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Talking the talk, walking the walk: how Dimitri Payet got Marseille flying again

February 14, 2020January 6th, 2022

MARSEILLE’S motto, Droit au but, means ‘Straight to goal’ and this season, Dimitri Payet has been getting straight to the point both on the pitch and off.

Before Rudi Garcia’s return to Stade Vélodrome with his new club Lyon in early November, Payet fired a broadside at the former Marseille coach, comparing him unfavourably to André Villas-Boas and expressing relief that he was now able to work with “a coach who speaks from the heart and says things clearly”.

It felt like a risky thing to be doing for a player whose form up to that point in the season had been patchy, but Payet backed up his words with deeds, running the show and scoring both goals as Marseille condemned their Champions League qualification rivals to a 2-1 defeat.

When Marseille visited Saint-Étienne earlier this month, Payet poked his head above the parapet again, using a pre-game press conference to speak out in defence of Villas-Boas, who had raised concerns about the club’s transfer strategy following reports financial constraints would necessitate an end-of-season clear-out. Aligning himself squarely with his coach, Payet said that if Marseille qualified for the Champions League but failed to invest in the squad, he might have to “look elsewhere”. His warning delivered, he produced the goods again the following night, cleverly beating Stéphane Ruffier from a tight angle to set OM up for a 2-0 win over his old club.

Payet followed up his goal at Saint-Étienne with another beauty against Toulouse last weekend, deciding the game early in the second half with a brilliant, curling effort from 25 yards. Victory kept Marseille in second place behind Paris Saint-Germain, nine points clear of fourth-place Lille and on course to reach the Champions League for the first time since 2013.

Along with goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, another resurgent 30-something, Payet has become one of the symbols of OM’s return to prominence in Ligue 1. With 11 goals in all competitions, he has already surpassed his best tally in a Marseille shirt and Villas-Boas has led calls for the 32-year-old to be granted a France recall, 14 months on from his last international appearance.

“We needed a moment of genius today and it came from Payet,” Villas-Boas said after the 1-0 win over Toulouse. “He does decisive, incredible things for us. The quality in the France team is brutal, the options are monstrous, so it’s up to Didier [Deschamps] to take the decision. At this level, and he’ll recognise it himself, Dimitri is enjoying one of his best seasons, like Steve. If they’ve been called up in the past, they can be called up again.”

The return of the feel-good factor at the Vélodrome this season has demonstrated that when Payet plays well, Marseille play well.

In the 2017-18 season – his first full campaign following his controversial return from West Ham United in January 2017 – he was a central figure in the club’s Europa League run under Garcia, scoring a stupendous goal against RB Leipzig in the quarter-finals and teeing up Rolando for the extra-time volley against Red Bull Salzburg that sent OM into the final.

Forced off by a hamstring injury in the final, Payet was powerless to prevent Marseille falling to a 3-0 defeat against Atlético Madrid and left the field knowing that his dreams of playing for France at the World Cup were over, too. As he told L’Équipe the following August, it was an ordeal that he had had to “mourn” and it cast a pall over the campaign that followed. As his relationship with Garcia deteriorated, Payet spent a significant portion of the season’s second half on the bench, watching on with furrowed brow as his side drifted to a second successive fifth-place finish.

Though enthused by the arrival of the more approachable, more proactive Villas-Boas as Garcia’s replacement, Payet allowed his frustrations to get the better of him during a 1-1 draw with Montpellier last September and was hit with a four-match ban after being shown a second yellow card for swearing at the referee. In his absence, Marseille picked up only five points from a possible 12.

But since sparking to life in that November clash with Lyon, Payet has rediscovered his very best form. With Florian Thauvin sidelined and Darío Benedetto still adapting to life in France, he has become the driving force behind what looks set to become Marseille’s most successful season since they won the league under Deschamps in 2010. As if to underline what Villas-Boas has described as Marseille’s “Payet-dependence”, it was only once the France international had left the pitch with a minor hamstring injury during Wednesday’s Coupe de France quarter-final at Lyon that the home side managed to score the goal that took them into the last four at OM’s expense.

Whereas Marseille’s number 10 frequently clashed with Garcia, he has established a fruitful working relationship with Villas-Boas, as reflected by the mocked-up image of the Portuguese cradling an infant Payet that he shared on his Instagram account earlier this week. Payet has agreed to play in a free role on the left flank in Villas-Boas’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, rather than in his favoured central playmaking position, and graciously assented to the coach’s decision to take the captain’s armband from him at the start of the season and return it to Mandanda (who had given it up when he left for Crystal Palace in 2016).

In addition to his match-winning performances, Payet’s chances of a France recall have been bolstered by injuries to Thauvin, Moussa Sissoko and Ousmane Dembélé and by the indifferent form of other candidates for the wide positions in Deschamps’s Euro 2020 squad such as Thomas Lemar, Anthony Martial and Jonathan Ikoné.

If he does succeed in winning a call-up for the Euros, Marseille’s pressing need to balance the books means he may find himself using the tournament as a shop window. West Ham made a surprise attempt to take Payet back to East London in January and there have also been reports of interest from Beşiktaş. They are unlikely to be his only suitors.

For now, he will only have eyes for Sunday’s trip to former club Lille. If Payet can work his magic again, the strains of the Champions League music will only grow louder.