When the 2017 summer transfer window came to a close, the word on most lips was the world record transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to PSG. Apart from the financially mind-boggling nature of the deal, the biggest concerns raised were about how Barcelona would cope with the loss of one of the world’s best talents.
The initially failed transfer of Philippe Coutinho, followed by the injury of the young and record-breaking arrival Ousmane Dembele all led many to write the Catalans off for the season.
However, fast forward to the present day, and Barcelona are doing brilliantly without the Brazilian star. In fact, the La Liga giants might even be better off bereft of Neymar, and here are three reasons why:
A Return to Team Play Style
Lionel Messi said it best when he spoke to Mirror, stating that: “Without Neymar we are more balanced. His departure led to a change in the way we play. We have lost a lot of our offensive potential but we have improved in defence. We have more balance and this allows us to be more solid.”
Indeed, the club has seen a merciful return to its days of swagger and charming play after the exit of Neymar. Simply put, Barcelona relied far too much on solely the attacking intent of the MSN trident, and through it, lost its flair for total football.
But since the summer, under the guidance and tactful techniques of Ernesto Valverde, the team is being crafted more and more into a midfield-reliant ethos. This is most blatant when one pays attention to the intent with which a typical Barcelona side presses the opposition.
A sharp difference from the Neymar days, where despite being better endowed offensively, the squad often seemed redundant and lethargic, solely passing the ball to the trio in hopes of a goal.
The Resurgence of Jordi Alba
Jordi Alba didn’t mince words regarding the impact that Neymar’s exit has had on his performance.
Speaking to Mundo Deportivo, the phenomenal full-back claimed: “In the end, there are still many more guys who can do a good job and I am delighted with the people there. As I said before, I have more space to run into and honest, for me, it’s much better.
“I have regained confidence. With more space on the left I am very comfortable and that is demonstrated in the field. I’m enjoying it in a way I haven’t for a long time.”
This is highly evident by the renewed vigor he exercises on the field, particularly during counter-attacks, where his contribution his invaluable to the outfit. His six assists in the league so far this campaign also cement this point, as does his passing success of 87%.
Simply put, his contributions, if any, were greatly suffocated by the presence of Neymar, who dominated the flank without any link up with the full-back.
With his exit, the Catalans have succeeded in building a side that moves the ball about in a clean manner, and with a rhythm that most European sides lack. And at the heart of it all is their aggressive full-back, ever eager to take advantage.
A Tactically Apt Offense
The immediate impact of Neymar leaving was a reshuffling of the front line at the Camp Nou. Messi saw his more familiar false 9 role handed back to him, to great success. As a result, the Argentine striker plays to the best of his ability.
To add to that, the side can now focus more on channeling the plays into Messi rather than having the ball regularly siphoned off by Neymar. While the latter did have a brilliance of its own, it didn’t make the most out of all individual talents at hand – a recurring problem in a Neymar-inclusive Barca.
Creating and finishing goals, Messi’s current style best suits the competent midfield that Valverde is hoping to piece together.
As an added impact, Suarez now functions primarily as a left forward who has a centralizing tendency to aid Messi. As a result, more of their midfield gets involved in a goal-scoring attempt, and the flanks are brilliantly manned by the full-backs – a virtue that is best taken advantage of during counter-attacks.
The only downside of this change is that Suarez is still learning how to function from the side, and this at times leaves the flanks a bit shaky. But with the purchase of Coutinho, the improvement of Dembele, and with talents like Nelson Semedo at right-back, it is only a matter of time before Barcelona perfect even this.
All in all, with an average possession of 64.7%, a balanced defense, and a tactically sound lineup, Barcelona have handled the exit of Neymar phenomenally well. The trend of having an inclusive team, with a focus on its midfield, is in the DNA of any Barcelona side eager for success, and the current path is bound to bring just that.
With the La Liga all but in their bags and the Champions League title seeming very achievable, the Spanish giants are more than well off since the summer transfer window.