Netherlands’ Memphis Depay reaping the benefits from the World Cup

With the Netherlands playing beyond all expectation and with great efficiency at the World Cup, a huge amount of attention has been paid to the elite and starring players Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie as well as remarkable coach Louis van Gaal. However, there is one young player virtually previously unknown to those outside of the Netherlands whose profile has been boosted immensely through his bright and effective performances in Brazil.

Memphis Depay has made four appearances at the World Cup for the Oranje, three as a substitute as well as a start in the quarter-final clash with Costa Rica. The Dutch have been mainly lining up in a counter-attacking system, based in a 5-3-2 formation, with Van Persie and Robben linking up as a front two ahead of attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder. The system means they are often lacking width on the left wing. Daley Blind the full-back on that side, is simply too slow to threaten a defence when the team attacks with speed. Robben is the only player with the devastating pace, shot, skill and close control that opens up chances for his team any close-knit, compact and organised defence no matter how late in the game it is.

Depay, though, when introduced, allows Van Gaal to completely change the style and shape of the team. As a third attacker, he helps the team dominate games, offering a totally different threat when Netherlands are looking to stretch an opposition backline and boost the attacking potency. His remarkable pace also provides an extra threat when the Dutch are charging forward in a counter attack.

With a goal and an assist, Depay turned the game in Netherlands favour against Australia, after replacing defender Bruno Martins Indi, taking them from 2-1 down to a 3-2 victory. Against Chile, he [almost] matched Robben for speed to burst forward and get to the backpost to meet the winger’s cross and secure the three points in the dying minutes, securing the three points.

When Van Gaal’s men entered the knockout phase of the summer showpiece, their meeting with Mexico got off to the worst possible start for the boys in orange. El Tri were dominant for the first hour of the game, taking the lead early in the second half. Van Gaal had opted to play Paul Verhaegh in the right-back position ahead of Daryl Janmaat, which gave Mexico far too much room on the right side. After they took the lead, Miguel Herrera’s men began to sit deep with five defenders. Van Gaal responded by sending on Depay in place of Verhaegh. With the PSV star on the left wing and Robben on the right, they allowed the Dutch to play with width, making Mexico’s full backs stay wide, ensuring there were spaces in the centre. As Van Gaal’s team dominated the game, they were able to equalise and then win it in the dying minutes.

The player has grown a reputation of being a bit of a ‘supersub’ for the ability to change games in the way his coach wants him to, but was given the chance to start against Costa Rica. With the Central Americans playing so deep, he didn’t get to influence the game in the way he hoped, but with him attacking alongside Van Persie and Robben, it ensured Netherlands had an extra man to make the attacks much more dangerous, even if they didn’t score.

In each game he has played, Depay has served his purpose and has been a vital part of the team, a truly magnificent achievement for such a young player who has spent only one season as a regular starter for his club. He has shown that he has incredible ability and has the potential to develop into a player as devastating as Robben and of joining the elite. However, that has been evident for some time, even in his first appearances at PSV.  What has been most remarkable about Depay is the attitude he has shown in the tournament. The youngster, who was criticised a great deal as a teenager in the youth ranks of his club for having a bad attitude and being “cocky”, is soaking everything in, using it as a learning experience.

“The world is very beautiful at the moment,” the winger said before his side’s second round game against Mexico. “It’s nice to be playing, I’m really happy.

“In the last weeks I’ve become a better player. I’m learning so much from the guys here around me. They have made me wiser.”

Social media is of course not the best way to get a proper idea of a footballer’s personality or attitude, but a scroll through Depay’s Facebook page gives you the feeling this is a player who is absolutely loving the tournament, living in the moment, but also making sure he learns enough to benefit from it in the long term.

In the above post, Depay pays homage to central midfielder Nigel de Jong, one of the key players for his team in the World Cup. That the young player stresses that he is learning a great deal from the 2010 World Cup finalist shows how committed he is to developing as a player but also maturing as a person. This is only one example of his posts – he is constantly praising his team-mates and saying how happy he is to be there in his World Cup updates. This is not the attitude of a “cocky” player who “plays as if he has won 10 European Cups”, as Ronald Koeman once remarked. This is a kid who recognises the magnificent opportunity afforded to him.

With Van Gaal, Van Persie, Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Nigel de Jong and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar around him, there is a massive pool of knowledge and experience around him from which he can draw, learn and improve. Finely tuned athletic machines in their prime whom he is training with, challenging in drills and taking mental notes of what actions they take and what they do each day. At PSV, he doesn’t have that. Last season, the Eindhoven giants fielded a group of completely new and young players with coach Phillip Cocu, who was in his first full season in charge of a senior squad. Depay, although only 20, was one of the stars and leaders of the team, heavily relied upon, which meant he was often not criticised enough for his performances, even though he deserved to be.

Despite his refreshing World Cup displays, Depay was only a consistently good performer in the Eredivisie for half of the 2013-14 season. Throughout the opening part of his first full season as a starter for the Dutch club he was clearly talented and gifted, but was incredibly frustrating. Caught in a bit of an identity crisis, he was almost basing his entire style on Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo, trying to play as a hybrid of the two rather than simply be himself. He was a one-trick pony, essentially. He’d tear down the left flank with devastating speed, cut in and shoot.  In the Eredivisie, Depay hit more shots (132) than anyone else in the entire league, 28 more than Graziano Pellè who hit the second highest number. Less than half of the Netherlands player’s shots were on target and only 12 actually found the net. Regardless of that horrendous record, he persisted, never actually thinking or analysing the situation in front of him, hardly ever looking to cross or find a team-mate, he just blasted it. He became a hindrance, not a player capable of carrying his team.

After the turn of the year, things began to change for Depay and PSV. The team had gone through a dismal spell of winning just one of nine league matches, but the form began to pick up after the winter break. They won 11 of their last 16 league games, climbing to a Europa League qualification spot. Depay’s form had completely turned around again. He began to think, play with his head up and give himself much more freedom. By looking to cross to Jurgen Locadia or pass to another team-mate, he became a much more effective player, scoring six goals and setting up three in the last 11 games of the season.

The turnaround came at the perfect time. After the season’s end, he teamed up with the Oranje and has since become a crucial player for the team. He is certainly developing into something special and the tournament in Brazil has only enhanced that feeling and has proven that he has what it takes to perform at the highest level. He still has to develop a great deal, but the signs are positive and with this attitude and this willingness to learn that he has shown in the Dutch camp shows that time is the only missing ingredient.

After just half a season of top class performances in the Eredivisie and a small sample of quality displays in the World Cup, it remains difficult to say definitively if Depay is ready to move on this summer or could benefit a great deal more from another season in the Dutch top flight. Of course it seems more reasonable to say he has shown that he is ready to go, but a poorly timed move could set him back a long way. It seems that if Depay is to move from PSV and that glorious €620,000 flat in Eindhoven he just bought this summer, it will likely be to join Van Gaal at Manchester United. If the 62-year-old believes he’s ready, he most likely is and in which case the move is imminent. What’s crucial in that instance is that Depay will almost certainly get the time to play at Old Trafford because of the coach’s incredible belief in youth. If he was teaming up with almost any other coach, the chances of that would probably decrease by some margin.

Where he will play next season remains uncertain, but what isn’t in doubt is that Depay is one player who can go on to become an absolute star in world football. The journey to Brazil has been huge for him, but there are more great learning experiences and wonderful trips awaiting in the future.

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