Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. It was a performance to reflect a season. In keeping with too many of his colleagues, Memphis Depay was dreadful in Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over doomed Norwich City on Saturday. It was a fresh nadir in a hugely disappointing campaign; one that threatens to conclude the Dutchman’s United career after just one year in England. It shouldn’t. Memphis has not earned another chance at United, but neither was he always the master of his fate. With talent and time on his side, the club should accede him a second chance.
It is an observation not widely held if the polarising world of social media is any barometer. Indeed, Memphis has become a poster-child for another failed campaign, a status that comes with much justification, although he is by no means solely culpable for a season that will end at a level well below acceptable.
After all, with a penchant for flash cars and dodgy fashion, an apparently poor attitude and worse performances, Memphis has done little to ingratiate himself to United’s fanbase after last summer’s £25 million move from PSV Eindhoven.
Memphis’ failure is magnified by lofty expectations, set both by his price, time at PSV, and a club eager to market a star in-the-making. The Dutchman was handed the number seven shirt once worn by George Best, Bryan Robson, and Eric Cantona, while featuring heavily in Adidas-related pre-season marketing. He lapped it all up, as did the fans.
Instead of catapulting United back into the limelight the 22-year-old has scored just seven goals this season, while contributing two further assists. Poor numbers, but it is the quality of opposition that is also concerning: his strikes came against Watford and Sunderland in the Premier League, and Club Brugge, Midtylland and PSV in Europe.
It is not just Memphis’ lack of goals that point to his failure at United. The player averages around two shots, half a key pass and 1.5 dribbles per game over the past year. Or, in other words, very little of note from a player of whom much was expected. That he is dispossessed or miscontrols the ball three times on average per match puts Memphis’ poor attacking stats in context.
The data is all the more shocking for the dip in numbers over the past year. Memphis was the top scorer in the Eredivisie last season, finishing with 22 goals as PSV won the title. He added a further three goals in cup competitions and five assists over the season. Every other relevant data point was near double in Memphis’ time at PSV compared to his 12 months at United. Beyond goals the player averaged greater than two key passes and more than five shots per game in Holland. His dribbling frequency was that of a dynamic forward in the top bracket – exactly the kind of player Louis van Gaal’s prosaic team and anaemic front-line desperately needed. Last summer and now.
Little wonder United moved quickly to capture the youngster, fending off interest from across the continent before concluding the deal exactly one year ago. “I was forced to handle it because, otherwise, he was going to PSG, that’s why I had to sign him,” Van Gaal admitted.
"It is the sense of the individual and not the collective that has damaged Memphis’ chances of featuring more often for Van Gaal’s side this season. The winger has started just 27 games. It is half the workload of countryman Daley Blind, and less than the intractable Jesse Lingard."
Pundits in Memphis’ homeland once described the winger as “the most exciting player to come from Holland since Arjen Robben,” while Van Gaal unashamedly compared the player to Lionel Messi. Today the criticism has reached a peak, with players and coaches wondering when, or perhaps if, one of Europe’s hottest properties will rediscover his mojo. It shouldn’t have come to this.
Memphis joined PSV aged 12, working his way through the club’s age group teams, before making a first team début in September 2011. He went on to score five goals in 11 appearances that season, before making another 30 appearances in 2012/13. It wasn’t until the following campaign that the goals began to flow – 14 in 43 games. Depay, who has a Ghanaian father and a Dutch mother, then made his international début in October 2013, coming on for Jeremain Lens during Holland’s 2–0 away win against Turkey.
His rapid ascent contributed to a sense of inevitable stardom and, to some observers, a player with a once-in-a-generation potential. Perhaps, though, it also contributed to Depay’s growing sense of entitlement. It is not always an emotion that serves young players well.
The drumbeat of criticism over the player’s performances and lifestyle has steadily increased. Indeed, Dutch great Ruud Gullit once accused the youngster on being “a really good footballer, but at the same time he wants to be a global superstar and a style icon. I think to myself, ‘boy oh boy, do it in the right order. You have to perform, perform and perform again.’”
The same observation has been made at Old Trafford. Privately, through assistant manager Ryan Giggs, Memphis was warned to moderate his celebrity lifestyle, especially in the context of erratic performances. Yet, while Giggs kept his counsel private, others did not.
“He arrived as a Peruvian pan flute player,” former Ajax coach Co Adriaanse quipped after Memphis arrived at a Dutch national team hotel in an ill-advised catwalk ensemble. “If you are a young boy and still have not done anything, do not play dress up as you report to the coach. Ronaldo does that, but at least he is proven.” On the pitch Adriaanse added that Memphis “needs to be corrected, he must realise that he is a member in a football team, that he is not just an individual.”
Indeed, it is that sense of the individual, not the collective, that has damaged Memphis’ chances of featuring more often for Van Gaal’s side this season. The winger has started just 27 games, coming on as substitute in a further 17. It is half the workload of countryman Daley Blind, while the less intractable Jesse Lingard has started 32. For all Lingard’s ability to action Van Gaal’s instructions, he is a player of limited natural attacking gifts.
It is Van Gaal’s emphasis on the collective that provides Memphis some cover though. While PSV proffered an uninhibited platform on the left side of a typically Dutch 4-3-3, Van Gaal has sought to constrain the player in a more structured midfield role. And when not on the left, United’s veteran manager has moved his new charge around the pitch, including starting the campaign with Memphis at 10. It was a bizarre ploy, and Memphis is far from the first creative player to suffer under Van Gaal, as Angel Di Maria and Rivaldo might attest.
Time, though, is on the player’s side – and he is far from the first overseas star to find the Premier League a tough proving ground. Memphis is “a very talented player” but fans “can’t underestimate how big a step it is up to the Premier League, and especially to a big club like Man United,” Arjen Robben prophetically warned last summer. Nor are the player’s faults unmanageable, although such was the depth to which Memphis sank on Saturday that confidence must now be at its lowest ebb.
“You have to give him some time because the talent is there,” added Robben. “He’s got everything that he needs to be a success in England.”
Yet, rumours have begun to circulate that United might be ready to offload the £25 million player this summer, especially if Van Gaal remains at the club beyond May. It might bring the club less than half the fee paid, in a summer when players of far less natural talent will move for far more. There appears little genuine upside in moving the player on just yet.
Under a new coach Memphis may well find a new lease of life, although with it comes a responsibility towards professionalism. Should José Mourinho arrive this summer Memphis might not receive the freedom of old, but the Portuguese is a coach that has extracted much from attacking players, despite his natural bent towards caution.
More, much more, may yet come from a player who should be too good to fail. There are plenty who would carve him as a dish fit for the gods. The hounds are not always right.