(Photo credit: REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier)
Rewind two years and there was one name on everyone’s lips at West Ham: Dimitri Payet.
Between 2015 and 2017, the French international lit up the Premier League and impressed at the European Championships in his home country.
After a dip in form, he is back. Stunning performances against RB Leipzig and FC Salzburg in the Europa League have put him firmly back in the mind of Didier Deschamps before the World Cup.
Payet’s skills lie not only in one department, which made it hard for his opponents in England to keep him down. Set piece deliveries, long range strikes, exquisite dribbles. You name it, he could do it.
The final season at the Boleyn Ground bore witness to many a phenomenal individual performance by the former Lille player. 2015/16 truly was his year.
A Hammer blow
Payet was an instant fan favourite which made it even more galling for Hammers fans that just 18 months after his arrival in London, he put in a transfer request out of the blue. His family had not settled well in England and West Ham’s form had taken a nosedive at the beginning of the following campaign, making his decision that bit easier to take.
Many at the club knew that the Reunion born midfielder was a level above the rest of the squad and likely would not stay at the London Stadium forever but his sudden kneejerk reaction was not taken well. The rest of the team excluded him from training, the fans berated him on social media and eventually he got the move he wanted.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
His former employers Olympique de Marseille were the club to give him a home. The transfer had smacks of desperation. £25 million was paid for a player approaching his thirties and in a struggling Premier League side. He did not hit the ground running on his return to the south of France either, drawing criticism from multiple French media outlets for his abject performances.
After his poor form continued into the first half of the 2017/18 season, his place in the France squad was put into question, before he was finally excluded from Didier Deschamps’s plans altogether by March of this year.
Return to form
Payet’s exclusion, however, seems to have kickstarted his return to form. In March and April alone, he has registered four goals and nine assists in just 12 games across all competitions. He is playing with true confidence again, bordering on arrogance, as he did in the build-up to Euro 2016.
Against RB Leipzig last week, he breezed past two defenders with his trademark stepovers before stroking the ball high into the net with the outside of his boot.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot)
The goal brought back memories of the Frenchman’s goal against Middlesbrough at the London Stadium. When Dimitri Payet is in the mood, he is near unstoppable.
A race for European qualification lies ahead for him and his team. Third place in Ligue 1 is within touching distance, and barring a major upset in the second leg, a Europa League final awaits. This is in no small part down to Payet.
The France national team is overloaded with talent. Although Payet put in a breathtaking performance against FC Salzburg in the Europa League semi-final, three of his compatriots, two of whom are on the periphery of the France squad, scored in the tournament. His teammate Florian Thauvin brought his season total to 22 goals while Antoine Griezmann cancelled out Alexandre Lacazette’s goal in the other tie.
An opening could yet appear for Payet though. Anthony Martial has been struggling for game time recently, thanks to the ego of his coach José Mourinho, and could miss out on a trip to Russia, while Thomas Lemar has not performed well in the last two months.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Matthias Rietschel)
He faces stiff competition from other squad outsiders for an attacking midfield role, however. Lyon captain Nabil Fekir is back from injury and has picked up where he left off, scoring a stunning solo goal against Dijon last weekend.
Fekir is very similar to Payet stylistically. Both are fantastic dribblers and set piece specialists. The Lyon skipper, though, has youth and tenacity on his side. He is a much harder worker than the veteran and that could tip the scales in his favour. On the other hand, Payet has been to international tournaments and proven his worth.
In the opening game of Euro 2016, Payet rocketed in an 89th-minute winner against Romania to clinch victory. France need players who can stand up and be counted when it matters, and Payet is a player who has shown that he can do so.
Will he? Won't he?
Even if Payet were to make the squad for the World Cup, he may struggle to play. Deschamps has been regularly using two wide players in his system (a position which Payet fails to excel in and which contributed to his poor form) and Antoine Griezmann, who is indispensable for the national team, in the slightly deeper forward position.
For now, the Marseille captain has to keep performing at his current level. If he can lead Marseille to Europa League glory, Didier Deschamps will surely have no choice but to bring Payet to Russia.
It shouldn’t be a question. His current form and proven international pedigree should get Payet to the World Cup.