Neymar and Barcelona are a love story of old and while we wait for yet another transfer saga to be resolved, the question remains: Do the Catalans need their Brazilian superstar back and would he solve their problems?
This tactical analysis will be a scout report on Neymar and will delve deeper into the analysis of whether he would fit Barcelona’s current tactics. We will explore his change in profile, compare him to some of the players who occupied his position in his absence and see whether having a “second Lionel Messi” could work for the Blaugranas.
Let’s dive straight into it.
The evolution of Neymar
Neymar left Barcelona right before he was about to enter his peak years and evolve further into a complete attacking player. But years have passed since he last donned the Blaugrana colours and Barcelona would indeed be getting a completely different player to the one we saw back in 2016/17 and the years before that.
Back when the deadly “MSN” trio still harassed the defences, the Brazilian was very much a direct type of a winger and more of a traditional one at that. He possessed a dose of pace, which he still does, hugged the touchline and was used to quickly and effectively create an advantage out wide and burst into the space behind the opposition’s defensive line.
And while today he arguably does even more damage than he used to do back then, he does it in a completely different way. Let’s explore that a bit further in the graph you can see below where we have compared Neymar’s last season at Barcelona to his current 2019/20 self at Paris Saint-Germain.
The radars depict his evolution over the years and show the aspects of his game that have improved drastically as well as those that have taken a slight dip as a direct consequence of that. It has to be noted, however, that both the 2016/17 and the 2019/20 profiles were compared to the maximum value across the top five leagues in the respective metrics that were measured. So essentially, both radars are a depiction of Neymar vs the best of the best in those specific stats.
Interestingly enough, the biggest difference between the two is the huge upgrade in his creativity and progression of the ball. Notice how both his through balls and progressive runs have improved dramatically as the result of the change in his main role.
Back in 2016/17, Neymar was a huge threat down the flanks and with the sheer attacking output between him, Messi and Luis Suárez, his assist tally skyrocketed despite him not being in a highly creative role at that time.
But now, even without the Argentine and the Uruguayan, he can still boast an incredible assists per 90 minutes rate – with a marginal dip in both that category and the shot assist one. But the rest of his profile looks far more impressive. Not only does he shoot more often and is much more precise but he is a much better passer and his xG values have risen as well. But two more metrics that have taken a hit are his touches in the box and dribbles per 90 minutes. The former is closely related to his general positioning on the pitch.
Notice in the heatmaps below how his movement and positioning has evolved over the years. While in 2016/17 he was a much bigger presence in the advanced areas, often occupying the flanks in the final third and even the area inside the box, now he tends to advance through the centre a bit more.
The added caveat is that he hasn’t played the same number of games in both cases with 2019/20 campaign being much shorter both due to his personal absences and the recent outbreak, which is true both for the heatmap and the stats he’s accumulated.
At Barcelona, we wouldn’t see him in such a deep role unless he was advancing the ball through a quick transition or trying to dribble his way from his half. Now, at PSG in Ligue 1, we’re used to him being the one to orchestrate play and be the creative outlet that isn’t afraid to position himself behind the forward line.
Notice in the image below how Neymar isn’t the one to run into space behind the defensive line but is rather the one sending that through ball to penetrate the block and set up his teammate.
The new Neymar is still flamboyant, deadly and indeed a trickster on the ball but he is also the creator and the finisher, an orchestrator and a deep playmaker when he needs to be. Does that remind you of anyone else in this Barcelona squad?
Neymar vs Barcelona’s previous wingers
In the gist of it, this comparison is rather unfair towards Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann in many ways but the reality of the situation is that they were, despite the previous narrative that the former would replace Andrés Iniesta and the latter Suárez, used as the players who would often fill Neymar’s vacant position on the left-wing.
Coutinho is more of an interior himself; a player who thrives when given enough freedom around the edge of the area and just behind the striker in that number 10 role. Griezmann works best as the second-striker but equally enjoys freedom across the final third and in and around the box.
Let’s first compare their heatmaps to see how their roles differ one from another. Clearly, Griezmann’s heatmap is entirely different because he was partly used as a left-winger and partly as a centre-forward but we only need his involvement in the wide areas for a successful comparison.
While generally speaking the maps of Neymar and Coutinho do look fairly similar, the former seems to cover slightly more ground than the latter, meaning that he’s freer in his role. This could be down to: a) The system he played in or b) Player’s preferences on the pitch.
We can also see that for a winger, Coutinho rarely advanced into the opposition’s box and the wide area just outside it. Instead, he would cut inside to his half-space, the area both players seem to prefer. The same is true for Griezmann as well who would still prefer to cut inside instead of advance further down the wing and provide width to the team.
But there’s a glaring difference in their overall output for their respective clubs. Note that we are taking Coutinho’s last season at Barcelona for the profile comparison and Griezmann’s current 2019/20. All three are compared to the best value across the top five leagues in the ongoing campaign.
The only thing the latter two players have in their favour is the overall passing accuracy but at the end of the day, they can’t measure up to Neymar nor do they even come close to him. The difference is quite staggering, to say the least.
Even Coutinho’s shooting, which was arguably his biggest weapon at Barcelona, couldn’t edge out Neymar’s in a significant way. But looking at their respective roles, they do offer similar things and have similar strengths, especially the two Brazilians: both are exceptional on the ball with almost flawless technical abilities, have a killer pass, great dribbling skills and an eye for the final product in terms of goals and assist.
The only difference is the fact that Neymar does all of that slightly or much better than his Brazilian compatriot. Even though Griezmann’s and Coutinho’s radars look similar, the Frenchman is the one out of place here as he was never supposed to be put in that role nor does his overall style fit it.
Obviously, in terms of statistics, there’s a clear winner in this fight, as unfair as the comparison itself might be. But for all their similarities, the three are essentially different players and will behave differently on the pitch.
While all three love the central areas and will spend the majority of their time in their respective half-space, Neymar is the most aggressive of the three and the one with both the pace and the dribbling to excel as Barcelona’s winger. The following graphs of all three’s 1v1 dribbling duels and shot locations shed some light on that thesis.
Neymar is the only one that engages in the final third and is by far the one with the highest dribbles per 90 value out of the three of them with 13.22 compared to Coutinho’s 6.1 and Griezmann’s 1.85.
Not only that but nearly 70% of his shots take place inside the box with Griezmann tallying just over 60% and Coutinho lagging behind heavily with his preference of the left half-space. This tells us that PSG’s talisman is the most aggressive of the three and will venture into the box the most to either take defenders on and/ or shoot on goal.
But how would his presence impact other players on the pitch and other Barcelona tactics?
The dominant winger
By now it’s not a big secret that Neymar’s departure freed Jordi Alba and enabled him to express himself as Barcelona’s biggest goal threat next to the ever-present Messi and Suárez right after the Brazilian’s departure.
The now-famous Messi-Alba connection maybe would’ve never been invented had Neymar not departed when he did, leaving the Spaniard in sole control of the whole left flank. This very much shaped Barcelona’s overall tactics as well.
But mostly it affected Alba’s contribution to the final product at the club. Notice in the graph below how his attacking influence increased with time or rather, it was rather low during the years Neymar was at the club and then it received a significant boost once the Brazilian left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.
The numbers also fully support this thesis when we delve more into them. Jordi Alba from 2016/17 with Neymar had an xG value of only 0.36 while his xA stood at 3.68. And what happened when Neymar left? Rebirth.
In 2018/19 Alba’s numbers skyrocketed and from 0.36, his xG increased immensely to 2.82 while his xA values almost doubled as well, going from 3.68 to 6.69. That change was huge and crucial for both the player and the club. The Spaniard has become Messi’s favourite provider and the famous link has been established despite Alba dipping in form since then.
But what does Neymar’s potential return mean for that as a whole? The Brazilian is certain to limit Alba at least partially since he will represent a more dominant figure at that left-wing. With Coutinho or even Griezmann, it was easier. They would constantly cut inside to their half-space, leaving Alba to overlap regularly.
And the old Neymar had that tendency of sticking to his position and standing firm in the wider areas. But his tactics have evolved since then. He has transitioned from a forward to a playmaker and this role takes him away from the wings and often puts him into deeper and more central areas of the pitch, as we’ve noted earlier in this scout report.
Note in the example below how that looked like at PSG and how it might look at Barcelona as well. Despite him having a more advanced and wider role, Neymar is still positioned deeper and lets his full-back overlap. Not only that, but the Brazilian is the one who could very well be the one sending Alba bursting into the box with his passing.
But even if he does go further up the pitch, which is unavoidable since he is a forward after all, Neymar is no longer that same player who will hug the touchline constantly and claim it only for himself.
Instead of going all the way into the wider areas, Neymar can stay in his half-space to accommodate his full-back more, just like Coutinho did before him. If Quique Setien decides to do the same with his new Brazilian as well, this could not only let Alba do his usual magic but would also give him an even better playmaker to link up with during his constant overlaps and bombardment of the opposition’s box.
Overall, it looks like Neymar has developed his game enough to fit alongside Alba rather than limiting him and his potential output for the team. This is the crucial first step towards incorporating the Brazilian back into the team.
Messi is unique in everything he does on the pitch but if there’s one player who comes close to replicating his effect then that’s Neymar. The Brazilian was always touted as the natural heir to his former teammate and while he is also not the youngest of players anymore, the Brazilian still fits the mould perfectly.
When it comes to like-for-like replacements, Barcelona won’t get a better match than their former starlet. Let’s first compare their respective profiles through stats, just the way we’ve done for Coutinho and Griezmann, using the same metrics and the same maximum values across the top five leagues in 2019/20.
Immediately we can see that their profiles are almost a perfect match with Neymar mimicking Messi’s output in the ongoing campaign and the two having marginal differences in some of the metrics.
The situation is fairly similar when it comes to their movement on the pitch and the similarity in stats would also suggest there are certain overlaps in their roles as well. Both players are the respective playmakers for their team, often being the ones to progress the ball via their dribbling, passing or marauding runs and are also there for the final product in terms of providing both goals and assists.
The heatmaps will tell us a similar story as well. Of course, Messi’s reach and area of effect are still slightly bigger than Neymar’s and he tends to cover more ground inside the box as well as in the deeper and more central areas. In essence, their movement and positioning are quite similar but only happen on the opposite sides of the pitch.
So is this good news for Barcelona or a potential issue? It’s a little bit of both, to be honest. Having one Messi on the pitch is deadly enough but imagine having two of them. That’s essentially what Neymar would bring to the table. He can share the load and take some burden off of Messi’s back and do it admirably well, without Barcelona having to dip in quality too much, if at all.
One of the aspects Neymar has improved in the most is carrying the ball into the advanced zones and setting up play for his teammates. We’ve seen as much in the initial graph at the beginning of this tactical analysis when we compared him to his former Barcelona self.
The Brazilian can use his incredible technical and dribbling abilities to carry the ball from the deep and into the final third and then deploy one of his deadly through ball that penetrates the defensive lines with ease. Let’s observe such an action in the example below.
Neymar receives the ball in his half, only to beat his marker, burst into space behind and then deploy a pinpoint accurate pass into the feet of Edinson Cavani. This is not only elite ball progression but also a trait of a deadly winger who can attack the area with pace, which is something Barcelona are currently lacking and something neither Coutinho nor Griezmann can give them.
Note that is a role Messi regularly undertakes in Barcelona’s tactics and up until the arrival of Frenkie de Jong, the Argentine was practically the only player in the squad capable of doing it at such a high level.
So with the incorporation of Neymar, the Catalans would theoretically have two extreme facilitators – one on the left and one on the right – and two players capable of singlehandedly changing the outcome of any game. But can they coexist within the same team in their current roles? It’s rather difficult to answer that question.
Coutinho’s profile is fairly similar to Neymar’s in many regards, only the latter player is an upgraded version in almost every single regard. Still, the former Liverpool star struggled when he didn’t have access to the no.10 role and his preferred movement around the zone 14 was limited due to Messi’s presence.
But a big part of his struggle was also his own making and he declined drastically upon arriving in Catalonia. Neymar’s sheer quality means he’d be an upgrade on his compatriot. What Barcelona have to realise, however, is that Neymar is not the same player he used to be back in the day and they wouldn’t be getting an out-and-out winger anymore.
With both Messi and Neymar occupying the central zones, the Catalans would have to get their width exclusively from the full-backs. Of course, we’ve seen that the Brazilian is still capable of keeping his width and advancing through the flanks but the evolution of his game demands a capable overlap once he does vacate his wing.
But when we take a look at their full-backs, only Jordi Alba stands out among the other full-backs in the top five leagues when we measure the key passes and xA (expected assists) per 90 minutes.
Of course, when it comes to Neymar, only Alba matters since he is the one who’ll be tasked with overlapping on the left side and it seems that the Spaniard can still hold his own despite a slight dip in form as of late.
With 0.68 key passes and 0.14 xA per 90, Alba is still well above average in both metrics and could still be a good choice for Barcelona for at least a couple more years.
But that’s only the left side of the pitch, which is generally far more dangerous and active in the attacking phase and Neymar’s arrival would only enhance that contrast between the flanks and wouldn’t do much to solve the bigger issue that is the right-wing.
At the end of the day, however, that is not the purpose of his signing and Barcelona will have to look elsewhere for a solution to that particular problem.
We don’t know how the partnership between Messi and Neymar would look like today and the two players being so similar in profile might pose a problem. But Barcelona need someone to successfully take some burden off of Messi’s back and with Neymar’s quality and ability to both be a facilitator and an aggressive winger, saying he wouldn’t solve at least some of their issues is a stretch.
He may not be a traditional width provider nor a player who exclusively attacks space but he is still one of the best players on the planet and as close as Barcelona can get to a Messi-esque individual on the pitch.
Whether they truly do make it work, if the transfer happens, remains to be seen and it will ultimately fall on Setien’s plate to somehow squeeze the Brazilian into his tactics.
An analysis of Barcelona’s Sergino Dest – scout report
This analysis about Sergino Dest first appeared on Total Football Analysis, and was published with permission. All images in this article are property of Total Football Analysis.
Barcelona have managed to beat Bayern Munich to the signing of America’s next big thing, Sergino Dest. The 19-year-old full-back joins the Catalans after the departure of Nélson Semedo who made the switch to the Premier League.
The right-back position has been a huge area of concern for the Blaugrana and this signing should finally bring more balance to the squad and potentially solve a problem that persisted since the departure of Dani Alves.
This tactical analysis will give you a scout report on Sergino Dest and tell you how exactly can the youngster fit Barcelona’s tactics for 2020/21 and beyond. The analysis will dissect the player profile of Sergino Dest and see whether it’s compatible with Ronald Koeman’s vision of the Catalan giants.
The role of full-backs in Koeman’s Barcelona
Before actually starting the analysis on Dest’s best qualities and how they translate to Barcelona, we first have to establish what exactly is expected of a full-back at the club. Generally, the Catalans love their full-backs to act more as wing-backs – focused on the offensive and bombarding the final third with runs and/ or passes.
With that in mind, and regardless of the formation used, all of their targets and potential arrivals have to be competent on the ball and aggressive in their approach. However, with the arrival of Koeman, Barcelona have moved on from their traditional 4-3-3 and have adopted his favourite 4-2-3-1 system.
How does that exactly affect the full-backs? The emphasis will still be for them to push forward and attack, only this time, the width may exclusively be provided by them on that right side. Below, we can see Koeman’s preferred lineup so far in his tenure and the roles he expects the players to fulfil.
Note, however, that we are now focusing on the attacking phase of play. The 4-2-3-1 that Koeman prefers focuses mostly on inverted wingers, hence the need for attacking full-backs who provide width. Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati have been deployed on either side of the pitch so far and while the latter can provide the width and cut inside, the former is mostly occupying the half-space or the central areas.
Even if Koeman went with Francisco Trincão, the result would be mostly the same – the Portuguese gem likes to cut inside to the left as well, leaving the flank mostly unmanned. This is where the full-back comes in. The core principles they have to abide by in a 4-2-3-1 are supporting the build-up and the attacking phase, inverting when necessary to aid the double-pivot/ single metronome, offer support to the wingers and be able to overlap/ underlap when necessary.
You can see that relationship in the graphic below which emphasises the relationship the full-back can have with his teammates.
In the build-up phase, the full-back can combine with the goalkeeper, the ball-near midfielder, centre-back and the winger, pushing up to the middle third in an attempt to help progress the ball. This can be done to ensure the midfielders are not overcrowded and that the half-space is always occupied by multiple layered options, which can be seen in the second image where he has joined the middle third when moving up the pitch.
Depending on the type of winger in front, once entering the final third, the full-back can either overlap and charge forward or just ensure numerical superiority is achieved over the defenders out wide.
These are, of course, some of the general principles of the full-back’s role in a 4-2-3-1 formation and judging by Koeman’s system so far and personnel he tends to use, we can start gauging Dest’s role in it as well. But does he have the right skill set to do it effectively? Let’s continue with our tactical analysis and find out.
The attacking full-back
Dest’s best attributes indeed come to light once he starts attacking. The 19-year-old is an incredible ball-progressor and a creative outlet on the flank. By analysing his heatmap and one of Ajax’s pass maps from their Europa League clash with Getafe, both of which can be seen below, we get a better look at Dest’s player profile.
Notice his biggest connections on the pitch, as indicated by the thickness of the arrows. His average positioning was around the middle of the pitch with the most passes played between him and midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, centre-back Perr Schuurs and winger Danilo. These are the three main connections we can expect him to establish at Barcelona as well.
We’ve already concluded that the full-back in Koeman’s system will have to be able to support the build-up with the midfielders and connect with the winger in front, either overlapping/ underlapping or creating superiorities out wide. Both his heatmap and the pass map seem to indicate heavy involvement and a rather high position on the pitch. By all accounts, Dest is certainly a player who spends more time in the opposition’s half than in his own but is also someone who can help stabilise the possession phase in the middle third.
However, it will be his connection with the right-winger that makes or breaks the whole structure on that flank. Assuming both Griezmann and Trincão continue featuring in that position, we can fully expect Dest to be an overlapping full-back and provide the width for Barcelona.
Notice in the above image how this often played out at Ajax and how it might continue at Barcelona. Dest receives the ball in his own half but proceeds to run with the ball until he can connect with the dropping winger. Once the markers have been pulled out of position and space has been created, a simple one-two with his teammate deploys the American into the final third on an overlapping run.
These instances aren’t really an anomaly because this is what Dest can do and do it effectively. Bursting into space and combining with his teammates is where he feels at home. But one important aspect we have to take note of is how he progresses the ball. Even though he’s a technical player, he will rarely engage in intricate passing to get into the final third.
Instead, he excels when he’s given the licence to run with the ball, as we’ll see shortly through stats as well. Below, you can see a graph that depicts all full-backs from the top five European leagues up to the age of 25 who have played at least 500 minutes in 2019/20. We have also included Dest, Semedo, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto as well for comparison’s sake.
The graph measures dribbles and progressive runs per 90 minutes. With 4.84 dribbles and 2.39 progressive runs per 90, Dest comfortably outperforms every Barcelona full-back in the analysis. However, we have to take into account the difference between the Eredivisie and LaLiga in terms of quality and competitiveness.
It remains to be seen whether the 19-year-old can translate those achievements into a bigger league. Still, even with that being said, his tendency to consistently combine with his teammates up front has to be taken into account and will certainly offer Barcelona an extra outlet on the right.
Even though we don’t have a large sample size as of yet, Koeman’s Barcelona have been attacking strictly down the left flank where Fati and Alba operate. The right, however, despite Roberto’s occasional ventures, is mostly deserted. In fact, 45% of their attacks have gone down the left with only 25% on the opposite side. The difference is huge despite the sample size.
But another thing that Semedo lacked and Dest can provide is the interplay with the teammates combined with his pace and dribbling abilities and positional awareness in attack. The Portuguese is a prime physical specimen but couldn’t get used to the demanding rules of positional play. His replacement, however, should fare much better. Below, we can see some examples of Dest’s movement and interplay in the final third.
With Ajax’s attack being very dynamic and fluent, players exchanging places was a common occurrence. We’re seeing a similar thing at Barcelona under Koeman, albeit mostly on the left side. With the introduction of Dest, however, we can expect the right to come to life as well.
In the above example, as soon as the winger drops deeper and hugs the touchline, the American knows he has to shift wide and confuse the backline with his run. This type of movement is something we will often see from him in the Barcelona shirt as it’s a great tool to both create and exploit the space. He starts from the half-space and then he can either cut inside or burst out wide.
And that’s exactly the aspect that’s also praise-worthy – his versatility. Not only is he capable of playing as a left-back when needed as well but he has the skill set to operate as an inverted full-back too, as we’ve partially seen in the previous example. Even though Barcelona don’t necessarily utilise inverted full-backs in general, we have seen Roberto be much more involved and acting as support for the midfield when needed. Dest can do exactly that while occupying the half-space and then bursting forward as well.
Above, we can see him tuck in centrally, receive the lay-out from the forward and then combine in the final third. Eventually, he recognises the space that’s available on the flank and proceeds to reposition himself once again. This shows his flexibility, involvement in the attack and positional awareness all in one single action.
Presence in and around the box
The final aspect we have to analyse when it comes to Dest and his skill set is the presence in and around the box. Generally speaking, this is an area Barcelona are really struggling in since their full-backs – with the exception of Alba – don’t offer a big enough influence in the danger zones.
However, with the addition of the 19-year-old, this could finally change. Firstly, we’ll start with some statistics and comparisons. Below, you can see the graph with the same player pool as the previous ones, only this time, we’re measuring shots and touches in the box per 90.
Compared to Barcelona’s full-backs and young full-backs across Europe, Dest is ranking quite high. Only Alba can match him in touches in the box per 90 but no one shoots as often as he does. Another thing we’ve included here is the xG per 90, which is shown by the size of the dots – the bigger the dot, the higher the xG.
Dest is clearly a much bigger threat to the opposition than any of the Barcelona full-backs with impressive numbers in all three categories. But let’s look at this more closely and compare him to Semedo directly since that’s exactly who he’ll be replacing.
Below is a radar comparing the attack and creativity of both players in some of the main categories. The results are shown in percentile rank as opposed to the per 90 values.
The only categories that favour the Portuguese right-back are the ones concerning smart and through passes and dribble success but the latter with a slight caveat of fewer dribbles attempted in the first place.
However, when it comes to passes into the penalty area, key passes, xG and touches in the box as well as dribbles per 90, Dest is outperforming his counterpart. While Semedo can run with the ball and dribble past his opposition with pace, he still doesn’t have the final product. The American, however, does, and it’s visible from this graph already.
One major weapon Dest also has over Semedo is the crossing ability. With 2.9 crosses per 90, 0.54 crosses to goalie box and 0.75 deep completed crosses (a cross that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent goal), he outperforms the Portuguese in all three metrics (1.46, 0.16 and 0.32 respectively).
Even though Barcelona don’t necessarily utilise crosses as much, we can expect lots of cut-backs from the right side with Dest’s introduction. But it’s not just about the crosses and cut-back passes. This works best when it’s combined with other weapons in his arsenal.
We can see above how Dest first recognises the space to run into, exploiting the half-space channel as he often does, and then proceeds to sprint into the box and deploy a pinpoint cross to his teammate.
Being a right-footed right-back plays a major part in this aspect. He often lets the ball roll over his body when he receives and can quickly change pace to beat the opponent and then get into a prime position to cross.
Needless to say, despite not having to progress the play through passing nor passing excessively in general, he seems like an upgrade for the Catalans’ right-back position.
We have to remember that Dest is only 19 years old and still pretty raw. Additionally, with the right side becoming more involved in attack, the double pivot will have more defensive responsibility by drifting wide once Dest starts bursting forward at all times.
However, it shouldn’t take the young American too long to take over the position and become Barcelona’s first-choice right-back.