This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
“Joyeux Anniversaire a moi,” read the caption as Hatem Ben Arfa posed, thumbs up and grinning. A small cake with a single candle sat in front of him, but celebrating he was not. The 31 year old’s birthday had passed a month previously, instead his instagram post back in April was born of sarcasm. “One year without a game calls for a party,” he joked. Exiled at PSG, it had been a full year since Ben Arfa scored twice in a Parisien Coupe de France win over Avranches, then his most recent senior match; his career seemingly petering out. However, as this week has shown, the unpredictable Frenchman isn’t finished just yet.
Football faded from view this weekend in France as bubbling civil unrest instigated by the ‘Gillet Jaunes’ movement forced six of ten Ligue 1 games to be postponed as Police, their resources stretched, were unable to guarantee safety at many grounds. Some, including managers of those teams left to continue as normal, questioned the decision to play at all. However, Rennes’ former Newcastle United and Hull City forward Hatem Ben Arfa showed no sign of relinquishing a newfound verve.
Until now, Rennes’ season had not gone as planned. Fifth place in a promising first season under Sabri Lamouchi had been a surprise, the former French international proving an unlikely hit in his first European club appointment. A disappointing World Cup with Ivory Coast and three years at Qatari club El Jaish amounted to his entre managerial resume to that point. Nevertheless, Lamouchi had squeezed a productive campaign from Tunisian Wahbi Khazri in an unfamiliar striker role while ably nurturing younger talents in rangey winger Ismaila Sarr and Benjamin Bourigeaud, a technically gifted midfielder signed from Lens.
With European football on the horizon, the club’s summer transfer business appeared to be astute. Despite losing Khazri and imposing centre back Joris Gnagnon to Sevilla, fit again Lyon creator Clement Grenier, Caen defensive stalwart Damien da Silva and youthful Ligue 2 pair Romain del Castillo (Nimes) and Jordy Siebatcheu (Reims) made for exciting additions. Leading the pack of new recruits was Ben Arfa. A career defining season with Nice in 15/16, as Les Aiglons finished fourth under Claude Puel, had earned him a move to Paris but a skeptical coach in Unai Emery (who deployed him as a lone forward) and a clash of personalities with those higher up lead to exile and birthday cake. Nevertheless, much was still expected from a move to Rennes.
Clearly lacking match fitness, having only signed as the window shut, Ben Arfa’s return was a slow one and Rennes fans had to wait until mid October for any impact - a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win at Monaco. Still unfit however, a consistent run in the side was not forthcoming as Lamouchi’s team also struggled to find rhythm with just 4 wins from their first 15 league games while a first Europa League campaign in seven years found itself in jeopardy after three losses in four. A disastrous 4-1 home defeat to Strasbourg last Sunday saw Lamouchi sacked, despite a crucial Europa League win at Jablonec a few days earlier.
It was a decision that seemed, and may yet prove to be, rash. Rennes’ recent ambitions have often far outstriped results as the club, having lost patience with Philippe Montanier in 2016 after 30 months in charge, jumped from one manager to the next, their return to the top 6 forever a medium term goal. Having finally made some progress, Lamouchi became a victim of his own success. Although performances have fluctuated, Rennes’ main issue has been a young and inexperienced squad struggling (as many have) to deal with the draining Europa League schedule. Nevertheless, causes on both fronts were far from lost for Lamouchi, although a training ground altercation between Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud might signpost unease.
With Lamouchi gone, it seemed as though Rennes would be plunged back into transition, but Ben Arfa and interim coach Julien Stephan have had other ideas. Just 38, Stephan, son of Didier Deschamps’ bald national team assistant, Guy, finally unleashed Ben Arfa this week to devastating effect. “We must give him freedom and not lock him up in instructions,” insisted Stephan, “When he has this freedom, he enjoys himself and he can express himself freely. This pleasure makes him decisive.” Decisive is right. HBA’s characteristic burst of pace and arrowed 25 yard shot gloriously opened the scoring to beat boyhood club Lyon on Wednesday before another typically skillful and elusive Ben Arfa display, creating the first and scoring the second, saw off Dijon this Saturday.
As a result, Stephan incredibly became the first Rennes coach to win his first two top flight games since 1932 as his new side eased into Ligue 1’s top half. Having been given until the new year to impress, a win over Astana in the Europa League this Thursday and the continued excellence of a rejuvenated Ben Arfa might leave the Rennes’ hierarchy with little option than to offer him a permanent deal. Either way, now returned from the footballing wilderness, Hatem Ben Arfa will be hoping that a return to Europe will be the reason he ’calls for a party’ this time next year. Rennes, meanwhile, may have stumbled across the formula they have long been searching for.
by Adam White