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Will Neymar surpass Messi at Barca?
Neymar, Pele insists, is a more complete player than Lionel Messi. It’s a bold claim and one that, given Pele’s predilection for talking nonsense, probably shouldn’t be taken at face value.
Pele, after all, has a habit of saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear, of political expediency. Brazilians want to hear that their superstar is better than Argentina’s superstar and, even more than that, Santos fans wanted to hear the legend of their past anoint the legend of their present.
And that is part of the problem with Neymar, perhaps with all great modern players: they become tools in greater narratives, judged not by how good they actually are, but by some ideological criteria. The question of how good Neymar is has become part of the wider conversation about whether Pele was better than Maradona (for, of course, all debates between Brazilians and Argentinians eventually come down to that).
That Neymar is hugely talented can hardly be doubted. He was instrumental, aged just 19, in Santos’s Copa Libertadores triumph in 2011, scoring six goals in the competition, including the opener in the second leg of the final. Again and again he would drift in off the left flank, always looking to beat a man, always seeking either to shoot or slip a pass behind the back four, using the diagonal to his advantage. He even developed a trademark goal, cutting in to the box, shaping to shoot into the far corner and then dragging the ball inside the near post.
Time will tell if Neymar's partnetship with Lionel Messi will work at Barcelona (Photo: Reuters/Gustau Nacarino).
Neymar may have looked supreme then, but his limitations were exposed a fortnight after that final at the Copa America. Nobody presses in the Brazilian league; ball players have time to turn, consider their options, then play the pass. It may not quite be the case that a high offside line is known as “the donkey line” as it was in the seventies, but the tendency is still for sides to sit deep. Some club sides from elsewhere in South America tend to squeeze the game but the general tendency is still to drop off, while referees will often give free-kicks for contact that would be permitted in northern Europe.
Twice in its four games in the Copa America, Brazil faced Gerardo Martino’s Paraguay. Both times Paraguay pressed and both times Neymar was lost. There had been a foreshadowing of that in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semifinal, when Cerro Porteno’s veteran fullback Dario Rodriguez had bullied Neymar, hitting him with a couple of early tackles and staying tight to him. It was no more than most defenders give to most forwards the world over, but it clearly unsettled Neymar.
To be too critical of him for that, though, would be absurd. He was only 19 and he came back to dominate the second leg of the tie, showing admirable mental resilience. Two years later, when he was named best player as Brazil won the Confederations Cup, it seemed that Neymar had learned better how to deal with physical treatment from defenders.
The initial plan had been for him to stay at Santos, where his $180,000 a week wages were paid by seven sponsors, until after the World Cup and the decision for him to join Barcelona a year early seems to have been rooted in Barca’s desire to sign a big name to soothe the pain of its mauling at the hands of Bayern Munich last season as anything else. It may, though, turn out to be a useful education for him in the ways of European defenders, toughening him up before the finals.
Aside from his capacity to cope with more stringent marking, two issues present themselves. Firstly, can Neymar play in the same side as Messi? Logically, given Messi instinctively drifts right and Neymar naturally comes from the left, it would seem they should offer thrilling fluency, but even if there weren’t the possibility of egos getting in the way, it will take time to develop the sort of understanding that allows them to make complementary rather than competing runs.
And secondly, Martino is a manager who demands his sides press. Neymar has never previously had to consistently close opponents down, has never had to fit into part of a strict structure of pressing. One of Brazil’s weaknesses in the Confederations Cup was the lack of support given by the wide forwards to fullbacks who were probably over-attacking anyway. That is something Neymar will have to learn, something that will place a strain on him both physically and mentally. That’s not to say he’s not capable of doing so, merely that an adjustment is required. If he is able to adjust, of course, that should make him better able to evade the pressing of others, just as Messi, who closes down opponents diligently, seems always capable of finding space.
The difference between Neymar and Messi is obvious even from their haircuts; where Messi, with his mammy’s boy crop, seems at times almost a little embarrassed by his talent - even if his polka-dot suit at FIFA's Ballon d'Or gala suggested a player becoming more extrovert; Neymar, with his Mohawk, appears to love the attention. Messi, all quick feet and little shuffles, is a minimalist, the tricks all employed for a purpose; Neymar is more flamboyant, likes a step over and perhaps over-elaborates. Messi is efficient, Neymar showy.
Neymar is a hugely talented player with the capacity to improve. He is likely to make Barcelona stronger and being at Barcelona is likely to make him a better player. He may be the man who wins Brazil the World Cup, but to compare him to Messi is both absurd and unfair. A composer can be great without being Bach.
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