The Neymar Conundrum: Is He in the Elite?
Wikipedia tells us that Neymar is widely regarded as one of the best players in the world, so it must be true. A nerve-wracking Ligue 1 title race is weeks away from being decided and a place in the Champions League final is up for grabs, but can PSG count on their Brazilian star?
Since breaking through as a 17-year-old at Santos in 2009, Neymar has been one of the most talked about footballers of this generation, but of that select group the Brazilian has achieved the least. Often ranked in lists of the richest footballers or the most influential or the most marketable sportsmen in the world, he’s sometimes struggled to back that up with his performances on the pitch.
There’s little doubt that Neymar is one of the most talented players in world football since his breakthrough over a decade ago now, Lionel Messi even said it himself.
“Neymar is one of the best in the world and I’d love him to come back,” the six-time Ballon d’Or winner replied, when asked about the possibility of Neymar returning to Barcelona in early 2020 during an interview with Mundo Deportivo. Messi’s six Ballon d’Or wins is the only tally that surpasses another world class player of this generation, Cristiano Ronaldo (five), while Neymar has only managed to reach the final three in 2015 and 2017, losing out to the pair on both occasions.
With 64 international goals for Brazil, Neymar is now just 13 away from the all-time leading goalscorer, Pelé (77). He carried his largely uninspiring national side in their home World Cup in 2014, until injury in the quarter-final against Uruguay ended his and his nations hopes of lifting the trophy. But at club level, there are still lingering question marks about his legitimacy among the elite group.
Since making his debut in European club football in August 2013 with Barcelona, Neymar is one of a select group of 25 players to have scored over 100 goals within the top five European leagues (121). This goal tally should be even higher.
In the company of such elite goalscorers, one might expect Neymar’s finishing ability to fall under the same category. Of those 25 players, he is just one of three to have underperformed his expected goals total from non-penalty shots over these eight seasons (-6.0), along with Fabio Quagliarella (-3.3) and Edin Dzeko (-19.0). Compare this to the likes of Lionel Messi (+55.0), Luis Suárez (+32.6), Harry Kane (+31.9) and Cristiano Ronaldo (+15.4), and the long-term data suggests that Neymar merely finishes at slightly below the average expectation.
2020-21 in Ligue 1 has shown this to be the case more than any other in Neymar’s eight seasons in Europe, with the PSG forward scoring just three non-penalty goals from an xG total of 7.8 – an underperformance of 4.8. This is a campaign where the Parisians need their stars to perform, with one point gap between them and leaders Lille coming into the final four matches. Neymar’s won the league title in all three of his previous seasons in Paris, but the fourth is undoubtedly under threat.
As the graphic above shows, finishing ability is hardly a stable attribute. Players dip in and out of form and will go through runs where they over-perform their xG as often as they under-perform – unless you’re Harry Kane, it seems. Neymar looks to be currently on his biggest slump of underperformance of xG since arriving in Europe from Santos in 2013.
His tally of 53 league goals since joining PSG in 2017-18 is the third most in the competition, with only teammate Kylian Mbappé (89) and Lyon’s Memphis Depay (56) scoring more over this period. But the reality is you’d expect that goal tally to be higher for a so-called world superstar playing for the strongest Ligue 1 side in this period.
Not only has he performed at the expected rate during his Ligue 1 career from non-penalty shots (37.8xG, 37 goals) unlike many of the elite strikers that have overperformed, but his time on the pitch has also been consistently stunted by injury.
Unfortunately for the PSG striker, he’s become one of the most targeted players in the game. Since joining the French giants in 2017-18, Neymar has suffered 227 fouls in Ligue 1 and 128 in the Champions League, more than any other player in both competitions and a rate of a foul every 19 minutes.
This is one reason why he’s played just 45.4% of possible minutes on the pitch during his Ligue 1 career, a rate that is at 34.4% this season alone with 1,053 minutes in PSG’s 34 matches. At Barcelona, he played 73.3% of possible league minutes, while over his career since moving to Europe he’s played just 60%. Both Messi (5,453) and Ronaldo (5,382) aren’t far off having played more minutes since the start of last season than Neymar has in four campaigns at PSG (5,602). That’s an alarming statistic on its own, but even more so when the Brazilian is still in his peak years having just turned 29, compared to the pair that are 34 and 36 years old.
With a ratio of 0.70 goals per 90 over his career within the top five European leagues, it’s evident what more time on the pitch would have undoubtedly produced for Neymar and his 121-goal tally in eight seasons.
On top of 121 goals scored across his league career in Europe, Neymar’s assisted teammates 67 times. Only six players have assisted more goals within the top five European leagues over these eight seasons, with Neymar playing fewer minutes than every one of those.
Neymar’s creativity shines through when analysing expected assists. Of players with at least 3,500 minutes played, only Lionel Messi (0.43) and Thomas Müller (0.41) have averaged a higher quality of chances from passes to teammates per 90 minutes across the top five European leagues since his arrival at PSG in 2017.
Since arriving in Paris, Neymar has benefitted from having strikers of the calibre of Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé on the end of his passes, but his assist tally of 29 is only just above his xA total of 26.6, emphasizing his skill at picking out passes into dangerous areas.
Much of Neymar’s creativity comes from his outstanding ability to carry the ball.
Over the last four seasons, he is the standout player among those skilled at travelling with the ball at his feet. Of midfielders and forwards to have played 3,500+ minutes within the top five European leagues since 2017-18, he has averaged the most ball carries per 90 (32), the most progressive ball carries per 90 (17.4) and the furthest distance carrying the ball over the average 90 minutes (381m).
142 of these carries at PSG have led to either Neymar attempting a shot or creating a shot for a teammate, with 21 of these attempts being scored for the reigning Ligue 1 champions.
Champions League Glory
The Champions League stage seems to bring the best out of the 29-year-old.
In 67 appearances, he has 67 goal involvements – on average either scoring (41) or assisting (26) a goal per game in the competition. 31 of those goals and assists have come in 27 matches for Paris Saint-Germain. Since his debut in the competition in 2013, only three players have been involved in more goals than Neymar, with his 26 assists the most.
The statistics are impressive, there’s no doubt. But with Neymar, there’s always a lingering feeling that he might let you down when you need him the most. His flamboyant personality is highlighted in the way he plays, with a range of passing, skills and flicks among the most exhilarating in world football. But goals win games.
Since 2015-16, Neymar has failed to score in nine successive Champions League appearances at the quarter-final stage or later, despite attempting 32 shots with an xG total of 4.7. Six of these shots came in his last match against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final, second leg – an appearance that epitomised Neymar. He attempted six shots with an xG total of 1.4, making up most of his side’s chances and not far off the same xG tally as Bayern as a team.
In the 2020 Champions League final back in August, he attempted three shots, failed to create a single chance for his teammates and completed just 13 passes in 90 minutes during an underwhelming defeat to Bayern. Admittedly not the worst culprit, as Mbappé (11 in 90 mins) and Ángel Di María (eight in 80 mins) completed fewer, but there’s little doubt that his propensity to be locked out of a game by tactically astute opposition is more frequent than that of his contemporaries Messi or Ronaldo.
There’s still a sense that we’re yet to see Neymar explode like he’s threatened to do so on so many occasions at club level. He is the player that came after Messi and Ronaldo but before Mbappé and Erling Haaland – an awkward no-man’s land of talent being overshadowed by the two eras.
In just nine months, Neymar will turn 30 years old, with Cristiano Ronaldo turning 37 on the same day. The Portuguese won three of his five UEFA Champions League titles after turning 30. Neymar could be in the same position should he help PSG to the title this year, but he’ll have to help his side navigate past Manchester City first.
The next month is a key period for Neymar and his career. He could enter his 30s with a fourth successive Ligue 1 title-winners medal and a second Champions League final victory, or he could miss out on both and once again be the nearly man. Time to level up.