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Memphis Depay vs Wout Weghorst: The striker debate which cuts to the heart of Dutch football

Memphis Depay vs Wout Weghorst: The striker debate which cuts to the heart of Dutch football

“Talk to my big beak, I’m a pelican,” raps Memphis Depay.

That line features on a single released by Depay, alongside Dutch musician and social activist Akwasi, on June 16. Later that day, Depay started for the Netherlands against Poland in the two sides’ opening game of this European Championship.

Depay moonlights as a rapper, but at this tournament he has been accused by many of moonlighting as a striker.

The converted winger is the Netherlands’ second all-time leading scorer (46) behind Robin van Persie (50) — an astonishing feat for the nation which produced Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Marco van Basten.

His performances in Germany this summer, however, have led to questions over his role in the side. Despite a goal in the 3-2 loss to Austria on Tuesday that completed their group campaign, many Dutch fans want to see Burnley’s Wout Weghorst, who has had recent loan spells at Manchester United and Hoffenheim, start as we enter the knockout phase. Or even Bologna’s 23-year-old Joshua Zirkzee.

Including that one against Austria, Depay has scored just three international goals since the 2022 World Cup. And one of the other two was against Gibraltar.

However, he has always had critics. The title of the song mentioned above? “Bedankt Voor Je Mening” — Thanks For Your Opinion. The back of the white headband he has taken to wearing on the pitch bears a similar message: “Who Cares?”

But the answer, when it comes to the Dutch No 9 role, is a nation of around 18 million people.


Koeman and Depay go back a long way.

The Netherlands’ manager has favourites — one is Georginio Wijnaldum, recalled to the squad ahead of these Euros having not been involved in any of the qualifiers and despite being 33 and now playing a low standard of club football in Saudi Arabia. He has come on as a substitute in all three of their games so far at this tournament.

In Depay’s case, it goes back to Koeman’s first spell in charge of the national team, from February 2018 to summer 2020. Back then, Koeman was the coach who recalibrated his career — transforming him from a pacy left-winger into the Netherlands’ first-choice striker. A year later, he brought Depay to Barcelona from France’s Lyon to play the same role for him at Camp Nou.

At first, he played him in a pair for the Netherlands alongside Quincy Promes or Ryan Babel in a 5-3-2, before settling on a 4-2-3-1, with Depay at the tip of the spear and Wijnaldum behind him. It worked well — he scored 11 times under Koeman in 18 games. Then in 2021, still up front under Koeman’s successor Louis van Gaal, he scored 17 from 16 appearances across the calendar year.


Depay scored 17 goals for the Netherlands in 2021 alone (Pieter van der Woude/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Koeman has effectively been trying to reproduce his old system in this tournament, with Tijjani Reijnders starting at No 10 and Wijnaldum off the bench.

Depay’s continued selection was not a surprise despite an injury-hit season at Atletico Madrid, where the now 30-year-old managed just five goals in 23 La Liga appearances, just nine of which were starts. Consider Koeman’s comments entering the tournament, where he told Dutch media he would not have players in the squad whose fitness he doubted, including the likes of Zirkzee, Arsenal defender Jurrien Timber and midfielders Steven Berghuis and Mats Wieffer.

However, Koeman added he would wait for two exceptions — Frenkie de Jong (the Barcelona midfielder who would ultimately fail to recover from an ankle injury) and Depay (who was still struggling with his left leg).

In Koeman’s mind, Depay was the only forward in his squad who could play his favoured style. He also chose Weghorst and Ajax’s Brian Brobbey, with Zirkzee only added less than a week before the tournament as an injury replacement for midfielder Teun Koopmeiners.

Plan A was to have Depay dropping deep, almost playing as a false nine. This, so the theory went, would allow the Netherlands’ two most dangerous attackers, Cody Gakpo and Xavi Simons, to make runs in behind, alongside Reijnders from central midfield.

However, Depay has largely been poor, particularly in the opening two games.

Against France in match two, a 0-0 draw, he had just 28 touches in his 79 minutes on the pitch and lost the ball nine times. His pass completion rate of 63.1 per cent was the lowest of any starter on either side. If the minimum expectation for Koeman’s striker is to link play, Depay failed to do even that.

Public opinion questioned continued game-time for a player who, against France, managed just a single touch in the opposition box, and at that stage of the tournament, had produced just one shot on target and created one chance.

“Memphis has a lot of value to the team,” Koeman insisted after the French game. “He is playing very well. This team utterly needs him. They have to give the ball to him. He will be in the starting line-up (against Austria). Memphis is able to play. He has had a lot of injuries to face. He has to play better, that is clear for all of us.”

Depay was better against Austria — scoring a well-taken equaliser and involving himself more in play, taking the fourth-most touches in the Dutch side (56). His passing, however, was still poor, giving the ball away 21 times — although this was an issue experienced by virtually the entire team.

Of the 33 attackers to have played at least 180 minutes at this tournament, Depay is one of only three (alongside Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Marko Arnautovic of Austria) who has not created a single chance from open play.

The Dutch striker debate has not gone away.


(Jurgen Fromme – firo sportphoto/Getty Images)


“Every player has had a conversation with the national coach, in which clarity was provided,” said Weghorst of his pre-tournament meeting with Koeman. “At the moment, I am not the striker of the Dutch team. That is very disappointing and it sucks.

“I appreciate that he has been clear, (but) it’s annoying. I’ve been really upset about it for the past two days. Now it’s up to me to get my bearings.”

Weghorst did. Just two minutes after coming on in that opener against Poland, the 6ft 5in (197cm) striker scored the 83rd-minute winner, rifling the ball in with his weaker left foot. Ultimately, given the Netherlands’ subsequent results, it would be the goal that sent them through to the last 16.

Afterwards, Weghorst revealed WhatsApp messages on his phone to his pregnant wife Nikki, where he had told her that he would make the difference.

It is not the first time the 31-year-old has had to prove himself.

Weghorst did not make his Netherlands debut until he was 25 — at the same age, Depay had already scored 19 international goals. His rise was a slow burn — via second-division Emmen and Eredivisie minnows Heracles Almelo, before his subsequent emergence at top-flight AZ Alkmaar and Wolfsburg in Germany’s Bundesliga.

He averages roughly a goal per game at major tournaments, scoring at the past three — yet has never entered one as his country’s main man up front.

As The Athletic’s Michael Cox wrote after the Poland game, the Netherlands as a nation has a complicated relationship with big strikers.

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The Dutch as a people have the tallest average height in the world (184cm/just over 6ft) and several target-man types have been regulars for the Netherlands — including Dick Nanninga (15 caps, 190cm), Bas Dost (18, 196), Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (19, 191), Ruud Geels (20, 181), Roy Makaay (43, 186), Wim Kieft (43, 190) and Pierre van Hooijdonk (46, 193).

There is also a subset of strikers over six feet tall — such as Van Persie (183cm) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (186) — who are too technical to properly fall into the former category.

But although Dutch football has a history of tall strikers, it only picks them reluctantly — it is difficult to say any of them are truly loved, except in a fleeting cult hero capacity. In the Netherlands, playing them is like buying an elasticated bowtie — sometimes necessary, but a recognition of your own inabilities.

Instead, the feted names are technical strikers, false nines, or converted wingers, such as Cruyff, Van Basten, Bergkamp and Van Nistelrooy.


Weghorst celebrates scoring the winner against Poland (Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Koeman’s logic, despite his tactical conservatism, follows these lines. He only brings Weghorst on when a change of style is needed, such as focusing on defensive pressure or long balls. Against France, despite Depay’s poor game, Koeman replaced the team’s entire right side before eventually taking him off for Weghorst on 79 minutes.

The difference in style is clear.

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The Opta charts below show the areas on the pitch where each player has taken their open-play touches for the national team since Koeman’s return to the job after the 2022 World Cup. While 18 per cent of Weghorst’s involvements come in the centre of the opposition’s penalty box, that number falls to just seven per cent for Depay, who is far more likely to rotate out to the left wing or drop into midfield.

Depay’s movement can be a good thing, but if he is not scoring, he needs to be creating. And so far this summer, that has not happened.

In contrast, Weghorst assisted Depay against Austria just three minutes after coming on with 15 of the 90 to go, nodding a header across for his team-mate to volley home. The big striker’s statistics have been excellent. While 12 goals from 36 caps does not appear impressive, he has made just 11 starts. As a result, he averages 0.81 goals per 90 minutes for his country — Depay’s rate is 0.59.

Is there any likelihood of Koeman changing his thinking? It remains unlikely.

“I think every team needs ‘Dutch qualities’ and also ‘English qualities’ that make the team stronger,” Koeman said pre-tournament “It is an option (to start Weghorst). We will see what is best for the team and not the best for the player.”

An alternative option is for them to start together. The Dutch did end that Austria defeat with both on the pitch — Weghorst up front and Depay playing on the left wing.

Koeman tried a similar tactic against Canada in one of their warm-up games at the start of the month, starting Depay on the left with Brobbey up front. Micky van de Ven, the left-back that day, almost became a left-winger while in possession as Depay drifted inside.

However, it seems unlikely that Koeman will reprise this against surprise Group E winners Romania in Tuesday’s round of 16 tie.

His first-choice left-back has been Nathan Ake, who has played well in this tournament but whose specialism is dropping into midfield rather than speeding up the wing. It would also likely mean dropping Gakpo, who has started all three games on the left and appeared to be the Netherlands’ most consistent attacker at the moment.

Though Zirkzee and Brobbey are also in the squad, the inclusion of either is a long shot — Koeman has publicly criticised both of their goalscoring records in the past six months. As mentioned, he did not even pick Zirkzee in the initial Euros squad, despite his key role in leading Bologna to Champions League qualification for next season, while Brobbey had a tough season in a poor Ajax side.

Koeman is effectively choosing from two options — Weghorst, a player who became a punchline, and Depay, a player who has carried more punch with his rap lyrics lately than with his actions on the pitch.

Do the Netherlands turn to the in-form but limited Weghorst as they chase a quarter-final against Austria or Turkey a week today, or hope that more game time will unlock Depay’s higher ceiling?

Every indication is that Koeman has made up his mind.

Thanks for your opinion. Depay is his ride-or-die.

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(Top photo: Christoph Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)