Rudi Garcia predicted his Lyon side would click into gear once the transfer window closed - and thanks largely to Memphis Depay's brilliance, the coach is being proved right, explains Matthew Spiro.
Depay is 26, a prime age for an attacker. He was head and shoulders Lyon's best player last season before rupturing ligaments in his knee in December. After four years of valiant service at Groupama Stadium, it was felt the Dutchman had earned the right to his big move this summer. So when Ronald Koeman was appointed Barcelona coach and made signing Depay his priority, Lyon fans were resigned to losing their talisman and Memphis began dreaming of glorious nights with Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou.
On October 5, Lyon and Depay were still waiting for the Spanish authorities to grant Barcelona permission to spend the €20 million required to buy the forward out of the last year of his contract. That permission never came, leaving both club and player in an awkward impasse. Depay's temperament has been questioned in the past, and his doubters might have expected the mercurial forward to sulk following the failed transfer. After all, the disappointment of missing out on Barcelona - and the chance to follow in the footsteps of illustrious countrymen Johann Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Patrick Kluivert - must have been crushing. Yet Depay's reaction has been the opposite.
In his first game after the window closed, the former PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United was quite simply inspirational away to Strasbourg. Lyon had not won any of their previous five matches, but with Memphis leading the charge they began to turn their season around at the Stade de le Meinau. They went 3-0 up inside 42 minutes, with a turbo-charged Depay setting up one goal for Tino Kadewere and two for Karl Toko Ekambi. In the second half, as Strasbourg staged a fightback, Depay led by example, fighting for every ball and rallying the troops at every opportunity.
Those who don't watch Depay and prefer to judge him on his rap videos and Instagram posts probably think he is a flashy individual primarily interested in his own image. Yet Depay the footballer is nothing like that; he is not only Lyon's best player, he is their trailblazer, the team's heart and soul. Without him, OL tend to flounder.
Depay was brilliant again against Monaco, scoring one and starring in the 4-1 triumph. He led from the front as ten-man OL claimed a draw at Lille, and provided the key moment again in the derby against Saint-Etienne on Sunday. Trailing by a goal, Lyon equalised when their skipper played a clever free-kick in behind the wall to Maxwel Cornet, who crossed for Kadewere to score. When the Zimbabwean netted again to seal a 2-1 triumph, Lyon had claimed ten points from four matches to rise up to fifth.
Depay's life has been well documented. He hasn't had it easy. His football career has hardly been a smooth journey either. But every setback merely seems to make the boy from Moordrecht stronger. Desperate to play for his country at Euro 2020, Depay showed incredible courage and strength to return from his knee injury in record time. Of course, the tournament was postponed, and the striker appeared off-pace when he returned for Lyon in the Champions League Final 8. Understandably so, given he had been out for six months following major surgery.
Some chose to criticise Lyon's star man for failing to produce against Juventus, Manchester City and Bayern Munich. "He's not the world-class player he thinks he is," was the whisper doing the rounds. Yet as is often the case in the modern world of social media, the 'haters' tend to miss the big picture.
Depay's attitude and behaviour since joining Lyon in 2016 have been exemplary. Since his move to Barcelona fell through, he has merely highlighted that fact further. If he stays for the whole of the season, Lyon will - in my opinion - qualify for next season's Champions League. If he moves in January, he will leave a gaping hole. But the club that gets him will be extremely fortunate. They will have inherited one of the best attackers in Europe and a veritable leader of men.