Ever wondered what Cristiano Ronaldo eats for breakfast? Follow him on Instagram. Want to win a signed pair of Lionel Messi’s boots? “Like” his Facebook page. How is Rio Ferdinand getting to training in the morning? Check Wayne Rooney’s Twitter feed.
Considering the scrutiny under which top-level players are placed by the media, the level of exposure that they often choose to give to their private lives appears a little self-defeating. Players continually walk a virtual tightrope, and the use of social media has contributed little to counter the age old cliché regarding footballers’ questionable intelligence.
At the other end of the spectrum, the principal location for fan debate has migrated to the online universe, leaving the lager-fuelled analysis of the pub pundit in its wake. Football now has a worldwide forum – open all hours to just about anyone, and unlike down the local, you won’t get sent on your way for being too loud.
The tribal nature of football fans is not diluted in the virtual world, either. If anything, the baiting of rival supporters has reached new heights – or plumbed new depths – in an arena where goading is usually, at worst, met with equally childish retorts until someone decides they are running thin on insults and bails out with a quick press of the “block” button.
It takes significantly less courage to aggravate a rival via Twitter than it does outside a football ground on a Saturday, or to hurl abuse at a struggling player. Therein lies the inherent issue with football and social media.
The internet has become synonymous with knee-jerk reactions and instant, ill-considered, judgement. The football fan of 2015 demands instant results and is often afflicted with the inability to look beyond the present day, no matter how bad a day that may have been.
Players are now one bad performance away from a hammering at the hands of the masses, and more worryingly, the club’s own supporters. The marriage of footballers and fans online was always likely to be a tumultuous one. Yet, some of the comments directed at United players during and after Wednesday’s shock defeat to Middlesbrough, particularly those in the fledgling period of their career, was unbecoming of a club that takes pride in a focus on youth.
Which brings us to Memphis Depay. The 21-year-old from Moodrecht enjoyed a promising start to life in Manchester – catching the eye in preseason and emerging as the key figure in United’s negotiation of the treacherous Champions League third qualifying round, bagging two excellent goals and two assists as United disposed of Club Brugge.
Since then his form has wilted and his confidence appears to have run dry. In recent weeks, Memphis has been consigned to the bench, and in truth, he looks a little shell-shocked.
Predictably, given the player’s lofty price-tag and cocksure personality, the knives are being hastily sharpened in some quarters at the prospect of Memphis following the same path as the previous incumbent in seven – the tepid Angel di Maria.
Thankfully, the fee for which Memphis was acquired from PSV Eindhoven was not as eye-watering as the near £60 million United forked out to bring the sulky Argentine to Manchester – in hindsight, seemingly against his will – lest he would probably have been flogged in public by now. Yes, United paid a lot of money to sign Memphis, and he undoubtedly arrived with a big reputation, but that does not alter the fact that he is only 21.
Despite being younger than Jesse Lingard, and only slightly older than James Wilson, the early signs are that Memphis will not be afforded the same level of patience and support that the two home-grown talents have enjoyed thus far.
Regardless of cost or weight of expectation, Memphis is a young player – and young players are frustrating. It is an obvious comparison, but if Twitter had reached its nadir when Cristiano Ronaldo was 21, the treatment received by the Portuguese at the hands of the internet hordes would have been similarly fierce.
Ronaldo was the very definition of infuriating. The winger displayed flashes of genius amid extended periods of over-elaboration and poor decision-making, all whilst provoking consternation with a headstrong persona and penchant for the theatrical. In short, social media would have had a field day with Ronaldo. And look how wrong the masses would have been.
Parallels with a young Cristiano in no way show that Memphis will go on to emulate one of Old Trafford’s last true superstars, but the need for United fans to exercise patience with the young Dutchman still rings true.
Memphis may flourish in spite of being labelled as a “fraudster”, an “expensive flop” and an “overhyped tool” by United supporters. The player is, after all, less than half way through a maiden season in England – a league that is notoriously difficult to adapt to, even for the most established star. He possesses the physical attributes to deal with the rough and tumble nature that sets the Premier League apart from other European leagues. There are also signs that Memphis has the ability to turn a game on his own.
Unfortunately it is an era where a primary source of information on foreign talent comes through the medium of video highlight packages or even six second Vine clips. Fans’ expectations often climb to unrealistic heights before the player has even put pen to paper.
Those countless YouTube montages of the winger’s free kick prowess at PSV Eindhoven were undeniably exciting, but they don’t show you the ones that landed in the cheap seats. The skills packages omit the times Memphis ran straight into the defender instead of bamboozling his opponent with some outlandish piece of trickery.
The inevitable result is an illusion – too many fans were expecting Memphis to be the finished article, even if the collective tweet on the day he signed proclaimed that the player would be given time to settle. And time is both what Memphis needs, and what he hasn’t had enough of yet.
The irony of the situation is that Memphis appears to revel in the celebrity that comes hand-in-hand with being a footballer, and social media is a massive part of that. He commands 1.7 million followers on Instagram, and a further 650,000 on Twitter. Yet, it is within this universe that the wolves will come calling, long before Memphis experiences any dissent on the terraces.
The young Dutchman is also a victim of Anthony Martial’s instant success. Martial has swept the Old Trafford faithful off their feet in a way that no one expected, and Memphis’ inability to match the performance level of the Frenchman may have contributed to the rising tide of criticism. The internet loves a hero, and now it is Martial, not Memphis, who is capturing the imagination.
Regardless, any football coach will attest that young players develop at different rates. Some find their game more quickly than others. Given his age, there will likely come a time when Martial struggles too. Will the social media collective vehemently accuse the youngster of fraud after a few poor performances?
Fan reaction on the internet will not be the deciding factor in Memphis’ United career. That will derive from whether the player indeed possess the ability many suspect, coupled with the strength of character required to flourish at a club of United’s size.
Labelling the young man a failure after three months of the season woefully premature; it is also a sad indictment of the modern football fan. Tweet that if you like.