Paris is beautiful any time of year, but after the rush of Christmas and the New Year party season, it is the perfect location for a lazy long weekend. Back in 2011, it was deadline day in France when rumours emerged that Saint-Etienne’s Dimitri Payet was on a train heading towards the French capital.
Paris Saint-Germain were linked with a move for the winger who had scored eight goals in just 19 games, but when the window closed and no move materialised, Payet answered the rumours by saying he was just a tourist paying a visit to the Eiffel Tower.
There is little doubt that the forward has grown up a lot since his tourist days. He would score another five goals after his Parisian detour and was regarded as one of the top talents the league had to offer.
Now, at 28 years old, Payet has matured and blossomed into one of France’s most creative, dynamic forwards, and at West Ham United he will hope to silence critics suggesting he has damaged his international chances by leaving for the bright lights of London.
After 300 appearances in Ligue 1 for four different clubs, it was now or never for the Reunion born attacker who arrives in England with 57 goals in his 10 years as a professional.
Up until last season, there were still worries that Payet would fail to live up to his early promise. Knee surgery disrupted his first season at Lille, and it wasn’t until the last ten games of his debut campaign when he showed his full potential.
Once the 2011 Ligue 1 champions sold Eden Hazard to Chelsea in the summer of 2012, Payet took control of the attack, cutting in from the left of Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3 formation to provide Lille with a positive threat and an element of unpredictability.
Despite scoring 12 goals and adding 12 assists, the forward was often criticised for taking too many pot shots from distance. When other, better, higher percentage options were available, Payet chose to shoot.
Coming off the back of his best ever season in France, it was a surprise when Lille let him leave and sign for Olympique de Marseille for €11 million, just two million more than Lille had spent to lure him from Saint-Etienne.
The player had ambitions, and Lille’s lack of European football saw Payet and Florian Thauvin make the move south that summer. Although his success had come from playing on the left of a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formation, to accommodate Swansea City new boy, and Marseille prodigal son, André Ayew, Payet was moved to the right of Elie Baup’s 4-2-3-1.
After a quick fire double against Guingamp on the opening day, it was a season of struggle for the French international. During three different stretches of the season he would go eight games without a goal. His eight strikes came in six different games and it looked like Payet’s move had been a mistake.
Enter stage left, Marcelo Bielsa.
“What he gave me in one season, I know it will serve me for the rest of my career but also my life,” said Payet about Bielsa earlier this month. “When you have worked with him, you come away a different man.”
Under the madcap Argentine coach, Payet enjoyed his most productive and creative season to date. He led the league in assists with 17, and even when Marseille hit their poorer patches of form, the 28-year-old continued to create chances for both himself and his teammates.
Without Bielsa pushing Payet central and the influence of the legendary coach developing his mental side, there is little doubt Les Phoceens would have finished lower than fourth.
“Today, what he does with his club is very interesting,” said France coach Didier Deschamps in October. “He’s in a different role – a playmaker at the axis, where he is very influential. He has been very efficient and effective in terms of goals and assists with Marseille.”
Slaven Bilic favoured a flat 4-4-2 with Besiktas last season, and that is how West Ham set up in their opening Europa League game against Luistans on Thursday night. If this is how they intend on playing in the Premier League, Payet will likely feature on the left of the midfield.
Give him the freedom to roam and create, let the Frenchman drift inside and ask questions of defenders, and Bilic will see the best of their £10.7 million big money signing.
If you ask him to track back and defend, make him hug the touchline or play him on the right-wing and Payet will likely pray for a return to simpler times - with access to the Eurostar, he may pay France a visit, returning to his life as a Parisian tourist.
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