After an impressive World Cup, one would have expected Marseille to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of Mathieu Valbuena. The pint-sized playmaker ranked among the 25 highest-rated players according to WhoScored (7.56) at Brazil 2014, so his departure to Russia for Dinamo Moscow was somewhat of a shock, especially with the creator at the peak of his game.
Incoming boss Marcelo Bielsa would have preferred to have kept hold of the 30-year-old, but with Marseille unable to afford to retain the services of the Frenchman, L'OM had little choice but to sell to Dinamo for a reported €7m. He was clearly held in the highest of regards at the club - on August 5th this year, Marseille retired his number 28 shirt.
Following Valbuena's departure, Marseille, and in particular Bielsa, needed a player to take over the creative reins. Step forward Dimitri Payet. The 27-year-old was an important player at the Stade Vélodrome last term, but has successfully stepped up his performance levels berth under Bielsa. In Ligue 1 this season, only 6 players have a better WhoScored rating than Payet (7.60), a marked improvement on his rating in France's top tier from the 2013/14 campaign (6.96).
While 8 league goals and 4 assists last season is not to be scoffed at, the former Lille star has stepped out of Valbuena's shadow and since become a crucial member of Bielsa's starting XI. His recent performance in Marseille's 3-1 win over Bordeaux - earning his 3rd WhoScored man of the match award of the season in the process - justifed his place in the European team of the week and marked what has been a blistering start to the campaign.
His 2 assists against Les Girondins took his total for the season to 6 in the league, more than any other player. Payet could easily have had more than 2 in the victory, however, as the France international played 9 key passes in Sunday's home win, more than any other player has executed in a single Ligue 1 match this season.
It's been quite the return to prominence for the attacker, who is showing the form that convinced Marseille to part with €11m to secure his services from Lille in the summer of 2013. In his second and final season (2012/13) with Les Dogues, only Andrés Iniesta (16), Franck Ribéry and Marek Hamisk (both 14) registered more assists in Europe's top 5 leagues than Payet (13).
Managerial instability last term had an adverse effect on Payet's attempts to settle. Without a cohesive gameplan, Marseille, like Payet, suffered. Les Olympiens finished 6th in Ligue 1, a staggering 29 points off title winners PSG. With a more consistent plan in effect under Bielsa, however, l'OM currently top Ligue 1 after 14 games and while they lost 'Le Classique' to their Parisian rivals, the Argentine's start to life in France has been nothing short of superb.
That Payet has directly contributed to a goal in 7 of their 10 league wins this season suggests that the creator is the player for the grand occasion. Without Payet's goals or assists, Marseille would have 6 fewer points this season than the 31 they have now. As the campaign wears on, the 27-year-old's influence is unlikely to wane as he makes the central attacking position his own. Last season, the Frenchman was often used on the wings in order to accommodate Valbuena behind the lone frontman, usually André-Pierre Gignac.
Bielsa, though, saw a player that could easily replace the outgoing Valbuena within his ranks, meaning the Marseille boss, in hindsight, had few qualms at allowing the Frenchman to move on to pastures new. Valbuena did not quite fit into Bielsa's plans, so to get one of Marseille's highest earners off the wage bill made sense, especially as this has allowed for Payet to flourish.
The biggest worry was whether he could match Bielsa's demands. The former Chile and Athletic Club manager is renowned for adopting a high pressing approach in order to force the opposition into mistakes in their defensive third. This presents his sides with goalscoring chances and, with opposing teams caught unawares, can be capitalised on to maximum effect.
Only Toulouse (59) have won possession in the attacking third more times than Marseille (58) in Ligue 1 this season. In France's top tier this term, Payet has won possession in the final third more times than any other player (13). Any concerns over whether Payet would adapt to Bielsa's system have certainly been quashed early on.
Marseille are benefitting from the high pressing approach implemented by Bielsa. The title contenders have netted more goals (30) than any other team in Ligue 1 this season, while Gignac in particular has hit a rich vein of goalscoring form in France's top division. No player has scored more Ligue 1 goals this season than the burly Marseille frontman (11), in no small part down to Payet's creative qualities.
The Marseille star has played more key passes (54) than any other player in Europe's top 5 leagues this season and it helps that Payet has bought into Bielsa's philosophy instantly. Part of his fine form is down to his excellent vision when in possession and clever movement off the ball to find space in order to receive a pass from his teammates, enabling him to create chances.
However, it's the high pressing game that Bielsa insists upon and the confidence instilled in Payet which has contributed to his great start to life under the Argentine. Having missed out on a place in France's World Cup squad this summer, the Marseille star was recently recalled to the national fold by Didier Deschamps and his return was richly deserved. Payet has firmly established himself as Marseille's creator in chief and, should he maintain his recent good form, Bielsa's side stands a much better chance of landing their 10th French league title this term.