Memphis Depay completed his move to Atletico Madrid this week. How will he fare with his next club in La Liga?

  • by Adam Schenk

The concepts normally associated with Dutch football on the one hand and the philosophy employed at Atlético de Madrid on the other are perhaps as polar opposites as one can find in world football. Atleti’s recent successes under Diego Simeone have come as a result of tactics that are almost the inverse of Total Football: little possession, positional discipline, and complete focus on earning a result regardless of whether fans and pundits decry the team’s performance as ugly.

Few Dutch players have donned the kit of los colchoneros over the club’s history, and perhaps the most significant season from a Dutch player for Atleti, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s 33-goal season across all competitions in 1999-2000, ended in relegation. As a long time supporter of both Atlético and the Dutch national team, there is unfortunately one noticeable shared trait in the history of both clubs: losing championship finals in heart-breaking fashion. Both teams will hope, however, that the future will see them reaping the shared benefits of an in-form Memphis Depay, with the Dutch offensive talisman joining Atleti after a disappointing end to a spell at Barcelona that began with promise. But will this move be a positive one for player, club, and country?

The pessimist will look at this as possibly being a move where Memphis is trying to take a step forward but actually ends up moving two steps back. Although some recent transfers seem to run contrary to the belief that Atlético is uninterested in playing attacking football, the ethos of the team very much remains defensive commitment and a lack of concern about ball possession. More offensive-minded players in various positions have struggled to find their peak form at Atlético. The performances of Nahuel Molina and Rodrigo De Paul at the World Cup with Argentina, for instance, were far more impressive than their respective performances with Atleti thus far, and the loan of Joao Felix to Chelsea has been perceived as an opportunity for a gifted attacking talent to finally be able to express himself on the pitch. In Felix, Atlético have loaned away a talented attacker who likes to have the ball at his feet but whose off-the-ball work rate isn’t his best quality…and replaced him with Memphis Depay, a talented attacker who likes to have the ball at his feet but whose off-the-ball work rate isn’t his best quality. Given the similarities in their profiles, it’s fair to wonder whether the relationship between Memphis and El Cholo will flourish.

It also isn’t a given that Memphis, craving games having been stapled to the bench at Barca, will automatically be given as much playing time as he wants at Atlético. Even with the Felix loan and Matheus Cunha’s exit to Wolves, there still remain attacking options at Simeone’s disposal including Alvaro Morata, Angel Correa, and the reinvigorated Antoine Greizmann, who although given license to come deeper this year still consistently occupies one of the two striker positions in Simeone’s preferred 5-3-2 formation. On top of this, Simeone is not a manager who is reluctant to substitute his strikers, and in games where Felix struggled to make an impact early he was frequently subbed off, often to his visible irritation, at around the 60 minute mark. Memphis won’t have the freedom to drift through a match for 80 minutes and suddenly find a moment of brilliance at the end of the game, so demonstrating commitment and effectiveness right from kickoff is crucial for Memphis to endear himself to Simeone.

Despite the obstacles and possible mismatch in the strengths and priorities of player and club, there are certainly reasons for optimism that Memphis could become a fan favourite at the Civitas Metropolitano and carry that form into the national side. Despite the differences in the mentality of both clubs, the recent history of strikers moving from Barcelona to Atlético bodes well for Memphis. Both David Villa and Luis Suarez were deemed surplus to requirements at Barca, coming to Atlético with a massive chip on their shoulders; both subsequently fired Atlético to the LaLiga title. Although Greizmann hasn’t experienced the same successes since his return, he is completely reinvigorated as a player and has been one of the lone bright spots for Atleti this year, translating into his excellent display with France in Qatar. Memphis comes to Atlético in very similar circumstances, ready to show Barcelona that they’ve made a huge mistake, and his reported priority in remaining in LaLiga speaks volumes to his motivations. A far younger, rawer Memphis left Manchester United with a lot to prove as well, and his subsequent form at Lyon demonstrated how much he enjoys proving his naysayers wrong.  

Memphis’s familiarity with a 5-3-2 formation with the national team, both under Louis van Gaal most recently as well as with returning coach Ronald Koeman when he wasn’t utilizing the traditional Dutch 4-3-3, should also help him translate club form into national team form and vice versa. While only time will tell how Koeman will want to set his line-up now that he is back in charge, his previous use of the system, as well as the incredible wealth of centre backs available for the  national team, means it is likely we will see this formation rolled out again. This has also been the shape that Simeone has used all season, and presumably he sees Memphis lining up as the left-sided striker. While his defensive work rate sometimes leaves something to be desired, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco has been regularly deployed at left wing-back, and when on form his dribbling and technical ability can give defenders fits. Ferreira-Carrasco had been rumoured to be wanted by Barcelona in a swap with Memphis, and reports are that Barcelona will have an option to purchase him in the summer, but he and Memphis could form a formidable attacking duo down the left.  Koeman will no doubt be keeping a close eye on Memphis and who he develops chemistry with on the wing as he considers future options at left wing-back, where the much-maligned Daley Blind was first choice at the World Cup.

Atlético and Memphis are both at important crossroads. Atleti have had a woeful season, falling out of Europe entirely after a disastrous Champion’s League campaign, and the roster has lacked clarity and cohesion for much of the year. There is every reason to expect, however, that Atleti should still finish in the top four in LaLiga and get back to their previously high standards in Europe next season. As for Memphis, Barca was supposed to be the club where he re-established himself with an elite European team. Both injuries and the firing of Koeman were circumstances outside of his control, and Memphis may have felt as if he was dealt an unfair hand during his time with the blaugrana. At 28, however, Memphis must make the most of his opportunity at Atlético and maximize the remaining prime years of his career. With the Nations League finals fast approaching, the Oranje faithful will be hoping that Memphis will find his peak form and be a central figure for the team that injury prevented him from being in Qatar. Atleti’s schedule provides Memphis a dream opportunity to ingratiate himself with los rojiblancos, with Atleti drawing Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Copa Del Rey. Scoring against Atlético’s bitter rivals would be the perfect start to this new, crucially important chapter of Depay’s career.

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