The Neymar Effect
By Alex Fairchild
After years of speculation, the Neymar transfer rumor mill came to a screeching halt at the weekend.
While few are surprised that the Brazilian starlet chose Barcelona as his European destination, it was a bit awkward of the Santos man to announce his move in the midst of a Champions League final. Never mind that. The question now is where the attacker will fit in at the Catalonian outfit.
Simple - the left wing or to the center of Barca's usual 4-3-3. However, is that what Barcelona need right now?
After being demolished in the semi-finals of Europe's top club competition, the champions of Spain were missing the final ball. While tiki-taka is their style, a team must have possession with a purpose, something which has been discussed over and over again.
Against Munich, Barca had possession because they did not know any better. They were not prepared in either leg to go on the counter or able to get a quick goal, because it is a tactic the side never performs. Of their myriad goals in La Liga a mere 4% came from the counter. Their semi-final opponents scored with that same style 9% of the time in their domestic encounters.
In those two matches, the Spanish side lacked the pace of a fully-fit Messi at the top of his game.
Fair enough, but even the greatest attacking footballer of our time would not have been able to unlock the Munich defense.
In their remarkable defeat on aggregate, Tito Vilanova and his players hit that awful moment which so many have endured while playing Football Manager. The same team had been put out with the same tactics, because it has earned a boat load of solid results. All of a sudden though, the side just cannot score and no matter who you bring in off the bench, or which formation you choose things just do not work. A point of tactical homeostasis has been reached and it is time to retool.
Vilanova tried this last summer after Pep Guardiola exited Camp Nou. The biggest signing of the season was Jordi Alba, a left back who impressed until he chucked a ball at the head of a Bayern Munich player. However, this signing did not address the team's problem. Chelsea beat them on the break. Roberto Di Matteo figured that Barca were one-dimensional.
The same occurred with this year's squad and had M'baye Niang not hit the post their weakness may have been exposed for good two rounds earlier.
Their troubles were masked again when Paris Saint-Germain were knocked out on away goals. Few will remember that Barca failed to topple PSG in either leg.
Barcelona's possession numbers are astounding of course. In Spain, they boast a percentage in that category 11 points greater than the league's second best team in that department. However, being so good at one thing can only get one so far. The need for change is ever-present and with the signing of Neymar it appears that a shift at Camp Nou has finally taken place.
At first, the acquisition of the Brazilian seems pedestrian. Another top prospect going to phenomenal team. However, Barca can definitely justify their need for his services. Other candidates were Chelsea and Real Madrid. Both clubs are covered on the wings and have two of the world's best front fours.
Barcelona will use Neymar to give them a spark going forward. While Messi does that, teams who double and triple team him can slow the attack down. With Neymar as an outlet on the left, Messi will have the appropriate teammate to pass to, if need be, without slowing down the move.
That will only be the case if it is Neymar's position though, as he has been deployed as an out-and-out center striker. Neymar's ability to play in both positions will pan out well for Vilanova.
If Messi and the new signing develop a telepathic partnership, they could play off each other as the forward duo in a 3-1-4-2 - a formation which Pep experimented with last season. If not, Messi could drop into the middle as he so often does, leaving Neymar on 18 yards to play Barca's 'pinball football' when they settle into possession.
The Brazilian is normally a threat on the left hand side though, and as mentioned earlier, he is most effective in that spot. This conflicts with the 'Barca Way' however, as most of the team's goals result from the center of the pitch. While the occasional burst from Dani Alves aids the team, those runs are not a usual source of Catalan tallies. If played down the left, supporters and the team itself will expect Neymar to produce goals from the wing each time out. Having shots from the left would be unorthodox at Barcelona, as 65% of their attempts come from central positions.
In addition, the arrival of Brazil's prized youngster will cause a domino effect in side selection. Vilanova will have to shuffle things around weekly to accommodate for the new boy. Perhaps this a good thing though, as the team as a whole is aging.
With Neymar now in the fold, it seems a new day in Barcelona's history. Messi & Co. can still knock the ball about the park on their short grass, but they now have another option.
Neymar's introduction may cause some kinks for Vilanova, but once those issues are put to rest Barca will be as dangerous as ever before. A team lacking power and pace on the break has signed someone who has the acumen and trickery to make the Spanish champions apt to score when rushing towards the opposition's goal - a dynamic that will be required to avenge Bayern Munich come next year's Champions League. All stats from Whoscored.com.