If ever there was a defining image of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona it was the sight of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, arm-in-arm, celebrating a pivotal 3-1 win over Atletico Madrid earlier this year.
The victory came just days after Barca had been declared in full-blown crisis, following the Liga defeat to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad, the following firing of sporting director Alberto Zubizarretta and subsequent resignation of legend Carles Puyol as an executive at the Catalan club. Enrique had just a few games left as manager, it was widely agreed.
And yet now Enrique has led Barcelona to 13 wins from their last 14 fixtures, closing the gap at the top of La Liga to just two points. The defeat at Sociedad is now regarded as something of a watershed in the Camp Nou side’s season, and more profoundly Enrique’s career as a Barca manager.
The upturn in Lionel Messi’s form – who has returned to his sparkling best in recent weeks – has undoubtedly been a factor in Barca’s resurgence, but look beyond the world’s best player and another figure has been just as influential.
Neymar – the most expensive signing in Barcelona’s history – is enjoying a magnificent season.
After Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Brazilian is La Liga’s most potent attacker, having scored 17 times in just 18 starts this season, also contributing four assists. While Messi might average a staggering 4.8 shots on goal per game, Neymar’s average of 2.7 per game places him as Barcelona’s second-most productive player.
Questions of his true purpose at Barcelona, as were asked upon his arrival in Spain, now seem utterly foolish, given how important Neymar has become at the Camp Nou. Critics once pondered how he would play in the same team as Messi, but now it’s almost impossible to envisage how Messi would operate without the Brazilian alongside him.
In fact, it could be claimed that Neymar has almost become just as important to Enrique and Barcelona as Messi. The four-time Ballon d’Or winner is a statistical superhuman, boasting 27 goals after just 24 appearances so far this season. Neymar cannot come close to those sort of numbers, but his qualitative significance shouldn’t be understated.
He provides the balance Barcelona needs to function. Without Neymar Enrique’s side would simply be too top-heavy, with the Brazilian willing to fill the space left around Messi and Suarez to compensate for both players’ natural urge to break into the box. Neymar curbs his own attacking urge so others don’t have to.
But it would be shamefully myopic to reduce Neymar’s brilliance to just tactics and statistics, considering the artful flair with which he plays football. As a Brazilian the 23-year-old is tagged with a certain identity – one that actually fits his persona and style as a player – but few of his compatriots can claim to have possessed such refined mastery.
“Brazilians see football as a way of enjoying themselves whilst competing,” explained Enrique earlier this year, underlining that Neymar should be heralded rather than criticized for his flair.
“Spain is a strange country where people are more offended by a nutmeg than destroying someone with five fouls.
“If you take football, samba or other things away then he is no longer Brazilian. They have another way of understanding the game. He should continue to enjoy it and so should we.”
Against Granada on Saturday, Neymar looked somewhat exhausted, reminding us all that for his brilliance and experience at the top level of European and international football, he is still only 23. Barca won 3-1 to close the gap on Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, but the match will not go down as a landmark Neymar performance.
Nonetheless, the widespread surprise at his poor display served as a statement of just how good Neymar has been this season. If this is how good the Brazilian is now, just imagine how good he will be once he reaches the peak of his career.
Messi has won the Man of the Match award in 26 of the 36 games he has played for Barcelona this season, but such dominance doesn’t convey the full narrative of the Catalan club’s season.
Neymar has deserved an award in most of those matches too, but in keeping with his new identity as a Barca component, he must pass the acclaim to his Argentine teammate. And that warrants the highest acclaim of all.
Neymar was the player in the middle – linking Messi and Suarez – as Barcelona’s South American trio ran toward the camera in celebration against Atletico Madrid. As an analogy, it was rather apt.