When Barcelona were at their peak under Pep Guardiola, it seemed almost impossible for outsiders to be assimilated. A fascinating tension developed as Guardiola, who is as aware of the need to keep evolving as any manager probably ever has been, tried to introduce new elements—most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic—and saw the delicate ecosystem he had developed reject them. If you weren’t of Barcelona, it seemed, you could never learn to be part of Barcelona.
Even the likes of David Villa and Cesc Fabregas, the latter, of course, having come through La Masia before developing at Arsenal, struggled to adapt. Alexis Sanchez, for all the quality he showed at Udinese, has never seemed entirely at home. In a sense, Barcelona's strength was their weakness: they learned to play in such a finely tuned, idiosyncratic way that opponents couldn't deal with them, but neither could they accommodate new signings.
That was one of the reasons why the signing of Neymar last summer seemed so strange. After a humbling season in which Barcelona, despite winning the league, had been overwhelmed by Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the Champions League, they bought him almost as retail therapy, splashing £50m on one of the world's most glamorous players to essentially bolster their self-esteem—the need for which, perhaps, felt particularly acute as Real Madrid smashed transfer records to land Gareth Bale.
But Neymar is not a player naturally attuned to the Barcelona style, and his signing has destabilised the whole club.
The murkiness surrounding his signing, which led to the resignation of Sandro Rosell as the club's president, has harmed Barcelona’s image, but Neymar’s arrival has also harmed Barcelona on the pitch. Neymar is a hugely talented player with a rare spark of imagination, who does things that are different—things that make even the most jaded of observers sit up and take notice. When Santos won the Copa Libertadores in 2011, he even seemed to have developed a trademark goal, swooping in from the left shaping to curl the ball into the far post and then dragging the ball in at the near post. It suggested a player who thought about the game, who understood that once a goalkeeper had begun to shift his weight in anticipation of a shot to his left, he cannot then readjust, with his planted right leg effectively becoming a backboard for Neymar to bounce the ball in off.
But that doesn’t necessarily make him right for Barca. When he plays—and his price tag and status mean he plays most of the time—Barca’s pace drops. They were always going to struggle to maintain the intensity and discipline of their pressing after the departure of the obsessive Guardiola—something that has been particularly noticeable in Lionel Messi’s play—but Neymar exacerbates the issue.
Worse, if Fabregas plays—and, again, his status seems to mean he is favoured—it means Andres Iniesta operates wide on the left rather than in midfield. Iniesta, of course, is a majestic player, but he isn’t quick, and with his ability to conceptualise the angles of the game it always seems a waste if he is deployed too far forward. With Iniesta on one flank and Neymar on the other, Barca lack pace. Messi repeatedly drops deep, takes possession, shuffles forward, looks to slide in a through-ball as he once did for Samuel Eto’o or Villa and finds there is nobody making the run.
It’s no coincidence that the majority of the Argentinian’s best performances this season have come with either Pedro or Sanchez or both on the pitch. Without their pace, Barca can lack directness, which is always a danger for sides who prioritise possession as they do. More than that, the declining intensity of the press means Barca are less compact than they were, which in turn places pressure on their defence.
Barca’s great triumph under Guardiola was the strength of the system, but a reliance on it was also their long-term weakness. Adapting was always going to be problematic, but trying to accommodate Neymar has got the best out of neither the player nor the team.