The Brazilian has devoted himself to serving Lionel Messi – but in time could he replace him at the Nou Camp? Tim Stannard investigates...
Neymar’s arrival in Barcelona was not wholly applauded by the club’s supporters. The transfer was seen in some concerned quarters as a heck of a gamble for a club still feeling the financial bruises of the transfer debacle called Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Brazilian with no experience of European football was perceived as a walking billboard; a confusing mess of a player owned by a confusing network of groups who were mainly concerned about the marketability of the footballer’s various hairstyles.
Although Neymar came with a fine reputation with tricks and skills, there was a fear that the player was merely a collection of YouTube clips that would be kicked to pieces in a league that is more physical than is often perceived.
The real elephant in the room, though, was what a self-serving 21-year-old would do to the delicate footballing ecosystem that surrounded Lionel Messi. One wrong move by the newcomer could contaminate the preferred tactical set-up of the Argentine and see Neymar sharing the fate suffered by a certain expensive Swede and David Villa, who were both moved on at a collective loss of over £65 million.
Messi is so empowered at Barcelona – and with some justification – that the forward’s happiness is the key to the team’s success. The promise from the top dog in July that “there won’t be any problems between us, either on or off the pitch” felt less like a reassuring welcome than a friendly warning from a player developing a reputation for being pricklier and moodier than his cuddly, loveable image may portray.
It was no wonder, then, that Neymar’s first weeks saw the footballer at his most discreet. There was no flashy new haircut; just gushing praise for his new team-mate, “the leader, the best player in the world.” “I am here to help,” promised a deferential Neymar.
An unlikely bout of anemia over the summer actually helped to smooth Neymar’s transition. The footballer’s appearances at the Nou Camp were fleeting at first, with the €57m man starting games on the bench and trying to build up his fitness. Messi was still the top dog under new manager and compatriot Gerardo Martino, which meant that Messi was still happy.
But slowly and surely, Neymar’s importance and influence to the team began to grow. This was due in part to a conscious effort from the Brazilian to drastically change his game, making sure there was no ‘i’ in team. Gone were the trademark stepovers and attempts to beat every defender on the pitch before blasting a shot towards goal.
Instead, Neymar appeared to model his game on the unselfish play of Mesut Özil at Real Madrid – a footballer who dedicated his time on the pitch to serving the much bigger fish of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Brazilian’s opening months at Barcelona did not see too much goal-scoring action, but instead assists, passes and a lot of tracking back.
But then Barça suffered what would have been perceived as an epic crisis – had Neymar not been around. At first, Messi went through a goal-scoring drought in La Liga, with the footballer clearly unhappy with his performances, hampered by muscle niggles. This was followed by a torn hamstring in a clash against Real Betis in November, set to rule Messi out for the rest of the year.
However, there was no panic in the Catalan capital due to the presence of the newbie. “Without the signing of Neymar, this would have been a drama in capital letters,” wrote Santi Nolla in Barcelona-based paper Mundo Deportivo.
Even before the unfortunate sidelining of Messi, the new recruit’s influence within the team had started to grow, with the Brazilian opening the scoring against Real Madrid in the 2-1 Clásico win. Indeed, there was early talk of whether Neymar would one day become the heir to Messi’s throne at the club and if that day would be not so far away.
In reality, it is best to see Neymar as a compliment to Messi rather than a rival, although the two players have yet to have enough playing time together on the pitch to properly gel. No footballer will ever be able to replace the genius of Barcelona’s No.10 and his extraordinary goalscoring record.
What Neymar can bring to the table, though, is support to both Messi and the club, to release the often overwhelming pressure on the team’s totem and reduce Barcelona’s dependency on the Argentine. The club may finally have found its Plan B in the form of a modest, shy and retiring Brazilian.