In June 2015 Manchester United announced the signing of Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven for a reported fee of £31 million, at the age of 21 Depay said; ‘This is a dream come true for me, a new chapter in my life and one that I am looking forward to’, as reported by BBC Sport.
Things could not have looked better for the youngster, he had been brought to the club by Louis Van Gaal, a manager he had played under for his national team of the Netherlands, and he was seemingly ready to take the next step in his career.
In his first season at the club Depay made 45 appearances across all competitions, scoring seven goals and getting six assists. While these stats are not abysmal, it is safe to say United fans were hoping for more from a player who cost £31 million and came with a big reputation.
Things unfortunately went from bad to worse for the winger after the sacking of Louis van Gaal in May of 2016, mere days after securing the FA Cup for United, as reported by BBC Sport. United hired manager Jose Mourinho, a serial winner, but a manager known for putting his trust in veteran players instead of youth, players such as Depay had reason to be concerned.
Under Mourinho, Depay only played a total of 134 minutes across all competitions, this was nowhere near enough time for the attacker to prove his ability and the player made no attacking returns during this time.
It was clear that the manager had no interest in Depay, so when it was announced in January of 2017 that Depay had been sold to French side Lyon for a fee that could rise to £21.7 million, as reported by Sky Sports, it was no surprise for United fans. The young Dutchman’s time and United had come to a disappointing end.
In the remainder of the 2016/17 season, Depay made an impact at Lyon, making 18 appearances, scoring five goals and getting eight assists. Already, Depay had matched the amount of attacking contributions he made in 18 months at United in under six months in Ligue 1.
Of course, it must be noted here that Ligue 1 is a much slower league than the Premier League, and for an expressive winger like Depay, this tempo can highlight the strengths of their game while failing to expose their weaknesses.
Players who have failed to make an impact in the Premier League have gone to the French league and looked like world beaters, such as United flop Angel Di Maria.
In the following season, however, Depay came into his own, making 51 appearances across all competitions, scoring 22 goals and getting 17 assists. He was the talisman of a Lyon side that finished third in the league that season, being their top goal scorer and assister in the league with 19 goals and 13 assists. Depay had seemingly found his feet and was fulfilling his potential.
The winger maintained steady numbers in his next three seasons at the club, and in his final season for the club in 2020/21 Depay scored 22 goals and 12 assists in 40 appearances. Once again, this season, the winger finished as Lyons top goal scorer and top assister in the league, with 20 goals and 12 assists respectively.
It seemed as though Depay had done all he could in France, he had proven the player he can be when given the room to grow and express himself, something we has not given towards the end of this time at United.
In the summer of 2021, after developing his game in France, it was announced that Depay would sign for Spanish giant Barcelona, with his contract at Lyon coming to an end. This was the move that the winger had been waiting for, a big club in a tough league and regular Champions League football to match the performances he had consistently been putting in at Lyon.
After the departure of talisman Lionel Messi in the summer of 2021, immense responsibility had landed on the shoulders of Depay, however, he seems to be dealing with the pressure much better than he did as a youngster at United, scoring five goals and having two assists to his name already across all competitions.
For United fans, it is a bittersweet sight to see Depay succeed at a club like Barcelona, it proves that the young winger their club signed in 2015 could have blossomed into a crucial player for the club if he had been given the time to bed into a tough league.
The Dutchman now mainly plays as a centre forward, a position United have filled with ageing, but elite strikers, in Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani. Perhaps, in time, Depay would have proven a better investment than Anthony Martial, who is still at the club and plays in the same positions but has not fulfilled his potential since signing in the same summer as Depay.
Depay seems to be a case of right player, wrong time. Had he signed for Lyon from PSV instead of making the huge jump at such a young age to a club as big as United, he could still be at the club today and making an impact. Instead, United fans can be happy to see a former player succeed at the top level, even if his form begs the question, ‘what if?’.
Written by Jennifer McCord