How Neymar's role has changed since moving to PSG
It is little over a month since Neymar made footballing history by becoming the most expensive player in the game’s history as he moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain.
Switching from Camp Nou to Parc des Princes offered him the opportunity to move out of the shadow of Lionel Messi and grab himself a place in the spotlight to cement his legacy as one of the modern day’s top performers.
Not only can he create history by helping Unai Emery’s side to win a first ever Champions League crown, he can do it as the star player of the team – an opportunity that was denied to him in Catalunya, where outshining the Argentine is an impossible task.
That particular quest starts on Tuesday, when his side go to Glasgow to tackle Scottish champions Celtic.
Neymar has played only four matches for PSG thus far, but already it is clear that he is being given a more central role than he would ever have earned in Spain, where he was one third of the famed ‘MSN’ along with Messi and Luis Suarez.
Now he may be alongside Edinson Cavani, one of the game’s leading goal scorers, and Kylian Mbappe, a player tipped for Ballon d’Or honours in the future, but for the moment this remains the Brazilian’s team. He is the focal point and he is the man each player automatically looks to when he is in possession.
Ostensibly, he has largely been playing a role on the left of a 4-3-3 since moving to PSG, much as was the case as he did in Barcelona. But where he operated almost as an orthodox winger in Spain, he has been given a great deal more freedom already in Paris.
Indeed, Neymar has acted almost as much playmaker as wide man for the Ligue 1 runners up.
This is starkly displayed by the touchmaps of the fixtures he played for Barcelona against Eibar and then for PSG against Guingamp. The former was his final match for the Catalans and the latter was his first for the Parisians, with both happily coming against the teams that finished 10th in their respective leagues during 2016-17, offering a neat point of comparison.
Of course, the nature of Barcelona’s system did not mean that he was glued to the touchline as a traditional winger might have been, but there is a strong bias for the Brazilian to have only been in possession in on the left half of the pitch, almost exclusively in the attacking sector.
In contrast, his performance against Guingamp shows that he was involved to an incredible degree all over the field. While he was in possession more down the left than on the opposite flank, the freedom he was afforded to drift inside is highlighted by a large cluster of dots around the centre of the Guingamp half, indicating he was being used almost as a No.10 when PSG were attacking.
During the defensive transition, he would drift back towards the flank, which accounts for the small number of touches he had in his own half close to the touchline.
If it was Neymar’s desire to move to Paris to become a more important member of the team, then the early signs are positive that this will be borne out. It should not be overlooked just how important he was at Barcelona, however.
Last season he had more touches (2578) than any other player for the Catalans and more touches in the opposition box (283), despite playing considerably fewer minutes than the likes of Messi (2407 and 238 respectively for those statistics).
Interestingly, he does not lead PSG in either of these statistics so far this season. While he touches the ball more per minute than he did at Barca, both Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot have seen more of possession than he has. Furthermore, Cavani has touched the ball more in the box.
Is it, then, simply a question of perception?
It is written in scripture that Messi must be the star of Barcelona, simply because he has been for the best part of a decade. Even when the Argentine’s star eventually begins to fall, he will still be considered their outstanding player simply because he is indelibly associated with them.
Could Neymar be chasing that same effect in Paris?
Certainly, there was – and remains to some extent - a risk as moving for such a big fee could see him labelled a flop if he fails to deliver silverware by the bucketful. But so long as PSG are chasing big titles and he is scoring goals, that will not be the case.
Furthermore, the influence of the likes of Rabiot and Thiago Motta is generally overlooked deeper in the field. It is in the attacking third that the eye-catching moments occur, and Neymar is an expert at creating such magic.
While it might be argued that the arrival of Mbappe will see some of the responsibility lifted from his shoulders, a study of his touchmap against Metz – the only fixture they have played together thus far – would suggest this will not be the case. No doubt Neymar was not as involved, but he was still very active in the areas of the field one would expect a No.10 to frequent.
Additionally, it will take some time for head coach Emery to formulate the correct system for this team. In that 5-1 win on Friday, it seemed he was trying to shoehorn Julian Draxler into the side to form a 4-2-3-1, which complicated matters for PSG and made them less fluid.
Perhaps he will revert to his original plan of playing 4-3-3, or it may be that the roles of the attacking midfielders are altered in the 4-2-3-1 to allow them each to express themselves to the maximum. It could be that the players just need to get used to the movement of one another in that formation before hitting their top level.
Either way, Neymar can be expected to be a huge influence in Tuesday’s Champions League tussle with Celtic and in the weeks ahead.
One imagines that if PSG are to go all the way in Europe, it will largely be his work, and with the Champions League will inevitably follow legendary status and the Ballon d’Or – the reasons he moved to France in the first place.