The Brazilian national team suffered a dismal October international break, drawing 1-1 at home to Venezuela before falling to a 2-0 defeat to Uruguay in World Cup Qualifying. This loss would also see Neymar leave the pitch in a stretcher after suffering an ACL tear. His season is effectively over, with the ex-Barcelona man set to spend the next eight months on the treatment tables.
Whilst they still boast a wealth of star names like Kalidou Koulibaly and Aleksandr Mitrovic, Neymar’s absence is a massive blow for Saudi club Al-Hilal, who are looking to retain first place in the Saudi Professional League as well as wrestle the AFC Champions League crown back after losing to Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds in the final last season.
Up to now, Neymar has featured in 5 games wearing the jersey of the Blue Waves, with 386 minutes in total. He has contributed 4 goals during this period, scoring 1 in the continental tournament and providing 3 assists in the league, which averages around 1 goal involvement every 96.5 minutes. In the SPL, Neymar had 3.7 shots per game (1.3 on target). He has been able to provide 4 big chances in total and create 3.3 key passes per game. In addition to 29 accurate passes per match with 88% of completion, and 3 long passes per match with 100% of completion.
Defensively speaking, the superstar has contributed with 0.7 tackles, 0.3 possession won, and 0.7 balls recovered per game, and he got dribbled past in 0.7 times per 90 minutes. In terms of dribbling, he has had 0.3 successful take-ons (11% completions), 2.3 total duels won (30%), with 9.7 possession lost, 0.7 fouls committed and 1.3 fouls conceded, all per game.
Actually, the performances of Neymar in the few matches he has played for his new club were not bad, but we cannot say that they were stellar either if we take into account the standard of the player. Neymar looked a bit out of sorts physically and struggled to get past his men via dribbles, proved by his poor 11% take-on completion, but he also looked like he could level up his game and create a difference at any moment of the game.
Sometimes, it seemed like it was too easy for him to show his enormous worth, like during his cameo against city rivals Al-Riyadh in the capital derby in the league, as it only took a couple of minutes to wonderfully set one of his teammates for a clear goalscoring chance. You might argue that Al-Riyadh is a newly promoted team, which is the reason why he had it so easy. But it was not the case.
Disregarding the level of the Al-Riyadh club, which still has a lot of quality in their ranks, it was the system adopted by each of the opposing clubs he has played against in the continent that was deciding how he would perform. Neymar, despite not being a really pacy player, not in his prime, and even less so now, has played his best football with Al-Hilal against high defensive lines and found it hard against low blocks.
The perfect example of that is the AFC Champions League group stage opening game against Uzbeki side Navbahor, who have been almost perfectly organized defensively, leaving few spaces behind, compact, and most importantly for our context, their players were tough to get past on one-on-ones. Neymar, who is widely regarded as one of the best dribblers in the history of this sport, may have lost a bit of his agility with injuries, and has only won 1 of his 6 attempted dribbles against Navbahor.
Al-Hilal in this game, have conceded a goal on the counter and were late into scoring the equaliser through club center-back Ali-Bulaihi near the 100th minute of the match, and obviously never took the lead in that game. The point here is the “never took the lead” part. Being ahead in the game was driving the opposing side to advance their defensive lines higher, thus unlocking the best version of Neymar since he put his feet in Asia, like what happened in the other Champions League game against Iranian team Nassaji Mazandaradan, in which Al-Hilal scored the opener early in the match.
Neymar, who has been used to play against low-blocks in his whole career, either with La Liga giants Barcelona or French capital club Paris Saint-Germain and has been the guy who finds the keys against those types of defensively solid clubs via his magical dribbles, chip passes and combinations, has found it a bit harder in Asia, but the few matches he has played are far from being a serious metric or telling us the whole story. The season-ending injury would not let Al-Hilal and the world, keep closely monitoring what Neymar has to offer, and how far he could have taken Jorge Jesus’ side in major competitions.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jean Catuffe