May 26, 2013, 7:54 PM EDT
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.
Aug 1, 2014, 9:59 AM EDT
West Ham, Crystal Palace and Newcastle have all added players for 2014/15, according to reports.
Aug 1, 2014, 9:23 AM EDT
Would City’s best prospects playing in MLS be a boon for the league, or lend the league a minor league image it’s trying to escape?
Aug 1, 2014, 8:36 AM EDT
Alberto Moreno of Sevilla is the key cog of the pair, appearing 40-plus times for Sevilla in its run across La Liga and the Europa League.
Aug 1, 2014, 7:57 AM EDT
Brazilian outlet UOL says Ronaldinho could be on his way to Major League Soccer, as the Red Bulls up the ante in NY rivalry.
Aug 1, 2014, 1:03 AM EDT
A nine-match weekend sees MLS return to NBC, with NBCSN set to broadcast games in Kansas City, San Francisco.
Jul 31, 2014, 10:07 PM EDT
Manager remains insistent the Spanish international will stay at Stamford Bridge.
Jul 31, 2014, 9:03 PM EDT
Successful procedure marks the end of John’s 2014 hopes.
Jul 31, 2014, 8:12 PM EDT
De Laurentiis confirms the partenopei’s interest in the afro-laden star.
Jul 31, 2014, 7:22 PM EDT
Toe injury to sideline the U.S. international for an estimated 10 games.
Jul 31, 2014, 6:31 PM EDT
No. 1: Eddie Johnson. No. 2: These new-fangled rules.
Jul 31, 2014, 6:02 PM EDT
Young Americans set to blaze trail in La Liga academies.
Jul 31, 2014, 5:39 PM EDT
San Lorenzo is in Copa’s finals, but Piatti is unlikely to join them.
Jul 31, 2014, 5:14 PM EDT
Two players who spent plenty of time on the sidelines last season are pushing to be integral parts of Manuel Pellegrini’s plans.
Jul 31, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT
29-year-old Argentina arrives from Tigre, becoming the club’s third Designated Player of all-time.
Jul 31, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
Everton’s frugality gave way to necessity. Is Lukaku worth it the serious cash they splashed?
Jul 31, 2014, 3:21 PM EDT
Remember when Marco Reus, Dries Mertens and Leighton Baines solidified Manchester United’s status in Europe? Us neither.
Jul 31, 2014, 2:56 PM EDT
Cristiano Ronaldo and Christopher Renzi are looking horns over the CR7 trademark.
Jul 31, 2014, 2:25 PM EDT
Guillermo Ochoa starred in the 2014 World Cup for Mexico, and now will try to fill Willy Caballero’s shoes at Malaga.
Jul 31, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT
As deadly virus continues to spread, the Seychelles refuse to let Sierra Leone travel for qualifier.
Jul 31, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT
Seydou Keita has left Barcelona, but being in a different league has not stopped the animosity between the AS Roma midfielder and Real Madrid’s Pepe.
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