The move from Barcelona to PSG is not the downgrade it appears to be
I remember getting up early in the summer mornings to check the latest news on the Neymar-to-Barcelona saga four years ago. By that time, we had not been able to watch him as much as we have now, and all we knew about him was that he was a Brazilian wunderkind destroying South American clubs with ease. Fast-forward to 2017 and again, I found myself checking Twitter to read about the latest news, this time on the Neymar-to-PSG saga. Hard to believe, unprecedented and unimaginable just a few months ago, but real as anything after all.
Barcelona started last season on a high note by winning the Spanish Supercup but could only end it with a Spanish Cup title and as La Liga’s runner up behind Real Madrid, not to mention an “early” Champions League exit in the quarter-finals for the second consecutive time. Messi, as couldn’t be otherwise, proved vital for Barcelona’s hopes during all of the season while Neymar suffered a slump in terms of production. He scored 20 goals in 45 games after netting 31 in 49 the prior season, and 39 goals three years ago.
While it is true that last season was not Barcelona’s best one of the past several years, things didn’t look as bad as they do now with summer slowly coming to its end. The main reason: Neymar’s unexpected departure.
We’re not here to talk about Barcelona, but rather Neymar himself. What the 25-year old did this off-season, to my eyes, was trying to find a new challenge by coming back to his roots. How? Moving from Spain’s La Liga to France’s Ligue 1, which is to say, moving from a top-tier competition to a notably lesser one, the opposite of playing in South America and coming to face the strongest European competition. From 2009 to 2013 Neymar played 103 games for Santos and scored 54 goals. From 2013 to 2017 Neymar played 123 games for Barcelona and scored 68 goals. The goal-scoring average turns out to be pretty similar, but his game was not in those two stints. Just watch a couple of highlight videos from his days in Brazil as opposed to his tenure at Barcelona. Now watch what he did against Toulouse a few days ago.
Looks like he went back in time, doesn’t it? And that is my point. Neymar added by subtracting. Is it better to play next to Suarez and Messi than to do so along Cavani and Di Maria? Sure. Is it better to play at Barcelona and be a UCL contender year after year instead of playing in Paris for a so-so team with big aspirations but no success to date? Probably. But isn’t it better for Neymar to be the undisputed best player in his league rather than the third-best (at most) like he was in Spain?
While Ligue 1 defenders’ level can’t be despised on average and is probably much higher than that displayed by their Brazilian counterparts, Neymar won’t have a problem dancing around them. He didn’t have it in Spain; he certainly won’t have it in France. Only three games into his PSG career, he has already scored three goals and assisted for another three. By WhoScored.com rating system, Neymar is at 9.35 in this small sample, a full 0.83 points over his next best mark. The only two players with a 9.0+ rating for the start of the season? Paulo Dybala (9.18) and Lionel Messi (9.09). Not bad company.
Upon arriving at Paris, Neymar made it clear that he didn’t have the Ballon d’Or award in mind when he decided to change places. He may not, but it sure looks to me that this new scenario benefits him as much as possible and the game he will showcase will bring him as close to the prize as he will ever get. Neymar will be entering his prime during the following two or three seasons while Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will more than probably see their performance drop due to the mere existence of Father Time. PSG is on an upward path having won four of the last five Ligue 1 titles, but it’s hard to see Monaco, last season’s champion, repeat with starlet Mbappé signing on at Paris. They’ve improved over the years on the European stage and sooner or later, they are bound to reach a UCL final.
For Neymar, then, this decision must have not been that hard to make. He’s already won everything a top-tier player can at club level – except the European Supercup – thanks to his role on an unstoppable Barcelona team. At the international level, he’s destined to surpass Pelé as Brazil’s best goalscorer and he still has 10-plus years of playing time ahead of him in order to win the World Cup and a few Copa America – he already won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2016. And if somehow he decides to come back to his native Brazil, he will do with all of the possible trophies to get there already under his belt thanks to his historic Santos career.
Now at PSG, nothing can go wrong for him. He’s the leading player of an exciting and mammoth-rich team, the best active player in France, the unstoppable force defenses will have nightmares with and ultimately a kid – he won’t turn 26 until January – that has already won everything and has nothing to lose. Neymar is here to stay, and Paris will lay out the best possible path to greatness for him.
Expect sombreros, rabonas and lambretas. More simply, just expect Neymar.