Football Features

Is Neymar back in Lionel Messi’s shadow?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:44, 13 August 2021 | Updated: 18:40, 10 September 2021

Four years after they parted ways, Neymar and Lionel Messi have been reunited as teammates at Paris Saint-Germain.

Messi ended a 21-year bond with Barcelona this summer when the club were unable to renew his contract due to financial problems, leaving him with nowhere to go. Many clubs courted the world’s best player but in the end PSG won the race for his signature, meaning that he links up with Neymar who left Barcelona for France in the summer of 2017 for a world record fee of €222m.

That move had a seismic effect on the transfer market and, indeed, football itself. Barcelona’s panic in the wake of the move is in large part responsible for the financial disaster they face today, the disaster which essentially forced Messi out of Camp Nou.

Back then there were many reasons mooted for Neymar’s move, one of which was that the Brazilian wanted to escape Messi’s shadow. He wanted his own team for him to be the sole star, rather than be part of Messi’s constellation.

And Neymar has indeed been a big bright shining star for PSG since joining. He’s had massive injury problems, for sure, and he’s not yet won that elusive Champions League, losing the final to Bayern Munich in 2020, but on an individual level he has been superb.

Since joining in 2017, Neymar has played 67 games in Ligue 1, scoring 53 goals and registering 30 assists. In the Champions League he’s completed 209 dribbles since the start of 2017/18 (the most in the competition) and created 24 big chances (fourth-most). He has been a relentless and mesmeric magician, but for the most part he still hasn’t escaped Messi’s shadow. The Argentine is still the better player while Neymar, because of his injury issues and failure to win the Champions League, is now even being overlooked when considering Messi’s heirs as the world’s finest.

For his part, Neymar always insisted the move to Paris was about finding “something bigger, a bigger challenge. My heart wanted a new ambition, that’s why I’m here in front of you,” the Brazilian said in 2017, “I listen to my heart every day. And my heart told me to go to PSG.”

When asked if wanting to be the sole star, to get away from Messi’s shadow pushed him to Paris, Neymar denied it. “No, it didn’t impact my decision at all,” he said. “I wanted to come to Paris, and this was only linked to me willing to find a new challenge. It’s not because I didn’t feel like I was the big star – I felt really good there.”

That line of thinking certainly tracks with Neymar openly courting Messi for PSG, including rumours that he even offered him the no. 10 shirt. “Ney played a significant role in my arrival,” Messi said, and the Brazilian wouldn’t have done all that if he was worried about being in Messi’s shadow, because he has, of course, put himself right back there. In a true sense too, not just a ‘everyone is in Messi’s shadow because everyone is worse than him’ sense.

As good as Neymar has been in Paris, Messi is quite simply better. When they last played together in Barcelona, Neymar’s influence was growing but it was only with Messi’s blessing and passing, as the Argentine dropped deeper to become more of a playmaker, allowing Neymar to have more influence in the final third.

Then, under Luis Enrique’s leadership, Neymar’s defensive responsibilities often left him too tired to finish chances and he was staggeringly wasteful in 2016/17. There are video compilations featuring countless Neymar misses coming at the end of outrageous Messi passes.

However, at PSG the Brazilian has more latitude to camp out in the final third, and with Messi advancing the ball from midfield to attack in Paris just as he once did for him in Barcelona, Neymar could inexplicably become even better than he already has been. Maybe his fun stats like dribbles will go down, but you can expect shots, goals and assists to go up.

That is just as well since both men’s stated aim is to win the Champions League and now at PSG, with a murderer’s row of outrageous talent in the starting XI, they have a superb chance to do just that. With two of the best players in the world in the same side for the first time since 2017 when Neymar left Barcelona. Now the Brazilian has courted his superior to come and help him do the impossible.

That is the power of Messi, and why every player, even someone as ceaselessly brilliant as Neymar, is more than happy to live in his shadow. It’s cool in the shadow, you’re protected from the harsh heat of criticism as Messi’s enormous figure absorbs it all and also, on a very basic level; playing with the greatest player on the planet is much easier than, y’know, not playing with the greatest player on the planet.

Messi’s associative and selfless style makes everyone around him better, his dribbles create space for you, his passes find you where no one else can, and his goals pull you out of holes that looked too deep to escape. He’s a dream teammate who pushes you every day in training while leading from the front come match time.

Is Neymar back in Lionel Messi’s shadow? Yes he is.

Is that absolutely where he wants to be? Yes it is.

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