It’s not often that a player comes into the big bad Premier League and from day one treats the World’s Best League like a playground pitch for him to dominate the way he would any other. But that’s how West Ham’s Dimitri Payet has attacked England. He’s a nearly sui generis phenomenon who, having come not quite from nowhere, has bossed the league in a way no one would have suspected.
Payet is one of those rare players adept at each of the three big attacking arts of playmaking, dribbling, and shooting. His vision and ability to slide off perfectly weighted passes make him already one of the very best creators in England, borne out in his average of 3.7 key passes per game, a rate second only to Mesut Özil. With his combination of speed, strength, and technique, he can slink or muscle past defenders with the ball at his feet, sneaking into the areas of the pitch where he’s most lethal. And his team-leading six goals, which he’s scored on a little under two shots per game, show that he’s as much of a threat to lay on the go-ahead goal as he is to score it himself. This array of talents—a spread of abilities only super-studs like Alexis Sánchez, Eden Hazard (when he’s good), and Riyad Mahrez (which itself still sounds crazy saying) share to such rarified degrees—enables him to takeover matches almost by himself.
You can tell a lot about a player’s perception of themselves by how they react after they score. Some players are elated immediately, some are subdued, some seem almost angry, and some relieved. All of these responses reveal something about what that particular goal means to that particular player.
Payet most often comes off cool and confident after he puts the ball in the net. It’s never a shock to him, even after he bursts past three defenders and chips the ball daintily over the keeper. He’s never overwhelmed. He just kicks the ball between the posts, struts off towards the sideline, and usually leaps with his back to the crowd, thumbs pointing to the name on his jersey. Everyone else might be surprised at his moment of genius, but to him it’s just what he does.
The way he dribbles also expresses that same preternatural confidence. He glides all over the field in search of the ball, and when he gets it, he’s incredibly decisive with his plan of attack. Some fancy-footed dribblers, like Neymar, like to step on the ball and size up the field before taking on the defense, simulating in their mind what reaction each future step and feint will elicit from their opponents, calculating the appropriate responses, then implementing their mental model in real life. Others, like Mahrez, appear to fly at opponents with nary a thought about the future, instead able to react in realtime to the minute movements of their markers and navigating past them that way.
Payet is different; he simply decides what he’s going to do, then does it. How defenders respond almost doesn’t matter, since he’s so adroit at poking the ball exactly where he wants it that they wouldn’t be able to take it off of him if they knew where he was going with it in advance. Payet plays with an assurance that at all times the ball is under his control, for him to push around however he sees fit.
Yesterday’s match against Bournemouth was yet another example of how Payet does it all for West Ham. After a first half where Bournemouth controlled the pace of the game, jumping out to an early 1-0 lead that they were unfortunate not to extend, the Hammers came out in the second period more intent on returning to their best gameplan: give the ball to Payet and let him work. In his 33 minutes after the break, he created three chances, scored the equalizer, and set up West Ham’s go-ahead goal before getting subbed off with the game in hand. The goal and his celebration were emblematic of his game as a whole:
After smashing in an inch-perfect bomb of a free kick, Payet sauntered over to the stands, as calm as could be, while the traveling West Ham fans lost their minds about what he’d just done. There was their 28-year-old midfielder, brought in from France for a completely unremarkable £11 million, and fresh off a two month spell out with an injury, saving the day yet again with one of the best goals they’ll see all season. It’s understandable why his ability to conjure magic from nothing inspired such a rapturous response. But to Payet, it was just what he does.
Photo via Getty