 chances including two assists – a low figure for a player of his ability. Talented he may be but there needs to be a realisation that there are benefits in believing in his teammates. In fact his most productive season assist-wise came in 2011/12 for Newcastle when he set up six league goals.
A ‘genius’ isn’t someone who can dribble past four or five opponents to score a wonder goal. A ‘genius’ appreciates all aspects of football and can marry their talents with a keen understanding of the game to not just make themselves look special but make their side and teammates come up several levels too.
There was a moment against Angers that captured the mesmerising yet frustrating side of Ben Arfa. In isolation he produced a magical dribble displaying skill, ball control and wonderful trickery. In the grander scheme of things he tried to do too much on his own and ended up in a cul-de-sac forcing him to take a hopeful shot.
His effort against Lorient was more promising as he looked to combine with his teammates and find space in the box to receive the ball. That strike bore the hallmarks of a team goal.
No one doubts the talent; it’s just a question of application, trusting his teammates and football intelligence.
The younger Hatem may abhor the extra workload but if the current version has truly matured then he’ll realise that he will still be able to express himself whilst becoming even more valuable to his club.
An upturn in form could also see him move to more glamorous surroundings.
“I don’t agree with the idea of thinking that he needs a small, family club to express himself,” Puel told Nice Matin when talking about Real Madrid’s potential interest in Ben Arfa.
“That would minimise the quality of Hatem to say that. I hope for his sake that he won’t be at Nice next year. The highest level is not only about a few flashes of brilliance. It’s about consistency, work-rate, working to win the ball back…He’s in the course of acquiring all of that this year. I’m not surprised to hear that big clubs like Real Madrid are following him.”
It’s hard to say how Ben Arfa would do if he moved to one of Europe’s bigger clubs. Maybe he’ll rage against the machine once more without an understanding coach like Puel.
First of all he needs to rediscover the form that has put him back on the radar of Europe’s big clubs and earned him a recall to the French national team; to do that he’d be wise to acknowledge Puel’s comments to Nice Matin and act upon them.
The three goals in successive games against Angers and Lorient is a good start but the mercurial talent needs to carry that momentum forward.
At 28, he has lost too much time to bickering and disputes instead of showing the world what he can really do on a consistent basis. However, he still has a chance to put right a number of wrongs and let fans and pundits alike talk about his exploits on his pitch for years to come.
The spectacular goals are still there, the highlights reel completely spellbinding, the Vines worthy of repeat viewing. This time round though the anger and rebellion doesn’t seem to be there. With Ben Arfa there are never any guarantees but the brush with the near permanent banishment into football’s wilderness seems to have shaken him and given a sense of perspective.
As ever with Hatem Ben Arfa he is his own best friend and worst enemy. Time is not especially on his side but he’s battled back from worse things than a slump in form.
If he fights for the right reasons then the best may yet be to come. If that happens Claude Puel and Nice could very well be celebrating qualification into next season’s Champions League.