For many people in England, Memphis Depay will be seen as something of a byword for failure. After impressing for PSV, the starlet was bought by Manchester United, but failed to light up the Premier League. Since leaving, however, he has rediscovered his best form to become a destructive forward for Lyon.
The Early Years
The demand for Depay’s skills started long before his transfer to Man United. In his youth career, he was transferred not once but twice, as Sparta Rotterdam snatched him from VV Moordrecht, before PSV decided they desperately wanted him in their youth set-up.
The net result was him making his debut for the club at just 17 years old, and he didn’t disappoint. In the 2013/14 season he announced himself to the Dutch public, and in the following season, he announced himself to the whole world with 22 goals from his 30 league games.
Depay was able to play with a lot of freedom, and able to pick out pockets of space with devastating results. He was a huge part of the club that won the 2014/15 league title, which itself broke four years of Ajax dominance. Man United would soon come calling and Depay found himself in the Premier League.
What Went Wrong?
Throughout his life to that point, Depay had been able to play with freedom. His managers were happy to give him free rein and he was able to use that to focus on his attacking play and being a match-winner.
With Louis van Gaal, life would be a lot different. Those that bet on football know exactly how severely a team’s stock can lower after a bad result, and Depay had to follow the party line in a much more competitive league. In practice, that meant he was restricted to a specific part of the field on the left-wing. Contrary to his natural strengths, he was also tracking back constantly in order to help out his full-back.
Depay would make the case that it wasn’t what he was signed for, but van Gaal would most likely say that the player needed to adapt to a new league. In the process, Depay inevitably struggled with confidence and belief, and ended up being from a team that was already sapped of morale.
He would later acknowledge that he blamed everyone but himself, but even so, the Premier League can be a brutal learning curve for many. There have been countless players who have struggled to adapt but with the right time and support, have then gone on to be stars.
Could it have been Different?
Depay was given just one full season to prove himself in Manchester. For a young player, that wasn’t nearly enough, and it certainly could have been a lot different. Overall, it was a very confused and tortured time for the club, as they started to lose their identity following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Many players ended up being caught in the turbulent changes at the club, and after that first season, van Gaal was duly sacked, and in came Jose Mourinho. However, anyone expecting Mourinho to give Depay the freedom he wanted would be sorely mistaken and disappointed.
At the age of just 22, Depay was branded as a ‘flop’, and bearing that horrendous tag so quickly acquired by a modern-day player in a demanding environment, moved away from Manchester and found a new home in Lyon. His change in form and fortune was quite startling, and he was able to score a modest total of five goals in 17 games as he got used to a new life and a new league.
Rejuvenation for club and country
Usually playing on the left side of a front three, Depay’s game has been able to develop and grow in France. In his first full season at Lyon, he was able to score 19 league goals in his 36 games, having been once more granted the freedom to complete key passes, perform layoffs and shoot from distance.
It’s no coincidence that the Netherlands’ changes in fortunes have also coincided with his return to playing with belief and freedom. He has scored four goals in the four games of the Oranje’s current qualification campaign, and the Netherlands look in a much better position to dominate than they did a few years ago.
Since he made his international debut six years ago, he has played under five different national team managers. That makes his progress on the international scene all the more remarkable, and in turn, he is once more being linked to a raft of truly ‘elite’ clubs across Europe. With Real Madrid reportedly his preferred destination, he clearly has high ambitions – but are such feelings warranted, or indeed mutual?
Will that big move happen?
While Olympique Lyonnais is a great club, they have failed to win the league title in France for a long time. Not since the incredible run of seven titles (between 2002 and 2008) has the club had any real measure of success. Ultimately, while Depay has been rejuvenated at Lyon, the jury is still out on whether or not he would be able to star at a club such as Real Madrid.
At the age of 25, he is still a long way from being considered a lost cause at the very highest level of club football. His Lyon form certainly indicates is that he is capable of playing at a higher level, and that he should be at a team capable of consistently challenging for major honours. However, the more realistic stance is that he could instead end up back in the Premier League, to ply his trade at a club with a younger and more forward-thinking manager than Van Gaal.
In that regard, men like Frank Lampard and Jurgen Klopp – managers of Chelsea and Liverpool respectively – might be ideal. So too could a place in Arsenal’s front three, with Alex Iwobi’s departure for Everton leaving a significant hole to be filled.
Ultimately, everyone knows that Depay has an immense amount of talent, and his blistering start to this season might put a few more clubs on alert. Despite a bad spell in England, Depay has proven that he is still a brilliant footballer. He has not just proved that in French football, but also on the European and International stage.
There can be no doubt that Depay’s story is far from finished.