Dimitri Payet is older than you might think. Admittedly, apart from knowing that he headed up the creativity charts in Ligue 1 last season, I knew little about this sparkling playmaker. When he arrived on these shores and made an impressive debut in West Ham's opening day 2-0 victory at Arsenal, it would have been entirely acceptable for any self-effacing football fan to conclude that he was 22 or 23, given his voracious appetite for the game.
But, alas, the inevitable Google search revealed that he was 28. It was saddening, in a way, because it meant the Premier League wouldn't be touched by his genius for that all that long. Now, that's not to say that 28 is old in football. It's not young, but there's a certain synchronicity in opinion among observers that 28 is, in fact the so-called 'peak years.' Effectively, it means we're seeing the best of Payet, but we must savour it while it lasts.
His age perhaps goes a long way in explaining, however, why he's so rapturously delightful to watch. Payet has spent the a decade honing his considerable natural gifts in his native France, with Nantes, Saint-Etienne, Lille and Marseille. Given his harmonious introduction into English football, delectably dancing his way through defences, it seemed strange that he hadn't joined a 'big club' earlier in his career.
Indeed, his creative proficiency blossomed during his time with Saint-Etienne and, in 2011, he began setting off loud pinging noises on the radars of most of Europe's heavyweight outfits. The French media hailed Payet as "superb and untouchable" after an impressive free-kick in the Derby du Rhone against Lyon. His rise to prominence was so astounding that it prompted Chelsea to make a frenzied deadline day dash for him. They met resistance in Paris-Saint Germain, who considered Payet the ideal replacement for their outgoing winger Stephane Sessegnon.
In the end, neither Chelsea or PSG attained his services and it's perhaps fair to say that the rumour mill around this particular attacker calmed down following that. However, it was impossible not to notice his incredibly productive campaign last year with Marseille, completing more through balls than any other playmaker in Europe's top five leagues, with the exception of Lionel Messi. Payet's haul of 17 assists made him hot property, especially in the modern footballing climate when diminutive, devastating playmakers appear to be valued above all else, brought on the inevitable wave of speculation.
When West Ham signed him in the summer, it was hailed as one of the club's finest coups. Naturally, there was the 'can he handle the muck and bullets style of the Premier League' scepticism floating above his head until he radiated with excellence in that debut against Arsenal. Reece Oxford belied his tender years and Angelo Ogbonna also caught the eye, but it was Payet's thrilling abandon that really captured the imagination of the buoyant Hammers fans.
There was no tumult over Payet at West Ham. He came to enjoy his football and football was enjoying having him. He ran riot against Newcastle, scoring twice and enrapturing the Boleyn Ground fans with a delicious concoction of flair, physique and pace. He made the £10.7m price tag seem like one of the bargains of the season. The magic-weaving abilities made his claim that, one day, he might be at the level of Eric Cantona seem less outlandish. Yes, he certainly appears to possess a sense of showmanship that echoes his illustrious compatriot, but Payet was always a little wayward.
His footballing upbringing in the Indian Ocean island of Réunion forced him to be technical, not physical. The scorching temperatures just off the east of Africa battered footballers mercilessly and, like Laurent Robert before him, Payet focused more on his artistry with the ball, rather than arming himself with immense stamina. During a Saint-Etienne game with Toulouse, he was accused by teammate Yohan Benalouane of lacking aggression. It's clear that, while Payet is inarguably one of the most technically profound players in the Premier League, he will struggle in a ferocious, battlefield environment.
However, it's important that we all saviour this marvellous player, for he turns 29 in March. Given his recent record with injury - this season has been blighted by an ankle problem - it would b acceptable to assume that his brilliance will peter out in the next couple of years. He is not Ryan Giggs. He's an impressive physical specimen, yes, but he won't achieve the longevity of players like Giggs. He's is however, an absolute joy to watch, with all of his drag-packs, disguised passes and flair. We must savour him, for he might not be around for much longer.
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