Dimitri Payet has had an exceptional start to his West Ham career. He has greatly impacted not only the club, but the league as a whole. His creativity, quick feet, and seemingly effortless technique have lit up the Premier League, earning him potentially justifiable comparisons stemming from World Cup winner, Mesut Ozil, to West Ham and England legend, Sir Trevor Brooking. Despite missing three months with an ankle injury, ‘Super Slaven’s’ man has picked up seven goals and five assists in just 19 Premier League games.
However, with Payet turning 29 in March, and arriving at The Boleyn Ground in the summer off the back of no fewer than 10 impressive seasons in Ligue 1, you can’t help but wonder why it has taken this undeniable talent so long to make his mark on arguably the world’s greatest league.
Payet enjoyed successful spells with Nantes, Saint-Etienne, Lille and Marseille, scoring 57 league goals and making it into Ligue 1 Team of the Year in 2013 and 2015. Dimitri was no hidden gem by any means. Performing well for multiple French clubs and earning 15 international caps since 2010, it’s clear that his talents were highly regarded in France at least, but why is it that no Premier League club turned their attention to Dimitri until the Summer of 2015?
One reason that could have contributed to this is the shortcomings of players with a similar style who tried their luck in the Premier League, especially those who arrived from Ligue 1. Despite the previous success of players such as Ginola, Cantona and Henry, French players have struggled to emulate the success of these players in England since. This isn’t the same for all positions, but it certainly seems to be the trend with the technical positions such as the wingers and attacking midfielders.
Arsenal’s former Ivorian winger, Gervinho, arrived from Lille as an exciting player, scoring 36 times in his two previous seasons in France. But, despite his pace and skill, it seemed he wasn’t cut out for the Premier League, and Arsene Wenger offloaded him after two seasons.
Newcastle United had high hopes when they brought Remy Cabella to the Premier League for £8m following his four seasons in Ligue 1, where he averaged more than a goal every four games. However, he managed just one goal in 33 Premier League appearances, and was loaned back to Marseilles after just one season as part of the deal to bring French winger, Florian Thauvin (likened to Franck Ribery) to the Prem for £12m.
Despite being named as one of the 10 most promising players in Europe by The Observer in 2014, Florian’s time with Newcastle has proven to have been no better than Cabella’s, with the winger already being loaned back to Marseille after just five months and 12 Premier League appearances.
So it is clear to see that even the most promising of Ligue 1’s attacking players will or have struggled in the Premier League, and this may pose as too much of a risk for clubs who scouted Payet, as they decided not to take the gamble on him.
Another potential deterrent for any club looking Payet’s way would be the Premier League’s increasing emphasis on the physical side of the game. It is often said that the Prem offers a more physically competitive style of play than any of Europe’s other top leagues. This physicality has also lead to some teams prioritising a strong, solid defence in order to combat the growing trend towards powerful attacking players, and athletically robust midfields. Plenty of managers such as Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have adopted defensive playing styles, favouring hard working players who can contribute in defence as much as attack.
At Chelsea, Mourinho even sold fans favourite Juan Mata off the back of two seasons in which he earned Chelsea’s player of the season, just because the creative midfielder didn’t track back effectively. This suggests that even top managers are refusing to adapt their tactics in order to suit the style of players who like to attack with freedom, if they aren’t capable of pulling their weight off the ball.
Payet has scored seven goals and five assists in just 19 Premier League games this season.
This is an area of Payet’s game that he has lacked in the past, with former Nantes coach, Stéphane Moreau describing him as a “talented player despite his natural indifference”. This ‘natural indifference’ in Dimitri’s game would almost certainly discourage Premier League managers who rely on the commitment and work ethic of their players as much as any characteristic. With Payet’s physicality being average at best for a Premier League midfielder, the next best thing would be his work ethic, and with his naturally casual and effortless way of playing the game, it is not surprising to think that some managers would have averted their attention away from Payet.
One final reason as to why it has taken Payet so long to get his chance in the Premier League could possibly be Payet’s worth to his former team, Marseille. Payet had been a long term target for Newcastle United during his time in France, but even when Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa reportedly claimed that Payet had no future at the club back in 2014, the two clubs still couldn’t agree on a price.
Marseille brought Payet to the Stade Vélodrome for around £10m, and would have been looking to at least recoup that, if not more. Slaven Bilic himself claimed that he attempted to sign Payet for Besiktas in 2014, and that it was ‘impossible’ to do a deal. On top of this, Payet’s agent may have also made things difficult for clubs interested in him. Jacques-Olivier Auguste allegedly claimed that he wanted his client to stay at Marseille in the summer, despite the ongoing talks with West Ham. And just eight months into his West Ham career, Auguste caused further trouble by demanding his player earns £125,000 per week, which Sullivan and Gold have since given him.
In conclusion, I think it’s a combination of these factors that have accumulated into Payet’s late start to life in the Premier League. With a number of similar players failing to make their mark on the league, and managers looking towards midfielders that are more defensively sound or physically proficient, it becomes easier to understand why so many clubs decided to look beyond the Frenchman. On top of this, Marseille’s valuation of the player, his worth to the club, and quite possibly the interference of Dimitri’s agent would have provided an even riskier obstacle for any club who took an interest in the attacking midfielder.
So, two thirds into the season, and it appears that West Ham’s bravery in the French transfer market may be paying off.
By Dan Grimes, TFN Columnist on 17/02/2016 at 23:17