You know how in the opening credits of Dad’s Army there are those three swirling arrows moving ominously towards Britain?
For some reason it brings to mind Barcelona’s devilish trident of Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar – with Messi as the smaller arrow jutting in sharply from the right to puncture these isles in the guts. He’s done it enough times to Premier League sides, after all.
Yet this current Barcelona attacking force is something else. Last season Messi, Suárez and Neymar scored 145 goals between them. This season they have raced to 91 already. Few expect Arsenal to neutralise them. Indeed, if you stuck £100 on Barcelona to score at the Emirates on Tuesday night, you would win only £11 off the bookies if they succeeded.
Understandably many eyes will be on Messi because, well, he’s Messi. Suárez will get plenty of attention too, given he has scored 41 goals this season. Yet it would be a gross mistake to ignore the third member of the triumvirate, Neymar, who has lifted his game on to an even higher plane this season.
True, we are several years past the stage where the Brazilian was regarded, somewhat suspiciously, as a YouTube sensation: part anime-footballer, part agent provocateur; flash haircut, flasher skills. When he first joined Barcelona some wondered whether he was merely Robinho Redux, a fancy dan whose trickery would be deciphered and crushed. Making fools of Brazilian journeyman while playing for Santos was one thing. Doing it consistently in Europe another. Yet still he improves.
This season Neymar has scored 18 goals in 22 La Liga games, putting him behind only Suárez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Incidentally Messi, who has 15 from 20 games, is sixth in the standings. Neymar also has nine assists – second in La Liga behind Suárez, and ahead of Messi, on seven.
But even these impressive figures don’t do the Brazilian justice. Most of us are aware of expected goals, a measure that rates the quality of each shot a player or team takes. So a chance from six yards out, say, will have a higher probability of going in than one from 20. But data analysts are increasingly using “expected assists” as well, which quantify a player’s ability to create high-quality opportunities. On this measure Neymar is a chance-creating machine.
On the surface, Neymar’s assists per 90 minutes of 0.43 is good but not exceptional. His 3.6 chances created per 90 minutes, while seventh across La Liga, the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Serie A, is still someway behind Mesut Özil, who leads on 4.6 with Ángel Di María second on 4.0.
But when you look at chance quality, a different pattern emerges. According to a model developed by Omar Chaudhuri, the head of football intelligence at the sports analysis consultancy, 21st Club, Neymar has 0.55 expected assists per 90 minutes – joint-top with Borussia Dortmund’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan across the four major European leagues, with Özil on 0.53. In other words, Neymar would have had even more assists had his team-mates been more clinical.
We can dive further into this data. When you combine Neymar’s non‑penalty expected goals and expected assists this season, he is second in Europe on 1.22 per 90 – behind only the Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski on 1.36. Messi, incidentally, is on 1.13 and Suárez 1.09.
As Chaudhuri, who works with several major clubs across Europe, puts it: “From a purely numerical perspective, Neymar is basically combining the chance-creation rate of Özil with the goalscoring rate of Thomas Müller. Obviously his numbers are inflated by playing in the best team in the world but this really is no mean feat. And the figures suggest we could expect even higher figures than his actual goals and assists.”
Some will sneer at such models. To them, numbers on the pitch – not on spreadsheets – are the only ones that matter. But regular Barcelona watchers will confirm that Suárez, brilliant though he is, does miss easy chances: against Las Palmas on Saturday, for instance, he missed two absolute sitters.
There is a second point worth making. During the autumn, when Messi was injured for 10 matches, Neymar quickly become the team’s vibrant heartbeat.
Barcelona rattled in 27 goals during that period. Neymar got 11 of them – and assisted in another seven. He also had 4.41 shots per game compared to his average of 2.91 over this season – and 11 more touches on average per match too. No wonder Barcelona’s manager, Luis Enrique, called him electric.
Yet when Messi returned, Neymar was happy to return to being subservient. Less than three years’ ago Johan Cruyff warned his ego could unsettle Barcelona, and claimed he wouldn’t have signed him. Instead the Brazilian has proved the ultimate team player. Even his alleged involvement in a huge tax avoidance scheme from his transfer has not appeared to trouble him. As Enrique put it earlier this month: “Neymar is affected 0.0001 out of a million by tax issues.”
In recent days, two Brazilian legends have rightly paid homage to his talent. Zico told Barcelona’s website: “It would not be surprising at all if Neymar was named the best player in the world.” Meanwhile Ronaldo admitted: “I like Neymar a lot. Can he be Messi’s heir? Yes, he has everything he needs to become as strong as him.”
That may sound over the top. But Cristiano Ronaldo turned 31 earlier this month, while Messi is 29 in June. Neymar, meanwhile, is 24. A changing of the guard may not happen this season or next. But it is coming. And Neymar is the best player in the world in waiting.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010