Having seemingly all but forgotten what it felt like to step onto a football pitch, it seems a year on the PSG bench will have been what finally broke him: Desperate for anyone to put him out of his misery, Hatem Ben Arfa has now resorted to releasing motivational videos of him doing sprints on a beach to put himself in the transfer shop window. The title, though, ‘I wasn’t ready, there’, encapsulates his career rather nicely: a series of stops and false starts, punctuated by the odd purple patches.
After finally stringing together a season worthy of his obvious natural talent last year at Nice, Ben Arfa decided to jump ship to the then-Champions, presumably enticed by the prospect of absolutely no playing time and a disastrous working relationship with his manager. So, 3 years on from playing for Hull’s reserve team, he finds himself back at square one, yet again an outcast in his own team. Once again, just as his weight issues in England or behavioural problems in Marseille had held him back, he partly has himself to blame for his failed season – but, as was the case with Alan Pardew at Newcastle, it was also down to the fact that Unai Emery just didn’t take a liking to him, or his style of play.
Even if the most concrete links over the summer were with Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla side – who in Samir Nasri and Paulo Ganso already had their fair share of erratic soloists – Ben Arfa himself had spoken of interest from Chelsea and Barcelona amongst others. It was a phone call from PSG’s representatives, allegedly minutes before giving his approval for the move to Spain, that swayed his decision in the end. In fairness to him, the move was pictured as a sort of homecoming for the man from the Parisian suburbs (even if he did declare that Marseille was his boyhood club on arriving at the club in 2008…) and he was fairly vocal over how he was won over by Unai Emery’s playing philosophy and the prospect of appearing at the Parc des Princes. ‘I have no regrets’, he was telling France Football this time last year, ‘especially when I see what awaits me at PSG’.
By Christmas, he’d been phased out of the squad almost completely. With scarce playing time to his name and a reportedly toxic relationship with both his manager and half of his team mates, there was little to suggest that he could clearly see what was awaiting him. In another video he released where he outlines his situation at the club, he admitted to not thinking ‘it would be this hard’. Surely he must have known, though, that even if the club was in its post-Zlatan reconstruction period, that he wasn’t going to stroll into the starting eleven straight away?
It didn’t help that when he did play, mainly coming off the bench for the final minutes, he would do little to justify a bigger role in his manager’s eyes – ‘He should be less selfish and more focused towards the team’. Along with Emery’s other summer signings, Ben Arfa made too little an impact and often struggled to find any entente with his teammates. The culmination of this would come against Saint-Etienne at home, where the attacking trio, made up of Jesé, Lucas and himself, could only muster up a penalty goal in an uninspiringly tedious performance in which the Parisians scraped a draw.
There were, however, at times, signs that he would be able to carry over his form from Nice. He spent the opening matches of the season up front as a makeshift Cavani replacement, notably scoring against his formative club in the Trophée des Champions. Nevertheless, once Edinson Cavani returned, and Emery began trying to shoehorn Jesé into the role, it was clear that Ben Arfa had no future as the backup for Cavani. Back in a more familiar position as part of the attacking midfield three in Emery 4-2-3-1, he was consistently eclipsed by the often-injured Javier Pastore, and the arrival of Julian Draxler in January would only push the Frenchman even further down the pecking order. He’d also been injured in the last few weeks of the year – not that that affected his playing time in any way.
By the turn of the year Ben Arfa was seeing even less of the pitch, after a public falling out with his manager all but cemented his chances of succeeding in the capital as dead in the water. Compounded by the general failures of PSG, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the move a disaster for all parties involved. Meanwhile, Nice have gone from strength to strength, even after losing their two main sources of goals from the previous season in Ben Arfa and Valère Germain, and the former will surely be wondering what could have been had he renewed his contract at the club, or at least gone somewhere which could offer him regular playing time.
So once again, Hatem Ben Arfa finds himself at a crossroads after yet another false start, albeit this time in a more favourable position than this time two years ago. With Sevilla reportedly coming back for him and the door to a possible return to Nice creaking open, he may have another crack at making the most of what’s left of his career.