It is very safe to say that not since the arrival of Ronaldinho has a player come with so much weight.
As many of you know, then-president Joan Laporta was running on the “bring Beckham” platform, even as that deal never had a chance of happening. Ronaldinho was the one, and boy, did that work out. And now we have another Brazilian, who is describing a very different path from Ronaldinho, one fraught with complexity.
The question now is, what does that path mean, and what does it mean for the club?
Ronaldinho spent some time at Paris St. Germain, a bridge club, if you will, to give him a taste of European football without going full immersion. So when he came to Barça, it was already clear that he was going to be able to cut it against top European sides. He had a complete package of skills, that was only enhanced by his time at PSG.
Neymar, while a bridge club would have been preferable, is coming straight to us from Santos. The last time a heralded Brazilian came directly from Brazil to a big Spanish club was Robinho. And while certainly, people scoff at the Neymar notion, saying he might be the next Robinho, that player’s years with RM weren’t exactly a disaster, even as they didn’t approach what his talent promised. Why not is a question for another day, a question that we hope we never have to ask about our star Brazilian signing.
So let’s break it down a little bit, from my own personal worldview:
Santos has stated that there is a confidentiality agreement in place, so no numbers about the deal are going to be released. RM-centric media outlets have the price as high as a deal totaling 100m. Sid Lowe, in a piece for the Guardian, echoed something approaching those numbers
Barça-centric media outlets are reporting that we paid 28m for the player, exclusive of any pot-sweeteners such as signing bonuses, agents’ fees, etc, etc. And barring a president that comes in demanding that the deal be exposed, or some very astute reading of the tea leaves that is the club’s annual report, the real numbers might never become clear, which leads to another question:
Do the numbers matter? The price is what the price was, and the player is ours. Numbers can be used to pillory or buttress, as in “We paid X for him? Nice bit of business,” or “We paid X for him? That’s just stupid. He isn’t worth that.” But “worth” is a difficult thing to describe, define and assess. What we do know is that we have an exceptionally marketable player, something that could not have been lost on the marketing-focused Sandro Rosell, in the acquisition of a player that is going to define his presidency.
Properly used, Neymar can easily make back his transfer fee just in marketing proceeds, over the life of his five-year contract. This doesn’t even take into account shirt sales. Yes, Brazil will always, like most countries, be a hotbed of counterfeit shirts. But I daresay that suddenly, a market that didn’t really exist for us now has life as Brazil’s best and brightest light signed for us. Nothing makes new supporters like making that kind of a move.
Some observers have been noticing that Neymar’s hair is an indication of his maturity level. He has gone from full My Little Pony, to something that would fit in on our bench, populated as it is by the likes of football hair from people such as Song, Pinto and Alves. But there have been dire predictions of what is going to happen when Neymar comes. Johan Cruijff bluntly said that we already have Messi, and you can’t have two chiefs. Prediction or admonition?
In watching Neymar play with the Brazilian NT and Ronaldinho in particular, it’s hard to know how the player is going to behave. In this situation, he is humble, and conforms to the general tone of play, passing, playing bright, associative football and contributing to the whole joga bonito business. This is unlike at Santos, where he is clearly The Man. But even in those situations, of which I admittedly haven’t seen enough to make a definitive call one way or the other, it strikes me that he behaves (recently, in the mature phase) not much differently than Messi. The team is on his shoulders, and he acts like it, running the show, taking the shots and taking the responsibility for making the team go.
At Barça, he is coming to a group featuring the best player in the world, backed by a passel of world-class players, many of whom boast World Cup and other global silverware in their trophy cases. We’re in wait-and-see mode, but nothing that I have seen from the player makes me believe that he will come in and be a disruptive, ball-hogging force. Not only won’t Vilanova allow it, but the players won’t allow it.
We should have spent money on defense
In the absence of a real threat at left wing, which we haven’t had since Thierry Henry left, we have been trying a number of things, all having to do with diluting our approach on other parts of the pitch.
–First Abidal was trying to add offense to his game.
–Iniesta was used on the left side.
–Villa was sent out there.
–Most recently, Alba is now a left-sided Alves, to the detriment of the team during counters and attacks.
In Neymar, whose usual position is LW, we solve a number of complexities: Alba doesn’t need to bomb around, which makes him revert to being a full-time defender, rather than part-time left winger. We also gain passing and ball control because of Neymar’s Barça-quality close control and comfort in tight spaces.
So, instead of that gaping maw on the left as Alba is caught up the pitch, something exploited by opponent after opponent this season, we have a left back AND a left winger, and one who contributes on defense as he does with Brazil, at that crucial time of when the opponent first gets the ball and starts building the attack.
Theoretically, offense and defense have improved with this acquisition.
None of which means that the need for a CB purchase is negated. But to my view, this club had more than a few tactical problems to solve. Closing the opponents preferred attack route on the left was one, and getting a credible goalscoring threat on the left wing from an actual winger was another. We didn’t have that with Villa, and it’s too early to tell with Tello.
Speaking of goals
In 4 seasons at Santos, Neymar has 118 goals (from 229 shots on target; 338 shots total)/31 assists (based on some rather casual math at ESPN SoccerNet), in 165 matches for his club over four seasons. Unless my math is crazy, that’s a conversion rate approaching an absurd 50+% of shots on target, and a 30+% conversion rate of total shots, which puts him in the Messi/Falcao efficiency bracket. That is also more goals than Robinho has in a career twice as long, counting club AND country. But is Neymar a goal scorer? Good question. In 5 years with Barça, Samuel Eto’o, a man nobody can suggest isn’t a goal scorer, had something like 125 goals for the club. So statistically, Neymar IS a goal scorer, right?
Wrong. He is a creative player who can score goals, as with Ronaldinho. As with other signings, a note of caution: In looking at what Neymar has done with Santos, as people concluded when they looked at what Henry did with Arsenal and figured he would do more with us, you would be wrong to assume that buckets of goals will be the result. It would also be wrong to draw any correlation between price tag and goal production, and not only because the game is measured in more than goals.
So what will happen on the pitch?
Man, is that complex. For me, I don’t think it will be a middle ground. Neymar will either be spectacular, or a bust. Given his talent, I just don’t see him settling into a Robinho level, but if he doesn’t make the grade it will be because of something silly and cataclysmic (see Ibrahimovic) and RoSELL will be selling jamon Iberico from a street corner cart the following season. So ….
Iniesta on the left wing, that can score goals. Put down those knives. No, I am not saying Neymar is as good as Iniesta, or should even be compared to Iniesta. What I am saying is that in terms of skill set — dribbling ability, ability to beat defenders and get into the box, unusual ability to ghost past defenders using ball tricks, ability to set up teammates with incisive passes — Neymar has qualities that are Iniestaesque. Plus he can score goals.
He can also lead or finish a fast break, which becomes a real possibility with he, Messi and Sanchez on the front line, as all are runners. Presently, we don’t have a fast break. The defense gets the ball, and nobody is running. Messi and Villa are already at the other end, surrounded by the defense. If Sanchez is in he is running, but the defenders usually play the ball to a midfielder, to begin the process.
But recall when we had Messi/Henry/Eto’o, and how many goals came from bust-outs, turned possession and a defender feeding a streaking forward. I do. That becomes a possibility with Neymar.
In that ideal world, the result will be more goals for, and fewer goals against because our fullbacks will be more like fullbacks, rather than wingers tracking back. And our attackers will be getting at defenses before they have a chance to set up. How ’bout that?
Neymar is a ball-hogging, Riverdancing clown who tries tricks that fail, takes shots when he should be passing, doesn’t track back and makes Messi want to kill him in his sleep. He loses the ball, creating opposition counters that threaten our defense and its new keeper. And he is sold in two seasons. This is what many cules envision, and I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t a viable possibility. Ego does strange things to human beings.
So what about Messi?
When Neymar joins us, he will have to assimilate, a daunting task. Alexis Sanchez said it has been like learning to play football all over again. But as with any player, the team will also have to learn to play with him, Messi included. No, this doesn’t mean, as some have suggested when I have written this in the past, that Messi will have to kowtow in any way to Neymar. Far from it. But Messi will have a new world of possibilities at his disposal, along with a player who will relieve some of the immense pressure that is on his shoulders.
How Messi plays and interacts with Neymar will be crucial, and will depend on how Neymar approaches blending into his new team. What I don’t think Neymar should do is vanish into a void of assimilation so deeply that he doesn’t become himself or becomes indecisive, as the Sanchez example. The challenge will be not being The Man, but rather being a player on the best team in the world, playing with the best player in the world. That, more than anything ON the pitch, will be the most difficult part of playing for Barça for Neymar.
But like all great players who are The Man, Messi will also have to adjust to accommodate Neymar and his talents, because they are different, and we haven’t had them in a while. Messi isn’t ego-less. Far from it. But in no way do I perceive that the ego will be a problem, because Messi wants to win championships more than he wants to win scoring titles. So as long as Neymar does the work, unlike Crujff, I can’t see any difficulties with having he and Messi on the same club.
And now, we wait. Presentation is in early June, along with a busy summer for our players with Confederations Cup, etc. And there’s also that Bayern friendly, which I rather imagine is circled on a few calendars.
For now, this is all just speculation. None of it could happen, or all of it could happen. We will read stories that say he is going to be a disaster, and here’s why. We will also read stories that say he is going to be a wonder, and here’s why. But nobody can predict the future, only offer speculation based on what is known and frankly, what is hoped will be, whether the piece is calling for success or failure.
But the biggest thing that I am craving is for cules to accept Neymar as a Barça player, rather than an absurd price tag and a haircut. Yes, it’s hard getting away from the IDEA of Neymar (La Neymarrrr!), and finding that vexing. I agree. Fully. And for sure, he will screw up, which doesn’t mean that he is a failed transfer or not Barça quality. It just means that he is a young player trying to fit into the best club in the world, playing with the best players in the world.
Give the dude a chance, and let’s see what happens.