From behind Lingard to replacing Messi? Man Utd flop Depay ready for return to the big time

Memphis Depay Barcelona GFX
The Netherlands attacker has rebuilt his career in France with Lyon and now looks set for another shot at one of Europe's elite clubs

Jose Mourinho was clear when, in January 2017, he was asked why Manchester United were happy to sell Memphis Depay to Lyon.

"We have [Jesse] Lingard, we have [Juan] Mata, we have [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan, we have Ashley Young, we have [Anthony] Martial, we have Marcus Rashford - it's a position where we have six possibilities. Even [Wayne] Rooney played a few times from the left."

Given how his previous 18 months had gone at Old Trafford, few tears were shed when the Netherlands international departed for France.

But after rediscovering his best form while showing increased maturity during his time in Ligue 1, Depay may now be ready to return to one of Europe's elite clubs.

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The 26-year-old marked his first Ligue 1 appearance since December with a hat-trick as Rudi Garcia's side began their domestic season with a convincing win over Dijon on Friday.

That may prove, however, to be one of his final appearances in a Lyon shirt as rumours continue to circulate regarding his future.

With the Champions League semi-finalists having failed to qualify for Europe this time around and Depay having just one year left on his contract, there are many that believe Lyon will look to cash in while they can.

Barcelona have emerged as a potential landing spot, with new Blaugrana boss Ronald Koeman having managed the forward during his time as Netherlands manager and requiring attacking reinforcements should, as now seems likely, both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez depart in the coming weeks.

A move to Camp Nou would rubber-stamp Depay's resurgence after his time at United threatened to derail a career that looked so full of potential when he was first breaking through.

A fleet-footed winger in his youth, Depay had the world at his feet when he joined the Red Devils in the summer of 2015, with United laying out £25 million ($38m) to sign him from PSV.

After finishing the previous season as Eredivisie top scorer with 22 goals, Depay inherited the famous No.7 jersey at the Red Devils - worn previously by the likes of George Best, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.

The then 21-year-old was the showpiece signing for United coach Louis van Gaal as the club attempted to forget a miserable first campaign under the Dutch tactician.

Depay's career at Old Trafford started promisingly with two goals in this third match for the club against Club Brugge in Champions League qualifying before going onto net a first Premier League strike against Southampton in September.

But his importance to Van Gaal's squad quickly deteriorated due to his inconsistent performances, and by October he had lost his status as an indispensable starting player and was instead used more as a substitute.

Memphis Depay | Manchester United

Depay ended his debut season with only two Premier League goals, and with the Red Devils going through another disappointing league campaign, his future at the club appeared to already be up for debate.

Despite Mourinho replacing Van Gaal ahead of 2016-17 season, Depay failed to suitably impress the ex-Chelsea boss and only played 20 minutes in the Premier League before being frozen out of the squad ahead of his sale to Lyon.

It took Depay time to settle to his new surroundings, but he finished his first six months at Lyon with five assists in his final six Ligue 1 games.

It was att the back end of the next season, though, that Depay began showing the incredible form that many knew he was capable of, scoring 10 goals and laying on seven assists in Lyon's last nine league matches.

Having established himself as one of the stars of Ligue 1, Depay moved from being predominantly a winger to a central role in 2018-19, but still enjoyed solid results with a 10-goal, 10-assist season in the league while also taking on the captain's armband in November 2019.

Having often been seen as a skilful but selfish player who spent too much time on social media, Depay had now completed a transition to a leader who produced consistent performances.

Memphis Depay Lyon 2019-20

Unfortunately, Depay suffered an anterior cruciate ligament knee injury about a month after his captaincy appointment, but the setback has done nothing to dim his star.

Having scored the crucial away goal that saw Lyon defeat Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League, he appears to be in top form heading into 2020-21, even if it is not yet known where he will be spending the majority of the campaign.

"I do not see the future, I do not know if I will do the full season here," he told reporters following his treble against Dijon.  "I have been here for four years, I became captain.

"After you have to look at your career, there is no Champions League. At the moment I don't know."

As well as those links to Barcelona, there have also been some reports suggesting a return to United - who have first option on the forward if he decides to leave Lyon  - could be on the cards should they fail in their pursuit of Jadon Sancho.

And while players such as Rooney, Young and Mkhitaryan have long left United, and others like Lingard and Mata are fighting for their careers at Old Trafford, United may wish they had perservered with an obvious talent who just needed a little time to find himself.