Will Dimitri Payet return to his best form with France and Marseille?
By James Walker-Roberts
Last Updated: 09/10/17 8:46am
Dimitri Payet's brilliant form at Euro 2016 helped earn him a move away from West Ham and his sought-after return to Marseille. But as France face Belarus bidding for an automatic qualifying spot for the World Cup on Tuesday, live on Sky Sports, how is Payet faring in Ligue 1 and is he likely to be in Russia next year? We take a look...
"I've come a long way."
Speaking at Euro 2016, Dimitri Payet summed up his journey well. A year earlier, his chances of playing a starring role for France in their own tournament looked slim. He said it was an "injustice" when he was not called up for the squad by Didier Deschamps in October 2015. But his form over the next six months with West Ham made him impossible to ignore.
During his 18 months with the Hammers he was at the peak of his powers, with his dazzling displays in his debut season earning him a nomination for the Premier League Player of the Year award as well as five prizes at the club's end-of-season awards. At Euro 2016 he was hailed as "one of the most important players in Europe" by Zinedine Zidane after playing a key role for France. There was even talk of a potential move to Real Madrid.
Yet when a move did come in January 2017, it was not to Real Madrid, but back to Marseille, the club he left in 2015 to move to the Premier League.
It came under a cloud too, with Payet angering fans and team-mates - West Ham captain Mark Noble said he was "angry and disappointed" - by going on strike, as he had tried to do a few years earlier at St Etienne. At the time, he said he left West Ham for family reasons and to "go home", although later he admitted he had "no desire to play in the lower reaches of the Premier League".
Payet also spoke about needing another "challenge", which he certainly seems to have found at Marseille, where all has not gone swimmingly since his return, despite the promises of American businessman Frank McCourt, who said he would put the "club back on the road to glory" when he bought it in October 2016.
McCourt has invested plenty in a bid to get Marseille back on track, but instead of signing reported targets Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Celtic's Moussa Dembele in the summer, they ended up with Luiz Gustavo, Adil Rami and Konstantinos Mitroglou. Although an AC Milan-style overhaul was not necessarily expected, with McCourt saying when he took over that he would invest 200m euros over four years, some fans are frustrated,
Payet has arguably been McCourt's biggest signing to date.
Following his move from West Ham, he started the second half of 2016/17 by scoring five goals and notching up three assists in 17 games as Marseille finished fifth in Ligue 1.
But, played on the left of a 4-3-3 by head coach Rudi Garcia, he has struggled to replicate the impressive form he showed at West Ham or with France at Euro 2016. This season he has been named captain and his influence has grown recently in more of a central role, having returned from a hamstring injury.
"I still have a little way to go, physically speaking," he said last week. "But the more I play, the better it gets. I've been playing a lot of matches in order to regain the rhythm I had lost while injured. It's never easy to bounce back from an injury at the start of the season or during pre-season, because you lose condition quickly when you don't play. But I've been playing quite a lot, which got me back on track, and I'm feeling better and better."
Garcia came in for some criticism for his deployment of Payet on the left, and there have been other hitches too. There have been reports that the choice of Payet as captain has been questioned, with goalkeeper Steve Mandanda thought to be a "natural captain" among the team. Garcia has also been asked if Payet has been weighed down by the captaincy. "You have to ask him," was his response.
And Payet's selection in the latest France squad ahead of Manchester United's Anthony Martial, among others, has been met with some surprise. Martial might have largely been used as a substitute for United this season, but his performances have caught the eye. "Anthony Martial is a far better player than I was at that age," said Thierry Henry a week ago. "He can become a world-class player."
Payet v Martial
|League minutes this season||Goals||Assists|
Explaining his thinking, Deschamps said: "Dimitri was injured but has made a pretty good comeback. I won't forget what Dimitri has done for us. Despite the competition for a place, it seemed that recalling him was the right thing to do.
"He [Martial] could have been in the squad. It's a choice. He was there during the Euros, he went through a tough time, which he got over. I can only tell him to continue to make me think about him."
Payet has only made five Ligue 1 appearances for Marseille this season, chipping in with just two assists and not yet hitting top form. He is also 31 in March, and there is a sense that France could be doing more to look to the future with an exciting crop of younger players.
Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar have both impressed recently at international level and Nabil Fekir has shone for Lyon but still did not earn a call-up for the recent matches. That trio could be a big part of France's future, and Payet acknowledges he faces a fight to maintain his place.
"My personal objective is to be a part of this team, help qualify for the World Cup and then go there," he said. "I know there is competition in the squad and that, obviously, after the World Cup, with the emergence of this generation and these young talents, it will get much tougher for people my age."
Payet was only introduced as a late substitute in the narrow win over Bulgaria on Saturday, with Alexandre Lacazette, Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe starting as France's attacking trio. Next up for France is a crunch clash with Belarus on Tuesday which, if they win, will secure them an automatic qualifying place at the World Cup.
Will Payet get the chance to start with France's hopes on the line? And will he go to Russia if France do make it? If he gets back to his best it could be a journey worth keeping an eye on.
Watch Belarus v France and the rest of the World Cup Qualifying action live on Sky Sports.