The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2014 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2014 and published on the 5th January 2015. Dimitri Payet ranked an impressive 8th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100.
Fans of French football will have known this man’s name for a long while now, and it should not come as a surprise to those “Ligue 1 hipsters” that last year’s number 9 name features as highly as he does in the GFFN 100. Since ‘sealing his dream move to Marseille’ and ‘finding his feet’ at the south coast giants, it seems that recognition for the striker’s prowess has only augmented, despite circumstances at his club last season and at international level that might otherwise have diminished his value.
The 27 year-old hails from Reunion, France’s ‘intense island’ departement in the Indian Ocean, where as a boy Payet played for home town Saint-Pierroise before trying his luck in the ‘metropole’ with Le Havre at the tender age of 12. After four years in Normandy he returned to his native Reunion to play for AS Excelsior, and true to his club’s name, he indeed went higher, both literally and metaphorically, when FC Nantes swept in for the young midfielder and took him back to metropolitan France to begin the 2005-6 season.
Unable to save the Canaries from relegation at the close of play in 2007, Payet’s subsequent transfer request led him to signing for Saint-Étienne. Three tough years followed for the young midfield man, with his new club often flirting with the relegation zone. But he gained valuable European experience with Les verts in the then named UEFA Cup, scoring his first against Hapoel Tel Aviv in September 2008.
Linked with Chelsea and PSG in January 2011, his failed attempts to push a move through to the latter club forced the talented midfielder into a mini-exile with Saint-Étienne. But the big money move did come about at the end of that season with champions Lille parting with ten million euros to capture Payet.
His first goal for the lillois came against Auxerre in a 1-3 victory. Life in the Champions’ League was a little more difficult for Dimitri as he competed for a starting berth with veteran English midfielder Joe Cole; registering only 53 minutes of action over five matches. To his credit he overcame a difficult start and either scored or assisted half of Lille’s goals in the second half of the 12/13 season. A sixth placed finish could not match Payet’s ambitions however, and Marseille splashed ten million on bringing the 15-assist-a-season midfielder to the Stade Velodrome.
It has been a steady rise up the French football food chain for the DOM-TOM man. Yet since, much to his and his club’s fans’ disappointment, Marseille did not enjoy a successful 2013-14 season; a 6th place league finish meant they missed out on the Europa League by one point as his former side Lille finished eleven points higher in 3rd. Payet’s Marseillais conceded 14 goals and scored only five as they ended a dreadful Champions’ League campaign on nul points. Indeed European success seems to be eluding Payet, which must be to his great chagrin.
Last season Payet notched eight times and assisted four of his team-mates’ goals. For a man who prided himself on his through ball skills, the 13/14 season was definitely a disappointment for him. It was, however, his debut season for a new club and a club with greater expectations of its players.
He was the club’s most prolific successful passer alongside Mathieu Valbuena, which is by no means bad going. The 2013-14 season concluded with an uninspiring 1-0 win over En Avant de Guingamp at home, where despite the club’s equally underwhelming campaign players and coaching staff alike applauded the supporters’ loyal support.
Their support aside, criticism of Payet’s lack of defensive work ethic took centre stage and the fact that for a man playing for one of France’s football royalty, a pass completion rate of 79% just was not quite up to scratch. Perhaps an interesting consequence of the negative reviews he garnered at the end of last season were the inevitable transfer rumours which miraculously appeared in late May.
“Payet set for Cut Price Move!” declared England’s The Mirror, citing his slide down the pecking order behind Valbuena, Mandanda, Ayew and N’Koulou as the reason for Marseille’s willingness to cash in. But with Arsenal, Newcastle and West ham linked with the relative journeyman, any potential transfer failed to materialise and new man at the helm Marcelo Bielsa decided that Payet would figure in his plans for the 2014-15 season.
Non-selection for Didier Deschamps’ World Cup squad was a blow for Payet, but his performances simply did not merit selection, especially considering fellow highly talented individuals in Pogba, Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye, among others, had enjoyed solid seasons between them. Substituted 21 times in a season where he played 35 matches told its own story as far as Didier Deschamps was concerned.
Nevertheless, the current season, although still in its formative stages, has provided the Marseille midfielder with a platform on which to improve. Both he and team mate Gignac have recently been selected for France’s 23-man squad for upcoming friendlies against Portugal and Armenia. This is a commendable feat considering it is his first appearance since June 2013.
Payet’s return from the proverbial wilderness has been prompted by a surge in form alongside the aforementioned Gignac so far this term. He has scored five goals at the time of writing and has already doubled his assist count from last season, and in fact leads the assist table for Ligue 1 so far this season.
He scored a cool brace against Nice in a 4-0 romp and has followed up with strikes against Saint-Étienne, Metz and Lorient. It is quite simply turning out to be a satisfying season for an undoubtedly talented player who has had his difficulties. Much of his improvement can be attributed to OM’s new manager. Bielsa has liberated Payet from the bench, using him instead of or alongside the prolific Valbuena as he enjoys more freedom to roam up front that he was portioned last season. He has begun to sit off the main striker, keeping himself right at the head and heart of much of his team’s build-up play.
There is no European football at the Stade Velodrome this season, which may be contributing to the club’s strong vein of form so far. But Payet will be itching to get himself and his club back there again. With Olympique de Marseille leading the Ligue 1 table coming up to the Christmas period, it bodes well for Dimitri Payet. He has become a key team player in a relatively short period of time. Deschamps has maintained that Euro 2016 is a while off, but insists that “each player must have his audition time”; Payet will be hoping he does let his go to waste as he approaches what is likely to prove the best form if his career to date.