Even though the outcome may be as unexpected as they come, it’s easy to summarise how we got to the current situation: Manchester United did not want to sell Paul Pogba, PSG won’t part ways with Kylian Mbappe either, and suddenly Neymar is on the market and, according to those in the know, headed for the Santiago Bernabeu.
I voiced my opinion about his fit with Real Madrid (or lack of thereof) in what now feels like an eternity ago, but it was less than two months. In terms of the decision to hire such a skilful player, I still believe that the headaches will not be compensated by the fun of watching him unravel his bag of tricks dressed in white, but the picture has indeed changed: Neymar is openly in the market, something that many suspected but that wasn’t a fact until Leonardo spoke.
This piece of news puts Real Madrid on the terrible position of having to choose between signing Neymar or letting him return to Barcelona. PSG don’t want to sell it to the Azulgrana, but if there’s no other suitor interested in dealing with Neymar’s sister’s birthday, the Toiss and the annoying baggage with which Ney travels, they will. And a forward line with Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Neymar compared to one of Benzema, Hazard and Jovic will probably translate into another league title for Barcelona with plenty of points to spare, and more than enough rest for their starters in the key months of April and May.
Yes, Real Madrid can’t afford to let Neymar go to Barcelona, and that, together with the obvious thorn in President Perez’s pride -- he couldn’t sign him in 2013 – makes this deal something much more likely now than one would have expected in June.
The question now is: how would Real Madrid look with Neymar? If we leave aside the noise, it’s hard to question that the Brazilian belongs to the top five players in the world in terms of his offensive ability, even perhaps the top three. But he left Barcelona to have his own team and we saw how that went: rather than applying Messi’s playbook – let the game flow and appear when he hurts the most –, Neymar became a ball hog who trounced teams in France, but that failed to make his mark in Europe, although the bad luck with injuries also had something to do with PSG’s lack of success in the latter stages of the Champions League.
The fact is that I can’t see Neymar arriving in Madrid and taking one of the wings so that Hazard orchestrates the offensive flow of the game. If the Brazilian eventually joins Real Madrid, this becomes his team, for good or evil. He won’t take a backseat to anyone else, although if he wants to succeed he’ll have to resort to a more collective version of himself, or the experiment will be short-lived.
It’s hard to imagine Hazard, Kroos, Benzema or Marcelo waiting patiently on the sides until Neymar pulls something out of the hat. In the past, Zidane’s team succeeded playing a highly collaborative brand of football, a sequence of plays on both sides of the pitch to feed Ronaldo, the pinnacle of which I still believe that was the demolition of the best defence in Europe in Cardiff back in 2017. Carvajal, Marcelo, Modric and Kroos were all instrumental on that win - even Asensio! -, in a choral effort that had Juventus chasing shadows for most of the second half. I can’t see Neymar’s current version fitting in that type of team, as he’s not a pure finisher and needs much more of the ball than Ronaldo.
Is there a way for this to work? Of course. Neymar playing on a free role, exchanging positions with Hazard and Benzema to get into scoring positions, and linking up with Kroos and Modric to find openings in the sides for the fullbacks. On paper, it’s mouth-watering. But he’ll have to learn that in many occasions he’ll have to play one-twos, or return the ball quickly to midfield and move away from the play, or open spaces without the ball: in summary, he’ll have to play a lot more like he did with Barcelona and try to forget as much as possible his PSG phase.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the reaction of the Bernabeu. Right now, there’s a decent amount of scepticism between fans, as many don’t like his Azulgrana past, his excellent relationship with many players in the Barcelona squad, his antics on the pitch and his worrying lifestyle out of it. It’s the closest thing to the signing of Figo one
can imagine, and it took us some time to warm up to him. However, the Portuguese star was a professional as very few I’ve seen, and Neymar... Well, you know that his priorities are not always on the pitch.
If I had to guess, the beginning with the Brazilian would be cold, but not in a “we’re never supporting you” kind of way, but rather in a “you have to make us stand on our feet at least 10 times per match if you want to win us over” one. And he’s perfectly capable of that.
If we know Mr Perez, he won’t spend another summer without a big name signing, especially after such a successful Barcelona campaign in Spain. If I had to bet, Neymar is coming, and thus the real headaches for Zidane are about to start.