Hatem Ben Arfa has some distance to go before he reaches the proverbial nine lives of a cat, but Bordeaux’s 2-2 draw with PSG at the weekend offered evidence that he may be able to write another chapter to his career, even at the age of 33. There were hints that he was clicking into gear against Rennes last weekend, when he scored the winner in a 1-0 victory over his former club, and he was electric on Saturday in another of his old haunts, setting up a goal and generally wreaking havoc at the Parc des Princes.
Aside from an ill-fated sojourn at PSG, Ben Arfa has generally been impressive since his return to France from England five years ago. At Nice he formed a strike partnership with Valère Germain that was as unlikely as it was effective. Nice’s brand of attacking football under Claude Puel was scintillating but it seemed that, given their financial limitations, a realistic tilt at the Champions League places was beyond their means. As a result, Ben Arfa was soon lured to pastures greener, acknowledging as he did so the debt that he owed to the southern club, who had to wait some eight months for him to make his debut following a transfer imbroglio over his aborted spell with Hull City.
At the start of the 2016-17 season he left Nice for PSG, who he had supported as a child growing up just outside Paris. He said they had “always been a very special team for me, so to wear this jersey at the Parc des Princes is a childhood dream.” Upon his arrival, though, he struggled – not because of a lack of form but because he was used infrequently and poorly by Unai Emery, playing either as a substitute or as an orthodox centre forward as the club searched for goals following the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After failing to make a single competitive appearance in his second season with the club, he joined Rennes on a free transfer.
He made an instant impression, scoring on his debut in stoppage time to help Rennes win a Europa League match. Shortly into his time with the club, Julien Stéphan was installed as manager. Not only did Ben Arfa offer his new boss a veteran presence in a relatively callow team, he also gave a somewhat stodgy side some verve going forward. He was important, though perhaps not instrumental at the club.
After a very disappointing spell in Spain last season with Real Valladolid, Ben Arfa is now back in France. It looks as if he could reprise the role he had at Nice – where he played as an attacking fulcrum around which disparate parts can be best used – for Jean-Louis Gasset at Bordeaux.
On Saturday, Gasset set his team up in a 4-2-3-1, with Ben Arfa nominally a No 10 but really given a free role, popping up all over the pitch to make runs at the hosts’ defence. Providing this sort of dribbling menace has long been Ben Arfa’s calling card but his managers have at times struggled to find a tactical framework that brings the best from him consistently. Gasset seems to be getting the balance right.
In this setup, Ben Arfa needs to play alongside hard-working attackers to be at his best – witness the graft of Germain at Nice, or Romain del Castillo at Rennes. Gasset is certainly eager to get that from his players, and in Jimmy Briand, Josh Maja and Samuel Kalu, he has a cadre of players who are more than willing to get stuck in to help their talisman.
As well as his guile on the ball, Ben Arfa also has the potential to be more direct. It was his delivery that resulted in Bordeaux’s opener, an own goal at a corner, and he then set up Yacine Adli for the equaliser, the visitors refusing to shrink or try to limit damage despite going a goal down before the half-hour mark. Ben Arfa, who has grown into the season since signing last month as a free agent, also grew into the game and continued to threaten. His steady improvement was noted by Gasset after the match. “As he gets better physically, he can be even better,” warned the Bordeaux manager. Admittedly, though, Bordeaux were helped by Thomas Tuchel’s decision to rotate his side heavily, particularly in defence.
Bordeaux have the makings of a team that is solid at the back. No goalkeeper in Europe’s top five leagues has kept more clean sheets than Benoît Costil this season and Laurent Koscielny’s experience remains invaluable. Bordeaux are unlikely to challenge for the European places but, with Ben Arfa hitting his stride, they are a far more compelling side than they were even a month ago – offering further evidence that yes, you can go home again.
• Lyon, Monaco and Montpellier all kept up their winning runs at the weekend. With Lille only able to draw away to Saint-Étienne, the competition for the Champions League places only looks that much fiercer. Lyon and Monaco both won 3-0 at home to teams that had men sent off. Even if Montpellier had a more difficult go of it against an uncharacteristically solid Lorient side, the results – and performances – of these three teams are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, especially as none of them are involved in Europe, something that has proved a stumbling block for Rennes and Nice.
• Marseille shook off elimination from the Champions League with ease, beating Nantes 3-1 on Saturday with a fine display. They have two games in hand on the five clubs above them and, if they win those matches – against Nice and Lens – they would go top of the league. The fact that Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet and Dario Benedetto all scored against Nantes will be a massive boost for André Villas-Boas’ side, who have been effective but severely limited going forward of late. Benedetto in particular had been a source of frustration; this was his first goal of the season. Perhaps Marseille can push the four aforementioned clubs in the Champions League race.
• Dijon were the only team in Ligue 1 without a win before the weekend. They ended that streak emphatically on Sunday by thrashing Nice 3-1 thanks to two goals from Mama Baldé. Dijon have shown more of a battling spirit under recently installed manager David Linarés. Relegation will remain a concern for some time, but they are now at least within touching distance of safety, with results largely going their way this weekend.