Why Memphis Depay's future at Man United still looks bleak - but would he have been better off at Liverpool?
Manchester United play Liverpool on Monday and one player who will be on the periphery of the action could be forgiven for wondering if his experience of English football so far might have turned out differently had he opted to move to Merseyside and not Old Trafford.
Memphis Depay’s £25 million transfer to United last year was viewed very much as a coup for the Manchester club and a setback for Liverpool at the time.
United fans felt confident they had finally landed a player who would prove the antidote to the succession of flimsy wide players whose failings had only deepened the hurt of losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid just as the Portugal forward was entering his prime.
Conversely, Liverpool supporters were ruing missing out on a player who seemed an ideal replacement for the Manchester City bound Raheem Sterling.
Eighteen months on, opinions are rather different. Depay has fallen so far down the pecking order at Old Trafford that it is hard to see a route back for the Dutchman. However well he continues to apply himself going forward, and while some might argue his decision to reject Liverpool was his sliding doors moment, there are no guarantees the outlook would have been any different had he pitched up at Anfield instead.
After all, the man who tried to sign him for Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, was out of the door less than six months later and any United or Dutch observer who has watched Depay drift through games on those occasions he has played would be well within their rights to question if this mercurial 22-year-old is an appropriate fit for Jurgen Klopp’s brand of intense, heavy metal football.
Perhaps Klopp could have reinvigorated Depay in a way Pep Guardiola has Raheem Sterling at City, perhaps with his speed and build Depay could flourish under the right coach in a system that places a premium on pressing from the front but that is a moot point now.
From being a first choice pick under Louis van Gaal at the start of last season following his move from PSV Eindhoven, Depay has been on a gradual downward spiral ever since, culminating last season in his omission from United’s 18-man squad for the FA Cup final triumph over Crystal Palace and an increasing sense of alienation since Jose Mourinho took charge.
With rising star Marcus Rashford and new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead of him, not to mention Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, on those occasions the Spaniard is shifted wide, Depay’s prospects of playing are slimmer than ever and Wayne Rooney’s demotion to the substitutes’ bench has merely created another obstacle.
Sympathy with Depay’s plight will be in short supply in some quarters. His attitude and application were openly questioned last season and too often he was a source of frustration among team-mates.
His erratic decision-making on the pitch was likened to Nani’s maddening tendencies during his time at Old Trafford of holding on to the ball too long or overplaying and there was concern that, no matter how many times he was told, the message would not get through.
It was also felt he drew too much attention to himself off the field, not just with his choice of clothing but once arriving for training in a brand new £250,000 Rolls Royce only weeks after being urged to keep a lower profile and knuckle down.
Few will forget Holland coach Danny Blind’s critique of Depay last year, when he claimed the player was guilty of “not always” functioning in the team and had to learn how to. Is that starting to change? The indications are that, under Mourinho, Depay has been training well, working hard and showing more maturity. The irony is that, despite an improved attitude, he is further away from the first team than ever. As one source said: “His work ethic has been good but look what he’s got to get past to get in the side”.
Mourinho has certainly made the right noises in public about Depay. “You can see him driving a nice car and you think this guy is not thinking about football but that is not the case,” the United manager said last month. “The kid thinks about football, the kid suffers because he is frustrated with what happened last season where he lost all his confidence. But he will be back.”
It is just hard to know how or when. Depay’s season has amounted to 12 minutes in the Premier League and just one start, against Northampton Town in the EFL Cup, when he was withdrawn after 55 taxing minutes.
When he came on in the Europa League against Feyenoord, he looked hopelessly short of the sharpness on the ball that comes with playing. The situation has been compounded by United’s indifferent start to the campaign, with Mourinho opting to play fuller strength sides in games he envisaged being able to use his fringe players.