Charting The Evolution of Neymar’s Role in Barcelona

Neymar, Neymar, Neymar. That’s a pretty accurate round-up of what happened in Barcelona during the summer, or more precisely, what people with the kind help of the press talked about. The summer has gone ages ago and Barcelona too is beginning to suffer from the winter cold, however, to the Camp Nou faithful’s delight, it’s been Neymar who on more than one occasions has set the stadium on fire with his performances, trickery, and in the recent weeks, goals as well.

Neymar’s evolution as a Barcelona player has been fascinating. When he first stepped his foot on the Camp Nou grass, people expected miracles, and although we didn’t see miracles very early on, we always saw a player who seemed to fit in effortlessly. In fact, had I lived in a cave for the past few years and somehow managed to miss the transfer-saga that brought Neymar to Barcelona, and only started to watch the team in the beginning of 2013-14, I’d have thought that Neymar is a senior player in the squad, someone who came through the La Masia and made his way to the first team. That’s how effortless the process seemed. But as Neymar himself has become more settled with the team, his role, too, has evolved, and perhaps helped him settle as fast as he has.

Neymar started out on the wing, as he was expected to. His speed left people amazed, his connection with Leo Messi began to shape up to a direction that was set to scare the living daylights out of the opponents and leave the spectators’ jaws dropped on the floor. On the wing, he could take on opponents and use his speed as an asset, and what’s more, he (along with Alexis in particular) became the target of Barcelona’s long diagonals that were played strikingly often especially in the beginning of the season.

And Neymar on the wing worked well, didn’t it? Messi had a tendency to draw defenders towards the central areas, and with the middle overloaded, there was heaps of space on the wings. Neymar would stay very wide (as seen in the picture below) and find acres of space. However, his impact on the build-up game would because of this be limited and his usage occasionally predictable. This is not to say that he couldn’t create great things from out wide – a player with his speed and ability to find passing lanes always does – but perhaps staying out so wide wasn’t ideal, and took Neymar too far off the goal.

Neymar (yes that's him under the scoreboard) keeping the game extremely wide.
Neymar (yes that’s him under the scoreboard) keeping the game extremely wide.

In addition, Neymar’s contribution out wide would be easier to shut down. An example of this was the match against Rayo Vallecano (which of course Barcelona won 4-0) where Neymar played 81 minutes and got only 49 touches to the ball, which for instance is almost 20 less than he had in 83 minutes against Granada and almost 40 less than he had in 81 minutes against Celtic at home. That particular match against Rayo has been remembered largely thanks to the fact that Barcelona lost possession but perhaps should be kept in mind for a completely different reason: for how well Rayo managed to isolate Neymar on his wing. Rayo “doubled” against Neymar, always having the right-back and the wide midfielder defend against him, which limited Neymar’s contribution. I’m sure it’s a strategy, say, Leo Messi got used to during his days as a winger.

Neymar effectively "doubled" against, which limits his impact on the wing to minimum.
Neymar effectively “doubled” against, which limits his impact on the wing to minimum. He has two men to beat before he’s anywhere near a threatening position.

Neymar’s statistics as a left winger are not bad, though, make no mistake. In 15 apps he has scored 5 goals and assisted 7. But what I reckon is also worth noticing is that 6 of those seven assists as a winger have come with Messi in the central forward role. So for a winger, it does matter who plays in the center.

The next step in Neymar’s evolution as a Barcelona player was the added freedom to roam towards the center. This, some could say, brought Neymar to life (although he had been impressive already) and truly showed how much he can create. One example came against Osasuna, a match that ended 0-0, but where Neymar was, according to WhoScored, the man of the match with 8 completed dribbles and a pass accuracy of 88%. In that match, Neymar once more started out on the left wing but cut inside with added frequency and by doing so, managed to create space especially on the right flank. Below is just one example. (Apologies for the bad quality of the pictures)

Neymar has cut inside and starts a run across the defense of the opponent.
Neymar has cut inside and starts a run across the defense of the opponent.
The result of Neymar's run: the opponent's defense plays extremely narrow and there's space on the overlap that Neymar exploits with a pass.
The result of Neymar’s run: the opponent’s defense plays extremely narrow and there’s space on the overlap that Neymar exploits with a pass.

With this free role, Neymar also got a bit closer to goal and was able to get to goal-scoring positions, as well as make runs behind the defense.

And then came the day when Neymar was put in the false 9 role. How has he done? If we look at the statistics, he’s been brilliant. 4 apps, 4 goals and 3 assists. If we look at the matches themselves, he’s been brilliant. Valladolid was the first team he played in the center against, and his performance was lively and truly showcased his positional awareness, vision, and ability to hold on to the ball in tight spaces. Not to mention, the Brazilian got 101 touches to the ball and was in the center of the events for most of the match. (Compare that to what happened vs Rayo)

What makes Neymar so great in a central position (and certainly puts him miles ahead of Cesc in that position) is his ability to hold the ball with his back towards the goal, turn, and free his wingers. The burst of speed that Neymar can produce is truly special, which is why – even when he plays on the wing – he likes to slow down, even stop, and then accelerate to lose his marker. Because what’s even more impressive than his sheer speed is his acceleration, which in comparison, our other “Messi-replacement” Cesc has next to none.

Neymar's burst of speed through the middle draws the attention of the defense & creates space out wide for Alexis & Tello, whose head you can just see in the picture. Does this remind anyone of Messi's bursts of speed through the middle?
Neymar’s burst of speed through the middle draws the attention of the defense & creates space out wide for Alexis & Tello, whose head you can just see in the picture. Does this remind anyone of Messi’s bursts of speed through the middle?

Of course the match against Celtic at home is the easiest example of what Neymar is capable of in the central areas, yet another is the match against Granada where he did not score but was once more one of the best on the pitch despite the tons of kicks he received. At times, he would drop incredibly deep to keep himself available for a pass, but thanks to his ability to dribble past his man, he managed to open the game up from the deep in a rather promising way. In the meantime, moves such as this always make it harder for the opponent to mark.

"The only way is forward."
“The only way is forward!”

What has also been striking lately is the added freedom that Neymar has been given, whether he’s started at the wing or in the center. The man has been all over the pitch, looking for the ball, looking for a run behind the line, and in the process, has managed to wreck havoc. Whether it’s because of Messi’s absence, who knows, but it seems as though the Brazilian is in a good place at the moment, confident, happy and ready to carry responsibility. Turns out that the early version of Neymar, the one that liked to hug the touchline and take on his man out wide, was just the beginning and a small fraction of what we were to see.

Even when Neymar hasn’t  scored as a false 9, he has started the moves and created space for his teammates, something that is crucially important in a game that is all about spaces. Below, there’s an example from the match against Valladolid where Neymar played as a false 9 and both scored and assisted once. That, however, wasn’t the most impressive part of the performance, but the impact he had in the center, as seen below, where he draws 4 defenders to him and creates a space for Xavi to eventually score.

Neymar draws defenders to him like a magnet, which creates space out wide and leaves Xavi unmarked in the middle.
Neymar draws defenders to him like a magnet, which creates space out wide and leaves Xavi unmarked in the middle.

Now that Messi does come back (which I can’t express how happy I’m about), I’d like to see Neymar continue to have the freedom to roam, I’d even like to see him in a more central role every now and then (even with Messi on the pitch), because as much as we all have faith in the Messiah, it would seem like an incredible waste to trash the medication we’ve found for the Messi-dependency that has haunted us in the past few years. Neymar is a key to medicating that issue and the best for Barcelona is to have both him and Messi at 100%, in the kind of roles that allow them to give their best to the team.

I do also believe it’s worth mentioning how well Tata Martino has dealt with Neymar. Instead of pouring all the responsibility on him straight away, Tata let Neymar adapt slowly, start out in his “natural position” on the wing, work his way in the team and eventually start carrying more responsibility. The fact that Neymar looks as settled as he does is not only down to the fact that he’s an amazing player (although that surely plays a part too), rather, it’s down to the fact that while the press has followed his every footstep, the management of the team has given him the peace he’s needed to learn the ways of the team, inside of which he’s later been given the freedom to roam.

Eventually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Neymar’s evolution as a player followed Messi’s footsteps, and if he one day completely went from a winger to a central forward/an attacking midfielder, because frankly, he’s incredibly versatile as a player and has a great skill-set combined to an impressive sense of space that enables him to play centrally. And when you talk about a player like him, you want to have him as involved as possible, which was the reason Messi, too, was moved from the wing in the first place. That is not to say that he’s yet a better false 9 than Messi is, considering that Messi is the best there is, but Neymar is most definitely a player worth giving freedom to.

4 comments

  1. Well articulated Jen…i’ve always loved and followed your analysis and i can say nothing but well done. The game against Valladolid where he pull opponents to himself thereby freeing the wingers show how good he has matured with the team’s philosophy.

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