The Neymar debacle

Anyone who, in terms of memory, has anything exceeding the capacities of a goldfish knew this might happen. Two years after Paris St-Germain paid the improbable sum of 222 MILLION EUROS to snatch Neymar from Barcelona, ESPN FC has reported that the two parties have mutually agreed to part ways. No one is sure how exactly this is to happen, but the fact that it will happen was rather predictable.

Like many, I was somewhere in the neighbourhood of shocked when I initially heard that the Brazilian would swap the prestige of Barcelona for the riches of PSG, but it ended up happening anyway. Several hypotheses for the move were emitted at the time: Neymar wanted the ridiculous money PSG could offer; his father, who doubles as his agent, stood to make a huge commission from the move; Neymar wanted to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and lead his own team. Whatever the reason(s) for him wanting the move to Paris, the consensus is that his tenure as the French capital team’s marquee star will have been a failure.

Artwork by Bleacher Report

It’s not entirely fair to say this, but it’s easy to understand why many would. Neymar was acquired by PSG barely a month or so after he led Barcelona famous/infamous “remontada” against PSG in the Champions’ League (PSG won the first game 4-0 only to lose the return leg 6-1). He was the superstar who would bring not just skill, which PSG already had in spades, but a clutch gene. He would also be the super-duper star who would contribute to the team’s Hollywood status.

The showbiz dimension of the move was always going to take care of itself, but it has not generated the boost on the field that was expected, by which we mean PSG has crashed out of the Champions’ League in the two seasons he has been with the team. It doesn’t help that, last season, they fell to a Manchester United, again by way of opponent comeback. In 2017-2018, unpopular coach Unai Emery took the blame, as exemplified by the French pundit Pierre Ménès saying of Emery, “this dude reeks of fear, and he’s passing it on to the players.” So the team fired him and brought on Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, hoping he would provide the required spark. At first, it looked as though this was happening. The players, according to Ménès, looked happier, and this boded well for what was to come. But then, PSG bumped into a Manchester United team that was still in the honeymoon phase with interim coach Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and allowed them to pull the rug out from under them, with Neymar abroad nursing an injury, for a second year in a row, as his team suffered UCL elimination.

Conspiracy theorists were already having a field day with Neymar at that point. How was his relationship with the team? Could it be possible that PSG was actually better without him (a preposterous notion)? Wasn’t it revealing that he was apparently so standoffish with regards to his teammates? We will, of course, never get an answer to these questions, but a mere look at recent Ligue 1 history could have served as a warning for PSG on the Neymar front.

Unhappy foreign stars: a recurring Ligue 1 theme?

Remember Falcao? In 2013, coming off two tremendous seasons with Atletico Madrid, the Columbian striker was considered the world’s best centre forward, and he was reported to want a move to Atleti’s crosstown rival Real Madrid. There was, however, one problem: his contract with the rojiblancos featured a clause that prevented him from jumping ship to Real. The solution was both tremendously risky and very curious. Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev had just bought Ligue 1 club AS Monaco and brought big spending money to the club from La Principeauté. Suffering from what The Ringer’s Bill Simmons calls “first-year owner syndrome” and wanting to make a splash, Rybolovlev and his footballing right-hand man Vadim Vasilyev did what anyone without any real contacts in the footballing world would do: they contacted a super agent, in this case Jorge Mendes, and asked which of his clients he’d recommend they sign. Mendes gave them three names, the most significant one (at the time) being Falcao, the established star. One supposes Monaco and Falcao had dual motives for this move: the player would try, after a year, to strong-arm ASM into agreeing to sell him to Madrid for a profit, and the club would have a year to convince him to stay.

If you believe in karma, the way events unfolded was the story for you, as what followed was the only lose-lose scenario for player and club. Falcao suffered a season-ending injury in an exhibition game against a non-professional team (what possessed Claudio Ranieri to play him in that game is completely beyond me), while fellow new arrival James Rodriguez blossomed into the superstar player who would be sold to Madrid. Meanwhile, Monaco remain stuck with Falcao, who has looked a shell of himself since that injury.

Also, the sale of Rodriguez was made necessary not just by the player’s desire to leave, but by looming Financial Fair Play sanctions. It’s what makes Rybolovlev’s decision to buy this specific club so puzzling, unless he just happened to want to own his tax haven’s local club. Anyone could have told him from a mile away that spending his way into league and Champions’ League titles like other superclubs do is not viable for ASM because they do not have the means to generate the kind of revenue that needs to accompany such massive transfer and wage bills.

At first glance, PSG seems equipped to avoid the pitfalls Monaco has fallen into. Until Neymar, they had mostly bought smart, no worse than other big-budget clubs. They are located in the country’s capital city, with plenty for the players to do. They have a 48,000-seat stadium and a large, devoted fanbase. With they have in common with Monaco is that they play in Ligue 1.

The French first division is sometimes unfairly maligned by Anglophone media pundits, but it is largely – PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Marseille aside – a developmental league. Its level of play is undoubtedly inferior to that of the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga, and the question of whether it lulls its stars into a false sense of security has been brought up multiple times. Neymar himself provided fodder for this theory by missing his team elimination against Real Madrid and later scored five goals against Metz in league play. Are stars who play for PSG doomed to pile up the empty-calorie fireworks locally but fold against European competition?

Ironically, the main argument against this point is Monaco circa 2017, who upset Manchester City in rather emphatic attacking fashion. Yet, that Monaco squad was manned by youngsters Kylian Mbappé, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Lamine Kurzawa and Yannick Carrasco. In a way, they might have been too young and naive to fear Man City. They were also good enough to win Ligue 1 in front of a loaded PSG team.

So if it isn’t the domestic league that’s the problem, the issue is internal. And if it is, Neymar has contributed to whatever situation he’s now trying to escape. As I write these lines, Barcelona have reportedly made an initial offer to take back the Brazilian. How they can match the demands of Financial Fair Play while acquiring Neymar AND Antoine Griezmann is completely beyond me, but we shall see. However, just as Falcao and James Rodriguez were ready to leave Monaco almost upon arrival, this newest Neymar saga, whether he winds up leaving or staying due to the lack of a realistic market for him, shows that the question of whether PSG can keep superstars in their prime remains complete.

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PSG’s Brazil-sized gamble

As I write these lines, ESPN FC has reported that Paris St-Germain and Neymar have agreed to terms on a contract that would see the Brazilian superstar swap the prestige, the tradition and the winning ways of Barcelona for the riches and the Champions League promise of PSG. There is no overstating the importance of this transfer if it does happen.

First off, the fee PSG would have to pay is absolute nonsense. Neymar’s release clause stands at 222 MILLION EUROS. Emphasis on the expression “Release clause.” That is to say that Neymar will have cost PSG €222 m, and they won’t have paid him a penny in wages yet. This would blow the previous record transfer fee (€105 m paid by Manchester United for Paul Pogba) to smithereens. Barcelona does not wish to lose the Brazilian, so there will be no hometown discount. But then, the fact that PSG is actually making this run at Neymar means two things: 1) The fee, while astronomical, is not prohibitive for the club and 2) PSG owners Qatari Sports Investments consider him to be “worth it” (whatever that means in the warped universe of top-level European football) in every sense of the word.

Neymar

(Some nice artwork by Bleacher Report here.)

As crazy as it sounds, PSG could recoup a significant fraction of the transfer fee in merchandising money, which Neymar would generate in spades. But one hardly gets the impression that Paris’s Qatari owners care in any way about the money. This transfer is about to happen, above all, because of the message it sends. If Neymar moves to PSG, it cements the club’s status as a world superpower. The argument could be made that they already were, but this is a new level of muscle-flexing.

Sure, PSG has signed big stars before, but they didn’t have Neymar’s prestige and/or his upside. The club’s first big signing as a financial superpower was Javier Pastore from Palermo, but he wasn’t a superstar yet, and the idea was that he would blossom into one while wearing PSG’s colours. (Count me among the many who wrongly thought this was a brilliant idea.) The club also signed centre back Thiago Silva, at the time the world’s best at his position, but defenders simply don’t have the potential star power of attacking players. It may have been as important a signing as Neymar would be now, but it was far less sexy. And while top striker/narcissist extraordinaire Zlatan Ibrahimovic did beat up on Ligue 1 opposition as badly as anyone could dream of, he was seen as a star who had already begun his decline when he came over to Paris from AC Milan in a package deal with Silva.

In terms of perception, Neymar’s transfer would be something else entirely. I can think of no more than three clubs where his mere arrival doesn’t immediately make him the team’s offensive alpha dog. And the Brazilian star is actually about to leave one of these three clubs, as he enters his prime, to join the French giants. There is no overstating the importance of that, nor of the fact that PSG would be prying him away from the best team in world football for the past 12 years against said team’s will. Because let us be clear about this: Barcelona does not wish to lose Neymar. Granted, they still have Leo Messi and Luis Suarez, but both are 30, and the younger Neymar could have given the Catalan club the chance to extend its dynasty into the medium term with him as the team’s main attacking option. Losing the Brazilian means having to potentially press the reset button sooner, and no one in Barcelona wants that.

The transfer is also meaningful because it has the potential to alter the balance of power in world football. Neymar is currently, at worst, one of world football’s top five players. Individuals of such talent don’t simply define teams; they define leagues. When Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid, it was obvious that the Red Devils would have to restructure their attack. What was perhaps less obvious was that the Premier League would never be quite the same, and it hasn’t been. Neymar’s hypothetical departure comes at a fairly terrible time for both Barcelona and Spain’s La Liga. The league’s two megastars, Messi and Ronaldo, are now 30 or over, and Barcelona faces levels of uncertainty it hasn’t seen in a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine Ligue 1 reaching a level of quality comparable to that of the English Premier League, the Spanish Liga or the German Bundesliga, but Neymar’s arrival will give it an unquestionable boost. And even then, that was never PSG’s aim. Paris is obsessed with the Champions’ League. Their roster is already built to win it. It’s not a fluke that PSG is looking to acquire the main artisan of the miraculous comeback Barcelona pulled against them in the UCL last season. With peak Neymar in its lineup, Paris St-Germain won’t win it every year, but they won’t have to fear anyone, and in a few years, may get to boast about having the world’s best player.

Neymar’s motives

Hopefully, if the transfer happens, the Brazilian star is ready for the absolute firing squad of criticism that will come his way. Neymar will be accused of doing it for the money, of padding his bank account at the expense of his career. People will go on and on about Ligue 1 being an inferior league where he won’t actually have to prove his greatness every week to dominate. Some will even accuse Neymar of being jealous of Messi; we might even get a few anonymous source-fueled news stories to that effect.

This criticism is partly justified, of course, but it’ll be done in such bad faith, especially when it comes from English pundits still steamed over the fact that he’ll have spurned Manchester United, that it’ll be laughable. It’s true that Ligue 1 isn’t the Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, but it isn’t China, either. Marseille, Nice, Monaco and Lyon are good teams, especially if the latter two can avoid losing too many good young players. It was Monaco, let us remember, who took out Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Champions’ League, and it was not a mere stroke of luck.

The money certainly doesn’t hurt, but let’s not pretend Neymar was making pocket change at Barcelona. It’s what makes his situation so special: he’ll be the first player to be the object of two top-10 most expensive transfers ever before his prime begins. This transfer isn’t comparable to the one that took him from Santos to Barcelona; the Catalan giants can afford to pay him. Several analysts have speculated that Neymar’s father, who also acts as his son’s agent, is pushing for this move in order to cash in the hefty commission that would come with the transfer. The concern is certainly legitimate, and it raises questions about the predatory nature of certain agent-player relationships, perhaps especially when parents are involved. Some clearly cannot be trusted to make the right decisions for their child’s soccer career.

Even if we accept that this is the case here, however, what appears to be driving Neymar’s consideration of moving to PSG is the prospect of the Brazilian star “being his own man,” i.e. being a team’s offensive alpha dog. Superstars such as him don’t like playing second fiddle to anybody, and Neymar is doubtlessly good enough to run his own show. It can’t hurt that PSG are selling him on being the talk of the town, the face on every billboard, and on other ego-flattering perks of superstardom. The thought of being a Robin to Lionel Messi’s Batman has probably lost its charm for the former Santos prodigy, and it surely doesn’t help that Messi has recently signed a three-year contract extension. Neymar surely understands that Messi will get to pick when he leaves, and that there is no topping the legacy of a player who was the top dog for one of the greatest dynasties in world football history. In contrast, Paris would allow Neymar to step out of Messi’s shadow and build a legacy that’s his and his only.

In theory…

I’m sure this all sounds great on paper for Neymar, and maybe he can simply land in Paris, take control of the team, and take it to the Promised Land… or it could get much more complicated than that.

For starters, Barcelona have said they would report PSG to UEFA for violation of Financial Fair Play principles. You would think, however, that PSG would not have engaged in such an energetic pursuit of Neymar had they not found a way to meet the demands of FFP. You don’t simply dish out €222 m for a single player and expect UEFA officials to look the other way. If, out of cavalier insouciance, PSG have opted to “figure it out later,” they face being blocked from UEFA competitions (read: the Champions’ League). So let’s keep going under the assumption that QSI have figured a way around FFP.

Then, there is the question of the team’s identity. People point to Messi’s talent to explain his ridiculously successful career, but the importance of the infrastructure from which he has benefited as a Barcelona player should not be understated. He was trained at La Masia, and from the moment Pep Guardiola took over and handed him the reigns of the Barcelona attack, Messi was allowed to play a coherent style of football over a sustained period of time with other extraordinary players. Few teams offer as much, let alone more. Many top clubs have academies whose products they subsequently neglect and tend to go through managers like Tic-Tacs, with a new shift in either identity or emphasis every time.

This has certainly been the case with PSG. Just over a decade ago, Figo, who had seen Real Madrid’s Galactico policy sink the club from Champions’ League winner to dysfunctional underachievers on the European stage, said it all went wrong when the team’s Hollywood factor became more important than the football it played. Well, PSG seem determined to be as Hollywood as football clubs get. One doesn’t have to be in the team’s board room to figure out that the capital team attempts to figure out what to do with the star players it purchases AFTER, as opposed to BEFORE, acquiring them. This is a very hit-and-miss tactic, with which you can get lucky (Zlatan Ibrahimovic, because he’s just that good) or unlucky (Edinson Cavani, whom Laurent Blanc insisted on playing as a winger because he was adamant on using a 4-3-3 formation). It only makes sense if you’re buying players for their star power, current or potential, as opposed to acquiring them because they fit your footballing identity or fill a particular need.

Obviously, stardom comes from somewhere, and Neymar may very well be one of those super-duper-stars – Messi in Barcelona; Ronaldo in Madrid; Ribery and Robben at Bayern Munich (though they’re getting older); Hazard at Chelsea – that you simply keep on your team at virtually all costs if you have them. When one of these guys is one the market, teams just jump on them and don’t let go because, well, these guys simply aren’t on the market most of the time. Ever since Ibrahimovic’s departure to Manchester United, PSG hasn’t had that guy on its roster, and the upside of acquiring Neymar to replace the Swede as the team’s attacking alpha is this: Ibrahimovic arrived in Paris at over 30 years of age. Neymar is 25.

There is also a realistic possibility that Neymar could have to adjust to a new coach twice in his first year with the club. Several French football analysts were surprised coach Unai Emery was brought back and, while this would seem to suggest the club recognizes that constantly switching managers is not a viable recipe for success, we should all expect Emery to be on a very short leash next season. Who does the club bring in if Emery is let go?

Then, there is the roster. If PSG is counting on the sale of several players to satisfy the demands of Financial Fair Play, it may find things difficult. Try to sell them before acquiring Neymar and you risk being short on quality and quantity if Barcelona manages to hold on to him. Sell them after and you’ll have to deal them for pennies on the dollar, and most likely pay portions of their salary, because teams know you’re desperate to sell.

And boy, is that collection of wingers/attacking midfielders an eclectic group of potential square pegs in round holes! If I’m running the team, the only sure thing is that Cavani is my lone striker up front. After that, you give Neymar one spot somewhere and have to decide where to play Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Hatem Ben Arfa, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Jesé, Gonçalo Guedes and Christopher Nkunku. Guedes and Nkunku are youngsters who figure to spend significant time on the bench. Still, you can’t keep all these guys. The club is stuck with Pastore’s contract, and the others, while talented, are condemned to be either misused or barely used at all. They’re all too good to be relegated to playing positions that don’t really suit them or to log symbolic minutes in midweek gimme fixtures like League Cup games. Try keeping a winning mentality within the club with a group of high-priced malcontents on your squad!

If PSG loses midfield dynamo Marco Verratti to… wait for it… Barcelona, it could opt for a base 4-2-3-1 structure with Cavani up top; Neymar, Draxler/Ben Arfa, and Di Maria/Moura as the attacking midfield trio with a three-man rotation of Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot manning the two defensive midfield spots. This allows Neymar and whoever is playing opposite him to cut inside with the ball while using the fullbacks as the wide players responsible for crossing it to Cavani. It also allows them to widen into more of a 4-3-3 look, which takes advantage of the fact that Di Maria is one of the game’s better traditional wingers and can really whip a cross inside the box.

PSG 4-2-3-1

What PSG may find to be the biggest issue with this look is that unless Neymar turns into another Cristiano Ronaldo, his scoring chances could come in more limited quantity than everyone at PSG would like. You don’t pay that kind of money for a player if you’re not expecting him to score bucketloads of goals for you.

PSG could also do the trendy thing and put their big-money purchase in a more central role, like the number 10 spot. Draxler has played on the left wing before and could assume such a role while Neymar plays behind the striker. There are two problems with this idea, however. First, Neymar is unproven playing in the centre. Second, putting him there likely means you’re going to ask the striker to play with his back to goal often and play the ball backwards to the number 10 having created some space for him to work with. This role is both not Cavani’s specialty and a severe waste of his goal-scoring talents.

Emery, if PSG keeps him long enough, is one of the game’s most respected tacticians and I wouldn’t put it past him to put together strategies that make this collection of spectacular individual talents work together. However, there is no way I can see to avoid having several of these players make serious compromises on their preferred style of play. Soccer history suggests that strong personalities like Di Maria, Draxler and Ben Arfa won’t agree to it for long, especially if they get the justified feeling that the entire show is about Neymar. Add him to the current PSG squad and it has the potential to turn into a dysfunctional mess.

Paper games

The mere act of getting Neymar to Paris would be a symbolic and financial victory for PSG’s Qatari owners. He’ll sell shirts like nobody’s business, put bums in seats and be the talk of the town. And PSG will have established itself as a European powerhouse, having acquired a player who was, for just about any other team, impossible to acquire. When QSI bought PSG, new team president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi said his plan was to turn the club into a worldwide brand like the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers. From a prestige angle, acquiring Neymar would mean success in this entreprise.

However, from a footballing standpoint, even though the Santos product is a remarkable talent, this is a huge gamble for the Paris club if he does end up coming. The price tag alone means that anything less than reaching the level of aliens Ronaldo and Messi will be deemed a failure. And even if he does reach that level, it doesn’t guarantee them the Champions’ League any more than it is guaranteed to them right now. With Neymar, they probably wouldn’t let Barcelona come back from four goals down, but would they now be favourites to beat Barcelona? Or Real Madrid? Or Bayern Munich? Or Chelsea? Or Manchester City? I don’t know that they would be. They certainly would have a fair chance, but it’s not a lock.

There’s no denying the excitement that would follow Neymar to the French capital, and they would certainly make it as Hollywood as possible. PSG would be the uncontested winner of the offseason. However, as for the on-the-field product, I’ll believe it when I see it. So far, each one of their failures has given way to the same knee-jerk reaction: “We need more superstars! Let’s fire the coach and sign some more!” Should PSG fail to provide Neymar with the right support structure, both in terms of supporting cast and tactics, it’s likely that €222 m later, the offseason is still the only thing they end up winning.

 

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