The absence of Lionel Messi has been remarkably unremarkable due to the results FC Barcelona have produced since his injury against Las Palmas in September, and Brazil superstar Neymar is a big reason for this relatively smooth run
There is something distinctly disconcerting about a serious injury to Leo Messi — his absence an unwanted reminder that his mesmerising genius is bound by the same physical dimensions that govern the lives of mere mortals, that this superhuman, otherworldly virtuoso is susceptible to the injuries and ailments of every other normal footballer.
His absence is a huge loss for FC Barcelona, of course, but also for those that love football. For Messi’s injury layoffs — luckily there aren’t many serious ones to speak of — are a foreshadowing of what the football landscape would look like without one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.
However, it also provides an opportunity to scrutinise that landscape and look for players who seem capable of taking over from Messi and Ronaldo, and reaching those same dizzying heights — or at least coming close.
Neymar’s star has been rising for quite some time now, but his breakthrough season arguably came in 2014-2015, as he helped his side win the La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League treble with 39 goals in all competitions.
The Brazilian has been a stand-out performer for his country for years, and despite a poor Copa Am rica tournament, Neymar remains the go-to man for the Sele A?o. At Barcelona, that mantle understandably rests with Leo Messi for the moment.
It is the Argentine’s current absence, then, that has allowed Neymar to show that he is capable of succeeding the Argentine at the Nou Camp.
Neymar’s evolution has never been more apparent
At the risk of stating the obvious, Neymar is an incredibly gifted footballer. Before considering anything else about him, his actual footballing ability deserves a mention. The Brazilian doesn’t necessarily possess the subtle genius of Messi — that same ability to twist, turn, shimmy and feint, and ultimately beat defenders with ballet-like grace.
Neymar’s is a different style. The 23-year-old perhaps relies more on his explosive pace and his extraordinary flair — a more ‘loud’ style in a sense than that of his Argentine teammate, but no less effective for it. An instinctive goalscorer, a superb dribbler, a very good passer of the ball, and a more-than-able set-piece taker, Neymar has all the tools in his locker to be able to reach the very top.
What has arguably been the most impressive aspect of his play during Messi’s absence however, is his creativity and maturity in attack. Not as tethered to his position on the left as in a starting XI with Messi in it, the Brazilian is seemingly being afforded more freedom of movement, and that has provided him with a platform to showcase a side of his game that doesn’t always get the recognition it perhaps deserves.
Neymar has demanded — and received — the ball in the final third, popping up all across the width of the pitch to run at defenders, and perhaps more importantly, to make clever passes behind defences and in the channel between full-back and centre-back for the likes of Luis SuA?rez. However, there seems to be an added intelligence to his play, a stronger sense of purpose — the maturity that has been lacking in his younger years.
The Brazilian has 6 assists in the 7 games following Messi’s injury, and one of them highlights this evolution in particular. SuA?rez took all the plaudits (deservedly so) for his hat-trick against Eibar a fortnight ago, but it was Neymar who played a large part in the victory by assisting a couple of his goals.
For the third, Neymar received the ball a little past the half-way line, resisted the physical pressure from his marker as he burst forward with it (instead of going down as he might have done a couple of years ago), threw off his man with a clever drag-back, and then with all the calmness and precision in the world, lifted a perfectly-weighted ball over the Eibar defence to find his Uruguayan teammate, who rifled in his hat-trick goal.
Consider his assist for Ivan Rakiti in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory away to BATE Borisov, where the No 11 received the ball on the left, and seeing his path blocked by two opposition defenders, had the wherewithal to time a through ball to perfection to his Croatian teammate in the penalty area.
Or take his defence-splitting pass to Luis SuA?rez at the SA?nchez PizjuA?n against Sevilla that led to the Catalans’ best chance of an equaliser. Neymar spotted the run of the former Liverpool FC striker and played a perfectly-weighted ball between centre-back and right-back for his teammate to latch on to. It is this sort of attacking intelligence and productivity that has rightly given the impression that the Brazilian international is playing at a higher level this season.
In the absence of Messi and Andr s Iniesta, Neymar has become the creative fulcrum of the team — the conductor of the orchestra rather than just another important musician in the instrumental ensemble.
Neymar is a big-game player who can shoulder responsibility
In a burgeoning career that ostensibly has yet to reach its moment of crowning glory, Neymar has won every big tournament there is to win at club level — across two continents. The 23-year-old’s individual honour roll also belies his age, and it seems as though the next personal milestone for him is the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
The Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly has been difficult to break, and is likely to continue for at least a couple of years more. What sets the two apart is not only their mind-boggling statistical record, but also their ability to maintain a consistently high standard throughout the course of the season, to take responsibility on the pitch, and to perform in the biggest games.
Neymar has already shown that he is able to produce in some of the biggest games for Barcelona. His record last season in particular, is indicative of this. Paris Saint-Germain. Real Madrid. Atl tico Madrid. Paris Saint-Germain again. Bayern Munich. Juventus. The Brazilian scored against all of these top European sides and more, and most of that useful contribution came in the second half of the season. Quite simply, Neymar is a big-game player.
It is his ability to shoulder responsibility in the face of incredible pressure, however, that could take him from a world class footballer to being one of the best footballers of his generation. The former Santos attacker has already proved he is capable of doing this for the national team. The recently-made Brazil captain has an absurd record of 46 goals in 67 games for the national side, and his performances in the 2013 Confederations’ Cup and 2014 World Cup were ample proof that he can deliver despite being burdened with the weight of a nation’s expectations.
Messi’s absence has, once again, allowed this particular quality of Neymar to shine through at club level. Ironically, his best performance in this time was in the 2-1 defeat to Sevilla at the SA?nchez PizjuA?n, precisely because it seemed as though he was hungry for the responsibility of driving his team to victory.
On the day, Neymar’s ubiquitous presence in the final third left the Sevilla midfield and defence exhausted, with the Brazilian constantly picking up the ball and running at defenders, or playing intelligent passes to teammates making runs ahead of him. Neymar was also desperately unlucky not to score with a stunning free-kick, with the ball hitting the post and rolling across the goal line before being cleared.
It was a performance full of character from the young attacker, and it was an indication of what was to come. Neymar has continued to play with the same responsibility, scoring 8 goals and providing 6 assists in the 7 games following Messi’s injury. It would be remiss to not mention the contribution of Luis SuA?rez, who has been just as good, but the Brazilian’s role has seen him orchestrate attack after successful attack for the Catalan side.
Tougher tests will come, of course, not least the El Clasico on the 21st of November, that Barcelona will most likely go into without Lionel Messi. Neymar has shown he is the man for the biggest occasions though, and Real Madrid would do well to make special plans to subdue the Brazilian.
Over the years, Messi has become an institution, a part– perhaps the most glorious — of the history of FC Barcelona. There is no such thing then, as a ‘replacement’ for Messi when the little magician finally decides to hang up his boots.
Although he will leave a void not just at Barcelona, but in the world of football, one man in particular is showing great promise of one day being able to come close to filling it. The Argentine will always loom large at the club — an era to remember, a standard to aspire to.
Bar a fans may not have Messi five or six years down the line, but they might just have the next best thing.