When he was unveiled as Paris Saint-Germain manager in early July, Luis Enrique had select words for Neymar. He refused to assert that the Brazilian, at the time linked with a move abroad, would stay at the club. He admitted that he didn’t know what the team would look like by the start of the season. He referenced the handful of other impressive attacking players the Parisians have. Ultimately he sent a message: PSG don’t need Neymar.
But they just might want him. Kylian Mbappe’s tenure as a PSG player seems to be coming to an end after he informed the club that he will not be signing a contract extension. Lionel Messi has already gone, an extended Floridian holiday coaxing the GOAT away from Europe.
So, only Neymar remains. The original member of the much-maligned superstar trio is alone once more, the spearhead of a project that, like a few years ago, seems full of untapped potential. Back then, it all went very wrong, very quickly. As other big names joined, Neymar’s influence and reputation waned. There were injuries that were out of his control: ankle, metatarsal and adductor. But there were also self-inflicted wounds: wild parties and ill-advised holidays.
The five years since he joined PSG have felt like something of a waste, at least for Neymar the elite footballer. The singular goal of Neymar’s Parisian move was one of personal glory. He wanted to run a team, and, ideally, win a Ballon d’Or doing so. On-field success, namely the Champions League, was perhaps a close second in his list of priorities.
But now, there’s been something of a reset. Neymar has another chance to be the main man, and this time, the pressure is off. PSG aren’t expected to bring European glory to Parc des Princes, nor will they be the centre of media attention — those eyes will likely be cast to Santiago Bernabeu when Mbappe makes his inevitable move to Real Madrid.
Instead, Neymar can operate with only one foot in the spotlight, the best player on an interesting, developing team. And perhaps it’s that exact environment that the mercurial Brazilian needs to revive a career that seems to be fading.
How the PSG era started
Neymar’s record-breaking move to PSG in 2017 was an inherently selfish act. Everything was set up for the Brazilian at Barcelona. Then 24, playing alongside an older and soon-to-decline duo of Messi and Luis Suarez, outright stardom at Camp Nou seemed to be imminent.
The reasons for Neymar’s departure were many. It has been suggested that he was unhappy that his role in Barcelona’s famous Remontada — a majestic two-goal, two-assist performance against PSG — was downplayed by the media. Cynics will also point to the handsome €36.8 million (£32m/$41m) per year salary on offer in the French capital.
Perhaps, more simply, he wanted to have his own team. Messi was always going to be the singular star at Camp Nou — and has arguably retained that status despite not wearing Catalan colours for almost three years. And following a Liga season in which the Blaugrana had to settle for second behind a dominant Real Madrid side, it is easy to see why Neymar was allured by PSG.
Still, it wasn’t a decision that was received well by Barcelona. Suarez has since claimed that he advised Neymar to stay, and promised that reinforcements would arrive so the Blaugrana could fight for the league title again. Messi himself has maintained that he never got a full explanation for Neymar’s exit. Gerard Pique was perhaps the most shocked of all, posting a chummy selfie on Instagram, captioned “se queda”, a pledge that Neymar would stay. Much to the delight of the internet, Neymar would sign for PSG 10 days later.
Where it all went wrong
And this was all very well received in Paris at the time. Although the Parisians had spent an eye-watering €222m (£200m/$262m) on the Brazilian, here was a player, barely entering his prime, who could, theoretically, carry a side as far as he wished. Neymar wasn’t the best player in the world, not yet. But there was a sense that he would soon be crowned as such.
Champions League titles were pledged in his introductory press conference. The standard platitudes about “big clubs” and “motivation” were used. Meanwhile, the kits flew off the shelves. Shirts emblazoned with his name would soon be near-ubiquitous, Nike’s lavish kit deal yielding millions in sales for the Paris club.
On the pitch, though, the results were far less encouraging. Neymar was immediately joined in the French capital by an 18-year-old Mbappe, a player who, just three months earlier, had ripped Manchester City to shreds in the Champions League, scoring in both legs to knock Pep Guardiola’s side out of the tournament with Monaco. This was not the spotlight that Neymar was promised.
Queue the controversy. Mbappe and Neymar didn’t lock horns immediately, but the tension was apparent. There were disapproving glances and arguments over penalty-taking duties. The body language experts soon emerged, Neymar broke a metatarsal and a domestic treble was rendered irrelevant by a Champions League last-16 loss.
Since then, things have further soured. While Mbappe’s star rose, Neymar continued to struggle with injuries. The Parisians finally made it to a Champions League final, only to be beaten by Bayern Munich — a former PSG academy player in Kingsley Coman scoring the lone goal.
From there, Neymar got injured again while Messi was thrown into the simmering pot of chaos. They still failed to win a Champions League. Messi wanted out. Neymar got injured again. Messi left, and Mbappe probably will follow. Now, Neymar is alone.
Benefits of a well-constructed squad
Neymar’s status as the surviving member of the old PSG could prove to be a good thing, not least because of the way football advisor Luis Campos has constructed this squad. Much has been made of PSG’s signings of years past. Here was a team that had the stars, and simply brought in more. For a few transfer windows, PSG spent as much as possible, with few qualms as to how, exactly, it might work. Need a right-back? Sign the most expensive one in Achraf Hakimi. Short of a goalkeeper? Bring in Gigi Donnarumma, the Player of the Tournament from Euro 2020, on massive wages.
The result was a squad rife with talent but lacking in direction. It proved to be a nightmare for what was effectively an all-star team of elite managers. Every type of coach had a go, and none of them could quite get it right.
But now things seem to have changed. PSG have curbed their lavish spending, instead allocating money wisely on players just coming into their primes, while also finding some good value-for-money additions on the cheap. Milan Skriniar is perhaps the best example, a top-tier centre-back who was available on a free.
There have been others, too. Lee Kang-in, former Mallorca star, was brought in at a reasonable price — and was arguably PSG’s best player in their opening pre-season fixture. And the big-money signing, Manuel Ugarte, is a well-rounded central midfielder with little international pedigree. There will be at least one other newcomer, probably a No.9. But the names linked — Randal Kolo Muani, Dusan Vlahovic, Victor Osimhen — aren’t stars of Neymar’s repute.
For Neymar, PSG’s transfer market business can only be a good thing. This isn’t necessarily a squad assembled for him, but Campos has pieced together numerous players who should be immensely effective alongside him. PSG have lacked balance for years, and in many ways, Neymar, and his apparent lack of off-ball effort, embodied that. Now, though, they might just have evened this side out, and Neymar stands to benefit.
A tactically adept manager
There is, of course, always the manager problem with PSG. Laurent Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino and Christophe Galtier all tried their hand. All were slightly different in terms of tactics, philosophy and demeanour. But when charged with the same remit — European success — all failed, usually in dramatic fashion.
It is, then, reasonable to query what the next man up will bring that the previous six haven’t. Luis Enrique isn’t a better tactician than Tuchel. He isn’t a better man-manager than Ancelotti. And he certainly doesn’t have the expansive attacking gusto of Pochettino. Add the fact that he was, if reports are to be believed, fourth choice for the job, and confidence already seems to be waning.
But Luis Enrique certainly has some advantages here. Primarily, the new boss has built a reputation of having few qualms as to what people think about him. Here is a manager who is unafraid to take on stars, or bench big names. He proved as such for Spain, making a number of brave tactical decisions — such as rushing teenagers Pedri and Gavi into his squad almost as soon as they had broken into the Barcelona first team.
He also has a noted calm with the press, a confidence that Galtier, in particular, lacked. In his introductory press conference, Luis Enrique invited the “pressure” of the Mbappe transfer saga. He also joked that he would have no problem with the notoriously stingy French media: “We’ll get on perfectly, seeing as I can’t understand anything!”
Perhaps most importantly for Neymar, though, Luis Enrique has coached him before. And the manager mostly protected his star man while they were together at Barca, routinely comparing him to Ronaldinho and defending his showboating in a way that few of his other managers have since.
It is no secret that this is a footballer that needs to be kept happy. Arguably, he requires too much effort. But Luis Enrique has found the balance before, getting Neymar to play his best football in the process. It could well happen again.
Things can’t possibly get any worse, right?
Neymar did something uncharacteristically mature last week. In a lengthy interview with CazeTV, the Brazilian accepted that he might never have the love of the PSG fans, but pledged to be back in Paris whether they sang his name or not. It’s an admittedly low bar for a footballer, and perhaps an indication of how sour things have become. Indeed, the acceptance of boos and jeers doesn’t necessarily set the stage for a harmonious relationship.
But for a player that has craved support, thrived off showmanship, and built a brand based on fan appeal, it was a surprising admission. A few months ago, PSG ultras were gathered outside of his house screaming at him to leave. Now, Neymar has pledged to stay.
It’s almost counterintuitive for the Brazilian. Indeed, if things are to fall apart now, the clamour for him to leave will only be greater. But perhaps there is a wider understanding here. It is impossible for Neymar’s association with the fans to get any worse. He has, in the eyes of the Parisian loyalists, bottomed out.
A player once absorbed in the adulation he so often received from fans has admitted that the love will no longer be there. Whether by his own making or not, Neymar perhaps knows he will never be a favourite in Paris. And even if that means going from despised to merely disliked, there could just be room for something to happen. Stopping his relentless pursuit of the fans’ love might be one of the best moves of his PSG tenure.
What can a Neymar without pressure do?
You’d struggle to identify the last time Neymar played without pressure. Even the teenager tipped as one of the world’s best at Santos lived in the realm of YouTube views and praise from Brazilian legends. This is a footballer who simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be out of the spotlight.
And perhaps that’s what he needs. Everything about the way Neymar plays is designed to attract the cameras. From the rainbow flicks to extra rolls after minimal contact, here is a player that needs to be watched to be appreciated, and, more broadly, understood. Indeed, for Neymar, the stats tell little to none of the story.
But what about when the cameras are elsewhere? What about when his team-mates are hard-working, very good but not outstanding footballers assembled from a series of competitive but not league-winning sides around Europe? When his coach has perhaps already peaked in management, but refuses to believe so?
PSG are expected to win Ligue 1 — no change there. But Champions League glory seems far off. It might even take a few years for this team to build, grow and develop together. Neymar has been here before. The same conversation seems to happen every year, the same columns written and later scrapped. It is genuinely difficult to claim with any sincerity that things might change.
But in the past, he has been able to point to others: Mbappe, Messi, a string of ill-equipped managers. This time, Neymar has the fortune of playing without pressure, but simultaneously burdened with responsibility. PSG will go as far as Neymar is willing to lead them, and that unique situation could be exactly what he needs, with his career, finally, truly on the line.
If this is his last chance, if we really mean it this time, then the pieces are in place for a revival that has been promised for years. — Goal