By Sam Wilkinson
I’ll be the first to admit that I wrote off Neymar as a “style over substance” player. An entertaining trickster that was good for video montages on youtube but lacked the end product required to be deemed a world class player. However, post World Cup he has forced me to back track on my initial appraisal by displaying the ability to positively impose himself on and influence games………and big games at that!
I have watched and scrutinised Neymar in depth during recent matches and have now come to the conclusion that he is the real deal!
Over the course of this article I will break down 4 key areas of his game that I believe have elevated him into the top echelon of players in the world: Positional Understanding, Movement in Behind, 1 v 1 Domination and End Product. I will also aim to look at what we as coaches can take from his play.
Waiting wide: Commonly deployed on the left side of Barca’s 4-3-3, he will most often hold a touchline wide position even when ball is on opposite flank. Confidence in Barca’s ability to keep the ball with minimum risk of turn overs allows him to almost detach himself from the game in order to maximise space for himself and problems for his marker (see fig 1).
Lurking high: As well as holding width he will also play very high, normally taking up a position right on the shoulder of the opposing full back. With Barca’s full backs spending so much of the game in advanced positions it pushes Neymar further up the pitch and enables him to constantly threaten space in behind (see fig. 1).
Drifting inside: When the Barca left back’s position begins to encroach into his high and wide space he will drift inside the pitch in order to exploit the half position between the oppositions full back and centre back and back line and midfield (see fig. 2).
2nd Striker: The final variation to his positional play is one that is less common but still displays great positional understanding. When the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch in attacking areas he will occasionally tuck inside and play like a second centre forward, looking to make runs and sneak into the box on the blind side of the farthest centre back.
Coaching Point: Width is massively important in your possession play – holding and maintaining width not only allows you to exploit space down the side of the opposition but also pulls them apart and creates space in central areas of the pitch. At Premier Skills we use wide safe areas and zones when working with junior players to help guide and develop their understanding of width and support positions.
Movement in behind.
Willing runner: It can be rare for a player with his ability on the ball to be so willing to run in behind the opposition, you often often see players of this type that only want to drop deep to receive the ball to feet. Next time Barca play watch how many runs in behind he makes over a 10-minute period. You’ll find he is constantly making and recycling runs.
Unselfish Runner: He also shows a real understanding of how important movement in behind is to Barca’s possession play. Neymar and Suarez through constant and often unselfish running in behind have helped add the penetration to Barca’s play that had started to go missing in the season prior to Luis Enrique taking over. Despite his growing stature within the team you will see him continue to make these unselfish runs even when they are not recongised by team mates.
Crafty movement: Neymar is not just about volume of runs, he has developed real cleverness and subtlety to his movement in behind. He loves to make a sneaky curved run in behind the full back – particularly when the ball is played inside from the opposite flank to one of the central midfield trio. He will often wait until the defender has lost him in his eye sight then slide in on his blind side.
He also shows great use of double runs to drag opponents deep to then run in behind or vice versa. When the opponent follows him into slightly deeper areas he has the pace and dynamism to spin in behind and exploit the now vacated space. When they allow him to drop deep in order to protect the space in behind he has the skill and quality on the ball to receive on the half turn and cause problems from in front of the oppositions back 4.
Coaching point: When working with junior and youth players it is vital that your practices include space in behind/offside lines. Of course working in the tight and through the thirds is a vital foundation for young players. However, once they have developed this individualism and understanding they must learn to use it to exploit space in behind with movement and passing variations. The coach should look carefully at practice area sizes to ensure they are big enough to allow for space in behind but not so big that they turn the practice into a cross country race!
1 v 1 dominator.
Frightening trickery: Neymar shows great skill, trickery and disguise when dribbling. His wide range of tricks and turns all have purpose to them and he uses them fantastically to shift, lure and tease defenders. Believe me he is not merely a show pony!
Wiry balance: He possesses outstanding balance and despite his lack of size, is able to ride tackles with great stability and poise. His skill on the ball allows him to adapt and innovate as he is being kicked and knocked around by opponents.
Two footed: The fact he is two footed means he is equally adept going either side of an opponent, this creates massive uncertainty when he is in possession. You will see him in games constantly vary his play between dribbles to the by-line and runs inside the pitch to create crossing opportunities, link play and swerved finishes.
Coaching point: Players will only develop unpredictable skill and cleverness on the ball if they are constantly put in random chaotic type practices with interference or opposition. Neymar did not develop this side of his game by standing in lines doing passing drills. At Premier Skills all of our practices involve interference or opposition and we never limit players to 2 touch restrictions!
Clinical finisher: Neymar shows a great range and variation of finishing skills and has a clinical edge to his finishing both in and around the box. He is surprisingly good in the air as well! He could potentially be deployed as a central striker with his movement and finishing abilities.
Link play: He has quickly adapted to linking and connecting his individualism with the other genius’s at Barca. Like all truly great players he has the ability to make the other players around him shine. Unlike many dribblers Neymar has fantastic recognition of what is going on around him. His decision making of when to dribble or link play is excellent.
Precision passing: Add to his tremendous skill, movement and finishing a passing quality that befits a deep lying playmaker. Like Messi he has the ability to maintain the feel of his passing even when dribbling, twisting and turning at top speed. As well as his excellent range of disguised shorter passing he also has the ability to exploit space over longer distances with driven, lofted and clipped passes.
Coaching Point: When working on staying with the ball or dribbling ensure the players always have the option of an end product to their individual play. At Premier Skills when players are working in interference based practices we ensure there are 2 or more spare players without a ball that can act as “link” players. This helps the players to understanding that staying with the ball must have an end product.
I believe Neymar is a truly World Class player and over the next couple of seasons will begin to rival Messi for the status as top dog at Barca. While I’m sure you all watch every Barca game, I urge you to really watch and analyse him closely. Please feel free to challenge or question any of my observations.