This is the first in a series of “miniature” articles I aim to post throughout the tournament…which hopefully will last through July for Brazil.  Most of the articles will either be on individual players, or on a specific concept.

Today’s article is on Neymar. 

Oscar was Brazil’s best player in the first game, while Thiago Silva rightfully took the plaudits in the second game, but our most consistently good player over the first two games has been Neymar.  So the following shouldn’t be taken so much as criticism, but more as one of the areas to his game that he must still improve upon in order to truly reach his potential.

The picture below is right after Neymar executed an absolutely brilliant dribble in order to get past his marker.  [Full disclosure: the impetus to choose this particular instance came after seeing a similar screenshot on BarcaForum.] He did this sort of thing several times against Mexico – it was beautiful to watch.  But none of his runs resulted in a goal.

Neymar run original

The problem with this picture is that if you were to fast-forward approximately 1 second, he gets dispossessed.  That is because he continues dribbling into a horde of Mexican players…I count five in all, not including the one trailing behind him.

Here is what Neymar should have done.

Neymar run

The solid yellow arrow indicates what he actually did, while the dotted arrow indicates the best option.  Instead of dribbling further, Neymar should have simply laid it off to Willian.  From there, Willian would have three, maybe four options, each more likely to end up in a shot on goal.  For example, Willian could have then spread the ball wide to Bernard, who likely would have attempted to either cross, or get to the goal line and square.  Or, Willian could have attempted a through-ball to Jo, whose marker would have been hard pressed to intercept given that he is on the wrong side of Jo.  Willian could have even attempted to play a one-two with Neymar, chipping the return pass over the top, albeit with a high degree of difficulty.

Instead, Neymar kept going.  I don’t think this indicates selfishness on his part, but it is an illustration of a fundamental fact about his game: he is primarily an instinctive player, and his instinct is usually to dribble.  Laying the ball off like I’ve described above is probably instinctive in only a handful of players; for most, it comes only after years of specific training and instruction.  The example par excellence of this is Lionel Messi, who makes this kind of play several times a match: the initial dribble, the surging run, the intelligent lay-off, and the continuation of his run to receive the return pass.  I imagine that Messi is so good at this in large part because of his training at La Masia.

Neymar is capable of the sublime, the magical, the otherworldly…but when it comes to plays that would simply be described as “intelligent,” he is less assured.  This is not to imply in any way that Neymar is unintelligent, but again, that he is by nature instinctive, and his instincts are usually to trust his own footwork.

If you watch the match, you can find two, maybe three other instances when Neymar chose the incorrect option while running with the ball.   One moment from the first half stands out in particular; after another brilliant run, he passed up a chance to shoot from the edge of the box in favor of trying to dribble in even closer.  The result?  Another turnover.

Neymar is definitely capable of making thoughtful, calculated decisions – observe his goal against Croatia, when he elected to use the defender’s own legs as a shield against the keeper, a decision which ultimately caused the goal, given the slowness of the actual shot.  But he is still inconsistent when it comes to weighing his options, especially when running with the ball.

I have no doubt that, as his experience increases, so too will his knowledge of when to choose the simple option: the layoff, the obvious pass to a teammate in space, etc.  For now, however, it is an area to his game that still cries out for improvement.