How Memphis Depay has been reborn at Lyon after his Manchester United failure
On Wednesday, Memphis Depay will take to the pitch in Manchester once more – a place he fled 18 months ago as a beleaguered, belittled novice who had been brought hurtling down to earth. The 24-year-old returns as nothing of the sort.
Depay has now spent the same amount of time at Lyon – a season-and-a-half – as he did at Manchester United... but that’s where the similarities between those two portions of his career end. Since arriving in France, he has clocked up twice as many minutes on the pitch, four times the number of goals and enhanced his reputation in a manner that goes beyond numbers.
As one generation of Dutch stars fade, Depay is the glittering hope of the next, and has now been installed as his country’s primary centre-forward. Wesley Sneijder’s international send-off earlier this month, a friendly against Peru, was decided by a Depay brace. The 22 goals he managed for Lyon last season – largely from a wide attacking role – ranged from ferocious long-rangers to impudent panenka penalties.
If all this sounds a far cry from the timid winger who occasionally turned out for Manchester United... well, that’s because it is. Without wishing to dwell on the misery that Depay endured at Old Trafford, it’s worth revisiting his time there if only to emphasise just how spectacularly things have U-turned since.
He arrived at United way back in the summer of 2015, a time when the £31m fee his new club had paid to PSV Eindhoven was still an eye-watering amount. The ominous signs came as early as his debut, after which his performance was described by his manager Louis van Gaal as “too eager… too much passion”. Although a brace against Club Brugge in a Champions League play-off tie soon followed, things quickly went south.
One sparkling late-season display against Midtjylland notwithstanding, Depay's inaugural campaign got steadily bleaker. By the end, his appearances were mostly occurring from the bench, and to little effect.
That was at least an advance on the following season, when he was barely seen at all. Once Jose Mourinho was installed in the dugout, the Dutchman made a grand total of eight appearances – one of them in the starting XI – before being given the chance to hotfoot it gratefully across the channel.
So where exactly did it all go wrong in Manchester for a player so patently talented? On paper, the move looked perfect: it was a young, exciting winger moving to a club that makes such a big deal of youth, excitement and wingplay; it was a Dutch star-in-the-making going to play for a coach who had made stars of so many Dutchmen.
Of course, new signings have a tendency to look a lot better on paper than they do on grass. Depay’s particular brand of spontaneity-heavy attacking turned out to be an ill fit for both Van Gaal’s possession-based game and Mourinho’s position-based one.
Just this month, his former captain Wayne Rooney recalled the moment he gave up on Depay. “He came on at Stoke away and messed up for their goal so Van Gaal made him play for the reserves the next day,” recalled Rooney. “I said: ‘Look, it’s a bit difficult [for you]. Just don’t come in with all your fancy stuff. And he turned up for he reserve game in his Rolls-Royce, wearing a leather jacket and a cowboy hat. And I just thought: ‘What’s the point?’”
Fair enough, perhaps. Or perhaps not – after all, the ‘bling’ accusation is one that tends to be disproportionately aimed at a certain type of footballer. But either way, hindsight has been kind to Depay, and not only because his sharp upturn in form since escaping United affords him the benefit of the doubt.
He's helped by the fact that he is far from the only impulsive attacker to find himself mysteriously blunted at a post-Ferguson Old Trafford: Wilfried Zaha and Angel Di Maria arrived the summer before; Henrikh Mkhitaryan the summer after.
The misery endured at United by those three, along with Depay, does not necessarily bode well for Alexis Sanchez or Anthony Martial – another two such players currently experiencing what could kindly be described as wobbles in form. There’s a pattern here – although if there’s a common denominator, it’s fair to say it's not the players.
As far as Depay is concerned, it's likely too that there was something of a culture clash at work. As Arsene Wenger said: "For the English, sport is combat. They can't go to battle without a general. For the French, football is a form of collective expression." Having sampled both, it seems that the latter is rather more compatible with Depay's instinctive playing style.
Despite his ordeal, though, Depay's appetite for another high-profile move is undiminished. “I would like to go higher,” he said at the start of September. “I am grateful for how Lyon have dealt with me, and still deal, and I am also glad that I am still playing football here. But in my opinion I am ready to take another step.”
For now, he'll have to appease himself with playing against Europe's superclubs rather than for them, as Lyon return to the midweek elite. But Depay might be wise to know when to stick and when to twist. For the moment, he’s good for Lyon and Lyon are good for him – and as he'll be well aware, it doesn't always work out like that.