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Sunday, October 24, 2021

So what does this say about Neymar?


Neymar and Messi hug it out.
Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to anything off the field in La Liga, and especially the two giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, if one of my eyebrows isn’t raised then it’s certainly in the starting blocks to be so. So when news last Thursday broke that Lionel Messi was leaving Barca due to their self-imposed, financial straight jacket (they’ll say it was imposed on them, but c’mon), I still was pretty sure it was one last ditch effort to guilt La Liga into some change of rules or exception to keep their greatest prize around. After all, who is La Liga’s biggest star after Messi? Who’s the name everyone down to the most casual fan knows plies his trade in Spain? I’ll wait, you get back to me. Feel free to show your work.

But it’s real now. Lionel Messi is in Paris with a shirt he definitely owned before this morning, and a presser is set for tomorrow to unveil him as a PSG player. He’s gone from Barcelona, gone from La Liga. He’s arrived in France’s Ligue 1, perhaps a nice, small downward step before he takes another bigger one heading to MLS in a few years. In your mid-30s, you don’t want to be too harsh on the knees and hips by jumping from too high a height.

At PSG, he’ll reunite with his close friend Neymar. Which is just a little funny, considering that four years ago Neymar left Barcelona, shockingly so, because he wanted to get away from Messi and stake his own claim to Ballons D’or and FIFA Player of The Years and world domination. Taking PSG from merely French champions and rulers to European heavyweight and champion would give Neymar the glow on his own, and allow him to stand on the same stage as Messi and Ronaldo and not just wonder if Nike had paid to put him there.

So how’d all that go?

The problem for Neymar is that he’ll never escape the perception of Ligue 1. It’s not the backwater that some would have you believe, but it is behind the other four leagues in Europe’s Big 5. And as we saw last season, PSG haven’t been automatic for Ligue 1’s title the past five years. Kylian Mbappe’s Monaco pipped them the year before Neymar arrived, so they just had to have both Neymar and Mbappe. Then they had them both, and Lille was able to usurp them last year. There was little chance of that happening again, as bigger clubs around the continent are already strip-mining Lille. PSG are heavy, heavy favorites to win the league again.

But if you look at any statsheet that measures performances across Europe’s Big 5, you’ll see Neymar near the top of the list. At least you will when it comes to rates, maybe not totals, thanks to an injury record that is spotty at best and some within PSG would tell you is also a touch unnecessary. Neymar was tops last season in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes across Europe. That’s passes, dribbles, drawing fouls. No one did more to get a team into position to score than Neymar. He was fifth the season before that, 9th the season before that. Certainly a dominant, great player. But again, the French league. Just for funsies, what do we think Jack Grealish could do in Ligue 1? Am I saying Neymar might just be a more famous, better-marketed Grealish? I’m not not licking toads.

Ok, let’s try and pare it down. Let’s just use the Champions League. Step up in competition, right? Neymar was 12th in shot-creating actions per 90, right in front of Jadon Sancho. Hey, Sancho just went to Man United for $100 million, so he’s no slouch. Year before that Neymar was 18th, though injuries kept him from playing that much. But the year before that, 2018-2019, he led the competition. Except he only played six matches and missed the Round of 16 tie against United where PSG bit it.

But beyond stats, Neymar was brought in to win the fucking thing. To cement PSG’s place at the high table. They got to one final, in the pandemic version, which didn’t involve two-legged quarters and semis. That’s nice, and isn’t nothing, but they didn’t win. Last year they got to a semifinal. It was only their second ever semifinal, and the first in the full version of the competition. And for a half they looked the equal or better of Man City. And then thanks to some ruthless finishing by City, gave up four goals over the next game and a half and went back home. Neymar has yet to accomplish the goal set out for him.

A game here or there is not the most just way to judge a player. PSG easily could have beaten Munich in the 2020 final. Maybe one more goal in the first half of the first leg against City last spring changes things. But again, Neymar was brought to Paris, chose to go to Paris, to get that one game or one goal. Everyone’s kind of still waiting.

Story actually isn’t much different for the national team. Brazil beefed in the quarters in Russia to Belgium. Neymar got hurt in the quarters in 2014 at home, though it’s hard to think he could have done much about this small calamity in the semifinal. And clearly the problems went deeper than not having a still-very young Neymar.

They did win Copa America in 2019 on home soil… except Neymar didn’t play thanks to injury. They got another crack at doing the same this summer, winning in Brazil. They didn’t…. losing to Messi’s Argentina in the final.

PSG are, or were, clearly built around Neymar. And at times he and Mbappe appear to be playing another sport with the way they can weave through and around and over defenses. Everything gets funneled through Neymar, and he pretty much demands it that way. And yet a team centered around him didn’t do what it was supposed to. None of them have. Which isn’t fair, as plenty of players don’t win things with club and country through no fault of their own. But plenty of players aren’t the biggest transfer in history that altered the market forever. And plenty of players didn’t become that to clinch their legacy as an all-time great.

So here we are now, and Neymar is once again paired with Messi. Perhaps at 34, Messi will be relieved to not have to be a one-man band as he was the past few years at Barca. Neymar can still be the focus, and Messi can play off of him, the reverse of what happened in their time together in Spain. Or maybe Neymar is happy to share the burden and keep opponents guessing. Certainly both will see more space than they have of late, not that it mattered much to players of this talent level.

PSG will almost certainly win Ligue 1 at a canter. Which they always should, but don’t always do. There’s no team now in Europe that you’d favor over them in the Champions League. Maybe they’ll win it. But when and if they do, it won’t be Neymar’s crowning achievement. Maybe it won’t be Messi’s either, depending on how the team plays. Maybe it’ll be theirs. But the whole point of this operation four years ago was that it was supposed to be Neymar’s.

Maybe he’s just not that guy.

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