Tuesday 16 July 2019

How Bielsa's tough love turned Payet into a star

It was not so much a winning goal as a firework, writing Payet’s name in lights far above the Stade de France. Payet himself left the pitch in tears, overcome with emotion. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
It was not so much a winning goal as a firework, writing Payet’s name in lights far above the Stade de France. Payet himself left the pitch in tears, overcome with emotion. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Sometimes, just like they tell you in the rap videos, it really does come down to one shot. A chance to be seized, a moment to be captured.

For Dimitri Payet, that moment came in the 89th minute against Romania on Friday night. For a split second, a gap opened up in yellow wall before him. And so he took a chance.

It was not so much a winning goal as a firework, writing Payet's name in lights far above the Stade de France. Payet himself left the pitch in tears, overcome with emotion. Elsewhere, the tributes were flooding in.

'Payet president' was the headline on the front page of Le Quotidien in Reunion, the tiny French island in the Indian Ocean where he was born.

Five days after the shot heard around the world, the host nation are still beaming in its glow. Tonight, if they beat Albania in Marseille, France will become the first team to qualify for the last 16. For Payet, and France, it is a timely reminder of fate's fleetness of foot.

A year ago, he was dragged off at half-time in a listless 1-0 friendly defeat against Albania. For many it was the final straw for a player whose short fuse and chronic inconsistency had both frustrated and fascinated the French public. At his worst, he can cut a sullen, temperamental figure: a powder keg on legs.

"When I want to p*** everyone off, I'm good at it," he said recently. It helps explain why, at 29, he has represented nine clubs and won just 20 international caps.


The beginnings of the Payet story are well known: the childhood in Reunion, the three abortive years at Le Havre, the trauma of being sent home at 16.

So is the end: the late blossoming, the spectacular season at West Ham, the awards and acclaim. Less well known, in England at least, is what happened in between: specifically, his last season in France, under the unique tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille.

It was an unlikely meeting of minds: the ageing Argentinian tactical ideologue with a reputation for stubbornness and ruthless discipline, and the wayward winger with a short fuse and a penchant for clashing with team-mates. But Payet credits that 2014-15 season with transforming his career.

"I clicked with him," he told L'Equipe. "He made me more mature and consistent. He put order into my game. I still have his advice in my head."

In the summer of 2014, Payet was at a crossroads. Having passed through Nantes, St-Etienne and Lille, he was running out of chances. At Marseille he had enjoyed a strained relationship with fellow midfielder Mathieu Valbuena.

This came to a head in a furious half-time confrontation during a match against Sochaux over who should have taken a free-kick. That summer, Valbuena left and Bielsa arrived, bringing his tactics book and world-famous video collection with him.

"I compare Bielsa to a genius because I have never seen anyone structuring football as he does," says Jan van Winckel, the Belgian who was Bielsa's assistant that season.

"You have 24 systems of play, 16 ways to take a free-kick, 24 different passes from the back, et cetera. Your understanding of the game improves working with him."

For Payet, it was a pivotal moment. That season, he topped the Ligue 1 assist charts. He made almost twice as many key passes as any other player. The key, according to Van Winckel, was giving him the pivotal No 10 role, making him the focal point of attacks, trusting him.

Read more: Platini the ghost at the feast after stunning fall from grace 

"Bielsa was the first to recognise that Dimitri is a playmaker and not a winger," he says.

"Dimi is probably the best player in the world, together with Andres Iniesta, with his back to the goal. He is so technically gifted and agile that it is almost impossible to get the ball from him. It is no coincidence that Dimi scored (against Romania) when he was playing in a central role."

Occasionally, sparks would fly. Payet remembers a training drill where he was jogging around the pitch, half-interested. At one stage, he made a good move, drawing Van Winckel's approval. "Why are you congratulating him?" Bielsa stormed. "All he's done is mess about since the start!"

Payet was dropped for the next match. But it was only a temporary move, a clipping of the wings, really a term of endearment.

"It was the best thing that could happen to Dimi," Van Winckel says. "Bielsa will never punish a small player, but will only penalise the stars . . . especially the ones he cares about."

Both went their separate ways the next summer: Bielsa resigned, while West Ham's £10.7m offer for Payet was impossible for a club in financial difficulties to resist.

And in the rough and tumble of the Premier League, Payet's game developed further. In Slaven Bilic, he found another manager prepared to build a team around him, and repaid him not only by scoring and creating spectacular goals, but developing the defensive side of his game.

"You have to say thanks to West Ham," said France defender Patrice Evra at the weekend. "You can see now that he takes responsibility. When he has to shoot, he shoots."

The big question is whether West Ham can keep him. Real Madrid, Manchester City and Chelsea have all been mentioned of late, even if Bilic insists the player is happy where he is.

"Dimi has the potential to play for Barcelona or Real Madrid," says Van Winckel, now the technical director of the Saudi Arabian FA. "I think he will regret, after his career has ended, that he didn't invest more at an earlier age. It's a shame he didn't meet Bielsa earlier."

It is doubtful, though, that Payet is feeling any regret right now. One goal in an opening game does not instantly elevate him to greatness, but if he can add the Euros to the only previous trophy of his career - the Reunion Cup, more than a decade ago - his journey to the heart of French football will finally be complete.

This is Payet's time, this is Payet's moment and, with bated breath, a continent awaits his next move. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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