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Memphis Depay: The number seven that got away

On the 19th May 2018, Memphis Depay, the one-time Manchester United winger scored a hat-trick in his side, Lyon’s 3-2 victory over Nice. It was a victory which secured Lyon’s place in next season’s UEFA Champions League as they finished in the final qualifying spot, a single point ahead of Marseille. These goals also ensured that Memphis, as he prefers to be called, finished as Lyon’s top goal-scorer for 2017-18 with 22 goals in all competitions.

Memphis’s performances in 2017-18 awakened memories of his outstanding 2014-15 season with PSV Eindhoven, wherein he also finished as top goal-scorer, for the entire league, not just his club, as he assisted PSV in winning their first Eredivisie title in seven years. Memphis was one of the most exciting prospects in Europe and generated interest throughout the continent’s biggest clubs.

On the 12th June 2015, Manchester United announced his signing, for a fee of approximately £25 million. He was a United fan’s dream player – arrogant, dynamic and a scorer of fabulous goals. Memphis had the ego United fans love. Not one to be overawed, he chose to wear the iconic number seven shirt, previously worn by such legendary United stars as George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was a commercial dream for Ed Woodward and the Glazer family, as it became the third highest selling shirt in World Football behind only multiple Ballon d’Or winners, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. United saw the then-21-year-old as an exciting prospect with his peak ahead of him. Memphis demonstrated his dynamic skills with a stunning brace of goals in United’s Champions League play-off round fixture at Old Trafford, in a 3-1 victory over Belgium’s Club Brugge.

He instantly put together an exciting partnership on the left flank with left full back, Luke Shaw. This was derailed, however, on the 15th September 2015, in United’s first fixture in the Champions League proper against Memphis’s former employer, PSV. In a match in which Memphis also scored, Shaw suffered a devastating double leg fracture which side-lined him for the rest of the season. Without Shaw behind him, Memphis’s form tailed off and despite scoring the opener in a 3-0 win over Sunderland on the 26th September, he soon found himself out of the team.

Memphis was given a rare reprieve amidst a United injury crisis and was chosen to start the league game against Watford on the 21st November. Memphis repaid the faith with a goal in a 2-1 win but the rest of his performance was mixed. He was constantly amidst the action but looked like he was trying too hard to impress. United manager Louis Van Gaal was unmoved and Memphis did not win back a regular starting berth for the remainder of the season.

Hopes were high during summer 2016 that Memphis would re-discover the form that convinced United to sign him a year earlier, with Jose Mourinho now installed as manager. It wasn’t to be. Memphis played just 20 minutes of Premier League football under his new manager and requested a move in the January 2017 transfer window. What was clear, however, is that Mourinho, despite not selecting Memphis for the majority of his match day squads did see potential in the Dutch star, as evidenced by the insertion of a buy-back clause in his Lyon contract.

Memphis’s spell at Lyon demonstrates the talent is still there. Two months after signing for the French club, he awakened memories of another former United number seven with a stunning strike from the half way line versus Toulouse. Inevitably drawing comparisons with Beckham’s 1996 wonder goal against Wimbledon, in a respectful touch, Memphis when asked about the comparison played it down, believing he could not compare with such a legend.

With a more mature head on his shoulders Memphis is now delivering week in and week out. So much so, if reports are to be believed, he is attracting interest from seven-time European Champions, AC Milan, which would be a fourth country’s league in as many years he could gain experience competing in. It makes Memphis an attractive proposition for a return to United down the road. If he continues this rich vein of form with other top European clubs, he could become a superstar for years to come. He is still only 24 years old.

It is easy to wonder now whether Mourinho should have given the young winger more opportunities in 2016-17. Had he stuck with him, United might well have been more effective on the flanks last season, preventing the need to dip into the transfer market for a winger this summer as they also did last summer when Mourinho unsuccessfully pursued Inter Milan wide man, Ivan Perisic.

It’s no secret United are in desperate need of wide players, as evidenced by their continual chopping and changing of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard who were deployed on each wing during 2017-18 to decidedly mixed success. Should Mourinho have refused Memphis’s transfer request in January 2017? Probably not. Memphis wanted to leave and his confidence was low after his United tenure turned sour. His subsequent regeneration at Lyon has been a joy to watch.

Besides, Mourinho may have done United a favour. If Memphis should one day return as a result of the contract clause, he would undoubtedly be welcomed back with open arms. He is still well-regarded by the club and fan-base. He would return as a much more consistent and experienced player. Memphis’s 2017-18 performances show he could be considered as the number seven that got away. Perhaps though with that buy-back clause, this prodigious talent could yet fulfill his potential as a modern-day United legend.

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