May 26, 2013, 7:54 PM EST
Happily, I was wrong about this future — speculation we were in for another summer of interminable Neymar gossip. Instead, the various entities with ownership stakes in Brazil’s biggest star decided to sell. Instead of trying to improve their negotiating stance by pursing an extension to Neymar’s Santos deal (which expired next year), the club and other investors paved the player’s route to Barcelona, even though the 21-year-old was willing to stay.
It made for an emotional scene today as Santos opened their Campeonato campaign against Flamengo at the country’s new national stadium in Brasilia. Before what was expected to be his final Santos appearance, Neymar was clearly emotional, a state the perhaps played into the team’s performance. The match produced the first 0-0 of the Brazilian weekend, Neymar allowed to see out the full 90 at a venue named after another Brazilian legend: the right-winger Garrincha.
It’s on the opposite flank where Neymar may make his mark for Barcelona, a team that desperately needs a second threat to offset their increased dependence on Lionel Messi. It’s not just that Barça’s attack has become increasingly centered on their Argentine dynamo, a process with extremes that became evident when Messi picked up an injury late in the Catalans’ Champions League campaign. Tito Vilanova team has lost all their Plan Bs. Whereas previous editions in this Barcelona run had Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, and a year of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — players who were scoring goals independent of Messi’s play – now David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, and Pedro Rodríguez are entirely dependent on Messi. Either through what Messi creates or the attention defense pay to him, Barcelona’s other goal scoring is a function of Plan A.
Of course, we’re speaking in relative terms. Barcelona has scored 111 goals in 37 La Liga games, so their attack isn’t exactly weak. By any reasonable, broad measure, it’s still prolific, but in big games, they’ve become easier to predict, their lack of variety allowing teams like Milan and Paris Saint-Germain to compete. Demurring into a deep, compact shape that declined to engage until the edge of Barcelona’s attacking third, Milan defeated Barça at home in Champions League’s Round of 16. PSG arguably outplayed Barcelona in the quarterfinals, while Bayern Munich were eventually able to counter the Catalans into embarrassment. Along the way it became apparent: Teams with the talent to compete at Europe’s highest level were having little trouble competing with Barcelona.
Barça needs a solution, particularly with defenses playing so deep, so tight that the influences of Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta are also being offset. In lieu of another experiment with a target striker, an exercise that’s unlikely in the wake of Ibrahimovic, Barcelona needs a player who can stretch defenses – somebody who can offer more of a threat than the mere width of Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba. Before suffering a broken leg in Yokohama in December 2011, Villa could have been that threat his ability to cut in from wide left and create goals a proven catalyst for the Spanish national team. Villa, however, has yet to regain his full place in the team, having scored only 15 all-competition goals this season.
Neymar has the potential to fill this void. If he lives up to his promise, the Brazilian will stretch opposing defenses, his skill on the ball giving Barça the type of one-on-one threat that can’t trusted to most right backs. Should teams decline to go out and play him, Neymar has the ability to pick his spots coming in or threaten with right-footed crosses from wide.
It’s a threat the team hasn’t had since Henry, whose second year in Barcelona produced 29 goals and 12 assists as a Plan B in Pep Guardiola’s attack. As he faded, Ibrahimovic left, and Messi gravitated toward a central role, Barcelona stopped utilizing this type of wide threat, their persistent winning ways perhaps obscuring the inevitable problem.
It may be a bit much to expect Neymar to replicate the numbers Henry produced in 2008-09, though he certainly has the talent. Still, there’s reason to doubt he can be so prolific, at least in the short-term. The jump to Europe presents unique challenges for every player, especially one leaving his country for the first time. Because of his early rise to stardom, Neymar’s been able to live a self-defining existence in Brazil, something that will change once he lands in Catalunya. Near-30-goal output is too much to ask for the coming season, which is not to say Neymar needs produce that much to be an immediate success.
On the field (or, on the chalkboard), Neymar seems a perfect fit – a player that allows Barcelona to regress to a most-balanced approach. Were they to persist as a vehicle Messi’s used to take on the world, Barcelona would face the same obstacles next season, and be equally troubled traversing them.
With the addition of a true Plan B (and what a Plan B, at that), Barcelona may be able to jumpstart its dynasty. Whether Neymar produces 30 goals or 15, as long as he scares opponents into accounting for him, he will have a huge impact on Barcelona’s success.
They still need to improve their defense, determine how to move forward with their coaching position, and improve their depth. But with the addition of a second legitimate threat, Barcelona may have solved their biggest problem – big time opposition having figured them out.
Dec 4, 2013, 1:58 PM EST
Who’s heading where, at least for today? Time for a proper transfer rumor roundup.
Dec 4, 2013, 1:00 PM EST
Valeri and Ricketts recipients of MLS awards.
Dec 4, 2013, 12:10 PM EST
Superstar builds museum in first of several planned moves to raise profile of his home region.
Dec 4, 2013, 11:21 AM EST
Rossi + Zidane + family = a golden World Cup ad.
Dec 4, 2013, 10:50 AM EST
What’s the best the USA can hope for Friday’s World Cup draw? Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Dec 4, 2013, 9:38 AM EST
Rodney Marsh not exactly showering praise on current Fulham stars.
Dec 4, 2013, 8:48 AM EST
Oh, mid-week League play, how you move us…
Dec 4, 2013, 7:39 AM EST
After the Belgian striker suggested he could stay at Everton permanently, his Chelsea boss reminds all who makes the decisions. Meanwhile, Spanish reports suggest Tata Martino is watching.
Dec 3, 2013, 11:58 PM EST
Hint: NBC analyst Kyle Martino doesn’t believe the case for chance is compelling enough:
Dec 3, 2013, 11:05 PM EST
Playoffs or no playoffs, the goal should be the same. And in that light, MLS has done fine in 2013.
Some interesting names to discuss as Toronto FC declines contract options on several notable veterans
Dec 3, 2013, 10:18 PM EST
Bobby Convey, Stefan Frei and Robert Earnshaw among those not being brought back to BMO Field:
Dec 3, 2013, 8:22 PM EST
For Don Garber, there is no secret to this recipe; it’s about the right ownership group with (urban area) stadium plan:
Dec 3, 2013, 7:58 PM EST
In a word, “horse trading” … which means looking for games to play in 2014:
Dec 3, 2013, 7:29 PM EST
So, now we are showing them to you:
About that radical MLS calendar shift to a “winter” league: MLS commissioner Don Garber says it’s not happening soon
Dec 3, 2013, 6:50 PM EST
Absolutely, positively not for 2014, Garber reiterated on Tuesday:
Dec 3, 2013, 6:20 PM EST
We focus on the worst scenarios, but in 2010, fortune shined on the U.S. Whether it happens again, the States may be due for a tough draw.
Dec 3, 2013, 5:35 PM EST
How MLS players, club leaders and media members voted … and some thoughts on where the voting might be a little off:
Crystal Palace 1-0 West Ham United: Eagles protect first half goal, take first win under Pulis (video)
Dec 3, 2013, 4:57 PM EST
A late first half converted corner held up for Palace, who claimed their first win since Tony Pulis’s appointment.
Dec 3, 2013, 4:37 PM EST
FIFA World Rankings haters may have something to celebrate. Then again, ignoring the rankings for the nine-team problem may mean nothing.
Dec 3, 2013, 4:05 PM EST
You know who’s in. You know the pots. Here’s how it will go down:
- What US Soccer wants from the World Cup draw 9
- How well did Major League Soccer’s format work in 2013? Few qualms with this year’s results 7
- 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: Here’s how it’s going to work 1
- 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: The sum of all fears scenario for the United States 14
- World Cup Draw: United States in Pot Three 11
- Meet the Premier League’s other U.S. international goalkeeper: Cody Cropper 5
- Premier League Preview: Manchester United v. Everton 1
- Debunking the myth of Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City as bitter rivals 2
- Sit down with Orlando City SC: Taking on Beckham, emulating the Timbers and Kaka in 2015 – Part I (21)
- USA drop one spot to 14th in latest FIFA World Rankings, Portugal surge to fifth (19)
- Video of Jermaine Jones’ terrific goal Saturday for Schalke (16)
- 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: The sum of all fears scenario for the United States (14)
- World Cup Draw: United States in Pot Three (11)