Memphis Depay Was Ready For His Closeup

Even after falling to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League round of 16, across two knotty legs that could only be separated via Wednesday’s penalty shootout, it seems no less clear today that Inter is a considerably better team than the Spaniards. There’s a reason why the Nerazzuri, last season’s UCL runners-up, are at present cruising to the Serie A title while the Rojiblancos cling for dear life to the fourth spot in La Liga’s table. But knockout soccer is different than league play, the former of which asks fewer and more difficult questions of its contestants than the latter. Ingenuity is always the best solution to those sorts of problems. Despite Inter’s advantage in overall talent, cohesiveness, and form, Atlético is the team with the deeper reserves of genius, and as is so often the case, genius carried the day.

Several excellent players took the field in Madrid on Wednesday, and the majority of them were dressed in Inter’s colors. Nevertheless, there is only one true genius between the two rosters, and he plays for Atleti. Antoine Griezmann and the brilliance that flows unstintingly from his feet are the chief factors that gave Atlético a genuine chance to upset its superior rival. The Frenchman didn’t disappoint.

Griezmann, who wasn’t even fully fit in his first game back after missing three weeks with a sprained ankle, put on the match’s best performance. His goal in the 35th minute, two minutes after Inter had opened the scoring and taken what could’ve been a daunting 2-0 aggregate lead, revived Atleti’s famous fighting spirit right when the team otherwise might’ve collapsed. His clarity of thought, precision of execution, and tirelessness both with and without the ball drove an Atlético team that, unlike its piss-poor performance in the first leg, met the level the new-look Colchoneros are capable of reaching at their best. Though he started to flag as the match wore on, and had to be subbed off in extra time, Griezmann and his genius allowed this inconsistent Atleti to compete against and ultimately defeat one of Europe’s most formidable teams.

But everyone knows Griezmann is great. Additionally, while Griezmann was the match’s only truly genius player, he was not the only Rojiblanco capable of genius and whose contributions of the indefinable attribute helped Atlético win. Atleti’s other source of genius on Wednesday does not get as much shine, so it would be nice to throw some kudos his way for a change.

Memphis Depay is a much better player than he’s usually given credit for being. His reputation never recovered from his brief, disastrous spell at Manchester United in his early 20s. Heralded as the next Cristiano Ronaldo when he signed in 2015, Memphis lasted just two seasons with the Mancs, the second of which he played only 20 cumulative minutes in the Premier League, and was lambasted on the way out as something closer to the new Bebé. A huge hype bubble had built around Memphis prior to his move to Manchester. Once he got there, it popped, loudly and memorably. Nothing in his career since has sounded forcefully enough to fully clear the air and change how he is seen in the public’s imagination.

In reality, though, United is the only club at which Memphis hasn’t performed. He left the Red Devils for Lyon, and there he spent five years quietly being one of the best and most consistent forwards in France. An ACL tear in 2019 knocked a gear off of the searing speed he’d had in his PSV days, which, coupled with his technical finesse and his cannonball-launching right foot, had earned him those CR7 comparisons back when, but Memphis seamlessly adapted his game to his new physical reality, becoming a smarter, more deliberate, more efficient player at Lyon. In all competitions, Memphis compiled 76 goals and 55 assists in 178 matches for the French club—a fantastic return for a player many had written off as a total bust.

Lyon is not Manchester United, however, and Ligue 1 is not the Premier League. Though Memphis’s impressive numbers were enough to erase any notion that he was an irredeemably bad player, putting up even staggering stats in France, especially for a club other than Paris Saint-Germain, doesn’t count for much in the eyes of the soccer world. He’d have to do it at a club and a league people actually respect in order to prove he really was as good as his statistics implied.

On paper, leaving Lyon to sign with Barcelona in 2021 looked like a smart move. The Barça Memphis first signed with looked like it would have Lionel Messi and Griezmann to feed him with an endless supply of scrumptious passes for the striker to finish. Not only that, the team was led by Ronald Koeman, who prior to joining Barça had made Memphis the focal point of the Dutch attack as manager of the Netherlands national team. And even as the summer wore on and the infamous financial crisis first darkened the Catalan sky and Messi and Griezmann were both sent elsewhere before the season began in earnest, Memphis still appeared solidly positioned to capitalize on the move. In normal times a player of Memphis’s caliber could never expect to join Barcelona as one of the squad’s key players. Yet with Messi’s and Griezmann’s absences, and without equivalent replacements, Memphis had become by default Barça’s main man in attack.

But things didn’t turn out as well for the Dutchman as they looked like they might’ve. He got off to a pretty hot start individually, scoring eight goals and adding two assists in the first 16 matches of the league season, but the team as a whole was in free fall. With his team outside of the Champions League places, Koeman lost his job and was replaced by Xavi Hernández in November. Not long after Xavi took over, Memphis suffered a couple nagging leg injuries that kept him off the pitch for two-and-a-half months. When he returned, Barça looked completely different. Somehow the club had found enough money to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres among other reinforcements, and the new-look squad was thriving. Memphis’s place had been usurped, and although he still played pretty well as a rotation option for the rest of the season, it was clear he’d missed his chance to make Barcelona his own.

Barça tried to push Memphis out the summer after his debut season, but the Dutchman, determined to fight for his place, resisted. However, Xavi had almost no use for him, so after half a season of hardly ever seeing the field, Memphis accepted a midseason transfer to Atlético Madrid. The story with Atleti wasn’t all that different from the one with Barça. Atlético had a hole at center forward that in theory Memphis might have filled and, in doing so, won himself a regular gig in a prominent team. Memphis started brightly, but right when he’d finally worked his way into consistent minutes as a starter, a pair of leg injuries kept him out of all but one match during the final two months of the season.

Coming into this season, Memphis had little hope of being anything more than a spot starter to give Griezmann and Álvaro Morata breaks when needed, and an attacking substitute competing for playing time with Ángel Correa. He turned 30 this February. Atlético Madrid probably wasn’t going to be the place where he rewrote the narrative of his career, and at his age, he was probably running out of opportunities to ever really do so.

His is hardly some terrible fate, of course, and Memphis is making the most of it. Even without being a regular starter, Memphis has still chipped in with goals that have helped Atleti stay on track for its objectives in league play: He’s struck five times in 18 La Liga appearances, scoring on average once every 147 minutes. Even without being a star, his supporting roles have sometimes stolen the show, like in his performance off the bench on Wednesday against Inter. Memphis came onto the pitch in the 79th minute of that match, with the score tied at 1-1 and his team in desperate need of a goal to equalize the aggregate scoreline and at least force extra time, and he immediately injected a whole new energy into the Atleti attack.

He almost scored just a minute after coming on, rattled the post with a wicked shot a few minutes later, finally did score the tie-saving goal a few minutes after that, and was the game’s most dangerous forward throughout extra time. Even without being the game’s lone genius, his capacity for moments of genius, like on his goal—the deliciously delicate control, the pitter-patter steps that rotate his body toward the ball and the goal frame, the cross-body scissor-swipe of his leg that sends the ball arrowing into the side of the net opposite to where his torso is facing, the coolness to maintain composure throughout—made the difference on the biggest stage in the world.

It’s not been too often where Memphis has found himself under the world’s spotlight in a match with massive stakes, where he has called upon his considerable skills and delivered—in spite of the fact that his talent is such that he very well could have been, many times, over the course of his impressive but overlooked career. When he scores, Memphis likes to close his eyes and plug his ears, a gesture that seems to communicate his immunity to all the noise and agitation surrounding him, leaving him alone and contented with his talent and his self-belief. Memphis did eventually break out this trademark celebration after scoring against Inter, but before doing so he cupped his ear to the record-setting 69,000 fans in the stadium, and roared like the lion tattooed on his back. I hope he heard every single cheer.

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