Memphis Depay is very much his own man — that much was clear when he turned up for a Manchester United reserve game in late 2015 in a Rolls Royce, red leather jacket and cowboy hat after being dropped from the first team, despite being asked by his captain at the time, Wayne Rooney, to keep a low profile.
Since joining Lyon in January 2017, however, it looked like Depay had turned a corner. In good form and fitness, ahead of his side’s Champions League clash with Man City in September, the forward suggested he had left his crazy days behind him: “It’s in the past and I’m a flamboyant guy and like nice stuff but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be more smart. I’ve become more mature.”
That was until 10 days ago when, after coming off the bench to win the game against Angers (2-1), he attacked his own manager, Bruno Genesio, in front of the media for not making the most of him.
“I’m sick of hearing every time that I changed the match,” Depay said. “I still don’t feel like a respected player. I get the job done every time, I’m mentally strong. I have to accept the coach’s decisions. I’m a little disappointed, I think I deserve more respect. I deserve better than that and I should play every game.”
Despite some incidents — he reported back for training a week late in the summer without authorisation and also admitted publicly that he wanted to “play for a bigger club than Lyon” — the 24-year-old seemed to have grown up. He was given responsibility in the team and was made to feel like their biggest star — something he had always wanted.
At times, the carrot and the stick approach was used by Genesio to get the best out of Depay, but it worked. Last season, the Dutchman was dropped for the huge clash with Marseille in Ligue 1, but he came on late to score the winner in a 3-2 victory and finished the season with 10 league goals in the remaining nine matches, including a hat trick to beat Nice 3-2 in the last game of the campaign and seal qualification to the Champions League.
Of course, Depay would regularly remind his club and manager what he was made of. “I have nothing to prove to my manager,” he said after netting a last-minute winner against PSG in January. “I play for God and only God. I am unbreakable.” But in general he showed commitment, good attitude and let his talent do the talking on the pitch.
Having moved from the wing to a more central role as a No. 9, he proved real revelation in his new position. The quality of his first touch, his movement and ability to dribble in small spaces made him a threat for opposition defences. Yet his latest outburst has ruined all that good work.
Genesio didn’t take the criticism well at all. He remonstrated with Depay in front of the squad after the game, attacking the player’s poor attitude, selfishness and bringing up his late return from holiday again. Depay will be fined, while sources have told ESPN that many of his teammates were unhappy with his comments too.
Incredibly, he was given a chance to redeem himself with starting place against Bordeaux on Saturday at the Parc OL, but was dreadful in the 1-1 draw. Depay lost the ball 21 times and was booed by some parts of the stadium. He has gone from being an asset last season, to become an issue this campaign. And it’s tough for Lyon because while his attitude stinks, his talent is indispensable.
Despite the club having some good players like Nabil Fekir, Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele, Depay is the one that makes things happen, as he has proved so far in the Champions League. The Dutch international was outstanding in the 2-1 win against Manchester City, changed the game against Shakhtar after coming on to secure a 2-2 draw, and also scored in the 3-3 draw at Hoffenheim.
Depay’s complex personality does not make things easy for Genesio or for Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s owner. The player wants to feel loved but also seems to reject the attention he is being offered. He wants to be a part of the team but also seems happy on his own, in his own world.
The problem for Lyon is that they need him at his best if they are to have a successful season. The game against Hoffenheim on Wednesday could define Lyon’s future in the Champions League, but it’s whether Depay makes the headlines on or off the pitch which may have the biggest impact.