On the third week of the 2015/16 Ligue 1 season, OGC Nice hosted SM Caen at the Allianz Riviera. The spectators had been starved of real quality for much of the match, with the two sides level at 0-0 and only a third of the game left to play. This all changed in the 67th minute.
Nice’s number nine Hatem Ben Arfa picked up the ball midway through Caen’s half. Not much seemed on, with Caen setting two banks of four behind the ball. However, Ben Arfa jinked and ran past the first man, before quickly flashing past a second. Now inside Caen’s box, he effortlessly slalomed past a third Caen player before accelerating past the desperate sliding lunge of a fourth. As the Caen defender lunged in, Ben Arfa released a rocket of a shot from his left foot.
Despite being at a tight angle to the left of the goal, the ball flew past Remy Vercourtre and rippled into the roof of the net. The Allianz Riviera erupted: Ben Arfa had just produced a moment of magic, something the Nice fans would become accustomed to seeing throughout that season. Although the Les Aiglons faithful would frequently see the wonderful webs that Ben Arfa would spin on the pitch in the 2015/16 season, this was not the usual calibre of player that played at the Cote d’Azur club.
In the preceding season, Nice finished in 11th — certainly nothing magical. Why then, was the mercurial French talent plying his trade in a mediocre Ligue 1 club? The answer lies in his downfall at Newcastle and then Hull City. The playmaker was often left out of the team either due to fitness problems or his disruptive relationship with managers.
An opportunity to join OGC Nice opened up in January 2015, though, and Ben Arfa’s career seemed to be salvaged. However, a cruel blow ensued when Ben Arfa discovered he could not sign for another club until the end of the season because he had played for both the Newcastle reserves and Hull (rules state you cannot play for three clubs during one season). The next six months would prove to be a nightmare.
“I had the feeling of being locked in a dark room without a door, or in an endless tunnel. I saw hell and especially no way out of my problems,” Ben Arfa said. “At that time, I was feeling bad, I did not see any light. I found myself a prisoner.” As a temporary escape, the Frenchman toured around Thailand, before going back to a neighbourhood in Tunis, Tunisia where his father was born, an area that young Hatem would often visit and play football.
Louise Taylor of The Guardian actually refers to Ben Arfa’s father as a cause for his son’s future ill-discipline: “A difficult relationship and subsequent estrangement from a demanding father only exacerbated the inner turmoil,” writes Taylor. Perhaps as a means to rekindle his sense of drive and ambition, and to overcome the hurdles that plagued his footballing career, it was necessary for Ben Arfa to visit Tunis.
The true light at the end of the tunnel came through his eventual move to Nice. “At Nice, I’ve found some kind of inner peace,” he said. On June 9, 2015, Ben Arfa would re-join Nice, but now crucially, he was able to play. And with that, the shackles were broken, and the ‘prisoner’ was free. Ben Arfa was often played at the tip of the midfield, as Claude Puel mainly deployed a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, although he could adapt his shape and play a 5-3-2 or 4-4-2 instead.
Ahead of Ben Arfa would often be strikers Valere Germain and Alassane Ple, and sitting behind the gifted Frenchman was a talented midfield trio of Jean-Michel Seri, Vincent Koziello and Nampalys Mendy. Puel’s team was small, but they made up for their height deficiency by retaining possession — 55.2% was the third-highest in Ligue 1.
— Ligue1 English (@Ligue1_ENG) September 25, 2021
What was even more vital was the energy of these midfield players: Koziello, Mendy and Seri thrived on ferociously pressing after the opposition, giving Ben Arfa a free role. This intricate, smooth, energetic attacking outfit suited Ben Arfa to a tee, and it showed. After just his second game the new signing was on the scoresheet. A penalty against Troyes AC would prove to be the first of many.
One week later, Ben Arfa really made his mark with the aforementioned solo goal against Caen. His close control, dynamic dribbling, and blistering pace were there for all to see. A brace soon followed against Bordeaux, as Nice began to climb up the Ligue 1 table. However, it was his performance just one week later against Saint-Etienne that truly captured the attention of both France and the world.
His first goal was a crisp half-volley from inside the box after a Saint-Etienne defender’s header fell in his path. Ben Arfa effortlessly fired the ball straight back to where it came from, and the ball dropped into the net. It was a goal that showed both his class and confidence and that would only be topped by his second, another solo run, bamboozling five and six defenders at a time.
After picking up the ball in attacking midfield, he shimmied past a scissoring challenge, before sprinting past a second man. With the ball stuck to his feet like glue, he zig-zagged through two more defenders, before nutmegging the last man and slotting a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner. Pure majesty.
Another right-footed goal came two weeks later in a 4-1 rout away to Rennes: Ben Arfa picked up the ball on the right and dragged the ball past his man, snapping the ball back with his left foot. He finished once more with aplomb. By the end of October, Ben Arfa had seven goals- at a rate of a goal every 154 minutes.
This, combined with his two assists and infinite moments of irresistible quality had culminated in the player that Ben Arfa had always promised to be. He was rewarded with his first France cap in three years, but it could never be that easy with Ben Arfa.
He went on a cold patch, failing to contribute much in the weeks following his goal against Rennes. In fact, (other than a penalty in the Coupe de France against Rennes), Ben Arfa failed to score until the turn of the year. Unsurprisingly, Nice’s free-flowing attacking football began to dry up, and their form dipped, as the club picked up just three wins out of their next ten games.
And so it seemed that once more Ben Arfa would be plagued by his old problems, that the darkness would swallow him up again. His career thus far was defined by his inconsistency and ill-discipline, and it seemed as if that was setting in at Nice after just a few months. However, in January 2016, L’Equipe reported that Ben Arfa refused the winter holiday that Nice gave him. Instead, he trained alone by himself to improve his fitness and physique.
Perhaps for the first time in his career, the playmaker went above and beyond what was required out of him to eek the most out of his footballing ability. This change in attitude may have in part been due to a repeat of his previous turmoil; he suffered for six months without football. But the role of Nice manager, Claude Puel in Ben Arfa’s mental development can not be understated.
“My relationship with Claude Puel is like that of a father and son, in the sense that he wants to accompany me and wants me to progress,” Ben Arfa told beIN Sports. “It works because his message seems to be getting through.” Ben Arfa’s phrasing of Puel, “like that of a father” interestingly links to Taylor’s comments on Ben Arfa’s strained relationship with his actual father. Perhaps all the Frenchman needed was a manager to love him like a father.
“He takes me as I am,” Ben Arfa told French football in November 2015. “Recently I went into his office and told him that in training I sometimes drift off. He responded: ‘Don’t worry, I knew what I was getting when we signed you.’ Rather than focusing on my weaknesses, he tries to improve my strengths.” The environment from the staff and fans at Nice played an equally telling role.
“This is a family club,” said Ben Arfa, “This a club that is giving me confidence and there is a coach who is making me grow. I think that in another environment it would not be the same. I have been in heaven ever since I signed here.” And in turn, Puel was able to get heavenly results out of the Frenchman. “He is a team player now”, Puel said to SoFoot Magazine, “Hatem couldn’t do that in the past.”
Ben Arfa becoming a team player was seen by his dedication in training alone. Furthermore, he was able to help the team on the pitch once more after the Christmas break with a resurgence in form. On January 15, 2016, Nice trailed 1-0 to Angers, with their European qualification hopes beginning to fade. Who was the man to rekindle their hopes? Ben Arfa.
Two nerveless penalties in the final ten minutes handed Nice the three points, and it was the first time he had hit double figures in a league season. The following week, the playmaker was on the scoresheet, as Nice edged out Lorient 2-1; Nice and their star player were back. Ben Arfa’s second flourish was quickly dampened by a hamstring injury keeping him out for four weeks, but following on from his return, he quickly recaptured his form.
Against Gazelec Ajaccio, Ben Arfa again showed his mercurial ability. He cut it from the right before poking the ball through two players and racing between them. He then coaxed another defender in, before fainting past him and bending a left-footed shot into the bottom corner. Into the second half, he also showed his creative touch, sliding a pass that cut through three Gazelec defenders, putting his teammate Alassane Plea clean through to make it 2-0.
Any contribution Ben Arfa had to the Nice attack was a breath-taking one. Equally breath-taking to the Nice fans was the team’s league position, and following the victory guided by their talisman, the club were up to 3rd in Ligue 1. Ben Arfa even proved his worth against the French giants, PSG, the following week, as he whipped a fierce left-footed strike from 20 yards that curled just inside the left post.
Ben Arfa had shown that he was comfortable competing with the very best even if his team may not have been as Nice lost 4-1. Towards the tail-end of the season, Ben Arfa kept his club in the mix for European football with his performances, not least his hat-trick against Rennes. The first, a calm, slotted penalty was quickly followed by his typical right foot finish into the bottom-left corner.
He saved the best until last, picking up the ball in his own half, driving at the Rennes defence and then firing home a bullet past Benoit Costil from 25 yards. The score finished 3-0 Nice and three goals from Ben Arfa, as the club strengthened their grip on the European places. Nice ended the season with three wins, a draw and a loss from their last five, with Ben Arfa bagging his final goal of the season against Stade Reims on matchday 35.
The club accumulated 63 points from 38 games, helping them qualify for the UEFA Europa League group stage, a massive achievement for the club that had not reached the group stages of a European tournament since 1976. Puel had created a perfectly balanced team, which combined experience and youth, energy and flair and attack and defence.
Happy birthday Hatem Ben Arfa! 🥳🎂
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) March 7, 2021
Although the likes of Vincent Koziello, Jean Michel Seri and Valere Germain shone throughout the season, it was Hatem Ben Arfa who undoubtedly stole the show, as he ended up with 17 goals and four assists. However, even those impressive stats fail to articulate the magisterial effect that Ben Arfa had on Nice’s attack.
Nice in the 2015/16 season became an eye-catching team that could both pass the ball into the net and rip the opposition to shreds with blistering pace on the counter, and the orchestrator behind this was Ben Arfa; he was the man who dragged the club back into Europe. His achievements were widely recognised as he was placed in the WhoScored Ligue Team of the Season (he had the highest rating out of any player not from champions PSG).
However, the fairy-tale could not last forever: a club the size of Nice could not hold back Ben Arfa in his quest for glory. In May, Nice’s chairman confirmed that Barcelona had shown an interest in Ben Arfa’s services. This was followed by links between the player and Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, such was the quality of his performances.
In the end, Ben Arfa decided to join the club he supported as a boy: Paris Saint-Germain. He was at an elite club where he had the potential to go for years if he performed to his level. However, the old problems over discipline, poor training and lack of fitness resurfaced. PSG manager Unai Emery rarely played him, and he went on to make just 23 appearances in two years, scoring zero goals.
“I am sad for him, and I think he is sad too.” The words of former teammate, Vincent Koziello in 2018, “I think that he absolutely had the abilities to succeed at PSG.” Ultimately, Ben Arfa never did succeed. Perhaps it was the pressure of a big club, or the change of scenery.
The most important factor though was the absence of Claude Puel, Hatem’s ‘father’ who understood both the playmaker’s football ability and mental state. Puel and the welcoming atmosphere at Nice was the final piece of the jigsaw that set Ben Arfa’s career free, and without him, and those who aided him at Nice, the mercurial Frenchman could not succeed.
By: Joseph Odell / @IncogFootball
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sylvain Thomas – AFP / Valery Hache – AFP