It took less than a year in the Ligue 1 for Memphis Depay to become one of the key players in France. Although his image might not always be too positive in the Netherlands. It’s time to analyse how he managed to resurrect his career with Olympique Lyon.
If one hears something repeated often enough, it will become the perceived reality. This applies to all these Dutch football fans and pundits claiming that Arjen Robben can never be replaced in Oranje and we – Holland – currently do not have any top quality players anymore.
Strangely enough, the most threatening left winger in the five Top Leagues in Europe (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1) is actually a Dutch player. It’s also the most critiqued player of Oranje of the past years: Memphis Depay.
Usually, the news items are about the hats he wears, the messages he puts on Instagram, the car he drives, the tattoos on his body or the rap songs he produces. This all doesn’t take into acount the amazing comeback he made to the top as OL player. In Lyon, Depay seems to have recovered from his failed adventure at Man United. The playing style of Lyon could well be the blue print for the plan Oranje needs to execute. The effectiveness of Depay in that system of Les Gones seems to be a worthy aim, as Oranje is looking for new leaders of the line.
Memphis Depay’s stats versus all left wingers in the Top 5 European Leagues, 2017/18:
|Directly involved in goals (goals + assists):||11||3rd|
|Shots per match:||2,1||26st|
|Scorings percentage shots:||29.6%||1st*|
* Only taking into account players with more than one shot on goal per match
The year and a half Memphis played for Manchester United, in hindsight, can be seen as the perfect storm of what could go wrong for a young lad at a big club. He came in with a huge weight of expectations on his back, not helped by the Jersey #7. Van Gaal immediately gave Depay a starting berth in a team that the coach couldn’t get to dazzle. In the first season of energy-less games, Memphis was instructed to put more energy in his defensive game, while the slow ball circulation meant he was usually facing two opponents. Having to stick to the byline, Depay usually was one of the last players in the tedious build-up to receive the ball, not having any space or time for the creative element of surprise. All things he never had to cope with at PSV. And to put insult to injury, on the last transfer day, Man United signed French super talent Martial for 60 mio euros, a direct rival for the left wing. In two years, the coach who signed him was told to leave and Jose Mourinho came in. He demands more physical and tactical discipline of his players and more defensive duties of his wingers. Not a game plan Memphis would thrive in.
He gave his football management the instruction to find him a team inwhich he could excel. They went to SciSports and asked the statisticians to do the work. Olympique Lyon was on the top of their advisory list and Lyon signed him for 16 mio euros. Lyon was a club where the two wingers are free to roam, free to express themselves and are relatively free of defensive duties. After one year, it’s clear to see why this club suits Memphis.
Coach Genesio uses the 4-2-3-1. And Depay gets the space to do what he does well, explosive runs from outside to inside, preparing his killer right foot for a hammer blow. In the final third of the pitch, Memphis hardly ever plays close to the by-line. The left channel is the territory of a forward thundering left wing back or shadow striker Nabil Fekir drifts to the left to use that space.
Defensively, Depay does not have a tough job. Lyon will drop in, back to 4-4-2 and Depay does need to track back to his defensive position, but apart from forward pressurising when Lyon lost possession, there aren’t a lot of other defensive tasks for him. Last weekend, against Nice, Lyon scored 5 goals. As Fekir was not available, Lyon went back to 4-3-3 in possession and 4-5-1 when they lost possession. Four of the five goals (two by Memphis) were made out of quick turnaround moments, from defence to offence. Whenever Nice had the ball on their left flank, it was clear what Memphis’ job was. Being ready to break once Lyon took possession back.
This season, coach Genesio has four explosive forwards. And with destroyer Gonalons off to AS Roma, Lyon plays a little bit mor passive this season. Happy to give the ball to the opponent at times. Lyon had 59% and 57% possession on average, in the last two seasons. This season, the average is closer to 50%. This shift to a more counter-attacking style fits the team and in particular the explosive Depay. Combine this with the fact when Lyon does have the ball, the left winger is able to show up in time in the danger areas, and it is clear to see how he reaches the level again where he left off at PSV.
It also helps that Memphis is playing next to one of the best false strikers of Europe: Nabil Fekir. The French international is in the form of his life and scored eleven goals in as much matches and had 4 assists. Fekir’s qualities are well-known: great dribbler and a devastating shot.
But with Depay being overly right-footed, Fekir is a southpaw and as a result likes to drift to the left flank, enabling him to cross the ball in with his left. Depay uses this with glee, using the space vacated by Fekir to play in the #10 role.
Fekir also likes to move up to become the central striker, which is possible because striker Diaz has the speed and control to play on the flanks as well. This dynamic triangle – with Fekir as #9, Depay as #10 and Diaz on the left – can be seen often in Lyon games.
The positional freedom Depay has in the Lyon system is the exact opposite of the straightjacket tactics of ManU’s Van Gaal, who instructed his players to remain in certain areas of the pitch and never to cross over. This style can easily be adopted by Oranje, as we also have quite multi-functional attackers in Promes, Babel and Berghuis.
Another positive aspect to Depay’s game is that he has tremendously improved in the two areas where he spoke of in an interview in 2014. The 20 year old back then said his initial pre-action needs to improve and his running in behind without the ball needs to get better. Two aspects he clearly worked on.
“Guus Hiddink and Phillip Cocu think I need to be more alternating in my pre-actions. I need to be more focused. For instance, I should be able to spot the ball coming to me, 10 seconds earlier. The ball comes in my direction, my team mate opens up his body, I can read that he’ll play me in. I need to move before this happens and make my opponent nervous. I used to be static on the byline. Receiving the ball into my feet and then I’d make the action. By making the right initial move, I should be able to stretch the defence.”
In Lyon, Memphis demonstrates to have this down pat. In the match vs St Etienne he scores a goal with the exact same pre-action as his first goal vs Troyes, only two weeks earlier. Depay starts on the right flank when Lyon’s counter starts, but makes his way diagonally to the left. When Fekir playes the ball to the right, to Aouar, Depay will pass a defender’s back and move to the left. He knows the defender will be startled and will turn towards his own goal to sprint back to cover Memphis. When the defender takes his eye off him, in that turn, Memphis takes the opportunity to move away and create space for the shot on goal with his right, whenever the ball gets to him.
He also said in the 2014 interview that national team manager Van Gaal insisted on more depth in his runs. Today, Depay seems to be aware of the damage his speed can do to an opponent’s defence. Diaz and Depay were up against 6 opponents at the half way line, but when he gets the ball and full speed the four Troyes defenders are helpless against the finishing of the left winger.
Memphis moving from central to the left flank away from the defender in behind
Some players make huge steps when they get to a bigger club. Leroy Sane at Man City, Mo Salah now at Liverpool… This usually happens when they realise they can be threatening and useful without the ball as well. It seems Depay reached this point now as well. And he’s only 23 years old, which means he has the 5 or 7 best years of his career ahead of him. So we best get used again, to the moniker “Memphis Depay, world class player” soon. And watching him play for Lyon is a joy, indeed.
Enjoy some snippets of an interview from last month, from Simon Zwartkruis, October 2017.
Memphis: “So tell me honestly, do you write 24 hours per day? No, right? Well, I have a life besides my work as well. I enjoy fashion, I like posting on Instagram, I love nice cars. What’s wrong with that? But people see that and don’t seem to see how honoured and priviliged and blessed I feel to play for my country.”
“As a boy, I fell in love with football and that will never go away. That passion is the core for me. Practice, laughing with the lads, prepping for a game, getting the best out of yourself, nothing is more beautiful than that. And I do know that at pro level, other aspects count. Of course. Football is number 1 for me and will always be. But the judgements people have about me, are about more than football. Some people don’t get me. But what is so wrong what I do? I’m 23 years old, I’m growing as a human. We all do right?”
“I’m a positive guy. And I believe I can influence my life in a positive way. But the things I do outside of football aren’t regarded as positive. I don’t really care, but it surprises me. I am focused on football and my career, no one needs to doubt that. But there’s other things that make my happy. I’m not a pro player 24 hours per day. And it’s different for every one. But when I’m happy, I perform better. I go full throttle at practice.”
“And when I’m free in my head, my game is freed up. It’s actually good for my career, all these things I do. If I would live like a hermit, I’d be unhappy. And that is also top sports: to find the modus that works for you. I treat my body as my temple, I rest a lot. But I still have time for other stuff. Like a musician isn’t always making music, right?”
“It will also have to do with my background. I’m a street kid. My family was always in survival mode. I love nice things now, as I wasn’t used to it. And in the neighbourhood I grew up in, all lads were little “bosses”. We needed to find our way. And some kids came out wrong. Some went the criminal path. Others worked with their talents. And when you do this, whether its sports or music, you need to invest in yourself first. Some kids from the street opt for the quick and easy money. But I never walk alone. God is with me. That is how I am raised. My trust in my faith is huge. And I’m blessed. I grew up in the jungle, and that is a huge contrast to where I am now and where I want to go to.”
After a failed stint at Man United, Memphis found his happiness with Olympique Lyon. “It was a conscious decision to go there. It wasn’t happening for me at Man United. I was more involved in defensive actions that in the attack. Now, I am free to perform my actions, which is my strength. I play on intuition, I can’t perform well with a list of chores on my back. But I do look for the balance and it’s getting better and better.”
When he’s confronted with his excellent stats this year, he frowns. “It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. I demand more. People say I’m too critical and I might be, but I know what I am able to do. I want to be the best. And I’m not, at the moment. But stats don’t tell the full story. I could play a disastrous match but still score twice. It doesn’t tell me too much. Look at our campaign to qualify for the World Cup: I scored three goals and had an assist in four matches. Decent stats. But I wanted to have more contribution than that. And I look in the mirror. It’s up to me to prove my worth also in Oranje.”
With Oranje, most people hope and expect that the mid 20 year old and older players will take the reigns: Blind, Wijnaldum, Strootman, De Vrij, Van dijk and – the only forward in the list- Memphis Depay. “I want to be important in this new stage. We need to create a more positive vibe around Oranje. We are in a tough spot now and we don’t have the quality we had – say – 7 or 4 years ago. We have lots of young players and we need the support. But I see glory for Oranje again. We will need to build a strong team and with the support of the nation, we can build something beautiful again.”