by Tony Wyman
“Neymar is a figure in the present and future of world football. The Brazilian can beat players, score and produce moments of magic. What more could you ask for?” posits the player’s page on fcbarcelona.com. Apparently, Barca supporters could ask for him not to abandon them.
But that seems likely to happen this week when Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., the 25-year-old Brazil superstar, finalizes a deal to leave Barcelona FC and his strike partners, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. Neymar, arguably the greatest player ever to take the pitch, will reportedly be heading for the Parc de Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain FC – the French League One giant, who have, according to Sky Sports, offered £193M for the player.
“It was an enormous pleasure to have shared these years with you friend, Neymar,” posted Messi on his Instagram page. “I wish you good luck in life. See you soon.” The captain’s words brought closure to the drama Neymar brought to the last weeks, making the transfer real in a way that none of the dozens of breathless accounts in the pages of the world’s soccer page could: Neymar was really leaving.
But, oddly, even though Barcelona is losing one of the premier forwards in the world, a player who was third in goals scored (13) and second in assists (11) and the first in game rating (8.52), supporters and players alike appear far from crestfallen.
Neymar’s teammates were “completely sick” of the situation he created that, in their view, overshadowed preseason wins against giants Manchester United, Juventus and arch-rival Real Madrid, according to Spanish sports site Diario Sport. Polls conducted last season showed 61% of Barca supporters wanted the club to sell Neymar. And just about every supporter was incensed when Neymar visited the Blancos dressing room in July after the two Spanish team’s pre-season International Champions Cup fixture and came out holding two Real Madrid jerseys.
Neymar’s imminent departure leaves Barcelona, winners of five Champions League trophies, the third most behind rivals Real Madrid (12) and A.C. Milan (7) of Italy’s Serie A, with a gap on the left side of their 4-3-3 formation. To fill that hole in the 11 spot, Barcelona will need to find a player with experience, pace, guile and the ability to play quick one-touch football made famous by the team, a style new manager Ernesto Valverde called “sacred” when he took the post from departing boss Luis Enrique.
If Valverde wants to change formations, going from a formation that requires three forwards to one he favors, like the 4-2-3-1 he used at Althetic Bilboa in 2016/17, the departure of Neymar might provide the excuse.
Neymar was not asked by previous managers to come back on defense and provide cover for the left back; it was enough of an ask to move the forward to move out to the left instead of his preferred center forward spot where he plays for the Brazilian national team.
If Valverde picks up a forward who is more amenable to tracking back defensively, switching to a 4-2-3-1 would make more sense. That formation would allow Suarez to stay in the central location, where his physicality and strength allows him to hold up play or muscle defenders out of his way, while giving Messi the freedom to play as a false 9 or a number 10 in the midfield.
So, with Neymar likely to depart and Messi moving to the midfield, Valverde will need to add two wings this summer. Gerarld Deulofeu, long tapped to be Messi’s successor on the right, was bought back from Everton, after being sold to the English club in 2015, where he saw limited play before being sent to AC Milan on loan in January.
In Italy, Deulofeu showed why he’s long been considered a future star, scoring four goals in 16 matches while earning a 7.30 player rating. Despite showing progress, though, Deulofeu is far from being a direct replacement for Messi or even a match for the right-side players of Barcelona’s chief opponents Real Madrid (Isco or Bale) or Atletico Madrid (Carrasco).
On the left, Barcelona have been linked with Liverpool‘s Philippe Coutinho, an attacking midfielder whose Brazilian flare is similar to Neymar’s. Coutinho and offers a bit more defensively than does Neymar with his strong tackling. But his future appears to be in central midfield, as an 8, playing behind the 10 where his passing penetrates opposing defensive lines.
Another player linked with a transfer to the Nou Camp is Juventus forward Paulo Dybala. The favorite choice of both Messi and Barca supporters, Dybala is an emerging young talent who would excite fans with his dribbling and passing abilities. It would cost a lot to prise him from the clutches of the Italian champion, but if the player pushes for a transfer, a deal could be made.
Dybala would bring the pizzazz and flair Barca fans are used to seeing and the transfer would give Messi the chance to play alongside his fellow Argentine for significant minutes before what is likely to be the greatest player in the world’s last World Cup in 2018.
Rumors have also surfaced that Barcelona will go after Chelsea FC‘s Eden Hazard. An established superstar, Hazard would be a dazzling addition to Barcelona’s front line. His stunning ball handling skills and proven record as a goal scorer from the left side of the pitch, Hazard would find filling Neymar’s slot a nature fit for his skills.
Even though the player claims he is happy at Chelsea, last year’s English Premier League champions, turning down a chance to play with Lionel Messi might prove irresistible to Hazard who has already won championships in two countries. Given a chance to win a third playing along side a legend, might tempt Hazard to make the switch. And the £100 million price tag that would come with him, might be enough to entice Chelsea to let him go.
If the deal for Neymar is completed this week as expected, Barcelona will be short on time to complete a deal to replace the forward. The summer transfer window closes in France, England and Germany on 31 August, the Spanish window shuts 24 hours later, leaving little time for the complex negotiations required to close a deal on a top star.
Complicating matters more, the team selling one of their top players to Barcelona will have little time to find a replacement, if they don’t have one on the bench already.
Messi’s farewell post wishing Neymar well may soon be followed by one welcoming a new star to the team. If so, the next few days will be a whirlwind for PSG, Barcelona and football fans in general.