Neymar has a problem.
Neymar IS a problem.
Whichever (or both) of those sentences you think true, there is one thing we can agree on: Neymar is a galvanizing figure on the world football stage. When he came to Barça at the beginning of this season for a pile of cash, nobody knew what to expect.
Cruijff said that Neymar and Messi were incompatible. Others cried luxury purchase, that the club needed a CB more than a Brazilian with malleable hair and an Instagram fetish.
Still others said that he was one of the best players in the world even at the tender age of 21, with associative play of the type that could fit in very effectively at Barça.
He came, and then came the contract, an ongoing legal wrangle that makes both of this piece’s opening sentences true.
Let’s get that out of the way. It is a rancid boondoggle of a deal whose full cost we will never know. It helped force a president to scuttle down the ratlines, and contributed to the idea that Neymar is the highest-paid player on the club.
In order to adequately assess Neymar on the pitch we have to discard the contract rancor. Then you’re left with a player who has 15 goals and 11 assists, who has been decisive in big matches from the SuperCopa to both Classics, in Liga and recently notching a delight of a goal against Atleti in Champions League.
Prima facie, Neymar dropped into a club with some major problems and had a fine first season. Looking at other high-profile first year attackers at Barça is interesting:
Alexis Sanchez had 15 goals and 5 assists. Thierry Henry got 17 goals and 11 assists. David Villa tallied 23 goals and 6 assists
If we were to use hockey’s points system that aggregates goals and assists, at 26 points, Neymar is right in the ballpark with other first-year Barça attackers.
Time to move on
Two writers who I respect very much and read religiously, Jonathan Wilson and Graham Hunter, each wrote about Neymar this week. Wilson suggests that Barça’s delicate ecosystem makes accommodating Neymar complex.
Hunter is even more direct, making the argument that Barça should admit that Neymar was a mistake, sell him and move forward.
Both make essentially the same point, that Neymar is the wrong player for the system and the wrong player for Messi in that his presence on the pitch doesn’t allow the team to get the best out of Messi.
My quibbles are given the mess this season has been, evaluating anything is darn near impossible. Yes, I’m greedy, and want to have two of the best players in the world at Barça. Wilson makes a fine tactical argument about the complexity of the arrangement and its pitfalls, as does Hunter.
Bur for me, rather than Neymar being a problem for the ecosystem, it is the system that has to adapt to the player just as the player has to adapt to the system. Tactical flexibility is a key part of a winning football team. You don’t spend tens of millions on a player, run your game and deem the project a failure. Ibrahimovic 2.0.
Ideally, Neymar creates space for Messi, then uses his passing and associative play to get the ball to him, or do the damage himself.
In reality the ball goes over to Neymar on the left. He stops, dances, tries something, loses the ball. Or he does something that works and our other attackers are standing around saying, “Whooo, baby! How in the hell did THAT happen?” Then the opposition keeper scoops up the pass to start a counterattack, leaving Barça with two players not tracking back instead of one (though Neymar is improving in that regard). As Iniesta noted in his presser, if everyone doesn’t defend, it creates problems.
Luxury or necessity?
Neymar was an important purchase for a club that didn’t want to run its superstar into the ground. Taken to its logical, fully empowered coach extreme, the arrival of such a player meant that Messi would play less often rather than being the first name on the team sheet, when not plagued by anything short of a gunshot wound.
“We bought a bauble when we should have bought a CB.” Sorry, but the best young attacker on the planet is hardly a bauble. More importantly we should have bought Neymar AND a CB. It isn’t the player’s fault that the board and sporting staff only did half of their job.
The other part of that equation is politics, and expectation. Martino is going to play Messi because you can’t NOT play Messi. “How is he going to score eleventybillion goals if he’s sitting on the bench?” For me if Messi has 20 goals but they are against RM and in the Champions League knockouts and finals, I’m good with that, acknowledging my weirdness in not caring about individual stats or glory for any of our players. I would much rather their glory come by association, the reflected glint of the light hitting a big-ass pile of silver.
So yes, when Messi scored 91 goals, it was nice for him, but he shouldn’t have needed to be in a position where such a thing was possible or even, in some matches, necessary. Neymar was supposed to help solve that problem but as some have pointed out, he at times exacerbates it. What happened?
Stagnation and immobility
Last weekend during the Granada match Neymar pulled some move, found space and slid a ball into the middle. There was a time when a voracious Messi would have seen what was happening, got on that side of the defender and tapped home. Instead Messi stood there looking at the ball like, “Hmmm … looka there.” More than a few people on Twitter said, “He didn’t even try to move for that ball.”
Whether the result of confusion, lack of leadership or some other factor, attackers aren’t moving. Xavi stands there holding the ball, because nobody is moving. Song gets the ball, has no passing options. Iniesta gets a ball, has no passing options, makes a run. The pinball-like frenzy that used to define our front line in the glory days, saw a contemporary adaptation when Martino was trying to instill verticalidad early in the season. Because slow-moving attackers are easy to defend, which leads to 1-0 losses against teams that on paper, Barça is supposed to beat.
Is immobility Neymar’s fault, or another example of a broken team/club?
What is tika-taka?
Tika taka is a response to a stimulus. How do we win matches with our collection of small, skilled players? Keep the ball. The run dictates the pass. Do enough of them and goals should result. That’s tika taka as a tactic, as differentiated from possession football, which is indeed the Barça Way. Keep the ball, but do something with it, then work to get it back so that you can try again.
Tika taka has for me, become the goal rather than the means to an end, which creates a problem for a player like Neymar. Alexis Sanchez is another one hindered by it, which is why people always ask, “Why doesn’t he play for Barça as he does for Chile?” In the days of Martino’s attempted evolution, he was, and was a player reborn. But for Neymar, tika taka means slower play, which limits his options or forces him to face up against 2-3 defenders. Then he has to make something happen or pass the ball back to midfield, and the tactical reset button. As with Sanchez, you take a player who thrives in space and movement (typical is the second goal of the Camp Nou Classic), and slow them down to fit a system. And then we wonder why those players aren’t the same players they were when they were bought.
Toss tika taka? Is that the rumble of thunder and a looming lightning bolt in the background? Well … yes. Tika taka has been found out, and the solution is pressure and physicality, compressing space and eliminating passing options. Verticalidad worked because defenses set up to press and deny space were thinking “Hey, they don’t care about keeping the ball! They’re running past us!” And it worked. Tika taka has been found out, so let’s try something new that allows the team to get the best out of ALL of its players, not just Messi.
Incompatible with Messi
For me, Neymar’s alleged incompatibility with Messi is a coaching and tactical problem rather than a fundamental one. A moving Neymar and a moving Messi in a democratic attack that only cares how many goals the team scores is an ideal, and potentially devastating. Add a running Pedro or Sanchez to that, and you will get goals. You might not win the possession stats, but you get your two best attackers running at a defense and creating options with movement, rather than trying to beat a wall of 2-3 defenders from a standstill. That leads only to lost balls and opponent counters, neither of which the rest of the team is equipped to deal with.
For me, the best Messi was when he was on a front line of equals, in Eto’o and Henry. He didn’t score as many goals, but the danger was so diverse. Then that space compressed to the point where Barça attackers are playing in human telephone booths. The solution for a while was the counter, as Barça had as many counterattacking goals as any team in Europe.
“Playing like RM,” culers scoffed. “That isn’t our way,” others said, claiming that Martino was abandoning the Barça principles, whatever those were. Ain’t no stone tablets in the Museu.
But if every potential addition begins with “Who will work best for Messi,” the answer will continue to be “nobody new.” Because the limitations can’t be allowed to define the solution to a dilemma.
At present, Neymar and Messi aren’t working well together. But that is true of the entire team. Fixing a car that won’t start by washing it isn’t how I would go about it. Messi isn’t playing well by his standard. He isn’t moving as he usually does, isn’t scoring as he usually does, leading people to ask what’s wrong with Messi?
Logically, you can’t ask what’s wrong with your best player, then say the new signing isn’t compatible with that player. Maybe if Messi were playing as he customarily does, there would be less of a problem. No, that doesn’t mean it’s Messi’s fault. It does acknowledge that a great player isn’t on form right now, on a team that is no position to sit him as it would other players struggling with form.
The best Neymar
Barça has been broken for some time now, so we haven’t seen the consistent situations in which Neymar can thrive. Barça isn’t always going to get the space for the team to become Track Meet Barça, but it is important when that space is present for the team not to deny it. Smack the ball up the wing for Neymar to run onto, enabling him to use his creativity on the move without facing a wall of defenders. Make a defense move to him so that it creates passing options. You can create space in how you attack a defense, if you move the ball, then your ass.
Neymar is in many ways like Henry, a much-lauded player who comes to Barça on the heels of a big price tag and even bigger expectations. After Henry’s first season, which wasn’t a bad one except by the standard of one of the best forwards in history, people wanted him gone. Had that happened, his remarkable second season wouldn’t have happened. Neymar needs time, but as importantly he needs for the team to come some of the way to meet his skill set, as he has adapted to fit the existing Barça template.
The last time we were having such discussions was with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Then again it was “He doesn’t fit Barça, he doesn’t work with Messi.” After the psych meltdown and late-night Camp Nou roustabout, the Ibrahimovic deal became a full-on fiscal disaster. A player who added a useful and effective dimension to the attack was unloaded for peanuts.
Neymar isn’t going to have a psychological meltdown to make it easy for people to dislike him for those reasons. What’s more, you need the best to play with the best, rather than dropping the a talented player into a stagnant system already found out by opponents and say, “See? Doesn’t work.”
Ultimately, the “Neymar doesn’t work” crew might well be right but at present, for me he needs time and the opportunity to be part of a fit, functioning team rather than the mess we have right now. Until then …