The infatigable Memphis Depay had run France ragged for ninety minutes. The Dutch were comfortable in the lead, and comfortable on the ball. Memphis took it a tad too literally; with a hint of arrogance, he brought the ball to a standstill and stood on it. A few seconds later, the Netherlands won a penalty and Memphis converted with a cheeky panenka.
Nobody complained. The numbers had won him impunity.
There was something almost poetic about the past month. Unfurling in the midst of disappointing results and last-minute equalizers was a tale of drama, surrounding Lyon’s de facto primadonna – Memphis.
The away draw to Hoffenheim drew the ire of many an OL fan, but even that paled in comparison to Memphis’ frustration. The Dutch striker scored one of the goals in the three-all thriller. Then, he allegedly blamed the draw on his teammates.
Naturally, all of this came to light much later, when he came off the bench to win the game for Lyon against Angers. He faced the media with self-assurance:
I’m fed up with always hearing that I changed the match. I still do not feel respected. I do the job every time, I am mentally strong.Memphis – 27th October, 2018
That could have been all, but of course it wasn’t. The fall-out saw childish internal bickering, with Genesio berating the Dutchman during training. That only served to further instill discord among supporters. Whatever side you pick, it is difficult not to picture Memphis as a live-action Eric Cartman.
The Heavy English Reputation
There are many things that can go wrong when you are 21 and move from the Netherlands to England. You attempt a jump many others failed before you, open up to intense media scrutiny, and embrace sulky grey skies as your own.
Memphis experienced all of those things. His Manchester United stint was largely a failure, his reputation in the media precedes him to this day, and his sulks are still often in fashion.
Flashy cars, an ostentatious sense of fashion and poor showings made Memphis the preferred bad boy of English football. Perhaps in this context, it should come as no surprise that after his public outburst, many thought of his troubled past.
In the match against Bordeaux, the supporters at the Groupama Stadium whistled his every touch. His performances turned sour again and the French media immediately adopted the heavy-handed English stance.
OL was insipid in two consecutive games against Bordeaux and Hoffenheim, but Memphis bore the brunt of L’Equipe’s ratings more than anyone else. Internally, the player who brought Champions League football to the Groupama Stadium seemed so forlorn that Bruno Genesio himself was compelled to spring to the Dutchman’s defense.
Two weeks later, he repaid Genesio’s confidence. A struggling Lyon was delivered by a majestic Memphis, the author of two assists and two other goals against Guingamp.
A week later, he helped the Netherlands topple the World Cup winners. Finally, his claim gained some legitimacy.
It takes a certain confidence to demand respect so publicly. In its inability to unify opinion, the general response is transparent. While Memphis’ performances have undeniably turned around since his Manchester United days, his reputation is mired in England. Do the numbers have his back?
Memphis’ True Calling
Memphis Depay started the 2017/2018 season as a left winger; a position he did not necessarily appreciate, but one which he nonetheless fought to make his own. By the end of the 12th matchday, and in spite of a slow start, he had scored 8 goals and assisted 4 others in 15 appearances – all from the left wing. Then, things changed, but not in Lyon.
The Netherlands faced off against Portugal, and Ronald Koeman appeased Memphis’ predilection. Playing up front as a striker gave Memphis creative freedom without needing to track back and defend the flanks. The Dutch won the friendly 3-0 and Memphis scored the first goal. Koeman succeeded Guardiola in rubbing off on Genesio.
Immediately upon his return to Lyon, Genesio fielded Memphis as a striker, and he scored the match’s two goals against Toulouse. With Mariano Diaz alternating between playing and tending to the bench, Memphis’ form spiralled.
Almost a permanent fixture up front, Memphis scored 9 goals and assisted 7 in the last 8 eight games of the season. Most famously, his last-gasp hat-trick against Nice sealed Champions League football for the 2018/2019 campaign.
This season, the numbers have not kept up, but his positioning remained unchanged. While playing most games as a striker, Memphis tallies 6 goals and as many assists in 17 appearances so far.
On paper, Memphis’ statistics are comparable to those from the same period last year, when he often ended up benched. Moreover, the numbers from the last eight games of the 2017/2018 season show a massive gulf in performances when compared to this season.
Nevertheless, while some shunned the pompous nature of his public outrage, others pointed to the same numbers to justify his cries for respect.
The Creative Spark
Lyon’s woes this season come at a time when star captain and chief creative force Nabil Fekir has been indisposed. With just 666 minutes played out of the possible 1530, Fekir has barely played half as much as Memphis.
In the absence of Mariano Diaz, who has since left for whiter pastures in Spain, and last season’s top scorer – Fekir himself – there lies in Lyon a hole to be filled. The Dutchman may be leading the scoring charts for Lyon, but his influence has visibly dipped since the last matchdays of the 2017/2018 season.
In the entire 2017/2018 season, Memphis had an Expected Goal (xG) rate of 0.46 every game, second only to Mariano. Playing down the middle, that statistic climbs up to 0.75. This season, the xG has dropped to just 0.3, far below Fekir’s 0.69 and Moussa Dembélé‘s 0.51. But there is another figure that has undergone a radical change.
In Fekir’s sporadic absences, Lyon does not only lose a cutting edge to its attacks, but also a creative spark. And Fekir is truly missed – after all, last season he contributed 23 goals, 8 assists and a celebration we won’t forget any time soon. The responsibility to light up the offensive threat when he is not on the pitch has instead fallen to Houssem Aouar, Tanguy Ndombele and naturally, Memphis. The latter has responded present more than anyone else.
What Memphis has been missing in front of goal, he has transformed into service for the rest of the team. The Dutch striker was already the most likely among the regulars to provide assists last season. While Aouar’s and Ndombele’s numbers stagnated, Memphis’ shot up.
Almost doubling his Expected Assist (xA) rate, which rose from 0.27 to 0.47, Memphis is leading not only Lyon’s goal scoring charts, but also the providers. The player who last season exceeded Mariano’s shooting frenzies, with 3.71 shots per match to the Dominican’s 3.49, is turning from striker to assist-man.
This season, Memphis has attempted 0.4 fewer shots every match than in the last campaign. Instead, like with the Netherlands’ national team, at Lyon he has become the player that others look to when in need of goals, which is pretty much all of the time.
With 3.2 key passes per game, he provides twice as many as his closest competitor – Ndombele. Fekir and Aouar provide just 1.3 and 1.2 key passes in every game respectively. The distinction is even more evident when looking at the players’ behavior on the pitch.
More than any number, the match between Guingamp and Lyon will be remembered for Memphis’ ability to upend the game almost single-handedly. Notwithstanding his tangible contributions, if you could tear your eyes away from the abominable U-shape of Lyon’s play, the PassNetwork places the Dutch striker as the focal point.
Accompanying Dembélé in the 3-5-2 formation, players sought Memphis over the French striker, and even Ndombele. In the formation, his role overlapped with that of a midfielder, minus the defensive duties that come with the position. It was up to the Dutch to create, and create he did, with two assists and two goals.
And yet, you cannot separate the flaws from the player. This season, he still misses almost a quarter of all attempted passes (76.5% accuracy). And though he is the player that is dispossessed most frequently in the squad, he is still up there among the players that attempt the most dribbles. The numbers alone do not vindicate Memphis.
Far from that, the numbers outline Memphis’ flaws; a player whose love for the flashy worked itself into his football, and a penchant for the spectacular that can easily be misconstrued as arrogance.
And yet, the numbers do demonstrate his potential. They paint the picture of a player that has stepped up, and who has the numbers that Lyon – and the Netherlands – need.
For that alone, his cries for respect may not be too frivolous.
This article was compiled with data from four sources; transfermarkt.com for information about goals, assists and minutes played, WhoScored.com for performance statistics and the heatmaps, understat.com for the expected goals and assists, and @Ben8t for the PassNetwork.