Lyon's Memphis Depay a new man ahead of Manchester return
There was always the sense that Memphis Depay and Manchester United allowed themselves to get a bit carried away by the winger's potential to become the next big thing at Old Trafford before he had even kicked a ball for the club.
In the summer of 2015, the Dutchman rejected the advances of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and a big-money offer from Paris Saint-Germain to complete a £25m move from PSV Eindhoven to United. The 21-year-old already seemed a prized catch by the time he confidently insisted he was the man to restore the stardust to the iconic No. 7 shirt.
When United concluded their preseason tour of the United States with a game against PSG at Chicago's Soldier Field, Depay's image already been plastered all over the city's huge Under Armour store on the Magnificent Mile, with the sportswear manufacturer desperate to let the world know that Manchester United's next superstar was their guy.
But three years on, those heady days seem a distant memory as Depay prepares to return to Manchester for the first time since being sold by United in January 2017, when his Lyon side face Manchester City in the Champions League.
After just seven goals in 53 appearances for United, Jose Mourinho sanctioned Depay's £16m departure to Lyon, but within the deal there was a first refusal buy-back option inserted by United, just in case the rough diamond became a glittering talent in Ligue 1.
"Of course, because potentially he is a very good player," Mourinho said, when acknowledging the existence of the clause. "He [Depay] didn't succeed in his 18 months, but he is very young, so I think it is important for the club to keep control of his talent. We all hope he plays very well at Lyon and why not to come back because everyone likes him."
Depay's potential was never in doubt but, as he struggled on the pitch, his flamboyant lifestyle off it hinted at a carefree attitude to his career, with new cars, parking tickets and attention-seeking outfits earning him more column inches than his football.
One of the stories that typified the Dutchman's time at United was confirmed by Wayne Rooney this weekend.
Rooney revealed that Depay turned up for a reserve game in a Rolls-Royce, cowboy hat and leather jacket after being told by the United captain to adopt a low-profile. (While the fact that Depay hit back at Rooney's comments on Instagram suggests he is still a headstrong youngster that hasn't quite learned his lessons.)
Back then, senior United players grew tired of his inability to live up to the hype, while Van Gaal and then Mourinho lost patience with his failure to act out their tactical demands.
Mourinho sold Depay to Lyon after handing him just one start, in a League Cup win at Northampton when the player was substituted after 55 minutes, and the winger's exit appeared to be just another example of a bright young talent failing to realise his potential at a big club.
But Depay has rehabilitated himself on the pitch in France, scoring 28 goals in 74 appearances for Lyon and registering 27 assists. He is becoming the player that United and Louis van Gaal thought they were buying in 2015.
"He was a kid, but he thought he was a star before he even achieved anything," a United source who requested anonymity told ESPN FC. "He made a brilliant start, scoring two goals at Old Trafford against Club Brugge in only his second or third game, but that was probably the worst thing that could have happened.
"His progress pretty much stopped from that point on and he struggled under Van Gaal, but everyone knew he was a real talent. Maybe the pressure was just too much for him at that stage of his career."
Yet the move to Lyon has worked out for Depay -- to the extent that interest from top clubs is beginning to surface again.
He will face Man City with a spring in his step and the confidence based on what he has done, rather than what he has promised. And for Lyon coach Bruno Genesio, Depay's form and progress is down to an understanding the player's mindset.
"It's important to know your players well," Genesio said last month. "Do not trust the image they sometimes give of themselves.
"He told me that he had never felt so good in a club before coming here, but Memphis is an intelligent boy and, I repeat, very different from the image he refers to. But ultimately, the performance of a player is related to what is happening in his head."
At United, Depay was just another player in a dressing-room full of stars and egos, but life is different at Lyon and he is thriving.
"He's a boy who needs love," club president Jean-Michel Aulas said last season. "And I told him we like him a lot. With his technique, he brings things that have rarely been seen in Lyon. With his personality, we can only love him, even if sometimes he frustrates us."