Think you know Memphis Depay? Think again

There’s a well-known story about Memphis Depay which some say encapsulates everything that went wrong in his one and only full year as a Manchester United player.

After coming on as a late substitute against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, he gave the ball away cheaply and allowed Diego Costa to equalise for a late 1-1 draw. Depay was dropped to the reserves. The very next evening, he made his way to Old Trafford to play in a second-string fixture against Norwich City and arrived in his Rolls-Royce.

This was taken as cast-iron proof that the previous summer’s much-hyped £25m signing from PSV Eindhoven was a typically ostentatious young footballer out of touch with supporters, insensitive to their concerns about United’s struggles under Louis van Gaal and not particularly bothered by his difficult first season in the Premier League.

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Exactly what make and model would have been acceptable to drive to a reserve game – played at the first team’s stadium, remember – is unclear. Perhaps Memphis should’ve rented a Ford Ka especially for the occasion, or just called a taxi? Could things have turned out very differently for him at United if he had bought a £4.50 dayrider and hopped off the 250 at John Gilbert Way? We’ll never know.

If that vignette is to be considered part of his Old Trafford story, a few other facts are worth remembering too.

Memphis arrived as a 21-year-old with potential to develop into one of European football’s best wide forwards, yet with much still to learn about his game and more still to refine. In Van Gaal, he worked under a manager who believed in his abilities – having included him in the Netherlands’ 2014 World Cup squad – but who was also wedded to a slow, patient possession-based style which was anathema to those talents.

Memphis’ year in Manchester thus coincided with arguably the most insipid and directionless football of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. It was hardly fertile ground for a player of his skillset. He was then given next to no opportunities to impress by Van Gaal’s successor Jose Mourinho, who trusted him to play 55 minutes in an EFL Cup third round tie against Northampton Town and little more.

To many in English football, that is where the story ends. Memphis is considered a failure, like others who have been blinded by the spotlight after signing for one of the Premier League’s top clubs. But there is no better rebuttal to the memory of Memphis’ time at United than his renaissance with Olympique Lyonnais, who he will lead out against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals on Saturday night.

This is a very different Memphis. For starters, he mostly plays as a centre-forward now and he is just as adept at holding the ball up and bringing team-mates into play as he is scoring goals himself. He still plays with a certain swagger – which is necessary if you are going to score a Panenka away to Juventus, as he did in their round-of-16 second leg last Friday night – but there is a maturity and a selflessness too.

His record of 54 goals in 136 appearances for Lyon is thus made all the more impressive by 43 assists. Over his three full seasons on the Rhone, he has invariably been among the very best in Ligue 1 for non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes. Only a contingent of Paris Saint-Germain players – Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Angel di Maria – can compare to Memphis’ productivity over that period.

And since the arrival of Rudi Garcia as manager at the Stade de Lyon last autumn, he has been entrusted with the captain’s armband. His leadership skills were almost immediately put to the test when the club’s ultras turned on defender Marcelo after qualification from the Champions League group stages was secured, brandishing a banner with a cartoon donkey on it urging the Brazilian to leave.

Memphis confronted the fan wielding the banner, attempting to wrestle it from his hands but not overstepping the mark. It was anger, but controlled anger, and despite the air of civil war around the incident, nobody could accuse the club captain of either shirking responsibility or failing to defend his team-mate. “He’s a real captain, and he’s acted and spoken like a captain,” Garcia said.

Quite how long he will remain in Lyon is unclear. He is 26-years-old, only just entering his peak years, and his contract has less than 12 months to run. The window is closing on that career at the top of European football as one of its most dynamic and devastating attacking players but it is still possible. Borussia Dortmund are one club thought to be keeping an eye on him given United’s interest in their own Jadon Sancho.

And so, as United hope to welcome a new No 7 to follow the lineage of Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Eric Cantona and George Best, another continues to rebuild his career away from Old Trafford. For some, whatever he achieves, he will be remembered as a player who simply did not have what it takes to cut it in English football. Though if he guides Lyon to the semi-finals on Saturday night, eliminating City in the process, that could change very quickly.

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