Could Hatem ben Arfa make a triumphant Premier League return?
Background photo: Kuso
I cannot imagine the pain Hatem ben Arfa endured when Nigel de Jong introduced himself studs first in a match on 7 October 2010. I’m speaking in the literal sense. My mind won’t permit it.
In that match between Newcastle and Manchester City, the marauding Dutch destroyer’s challenge broke the French midfielder’s leg in two places just as the world was coming to know him as a world-class talent. Nearly five years later, I suffered a similar injury although I can tell you very little about it.
I’ve pieced together an assumption from knowledge of my normal routine and what the nurse told me when I woke up in the hospital a fortnight later with four tent poles protruding from my right leg. I was struck by a hit-and-run driver, likely while walking home from my favourite café. A studs-up challenge from a four-door sedan if you will.
On the second day after I regained consciousness, a team of doctors visited me. Their leader was a tall, raw-boned ginger with the beginnings of a coarse beard and an utterly hard stare. The reason for the latter became clear when he asked whether I intended to persist in giving them a hard time. I had no idea what he was on about. According to him, I was in a state when I arrived at the ER, lashing out at the medical staff, cursing them like I was Linda Blair in the exorcist while repeatedly trying to rip the tent poles from my leg. They had to sedate me for two weeks until I was strong enough to undergo surgery. I don’t remember any of it although Dr Killstare’s account of my behaviour gives me a greater understanding of the phrase ‘out of my mind’.
Ben Arfa was conscious throughout his ordeal. He lives with the memories every day and, it wouldn’t surprise me, the nightmares every night.
His career stuttered even though he played well initially upon returning to Newcastle. An ankle injury which may have been related to his recovery set him back again.
He also suffered problems in the press. Fans and pundits often forget players are human. Ridiculous salaries don’t change that. Players struggle to separate work and personal lives just like the rest of us, perhaps even more so because the paparazzi try to bring it all out into the open.
Ben Arfa had to learn to walk, run and play football again after healing. He had to redevelop trust in his body. All the while, pressure to perform from club and country rose as though nothing had occurred. For him, everything changed. A loan to dysfunctional Hull City wasn't the best situation for someone needing support and understanding. Abruptly, he left the club, returning to France.
After sorting eligibility requirements, he signed with OGC Nice where he rediscovered his electric form. In 38 games, he struck for 18 goals and created seven others for teammates.
Paris Saint-Germain courted him. Les Rouge-et-Bleu represented an opportunity to prove he was still an elite player. Unfortunately, he represented cover for the array of midfield stars already on the Ligue 1 giants’ books. In his first season, he scored four times and assisted seven in 1,132 minutes spread over 32 matches [35 minutes per]. Despite direct involvement in a goal every 103 minutes, PSG made no further plans for the Clamart native. Unai Emery didn't use him all in 2017/18.
With the writing on the wall, he moved to Stade Rennais. He thrives with the midtable Ligue 1 side. Even at 32, he demonstrates the pace and close control to gain revenge against an opponent who literally broke his leg by figuratively breaking a host of foes’ ankles.
In 28 appearances in which he’s averaging 74 minutes per, Ben Arfa’s given Les Rouges et Noirs seven goals and four assists. The goal rate is down but so is the quality surrounding him. More often than not, the playmaker does the heavy lifting himself.
His contract is up in June. While his age may frighten some clubs, it should be remembered he lost a season to injury and another to PSG’s ambivalence. There are some Premier League clubs where he might make a difference assuming he feels the media will let bygones be bygones.
Arsenal may need to replace two creative midfielders in the summer. Even if all is rosy with Mesut Ozil now and it's just the one, Ben Arfa could give Unai Emery two or three productive seasons while the club identifies and grooms a long-term replacement. Think how Mikel Arteta provided a steady presence while Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri all deserted the Gunners squad. Of course, coach and player must make peace over their time together at Les Parce des Princes.
Crystal Palace is another option. Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha drive the Eagles attack from either flank. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Patrick van Aanholt overlap effectively from fullback. Selhurst Park hasn't been thrilled by an attacking midfielder in the middle of the park since Yohan Cabaye’s departure. Ben Arfa’s talents could make Roy Hodgson’s side dangerous across the pitch and drive them up the table.
Manuel Pellegrini ought to be excited to have him in West Ham’s midfield. Felipe Anderson sets up on the left. Manuel Lanzini, just now returning from his own horror injury, could use a partner in the middle. Mark Noble transitions the Hammers' attack these days but he's a blunt instrument asked to do precise work.
With Rafa Benitez in charge at Newcastle, it might even be time to mend fences in Geordieland. The Spaniard has been crying out for creative players for two seasons. Miguel Almiron’s signing offers hope that Mike Ashley is finally listening. St James Park might welcome home a prodigal son.
They say time heals all wounds.