The Crème de la Crème
How does Europe’s best free-kick taker Dimitri Payet do it?
Dimitri Payet continues to light up the Premier League with his glittering play, the West Ham star crashing in an unstoppable free-kick in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace.
France international Payet has now scored five of his trademark set pieces in 2016 and could yet fire the Hammers into the Champions League and to FA Cup glory.
Next week West Ham take on Manchester United for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals, but how does Payet score so many free-kicks?
Variation in technique
A lot of the most famous free-kick takers from football history have had one way of hitting the ball that works for them and they effectively do the same thing every time they step up for a set piece.
Think about Andrea Pirlo or David Beckham and they way they go through a preparation ritual that is reminiscent of the way England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson used to get ready for his kicks.
Both Pirlo and Beckham almost approach the ball from a side-on position and it is obvious what they are going to do – bend the ball up and around the wall and into the top corner.
But, as any goalkeeper who has been beaten by one of their free-kicks will tell you, it is one thing knowing where the ball is going to go and a totally different thing to be able to stop it.
Payet is different.
The 29-year-old – who scored for France on his birthday during the recent international break – has a number of different techniques to keep goalkeepers guessing.
That Palace free-kick
Payet’s free-kick against Palace was probably his best yet, leading to team-mate Aaron Cresswell hailing the Frenchman as the best set piece specialist in world football right now.
“I will put Dimi up there as the best free-kick taker in the world at the moment. I was standing right behind him and the ball looked destined for the top corner,” Cresswell said.
“Nobes [Mark Noble] came over to him and gave him a little heads-up, but he has put it in the top corner once again and hopefully he can keep doing that for us. I will gladly sit behind him and keep watching him strike balls like that.”
The position looked perfect for a typical curler, up and over the wall, even though he had nine players to squeeze the ball past, including two of his colleagues who had lined up alongside no less than seven Palace men.
With such a large wall to beat, Payet weighed up his options and instead fired his shot across the wall and into the opposite top corner, taking goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey by surprise.
The Wales international took a step the wrong way as Payet struck the ball, anticipating a shot over the wall, but realistically he was never going to be able to keep it out.
Damien Delaney admitted after the game he thought Payet had ballooned the ball well over the crossbar and in slow motion, it is easy to see why the Palace defence thought he had missed.
The ball looked to be a couple of feet above the level of the crossbar with only a short distance to goal, but somehow Payet got the ball to dip at the last possible moment and it swerved in, clipping the woodwork on the way.
It was a breathtaking strike and one few players in world football could have conjured.
Player of the year?
With nine goals and eight assists in the Premier League this season, Payet is right in the mix to be named the Premier League’s player of the year.
While Riyad Mahrez is undeniably the front-runner given his stunning performances in Leicester City’s unlikely rise to the top of the league, Payet has turned West Ham from mid-table nobodies into a side that could genuinely finish in the top four and also win the FA Cup ahead of their move to the Olympic Stadium next season.
It is also worth remembering that Payet missed almost two months of action in the middle of the season due to injury and it is tempting to wonder if West Ham could be even higher in the league had he been able to stay fit.
A Payet special helped West Ham earn an FA Cup replay against Manchester United and for the return match at Upton Park, all eyes will be on the playmaker to see if he can magic up another wonderful free-kick to add to his bursting highlights reel.