Football

Barcelona: Can Lionel Messi & Neymar play together?

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Neymar joined Barcelona this summer (©GettyImages)
Neymar joined Barcelona this summer (©GettyImages).

"With Neymar on board, I would have planned for the possibility of selling Lionel Messi, and some would agree with that, others not. It's a risk. I wouldn't have signed Neymar."

Those were the very words of Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff, as reported by the Spanish Daily, Marca, as he commented on Barcelona's €57m acquisition of wonderkid Neymar from Santos.

Cruyff mentioned his apprehension that the 21-year-old Brazilian forward, who is currently on duty for Confederation Cup 2013 finalists Brazil, will find it difficult to adjust to the team ethic at Barcelona and won't be able to get along with everyone in the squad.

The Dutch maestro's justification for his comments regarding the possibility of having to sell talismanic forward Messi to make space for Neymar was that the egos of the two South American stars would make it difficult for them to play together, hence disrupting the flow of the team's performances on the pitch.

By saying that he would not have signed the Brazilian in the first place, if given a choice, Cruyff adopted the stance that there was no need to make such significant alterations to Barcelona's squad and style of play.

But was he right? Here's a look at some of the reasons for which Cruyff could be proven wrong over the course of Neymar's time with the Catalan giants.

First, a quick look at the "clash of egos" that Cruyff believes will take place. If I may say so, Barcelona's biggest offensive signings in recent years - Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa - all brought different kinds of egos with them.

Henry arrived as Arsenal's greatest ever goalscorer (and possibly their greatest ever player), a World and European champion, and one of the greatest strikers in recent memory.

Ibrahimovic joined Barcelona on the back of several titles from his time in Italy, and Villa - signed as a replacement for Ibrahimovic - is the highest scorer for the Spanish national team and a star of Spain's successful Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 campaigns.

Admittedly, Ibrahimovic had rather well-known problems with the way Guardiola operated, and Villa reportedly had a few disagreements with strike partner Messi but, overall, these "bust-ups" had very little noticeable impact on their performances - all three strikers won La Liga with the club, with Villa and Henry also achieving European glory.

And how is this relevant to Neymar, you might ask. A look back at the way some of Barcelona's most high-profile offensive signings have fared shows that the work ethic at the club, and the strong bond forged between members of the club's La Masia products, actually helps these big names settle down quicker than they otherwise would have - and this brings out their best football.

Also, the fact that Neymar is only at the fledgling end of his career, and has repeatedly spoken of his desire to play with the likes of Messi and Andres Iniesta during his lengthy courtship with Barcelona, will spur him on in his attempts to cast aside personal issues and devote himself to forming a potentially lethal partnership with them, something that does not bode well for clubs across Europe. 

And now for a look at whether or not Neymar's playing style will render him more of a hindrance to Barcelona's style of play than an expedition of it.

If Neymar's performances on the left side of the three-man offensive line that Brazil have fielded to devastating effect in the on-going Confederations Cup are to serve as evidence, he will have no problems whatsoever in settling into Barcelona's preferred 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 systems.

In all of Brazil's four games, Neymar has not only displayed spectacular individual ability, but has proved his worth to the team by combining brilliantly with Real Madrid left-back Marcelo down the left flank.

With Spanish left-back Jordi Alba offering much the same kind of threat as Marcelo, it will be a treat to watch the kind of rapport he builds with Neymar at Barcelona.

The two players would complement each other perfectly, with Neymar equally capable of cutting in from the flank (and allowing Alba to make Roberto Carlos-esque runs down the touchline) as he is of staying wide and crossing the ball from the byline (remember Jo's goal against Mexico?), a situation where Alba would play only a supporting role as a left-back rather than a wing-back.

Admitted, Neymar has an affinity for overdoing things, and is a bit of a show-boater, but he has proved that he can surrender the spotlight when necessary, in order for the team to function well as a unit.

There have been concerns that his individualism on the pitch - his attempts to steal the spotlight by trying overly spectacular pieces of skill when simple passes would have sufficed - will make it difficult for him to play with the talismanic Messi. But, on the contrary, from what we have seen of the way he plays, he will only help Messi get - as scary as it may sound - even better.

Barcelona's football in the offensive third of the pitch relies heavily on wingers cutting in from the flanks, linking up with the central striker by playing intricate one-twos and finding killer passes that cut through defences. The likes of Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Villa have excelled at this, and their link-up play with Messi has worked wonders for Pep Guardiola down the years, and now Tito Vilanova.

It would be fair to say that from the way Neymar has combined with Brazilian striker Fred - cast your memory back to Brazil's opening goal against Japan in their group match - he will offer the same kind of threat cutting in from the flanks as Barcelona's current wide players, except at higher levels of individual quality.

Messi is nearly peerless when it comes to cutting in from the right side of the field, onto his left foot, playing one-twos and creating chances for marauding full-backs, or even taking shots himself. Now imagine Neymar on the left, offering the exact same threat as Messi. I can't think of too many offensive partnerships that would strike such fear into the hearts of defenders.

Also, it may be worthwhile to consider the fact that most teams tend to double-mark or even triple-mark both Neymar and Messi, and this will create more space to work with for either player, when they play together.

Barcelona seem to operate best when playing a convergent 4-3-3 system, with Pedro and Messi cutting in from either flank, and Alba and Dani Alves dutifully performing their roles as wing-backs to deadly effect, and the signing of Neymar will only serve to make this system even more effective.

If Vilanova can help Neymar keep his attitude in check, the Brazilian could just be a crucial piece to the jigsaw, as Barcelona plot a return to the summit of European football.

 

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Topics:
Barcelona
Neymar
Lionel Messi
Football
La Liga
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