How do you really solve a problem like Hatem Ben Arfa?
As another season draws to a close, Hatem Ben Arfa, the one-time great white hope of French football looks set to be packing his bags once again.
He will leave Paris St Germain having made just 23 league appearances for the Ligue 1 runners-up in 2016/17, with 18 of those coming off the bench.
But that hasn’t prevented the out of favour midfielder from firing back all guns blazing with his latest round of ill-judged media activity.
And you’d really have to question the wisdom behind the player’s shooting of a bizarre budget-class, brand building promo video shot on a deserted beach, and backed with a soundtrack of 2Pac’s Only God Can Judge Me.
As the camera rolls, the former French international stares moodily ahead before conducting a few sprints apropos of nothing.
By any measure it is toe-curling viewing, an excruciating way to spend 48 seconds of your life.
This PR clanger follows hot on the heels of Ben Arfa’s spring offensive – a scathing attack on Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone claiming that the trophy-laden coaches are “killing the essence of football”.
In an interview with France Football, Ben Arfa said: “Many coaches are convinced to invent football on the pretext that they are looking for a system to block the opponent”. In so doing, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder bemoaned the famous managers stifling defensive play, describing it as the “antithesis” of great tacticians such as Johan Cruyff.
“But this is not in the essence of football, with Mourinho and Simeone.
“It is the antithesis of Cruyff and his freedom, and with them there is no longer room for pleasure.
“There is no more spectacle, to the point that football interests me much less. I do not find pleasure watching matches. Even in Ligue 1, we kill football.”
But it is hard to imagine that either Mourinho or Simeone would have much truck with a player whose career amounts to a showreel of spectacular but largely incidental moments, and a trail of recriminations and unfulfilled ‘second chances’.
Ben Arfa has won nothing outside Ligue 1 bar an U17 UEFA Euros gold medal for France back in 2004. And at the age of 30, the French number 10 is reliant upon the indulgence of former clubs Lyon, Nice or a lesser light in The Premier League, Italy or Spain.
At this juncture, Sevilla, who also provided recent board and lodgings for HBA’s equally crowd-splitting compatriot Samir Nasri, appears to be Ben Arfa’s most likely next stop.
But let’s recap. While Hatem Ben Arfa makes his ‘come and get me’ pleas from a holiday beach, his arch nemeses (Mourinho and Simeone) are carrying on ‘business as usual’ at clubs Hatem Ben Arfa could only dream of playing for at this stage of his career.
The Man United boss, Jose Mourinho can point to a combined haul of 24 major trophies won in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy.
Diego Simeone, meanwhile has won five gongs in his five years with Atletico Madrid. And that is in a La Liga dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona.
It really is no contest as either a meeting of minds or CVs.
Nonetheless, I have some sympathy with Ben Arfa, a player over-indulged since he burst onto the scene, seemingly fully-formed at Lyon as a teenager. Such flattery would have turned the heads of far greater men.
But at the outset let me also state, I am no fan of French football and I think there is a lot to be said about the superficial nature of their playing culture.
I have seen first hand that ‘typical’ French footballers tend to come with a lot of cultural baggage. French players, especially the creative ones, typically overvalue their contribution to the cause and play with an elevated sense of their talents and their own importance. The generation of Ben Arfa, Nasri and Menez are typical of that ‘type’. In fact they are its poster boys.
You find these kinds of players in every league but especially in France and also in Holland. They don’t tend to exhibit much loyalty once unsettled by the lure of greener grass and more money. That’s why too many French or Dutch players ‘of the wrong type’ can be totally toxic within a formerly cohesive dressing room environment.
French football, like the hip hop soundtrack that typically accompanies it, is broadly-speaking a state of mind that begins and ends with the individual and their immediate needs. And you would have to say, Hatem Ben Arfa is a product of the so-called designer wash-bag culture.
There’s been a prevalent perception for much of the last 20 years, that the players from Ligue 1 were and are technically more advanced than other equivalent players (pound for pound). And that has explained their ubiquity within Europe’s major leagues.
However that perception has changed in the last 2–3 years to a view that the French players that are part of the current cycle are technically good but mentally weak. And that’s no good for team-building.
I have never been a great fan of Graham Carr’s signings at Newcastle, for example, and Ben Arfa was one of the ‘big’ ones. It is a roll-call that provides some good examples of the current viewpoint.
As a scout Graham Carr seems to overrate talent on the ball to the detriment of every other attribute and that was an oversight magnified in the relegated Newcastle team of 2016, chock-full of Dutch and French players of dubious mentality.
Here is a list of Carr’s signings at Newcastle. It is a mixed bag, that in fairness perhaps reflects the relative bargain basement pool the club were swimming in when the likes of Ben Arfa were signed.
I always remember Gerard Houlier’s great quote exchange with The Guardian columnist The Secret Footballer:
TSF: But there is something more than skills and muscles – there is team spirit. You write in your book: “While France was nurturing Ben Arfa, Germany was training Philipp Lahm and Spain Andres Iniesta.”
GH: This is an image. It’s true that, in France, we worked extremely hard to improve the skills and creativity of our players.That gave rise to players like Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and so forth.
But we probably un-deliberately disregarded the team aspect. The skill is useful for the team, not for yourself. It’s not an individual game. We probably enhanced more the skills and the quality of the individuals rather than the team effect that it must have. While we were working in that area in France, Spain and Germany were working in the same area, but combined with team play. A good player is first of all a good team player. This is probably where we were wrong but that changed when I came back to the federation and joined them again in 2008.
I worked a lot with Erick Mombaerts and we probably set up a new type of learning and teaching football. And we started to also have our own Iniestas and Xavis.
TSF: In your book, you say: “English players are usually much easier to coach than their French counterparts.” Can you expand on that?
GH: English players are more straightforward, more honest. If they do something wrong, they don’t try to hide it. They are open and brave enough to say: “Well, this is what happened. I’m sorry.” They also have a culture of effort, they like effort, and they have a great respect for hierarchy. Steven Gerrard is a brilliant example of this culture of effort. He was a natural-born leader as well, albeit it was probably not that obvious the first time I saw him – as I relate in the book.
The problem equally begins and ends with a boring domestic competition in Ligue 1. As a spectacle French club football can be deathly not because of the managers’ tactics but because the overriding desire not to lose is significantly greater than the will to win among French players (as a generalisation). The football needs to become more dynamic and the players braver in possession for it to exist as the compelling spectacle that Ben Arfa claims to favour.
This is why the 1-1 scoreline has been historically popular in Ligue 1. If both teams have scored and there’s say 30 minutes to play you regularly see both sides downing tools and making no attempt to win the game (for fear of losing).
A friend of mine, a scout and ex-odds compiler, picked up on this and regularly backed 1-1 draws in French league football on a consistent basis. I don’t know if he still does and I do not watch French football anymore to verify whether this scoreline still prevails but I doubt much has changed.
I have tried to get into Ligue 1 but it is simply a poor spectacle. Football with all the drama taken out. The players are all polite, identikit, nice technical players but they need to be diluted with another league’s culture or a foreigner’s sense of urgency to elevate their impact. Their fans are very quiet too and there’s no atmosphere in their bigger stadiums. Undiluted, it makes for really sterile, football – technocratic football even.
If you ever want to know why technical ability is only a small part of what makes a successful, modern footballer then simply watch a few French games between minor teams live on a betting site like Bet 365. Complacent football, complacent players.
I am quite militant in my view. I understand this. But over the piece I think Ligue 1 and French football (in the current generation) is not what I want to watch.
In terms of Ben Arfa specifically, he is caught in the cycle of hits and misses, tantrums and tiaras that is a typical fate for players whose ability on the ball dwarves every other aspect of their game (both physically and mentally).
It may just be that he is a luxury player that needs to play in a side built around him – at a smaller club. Some players can neither share the workload nor the limelight in a top side and I suspect Hatem Ben Arfa is one of them.
This comment from his Newcastle nadir pretty much sums up Ben Arfa as a player that ultimately can’t be relied upon and is therefore ‘no good’ long-term.
“It is understood that a group of senior players at St James’ Park have expressed annoyance at Ben Arfa’s lack of work-rate and discipline and have made it clear they do not believe he currently merits a starting place in Pardew’s first team. While they acknowledge the 27-year-old’s ability with the ball at his feet such critics feel he can be a liability when possession is lost.”
Regardless of how they are doing today players like Ben Arfa are always trapped in a cycle of behaviour characterised by peaks and troughs, fall-outs and ‘second chances’. There’s a great show-reel left behind but they never win the medal hauls that the ‘proper’ talents do. This is because they lack that basic commitment to their teammates and consistency in their play that you see week in week out from the true stars of the game.
Didier Deschamps summed things up best when he said: “With HBA we have seen this all before, a good start and then it all goes to hell, he has his chance in the France squad but I’m not holding my breath!”
Hatem Ben Arfa’s talent isn’t in question but talent doesn’t necessarily equate to impact in terms of goals and assists or in controlling games. The issues relate to consistency and commitment.
And no amount of self-generated hype or headlines can alter that fact.
Greg Gordon is a scout and journalist based in Glasgow.
The mission of his How to Watch Football website is to give fans a window into the hidden world of football – the game behind the headlines.
‘The site is powered by genuine football people: working scouts and journalists with authentic football experience.’
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