Dimitri Payet: A nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.

As time goes on and memories start to fade (or at least become rose tinted) there is a danger nostalgia can cloud objectivity and glorify the past. That being said for the past few years the Premier League has lacked the excitement that was once attached to it. I can’t speak for everyone but amongst many I discuss football with that is the general consensus.

For the years between the late 90s and 2010 many would agree that foreign imports helped to improve nearly all sides who have represented the Premier League. They brought in a certain flair and class in quantities previously unseen in English top flight football and nearly every club had a talisman and cult hero born off the shores of the British Isles. Nowadays there is an argument to suggest that foreign imports do more harm the progress of academy players than they do to improve the quality of many squads in England. The heroes have become fewer and fewer and the product seems, to many, to be diluted by squad players.

World cup winners

In the past Derby County could rely on Paulo Wanchope for both entertainment and goals whilst the Estonia international Mart Poom wore the gloves masterfully at the other end for the rams. Arsenal had the swagger and power of Vieira and Petit in midfield whilst the Dutch duo Overmars and Bergkamp provided pace and elegance for the Highbury faithful. Chelsea boasted World Cup winners Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly at centre half and the Italian magician Gianfranco Zola up top. As for West Ham, who can forget Di Canio and that volley?

As a former cult hero Slaven Bilić’s return to West Ham as manager was always going to provide Hammers fans with a certain level of excitement that ‘Big’ Sam never could. In Dimitri Payet West Ham have a player who both excites and makes things happen on the pitch and that is something the fans have craved since the departure of Carlos Tevez. In his post match interview after their victory over Newcastle on Monday night Bilić waxed lyrical about his new signing and stated he had tried to sign him for Besiktas when he was manager of the Turkish side. Finally he has his man and on early evidence Payet looks every bit the player Premier League fans had grown accustomed to in the past. Given his statistics at previous club Marseille and the inflated prices clubs pay for players nowadays he looks a bargain at £11 million.

Picture from Sky Sports

Picture from Sky Sports

It should be stated that the league still boasts a host of fine foreign talent. Many of the top clubs have game changers in their midst and are significantly improved by their presence. This is not necessarily true for those clubs outside the top half of the table. The season is still in its infancy and lots of players have the opportunity to come good between now and the end of the Season but as Jamie Carragher suggested in his Monday Night Football coverage some use this as a failsafe and very few hit the ground running. Payet is the exception rather than the rule and as such he should be treasured and enjoyed.

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The ‘ten’ obsession and decline in number nines

Sometime over the last ten years something clicked in the minds of those managing top flight football clubs in England. No longer could sides afford to play two up top and so the art of a ‘deadly duo’ or strike partnership has slowly waned. In his autobiography Gary Neville credits Carlos Queiroz for Manchester United’s deviation from English football’s most tried and tested formation as a way to counter European sides who were overrunning English midfields in the Champions League.

Gary_Neville_crop

The switch away from 4-4-2 has had a dramatic effect on three areas of the pitch. No matter which alternative is used the defensive unit is now afforded more protection in either a defensive midfielder or an extra centre half. Midfield options and shapes have changed to accommodate diamonds and Christmas trees which has lead to wide players being pushed either further forward as part of a front three or back as wing backs. Some teams abandon wide players altogether outside of the defence and therefore the onus is on the full backs on either flank to provide width. Arguably the biggest change has come in the pursuit of the perfect number ten.

The ten role has been around for almost as long as 11 a side football but the job of a ten has changed to suit the times. For a long time in England the number ten was merely a second striker, the little man to the burly number nine or vice versa as a hold up man. Either way they were expected to chip in with a decent strike tally but share that work load with someone else whose sole purpose was sticking the ball in the net. Nowadays some might argue not much has changed. A ten is still expected to provide goals in the shape of creativity, assists and good old fashioned goals but it would seem the position is used to harbor those seen as indispensable to the team. Roberto Mancini would rarely substitute Yaya Toure when under the cosh instead he would choose to push Toure further forward at the expense of a second striker, usually Dzeko. At Manchester United they have been through Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Adnan Januzaj and even Marouane Fellaini in the position in the last three years without mentioning Wayne Rooney. It is difficult to know what a number ten is expected to provide for the team nowadays apart from that ever elusive ‘x factor’.

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

A by product of this obsession (or possibly just a coincidence) is a serious decline in top quality centre forwards. Because of the Ronaldo and Messi effect teams are now expected to get large numbers of goals from other sources. For Chelsea Frank Lampard took the role of goalscoring midfielder to new heights in the Premier League but it must be remembered that we are exceptionally privileged to see the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in the same generation and looking for wingers and other forward minded players to chip in with 50 goals a season is fantasy beyond those two greats. The baton then must be picked up by those number nines the world over but where are they?

Ron and Mess

Arsene Wenger has taken some huge criticism for his lack of activity in the recent transfer window but the investment in huge scouting networks for all Premier League clubs means the days of finding talent no one else has spotted are long gone. The only alternative then is to ask (with huge sums of money) football’s biggest and richest to give up their rare talents.

In bygone years you could spend an entire evening discussing and reeling off the list of talented number nines in European and world football, that simply is no longer the case. According to the press Arsenal failed in their attempts to buy Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Barca have Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 34 years old and German giants Bayern have Robert Lewandowski. In England Manchester City have Sergio Aguero and Chelsea have the time bomb that is Diego Costa. Outside of that list there are some good strikers but none are super stars. The lack of world class talent in that position has lead to the great Brazil playing with a chap upfront called Fred! Worse than that some sides have such a depth of talent in other positions they have experimented with not playing a striker at all. For both Barcelona and Spain Cesc Fabregas has been employed as a ‘false 9’, something up until recent years would have seemed impossible to contemplate. For the sake of the game a new crop of top strikers needs to emerge soon or that all important art of goalscoring might be left up to made up positions and the new Ronaldo and Messi. Long live the number the centre forward, striker, attacker. Whatever you call them they used to be the players most kids aspired to be. If we are not careful they might just turn into a nostalgic distant memory.