How Memphis Depay's Sensational Form Could Lead to a Premier League Return
It's beginning to look like Memphis Depay may prove his Premier League doubters wrong.
Sent packing from Manchester United, he landed in Ligue 1 in a cut-price deal designed to rebuild his confidence and resurrect his form.
From a £31 million beacon of hope under Louis van Gaal to a hopeful £16 million punt from Lyon, last weekend the Dutchman rounded off the French season by proving there is plenty of life left in him.
A marvellous hat-trick against OGC Nice sent Lyon through to next season's Champions League and cemented his place as a club hero.
But now that he's back in business, you have to wonder whether it will lead to another big move.
Jose Mourinho admitted in January that United and Depay could one day be reunited, amid reports the Reds have a buy-back option on him.
But would that make sense for a player who looked so out-of-sorts during his short stay at Old Trafford?
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
In the just-completed season, the 24-year-old forward scored 19 goals and weighed in with 13 assists, ending the campaign as Lyon's top goalscorer.
On paper it seems United failed to get the best from him, but dig a little deeper and his time in Ligue 1 has not been without its problems.
"The second part of the season last year was not great," Thibaud, a fan who runs the Lyondoners page, told B/R. "In terms of stats it was good, but in terms of football not so much. He was often forgetting his team-mates, losing the ball ... it was quite frustrating.
"It was the same for the first few months of the season—he even ended up left out of the group for a game at some point because the coach [Bruno Genesio] was sick of his individualism."
Does that sound familiar, United fans? It should. Depay's critics in France had pretty much the same complaints as his detractors in the Premier League. The difference this time is that he managed to win everybody over.
The Pressure of United
At times he had looked a world-beater with PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, but he had also been given far more time and space to line up shots and tee up chances for others.
At United, he discovered a different tempo that would reduce his number of goalscoring chances. He never got to grips with the division. Depay scored seven goals and recorded six assists from 53 matches in Manchester red. By the midway stage of Mourinho's first season in charge, his time had come to leave.
He settled slowly at Lyon, after being allowed to leave for half the price United had initially stumped up, but France legend Robert Pires told bwin (h/t The Sun) earlier this month United would rue the day they sold him.
"He struggled at Manchester United because it is difficult to change country and enter a new club, a new language and a new environment at such a young age," he said. "I think Manchester United made a mistake when they sold him, and they could regret it."
But United always knew of the raw talent hidden in Depay's quick feet. And as he began to make a name for himself in French football for the right reasons, Mourinho opened up on the fact it was being touted they had included a buy-back option in his transfer to Lyon.
It is, in fact, wrong to word the clause that way—such an agreement is considered illegal in France. But United do have first refusal to buy him.
In simple terms: If anyone makes an offer for him, United have to be given the chance to match it.
"Potentially he's a very good player," Mourinho said in 2017. "We all wish him to play very, very well at Lyon and why not come back because everyone here likes him."
Relighting the Fire
"Since January he's been on fire," Lyon fan Thibaud explained.
"Unselfish, always trying to help the team. ... He was left on the bench for a few weeks and had a very good attitude to change—he became our best player of the season, alongside Nabil Fekir."
A good attitude? Interesting. Some United fans often felt this was not the case at their club—but sources close to Mourinho state he did have a decent attitude when it came to his work on the training field and that it was one of his strongest reasons to believe Depay would bounce back from being sold.
Nathan Staples, a French football expert for The GFFN Show, gave further insight to the impressive mentality that has driven Depay back into the bracket of elite players.
"He has had more influence in the second part of the season at least partly due to a spell out of the team," he said. "Before the winter break he was his ever-inconsistent self, but coach Bruno Genesio dropped him after a number of anonymous displays.
"He recovered, played again, but as soon as he dipped again he was out of the team. It seemingly lit a fire under him.
"He's been less selfish, and slowly regained confidence. He once again has the swagger we saw at PSV—but this time he looks to have been grounded by that time on the sidelines."
His return has also been driven by a position change, as described by Dutch fan Michael Bell of Football-Oranje.
"He is playing through the middle and flourishing in the role," he says. "I think he has also matured—he's no longer picking the ball up and thinking straight away about a shot. He has been coached well.
"I think we are seeing the real Memphis now."
Is He Mario Balotelli-Like or the Next Mo Salah?
With plaudits coming from every angle, Depay seems happy again.
"I think Memphis Depay has a bit of Balotelli in him. He's best suited to being the best player in a good team as opposed to an average player in a very good team," journalist Robin Bairner tweeted after the hat-trick that ensured his season ended with a bang.
His comparison to Balotelli seems fair—but also a release of pressure has given him the time, space and freedom in his mind to plot how he can get back to his best form.
It would be no surprise for fresh rumours to crop up over a return to United, with that first-refusal option likely to come in handy if any other club takes a punt on trying to sign him.
But insiders insist Mourinho isn't looking to bring him back to Old Trafford, because he still would not be able to trust the forward. Sell Anthony Martial and re-sign Depay? It's not exactly the sign of new intent United are looking for right now.
"Depay was popular with the younger demographic because he was a winger who wore the No. 7, so he was an exotic signing," Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News said.
"It's not a surprise he is excelling at Lyon, but maybe that's his ceiling. He had the opportunity of a lifetime at United and let it slip."
Lyon now seems the perfect place to continue his renaissance, particularly as he can even take on new pressure and responsibility next term if Fekir moves on.
And after another good year in France, perhaps he will be ready for another transfer.
Depay will watch the Champions League final this weekend and see a man named Mo Salah, the PFA Footballer of the Year, attempting to inspire his Liverpool side to glory.
It took Salah a second attempt to crack English football—maybe Depay is building towards a return mission of his own.