The Great Neymar Debate
Brazil were one of the favorites to win the 2018 World Cup. Then Belgium happened, and the favorites went home in the quarterfinals. It's impossible to talk about Brazil without talking about Neymar. His performances at the World Cup were, as ever, incredibly polarizing. Neymar usually splits opinions, but as someone within the Portuguese-speaking section of the internet, the opinions feel as divided as they've ever been.
On one side, most stat-based websites rate him as one of the best performing players in Russia, while, on the other, a sizable portion of the public thinks he was anywhere between disappointing and straight up bad. In order to bridge the divide, I re-watched every Neymar touch from this World Cup to try and see if stats were missing something or if people were too busy judging his falls to acknowledge his contributions.
Brazil 1-1 Switzerland
This first game was the one I looked forward to re-watching the most. People have been saying Neymar grew with the tournament and had his worst match in the debut. This was a poor result for Brazil. Although they created far more than their opponents (much like in every other game), it was the match in which Tite’s side had their lowest attacking production, with ‘only’ 1.58 expected goals. Looking at Neymar himself, he played from the left in Brazil’s front trio – much like in every other game of the tournament – and was the target of some very tight man-marking by Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami.
Looking at his numbers, Neymar had four shots, four key passes and completed five dribbles – on paper you get why so many rated him highly. But re-watching the game I’d say this was his worst game of the competition. His shots amounted to only 0.20 xG, with only two in the box: one from a poor angle and a header from a cross in the second half.
Dealing with Behrami as well as having Bleron Dzemaili on top of him for 70’ definitely didn’t help and Neymar's ball-carrying became mostly ineffective. He failed at more dribbles than the five he completed. The take-ons he did complete occurred mostly in the 2nd half – a tendency we’ll touch more upon later. The complaint that Neymar loses possession too often makes some sense here as the trade-off simply wasn’t good enough. His key passes mostly came from set-pieces, another trend we’ll see throughout.
But not all was bad: his connective one-touch link-up play was fantastic. Specially in the first half, where he had little space to dribble into, Neymar was able to work in tight spaces and advance the ball despite the heavy pressure from Swiss midfielders. There’s merit to Switzerland’s scheme to nullify him but he was still more influential than most in a largely uninspired Brazil.
Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica
Costa Rica sat deep for this one but unlike Switzerland they didn’t have someone stuck to Neymar like a second skin. The first half was mostly anonymous, beyond one great run in behind that didn’t end up in a shot due to a miss control. Beyond that he saw a lot of the ball but mainly just circulated it as Brazil looked for an opening.
During the second half he appeared centrally more often, became more vertical with his passing and worked himself into the box more. The Marcelo-Neymar connection was the most common combination in the team, which makes sense particularly when you see that Costa Rica’s more offensive wing-back and center-mid were on that side. Neymar led Brazil in xGChain and finished the game with 1.35 of Brazil’s 1.96 total Expected Goals. He ended up scoring an easy goal in the closing stages but worked plenty for it throughout the game, even missing the two chances below. These were chances where Neymar's movement was outstanding, but is overshadowed by him missing – even though our model only rates them as 0.13 and 0.09 xG respectively.
Brazil 2-0 Serbia
Against a Serbian side that needed to play for a result and offered more space than the previous two opponents, Neymar had a field day. He was able to show all his ball-carrying ability through the opposition midfield (nine dribbles, six in the final third), had seven shots amounting close to one xG (only one of them from outside the box) and showed a bit more aggressiveness in his pressing compared to the other games. He also assisted Thiago Silva’s goal from a corner.
The only possible criticism of this performance has to do with his best chances to score coming in the final ten minutes after spaces were completely open and the result was largely done.
Brazil 2-0 Mexico
First thing I noticed about Neymar in this match was how much he helped Filipe Luis defensively, which makes sense since Mexico started the game giving Brazil some trouble, but it's ironic nonetheless, since he didn't help Marcelo nearly as much when the first choice at left back was playing.
On the ball, Neymar had some trouble against Mexico’s set-up. Juan Carlos Osorio became the latest manager to deny Neymar space. Mexico kept right back Edson Alvarez protected for the most part. Although the first time he had the chance to get isolated against him, Neymar wrecked the poor defender and created himself one of the best chances of the half.
Brazil came out flying in the second half, Neymar created a great goal by dragging two players with his movement before back-heeling it to Willian and getting a tap-in. The goal forced Mexico to open themselves up even more. Much like in previous games, Neymar ended by getting a couple of great chances, one of which ends in Firmino’s goal.
Brazil 1-2 Belgium
Much like all the previous ones, this match also became about Brazil trying to breakdown a compact defensive side, due to Belgium’s early lead. With a Belgian right side composed of Maroaune Fellaini protecting Thomas Meunier ahead of him, Neymar attempted his lowest amount of dribbles in the tournament, but was still behind every major Brazil chance in the first half – from open play and set-pieces.
Neymar as somewhat slow at progressing possession when coming deeper but that changed in the second-half, as he pretty much full-on switched to a central role. From there, he was able to keep his side dynamic on the ball, drag defenders, force more one against one situations and actually create between the lines. Brazil ended up unable to break down Belgium, but it wasn't for lack of Neymar trying. He finished with six open play key passes.
Neymar was key for Brazil at this World Cup. His ball-carrying is outstanding and an important part of how Brazil move forward on the ball, his shot locations have gotten better and he creates a ton for his team-mates.
Teams need to set-up specifically to shut him down and even then he tends to get his way at least once or twice. This is also a lot of the reason why it was so common to watch Neymar’s (and Brazil’s) second halves be so much better than their first ones: man-marking schemes are difficult to pull off under high intensity for ninety minutes and space will gradually open up as the game goes on.
This necessity to try and hinder Neymar’s game would also be a lot more beneficial for Brazil if their set-up wasn’t so asymmetric and left-side heavy in terms of creation. Tite moving him to a freer central role in what was closer to a 4-4-2 at times, end up helping him have less trouble disrupting deep block.s
One of the other points to touch on, are set-pieces: a sizable portion of Neymar’s game revolves around them – both taking and winning them. His set-piece delivery itself is perfectly fine without being anything too special, becoming a relatively way to get some extra assists and key passes. It should be valued but it's something we should strive to separate from open play creation. But, regardless of how you feel about his methods, he is one of the players to get fouled the most in the World Cup and being able to get your team extra set-pieces is an awesome asset. His side averaged 0.59 set-piece xG/90, so it's fair to say they took advantage of it.
And finally, I want to reiterate that its only natural for players of his role and quality to lose possession relatively often simply because they’ll try riskier actions more often. And, another detail noticed upon re-watching, was that in a large majority of the situations where he decides to jump into high risk-high reward situations where he is likely to lose possession, he is almost always covered by a couple of team-mates ready to counter-press or keep the team balanced. I’d go as far to say he’s sometimes not incisive enough in his build-up play, as opposed to someone who takes “too many risks” – that’s just a reactionary take that you should shy away from.
I’m open to complains about his performances, but the large majority of the time they simply don’t match up with what occurs and stem from pre-conceived notions against flamboyant footballers or his persona – which shouldn’t be your ideal metric to logically evaluate a performance. He’s far from being my Golden Ball of the tournament, but Neymar was most definitely not the reason why such a dominant Brazil crashed out of World Cup in the quarterfinals.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association