SPIRO: Depay and Payet to fuel Ligue 1 renaissance
By M. Spiro
In years to come, we may look back at this January transfer window and see it as the moment the French league turned a corner, writes Ligue1.com's Matthew Spiro.
"I was really surprised," Rafael, the Lyon right-back, told me this week. "I honestly didn't think the league was this strong, and I admit I found it very hard at the beginning." The Brazil international, who spent seven seasons at Manchester United, winning three league titles, is speaking candidly about his decision to join OL 18 months ago. "There are some really strong players at Lyon. [Alexandre] Lacazette and [Nabil] Fekir..." he said, puffing out his cheeks, "those guys are just amazing. But they're not the only ones. There are a lot of very good young players at this club."
Another good young player, Memphis Depay, has joined the seven-time French champions and his arrival has merely confirmed the recent trend of high-profile internationals, like Mario Balotelli, coming to France. Rafael trained with the Dutchman at Carrington for just a few days in 2015 before sealing his move to Lyon, but he is only too happy to renew acquaintances. "Depay is not playing (at United), he should come here," the 26-year-old enthused before the deal was done. "He'll find out that this is a very professional club... and he'll also see we have a lot of very good players."
On the rise
The standard of Ligue 1 is increasing again and the word is spreading quickly. PSG have been the precursor, raising the bar so high that the likes of Lyon, Marseille and Monaco have needed to be even more creative, resourceful and clever to try to close the gap.
In terms of wages, Lyon and Marseille still cannot realistically compete with Premier League clubs. However, they can offer different arguments. Depay, like Rafael before him, regards Lyon as an attractive destination because he will get the chance to play regular football, to play European football, and to do it in one of the continent's best stadia. He will be allowed to develop his game away from intense media scrutiny at a club renowned for its expertise at nurturing young talent.
Payet drawn to OM
Dimitri Payet's desire to return to France is somewhat different; firstly because he is considered to be West Ham's best player and secondly because his family's wish appears to be an important factor. But let's not kid ourselves. For a France international, who has already had one brilliant spell at the Vélodrome, playing for Olympique de Marseille is a big deal. We are talking about France's most popular and successful club. I don't believe Payet grew up in La Réunion with posters of Tony Cottee on his bedroom wall, hoping one day to grace Upton Park. The Stade Vélodrome, Jean-Pierre Papin and Basile Boli are far more likely to have filled his dreams.
Some have accused Payet of being a mercenary, yet that doesn't add up. He has just turned down a move to China, and reports suggest he'll take a 30 per cent pay decrease if the move to Marseille goes through. Payet wants to return for his family, but also to renew a love affair with an amazing crowd at a huge club, in a stunning region which, crucially, is situated in his homeland. He wants to join OM at a time when they're showing big ambition to catch PSG. It's an incredibly exciting challenge. More exciting than trying to keep a club he had probably not even heard of ten years ago in the Premier League. I'm not condoning the way he has gone about things, nor intending any disrespect to West Ham, but he is French and it is honestly not that hard to understand his motives.
The bottom line is that Ligue 1 is attracting elite talent once more. PSG have underlined their ambitions by signing one of the most sought-after talents on the continent, Julian Draxler, from Wolfsburg. More important still is the fact that other clubs are strengthening. Depay is joining a Lyon team that has made massive efforts to hold onto top players like Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso. Payet is in line to become the marquee signing of Frank McCourt's 'Champions Project' at Marseille. And while he is nearly 30 and will make a significant dent in OM's budget, he'll also send out a strong message: Marseille are serious and Ligue 1 is no longer just a selling league.
Right now Monaco are the club best equipped to topple PSG. Their progress in the last 12 months has been incredible, with shrewd business in the market fuelling their rise. It doesn't look as though Leonardo Jardim will strengthen in January, but the top names are all likely to stay and that is massive in itself given the ever-increasing interest in Monaco's star players. Radamel Falcao's decision to reject a move to China this week is hugely positive as it sets an example for the likes of Tiemoué Bakayoko, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva and Valère Germain to follow.
Indeed, the most telling part of this January window so far is that no big names have left Ligue 1. That is hugely encouraging for followers of the French league.
Just the beginning
Falcao of course could earn much more in China. Like Payet and Depay could earn much more by staying in England. Money is of course an important factor in attracting players, and the likes of PSG, Lyon, Marseille, Nice and Monaco are hardly offering peanuts to their star men. But it is not the only factor, and French sides have found other ways to make their clubs and this league attractive. After Falcao, Balotelli, Younes Belhanda, Jérémy Ménez and Julian Draxler, French fans will welcome Depay and Payet with open arms - and they'll hope the snowball effect is only just commencing.