The barman of my hotel in Eindhoven was clearly captivated. “He lives just by the hotel,” he said. “Manchester United are supposed to be interested in him, we see scouts from English clubs here every week.” After the game, a 3-1 win for PSV Eindhoven against Utrecht, the bar was buzzing. “Memphis did it again,” beamed the barman. “He won’t be here next season, I think.”
Memphis Depay was a local celebrity in Eindhoven. “You might see him walking around on Sunday morning,” added the hotel receptionist. “He is often seen in town.” True to form, I saw him walking towards Eindhoven central early that February day. He won’t be next season, for Depay has already signed for Manchester United, costing his former national team manager, Louis van Gaal, £ 25m.
Naturally, the first question any United, or indeed English, fan will ask is over Depay’s ability to play at a much higher level. PSV have strolled to the Eredivisie title, true, and Depay has been the pivotal figure in the club’s success, but well, Dutch domestic football is a second–tier competition these days and there have been many players who have made the short trip across the Channel to the Premier and quickly returned home unfulfilled. For every Ruud van Nistelrooy, there’s a Mateja Ketzman.
Is Depay another of these? At first glance, he appears slight, but beneath the red and white stripes, his frame is muscular, emphasised by his “illustrated man” torso. He’s deceptively strong, which will bode well in the Premier.
He’s a classic troubled child who is trying to make good. His mother is Dutch and his father, who has been absent for most of his life, is Ghanaian. So strongly does Depay feel about his lost years that he refuses to have his surname on his shirt and instead is known simply as “Memphis”. And he uses his tough start in life as inspiration and makes a point of telling people that hard work and determination can take you a long way in life. He also uses a “life coach” to deal with his hang-ups. In his early days at PSV, he was seen as an “angry young man with a chip on his shoulder.”
When he moves to Manchester United, he will not be indulged, although Van Gaal may be seen as something of a father figure to Depay. Van Gaal gave the youngster his chance in the Dutch national team in the World Cup when he was just 20 and he scored the winning goal against Australia in a group game in Brazil. He was named one of the best young players in Brazil 2014, scoring two goals. He has now won 15 caps for the Netherlands.
His PSV career started in youth football in 2006, moving from Sparta Rotterdam. He was just 17 when he made his PSV debut, scoring twice in a KNVB Cup match against VVSB. But his breakthrough season was in 2013-14, when he scored 12 Eredivisie goals in 32 games.
This season, Depay has been in outstanding form since the start. His match ratings have been excessively high at times, averaging almost eight out of 10 for the season. He has netted more than 20 goals and has an average shot rate of almost 5.5 – which works out at was every 15 minutes or so. Where he has received criticism is for holding onto the ball for too long – underlined by the fact he has fewer than half a dozen assists to his name. It will be interesting to see if Van Gaal knocks this out of him at United. Even George Best was often accused of “hogging it”, but more often than not, something productive emerged.
But his natural style is sure to cause Premier defences some problems. What is impressive is the way he often switches wings (he’s effectively a right-footed left winger). He’s got the pace to outwit a defender and when he cuts inside and lines up for goal, his shooting his accurate and has power. But is he too small? He’s an inch and half taller than Eden Hazard, the player he’s being loosely compared to. The answer has to be “no”.
The jury will be out on Depay for a while, but United have spent heavily on him, so he’s not been bought to go back on loan to PSV or Ajax, or in Chelsea’s case, Vitesse Arnhem. Expectation will be high, and with United enduring two blank years, patience for Van Gaal’s regime will only extend so long. They have signed an exciting talent – the youngest to have hit 20 goals in Europe’s top leagues – and once he’s settled in, Chelsea’s Hazard could have a rival to his crown. Salford could be salivating….