Player Focus: Fortunes Favouring Neymar While Unrest Amounts Towards Bale
Two seasons ago, La Liga welcomed two giants of the game into their league. Barcelona secured the signature of Neymar, while Real Madrid spent big, even for their standards, to bring Gareth Bale to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. The duo arrived with huge expectations having established themselves as two of the world’s finest young footballers.
In their respective debut campaigns, it was Bale who excelled. The Welshman won the Champions League and Copa Del Rey - netting decisive goals in the finals of both competitions - and ended the season with a WhoScored rating of 7.75. Only Lionel Messi (8.42) and Cristiano Ronaldo (8.26) scored better than Bale in La Liga last term.
Neymar, in comparison, gained a 7.51, which represented a strong return, but there was room for improvement. The Brazil international has built on his first season's form, however, and enjoyed an impressive second campaign with the Blaugrana, highlighted in his WhoScored rating (7.97) - that figure is bettered only by Messi (8.83) and Ronaldo (8.46) in La Liga this term.
Bale’s rating, meanwhile, has dropped - albeit marginally - to 7.66. Nevertheless, while Neymar has flourished, Bale has floundered somewhat of late.
The world’s most expensive player has come under the microscope on numerous occasions this campaign and fans have not enjoyed what they have seen. Performances on the grand occasion have dipped, most notably in the recent Champions League exit at the hands of Juventus.
Bale was presented with a number of opportunities to drag Real Madrid back into the tie, particularly in the second leg, but failed to make his chances count, much to the dismay of the Blancos faithful.
More often than not, the 25-year-old has cast a frustrated figure on the pitch this season, leading to reports that a move back to England is on the cards. “I spoke with him (Bale) a lot of times. He is really happy to stay here,” Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti said earlier this month. One cannot fault Bale’s continued attempts to make his time in the Spanish capital a success.
An average of 3.3 shots per league game this season matches his return from last term. His efforts to endear himself to the Madrid faithful are not for want of trying, of that there is no doubt.
Of course, the key difference between this campaign and last is the change in personnel. Florentino Pérez’s dream to make Madrid the most marketable team in football shows no signs of waning, with the Galactico-driven president sacrificing the team’s most creative player last season in order to accommodate James Rodríguez. Ángel Di María registered more assists (17) than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season.
The Argentine’s tenacity and ability to drive forward when in possession was a bonus to the attackers at Ancelotti’s disposal. This also meant Bale could, more often than not, remain in an more advanced position, safe in the knowledge that Di María was able to carry the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch before providing for the frontmen.
That is not to say that Rodríguez has disappointed in his debut campaign in Spain. The Colombian is the fourth-highest rated player in Spain’s top tier with a rating of 7.81 after all. Rather that Di María and Rodríguez are different players who were deployed in the midfield in Ancelotti’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. Di María, though, prefers to drift to the wing before either cutting inside and going for goal or putting a cross into the box.
A majority of Rodríguez’s best play comes in more central positions, meaning Bale is forced to either drop deeper to receive the ball or come inside to boost his chances of hitting the back of net, which leaves central areas more congested as a result.
When his Colombian teammate does press forward, the Wales international can often be forced further wide, which limits his impact. Bale has developed a statistically calculated WhoScored weakness of ‘crossing’, so when he does drift to the flank, particularly when he starts on the right of the front three, he is at times ineffective. This has hindered his impact this campaign, with the Madrid support venting their frustrations towards the former Spurs star at any given opportunity.
While Bale’s star plummets, however, Neymar’s continues to rise and not just on the pitch, signing a lucrative sponsorship deal with Pokerstars. The 23-year-old is realising his potential at Camp Nou, with minor tactical changes allowing the Brazilian to flourish.
Luis Suarez’s capture not only helped Barcelona to their 23rd La Liga title, with the Blaugrana two games away from securing the treble, but Neymar has profited with the Uruguay international in attack. Suarez’s boundless energy levels pull defenders away from position, opening up space in the final third for the Brazil international and Messi to exploit.
Just as a new signing has hindered Bale, a summer arrival has helped Neymar. The young striker has 22 league goals to his name this season and a further 9 in the Champions League. Neymar hit just 9 and 4 in those respective competitions last term. The arrival of Luis Enrique has also helped the former Santos star flourish.
The Barcelona attacker was restricted in his movements in the final third under Tata Martino, but has been handed a license to roam under Enrique, especially with Suarez regularly drifting to the left and right to open up space in the middle.
With fewer players in central positions, Neymar has been more direct in his play, averaging marginally more dribbles per game this season (3.2) than last (3). Furthermore, Enrique has demanded the youngster chance his luck at any given opportunity, as proven by the rise in the number of shots per game this campaign (2.9) compared to last (2.6).
Operating closer to goal means Suarez and Messi join Neymar to form Barcelona’s scalpel-sharp trident, meaning defenders are unsure as to who they should follow in order to the prevent the champions from netting. With the trio singing from the same hymn sheet, it’s no shock that the three strikers between them have scored 79 of Barcelona’s 108 league goals this season.
Both face fresh challenges in the upcoming campaign, however. Neymar has a platform of which to build on, while Bale needs to dust himself down in order to replicate his debut season form. Returning to your best is perhaps easier than maintaining a high level of consistency, though both have the ability to achieve their respective goals next season.