Memphis Depay isn’t ‘finding his level’, he’s just playing with freedom

In Depth

Memphis Depay may be doing for Lyon what he failed to do for Manchester United, but the quality of some of the goals he’s scored in France proves this isn’t just a case of a footballer ‘finding his level’.

The concept of a footballer ‘finding his level’ might have begun as the sport’s equivalent of letting someone down gently, but it’s become a means of a cheap dig at a player or a club, to the point of the original thrust of the phrase becoming secondary.

It’s an argument we have seen with Wilfried Zaha, thriving at Crystal Palace several years after a variety of factors contributed to his Manchester United career never taking off, and the same is being said about another United ‘flop’ in Memphis Depay.

To accuse a player of finding his level – and it often is framed as an accusation – is to assume his level has remained the same while those around him give him more change from a skillset which was unable to penetrate defences at a higher level.

While there’s a debate to be had here over more tangible aspects of a player’s game, such as goal tallies, it’s trickier when dealing with a player like Memphis.

Since joining Lyon he has scored more, sure, but he has also been trying things he wouldn’t have even considered towards the end of his time in Manchester.

Some may point to a failure to contend with the increased pressure at his former club, rather than a step-up in quality associated with English football, but to do so almost rules out the idea that he’s simply improving as a footballer.

It’s easy to forget he was just 20 years old when he embarked on a stunning 28-goal season for PSV Eindhoven, and that this year’s double-figure tally for his French employers could be viewed as a delayed continuation from which there is more to come.

Still just 24 years of age, he will have a chance to show off more of his abilities against CSKA Moscow in the Europa League this week…and we should absolutely be paying close attention.

Flicking a switch

Memphis undoubtedly struggled in Manchester, with those struggles exacerbated when José Mourinho replaced Louis van Gaal, and at times he seemed to be playing scared.

However, a switch was flicked early on following his move to France, in a way we can probably attribute to the presence of a manager prepared to trust him and accept he had plenty more to offer.

It feels as though there’s absolutely no way his second goal against Toulouse last season could have happened in England – not because he lacked the precision, or because of the quality of goalkeeper, but because he wouldn’t have even attempted a strike from that distance.

It takes some player, and some level of confidence, to check for the goalkeeper’s position while hovering around the centre circle and turning away from goal.

To do so, and then to keep Alban Lafont in his sights throughout his rotation, is the sign of a player confident enough to see every moment of every game as an audition for the part of leading man.

When the finish arrives, it isn’t even a chip as such. If it’s possible to sweep a shot into the back of the net from 50 yards, this is what it looks like.

Doing it again

Obviously it’s one thing to score a great goal with your team 3-0 up against unthreatening opponents, but Memphis’ winner against Paris Saint-Germain in January shows last season’s impressive start was no fluke.

With Alexandre Lacazette departing over the summer, Lyon’s success this season was always likely to depend on bigger contributions from a broader range of players, and that victory over PSG demonstrates the shared quality needed to keep Bruno Génésio’s side in the Champions League mix despite a recent dip in form.

Nabil Fekir might be the top scorer, and his free-kick in that game might have been particularly eye-catching, but it was Memphis who provided a moment as stunning as it was clutch.

As with the goal against Toulouse, it feels as though the ball is in the net before Memphis even takes his first touch, despite there being so much left to do.

He gives Alphonse Areola two options: either dive for something you can’t reach, embarrassing yourself in the process, or just stay there and enjoy the view.

The PSG man is left in a zugzwang situation, where either decision not only makes him look bad but also leaves Memphis looking that much better – ultimately he opts to sacrifice a goal while retaining his pride, and it speaks to the quality of the strike that this is the lesser of two evils.

To leave any goalkeeper in such a lose-lose position, let alone the man between the sticks for the league leaders, is the sign of a great player with a spring in his step.

To do so in the 95th minute of a tense, high-quality game points to someone playing with no fear whatsoever.

Still on the big stage

While we will never know for certain whether Memphis would have been capable of pushing on at Manchester United in a different era, the combination of managerial changes and a failure to settle suggests he always needed to move.

However, we shouldn’t look at his Lyon success merely as the sign of someone dropping down a level and taking the easy route out.

The pressures at Lyon are different, but he is still playing in front of huge and partisan crowds, who will undoubtedly let him know if he’s not pulling his weight.

There’s nothing he’d like more than to lead Lyon to Europa League glory, triumphing in the competition his former team-mates won in his absence last May, and victory on Thursday would bring him one step closer.

Just because Memphis didn’t succeed at Manchester United doesn’t mean he can never reach that level.

He is furthering his development in France, taking the next step after the PSV breakthrough – it has just taken a little longer than he might have hoped.

By Tom Victor

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