Is Memphis the Man?

Is Memphis the Man?

This article can also be found as part of the Ligue 1 review for Guardian Sport.

“You do not have the right to be eliminated in this way” Lyon president Jean Michel Aulas informed his squad following what might have been a season ending Europa League exit to CSKA Moscow. “Individualistic behaviour always ends up being punished!” OL’s array of gifted forwards have routinely been guilty of such selfishness this campaign and, with the team barely playing like one, ahead of the next game at Marseille it was clear that both Lyon’s season (5 points back from OM in third), and the coach’s job were in the balance. Often Lyon’s president can become embroiled in puerile public spats, as he has this past week with his Marseille counterpart, but his opinionated persona can also cast him as an inspirational leader. In this case his rage instigated a spectacular turnaround for his team, it’s coach and, especially, Memphis Depay.

Bruno Genesio has long been the nearly man at Lyon, always either on the brink of finally getting the best of his talented if unwieldy group or everything falling apart. But with his job on the line, Genesio received a helping hand from the opposition: “Forgive me for being vulgar,” Marseille midfielder Frank Zambo Anguissa told La Provence, “but we want to destroy them.” These words soon adorned Lyon’s dressing room wall, words they saw as an unprovoked attack, stoking a rivalry that doesn’t need much kindling. Lyon were at last ready to fight.

For long periods of a rumbustious, streetwise 3-2 OL win back in March, Lyon finally looked like they were playing for each other as they frustrated Marseille, brilliantly keeping possession as part of an uncharacteristically mature display. Genesio survived in style thanks to Memphis Depay, who had been dropped after the CSKA game, with a last minute header. Infuriatingly for Genesio his off the bench winner again underlined his undoubted ability and inconsistency. However, as his players drifted off to international duty Genesio was again given an unexpected helping hand.

With his new Netherlands side lacking attacking options, Ronald Koeman deployed Depay as a centre forward in a 3-5-2 for their trip to Lisbon. Depay stood out and scored in a eye-catching 3-0 defeat of the European Champions, Koeman amazingly praising Depay for “working hard for the team” having placed faith in arguably his premier forward, giving him more creative and goalscoring responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, Depay relished it. Upon the Dutchman’s return to Lyon, Genesio took Koeman’s ideas and ran with them.

Again utilised as a central forward, with Mariano suspended and injured in recent games, Depay has gloriously returned to the sort of form enjoyed by PSV fans and that grabbed attention at the 2014 World Cup. Lyon have won all five Ligue 1 games since The Netherlands’ victory in Portugal, netting 17 times and conceding just twice with Depay scoring or assisting 12 of those strikes and generally proving virtually unplayable.

Previously Depay had been a little stranded out wide for Lyon. With many teams willing to sit in allowing midfielders to double up to help their full backs, leaving little space for the Dutchman to exploit. Depay found himself frustrated and surrounded, convincing him, wrongly, that he had to dribble is way out. Meanwhile the defensive responsibilities of a wider role are duties Depay performs reluctantly at best. “It was impossible for me to play this way.” admitted Depay “It wasn't really where I was at my best.”

In central areas, whether that’s as a false nine, playing off another striker or as an attacking midfielder, Depay is given the scope to seek out space, allowing him to follow his instincts thus playing to his strengths of pace, skill and, now that he’s much closer to the goal, finishing. Plus, for a player who stated recently that he knows he has the quality to be the best in the world, being made the attacking fulcrum clearly taps into his self confidence and sense of self-importance.

Crucially for Genesio, Depay’s rebirth as a striker solves a number of tactical issues he has long struggled with almost overnight. The Diamond used in the routine 2-0 win over a floundering Nantes this weekend allows his supremely talented midfield quartet to play to their own strengths. The balletic 19 year old Houssem Aouar in particular benefits from a central midfield role over being forced out wide, as does talismanic captain Nabil Fekir while the marauding Tanguy Ndombele is given freedom to bulldoze around midfield by holding player Lucas Tousart.

Remarkably, Genesio is again riding high having been so close to finally folding but considering his powers of recovery perhaps his latest salvage operation shouldn’t come as a shock. Despite seemingly stumbling upon the perfect formula Genesio has a newly freewheeling Lyon, led by Depay, back above Monaco into second in Ligue 1 with the Holy Grail of Champions League football on the horizon once more. Ominously for the rest however, the notoriously erratic Depay could have finally found his place. "I can do a lot better if I believe in myself more," said the Dutchman after his goal and four assist helped thrash Metz, “I like playing in this position.” Aulas meanwhile, although always divisive may have proved decisive again.

Adam White

Image: Tomasz Baranowski