Wizards at Work: Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez

The Premier League has given us many memorable battles over the years, and some of them have become stuff of legends, like Viera versus Scholes or Gerrard versus Lampard. The unpredictability of the league, and the stars who play in it is what makes it so special, so engaging. This season has been no different, with Riyad Mahrez and Gus Payet both offering us a glimpse into what could develop into an outstanding gladiator match between two very different types of wingers. Sportwalk analyzes this rivalry that could soon become the stuff of history.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started

West Ham fans have hailed Dimitri Payet to be the next best thing after Di Canio. But one would feel that he is more like Cantona and the likes of Gascoigne; someone who has the swag, a bit of temperament and is someone who will look into your eyes and say “hey, you remember my name.” His story begins more than 6,000 miles away at Green Street. Payet spent his childhood years in the French territory of Reunion, a remote Indian Ocean island with a tropical climate and idyllic beaches that lie midway between Madagascar and Mauritius. People with some knowledge of geography would possibly know this place as the home to one of world’s most active volcanoes, Le Piton de la Fournaise. This place is infamous for frequent but short-lived eruptions. At Nantes, he worked part-time in a clothes store to supplement his income and broke into the first-team in the 2005-2006 season before signing for Saint-Etienne, followed by subsequent progressive moves to Lille and Marseille in 2011 and 2013 respectively.

Riyad Mahrez has taken the premier league by storm. Nicknamed as the Algerian Messi, this lad has gone from strength to strength with his deft flicks and tricks, leaving defenders for the dead. He was raised in Sarcelles, a neighborhood in northern Paris of housing estates with a relatively rough reputation, to an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother. Aged 15, Mahrez lost his father and inspiration Ahmed, who succumbed to a fatal heart condition. Friends remember Mahrez praying and visiting his mosque frequently at the time. ‘My mum was alone after that,’ Mahrez told the BBC. ’It was difficult. But that’s helped me to be more strong.

Payet Vs Mahrez (Statistically)

Dimitri Payet Riyad Mahrez
Matches 25 32
Assists 8 11
Goals 9 16
Total Shots 51 80
Pass Completion 81% 72%
Key Passes 84 37

Payet, unlike Mahrez, missed a huge chunk of the Premier League season owing to a serious injury. And for precisely this reason, he had to be away from the field for two months, from November 7th to January 1st. He still has eight goals and seven assists in 22 games to his credit. However, Payet’s influence goes beyond those statistical figures and this is abundantly clear if you look at West Ham’s record with and without him.

For the 12 games he played at the start, West Ham won six, drew three and lost just three, scoring 23 goals in 12 and averaged 1.75 points per game.

When Payet was out injured, West Ham played seven games, winning just one, drawing five and losing another. What was more concerning was that there were five goals scored – the second worst total in the Premier League over the given period. Average points per game: 1.14

As for the here and now, West ham has played 10 games, won six, drawn two, lost two and scored 17, at an average of two points per game.

With Payet fit all season, West Ham would have hit approximately 72 points and in only two of the last six seasons has that not been enough for a Champions League spot. Mahrez, though, has been in another world. Playing on the right of midfield in Leicester’s 4-4-2 system, the Algerian is the complete all-around attacker in the Premier League.

If one thinks about the basics of the game, there are 3 options for a player when he is at possession: dribbling, shooting and passing. For Manchester united, however, there has unexpectedly been another option – put the ball in the stand, and that, they have been able to achieve conveniently thus far. (Pun intended!) And Mahrez has excelled in all the above-mentioned areas (not the crowd pass). He’s the second-most prolific dribbler, the joint-second most frequent assister and the fifth-best scorer in the league. It has almost been impossible for opposition left-backs to stop him, with his runs being inevitably magnificent.

Dimitri Payet, on the other hand, has been a catalyst for the Hammers. Slaven Bilic has utilized the mercurial Frenchman to perfection. Playing him wide or as a number 10, he creates havoc in the opposition midfield and defense cohesively. And West Ham fans have rightly been chanting, “He is Super Slav’s man”. Dimitri Payet has been the go-to man for the Londoners, be it the infusion of spark or the creation of chances in the midfield. After signing from Marseille last summer, Payet has scored eight league goals and created 81 chances — 43 more than West Ham’s next best Mark Noble, 35 more than Lionel Messi of Barcelona this season and the fourth best in Europe’s to five leagues. Rene Girad, the former Lille and Montpellier coach, who was the one to call up Payet to the France Under-21 side in 2007, had said “He is a Cantona-type, a Gascoigne type. It’s that bit of arrogance, the strut, the artistic sense and that innate ability to illuminate a match. He’s had that kind of impact on West Ham.”

Standout Moments

Both Payet and Mahrez probably had one thing in their head this season. “Be so good that they can’t ignore you”. It’s absolutely criminal as a football pundit if you are asked to choose 1. But the difference between an average player and a winner is their ability to standout from the crowd- Someone who can grab the bull by its horns and say “bring it on”. And it would not be wrong to suggest that every team that they have faced has faced the brutality of the two geniuses.

A brilliant strike from Mahrez in a 2-1 victory over Chelsea shortly before Christmas was the one stand-out moment that is here to stay in every viewer’s mind- when he received the ball inside the box on the right and shifted Cesar Azpilicueta from the correct defensive position with a couple feints before majestically bending the ball past the towering figure of Thibaut Courtois. There was something incredibly authoritative about the way he outfoxed Azpilicueta, perhaps the league’s most composed, disciplined full-back, the type of old-school defender who simply doesn’t fall for elaborate tricks. But Mahrez fooled him with particulate ease, probably because he’d built a reputation of being a difficult opponent. How could Azpilicueta have been sent the wrong way when nearly everybody somehow seemed to know that Mahrez wanted to cut inside onto his left foot? Well, because Mahrez was increasingly able to dribble the other way too.

Payet’s 12 goals have powered West Ham’s season and earned the team vital points. In a 3-2 thriller at Goodison Park, it was Payet of course who rose to the occasion and swung the tie in West Ham’s favour. The Hammers were trailing 2-0 until Michail Antonio struck after 78 minutes. Three minutes later Diafra Sakho drew Slaven Bilic’s men level before Payet latched on to a clever backheel from Sakho to fire between the legs of Joel Robles during injury time.

Pick off the two

More than talent, his industrious nature and the ability to stand up to the tough task has been the formulae of success for Payet. In terms of creative midfield, key passes hold the key. Payet’s rate of 3.7 per game is the second-highest in the Premier League behind Mesut Özil (4.3), and his rate of 2.5 dribbles per game doesn’t come too far on the list.

Mahrez has been far more of a threat as a goalscorer, evidence being his 15 goals and he has 2.6 shots per game in that regard. Though he leads Payet with 3.2 dribbles per game, but he falls back with just 1.6 per game in the key passes category. Having won the PFA player of the year award, just weeks earlier most would be placing their bets safely on Mahrez being the better of the two.

With two genius-level intellects continuing to stun their opponents with brilliance, it is just a matter of time before the media hypes up the rivalry and starts the raging debate, “Who is better of the two?”

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