Manchester United have made some poor signings since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, but Memphis Depay shouldn’t have been one of them.
The Dutchman was billed as Europe’s next big thing when the Red Devils won the race for his signature under Louis van Gaal in 2015; he’d just starred for PSV Eindhoven and helped guide them to the Eredivisie title the previous season, and was expected to become a long-term hero at Old Trafford. Having returned the club to the Champions League after a year away, big things were expected of Van Gaal, who himself had a history of winning big trophies.
Depay was his poster boy; a pacy, tricky winger with confidence to match, there weren’t many lining up to question the £31million signing. He was going to add bite to the possession-based approach Van Gaal was famous for; but the swagger didn’t help him.
Performances often flattered to deceive, and as results dwindled and it became increasingly obvious that there would be a third managerial change in as many years, Depay came under the spotlight. He was seen as a symptom of the problem, because his form hadn’t been consistent; while there were reports that his off-field life was distracting him, there seemed to be a real lack of sympathy.
The fact he was just 21 years of age, in a new country and a new league with a completely different pace and physicality, didn’t appear to matter; he was seen as a big-money flop who hadn’t managed to deal with the pressure of starring for one of the biggest clubs in the world. He was exactly the kind of player Van Gaal’s replacement, Jose Mourinho, didn’t have time for.
Failure to reach the top four was Van Gaal’s undoing, even an FA Cup triumph wasn’t enough to keep him in a job. Looking back, the moment he left was the moment Depay’s situation became clear; Mourinho wasn’t someone to allow flair players freedom to impact games without demanding a high work ethic in return.
Though he recognised the talent that had got Depay on the radar of the continent’s biggest clubs, the former Chelsea boss didn’t see enough to keep him beyond his first winter window. Just 18 months after his eagerly-anticipated arrival, Depay left OId Trafford for Lyon having made 33 Premier League appearances and scored just two goals; the deal suited all parties, though.
While Depay could take a step away from the intensity of Manchester and recapture his best form, United took a huge hit on, selling him for £17million. But the deal included sell on and buyback clauses and three years on, with Mourinho long gone and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looking for attacking inspiration, Depay is once again looking like the player everyone hoped he would; 41 goals in 99 Ligue 1 games proves as much.
His own personal resurgence has coincided with that of the Dutch national team and a slight positional change; Ronald Koeman led Holland to the final of the UEFA Nations League this year, with Depay playing through the middle as an unorthodox forward.
Solskjaer’s need for a replacement for Romelu Lukaku as been well documented, and Depay would certainly fill a void in attack despite obvious differences between the pair. Solskjaer has made it clear he wants to turn United into a counter-attacking machine, and it really is a surprise that Depay’s name hasn’t come up as a possibility given the opportunity is still there to bring him back.
With himself, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial upfront, there would be an interchangeable frontline that would allow United to be a much busier and more unpredictable threat than they are right now.
Tottenham Hotspur were linked with a £40million move this week; it isn’t clear how much Solskjaer would have to pay were he to explore the deal, but with Lyon’s issues this season, there is a chance to pounce.
There will be sceptics among the fanbase and potentially within the club, but he is a different player; he left a boy and he would return a man who has carried the hope of his nation. Given that he is still only 25, this seems like a no-brainer; if he were to sign, he might just have the galvanising impact on the club that was expected four years ago.