The shoes of Messi will never be filled. Yet Memphis Depay has never been interested in even removing his own. Here’s why he could still thrive at Barcelona…
(Photo credit: FC Barcelona)
You have to feel a little sorry for Memphis Depay. In fact, you could be for all of the new players who signed for Barcelona over the summer, with the excitement about playing football with one of the greatest players of all time. Only for that very player to leave under dramatic circumstances on the eve of the new season.
After the difficulties Depay endured following his last ‘big’ transfer to Manchester United in 2015, where the Dutchman struggled for consistency and fell well short of lofty expectations before being unceremoniously shipped out half way into his second season, he must have been wondering what he had now gotten himself into. In recent times Barcelona have become somewhat of a global circus; unwilling core performers in a show of organizational ineptitude that makes a mockery of their “Més que un club” strapline.
It certainly wouldn’t have be what the former PSV Eindhoven forward will have been expecting when it was announced last June that he had signed a two-year deal with the Catalan club.
Yet whilst the idea of a Barcelona-less Lionel Messi may never look or sound right, and be a blow for all those plying their trade at Camp Nou, it might not all be doom and gloom for Depay.
It may sound bizarre, but could the absence of Messi actually be the making of Memphis?
The first argument is a tactical one. The prime Barcelona, stretching from 2008 to 2015, needed Messi but was not reliant on him. He was the crown jewell in a carefully assembled structure in which all the cogs fitted perfectly together. The Barca engine in this period purred with glorious football and amassed trophies aplenty. Their attacks didn’t just come through the Argentine though but also via the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Henry, and then Neymar, Suarez and Rakitić, with Busquets a constant pivot.
Yet as all those bar Busquets moved on, Barcelona’s attacking efforts over the last few seasons started going through just Messi. Indeed the Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch calculated that from 2017 until 2019, Messi’s shots and assists accounted for a ridiculous 45-49% of Barcelona’s annual expected goals. In other words – Depay would have had to naturally play to the tune of Messi-ball.
The brilliant form Depay showed in his four years with Lyon and in general with the Netherlands is in large part due to him being given the freedom to roam and show his creativity in scoring and creating goals. He drifts in from the left, often runs in behind, suddenly appears in the number 10 role or pops up on the right. To get the most out of Depay you can’t put him in a tactical straight-jacket and that would have been the case if Messi was around.
The second point to make is about personality. There are some footballers that simply thrive off being the main man, who enjoy having the added weight of responsibility on their shoulders. And Memphis Depay is one of them – a role he wouldn’t have been able to fill with Messi in the side. The surprise last minute sale of Antoine Griezmann has only increased his importance. Although playing for Lyon is nothing like appearing for Barcelona, where the pressure is higher and the glare more intense, it cannot be ignored that as their key attacking asset Depay amassed 131 goals and assists in 178 appearances for the French side. It was similar at PSV, where his total was 79 in 124. These are mightily impressive numbers and were done without the same level of assistance he will still receive at Barcelona, even if they are now without Messi.
Admittedly it is very early on, but in three LaLiga games (at time of writing) in which Depay has played every minute, he got an assist on debut and scored in the next two. These include a late equaliser and a winning strike. He has the personality to set up. The shoes of Messi will never be filled but you sense with Depay that he has never been interested in even removing his own. He has the arrogance and belief needed to be a successful forward at Barcelona.
In the Catalan club’s third game of the season, the winning goal was scored by Depay and assisted by Frenkie de Jong. It is a sentence we might quickly become accustomed to hearing. Indeed, Depay could well benefit from a fine relationship that he has built with de Jong at international level. His fellow countryman had a strong campaign last season and looks well on his way to becoming one of the world’s best central midfielders. As shown by their link-up during the Euros, de Jong and Depay have a great understanding on the pitch. It’s the kind where as soon as de Jong receives the ball, Depay instinctively knows where to run, whether short or in behind, and de Jong automatically knows where to find him. The former Ajax player can act as both a quarter-back-esque playmaker or the one running with the ball from deep to link with the attacking players. It is a partnership that will now be integral for the post-Messi Barcelona. In LaLiga, the challenge will be to break through defences that will sit deep, but with their innate connection and the additional time they will have on the ball, de Jong is primed to feed Depay’s goal scoring hunger.
The final argument to be made is that, irrespective of the pain of not being able to play with Messi, this is the ideal time for the man from Moordrecht to be joining Barcelona in terms of his own development. At PSV, Depay was raw and unpredictable. At Manchester United, simply inconsistent. Then after finally settling at Lyon he, initially gradually, moulded himself into the truly impressive and versatile attacker he is today; a scorer and creator who is now far more decisive and mature. At 27 years old he is moving into a peak period of his career. In the colours of Barcelona, with many fine players still around him and his game on a steady upward trajectory, why can’t Depay become the finished product and one of Europe’s top strikers?
The Camp Nou has barely been a third full, yet already the chants of Memphis have been heard raining down from the famous steeped stands. He will never replace Messi. Yet no one ever will and it doesn’t mean he cannot be a real success. The departure of the great Argentinian may have, at least temporarily, broken Barcelona – but it could be the Making of Memphis.