There are many layers and reasons for Barcelona to bring in Neymar, some of them a bit more obvious than others. One of them is taking a lot of pressure off from Lionel Messi, even if it means that in some matches, the Brazilian is actually the focus of everything that goes on.
Barcelona brought over Neymar simply because he’s one of the biggest rising stars in the world, having enough of Brazilian football and knowing it’s time to “spread his wings” and show the doubters he can succeed on European soil as well. He’s a huge media and commercial attraction, bringing Barcelona back to the “one big signing” operational model, which worked quite well during the Guardiola era, even if someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t last very long.
It also meant beating Real Madrid for a player that for a very long time they looked like the closer team to getting. Cristiano Ronaldo is just as big of a star as Lionel Messi, but last season proved to Neymar that it’s going to better for his career to play next to the Argentine than the Portuguese star.
And then there’s what he’ll actually bring to the table. Neymar is used to keeping the ball at his feet for a long time before letting it go, which will obviously have to change. It’s not that he can’t do it – we’ve seen some brilliant passing sequences from the current Brazilian side, but it’s more about getting used to quick passing, releasing and off the ball movement than the question of whether he can do it or not.
Without Lionel Messi on the pitch, it’s hard to believe Barcelona would even be close to challenging for a title. Yes, the void would have been partially filled by someone, but it’s never going to be the same. Their dependence on Messi being on the pitch, scoring the goals, providing the assists and drawing so much attention to himself has been immensly crucial for the last five seasons. While it hasn’t hurt their dominance in the La Liga, the Champions League is a different story.
Teams have managed to figure out how to deal with Barcelona, as we’ve seen for the last couple of seasons. Bayern Munich weren’t about neutralizing Barca – they were about running over them on the way to the title. But AC Milan last season, Chelsea the year before and other matches during the group stage proved just how hard it is for this team to carry on playing in the same way, when everyone knows what’s going to happen. It’s very difficult to stop, but there are teams good enough to do it, like Real Madrid did in all competition against Barca last seaosn.
Neymar needs to draw the same focus to himself, and not be some on-the-side player who is just part of the team being built around Messi. From now on it should be a team that revolves around both of them, with Neymar getting the same kind of importance in finishing and build up. It’s going to take time before he gets to that level of dominance on the pitch, but without his goals and ability to get defenses to focus on him, Barcelona won’t evolve from a stage that seems to be holding them back on the European front for the last couple of seasons.