Appreciation is an odd thing, as are assessments. Neglected it seems in all of the Barça circus this season is Neymar and his emergence.
We all know the details of his signing, even the legal ones: late-night negotiations in Brazil, mystery payments divulged in the club accounts, Jordi Cases, etc, etc. Neymar almost has as much fame for being the player who brought down a president as for his footballing talents.
When he came to the club, many, many people snarled. “YouTube sensation,” “Why are we signing him instead of players that we need,” “He’s a coach killer,” “He isn’t that good, wait until he gets to Europe,” “Hmph! Robinho 2,” and of course, “Diver.”
Some cautioned patience, that blasphemous “wait and see” attitude that gets people branded “defenders,” etc, but there are times when patience is rewarded.
It goes without saying that Neymar has become an essential player for Barça this season. His goal tally is not only already ahead of his total for last season, but the things that he brings to the game: intelligence, associative play, an almost too-reverential view of teamwork, toughness and of course, absurd quality have made him more even than those who believed in him suspected. He’s even tracking back much more effectively this season.
Neymar started striking home goals and nobody seemed to take much note, almost like he was simply meeting expectation. A few of us, when he came in as a sub, noted how play accelerated. The reasons are clear: like Ronaldinho, he uses his bag of tricks for good rather than show. He’s getting around a defender, getting a teammate the ball, making a clearer path toward goal. But there is also that wildness that has been mentioned in this space before.
It isn’t blasphemy or a bad thing to say that La Masia raises its products with reverence for a certain way of playing football. It’s the same way that a naturally talented tennis player is often not as ultimately successful as a less-gifted player who must rely on learning the game, hitting thousands of backhands so that shotmaking becomes reflex rather than this bit of glib inspiration. Would Xavi have become what he is if he was 6’1” and ran like a gazelle? Interesting question.
And the Masia way breeds a certain predictability, something which has in the past been capitalized on by opponents. Do keepers have great games against Barça because they raise their game, or because the logic of the team’s attack means that you can figure out where the ball is, more likely than not, going to end up?
Neymar has no interest in predictability. And like Tiger Woods when he considers a shot, his abilities mean that new possibilities come to him. These possibilities destabilize a defense in remarkable ways. They also speed up play because he’s only interested in moving toward goal, almost viewing a back or lateral pass as something of a failure to be avoided at all costs. He has 17 goals and 3 assists this season, many of them with roots in that unpredictability, and desire to always move toward the goal. A prototypical Neymar goal from this season was his piledriver against Paris St.-Germain.
When Neymar gets the ball he is already in space. He controls it and immediately drives toward goal. He is bracketed by 4 PSG players, and none are sure what to do. Two are closing from behind in case a pass comes, another is lurking in case he tries to slide it over to a waiting Messi. From within the box of PSG players, with hardly any liftoff that would notify the keeper a shot was in the offing, he smacked a curling, dipping ball into the far lower corner. Those kinds of goals happen. But he was running so fast that the defenders didn’t even have time to figure out where he was going to go, much less account for the possibility of a strike. It was, dare it be said, a Messiesque goal.
It has been some time since Neymar was called a diver but it’s a pretty safe bet that his toughness is a surprise for many, even as those familiar with him spoke of his durability in spite of the abuse he took, week in and week out in Brazil. Some of that is because he has learned how to take a hit. The flying through the air that makes people accuse him of embellishment seems to be self-protection, almost jumping into the contact to ensure that he is never caught with his spikes planted. He gushed blood from an ankle wound against Atleti, the team’s biggest match of the season, plugged the hole, pulled up his bloody socks and got back to work.
Yet it was in the Atleti match, the biggest match of the season, in which precisely the kind of player that Neymar is became clear. He was as unstoppable as Messi, elusive perpetual motion machines on both flanks, one performing with power and drive, the other with that elusive “Wheee!” factor. Because of the tricks that he does, the strength of his game often gets overlooked, just as it did with Ronaldinho. The great R10 had this remarkable ability, thanks to powerhouse legs and a low center of gravity, to all but ignore tackle attempts that would send other players sprawling. He had a reputation as this grinning, lovable trickster, but Ronaldinho was a thug with the ball at his feet. If he couldn’t get around you, he would run through you.
Yes, there are still times when Neymar will choose to go sprawling, rather than riding out a challenge as we have seen him do, time and again. We can only speculate, as on Sunday when he was the most-fouled player on the pitch, that he does it for protection. Calling the offical’s attention to it is the only way to stop it. But there is also bottle to his game, a backbone that lets him get in the face of his opponents, unsetting their game because they want to grab him a choke him. He even blew a kiss at one of his Atleti tormentors on Sunday, in a delightful moment of winding up. Red mist can obscure vision just enough to give Neymar an opening.
As with Henry, Eto’o and Messi, Messi, Neymar and Suarez are fast becoming an essential trio that needs the others to complete it. We have seen Messi and Suarez without Neymar, and it’s a more labored beast. We have also seen this season the times when Neymar came on and immediately sped up a match. It isn’t just because he requires two men to mark, but also because he is always running toward goal – and fast. Keep up. He makes the team play as fast as it is capable of, almost the antithesis of its thoughtful, incisive nature.
It’s hard to know the reason for the Neymar explosion this season. Surely some of it is that usually, an attacker’s second year at Barça is when this complicated world starts to click. But given the coaching instability at the team, it isn’t as though systems are assimilating. But don’t forget that Henry also took off like a rocket under Guardiola as the French striker got comfortable at the club. But is there something more going on with Neymar?
He was named captain of his national team at the World Cup this summer, as not only the best player on the team but the player who made Brazil go. He is fast growing in maturity, an old man of 22 years old who has been in the spotlight in a football-mad country since he was very young. He understands pressure and demanding fans, comprehends and soaks up people who in many ways are almost willing to revel in failure.
Not playing football in Argentina in many ways protected Messi from that same kind of nastiness as a youth player. He was brilliant and lauded at Barça, and carried astronomical expectations. But Messi was allowed to grow up around Ronaldinho. At Santos, Neymar was The Man. For Brazil, Neymar was The Man. He is very poised and polished, never saying the wrong thing. When asked after the Atleti match who runs the club, Neymar quickly replied, “Bartomeu.” Journalists waiting for him to say the wrong thing had better not hold their breath.
It would be arrogant to say that Barça is the most demanding football club in the world, but it is certainly right up there. When you drop a high-priced transfer into that environment, and tack onto that legal complexities and the resignation of a president, the pressure would be sufficient to make a lesser player wilt. But as a product of football-mad Brazil, Neymar just smiles, throws out some Instagram shots and gets ready to play on the weekend.
Luis Enrique also deserves some credit in the Neymar surge. As Jordi Alba has rounded into form, the aggressive, more open style of play that the team is favoring this season is allowing Neymar his head. And with Messi on the right wing a lot of the time, when he cuts into the middle to morph into a playmaker, that space isn’t occupied. He has a willing foil in Messi, a player who has every bit of the talent that Neymar has and a pile more in reserve. Neymar plays fast, Messi can accelerate that tempo as they work together in a way that two absurdly gifted composers can write songs that nobody is quite prepared for.
The addition of Luis Suarez has also created playing space for Neymar, because suddenly there is a predator running around, so teams can’t dispatch three defenders to deal with Neymar. Do that and a couple of flicks later Suarez has the ball and Neymar is darting toward goal. Like Messi and Suarez, Neymar wants to win. If he has to assist, assist an assister or score himself is immaterial. And that’s what makes certain players dangerous. Ronaldo is more dangerous now because you can’t play him for the shot automatically.
All that said, Neymar isn’t a great player. Yet. But he is an astonishingly talented attacker with more than enough of the necessary qualities that over time, certainly provide the foundation for him to potentially become a “great” player. Whether that final blossoming will come at Barça, only time will tell. But in the here and now, it is clear that Neymar has not only arrived, but become much of what many expected of him in the process.
The future is bright.