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Life After Payet

How will West Ham cope without their mercurial star player?

West Ham United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

The little maestro has gone. Let’s move past the anger for a moment, and face a few facts. Payet was astounding last season. Hammer of The Year, a hero and an artist. This season, before “le sulk”, he was directly involved in half our goals. Hammers manager Slaven Bilic openly referred to him as our best player and any non-Hammer I talked to about West Ham would instantly talk about Payet. He was a key player, an essential player. Some even thought of us as a one-man team.

But he has gone now, so what happens next?

Payet may have actually left today, but he has been dead to us and the team for a couple of weeks. Ever since he dropped his bombshell and Bilic (rightly) told the world. And it’s been an interesting couple of weeks, with two revealing games.

At home to Crystal Palace, Bilic started the game with us lined up in the kind of shape that would have featured Payet. Palace were poor, and we were marginally worse. We kept looking for inspiration, kept looking to the left, but he wasn’t there.

At half time Bilic brought on Byram, and made the kind of bold tactical switch we came to expect last season but has been strangely absent so far this season. He switched to flexible 4411, releasing Antonio to play through the middle just off Andy Carroll. I could visibly see the team growing in confidence by the minute and it was no surprise when Feghouli slid in to prod Antonio’s low center into the back of the net. We all know what happened next, a three-nil win, Carroll’s wonder goal, and a feeling of a second half great team performance.

Following that, we rode our luck a bit against Middlesbrough, playing the attacking 4411 with Antonio through the middle. But still emerged as winners. Two post-Payet games, two wins, six goals. Dimitri who? But it’s not that simple.

Just after Payet threw his toys out of the pram, the Snodgrass rumors started to emerge. He arrived on Friday for about £10m. The club have gone to great lengths to insist that Robert Snodgrass is not a direct replacement for Payet. But he is. He’s a wide player that loves to cut in on to his preferred foot. He takes a mean corner and free-kick, and has a devastating long range shot. Ring a bell?

The signing of Snodgrass has Bilic’s paws all over it. Snodgrass is the kind of technical player that Bilic loves. As was Payet. However, Snodgrass is, by all accounts, a down to earth and humble (for a profession footballer) kind of guy. And he is of course British, so no more pining for the Fjords. We hope.

Bilic also insists that we already have a squad good enough to compete even without our departed Frenchman. With Payet gone the main creative input will need to come from Antonio, Lanzini and the newly acquired Snodgrass. Actually, that’s not a bad trio of players.

Antonio had been tried up front before by Bilic, but as a lone striker. To be fair, there are not many position Bilic hasn’t tried Antonio in. He did OK as a lone striker, but seemed to revel in his role just off Carroll against Palace. His assists for all three goals showed the kind of end product that many people thought was lacking from his game. In the same way that a number of supporters (and even Bilic himself) doubted Antonio could make the step up from the Championship, he has his doubters in this central role. So far though, it seems to be a case of give Antonio the challenge, and he will step up to meet it. As long as that challenge isn’t playing at right back.

Lanzini is another player with undoubted creative talents. Early signs are that he is enjoying the responsibility of being our main creator. He has the ability, but can go missing for half a game. He will see a lot more of the ball now. Let’s hope he stays injury free and plays as consistently well as we know he can.

It will be a blessing to escape the constant Payet rumors, and the will-he-won’t-he stay tittle tattle the ate up every hour of every transfer window. Antonio and Lanzini will now be the main focus of lustful glances from bigger clubs. They are not real stars in the Payet mold, but those in the know will have their eyes on them.

Perhaps the person who has gained the most from the Payet affair is Bilic himself. All agree that he handled himself and the situation brilliantly. His old swagger seems to be returning. Perhaps not having the pressure of appeasing a super star in his team has given him a new lease of life.

There were indications earlier in the season that Bilic was itching to try two up front. It seems he didn’t trust his attackers (certainly a small French attacker) to track back or his defenders to defend enough to do it.

Suddenly Bilic seems released. West Ham appear to have switched tactically to a far more attacking mode than the more defensive shape Bilic took in the first part of the season. The irony is it took the departure of our best attacking player to enable that switch.

Even without Payet, we have the players. Well, almost. Lanzini and Snodgrass on the left and right, both ready to cut in or cross. Antonio through the middle with Carroll. We have Edimilson Fernandes and Sofiane Feghouli as options. And of course, Andre Ayew who can play in any of those forward positions.

At the back Sam Byram appears to have been given the nod at right back, at least for the rest of this season. And Jose Fonte, an experienced and very useful central defender, has joined from Southampton to beef up the defence and add a bit of street savviness.

It all bodes well for Slaven’s brave new attacking shape. It will certainly be exciting to watch. Call it 442 or 4411, what could possibly go wrong? All we need to do is keep Carroll and Byram fit for the rest of the season. Two players that have never stayed fit for that amount of games before, and we still have no direct replacements for. Undoubtedly our Achilles heel.

Goodbye Dimitri Payet. The people say we will struggle without you are the same naysayers who moaned “be careful what you wish for” when we replaced Allardyce with Bilic. I suspect we will do better without you than if you had stayed, though we will never know for sure. We may sell less shirts, but the early evidence is life without Payet will be eventful and fun. I am excited by the arrival of Robert Snodgrass. I have confidence in Bilic and the team that we have.
Good luck in Marseille Dimitri, you will need it.