Of all the things you expect to stumble across during a stroll on the beach, the possible heir to Pelé is not necessarily one of them.
Yet it was on the sands of São Vicente that Betinho, the shrewd Santos coach who has made a career out of unearthing many of the treasures of Brazilian football from Robinho through to Gabriel Barbosa, saw something that caught his attention like very little else had before.
“He was fast; I mean really fast. And he was so confident. It was just natural. He kept going and going.” Betinho said of the 6-year-old Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior.
Speed. Confidence. The intuitive understanding of how to play which ties it all together. Betinho’s summation of Neymar is more truthful and to-the-point than many of the appraisals we’ve heard in the years since he was plucked from the beaches of southern Brazil (I’m looking at you, Joey Barton).
It’s been increasingly hard for even the most strident of Neymar’s detractors to deny him this perfect harmony of speed and instinct, but as he’s evolved, so have his critics, who have grown to understand that these qualities can be leveraged against him.
The cloudier moments of Neymar’s career, these critics might say, have been defined by a dogged insistence on playing his football – joyful, yes, but also one which involves a lot of rainbow flicks. When defenders have the cheek to take umbrage to this style, as they did in the 2018 World Cup, he turns to petulance rather than perseverance.
Admittedly, fitting the Brazilian’s brilliance into your side has always come at a small cost, and the Neymar Tax has stretched as far back as his breakthrough at Santos, where his then-manager Dorival Júnior was sacked after a tiff with the forward in 2010. His crime? Not allowing the wonderkid to take a penalty against Goianiense.
Let’s not pretend that such indulgences aren’t regularly extended to the greats of the game – Zinedine Zidane learned to contend with Cristiano Ronaldo’s habit of taking half a season to warm up and his anti-Gareth Bale tendencies while Lionel Messi basically seems to be Barcelona’s Director of Football now (and not a very good one).
And like any good tax, the Neymar Tax was reinvested into something extremely worthwhile at Santos. The Brazilian was the single most important factor on the road to Santos’ Copa Libertadores victory just a year after the Dorival episode, and Santos saw the returns on the faith they’d invested in Neymar in the second leg of the final against Peñarol.
Here, Neymar started out with intent with the tie in the balance, catching out Peñarol’s keeper with a curling near post effort, before freeing up Elano (remember him?) with a smart pass, with the former Manchester City player finding a future Manchester City player in Danilo to settle the tie.
A 5-4 loss to Flamengo in the same year, where Ronaldinho scored a hattrick for one side and Neymar scored a Puskás Award-winning goal for the other, felt like a particularly apposite changing of the guard in Brazilian football, with a 19-year-old Neymar now a near-priceless commodity for Santos.
Thus, in Neymar’s defence, the body of evidence accumulated over the course of his career has shown that his influence is overwhelmingly constructive rather than destructive, one that can elevate a group of promising individual attackers to collective greatness.
Neymar’s gift for facilitating cohesion, for simply allowing football to happen, is best expressed by his part in an acronym which continues to roll off the tongue – the ‘MSN’.
Here, Neymar was the key to that most glorious of achievements, and one that Barcelona continue to chase (with an increasing air of futility) to this day – getting two genuinely world-class forwards to play alongside Lionel Messi in a 4-3-3.
If you can find a forward who is at once both self-sacrificing and supremely talented enough to support Messi and add a potent attacking threat of their own, as Barcelona did with Luis Suárez, you can cause any defence some serious issues. If you can find two, you can almost guarantee a Champions League winners’ medal.
Where at Santos Neymar was often a left forward in a 4-4-2, here he was a left winger, valued perhaps as much for his ability draw defenders away from the right flank which Messi occupied as what he himself was capable of with the ball at his feet.
The inevitable Champions League victory, part of a sensational second treble in six years for Barcelona followed, but so too did Neymar’s increasing feeling that he was being taken for a ride in feeding Messi’s limelight at the expense of his own.
It certainly wasn’t without some justification – despite James Rodríguez’ incredible run of form, Neymar looked like the best player in the world at the 2014 World Cup (where Messi perhaps undeservingly won the Golden Ball award), where he excelled on the left, cutting inside seemingly at will and famously taking the wind out of Brazil’s sails after some decidedly WWE stuff from Juan Camilo Zúñiga ruled him out of the semi-final.
At PSG, an ambitious project where Neymar could swap playing with the best of the best for playing with the best of the rest, an opportunity to conquer Europe with Neymar’s way, not Messi’s, beckoned.
Yet it initially seemed as if this hyper-indulgent environment, where a disciplinarian manager like Unai Emery ended up at the mercy of Neymar’s whims, went too far in the other direction, with Neymar’s star now exceeding the gravitational pull of his manager, his teammates and the league. Injuries and rumours of ill-discipline soon followed, without much progression beyond the Champions League Round of 16 for Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s expensive undertaking.
It is thus interesting that Neymar’s revival seems to have been brought about by the arrival of a philosophically-inclined manager with very little time for galacticos in Thomas Tuchel, and a young footballing supernova in Kylian Mbappé.
The ways in which Neymar and Tuchel can help each other have become more readily apparent this season, both in how Neymar has chosen to make himself amenable to Tuchel’s regular system, but also in how Tuchel is beginning to plan an exciting evolution in PSG’s tactical outlook.
Neymar is now more accustomed to playing as a number 10 who drifts out to the left where necessary, and notably dribbles much less in this role, instead creating chances for the heir apparent Mbappé and breaking into the box when unmarked.
Neymar has dutifully accepted the Tuchel Tax, and his hard work in the first leg of PSG’s Champions League Round of 16 aggregate victory against Borussia Dortmund saw him succesfully labouring to keep Les Parisiens in the tie from a much deeper position. In return, some meaningful dividends, with Tuchel trialling the beginnings of a 4-2-4 which relies extensively on Neymar’s footballing joie de vivre.
With Neymar on one flank, Angel di Maria on the other and Mbappé partnering Mauro Icardi up front, a system that Tuchel has been tentatively trialling on and off all season, PSG can theoretically overwhelm even the most miserly of Champions League defences (although Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gueye won’t be too pleased about it).
Here Neymar’s gift for self-expression is not just valued but an integral part of the system, a system which insists on his natural game, one which revolves around driving at defenders and using his near-peerless dribbling skills to create his own goalscoring opportunities. What such a cavalier system asks of Neymar in return is for him to learn a defensive work rate which has never quite come naturally to him, and to acknowledge his equal footing with the three other prongs of the attack.
There’s no indication that Tuchel’s audacious bet on PSG’s attacking potency will ever pay off, or even that he’ll have the conviction to try it in this August’s high stakes single-leg Champions League format. But in his successfully synthesising Neymar’s carefree, instinctive style with the more prosaic needs of the whole, the path to immortality is once again clear for the Brazilian.