Dr Memphis and Mr Depay: The Two Faces of Lyon’s Dutchman

There are many versions of Memphis. There is rapper Memphis and there is fashionista Memphis. Fernando Marçal once claimed there is even a pastor Memphis. Crucially, there also exists footballer Memphis – the most contentious version – or versions – of them all.

Cover: @Memphis on Twitter

Memphis Depay has somewhat of a troubled past and a bad-boy reputation to match. Two weeks before the 25-year-old led a young Dutch side into the Nations League final stage, crowning a path that he himself helped forge, headlines preferred to cherry pick stories from his autobiography about his past selling weed on Dutch streets.

It is not uncommon for players to make headlines, but Memphis’ outspoken nature puts him in the limelight far more than the average player. Sylvinho and Juninho had barely landed in Lyon before they had to start answering journalist questions about Memphis Depay’s recent comments.

His interviews at the end of the season exemplified his blunt honesty in his own regard as well as in others’. In an interview given to VoetbalPrimeur he admitted to struggling to find motivation in Lyon’s training. In yet another interview, this time with Algemeen Dagblad, he criticized the commitment of his teammates in training while deriding Lyon’s approach to training.

I get motivated during the competitions, but sometimes not during the training sessions.

Memphis Depay to VoetbalPrimeur – 2 June, 2019

Memphis’ comments are not necessarily untrue, nor unjustified. Earlier this season, Tanguy Ndombele admitted not liking defensive plays against smaller sides. When Mouctar Diakhaby and Maxime Gonalons left their boyhood club, they both exclaimed at the lack of intensity in Bruno Genesio‘s training methods when compared to their new routines.

Many supporters considered Memphis’ grievances petulant, but Juninho was far more clement. Reacting to the interviews, the Brazilian welcomed Memphis’ criticism, but acknowledged that perhaps his honesty was backroom talk better left in private.

Under other circumstances, Memphis’ comments might have been perceived differently even by supporters, but this season, his comments did not have the backing of his performances. His season was not a poor one by any standard, but his highs were interspersed among the many lows. As a result, his disapproval of his teammates’ commitment came off as paradoxical.

Yet far from Lyon, Memphis Depay holds a different status in his home country. He was one of the catalysts in the Netherlands’ bid for the Nations League, qualifying for the final stage at the expense of Germany and France. While Memphis struggled to impose himself in Lyon’s attack, Ronald Koeman has made him the centerpiece of the Netherlands’ team and an unrecognizable footballer from Lyon’s Memphis.

Memphis, the Tame French Lion

Lyon might not have had to struggle to get a podium finish with a more imposing Memphis, but without him, there might not even have been a podium finish. Since joining Lyon, Memphis has scored in 29 different matches, and Lyon lost none of them, drawing only 3. A good Memphis is good for Lyon, but this season, goals have been scarcer than usual in Lyon.

Last season, Lyon’s 87 goals in Ligue 1 were a record-breaking figure, but that seems like ancient history. The team struggled to create chances going forward, scoring 17 fewer goals . The result: Memphis scored only 12 goals across all competitions – 10 fewer than last year. Still, only Moussa Dembélé outscored him with 20 goals. Other players followed suite.

Moussa Dembélé20
Memphis Depay2212
Bertrand Traoré1811
Nabil Fekir2312

Looking at the numbers, even arguments of selfishness falter. Memphis’ 16 assists across all competitions dwarf Houssem Aouar‘s 11, and especially Nabil Fekir‘s 9. Those figures made Memphis the only Lyon player to reach double fingers. In fact, no other Lyon player was more decisive than Memphis – neither this season, nor the last.

Although the numbers paint a figure of Memphis Depay that is more spirited than his teammates, maybe undeserving of some criticism, they do not absolve him of it all. His decision-making this season was often abysmal, and when it was not, his finishing routinely let him down. The pattern persisted all season long, placing Memphis among the worst underperforming finishers in Ligue 1, and goes a long way in explaining his drop in performance from last season.

Pushing aside Memphis’ figures, his detractors will find it easier to remember the frustrating moments. Watching the Dutchman closer in his Lyon matches would assuage those memories and reveal a player who contributes in other ways. If you follow him even closer, focusing on his performances with his national team, you risk leaving with a completely different feeling – jealousy at watching a lion that roars louder in the Netherlands’ orange than he does in Lyon’s white.

The Koeman Effect

With the Netherlands, there’s a period before Ronald Koeman and a period after Ronald Koeman. When Koeman took over the national team in 2018, the Netherlands were in a dark place. The Dutch had already failed to qualify for EURO 2016. Under Danny Blind and later Dick Advocaat, the Netherlands failed to qualify to the 2018 World Cup.

Worse, Koeman had none of the luxury that previous coaches had. Arjen Robben had retired after the previous World Cup qualifiers, whereas Robin van Persie’s and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s careers were in their twilight of their careers.

In his first match, in March 2018, Koeman fell 1-0 against England with Bas Dost as the sole striker. That would be his last call-up as the huge target man, one of the few remaining offensive threats in the Netherlands, announced his retirement just a month later. A relatively young, inexperienced side was blunted even more. In lack of any other prominent strikers, Koeman had to look elsewhere to do damage, and Memphis Depay came up.

Nice try Lyon, but getting Memphis an orange kit to think he’s playing with the Netherlands won’t cut it.

Before that, Memphis had not played as a striker for Lyon except on one occasion against Bastia. Koeman took the risk and played Memphis up front against Portugal – the same Portugal that had won the EURO that the Netherlands had missed out on entirely. The Dutch won 3-0 and Memphis capped an impressive display with a goal.

Back in Lyon, Bruno Genesio took the cue and played Memphis as a striker to devastating effect. Over the last 8 Ligue 1 matches of the season, Memphis would score 10 goals and assist 7 others to qualify Lyon into the Champions League. That was only the start of a turning point in Memphis’ career.

Before the Portugal match, Memphis Depay had scored 8 goals and assisted 7 in 34 international matches matches. In the 14 games under Koeman, he has the same figures – 8 goals and 7 assists – averaging more than one goal or assist in every participation.

Whatever qualms anyone could find in his performances with Lyon, they disappear with the Netherlands. Even when his performances are subpar, he is decisive. In the Nations League semi-final, England sought to subdue Memphis, but they could not stop him being a catalyst in all three Dutch goals.

Separating the Cubs from the Lions

Beating England in the Nations League semi-final meant that the Netherlands would be squaring off against Portugal in the final. The grand Memphis of the Dutch national team did not turn up. Instead, the Dutch catched a glimpse into Lyon’s Memphis Depay. Yet that was not quite what it was either.

The Netherlands came up against a Portugal side that was more stoic than the one they had beaten in 2018. Now led by Lyon’s defender-that-got-away, Rúben Dias, Portugal’s defense sat back tightly, suffocating the Dutch attack. It was anything but ineffective; Memphis’ teammates managed just four shots, hitting the target with one of them.

In that final, Memphis took one shot – a header that forced Rui Patrício into a save and which, arguably, should have hit the back of the net. That is a far cry from the space that the English afforded Memphis, which gave him the opportunity to attempt 10 shots.

To their credit, the Portuguese had figured out how to mute their opponent’s only striker. As soon as Memphis was silenced, so were the Netherlands. Just as Memphis was integral in the Netherlands’ gameplan against England, so was his inefficacy against Portugal detrimental to the Netherlands.

At first glance, it seemed like Memphis was having another off-day, like the many others he had had with Lyon. However, what was really afoot was that Ronald Koeman had been found out.

When Koeman designated Memphis as a striker, he did give him a traditional role even if, on paper, Memphis was the only striker in 4-2-3-1 formations deployed in the Nations League finals. In reality, he played as a false nine, dropping deep to pick up the ball in midfield and construct attacks from there. As a result, many of his touches against England did not come in the final third, but in midfield.

The effect of Koeman’s plan was best on display when England, after conceding the equalizer, started seeking a goal. Enough space started opening up for Memphis to express himself. However, what is most damning in Koeman’s plan is what happened before that, while the Dutch were trailing.

After scoring a first-half penalty, the English dropped back and formed a compact defense. Gareth Southgate’s decision kept the Netherlands at bay, notably by restricting Memphis Depay’s influence. In fact, the equalizer only came from a corner. That could well have been what inspired Portugal’s Fernando Santos to leave the ball to the Dutch and focus on defense instead.

Against Portugal, Memphis’ two worlds collided. With the Netherlands now a more powerful force, the opponents sat deep, as is often the case with Lyon. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands struggled to create chances against Portugal, but it was not for lack of trying. Memphis adapted and differently from the match against England, he attempted no fewer than 7 crosses.

What does that make Memphis? The Nations League campaign showed us that the Dutchman is not quite a striker and not quite a playmaker, but somewhere in the middle. He is a false 9 that thrives not only with freedom, but most importantly in space, something that is not often generously given to Lyon.

Memphis’ position is not on the wing, but with lots of freedom as a striker or behind the attacker. It was a problem for me to play him where he is most comfortable when I had Nabil [Fekir], Moussa Dembélé… and other players at the same position.

Bruno Genesio on RMC – 26 June, 2019

After the season ended, Genesio showed that at the very least, he understood Memphis’ best positioning. In an interview that he gave to RMC, Genesio explained that Memphis plays best as a striker, not as a winger, where defensive duties nick away at energy in offensive phases.

The problem, then, was playing Memphis regularly as a striker. When he did play up front, as was the case against Lille, he tracked back to support the midfield, but the effect was only an emulation of Memphis’ performances with his national team.

Chalking up the differences between performances to motivation or combativity is a simplistic view. There is not just a difference between the Dutch Memphis and Lyon’s Memphis, but there is a difference in how the two teams play football.

Memphis’ touches of the ball against Lille are reminiscent of many of his matches with the Netherlands, but his performance was not. (Lyon 2-2 Lille – 5 May, 2019)

The Netherlands’ transitions with the ball from defense to offense are notably faster and there is an interplay between attackers that is missing from Lyon. The situations are also somewhat similar when opponents defend, but their handling is different. While Lyon patiently moves the ball around, waiting for an opening to materialize, the Dutch move with intent and create the openings themselves.

At Lyon, Memphis drifts to the wide to help create opportunities too. However, whereas the Netherlands moved a few players into the box to wait for crosses, it is far too common for Lyon to have only one outnumbered player waiting for a long ball. Genesio might have understood Memphis’ best positioning on the pitch, but his implementation was in discord with Koeman’s.

Right now, Memphis’ future hangs in the balance. At a certain period, rumors were linking him to Liverpool, one of the few teams who use a player of his style. In fact, he could have fit perfectly as a substitute for Firmino, but there were no offers and nothing came of the rumor.

As things stand, it is unlikely that Memphis will leave this summer. Placed in that context, Juninho’s conciliatory remarks are only logical. The change in management over summer will hopefully revamp not just a leaky defense, but also a faltering offensive animation.

A meaningful shake-up in the offensive domain could place Memphis in better conditions. However, Memphis’ place in Sylvinho’s team remains to be seen. Sylvinho’s 4-3-3 leaves just one spot for a striker, likely reserved for Dembélé, and it has no attacking midfielders.

Sylvinho will face many difficult tasks in his first managerial position and few will be as challenging as the one that determines what version of Memphis Depay will play for Lyon. However even fewer would be more rewarding if successfully overcome.

The information comes from two sources: transfermarkt.com for historical data about Memphis’ performances with Lyon and the Netherlands; and WhoScored.com for player and team performance statistics and the heatmaps. Special thanks to Shandro van Taunay for his input as a Dutch OL fan.

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