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Barcelona, Xavi, and the Memphis Depay conundrum

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Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Memphis Depay has been at Barcelona for little under a full season, and coming towards the end of his first campaign in the garnet and blue, there seem to be more questions than there are answers. 

With additions to the team in January, and more set to come in the summer, the Dutchman seems more out of Barcelona than in. In light of this, join Barça Universal as we explore the intricacies of the multilayered conundrum that is Memphis.

The first months of adaptation

Ronald Koeman made the acquisition of Memphis Depay in order to complement Lionel Messi. Subsequent to the Argentine’s exit from the club, the onus was on the Dutchman to offer a similar level of dynamism in the attacking third.

In a 4-3-3, Memphis is versatile enough to occupy either one of the three positions. Notwithstanding the fact, he is best as a false nine, and in the extreme he should be used as a left-winger.

Given Barcelona’s severe lack of options in the central striking role before the winter transfer window, the Barça number 9 was their main source of goals.

In his first few months, he did exceptionally well. With ten goal contributions in his opening 14 La Liga matches, things seemed to be developing quite optimistically for him.

Ahead of Xavi Hernandez’s first match with the Blaugrana, the Dutchman had underperformed his Expected Goals (xG) by ~1. This mattered not, however, as he compensated for his not so brilliant finishing with some otherworldly creativity.

When Barcelona made the visit to Villarreal, he achieved equilibrium with his xG. It is a known fact that most footballers do not regularly surpass their Expected Goals numbers, and if they do, it is never by much.

The level of finishing so effortlessly demonstrated by Messi in his time as a Blaugrana can sadly not be replicated by most forwards.

It took Memphis more shots than the Ballon d’Or winner to score, but what was important was that, at least in the league, he did put the ball into the back of the net. 

xMemphis made sure to etch his name on the scoresheet every now and then. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

The Dutch international combined well with his forcibly rotated interiors, and the few forwards the team had available from time to time.

Indeed Memphis was far from fortunate with his teammates’ availability, as the rest of the Barça players getting in and out of the squad through injury meant that he did not have much of a solid base upon which to play.

Out wide, the Dutchman offered less creativity and goals than were expected of him. This was the perfect representation of “just because it can, does not mean that it should.” In spite of his limitations, Memphis did his best to fit into the team, even to his own detriment.

His dribbling out wide was often a mixed bag, rotating between mesmeric, and utterly infuriating. Memphis is not naturally suited to such wide roles, and deploying him that wide was a drastic reduction to his efficiency and overall productivity. 

Disparagingly enough, while he was anything but the most efficient winger, the fact that Ousmane Dembele and Ansu Fati were perpetually injured meant that his little was the best Barcelona had to offer. 

Memphis’ first few months had almost an even number of ups and downs. While individually he did the best that he could, external factors certainly did not make his cause any easier.

The injuries that plagued his teammates for so long eventually caught up to him, and little did he know this was the beginning of the end for him in the garnet and blue strip.

The gradual descent into irrelevance

A football season does not pause, or end, at the first sign of injuries. Life goes on, players are replaced, and the evolutions of their injuries mark their importance to the team.

In Memphis Depay’s case, he took a few months too many injured, months in which Barcelona were beginning to make pivotal acquisitions in attack.

As has been said, Memphis plays best in two positions. He is a false nine, as well as a makeshift winger, if the situation requires it. To his dismay, Barcelona registered two players who are more efficient than the Dutchman in both his roles.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the ground running as a striker. He became the fastest player in La Liga to score seven goals, getting a hat trick against Valencia, as well as scoring a sensational brace against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu.

For a side in desperate need of a finisher, the Gabon international quickly came to their rescue.

Memphis’ preferred position was quickly taken up by Aubameyang. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the wing, Ferran Torres was an immediate upgrade to his Dutch counterpart. He preserved permanent width throughout games, and took on players with loads more efficiency, and quantity. Furthermore, in the final third of the pitch, he demonstrated a better ability to get into goalscoring positions.

Misfortune got Memphis onto the bench, and it was misfortune that kept him there. Aubameyang was scoring for fun while Torres was doing everything that Xavi Hernández required on the wings.

Every single time that Memphis came onto the pitch, it was blatantly evident that there was a significant difference between himself and the competition. His dribbling was pitiful at best and with regards to his finishing, he has only scored twice and the seven appearances he has made in the league since his big injury.

Memphis struggled to become relevant to the team and it shows by the number of minutes he has played in each of the last six matches in La Liga.

He has recorded, from the match against Sevilla to Elche, 7, 19, 17, 14, 6, and 27 minutes; or a total of 90 minutes in the last six matches.

In comparison to his first 14 matches for Barcelona, all of which were 90 minutes long, then it becomes all the more clear that there is a significant difference between how Xavi perceives him before and after the signings of his forwards.

The worst thing, for Memphis, with regards to the minutes that he is receiving, is that it does not seem as though he will get any more.

The barrier to the Dutchman playing is not his fitness, because he is fit enough to play all these games. The true force prohibiting him from playing consistently is his teammates and his tactical and technical unsuitability for the current management in comparison to them.

With every passing week, he seems closer outside of the club than he does in it. The likes of Aubameyang and Torres have made it clear that they offer more and more of what the coach demands; demands which Memphis knows he cannot offer.

Memphis was at his most relevant when he had the least competition available to him, but now that there are more and more people opposing him it becomes all the more evident that his descent into irrelevance is nearing its completion. 

The uncertain future

Memphis Depay has two options that are presented to him. He can either stay in Barcelona and be a rotational player, or he can choose to leave the club and be a starter elsewhere.

If Memphis is to leave the club, it is because he is all the less important to it. The Dutchman is lacking in many core concepts, which make Barcelona the club that it is.

With regards to his shooting, for example, he is much less efficient than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His movements into space and what he does once he is within it are inferior to what the Gabonese international can offer in the final third of the pitch.

In comparison to Ferran Torres, Memphis cannot offer the same dynamism in the wider areas. His Spanish counterpart is much more proficient at taking on players, given his additional advantage of speed.

From a purely defensive standpoint, both players are more adept at pressing for the ball than the Dutchman. In a club like Barcelona, the ability to asphyxiate the opponent in pursuit of the ball is indispensable for the functioning of the team. 

Memphis leaving would be understandable if he so chooses to, because his rivals are more apt than him in core concepts of the game.

Already taking the long walk towards the exit door? (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

On the flip side, if he decides to stay then Barcelona could benefit from having someone who offers such a level of creativity as him from the bench. 

Also while Aubameyang and Torres are better than him in most aspects of their respective roles for the team, both of them thrive more with movements off the ball than they do with movements on it.

There is somewhat of a crisis in the wings of Barcelona with regards to a certain profile of attacking players. If Ousmane Dembele and Adama Traore do leave the club in the summer, then Barca will certainly have far fewer ball-dominant players than would be optimal for the team.

Torres, for instance, has demonstrated that he prefers to make runs into the box from out wide to try and score goals for himself. With regards to his link-up play, however, while not exactly poor, but rather just inferior to his Dutch counterpart. 

The Spaniard is not nearly as creative as him and losing Memphis in the sense would mean that Barcelona lose someone who can tee up multiple players at any given moment in any given location on the pitch. 

Aubameyang is not exactly the youngest player in the world, and as such Memphis could be of use given he should be able to outlast the Gabonese. 

Regardless of how he is used it will be obvious that Memphis will not be consistently relevant to the team. Should he opt to stay in Barcelona, then he should prepare himself for a season of cameos, and a little more apart from that. 

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