The current Ligue 1 campaign has excited fans for the simple reason that it is one of Europe’s most closely fought top-flight competitions – a single point separates league leaders Olympique Lyonnais from title holders Paris Saint-Germain, and Lyon’s closest rivals find themselves just three points clear of Olympique de Marseille.
This weekend saw all three title challengers record heavy and commanding victories against inferior opposition, with OM opening the weekend with a six-one annihilation of Toulouse, PSG easing to a four-one victory over RC Lens and OL drawing the weekend to a close with a fine five-one away win at Montpellier.
Understandably, much of the media attention this season has focused upon the importance and impact of the clubs’ main centre forwards – Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marseille’s André-Pierre Gignac. However, this weekend once again revealed the increasing importance of each of the top three’s playmakers. When these three players play well, their teams usually excel.
Dimitri Payet – Olympique de Marseille
In French, playmaker translate as “meneur de jeu”, literally ‘leader of the game’, and it’s a phrase which seems to perfectly capture the importance of Payet’s role in the current Marseille side. The 27-year-old was reportedly close to leaving the Stade Vélodrome in the summer to join Swansea City, the thought of which would appear to be almost unthinkable for the club’s fervent support now, given the impact he has had on the club’s season so far.
Payet initially began his career as a left-sided winger. After successful spells with three of France’s biggest clubs – Nantes, Saint-Étienne and Lille – the La Réunion native signed for Olympique de Marseille for a fee of around €10million at the end of last season. However, last year he failed to find the form at France’s biggest club that had intially drawn the attention of scouts to him.
Payet’s fortunes in Bouches-du-Rhône changed upon Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival, as the former Athletic Club Bilbao coach decided to move him into a central attacking midfield role in pre-season warm-up matches. It would be a move that would prove to be revolutionary for Payet, as the Marseille number 17 began to make the position his own, before fine performances in a role which had previously been occupied by Mathieu Valbuena would eventually lead to his return to the France international set-up.
Speaking relatively objectively about his role, given how little experience he had playing in the position before this season, Payet told France Football recently that being a playmaker is of extreme significance to the overall cohesion of a side, because finding the last pass, in his opinion, is more difficult than scoring.
In this sense, Payet’s role is of paramount importance to Bielsa’s game, because teams often try to sit deep and block Marseille from entering their boxes. Finding the final pass can be considered to be akin to finding the final piece of the jigsaw before OM score.
The success of Payet’s transformation can be accurately quantified, as the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), France’s professional football leagues’ governing body, has recorded that the 27-year-old was responsible for 34% of his team’s key passes this season in Ligue 1, emphasizing his creativity.
On Friday evening, Payet’s through ball for the in-form Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi was his tenth assist of the season, making him Ligue 1’s top assist maker, as well as drawing level with Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo to be the joint-fourth best passer in Europe’s top-flight leagues this season so far. His creativity has won him admirers across Europe, as has efficiency in front of goal, as he has netted six times in Ligue 1 this season so far.
Batshuayi’s goals against Saint-Étienne and Toulouse in recent weeks have shown that Gignac’s goals can be replaced, but it would be hard to imagine how Bielsa would be able to find as equally an effective playmaker as Payet within his own squad ranks, should the twenty-seven-year-old miss any of the season’s remaining matches.
In recent years, Olympique Lyonnais have had an extremely enviable habit of uncovering some of France’s most exciting youth prospects and cultivating them within their infamous youth development academy, which has seen the likes of Karim Benzema and Loïc Rémy pass through its doors. One of the most recent crop of talented youngsters is Nabil Fekir, and his potential is quite frankly limitless.
At just 21 years of age, Fekir has galvanized supporters across France this season with the sheer brilliance of his natural technical ability, and his level of play at times has been breathtaking.
In recent weeks, Fekir was the subject of what seemed to be an unending near custody battle between the Algerian and French football federations, with the end result being Fekir’s decision to choose France, the nation of his birth, over Algeria, his parents’ homeland. He is certainly not the first and he most likely won’t be the last French-born player to be embroiled and unfortunately scrutinized in an international declaration debate. But this shouldn’t overshadow his incredible rise to prominence so far.
Born and raised in Villeurbanne, an area in the north-east fringes of Lyon, Fekir was spotted by OL’s youth scouts at the age of just 12, however just two years later, he was released by the club. Fekir returned to the city’s amateur leagues and he was eventually re-signed by the club when he was 19, having played exceptionally well against Lyon’s youth side for AS Saint-Priest. After a year with his boyhood heroes, Fekir then made his way into the then head coach Rémi Garde’s first-team plans for the 2012-2013 season, making eleven appearances.
Now under the stewardship of the current Lyon coach Hubert Fournier, Fekir has since developed an incredible partnership with the club’s main attacking threat, Alexandre Lacazette. It has been a partnership that has taken France by storm, with Fekir playing an extremely influential role in helping Lacazette to reach his current tally of 23 goals so far in Ligue 1.
With perhaps one of the most gifted left-foots in world football, in addition to magnificent dribbling abilities and composure, Fekir has carved open defences across France with relative ease. The 21-year-old has provided seven assists so far in the league this season, and this figure is even more impressive when one considers the fact that this is his first full season in France’s top-flight.
In addition to supporting Lacazette, Fekir has also reached an impressive tally of 11 Ligue 1 goals in his own right this season, and these have been of pivotal importance to his side’s push for the title. In providing such an attacking threat, Fekir has pushed the boundaries of the definition of a ‘playmaker’, by taking the game to opponents himself and scoring regularly.
It would be fantastic for Ligue 1 if Fekir remained in the league, however if his rise continues, it will understandably become an increasingly difficult task to keep him at Lyon. It seems almost inevitable that a player of his quality, at such an early stage in his career, will one day be the subject of attempts from Europe’s elite clubs to lure him away. This would be a devastating blow for Lyon, but most probably a natural step in Fekir’s career progression.
Javier Pastore – Paris Saint-Germain
After two impressive seasons with Palermo in Serie A, in 2011 Pastore moved to Paris Saint-Germain for a Ligue 1 record fee. The Argentine’s move to the Parc des Princes marked fittingly the emergence of PSG’s new identity, as the club moved into the Qatari Sports Investments era after one of European football’s most infamous takeovers. He would be the poster boy of the club’s new ascension, it was hoped, towards the highest level of European football.
Despite three impressive opening seasons in the capital, it was clear last season that the shine of Pastore’s arrival was beginning to fade. Bigger stars such as Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva and Edinson Cavani had made the move from Serie A to the club, and Pastore’s place in the starting line-up, as well as his reputation as the club’s star, had been put in to doubt.
The Argentine found it extremely difficult last year to break into Laurent Blanc’s side, as he was unable to force his way into the midfield trio, with Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi cementing their places in the starting line-up. The arrival of Yohan Cabaye last January appeared to worsen Pastore’s chances of first-team action, and the former Palermo man was increasingly linked with a move to England.
This season however has been somewhat of renaissance for PSG’s original ‘galactique’ , as Pastore has arguably Blanc’s side’s most consistent performer, coming to his club’s services in a time of great need. Impressing in the majority of the matches he has played in this season, the Argentine has lived up to his reputation of being a creative midfielder, by providing five influential assists and scoring three times in Ligue 1. He has rediscovered the creative capacities and ingenuity that once made him one of the most wanted men in Europe, including his superb vision and near unparalleled technical ability in French football.
Pastore now regularly overshadows some of the starts who previously overshadowed himself when they arrived after him at what is nowadays France’s most extravagant and ambitious of football clubs. A fully fit Pastore could have an extremely decisive role to play in the rest of the title countdown, and he could well feature prominently in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions’ League match against Chelsea.