1st June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Cutting in from the left-wing and unleashing a powerful, curling strike into the far corner, Memphis Depay fires Manchester United into a 2-1 lead against Club Brugge. United unexpectedly fell behind to their visitors in this Champions League qualifying round first-leg tie thanks to a Michael Carrick own-goal, but it was Depay who pulled them level with a fine individual goal. The £26 million summer signing has now turned the tie on its head in spectacular fashion. In stoppage time Depay would add an assist to his impressive night's work when crossing for Marouane Fellaini to give the Red Devils a 3-1 victory.
Quite the start for the 21-year-old in only his second appearance for his new club. Sporting the famous number 7 jersey worn by club legends George Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham, Depay, rather predictably, drew comparisons to another former occupant of that squad number, Cristiano Ronaldo.
A young, pacey winger with a penchant for a step-over, Depay seemed to be cut from the same cloth as the Portuguese. United fans began to anticipate the Dutchman having a similar impact to Ronaldo over the coming years.
But, eight months on, that brace against an injury-depleted Brugge side represents the high-point of Depay's first season at Old Trafford. A season in which much was expected of the former PSV man, yet little has been delivered.
In a total of 43 appearances (17 of which as a substitute) Depay has scored eight goals. On the face of it, that doesn't seem like a bad return from a young player adapting to a new league. But when you consider that five of Depay's goals were scored over two-legged ties against injury-hit Brugge and Danish side FC Midtjylland, the picture becomes slightly murky.
Depay's two league goals have come against newly promoted Watford and relegation battling Sunderland. The young Holland international has been largely ineffective against the higher calibre opposition for United this season. Indeed, the fact that he has only managed to create 12 chances in the Premier League this term is evidence of his struggle with influencing games in any meaningful way.
Depay came to United riding a wave of momentum. Having been a member of Louis van Gaal's Holland team that achieved third place in the 2014 World Cup, Depay went on to star in PSV's Eredivisie triumph last season. The Eindhoven club managed to put an end to Ajax's four-year dominance of Holland's top division and Depay was a key figure in helping them do so: finishing the season as the league's highest scorer on 22 goals, the flashy winger was voted player of the year.
Amid rumours of interest from French champions Paris Saint Germain, United moved quickly to secure Depay's signature, announcing that a deal had been reached on 7 May 2015.
The early promise of the Brugge games and an impressive performance against his former club PSV in the Champions League, has fizzled out, and rumours recently have begun to circulate suggesting United may even look to cut their losses and cash in on Depay this summer.
It's perfectly acceptable for a young player to experience some teething problems during his first season at a new club, especially when that club is Manchester United. Old Trafford is somewhat of a goldfish bowl, with the eyes of the world looking in, scrutinising every heavy touch or misplaced pass.
Many have drawn a parallel between Depay's struggles this season and Ronaldo's inconsistent first year in Manchester. This narrative doesn't quite fit though. Ronaldo was three years younger than Depay when he was signed from Sporting Clube de Portugal in the summer of 2003. It's is true that the young Portuguese thrilled and frustrated fans in equal measure during his debut Premier League campaign, but there were signs of his enormous potential throughout. And Ronaldo even went on to be voted United's player of the year at the end of his first season, demonstrating just how quickly the teenager adapted and became a key component of Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Granted, Depay has arrived at Old Trafford at a time when the club is not performing to the level demanded by Ferguson during Ronaldo's introduction. But even so, the Dutch player has shown few signs of the talent, which convinced United that they couldn't let PSG beat them to his signature. Where Ronaldo elicited groans from the crowd for trying one step-over too many, or taking on a shot when he should've passed, Depay has frustrated supporters more for the fact that he seems to be playing within himself, almost holding back for some reason.
It may seem strange to suggest that the heavily muscled, tattoo-covered, extravagantly-dressed Depay lacks confidence, but that does seem to be the case judging by his on-field demeanour.
United manager Louis van Gaal, despite having worked with Depay when in charge of the Dutch national side, seems not to fully trust his £26 million man. Unable to string together a run of first-team starts in recent months, Depay has been overlooked in favour of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Van Gaal's propensity to drop Depay from his starting eleven at the first sign of underperformance is likely the chief reason for the young player's dented self-belief.
Depay had also built up a strong understanding with left-back Luke Shaw early in the season. The horrific leg break Shaw suffered against PSV in the Champions League group stage has meant that Depay, when given a chance to play, has been backed up on the left-side by a varying cast of stand-ins such as Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. Had Depay been afforded the opportunity to develop a steady partnership with Shaw, perhaps his performances would've benefitted.
Despite these caveats, sympathy amongst United supporters has worn thin for Depay as the months have passed. This is largely a matter of perception, with many fans voicing their opinion that Depay, with his personalised Rolls Royce and diamond encrusted jewellery, is the poster-boy for the too-much-too-soon generation of young footballers. That view is unfair; the young man's choice of how he spends his money does not necessarily reflect his commitment on the pitch. But high-profile errors, like his underwhelming header that led to the concession of a goal in December's defeat away at Stoke City, has only furthered the discontent many feel with Depay.
There are even suggestions that some of Depay's team-mates share the same sentiment. In what was widely perceived as a thinly veiled comment about the Dutchman, in a recent interview for Spanish television Juan Mata said "Every player thinks he's Diego Maradona when he joins a big club. That happens to all of us but then you notice it in the younger players."
"You see kids who think they're rock stars; wearing extravagant clothes and driving flash cars." Mata continued. "Sometimes you have to take them aside and have a word."
Depay has undoubtedly fallen short of expectations in his first season at Old Trafford, but to give up on a young player so soon would be a mistake. If United were to sell Depay this summer, they would be highly unlikely to get anything like the fee they paid to sign him just a year ago. In addition to the embarrassment of a hefty financial loss, for a club whose reputation is built on decades of developing young players into stars, selling Depay now would represent a contradiction to United's traditions.
And, in truth, it would be down-right lazy. Instead of cashing in now and moving on to the next shiny new toy that catches their eye, United should put in the time and effort to at least try to get the best out of Depay. If, another year or two down the line, things have not improved, then by all means ship him out.
For now, at least, Memphis Depay is Manchester United's number 7, and he should be given the opportunity to show he is worthy of that distinction.
The curious case of Memphis Depay
1st June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.