Why Memphis Depay Will Be Manchester United's X-Factor in Second Half of Season

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2016

Memphis wins the crucial penalty against Sheffield United.
Memphis wins the crucial penalty against Sheffield United.Jon Super/Associated Press

Memphis Depay has endured a relatively indifferent start to his Manchester United career, but there have been signs of late that more may be about to come from the 21-year-old. If the recent trajectory continues, perhaps Memphis will be able to be the X-factor in the rest of the Red Devils' season.

An X-factor in this case means having something special and providing some sort of spark. It means adding something a little intangible, and perhaps a little surprising.

Whereas Anthony Martial was an easy choice for player to watch in the year ahead, there were more options here.

First of all, Martial himself, the very embodiment of an X-factor, providing magic and colour where all has been banal and grey around him. However, he got his due in the player-to-watch shout, so someone else is needed.

David De Gea is the United player who best meets the "having something special" criteria. The goalkeeper did not need to be at his brilliant best to save many of the shots Liverpool hit at him on Saturday, but he was awarded man of the match nonetheless.

He is the United player the club can least afford to lose, the one who most clearly threatens the starting lineup in a World XI. After the past couple of years neither fans nor opposition players will be in the least bit surprised about that.

There are fringe players worthy of consideration too, Andreas Pereira—consistently the most exciting substitute to watch warm up thanks to his pre-match routine of tricks and flicks, but he is rarely included in the starting XI, or even brought on as a sub.

His displays of ability in the under-21s have only very sporadically been rewarded with first-team football.

Adnan Januzaj is back at the club, but having been sent on loan by Louis van Gaal after a couple of attempts to impress in the first team, it is hard to say with confidence how much involvement he will have. He might be the next-best choice for player to provide an X-factor, though.

Which brings us to Memphis, the No. 1 choice here.

He arrived amid plenty of expectation. He had been talismanic for PSV Eindhoven as he scored 22 goals during his final season at the club, helping to win them the Eredivisie title.

He has struggled to replicate anything like that form during his first half a season in England. While his shirt became one of the biggest sellers in the early part of the season, per Sky Sports, his popularity has slumped somewhat, and when he was substituted against PSV at Old Trafford it was only the travelling supporters who sang his name.

Memphis, frustrated during the loss to Wolfsburg.
Memphis, frustrated during the loss to Wolfsburg.Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

Too many runs into blind alleys, too many wrong decisions with the ball and too many wild shots from distance—that has been the take on Memphis.

And yet it is very early days for the Dutchman's Old Trafford career and his time in the Netherlands and with the national team have clearly shown he has potential. Of late there have just been a couple of hints that he is starting to adapt to the Premier League.

He has made substitute appearances in United's last three games. The most notable of these was against Sheffield United. His opening gambit in that appearance was to cut inside and shoot from distance.

The Red Devils had been so dire before that moment, Memphis received an ironic standing ovation for his attempts, the irony not aimed at him but at the lack of attacking endeavour previously on show.

He then won the penalty that earned safe passage for his club through to the next round of the FA Cup and it was that incident which most spoke to his potential to be an X-factor.

It is not quite working yet for Memphis at Old Trafford, but his locker is brimming over with the kind of trickery and incision that can really make a difference to a tight game.

United really need a player capable of unlocking deep-lying, compact defences and that really should be Memphis. Against Sheffield United, it was.

Memphis celebrates his Champions League goal for United away at PSV.
Memphis celebrates his Champions League goal for United away at PSV.Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Of course, Sheffield United are League One opposition, but the brightness Memphis added to that game was certainly transferable to a higher level.

If he can harness that, if he can show he has come to terms with the differences between the Eredivisie and the Premier League, he could still be a vital X-factor in the rest of United's season.