“Even when they had Moore, Hurst and Peters, West Ham’s average finish was about 17th. It just shows how useless the other eight of us were.” – Harry Redknapp
West Ham United is one of the most culturally popular clubs on the planet. Their players were the backbone of England’s only World Cup victory on home soil in 1966, and their iconic terrace chants are known by football fans across the planet. Hollywood even made Upton Park the holy ground for their successful film about soccer violence, ‘Green Street Hooligans.’ Keeping in line with this cultural fame was West Ham’s ability to beat out the more successful Tottenham to the usage of the Olympic Stadium from the 2016/17 season. That should have been their underdog story for the summer, but instead they have been focused on something else. Or someone else, to be specific: Dmitri Payet, the man leading France to glory on home turf in Euro 2016.
Payet joined West Ham for just over 10 million pounds in the summer of 2015. West Ham were able to secure his services despite their lowly league position because of his very specific reputation. As his old Nantes manager, Serge Le Dizet, put it, Payet was a “talented player despite his natural indifference.” This meant that the occasional French international was only wanted by the London club at 28, when most players are at the peak of their powers. Going into their final season at Upton Park, West Ham were in a state of uncertainty. They had just replaced mid-table specialist Sam Allardyce with rock star manager Slaven Bilic, and no two predictions about their season matched. Payet’s arrival only served to further confuse the atmosphere.
In the end, both men delivered, as West Ham finished seventh in the table with Payet consistently unleashing his ability to lead the line . His performances merited the Player of the Year Awards from both West Ham and the London Football Awards, despite a couple of months sidelined by injury. He even gained a nomination for the PFA Player of the Season. His incredible run of form translated into international duty, where he quickly established himself as not only a guaranteed squad member, but also a cherished starter for France.
In competition with players like Griezmann, Sissoko, Martial and Coman for the wide berth, Deschamps trusted Payet with a starting role for France’s Euro 2016 opener against Romania. He duly impressed by scoring a late goal to give his nation a perfect start, repeating the trick days later against Albania. His continued to perform at a high level during the knockout stages, scoring another goal in a 5-2 win against Iceland in the quarterfinal. That victory would setup a tantalizing semifinal clash between France and Germany where, alongside Griezmann, Payet would be considered his country’s great hope for victory. How would he play in the biggest match of his career so far?
According to the pre match graphics, Payet would line up on the left of a three-man advanced line, with Sissoko and Griezmann, behind Olivier Giroud. As the match started, France quickly gained control of the ball courtesy of the work of Pogba and Matuidi in midfield. This meant that Payet played quite high up for the first few minutes. This seemed to suit him, as his first contribution to the game was to dribble past Kimmich, and put in a cross that would be deflected out for a corner. However, by the 20th minute mark, Germany had wrested control of possession, and they would not relinquish it until the final whistle. Under these changed circumstances, Payet’s performance levels dropped drastically.
Payet was pushed much further back than he would prefer, as France almost transformed their midfield into a straight four while defending. He was pinned back by the runs of Kimmich, the marauding German fullback. Even on the few occasions when he was allowed to roam forward, he often lost the ball due to a lack of options. To be fair, this is not an indictment on only Payet, as both Griezmann and Sissoko had trouble playing out of the back as well. The difference was that the latter two were determined to get out, while Payet seemed to be returning to his talented but indifferent state. In the end, an unproductive half was topped off by an undeserved penalty for France. It was Payet’s threatening position that forced Schweinsteiger to palm the ball away from a corner, but in reality, Payet didn’t move once the cross was put in. If there was a split second that summed up his frustrating first half performance, that was it. Capable of changing the game, but incapable of trying.
In the second half, Germany continued to control possession of the ball, but France were the dominant side. By placing Pogba at the base of the midfield and granting Payet license to roam while attacking, Deschamps hoped to nullify the German threat while also sharpening French play. While the former was executed perfectly, the latter remained unachieved due to Payet’s continued lack of effort. He was still playing far too deep, without really hindering Kimmich’s offensive efforts, and was rarely fast enough to keep up with French counters. Even when he was in a promising attacking position, he often pulled back as he seemed unwilling to try to beat the German offside trap. It was no surprise that he was the first French substitute on the 71st minute, nor that France scored a second soon after. Payet should’ve been the French outlet as Germany continued to press forward in the last quarter of an hour. Instead he was sacrificed for Kante, as Deschamps decided shoring up his defence had a greater chance of success.
While Payet failed to put in a performance demanded of him, it must be noted that this match was an anomaly. He has been one of France’s best players of the summer, and was undoubtedly a favourite for the player of the tournament before the semifinal. He is still rightfully linked with transfers to the biggest clubs in Europe, and he will still be one of the first names on the team sheet for the final against Portugal. Payet might have lost a battle against Germany, but he is still winning the war for club and country. West ham played a huge role in a tournament fifty years ago, and all odds say that history is going to repeat itself this year.