After failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, the Netherlands are set to return to the grandest stage in football with a squad that features a number of star players, including Barcelona forward Memphis Depay. The 28-year-old scored two goals when he represented his country in Brazil eight years ago but, while he was only a blossoming talent at that tournament, he will head to Qatar as his country’s talisman. For the Netherlands to have any hope of winning their first-ever World Cup, Depay will need to be on his very best form.
If the tournament was being held in its usual summer spot, Depay would have entered the World Cup brimming with confidence. In a difficult season for Barcelona last term, he proved to be a standout performer, top-scoring for the club in La Liga with 12 goals in 28 appearances.
Despite being a key figure in Barcelona’s squad last season, the Dutchman looked to head through the exit door in the summer following the arrivals of Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha. Juventus appeared to be the most likely destination, but they opted to sign Arkadiusz Milik for Marseille instead, ensuring Depay remained a Barcelona player when the transfer window closed.
For Depay the current campaign has been a non-event. After being an unused substitute for Barcelona’s opening four league games, the forward finally made his first appearance of the season when he came off the bench in a comprehensive 5-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. Two consecutive league starts followed, including a 3-0 win against Elche where he scored his first goal of the season.
Although the striker has been side-lined since being forced off with a hamstring injury in September’s Nations League victory against Poland, he will still be central to Dutch coach Louis van Gaal’s plans in Qatar, where he will have the license to roam in a front two as one of his country’s main goal threats.
Level on 42 goals with Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, Depay is only eight adrift of Netherlands’ all-time top scorer Robin van Persie. The former Lyon man racked up 12 of his international goals in his nation’s qualifying campaign for Qatar. Impressively, he registered three braces and one hat-trick on his way to finishing as the joint-top goalscorer in the UEFA qualifying section alongside England’s Harry Kane.
What makes him particularly crucial is that he can score a variety of goals, indicating that he is the sort of player who can turn the tide of a game in an instant. He has the belief and skill to trouble goalkeepers from distance, while his movement and eye for a goal ensure he is usually at the right place at the right time to finish from close-range. Depay demonstrated his goalscoring instincts in a 3-2 Nations League victory over Wales in June when he drifted into the perfect position to latch onto a loose header and sweep home a dramatic winner in stoppage time. As well as posing a threat in the final third from open play, Depay has also gained notoriety for being a set-piece specialist, and he could be particularly important from free-kicks and the penalty spot in Qatar.
Despite being a crucial source of goals for his country, Depay’s contribution will go far beyond adding his name to the scoresheet. Van Gaal will also be looking for his talisman to showcase his superb dribbling and technical ability to assist in build-up play, where he can also utilise his passing talents in intricate areas to help his side maintain possession and create chances.
While the Netherlands will expect to dominate the ball in group games against Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar, Depay’s pace could be useful as the tournament progresses. The option to run in behind could prove to be a useful tool if a counter-attacking approach is required against the top-quality sides at the World Cup. In Netherlands’ 4-1 Nations League victory over Belgium in March, Depay utilised his speed to run from deep and latch onto Steven Berghuis’s accurate pass, before finishing off the slick move with a clinical finish. It is certainly the type of move that Van Gaal will want to see replicated in Qatar.
The opening months of the 2022/23 campaign may have passed him by, but he has the advantage of being relaxed and refreshed ahead of the tournament. With the January transfer window around the corner, the World Cup presents an opportunity to remind Europe’s biggest clubs of his talents. Although, first and foremost, his main goal will be to take the Netherlands all the way to World Cup glory.
Ben Sully | GSFN