Were it not for the exploits of Leicester City and the likes of Riyad Mahrez, West Ham and Dimitri Payet would surely have made even more headlines this season. In almost any other season, they would be the surprise successes of the Premier League—Payet in particular has had a quite remarkable impact.
Few anticipated that the man who arrived from Marseille would have such a transformative influence on the Hammers’ fortunes. Plenty of credit is certainly due to manager Slaven Bilic, who has championed Payet’s talent and made him the focus of the side. However, the player himself is the man who has seized this opportunity so brilliantly.
At the moment, Payet seems capable of anything. Thus far, his 24 league appearances have yielded nine goals and eight assists. He’s a dynamic dribbler with an eye for a pass, and has tremendous shooting ability. In recent weeks, he’s begun dispatching long-range free-kicks as if they were straightforward penalty kicks. It’s no surprise that his form has led to recall for his national side.
While his performances will have surprised many, Arsene Wenger has been aware of Payet for some time. The Gunners boss has a reputation for plucking the best talent form Ligue 1, but never moved for the mercurial midfielder. Speaking to SkySports, Wenger admitted:
"He was a top talent, always, but had periods of being up and down. I've looked at him many times. I've known him for a long time. He played at Saint-Etienne and we watched him many times.
"I think he has all the attributes to be a top player, which he is, but he's 29 years old already. He's matured a lot and come back into the national team, which shows he was more consistent.”
The question now is whether Payet’s performances should have him back on Wenger’s radar this summer.
The Arsenal manager might object on the grounds that he’s well-stocked in Payet’s preferred position. The Frenchman has generally been deployed on the left wing this season, cutting in to function as a non-axial playmaker.
As a rule, Wenger tends to have Alexis Sanchez playing from the left-hand side—and, despite a difficult second season for the former Barcelona man, he’ll be in no great hurry to replace the Chilean. The emergence of Alex Iwobi also presents another problem. Bringing Payet in would limit the young Nigerian’s playing time and potentially stunt his development.
Then there’s Payet’s age to contend with. Wenger’s reference to him being 29 years old feels particularly pointed. The Arsenal boss is famous for obsessing over the residual value of any possible signing. As a rule, he prefers to target younger players with room to improve. For the majority of his tenure, he has gambled on potential.
However, perhaps this is the summer when that ought to change. Although Wenger seems set to stay on until the 2016/17 campaign, that could well be his last. There’s only one season left on his deal, and with the supporters increasingly agitated, the end could be approaching. Next year could be Wenger’s last shot at landing another Premier League title, and that may mean abandoning some of his principles in favour of a more ambitious approach.
The question Wenger should ask himself is simply, “would Payet improve my current squad right away?”. The answer, undeniably, is yes. The Gunners could well return to that situation in the summer. For now, Arsenal must hope West Ham’s star man does not deliver another breathtaking demonstration of his ability on Saturday.