As per several reports relayed no less than a month ago, Neymar Santos Senior had reached an agreement with Paris Saint Germain for the extension of his son’s contract with the defending French champions. Neymar Jr, however, has reportedly taken matters into his own hands, stalling negotiations with the Parisians. The reason for this was the French giants’ tie with Manchester City today. Now that the Paris outfit have suffered elimination at the hands of the Cityzens, his return to Barcelona could very much become a possibility.
This is a signing years in the making, as ever since his heart-wrenching departure in the summer of 2017, life has been anything but rosy for either camp. Barcelona have since gone on to spend — and exceed — the €222 million they got from the exchange, with only one living up to expectations — and this too in this calendar year.
By first taking a brief dive into his tactical profile, Barça Universal will explore three positions that Neymar can take up, should he make an odyssey from PSG to Barca.
A brief tactical profile of Neymar
A multifaceted and immensely dexterous footballer, Neymar Junior is a treat to watch for fans. His style of play, the embodiment of Brazil’s famous Joga Bonito, has earned him plaudits the world over. Despite what many of his baseless critics may say, the Brazilian is not all about the fancy footwork or dazzling rainbow flicks over his opponents. Over the course of the last few years, he has matured in his play, all while staying in touch with his more exuberant side.
Ever since leaving Barcelona, Neymar has seen an unprecedented evolution to his role in his team. Lethal as ever in the left and central zones of the final third, the Paris number 10 has an uncanny ability to drift inside to ‘zone 14’ to create numerical superiorities on the ball while receiving possession. His constant changes in direction via his dribbles, coupled with his exponential understanding of his left and right feet make him a footballer as hard to track as he is difficult to defend. He shows immense balance, control and through experience, his decision making has seen a laudable improvement.
When he isn’t playing in the wings, he tends to join the midfield as an instigator for attacks rather than the one at the end of them. Much like his former teammate Lionel Messi, the Brazilian takes command of the team’s creative responsibilities by playing in between the lines in a false 9 role. Once in these positions, he possesses enough equanimity to thread the ball to his forward players — primarily those on the right side — and to devastating effect. This is, of course, in large part thanks to his one of a kind composure on the ball. He draws players out of position, generating an air of uncertainty and like a hot knife through butter, he lacerates his opponents with utmost ease.
His finishing, while not the most lethal, is remarkable nonetheless. While a winger on paper, PSG’s fullbacks are usually the ones tasked with providing width. Drifting in from the left flank, Neymar demonstrates his ability to score sensational strikes from long range. Even inside the box, upon receiving the ball from his opposing fullback, his reading of the game allows him to exploit the often vacated spaces on the far post to score from close range.
An obvious caveat to his immense proficiency in the final third — as well as his unquenchable thirst to thrill the supporters — is that he often finds himself overcrowded by opposition defenders, limiting his maximal productivity. It does, however, grant his talented teammates the occasion to capitalise on the now-vacated spaces. At Barcelona, this could be used to the advantage of players such as Lionel Messi, who are forced to endure asphyxiating situations because of defenders’ relentless pressuring of him.
The Ney piece in the Barça puzzle
Creating room for such a vibrant player is going to be anything but a simple endeavour for Barcelona. Several players will see themselves in positions novel to them, and for better or worse, others will have their workload in the team see an upsurge. His sheer dexterity is perhaps worth the risk.
The cornerstone of the club’s football, the 4-3-3 has throughout history been Barcelona’s go-to formation, and with reason, it is perfect for positional play. It incorporates an endless amount of width both through the wingers and fullbacks and provides situations optimal for the furtherance of Johan Cruyff’s school of thought.
In this perfectly orthodox system, Neymar Junior would be situated in the left-wing, as he is at Paris — and was at Barcelona. The ideal front three would be Neymar himself, Lionel Messi and Ansu Fati; the brilliant Barça midfield of Pedro Gonzales, veteran Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong; and a backline of Jordi Alba, Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo and Sergiño Dest.
The left flank runs itself, as even now, it is the one the Catalans utilise most. It is on the right, however, that the most drastic of changes will take place. For much of his young career as a footballer, Ansu has been a left-winger and a striker. We saw his role in the wider areas under each of his three managers, and under Ronald Koeman, the 18-year old made a gradual shift to the striking position, making it his own until that dreadful injury.
In an effort to expand his horizons to more than just the two roles, he will see himself implemented as a right-winger. Rather than act as an out and out classic winger, the Spaniard will start out wide but with the freedom to drift inwards. Not so much he interferes with Messi, but enough for him not to lose relevance in the final third due to the novelty of his role. For maximal efficiency in this position, Dest will need to have more of an offensive presence in the team. Both he and Ansu can combine in these areas, acting as a progressive unit from which the Spaniard could utilise his otherworldly finishing inside the penalty area.
Reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s final iteration of Barcelona, the team will regularly attack in a 2-3-5 in-game formation, making the most of the sheer offensive capabilities of the team. The setup leaves gaps defensively that will need to be filled by someone, thus in this case, the right flank will be guarded by Frenkie de Jong. The Dutch midfielder is industrious enough to cover both the halfspaces and the wing, given his seemingly limitless endurance in matches.
The team would need immense depth if at all this system is to be utilised to its full potential. Dest will need a compatriot equally as offensive to both complement and supplement him, given how demanding the role is. A household name in Andalusia, Emerson Royal, would be the optimal candidate to do this. He possesses an abundance of talent, intuition and flair in both the first and final thirds of the pitch and given the possibility of injuries, rotations will be a must in this system.
The Christmas tree formation, as it is often called, maximizes the offensive talents of its players. Completely bereft of wingers, this formation is quite narrow, however, it does foster a climate in which Neymar Junior and Lionel Messi can best coincide with one another.
In this particular system, Ansu Fati would be the focal point of the attack, as Neymar and Messi would be situated just behind him as a duo of false 9s. The midfield would ideally be composed of Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, and Nico Gonzalez from Barca B in the pivot role. The backline remains unchanged, as Jordi Alba, Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo and Sergiño Dest keep their spots.
The use of Nico is integral to the overall success of this formation. With Neymar and Messi both central and Ansu Fati situated at the point of the attack, the fullbacks will have to be more offensive than ever. Where does the 19-year old tie into this? Whilst Pedri and de Jong provide cover for their respective fullbacks in the wings, the Barca B player will be tasked with providing an additional layer of protection in the halfspaces. He will also bear the responsibility of tracking the runners in behind, which will come as a definite result of the multifarious counterattacks the Blaugrana will have to defend.
With an ageing Messi and a Neymar whose, work-rate off the ball is far from exemplary, Barcelona will need as much defensive reassurance as they can get. This setup is a guarantee of goals, and goals aplenty. The two South Americans have a tight-knit bond dating back to their days in the formidable MSN and one whose strengths will be maximised for the betterment of not only themselves but also the team.
Similar in some sense to the setup Barcelona is implementing at the moment, the 3-4-1-2 offers bountiful offensive options with limited defensive risks. It relies firmly on the supplication of width by wingbacks, like the current 3-5-2, but more than this, it maximises the endless automatisms and possible combinations that will inevitably form with the three attackers.
While the top is a 1-2, it will consist of three false nines; Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Neymar Junior. Sergio Busquets, or any pivot for that matter, is discarded. In the veteran’s place, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzales will take charge of the midfield. By virtue of their athleticism and unreal endurance, the pair will provide — much like they have done for a bulk of this season — an attacking threat as well as defensive reassurance through their off the ball work rate. The wingbacks ideally should be Jordi Alba and Sergiño Dest, as Clement Lenglet, Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza round off the back three.
This team is brimming — if not overflowing — with creativity on all fronts, with seven — nine if you count the two ball-playing centre-backs — players just lying in wait to annihilate their opponents. The front three need no introduction, as the sheer offence prowess of one of these alone is enough to destabilise a team. Much as is the case with Manchester City, the three will provide endless positional fluidity and an impeccable ability to circulate the ball. In midfield, despite the fact they are only two, the pair have an unparalleled work-rate and a precocious technical nous in their arsenal. Alba and Dest guarantee explosive width, whilst the centre-backs provide defensive reassurance.
There are obvious issues with this system, the most glaringly obvious being its inability to accommodate wingers, but if Neymar is to return to the club, this is one of the possible avenues from which this could happen.
Is it worth it, though?
On the one hand, Barcelona will be more than capable of dominating every single game that comes their way. With the sheer quality and quantity of attacking threat that Barcelona will possess, every opponent will quiver at the sight of Barcelona. The Blaugrana have a midfield they can finally flaunt for the first time in what seemed like centuries, and coupled with the attacking potential of Neymar, Lionel Messi — who might stay thanks to him —, Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati, there is no telling what this team can do.
Messi has sung praises of him, and Pep Guardiola juxtaposed this with his own message, saying that the Catalans probably would have won two Champions League titles more had he stayed. It is hard to imagine any negatives to having the world’s most formidable front three together for two more years, and even more so when Griezmann is factored into the equation.
On the other hand, this goes against Barcelona’s ideals. Johan Cruyff famously had this to say: “If you have second thoughts on playing for Barcelona, you are no longer of service to us.” One could forgive Neymar, as he merely wanted to step out of Messi’s seemingly inescapable shadow, and that now, having understood his error, he can freely return. Though, and this is something to ponder on, is this really what a club in reconstruction should do? He adds more problems to the wage issue at the club, as he will certainly demand an astronomically high salary and is almost a certainty in causing off-field problems which have no place here.
While he is a hard worker, how much of a negative is he to wingers and Barcelona’s tactics as a whole? If he does arrive, one of Ousmane Dembélé or Ansu Fati will have to leave if they do not want to be pushed out.
The Frenchman might go the other way in an exchange deal, but given his youth, would it be worth it given his age and potential? Lastly, Barcelona’s style and unique identity is characterized by the use of true wingers on either flank, two interiors and a single, but positional, pivot. Is it worth sacrificing so many critical elements of the team’s identity for one man, even if that man is Neymar? Time to set the priorities straight.