Dimitri Payet, the Frenchman that’s taking the Premier League by storm, came on as a sub in the 61st minute against Russia.
But ‘storm’ is too harsh a word to describe anything that he does, too wild. He’s too subtle for standard cliches. So it really should be:
Dimitri Payet, the Frenchman who has invited us all into his one man showcase of the absurd, came on as a sub against Russia in the 61st minute.
His first touch in the international friendly played last week was an eventful one. France had won a free-kick 29 meters out from the Russian goal. Payet stood over it as the wall was organized, and at the ref’s signal he took five measured steps back.
Here’s the issue; where Payet is clever, cunning, and even artful in his play, his free-kicks, while retaining these attributes, are themselves vicious creations. They are the storm that Payet is not. He doesn’t hit the knuckle-balls of Ronaldo that work because of their sheer power and inquisitive flight. Payet’s free kicks instead slash through the air like powerful but very precise gusts of wind. They’re incredibly purposeful even if it may look like they’ve been mishit at first.
Payet whipped in the free-kick from the center of the pitch. It curled over the left side of the wall and stayed on a steady incline and curved to the outside. The trajectory suggested that it would go over the bar. That is, until it dipped suddenly, kissing off the left post and pinging into the net, beyond the airborne keeper who had stretched every limb possible in his futile save attempt. Balls hit toward the upper 90 are virtually impossible to stop; balls hit to the upper 90 while coming in from the side of the post are just impossible.
Four days later, Payet was at it again in the Premier League, the self-declared grandest stage for club football in the world.
Forty minutes into the game against Crystal Palace, he ensured the world would forget his free-kick for France. He did this by scoring another, this one more difficult considering the acute angle—Payet was positioned halfway between the top of the box and the edge of the left-side. Including two West Ham players, there was a wall of ten in front of him. The keeper was perfectly positioned to Payet’s right.
How does anyone score in that situation? The reasonable thing would be to try to curl it above the wall to the left-side of goal, the side the keeper had abandoned because the wall should stop any attempt there. It’s still a hard thing to do, but easier than the alternative.
But Payet is part of the showcase of the absurd, not the reasonable. As he took his few mini-steps in the run-up, the keeper, guessing that Payet would take the easy route, cheated and took a step to the inside. Payet, maybe sensing this, maybe not, curled the ball out so far-right that it would have voted against benefits for the disabled. It was a parabola of a curve, a shot that seemed destined for the crowd on the right of goal but somehow nestled into the corner. It was so quick, so surprising that the keeper, who had cheated but was still very close to his right post, could only react with a half-hop step before the event was over.
It’s as if Payet is in a competition against himself to see how far he can bend the laws of physics.
These aren’t isolated incidents, either; he’s performed these unimaginable feats all year. Payet has been directly involved in 23 West Ham goals this season, and in his last seven games, he has scored six and assisted five for the West London side. He has helped put West Ham within three points of a Champions League place.
And he’s done this all while looking absolutely unbothered about the sport. The English game, the one hailed as too physical, too fast and demanding, for the technical players of Spain and France, has barely elicited a sweat from the full-cheeked Frenchman, He’s among the rare breed of player whose physique seems more suitable for a more relaxed vocation than that of a professional athlete. He has a round body, a smooth, almost childish face, and the stringy pegs of someone who regularly skips leg-day at the gym. He could very well just be a magician in a West Ham kit.
He doesn’t heedlessly run up and down the pitch, yell passionately or rush into tackles to show that he can get stuck in. Instead he passes and moves, pirouettes and dummies, turns to wrong-foot his opponents rather than showcase his pace by outrunning them. He uses and abuses opponents with space. He can dribble—but only when necessary—to get out of tough spots. He doesn’t need to take the game by the scruff, to be the storm that sweeps up his opponents. He plays his game patiently, knowing that he will eventually find the opportunity to make his mark. These have come to him plenty of times this season, and he has taken them. Not by seizing them, but by plucking the chances out of the air and scoring some breathless goals.
That’s the sweet irony of Payet at West Ham—he doesn’t resemble, in look or style, the dull and brunt tool that is the Hammer. Yet, with his antithetic fine-spun style, he’s helping the East London faithful to believe again. And he’s thrilling neutrals along the way.