Is Memphis Depay already a Manchester United flop?
Published 15/01/2016 | 13:51
Manchester United paid £25million for Memphis Depay in the summer. A player of extraordinary potential, he was signed to light up United's left wing; to bring flair, excitement and pace to an attack which at times last season looked entirely bereft of creativity and urgency.
But since that move from PSV, Memphis has been worryingly underwhelming and the Manchester United board must be concerned. Other than a couple of flashes of skill here and there, he has provided very little evidence that he is capable of establishing himself as the heir to the hallowed number seven shirt - two Premier League goals and zero assists in 16 appearances is not the kind of return anyone predicted.
Players of a similar age - Raheem Sterling, Anthony Martial, Harry Kane, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku - have worked hard to establish themselves as Premier League quality. Martial, like Memphis, has had to adjust to the demands of English top flight football but he has made an instant impression at Old Trafford and become the club's top scorer despite being shunted out to the wing for the majority of the season.
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So why has Memphis struggled to adapt? Big things were expected of the Dutchman after a stellar season in Holland and he seemed to start quite well. The goal against his former club PSV in the Champions League, where quick feet took two defenders out of the game on the way to goal, gave us a glimpse of his talent but since then, Memphis has actually been more of a liability in this side.
There are murmurs that the club are unhappy with a lot of his behaviour off the pitch but it is his actions on it which are most concerning, particularly in the defensive side of his game. Some players can get away with not doing their defensive duties if they are consistently performing well at the other end of the pitch, but it is clear that Memphis' goal return and contribution to play has been nowhere near this level.
Memphis's lazy attempts to defend against Newcastle mean Van Gaal will be reluctant to pick him in United's game against Liverpool this weekend. He is a luxury United cannot afford against a team that harries opponents like Jurgen Klopp's side did against Arsenal.
You can point to a collective failure by United to defend at Newcastle rather than pick fault with one player but in the 16 league games Memphis has played this season, United have kept only one clean sheet.
Coming on after 64 minutes against Newcastle, Memphis should have been one of the most energetic players on the pitch as the game was drawing to a close. Instead he was found wandering around the left wing, neglecting his defensive duties either through positional naivety or, worse, a lack of effort.
At this stage of the game, tracking Daryl Janmaat on his constant overlaps down the right should have been his primary focus in order to help the team defend their narrow lead away to a team riding a wave of momentum.
The last minute equalising goal came as a result of Newcastle pressure, but is arguably Memphis' fault. First he makes a half-hearted attempt to close down Wijnaldum in the centre of the pitch. He then looks exasperated at the sky and jogs back. His teammates sprint.
Wijnaldum and Sissoko hold position, like midfielders should, but nobody tracks them.
Memphis should be either tight on an opponent, or defending a key area of the pitch. In this situation, Darmian has to deal with Janmaat as a result of Memphis not tracking the full-back, and the team loses shape
The cross comes into the box and still Memphis waits on the fringes, hoping to receive a pass. This is fine if you have been told to do a Messi/Ronaldo job and conserve your energy for attacking sprints, but the team is desperately trying to hold on to a lead here and the unmarked Newcastle players on the edge of the box are clear for all to see.
Memphis realises he should probably get back and tries to shield the ball out of play having nicked it from Sissoko but is not alert to the danger at all.
He is nowhere near strong enough to hold off the attentions of Newcastle's number seven, and Sissoko wins the ball back easily. He finds Janmaat, who crosses into the box, and Smalling can only head the ball to the edge of the box. Cue Dummett.
Having lost the ball in a crucial area of the pitch in the 90th minute instead of just getting it away or passing it to Fellaini (to be fair, that's never the best option), Memphis jogs slowly back to his attacking position on the left wing.
While doing this he watches Paul Dummett charge all the way from left back to take his chance and smash the equalising goal past David De Gea.
Van Gaal may have been criticised for making his team boring, but he knows that the key to winning titles is to defend well and setting his players up to do this well has been his primary focus. The problem for Memphis is that when he is on the pitch this does not happen - he is a liability defensively and either hasn't learned since the start of the season, doesn't want to defend or is completely devoid of the confidence a flair player needs to play his natural game.
Memphis came on midway through the second half of that game and set up Marouane Fellaini for a point blank header, which the Belgian missed, and also cut inside from the right to shoot and accidentally set up Wayne Rooney's power strike second.
But he only got on at all after young Jesse Lingard (an academy graduate preferred to the £25million signing) spurned a glorious chance early in the second half.
A straight swap on the left wing, Memphis began trying to do what he's meant to be best at - running at full-backs and cutting inside for the shot - but while quick on the ball, he was lethargic off it. Newcastle had attacked down the left for the majority of the match but as soon as United took the lead and the momentum shifted back to the home side, those attacks started working.
The defence was left horribly exposed almost as soon as Lingard, whose workrate matched that of the excellent Anthony Martial on the right, left the pitch. United's defence became instantly more vulnerable with Memphis on the pitch.
It's a worrying trend. He was directly at fault for the opening goal against Stoke in December, severely underhitting a header back to De Gea and allowing Glen Johnson to run through on goal.
These things happen, and as evidenced by the 22 goals he scored in 30 Eredivisie games for PSV last season, defending isn't really Memphis' thing. It's still his job though and the lack of commitment, or bravery, in trying to close down Arnautovic's strike on the edge of the box in the same game resulted in Stoke's second; Memphis almost jumped out of the way of the shot.
Nobody wants to get hurt when they can avoid it and skilful players like Memphis are much better utilised further up the pitch, as he was in the Dutch league where he performed so well. But no team in the Premier League can afford to have a player not pulling his weight.
Perhaps Memphis does not quite understand his role in Van Gaal's tactics, perhaps those same tactics have been suffocating his creative style - whatever the reason for his poor form, it must frustrate teammates to watch Memphis walk back towards his own goal when others must sprint.
Memphis' talent and potential are clear but like another Manchester United number seven of the past, talent is nothing without hard work. Cristiano Ronaldo more than fulfilled his potential at Old Trafford and learned season by season what it takes to get better. Ronaldo is an exceptional player and one of the best of a generation - perhaps it is unfair to compare the two, and United had to make tactical changes to accomodate his attacking brilliance and his reluctance to defend.
But it was Ronaldo's dedication to improving that resulted in him becoming the player he is today; that knowledge he was not the finished article and the desire to complete that journey the driving force behind his rise to superstardom. Memphis has not shown anything to suggest that he shoud receive the same treatment a special talent like Ronaldo commanded.
Better players than Memphis have struggled to cope with the pressure at Manchester United but far less naturally talented players have made a career there through hard work and playing for the collective. If Memphis is to avoid being labelled a Manchester United flop like Nani - another player who never truly realised his potential - he must learn quickly that he is nowhere near his best yet and that the team must come first.
That number seven shirt carries a lot of weight but Memphis has a saving grace: time is on his side and he can still develop. The question is, for how long will the fans, his teammates and the manager wait?