All the best players play in the middle.
Those were the words of Johan Cruyff—per Ken Early in Slate—and who can argue with the Dutchman, who is responsible for sketching the template for the Barcelona that stands tall today.
When Barcelona broke their transfer record to sign Neymar at the beginning of the season there were numerous questions: Will two of the world’s best players create space for one another? Or will they merely tread on each other’s toes?
Fifteen wins and two draws later and it appears both Lionel Messi and Neymar had all the answers.
The Argentine retained his place in the centre with the Brazilian deployed on the left, and Barcelona continued to play the similar brand of high-octane football that has helped them to three Champions League crowns in the last eight years.
The sight of Messi hobbling out of the game against Real Betis with a hamstring injury will have been a worry for fans of the Catalan side, but Neymar’s performance at the Estadio Benito Villamarin will have settled their concerns somewhat.
26 - Neymar has participated in 26 duels v Betis (50%) more than any other Barça player in La Liga game 13/14. Battle pic.twitter.com/rTMHGpJSbd— OptaJose (@OptaJose) November 10, 2013
For a 21-year-old, Neymar has made a remarkable transition from Brasileirao to La Liga. His first three months in blue and maroon have been highlighted with five goals and eight assists, and his eagerness to buy into the team’s philosophy has drawn praise from around Camp Nou.
The former Santos man appeared happy to let Messi lead the way through the centre. But now, with the four-time Ballon d’Or winner consigned to the sidelines for up to two months, Neymar should be given the chance to start in the centre.
As Cruyff pointed out, all the best players play through the middle, and in Neymar, Barcelona have a ready-made replacement for Messi.
While some will argue that Cesc Fabregas should take up the “false nine” role that he occupied in Spain’s 2012 European Championship winning team, Neymar is the better option.
The Brazilian possesses more pace than his Spanish teammate, and his 130 goals over the last three-and-a-bit seasons would suggest he his both calm and clinical in front of goal.
Neymar can also create space for himself in a way the former Arsenal man can’t. His four dribbles per game, as opposed to Fabregas’ 0.5—per WhoScored.com—demonstrate his comfort on the ball and his eagerness to take on defenders.
Who should replace Messi in the middle for Barcelona?
These facts aren’t to disregard Fabregas. The 26-year-old is enjoying a rich vein of form himself, but he is more effective when he can dictate proceedings from a little deeper in the pitch. When he plays up top he can often be guilty of dropping too deep and taking space away from his teammates in midfield.
This reshuffle will allow Andres Iniesta to return to the left side of the pitch with Alexis Sanchez and Pedro battling it out for the right-hand spot.
Neymar’s performances for Barcelona deserve to be rewarded with some time through the middle.
It’s the part of the pitch where the most damage can be caused, and it’s where the top players shine the brightest.