The 2014 FIFA World Cup will be the best chance for Lionel Messi to show the planet what he’s made of, but even with four years of dominating performances behind him, all eyes will be on Neymar, instead.
It’s an interesting sight to see: football’s two flashiest players stealing the spotlight from one another. The Barcelona duo may never even meet in the tournament, but between them is a developing storyline that could very well take over the World Cup come 2014.
How will Neymar fit at Barcelona?
For Messi, Neymar’s arrival marks the arrival of the first player to directly threaten his rule at the Camp Nou. To this day, Barcelona is a function of talented players doing their job to ultimately make Messi succeed. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and David Villa, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, each player plays a specific role that, more often than not, splits opposing teams apart for Messi to run through and score against.
Neymar is not a role player – far from it. He is a solo player who requires his midfield teammates to pick the ball up when he runs into traffic and quickly give it back to him. Xavi, however, is a player who receives the ball and then sends it off in another direction. If one of the two needs to change their style of play, it’s not going to be Xavi.
Like Ronaldinho before him, Neymar is a player who, at his best, can dominate entire teams, and at his worst, forces defenders to dedicate at least one player to mark. Leave Neymar alone, and he will punish you, as Japan showed in the first match of the Confederations Cup. Give Neymar an open canvas and he can create problems.
Therein lies the key to Neymar’s success. He has the support of an entire squad dedicated to making his life easier. At Barcelona, a similar set up exists for Messi. The question then becomes, can Xavi, Iniesta and company really handle two similar superstar forwards?
Tactically, FC Barcelona has embraced the 4-3-3 and, though they have deviated on a single-game basis from time to time, the club’s structure remains very much fixed from top to bottom. Assuming that the club continues using the 4-3-3, there are a few players who are already locks for certain spots: Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta have an established midfield trio that has worked for several years.
Unfortunately for one player, that three-pronged midfield means no guarantee of a starting role: Cesc Fabregas’ move to Barcelona commanded a hefty fee but did not lead to a starting role in a midfield trio comprised of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets. Instead, Fabregas saw his early role in the team split between occasionally starting or coming off the bench. Now, typically, shelling out several million dollars for a player assures that they will start for the club, but that’s not the case for Fabregas.
He is not alone in this regard; David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro are all players who are not assured a spot in the starting XI. While they feature predominantly for the club, they are also cycled amongst each other, based sometimes on form, other times on the coach’s preference. It’s not a unique situation to Barcelona alone, but it does show the club’s tendency to rotate the squad.
Then there’s Cristian Tello, a young Spanish forward who has featured regularly for Barcelona and managed to score eight goals in 2012. Like Busquets and Pedro before him, Tello has risen from the Barcelona B team and has become a viable option coming off the bench. Simply put, Barcelona has too many options to choose from, now that Neymar has signed for the club.
The only player whose spot on the forward line is basically guaranteed is Messi, partly because he’s considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and partly because he’s scored over 200 goals for the club at 25 years of age. It’s stats like that that keep a player in a starting line up!
Now, Neymar prefers the role of centre forward, too, but he has played at left wing for the Brazilian national team. Yet, Neymar is not a traditional left-winger, in the sense that, much like Arjen Robben, he likes to cut in and run on the ball, before taking a shot from outside the box or slipping in a through ball. Neymar is also adept at connecting on long crosses and finding space for himself and others on the field.
Neymar’s arrival complicates the starting line up even more. Since Messi, Villa, Pedro, Sanchez, Tello and Neymar can’t all play at the same time, the squad will need to rotate between them all throughout the season. The alternative is to sell off a few of these players, lest they rot away on the bench. In a long season filled with numerous competitions, it’s not unreasonable to have a ton of bench depth, but when you put good players who deserve starting roles on the sidelines you ultimately hurt their game.
Messi has never had to compete against a player like Neymar in terms of sheer star power, either. Neymar is a versatile attacking player who is most comfortable at centre forward, and, like Messi, likes to fall back into the midfield and control the build-up play, too. In this regard, they are similar players and one will need to change their game to accommodate the other. However, Neymar is also superstar material, who has shown up in viral videos, hung out with famous musicians and has generally been the guy at Santos and for Brazil.
His appearances in the Camp Nou alone drew a stadium full of supporters, eager to just get a glimpse of their new footballing hero. Neymar revelled in the spotlight, wearing the famous blue and red shirt for the first time. He has already chosen the number 11, which was worn by Thiago last season, a sign that Barcelona has plans on marketing the player and number together. Taking another player’s number is not a common sight in football, but if the “Neymar 11” shirt is popular enough to sell, you can bet the club will make that change.
Messi has had a pretty comfortable ride at Barcelona, never facing much in terms of head-to-head competition off the field, and for good reason; his skill and talent put him above many players but his humble nature and his journey make him a fan-favourite, too. It’s something that Messi has worked hard to create and something that is not so easily taken away from him. The most likely scenario is that Messi and Neymar will co-exist, with Neymar enjoying more of the media attention and Messi putting up better numbers. However, this two-star set up hasn’t worked in the past.
Take, for example, the case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose time at Barcelona came to an abrupt end as Messi’s time at centre forward began to take shape. As Messi transitioned from winger to centre forward, Ibrahimovic was fazed out from Barcelona. Since leaving, Messi has taken the centre forward role and has not yielded it to any other player – it is his and his alone.
And, as humble as Messi may seem in interviews, he is still a player who gets very upset when he does not play a game, even if it’s a meaningless offseason friendly against a team in the United States. He likes playing, he enjoys the spotlight and he revels in his ability.
With Neymar at left wing and Messi at centre forward, the right wing can be opened up for Sanchez, Tello, Pedro or Villa, but whoever takes the spot will face stiff competition. Rumours have Villa exiting the Nou Camp, however, and a move to England may be on the near horizon for Spain’s most prolific goalscorer.
Whether Villa stays or leaves, the fact remains that Neymar’s arrival at Barcelona forces the club to change things up for the first time in a while. There are many new variables to consider, in terms of formation, squad selection, media attention, morale, role freedom and style of play. Barcelona may have picked up football’s next hottest superstar, but they have also added the first major variable change in their modern era of dominance.
The question is, how will Neymar fit at Barcelona? The answer may simply be that he will not.
Perhaps Barcelona will have to change for Neymar.