Neymar is a baffling footballer and that really does show in the Champions League. His World Cup was stained with Brazil’s premature exit, but also an eclectic range of simulation which dropped his PR rating to an all-time low. Neymar comes with baggage. Fortunately, he’s just talented enough for it to be accommodated.
In European club that isn’t necessarily true, though. Sure, when Paris Saint-Germain are trampling over a Ligue1 opponent on a Saturday afternoon, only the Brazilian’s tricks, flicks and goals are really relevant, but when faced with credible opposition he’s seen for the lopsided footballer he is.
On Tuesday, before the corner which would ultimately lead to Roberto Firmino’s late goal, he received the ball fifteen yards outside his own box and attempted to dribble Paris Saint-Germain onto the counter-attack. There was nothing wrong with that – actually the ambition was admirable. But he lost the ball and, instead of recognising the danger and fighting to retrieve it, he shrugged, turned his back on the play, and allowed Liverpool the one last chance that they needed.
It’s what we expect from him. He’s a world-class attacking footballer and, to a certain degree, he shouldn’t be burdened by defensive responsibilities. PSG would have wasted their investment if, say, he was expected to hare back into his own half after every change in possession. But there is clearly a difference between that sort of defensive forward role and showing no consideration whatsoever for the team’s structure or circumstances. It was 2-2 in the final seconds of a game which will shape a Champions League group; if not at that moment, when does urgency occur to Neymar?
With PSG, there’s the temptation to wonder whether they are actually to blame for their star player’s attitude. Thomas Tuchel inherited a dressing-room which was, according to reliable reports, dominated by Neymar. Tuchel is also now employed by an ownership who are, for obvious reasons, enamoured by this symbol of their own largesse and willing to forgive him almost anything. In that kind of environment, it’s hardly realistic to expect a player to bend himself towards the collective interest.
But while that’s all highly plausible, the manner in which Neymar chooses to exploit that indulgence is very descriptive. He has very public designs on the Ballon d’Or and, having spent four years at Barcelona playing alongside Leo Messi, he knows exactly what’s needed to ascend to that level of the game. Yes, Messi will be immortal for what he has done with the ball at his feet, but – like everybody else who rose under Pep Guardiola – his workrate during his peak years was often phenomenal. Barcelona were a high-pressing side in that era and Messi was a critical part of it.
So how has Neymar not learnt from that example? How is it that, following last year’s exit from the Champions League (the competition on which PSG and he himself will always be judged), there still remains this apathy within his game? He’ll turn 27 next February, so he’s not a child any more and neither is there any reason to believe that these imperfections will just melt away with time. The moment for the penny to drop has been and gone and, alas, he remains so, so gifted, but still so, so flawed.
As time passes, his move to Ligue1 looks less like an attempt to distance himself from Messi’s shadow and more a transfer instructed by a desire for a better-paid career with fewer restrictions on his personality. He wants his cake. He wants to eat it. And he wants to decide how and when he does it. He is the main reason why PSG have a hope of winning the Champions League, but also the clearest reason why they ultimately won’t. He is their gift and their curse.
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