How Manchester United Can Restore Memphis Depay to Peak Form

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How Manchester United Can Restore Memphis Depay to Peak Form
Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
Memphis in action for United.

Memphis Depay was brought on as a substitute as Manchester United played Sunderland on Saturday and turned in another unconvincing performance. However, he has shown both in the Dutch league and for the Netherlands national team that he is a genuine talent.

With the right kind of coaching and the right application, he could still prove a good long-term investment for United in spite of his thoroughly disappointing first season.

While fans may be disappointed with his output, the potential seems hard to doubt. Memphis was top of France Football's list of the top 50 young players in Europe in July 2015 (h/t the Independent). Cristiano Ronaldo named him as one of the most promising youngsters in Europe in a November 2015 interview with BT Sport (h/t the Mirror).

Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Memphis celebrates a Champions League goal against his former club, PSV Eindhoven.

As most football fans will know by now, he was bought by United following a highly successful season in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, where he scored 22 league goals, at an average of 0.8 per 90 minutes of football. Just two of those came from the penalty spot. 

He had established himself as a set-piece specialist from outside of the area, scoring eight free-kicks. And he was an ever-present threat during counter-attacks, picking up the ball on the left flank, cutting inside and shooting.

Memphis did well during the 2014 World Cup, scoring twice for Louis van Gaal's Netherlands side, suggesting he was not just a flat-track bully from the Dutch league.

However it was almost immediately clear that his transition to the Premier League would be a bumpy one. During pre-season, Van Gaal played him behind Wayne Rooney in an unfamiliar No. 10 role. Perhaps the manager was looking to reduce the defensive burden on Memphis.

After all, he planned to set up his team in a 4-2-3-1, rather than the out-and-out 4-3-3 Memphis was used to.

That plan lasted one game into the season. Van Gaal played his new signing at No. 10 against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, and he clearly struggled. He was dispossessed six times as he tried to hold on to the ball too long, seemingly fazed by how little time and space he was afforded by the intensity of the Premier League.

This pattern continued even after he was moved out to the left, where he has played ever since.

It was initially possible to hope that Memphis would adapt quickly and realise that he would have to make quicker and more direct use of the ball than he had been used to. However, that transition has been slow to come. There have been glimpses, though, that he is more likely to make a direct run and then release the ball either as a shot or a pass.

This was evident against Sheffield United, when Memphis' arrival into the game made a real difference, and he won the penalty that won United the tie. He made a positive difference again when coming on against Newcastle United, making a key pass and further enlivening United's attack. 

These cameos, though, are nowhere near enough.

Memphis' form is one of many reasons Van Gaal should have switched to a more attacking 4-3-3 long ago. With Memphis on the left of that formation, with perhaps Anthony Martial in the centre and Adnan Januzaj on the right, United would have a fluid and dynamic attack.

United's generally stodgy attack has been both a function of Memphis' lacklustre performances and a causal factor in those performances.

His tendency to be wasteful with his final product—he is taking an average of 3.4 shots per 90 minutes in the league but scoring an average of just 0.2 goals with them—has disrupted United's fluency on plenty of occasions.

OLI SCARFF/Getty Images
Memphis shoots against Sunderland.

On the other hand, it is hard for a dynamic inside forward to make a difference when neither the use of the ball nor the off-the-ball movement of his fellow forwards is effective at creating space. For Memphis to significantly improve, United will have to significantly improve.

Martial's arrival has caused Memphis a big problem, both in the sense that the Frenchman is currently playing ahead of him in his favoured position, and in the sense that a young player has arrived and made an immediate impact.

The Dutchman will have to hope that his trajectory is similar to Luke Shaw's before his serious injury and that he adapts in his second season.

There is a catch-22 situation here, though. Memphis needs game time to improve, but United cannot afford any passengers. Shifting Martial to the right flank to accommodate him seems a huge mistake given how effective the France international has been on the left, while Rooney remains seemingly undroppable.

Something will have to give. Memphis will have to demonstrate a fierce level of commitment to overcome his current difficulties. Given the talent he showed before his arrival at United, a new manager may well be able to get more out of him.

Jon Super/Associated Press
Van Gaal and Memphis at the player's unveiling.

The right kind of man management is crucial, and perhaps Memphis and Van Gaal are simply not a good match at club level. After all, he is hardly the only United forward to struggle under the current manager.

What is needed is a change in system to 4-3-3, a change in manager to one better equipped to motivate and develop Memphis, and a little good fortune—that's how he'll get his chance in the first team and take it. That will hopefully be the recipe for success for United's No. 7.

All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.

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