Memphis Depay was more of a pussycat than a lion at Manchester United but it was not for the want of trying. Depay, a right-footed ‘inverted’ winger with the predictability of his compatriot Arjen Robben but not the fleet of foot, wanted to shift the focus onto his left foot and add variety to his game after Louis van Gaal dropped him.
Depay identified an ideal tutor in Van Gaal’s assistant Ryan Giggs. “After I lost my spot in the starting line-up I asked assistant coach Ryan Giggs to do extra training with me,” Depay says in his book Heart of a Lion. “To work on my crosses with my left foot, to become a better winger.
“After a while Van Gaal asked me to come to his office. He said that there was nothing wrong with my left foot and that the extra training with Giggs was nonsense. ‘It’s all in your head,’ he also told me.
“That struck me. I mean, what could be wrong with trying to become a better player, with the help of a former top winger like Ryan Giggs? More and more I got the feeling I could do nothing good according to Van Gaal.”
The irony is the most impressive of Depay’s seven United goals was at former club PSV Eindhoven, where he cut inside from the left past Santiago Arias and then deceived the centre half Jeffrey Bruma by turning outside and finishing with his left foot.
Attackers are no longer pigeonholed and if a right winger is right-footed it is seen as problematic. Liverpool have a left-footer on the right and a right-footer on the left to complement Roberto Firmino, a number nine who has broken the 20-goal barrier once in four seasons on Merseyside.
Manchester City occasionally line up in a more conventional attack with Raheem Sterling on the right and Leroy Sane on the left but it would be disingenuous to dub either as old-fashioned wingers. Besides, that trademark City goal of a low cross to the far post requires a forward to run into the channels.
United do not have a single forward as versatile as those at Liverpool, City or even Tottenham. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have played across the front three but only convince in one area. Romelu Lukaku is an unabashed centre forward. Jesse Lingard has the intuition minus the ingeniousness. Alexis Sanchez? fuggedaboutit.
And United have just recruited another right-footer whose primary position is on the left. Including Daniel James, they have four options to occupy the left flank out of seven forwards and even Paul Pogba has a preference for the left-hand side. Rather than level out their attack they have lopsided it even more.
James has already offered that clichéd sound bite about ‘playing wherever the manager wants me to play’ and why wouldn’t he stress his aptitude in a squad laden with questionable attitudes.
“I think being versatile is important,” said James. “It’s important you can play different positions. This year I’ve played left, right and I’ve played up top and I have enjoyed all three. It’s important not to just play and enjoy one position. To play all three and enjoy all three you have more chance of getting in the team.” James moved to the right in Wales’ recent European Championship qualifying defeat in Croatia but switched back to the left.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer received glowing reports from Giggs about James and will be encouraged the 21-year-old was honing his two-touch finishing during a training session in Dubai with his right and left foot. That right-hand side remains vacant and if James is to take ownership of it he is going to have to develop that left-footed versatility Depay lacked.
When Depay was spontaneously sent on following a Joe Allen equaliser against Stoke in his penultimate league appearance for United he was on the right. Depay received the ball eight times in seven minutes and did not fashion a single chance. He played 40 more minutes under Jose Mourinho.
The lion was a pussycat.
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