From The Archive - Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: The Pressure of Comparisons in Football

This article was originally published on the Penalty Magazine website.

In a recent post match interview Leroy Fer likened his Netherlands compatriot Memphis Depay to Cristiano Ronaldo. There are some obvious similarities between the newly arrived Manchester United star and the one that departed around six years ago.

Both players have arrived to their new home via an elite European team that has a reputation of being somewhat of a feeder club, are goal-scoring wingers blessed with pace and on their arrival they were both compared to previous Red Devil elites. With Ronaldo he had the weight of George Best and David Beckham on his shoulders. Luckily for CR7 he thrived on this, eventually becoming one of, if not the best transfer Manchester United made this side of the millennium. It is this pressure that Memphis Depay now has placed on him, as it this man he has been compared to. As the 2015/2016 season begins we will likely see this comparison raise its head more than a few times. If Depay plays well his performances will be likened to him and used as a compliment but if he appears to struggle the comparison will be used to increase the pressure and slowly become a heavy weight around his neck which could follow him throughout his career as a sign of wasted potential.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, just ask Bruno Cheyrou. In 2002 Gerard Houllier purchased the then 24 year centre midfielder from Lille for £4.5 million. On the young player’s arrival at Anfield he was given the lofty tag of the “new Zidane” by his helpful new coach.

Houllier said: "Bruno has got great skill, good vision and an eye for the pass. I don't make comparisons with Zidane lightly and I believe he can become an important player for Liverpool. Bruno has the same kind of touch and style that Zidane has. There's a lot of similarities between the two when they're on the ball”.

It started off well for the Frenchman. Making his team debut in a short 2 minute cameo against Arsenal in the Community Shield he went on to make a good impression in front of the Anfield faithful in his home debut in a friendly against Lazio. It wasn’t only the Liverpool backroom staff that high hopes for Cheyrou, with the French national team giving him his debut soon after his arrival at Liverpool, making his international bow in a 1-1 draw against Tunisia. In the five minutes that made up his full league debut against Southampton he managed to win his team a penalty. All in all the signs were promising and pointed to the possibility that Houllier’s words had the potential of one day becoming true. Unfortunately for all parties involved the statistics show this was not the case. In his first season he only finished the full 90 minutes in just four games. In his second season he produced his most memorable moment – scoring the winner against Chelsea which provided Liverpool with their first win at Stamford Bridge in 15 years. That season he went on to score a further three goals, scoring once against Wolves and twice at Newcastle. When Rafael Benitez was made manager in the following season it appeared Cheyrou’s days at the club were numbered being shipped out on loan to Marseille and Bordeaux respectively. In 2006 he was sold to Rennes ending a four year stay at the club which resulted in only 17 Premier League starts and just five career goals. His career appeared to have somewhat of a renaissance at Rennes as he made over a hundred appearances at the club but short stays at the Cypriot club Anorthosis Famagusta FC and Nantes show otherwise. The weight of expectation that Houllier placed on Cheyrou became a shackle around the player and a tag that continues to follow him throughout his career.

Another French talent that was announced as the heir apparent to Zizou was Yoann Gourcuff. After scoring a wonder goal whilst playing for Bordeaux against the pre Qatar Sports Investments Paris Saint-Germain the French newspaper L’Equipe described him as “Le Successeur”. During his time at Bordeaux it appeared that the comparisons were accurate with Gourcuff showing signs of being a player with endless talent. Beating Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Franck Ribery to being named the French Footballer of the Year in 2009 was just the tip of the iceberg as he collected a number of individual and team awards which included leading his team to winning the Ligue 1 title as well as the Coupe de la Ligue and Trophées des Champions twice. This amount of success attracted the attention of Lyon, who purchased the player for a fee of €22 million. On his arrival at the club he was given a monthly salary of €366,000, which at the time made him the highest paid player in the country. A host of injuries halted Gourcuff’s progress at the club limiting him to a total of just 90 Ligue 1 appearances with a return of 14 goals and 17 assists. His fitness problems meant that during his five year stay at the club he only completed a full 90 minutes 23 times. In total Lyon are believed to have paid a total of €60 million made up of transfer fees, wages and add-ons for his time at the club. For the potential shown this could have been a bargain if it had been successful. Instead at time of writing Gourcuff is a free agent. If he’s able to remain fit and healthy and utilise the talent he’s blessed with the comparisons won’t seem so disappointing but until then he will forever be described as a player who never reached his true potential.

A final example which started this side of the channel is the sad tale of Michael Johnson. A player with great potential he was heralded by former Manchester City teammate Dietmar Hamman as having the ability to become as good as Michael Ballack while Sven-Gøran Eriksson was sure he would grow to “become the next big star for England”. With Liverpool allegedly willing to pay £12 million to bring him back to Anfield, with the aim to make him heir to the Steven Gerrard throne, it appeared the future was bright for the Urmston native. Unfortunately injuries, arrests for drink-driving and mental health problems caused Johnson to be released and soon after retire from football. In a 2015 interview with the Telegraph he described how he buckled under the huge pressure he was put under. “Pressure affects everybody, but people deal with it in different ways. We all have different skill sets, whether it is football or any job, and I don’t think I had the best skill sets to deal with it. That was part of the reason why I wasn’t able to make the most of my ability, along with the injuries”. It seems in 2015 Michael Johnson is now once again happy and healthy but is probably the biggest example of how a person can buckle under the immense pressure the media places onto footballers by likening them to legends of the game.

The trio of cautionary tales above depict a grim future for Depay if he fails to live up to the comparisons bestowed on him. If he becomes a success the comparisons will lessen, as they did with Ronaldo as he transcends to becoming the measuring stick that all new arrivals will be measured against. It won’t be until he’s played at Manchester United for a couple of seasons that we will see what side of the line Memphis Depay stands on.