The storied career of Hatem Ben Arfa began a new chapter during the recent international break as the enigmatic player finally put a disastrous spell in Paris behind him and signed with Rennes. How will the move work out for Ben Arfa and for Rennes though?
Ben Arfa’s last three seasons have arguably summed up his entire career to date. Following a disappointing end to his time in England, Ben Arfa returned to France after being snapped up on a 1-year deal by Nice, then under the management of Claude Puel. The hope being that back in France and in a team blessed with several talented youngsters, his experience and seniority in the side could calm the ill-discipline and inconsistencies which had dogged his time in the Premier League. Puel worked hard with Ben Arfa to bring his mindset and attitude in line, despite many doubting the move would pay dividends for either party.
Ben Arfa quickly silenced those nay-sayers though as he proved vital for a Nice side which finished fourth. Ben Arfa was instrumental in that success as he thrived with the responsibility given to him by Puel. Playing either up alongside striker Valère Germain or just off both Germain and Alassane Pléa, Ben Arfa looked a danger nearly every time he had the ball, looking to run at players, dazzle them with his array of tricks and dribbling ability and generally proving to be the talented magician many had doubted would be possible. He notched up 17 goals and six assists across the season and was rewarded with a nomination for Ligue 1 Player of the Year and inclusion in the Team of the Season.
With his name back on the lips of many, Ben Arfa elected to move on after his contract came to an end and signed for PSG. It was a move that again had its sceptics with some concerned the glitz and glamour of playing for the big spending champions, might see a return to the “old” Ben Arfa. Despite scoring on his debut against former club Lyon in the Trophée des Champions, Ben Arfa quickly found himself on the PSG bench. Reduced to only bit part substitution appearances, his first season in Paris yielded only eight starts, three of which were in the Coupe de France.
Worse was to follow the season after as he found himself completely frozen out by Unai Emery. His only noteworthy contributions were to be found on his Instagram account with bizarre videos of him training on beaches and a “celebration” complete with cake and candle to commemorate his one year anniversary of not playing. He was given opportunities to leave PSG but seemed content to wind down his contract and collect his monthly pay cheque.
Come the summer of 2018 and with his contract at PSG expired, Ben Arfa was forced into looking for new employers. Despite having not played football in well over year, he still found himself with no shortage of potential suitors. In the end it was Rennes who won out as he joined the ambitious Breton side. For Ben Arfa, the move represents perhaps his final chance in Europe. After raising his profile so well at Nice only to tarnish it again in Paris, although not all his own doing, he finds himself once again having to prove doubters wrong and perform something of a resurrection act.
For Rennes it is a move which brings about a little risk. Under President Olivier Létang and since the appointment of Sabri Lamouchi as coach, the club have been looking upwards. Létang has been allowed to look at helping the club progress on the pitch as well as off it. He has persuaded owners, the Pinault family, to part with some money which has allowed them to invest in players, particularly bright, young talents from within France. It’s proven reasonably successful as Rennes claimed a relatively unlikely fifth place finish and qualification for the Europa League.
Despite having some talented youngsters at their disposal, last season also demonstrated that Rennes need some experience and a player who can look to unlock defences. Wahbi Khazri filled that role very well last season through a loan spell from Sunderland however Rennes’ failure to capture him on a permanent deal forced them into looking elsewhere. This eventually resulted in signing Ben Arfa, with the hope he could recapture his Nice form and bring that “x-factor” that Rennes perhaps haven’t seen regularly since Ousmane Dembele’s sparkling debut season.
Once Ben Arfa is fit and ready to go, he should look to play in similar roles to those he played at Nice. Rennes do generally play with only one out and out striker, be it M’Baye Niang or Jordan Siebatcheu, supported by wide players Ismaila Sarr and Benjamin Bourigeaud. Clement Grenier then sits behind the striker in a central, playmaker type role. If Lamouchi is to continue with this formation, it is likely that Ben Arfa will rotate with Grenier. However, with Niang somewhat temperamental and Siebatcheu a little unproven at Ligue 1 levels, Ben Arfa could be put in that front man role himself, something which worked very well with Khazri last season. Either way, Lamouchi has plenty of options available to him.
Lamouchi himself could prove key to the success of Ben Arfa. It’s no coincidence that Ben Arfa shone under Puel at Nice, a coach known not as a shouter or a screamer but for displaying a calmer exterior and a boss who worked closely with his players, tutoring them to make sure they developed in a manner where only the right amount of pressure was put on them. Lamouchi in his short time with Rennes has shown he too has similar characteristics. If he can talk with Ben Arfa, to let him know he believes him and that he is a key component of this Rennes side, then that will help the player no ends. Ben Arfa needs to regain some of that swagger that allowed him to perform some of the audacious yet astounding moments of skill we saw at Nice; Lamouchi’s coaching of him could help bring that back.
Ultimately though it is once again down to Ben Arfa to show everyone he can be that player who amazes and excites in equal measure without any of the unnecessary baggage. He’s done it before and it will be hugely intriguing roller-coaster to see if he can do it once more.