When Memphis Depay signed for Man United in the summer of 2015, he was one of those rare prospects that while unproven, seem certain to succeed. He’d broken through in the Eredivisie the previous season, posting stats impressive enough for Ted Knutson to call him:
“One of the best young talents in Europe… I’ve looked at quite a bit of data on young scorers and how they develop – I’d say it’s better than 50% odds that he will sell for £45M at some point later in his career.”
In his last year in Holland, he led PSV to the Eredivisie title, and became the first option off the bench for a national team that started Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben as its front three.
More than a few people called him the “next Cristiano Ronaldo”.
Things haven’t worked out. In fact, it’s hard to think of any player whose stock has fallen as dramatically as Depay’s over the last year and a half. Looking back at his enormously successful last season at PSV, is there anything that could have tipped us off to Depay’s struggles at United?
Well, one thing that sticks out is his sky-high usage rate.
Usage rate is the percentage of a team’s possessions ended, or “used”, by an individual player. Possessions aren’t as easy to define in soccer as they are in basketball, but using detailed event data, you can break a match into a series of distinct possession chains. The last player on each chain is the one that’s “used” the possession. See below:
In his last season at PSV, Memphis had a usage rate of just under 19% – the highest in the league. The next highest was Adnane Tighadouini (17%), who played for NAC Breda and was splitting possessions with guys called “Remi Amieux” and “Sepp de Roover”…
Depay certainly put up exceptional counting stats in in 2014/15 – 0.85 NPG+A/90 – but they lose some shine if you consider that when he was on the pitch he was using almost 20% of PSV’s possessions. By comparison, his teammate, Georginio Wijnaldum, had a usage rate of 8%, and racked up 0.55 NPG+A/90.
Memphis – prolific, yes, but inefficient.
And if you dig into the possession data a little more, that argument holds…
There are three basic types of attacking possession:
- Set pieces start with corner or a free kick. The most effective type of possession – 2.7% of these end in goals .
- Open play possessions are when a team forces an open play turnover and can attack immediately without any stoppages. They’re the most common type of possession. They end in a goal 1.4% of the time.
- Set defence possessions start after stoppages, such as throw-ins or kick-offs. They’re about half as common as open play possessions and also half as effective.
Depay’s usage rate was just above average when it came to the low value “set defence” possessions (13%), but he made up for it by using a greater share of the higher value set piece (23%) and open play (20%) possessions. That’s incredibly high for a wide forward, especially, for one on a counter-attacking team. It was the result of a concerted effort by PSV’s midfield to get him the ball – Depay was the most common pass recipient for each of PSV’s 3 main midfielders, Wijnaldum, Andres Guardado and Adam Maher.
When he moved to Man United, it was a different story. The season before, Ashley Young, and Adnan Januzaj split minutes in the left forward position. Different types of players, but all relatively low usage. So substitute a high-usage playmaking hub like Memphis in for the guys just mentioned and what happens? Where do the extra possessions come from? Who is donating to the Depay cause?
Um… No one.
There are a limited number of possessions to go around. At PSV, Memphis was the star man and preferred option. At Man United, he was splitting possessions with Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, (and even guys like Matteo Darmian and Marouane Felliani soak up more than their own fair share). From day one at Man United, Depay’s usage rate almost halved – 12% on those important open play possessions, compared to 20% the season before. Now, there are other reasons Memphis struggled in the Premier League, but in a very basic, quantifiable way, he’s had less to work with.
At PSV, Memphis put up elite numbers at a very young age and looked like an all-world prospect. What those numbers didn’t account for was the massive number of possessions he was using, (particularly when compared to other players his age). Memphis might have been an upgrade over Ashley Young and the rest of the players who filled out Man United’s left forward rotation in 2014/15, but his high-usage brand of football didn’t fit in a team stocked with big name attackers.
Depay isn’t the only one who’s run into this problem. Paul Pogba initially struggled to establish himself in United’s attack. It’s only since being paired in midfield with the low-usage Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick that his form has improved. Carrick, in particular, is incredibly efficient; when on the pitch he uses just 6% of United’s possessions. And the chief beneficiary is Pogba – in games where Carrick starts, the Frenchman’s usage balloons from 12% to 18%. Just like PSV’s midfield fed the ball to Memphis, Carrick feeds Pogba. The Frenchman is by far Carrick’s most common pass recipient this season. Against Crystal Palace, Carrick completed 21 passes to Pogba! And Pogba created 4 chances, and had 4 shots, 1 goal and 1 assist. United won 2-1.
My point is, it’s not that these high-usage guys are bad, but they can be hard to fit, and if you want them to succeed, you need to carve out a space for them. The question that follows Memphis to Lyon is where will his possessions come from?
N.B. – here’s how I’d answer that:
Lyon Usage Rates 2016/17 (over 500 mins)
Lyon have a solid base of low and mid level usage players to build on. The standout is, of course, Maxime Gonalons, in a Carrickesque role to Corentin Tolisso’s Pogba. Tolisso’s is high usage, but the problems lie more with the other guys on his end of the table. Maciej Rybus and Maxwel Cornet probably aren’t probably aren’t giving Lyon enough for what they’re taking away, so I’d play them less and Jeremy Morel and Sergi Darder more. Also, Rachid Ghezzal is doing well, but it would probably suit both him and Depay if they didn’t play together too much…
 Among players who played over 1000 minutes
 3.3% of the time if you include penalties
 They become goals 0.8% of the time