Is Memphis Depay Barça’s saviour?
Memphis Depay arrived at Barcelona on 19th June 2021 as a free agent and, according to his grandmother, it had been his dream since he was four years old. From the moment he began training with his new team, it was clear that Barça had acquired one of Europe’s best forwards. He began his career on the left wing, during a trend in Europe of playing forwards on the opposite wing from their foot of preference. Memphis struggled as a young kid with a lot of potential and started to play his best football when the bright lights were far away from him, at Olympique Lyonnais.
Last season in Ligue 1 he reached some advanced metrics at the level of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé with a combined xG and xA per 90’ of 0.97, averaging almost one direct involvement in a goal per game. He led the league in xA, shots per game, key passes, shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions and he played a very big role in Lyon’s direct offensive scheme, being the player with most progressive passes received.
He played his best football at Lyon and that stretch a couple of seasons ago served him to earn a call-up to the Netherlands’ national team, where Ronald Koeman had just been named coach. Sporting management wanted to change the direction that the Netherlands team were going after years of disappointment, missing out on qualification to both Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018. With the national team, he continued the offensive efficiency that took him there, and Memphis caught the eye on the world stage with impressive performances against Germany and France.
Although he plays as a forward, Memphis is a player whose heat map shows he can be involved in any part of the last third of the field. Since his time at Manchester United, his seasons are around the 15 xG mark with around 10 xA. These advanced metrics show that he is not your usual forward that finishes offensive sequences; he feels comfortable creating them too. Memphis is a player who runs his game in the last third of the pitch, involving teammates as much as possible. This type of forward has some negative aspects too, as we analyse the xG he produces per shot zone. He underperforms in shots inside the six-yard box (+3.4 xG), showing that he is not a player comfortable with finishing clear goal chances as he plays his best football outside the box (-6.01 xG), where he can decide if the sequence needs a pass, a dribble or even a shot.
Analysing his advanced metrics from his last season at Lyon and his first few months at Barcelona, Memphis averaged more xA in France with almost the same goal-creating actions. This proves that his game is more conservative at Barça, displaying a considerably more direct game while with Lyon. The other big difference in his advanced metrics comes with shots on target. With a more possession-based game in LaLiga, and especially in Barça, he gets to shoot more than in France. This means he gets more chances, but the chances he gets have less quality, as this is a problem with Barça that Koeman needs to solve.
The problems at Barça are not only there. As we pointed out earlier, Memphis is a player who performs best when he is used as a compliment, not a reference point or target man in attack, so let’s address the elephant in the room. Memphis’ signing with Barcelona came before Lionel Messi’s departure and with that offensive scheme in mind, Memphis on the left and Messi on the right, they are a threat to be taken into consideration. They are two of Europe’s best creative forwards and Barcelona would have benefitted from that situation. However, Messi’s departure changed everything, as Koeman had to adapt his offensive tactics to suit Memphis with a more complete and central role, which is not his best fit, as the below graphic of his shots reflects. In addition to this, Barça are still a work in progress, as they haven’t defined how their offensive tactics will find a balance between a possession-based attack and being a productive team in sho-creating actions and goal-creating actions.
If we want to analyse how Barça are struggling, we have to look at Europe’s top five leagues. Barcelona are ranked 26th in goal-creating actions per 90’ with only 2.7, between Genoa from Serie A and Marseille from Ligue 1. They are also 37th in those five leagues in shot-creating actions per 90’with 20.1, in between Brighton and Newcastle from the Premier League.
Barça’s problems come also from the lack of an offensive style in their game. The world-recognised possession-based game has shifted into a black hole of nothing. If we analyse those shot-creating actions per 90’, we realise that only 13.9 come from passes, which is a huge downgrade from past years, as right now they are 40th in Europe. Nowadays, they have a similar number of shot-creating actions coming from a pass than Saint-Etienne from Ligue 1 and Spezia from Serie A. It’s not exactly illustrious company to be keeping.
That offensive game that Barça implemented in the last decade is long gone. Now they average 11.7 shots on target per 90’, between Osasuna and Angers from Ligue 1, as the 55th team in Europe. Some people may believe that Barça’s forwards are not in form, but the ratio between scored goals and expected goals is close enough to expectations to rule that option out (-0.07 xG). However, every cloud has a silver lining, and Barça have the second-highest percentage of shots on target in Europe, reflecting that forwards make the most out of every offensive chance, so the talent is there, they just need to find a system.
Analysing Memphis’ role now, it is important to note that the team you’re playing with makes a huge difference in how well the players perform. As we have seen, Barça are not among Europe’s elite right now, so Memphis is not at that level either. In shot-creating actions per 90’, Memphis ranks as the 53rd-strongest player in Europe, at the level of Paul Pogba from Manchester United, Leeds United forward Rodrigo Moreno and AC Milan’s Ante Rebić. In the goal-creating actions per 90’, Memphis is the leading man at Barça, so he ranks 41st among players in Europe, at a similar level to Ciro Immobile, Ruslan Malinovskyi and Edin Džeko, all from Serie A. It’s safe to say that Memphis is not at his best, so it’s a huge problem for Koeman to solve, with all signs pointing to giving him more freedom in attack.
Talking about Koeman’s influence in Memphis’ career, he is the one coach who is capable of solving the Memphis dilemma. With the Dutch national team, Memphis played a huge role, with 96.5% of minutes played through 18 games. In those 18 games, Koeman used him on the left wing for 11.1% of the time, compared to 88.8% being spent as a forward, using him in the centre of the attacking positions, where he scored 11 goals and gave 12 assists, the level we all believed he could reach at Barça.
He was capable of achieving those numbers with players like Ryan Babel and Quincy Promes as their attacking teammates, so it’s safe to say it’s not fanciful to think he could deliver again with Luuk de Jong at Barça. Although they have played a lot of games together (66 before this season) with the Netherlands under-21s, PSV and the Dutch senior side, in those 66 games, there have only been eight goals with a direct involvement of both players, with six goals from De Jong coming from a Memphis assist and two goals the other way around. That’s not the level you need to be at to compete with Europe’s elite, averaging one goal with both involved every 8.25 games, so a different relationship on the field may be necessary to connect these two players.
After going through every offensive advanced metric of Memphis’ role in Lyon, the Netherlands and Barça, it’s safe to say that he will struggle this season. Not because he won’t be Barça’s leader, which he will, but because the logical step in his career would have been becoming one of Europe’s best creating forwards and he will not do that at Camp Nou, at least this season. So, unless there is a big shift in Barça’s offensive performance, maybe with some players stepping up or changing Memphis’ role, it’s hard to see him overperform at a level that could save Barcelona’s season.
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