You are reading the Get French Football News’ Talking Points Column written by Eric Devin.
At a first glance, the choice of Alexandre Lacazette for the UNFP Player of the Year seems an easy one. After all, no one not named Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored as many goals in the league as the Lyon player’s 27 (including eight penalties), going back to the Jean-Pierre Papin era at Marseille, a span of some 25 years.
Add to this impressive tally how well Lyon had performed over the course of the season, battling Paris Saint-Germain for the title until the season’s final month, and Lacazette seems as nailed on as could be, especially considering the striker has only appeared in 33 matches, having missed one through suspension and a further three through injury. However, there is perhaps a better candidate, despite Lacazette’s historic scoring rate, a player whose side was in contention for much of the season, but did not even make thefour man shortlist.
A perennial bridesmaid among the league’s best players, and with the national side as well, the ever-itinerant Dimitri Payet has reached double-digit assists before at Lille, and has had better seasons scoring with Les Dogues and in his final season at Saint-Etienne, but this season has been his best, his electric form making Michy Bastshuayi an instant hit and spurring Andre-Pierre Gignac and Andre Ayew to career-best numbers as well. Beyond the more tangible assist totals, Payet has also racked up career-high numbers in successful dribbles, key passes and passes completed per match (at a rate just off his career-best). So, Payet had a good season, but what about Nabil Fekir and Javier Pastore? Both had similarly strong campaigns as playmakers, and Pastore actually made the shortlist for the award, while Fekir was tabbed as the Young Player of the Year.
Despite strong campaigns from both, I believe that Payet’s consistency on all fronts is what makes him more deserving than Lacazette or either of his fellow no. 10s. Against top opposition, against strong defences, on the road, at home, in the first half, in the second, in 2014, in 2015, Payet continually chipped in assists and the occasional goal, no matter the binary. Compare this, then to Fekir, who has recorded more than twice as many assists and goals in the confines of the Gerlandthan on the road, or Pastore, who had but two assists until Week 21. In all phases, in all conditions, Payet’s scintillating form was key to Marseille’s strong start to the season, and the recent stutters have been no fault of his.
Fekir and Pastore aside, compare this consistency, then to Lacazette; as his form faded in 2015, (only three goals from open play in the last four months) slowly but surely did Lyon’s title hopes, even as teammates Fekir and Clinton N’Jie tried to fill the void. Payet, by comparison, has only improved as the season has continued, notching an assist in each of Marseille’s last four matches and nine overall since the winter break. Even more important have been Payet’s performances against the best opposition in the league, PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Saint-Etienne for these purposes. Where Lacazette could muster only a solitary assist against Marseille among these matches, the OM player managed two assists and a goal against this high caliber of opposition, proving himself to be more than a flat track bully. Additionally, some of Lacazette’s goals came late on against already over-matched/dispirited opposition, netting braces of the piling-on sort against Nice, Caen and Toulouse, as well as a hat trick in a 3-0 win over Lille.
I am not here advocating that Lacazette should have stopped trying with his team well ahead, but as the 5-1 wins over Montpellier and Bordeaux demonstrated, Lyon rarely let up, their striker becoming the beneficiary. Payet, by contrast, assisted on sixteen goals in fifteen different matches, the one match with two assists being a come-from-behind victory over Bordeaux in Week 14. This total of sixteen assists, it should also be mentioned, has only been eclipsed once in the ten years for which statistics are available, by Marvin Martin of Sochaux, who tallied 17 in 2010-11. If the historic nature of Lacazette’s total is brought in as an argument, so, too, must the fact that Payet’s totals are of a similar nature.
To conclude, one final piece of relevant evidence in this discussion is discipline, as Lacazette was booked seven times in 33 matches, often displaying a petulance unbecoming of a supposed leader. Payet did, of course have his unfortunate suspension for cursing at the referees’ dressing room, but in terms of on-field composure, he was booked only three times, an impressive total in light of the work tracking back he was asked to do in Marcelo Bielsa’s pressing system. Lacazette, playing at the head of Hubert Fournier’s diamond 4-4-2, was rarely asked to much in the way of defensive work, as the task of harrying opposing back lines often fell to Clinton N’Jie or Fekir, or to one of Jordan Ferri or Corentin Tolisso.
While this final point may seem a bit niggling, as both Lacazette and Payet are definitively attacking players, for this, the Marseille man’s game is that much more complete, and holistically taken, that much more deserving. With Marseille’s excellent season in danger of being eclipsed by a potential failure to qualify for next season’s Champions’ League, it would be foolish indeed not to take notice of Payet’s performance, not matter the results of the voting.
i Ayew scored more goals in 2010-11 (11) than this season (10), but played in eight more games.