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FC Barcelona, Neymar and Learning From Past Mistakes

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New Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino has taken his time introducing Neymar to the starting line-up, and having looked back at the records of Barca's recent big-money signings, it's easy to see why

David Ramos

While it is still unclear as to who received what portion of his eventual transfer fee, Neymar was signed by FC Barcelona for a staggering €57 million, making the Brazilian forward the second-most expensive signing in Barça’s long and illustrious history. So, it came as a surprise to many that new Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino has taken his time to introduce Neymar to the starting line-up – and depending on Martino’s team selection for tomorrow’s match against Atletico Madrid, the wait could continue for the talented striker.

Yet behind the headlines, no-one has really attempted to ask why Neymar is on the bench, often citing a lack of match fitness – which, presumably would extend to Barcelona’s Spanish internationals, each of whom missed an identical chunk of pre-season. Others point to Neymar’s summer operation to remove his tonsils yet Jordi Alba underwent the very same procedure, and he’s started two of Barcelona’s three competitive fixtures.

Sure, both the operation and the lack of a pre-season must have influenced Martino, but perhaps there’s another factor that we haven’t yet considered – maybe Martino has looked at the history books, and feels as though a slow start might just hold the key to a long and successful career at the club for Neymar.

And given Barça’s track-record, who could blame him?

Four recent big-money signings have either struggled to adapt to the Barcelona system, or have buckled under the strain of an extended, more physically-demanding schedule. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sánchez; each have fought their own demons, and in some cases, the players have rebounded to forge themselves a respectable career at the Camp Nou, but there has always been that feeling that they could have all done more; achieved more with their talents.

Having spent a small fortune on securing his signature, Barcelona and Sandro Rosell can ill-afford another "under-whelming" signing. Contrary to popular belief, it seems rather difficult to succeed for the Blaugrana. Just ask Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Disclaimer: All stats taken from Transfermarkt.de

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Forgetting the exorbitant amount Barcelona paid for his services, and forgetting that Samuel Eto’o was included as part of the deal, one could be forgiven for feeling a little excited upon Ibra’s arrival at the Camp Nou. He was and still is an exceptional player, one of the best strikers on the planet, and despite his large frame, Ibrahimovic was also blessed with other-worldly technique. In short, Ibra was the complete package, and for a while at least, he played like it too.

Before January 1st, 2010:

Zlatan started nine of Barcelona’s first ten La Liga matches and quite simply never looked back. Registering five goals in his first five La Liga appearances, Ibra set a new club record and while that run ended against Almeria, a brace in his next start against Real Zaragoza took his tally to seven goals and three assists in his first seven La Liga starts. Who cared about the price and the inclusion of Eto’o? This was utterly remarkable form by anyone’s standards.

In total, the Swede went on to play 1749 minutes before January 1st, 2010, that’s 69% of the available minutes, or 74% if we exclude the Copa del Rey tie with third-tier Cultural Leonesa. Clearly, Ibra was a key member of Pep Guardiola’s squad, and statistically speaking, he did not disappoint.

Prior to the turn of the year, Ibra’s per game productivity (i.e. goals + assists per 90 minutes) was a staggering 1.081 goals p/90 mins. To put that into context, Ibra’s productivity per 90 minutes was just 0.008 lower than Lionel Messi.

After January 1st, 2010:

However, from there it was all downhill for Zlatan. After the turn of the year, Ibra notched just five goals and four assists in 16 La Liga appearances, and registered just nine goals and four assists in all competitions. In absolute terms, that represented a 44% decline in productivity (goals + assists) in La Liga and a 38% decline in productivity in all competitions. Hardly ideal for a big-money signing and this contributed to his downfall. Having suffered a slump in form, Ibrahimovic played just 1530 minutes after January 1st, 2010, or 55% of all available minutes, a rather marked decline from the period prior to January 1st.

Yet despite this fall in his minutes played, Ibra’s productivity per 90 minutes also dropped, to a respectable 0.765 goals p/90 mins (compared to Messi’s improvement to 1.356 goals p/90 mins). Unfortunately, respectable isn’t enough for such an expensive signing, and this 29% decline in productivity ultimately spelled the end for the talented striker, who was loaned to AC Milan the very next season.

David Villa

With Ibrahimovic out the door, Barcelona were on the look-out for a new striker, one who could play with Lionel Messi and bring out the best in the squad. This striker turned out to be David Villa, who had joint top-scored at the summer’s World Cup, for eventual winners Spain. He was the obvious choice – and Culés were excited to see what El Guaje had in store for them.

Before January 1st, 2011:

Immediately settling into the team and into the dressing room, Villa quickly established himself as a star at Barcelona, starting all five of Barça’s opening La Liga fixtures, and an incredible 18 of their first 19 league matches. Some of those matches were played after the 1st of January, but it does illustrate Villa’s importance rather nicely. As do some other statistics: with 11 goals and seven assists in La Liga before the turn of the year, Villa was obviously excelling in his new role on the left-hand side of the attack.

In total, Villa played 1709 minutes before January 1st, 2011, that’s 70% of available minutes, or 76% if we exclude the Copa del Rey tie with third-tier AD Ceuta. Much like Ibrahimovic before him, Villa really had hit the ground running at his new club.

Perhaps his overall contributions were not quite as impressive as the Swede’s – after all, Villa’s productivity per 90 minutes was a fraction lower at 0.948 goals p/90 mins (and half of Messi’s 1.920 goals p/90 mins) – but he more than made up for that with his attitude.

After January 1st, 2011:

However, Villa still couldn’t replicate that form for the remainder of the season. Seven goals and three assists in 19 La Liga appearances hardly separated Villa from Ibra, and his ten goals and four assists in all competitions was eerily similar to that of the Swede’s. The similarities continue when you look at Villa’s absolute decline in productivity: a 44% decline in La Liga, identical to that of Ibrahimovic. Thankfully, his 22% decline in productivity in all competitions set El Guaje apart, but not by much.

Crucially for his future at the club, Villa’s decline was likely caused by burnout, rather than a confrontational personality just look at his numbers. Villa played 2361 minutes after January 1st, 2011, that’s 79% of all available minutes in all competitions. Having spent so long with Valencia, David was almost certainly affected by the greater number of games, not to mention to high-intensity pressing system utilised by Pep Guardiola.

As a result of this extended run of game-time, Villa’s productivity per 90 minutes dipped to 0.534 goals p/90 mins, representing a massive 44% decline. Bizarrely enough, this decline was mirrored by Lionel Messi, whose productivity fell by 33% to a still super-human 1.300 goals p/90 mins.

Cesc Fàbregas

The very next summer, Barcelona brought one of football’s longest transfer sags to an end, when they signed Cesc Fàbregas back from Arsenal, for a fee of €34 million. Just like Villa and Ibra, Fàbregas had excelled at his last club, and was expected to make a huge impact on the Barcelona team, even if he did have to compete with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta for a starting place.

Before January 1st, 2012:

And what an impact Cesc had; Fàbregas helped himself to four goals and four assists in his first four La Liga starts, eventually starting Barcelona’s opening five La Liga fixtures. This impressive run of form translated into all competitions as well; five goals and four assists in his first six appearances helped cement Fàbregas as one of Barça’s most productive players.

That incredible start to his career helped Cesc play 1381 minutes before January 1st, 2012, that’s 55% of available minutes, or 61% excluding games missed through injury. This relatively low total of minutes and Fàbregas’ exceptional performances combined to give him a sensational productivity per 90 minutes of 1.368 goals p/90 mins, which only trailed Messi’s 1.855 goals p/90 mins.

Then came the turn of the year.

After January 1st, 2012:

Looking back, it’s no wonder that Fàbregas couldn’t maintain that kind of form, but regardless of that, who could have guessed such a drastic decline awaited young Fàbregas? One goal and five assists in 16 La Liga appearances, and four goals and ten assists in all competitions – how was this even the same player? The slump represented a 54% decline in productivity in La Liga and a 33% decline in productivity in all competitions.

All this in spite of Fàbregas actually featuring in more matches. Fàbregas played 1934 minutes after January 1st, 2012, that’s 61% of available minutes, contributing to a dramatic fall in his overall productivity per 90 minutes, which dropped 52% to 0.651 goals p/90 mins. Just for context, Messi’s productivity improved by 4% to 1.926 goals p/90 mins.

Was it confusion as to his role at the club? Was it burnout? Even to this day, we’re still puzzled as to the exact reason for Fàbregas’ now-infamous second-half of the season dips.

Alexis Sánchez – Exception to the Rule?

Of the four players, it’s possible that Alexis Sánchez actually receives and has received the most criticism, yet of the four players, it’s Sánchez who has actually performed the best. Ideally, productivity in the second-half of the season will increase, or at least stay as constant as possible; and it’s the Chilean who boasts the best record in this respect.

Before January 1st, 2012:

Sánchez started each of Barcelona’s first two La Liga fixtures, before injury unfortunately forced him out the line-up. In that short space of time, Alexis mustered one goal and one assist in those two appearances, and in a triumphant return from injury, Sánchez went on to register five goals and one assist in first seven La Liga starts.

As expected, the injury took its toll on his playing time as Alexis played just 714 minutes before January 1st, 2012, that’s a mere 27% of available minutes and a similarly low 50% if we exclude the games he missed through injury and also exclude the Copa del Rey tie with third-tier L’Hospitalet.

This mediocre amount of playing time helped Sánchez register an impressive 0.756 goals p/90 mins.

After January 1st, 2012:

After the turn of the year, Alexis was 100% fit, and raring to go. Grabbing seven goals and five assists in 18 La Liga appearances makes for impressive reading, as does his overall record of ten goals and five assists in all competitions. This represented a 140% increase in productivity in La Liga and a whopping 200% increase in productivity in all competitions.

And while his game-time increased to 1913 minutes after January 1st, 2012 – that’s 61% of available minutes, or 64% excluding games missed through injury – Alexis’ productivity per 90 minutes remained relatively stable at 0.705 goals p/90mins, representing a minimal 7% decline in overall productivity. Did the injury play its part, or was Alexis actually consistent over his full debut season? Did his spell on the sidelines (whether forced or not) help him gain a greater understanding of his role at the club and of the system as a whole?

More importantly, will (or perhaps has) a similar spell on the bench and in the stands help(ed) Neymar achieve a similar understanding of the system, and of the team?

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find out tomorrow...