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From Manchester United flop to Messi replacement at Barcelona? The remarkable rebirth of Memphis Depay

10:30 GMT+3 23/05/2021
Memphis Depay Barcelona Lyon GFX
The Dutch forward has enjoyed a journey of personal growth at Lyon, and if he moves to Camp Nou in the summer he is sure to be an asset

When Memphis Depay arrived in Lyon back in January 2017, he was portrayed in England as a failed prodigy who lacked the mental fortitude to survive in the Premier League at Manchester United.

Four-and-a-half years later, he will leave the Rhone city - probably for Barcelona - a battle-hardened leader, a man who has come through several trying periods in his career and flourished.

On Sunday, he will play his last match for Lyon, a fixture against Nice that could push them into the Champions League next season. It would be a fitting end to Memphis’ time with OL if he could add to the 76 goals he has scored for them, or the 55 assists he has made, to do just that.

“I was barely 23 when I arrived here,” Depay told L’Equipe. “I’ve changed, I’ve grown up. I’ve become a man here. When I look back, it’s beautiful to see.

“I’ve made memories for a long time, friendships, too. This was my home. It feels weird to think this is my last game here and it makes me sad to leave with an empty stadium, without the supporters, but my family and friends will be with me at this special moment.

“I had a great time here, I played in the Champions League, I became a captain, a better player and a more complete player.”

Although he was given the cold shoulder at United by Louis van Gaal and then, more spectacularly, Jose Mourinho, that was more to do with stylistic differences rather than a lack of quality on Memphis’ part. Throw in the expectation his £25 million ($35m) move from PSV had generated, he was quickly characterised as a flop.

For the Dutchman, it was a setback, but one he swore would not be terminal.

“I said to Mourinho: ‘You will see me at the top',” he explained to The Times about his Man Utd departure. “He said: ‘OK, and I hope we will buy you back one day'.”

His talent and self-belief have never been in doubt. Just two months after arriving in Lyon, he was already in full flow. In a Ligue 1 fixture against Toulouse, he confirmed his quality by scoring with an outrageous shot from virtually the halfway line.

Numerous other highlights have followed, including a last-minute winner in the Velodrome against Marseille and, memorably, a stoppage-time thunderbolt that defeated Paris Saint-Germain.

What has been increasingly impressive about Memphis, though, is how well he has stood up to adversity, both when he has been on the receiving end of fouls and when he has seen his team-mates suffer.

Take, for example, the ugly scenes in 2019 after Lyon secured their passage through to the last 16 of the Champions League with a gallant come-from-behind draw against RB Leipzig at home. After the match, a banner was unfurled by one pitch-invading fan branding centre-back Marcelo a donkey.

Memphis wasted no time in challenging the supporter and had to be restrained by his team-mates.

He later commented: “When someone on the team's not supported by the fans, what do you expect from the players? If you have time for that, you really need to have something better to do with your life.

“They spat on us. I've never seen anything like it.”

His reaction may have been impulsive and clumsy from a public relations standpoint, but it won him respect from the locker room and also a large section of the support.

“Memphis Depay is a real captain: he acted and spoke as a captain,” head coach Rudi Garcia said. “It shows all the cohesion, solidarity and character of this group.”

It also showed the character of a player gaining all the time in his leadership qualities.

“I’m calmer and additional responsibilities have pushed me to that way at times, to think twice before acting,” Depay told L’Equipe this week.

Yet Memphis will always be Memphis, and that means wearing his heart on his sleeve at times, which has a magnetic appeal to many.

His strength of character, meanwhile, is formidable. After suffering a serious knee injury last season, he worked tirelessly to be fit for the Netherlands’ Euro 2020 campaign. After the final tournament was postponed a year, the graft he put in at that point has acted as a springboard to the best season of his career.

On his comeback match, he struck a hat-trick, setting the tone for his campaign. He is the only Lyon player since Opta records began to hit 20 or more goals in a Ligue 1 season and combine that with 10 or more assists.

Memphis sits on 20 and 10 respectively and has the chance to add to that tally in one final game. It is an achievement that is absolutely remarkable.

The Memphis Depay, then, who could join Barcelona in the summer is very different from the one who left Manchester United. He is better equipped for the rigours of top-level football and possesses a mentality that is every bit as elite as his technical ability.

No deal has yet been struck, with Memphis now looking after his own affairs from a transfer perspective. He delivered a reminder last week to Barca to get on with it, serving notice that they are not the only club in the running for his signature. 

The cash-strapped Catalans, having lost out on the Spanish league title, are facing a summer rebuild with Messi's future still up in the air and reports of a free transfer being agreed with outgoing Manchester City legend Sergio Aguero. They would do a lot worse than following through on their interest in Memphis. 

His promise to Mourinho could well be kept and, at 27, this is Memphis’ chance to do himself justice.