Neymar: The sun king loses his shine

“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general?”, was a song from that cheesy old film, White Christmas, but the football world is starting to ask that same question of Neymar, who may be the most unwanted gift of the close season.

Paris Saint-Germain, according to media reports, have told the Brazilian to search for a new club, but bizarrely, if he doesn’t go elsewhere, his contract has a clause that will earn him an extension on his current deal that will keep him with PSG until his mid-30s.

Almost without anyone noticing, Neymar was 30 in February and no longer a vision of what lies ahead. In short, we have seen his peak and it didn’t quite match up to expectations. You cannot blame PSG for that, because Zlatan Ibrahimovic was served well by a few years in Ligue 1 and Kylian Mbappé is still flourishing as a free-scoring young player. Neymar went to Paris to become a superstar, to win personal and team honours of the highest order and at the same time, he would be the centrepiece of the Brazilian national team and perhaps win a World Cup or two.

With PSG, he’s won four Ligue 1 titles and three Coupe de France finals. He’s reached the UEFA Champions League final, losing to Bayern Munich, but he’s been part of a PSG side that loses composure when it truly matters. PSG can win Ligue 1 at a canter, with or without Neymar – he’s played 92 out of a possible 179 league games in his time in Paris, a very expensive 51%.

He was supposed to be the club’s talisman, a figure to lead them to a higher level of glory. Nothing much actually changed: in the five years pre-Neymar, PSG won 11 major trophies and reached four quarter-finals in the Champions League. In the five Neymar seasons, they’ve won nine major trophies, reached a Champions League final, one semi-final and three times failed to go beyond the last 16.

PSG’s strategy around team managers and acquiring talent has to be questioned, from the soft power play of signing Neymar in the first place, to filling a team with huge egos and creating a star culture that requires no end of stroking and reassuring. Neymar appears to have been treated, to some extent, like a prize ballerina, with PSG adopting a softly-softly approach whenever he steps out of line. Some managers have not appreciated this velvet-gloved player discipline.

But then, when you’re paying so much money out to a player, vast quantities of cotton wool are certainly needed. Already he earns around € 90 million a year and if his current deal is extended, he will be earning even more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. PSG have slipped up here, for if they have decided he is no longer aligned to their plans, then why did they give him a lucrative deal back in December that expires in 2025? And then why on earth include a clause that makes any divorce even more messy? Sometimes, football really does gets the people it deserves.

But who will take him of PSG’s hands? It has taken them a long time to realise the Neymar experiment has not been a success. His fitness has been suspect, his contribution inconsistent and occasionally, he gets himself into scrapes. Hence, he has lived in the shadow of the big two, CR7 and Messi, who are fitter, more consistent and less distracted by fast-living. He has also missed out on the prize he once craved, the Ballon d’Or, the closest he ever got to winning was in 2013 and 2015 when he finished third in the voting as a Barcelona player. He was ranked 16th in 2021 after two years without a glimpse of him.

With such a contract and a diminishing reputation, who would take him on? Newcastle United have been mentioned, unsurprisingly given they are in the same position PSG were in a decade ago. They yearn for credibility and a statement signing. Chelsea may have thrown their hat in the ring, but they would be a foolish and extravagant move. It would seem unlikely that Barcelona and Real Madrid would go for him, particularly as PSG were finessed-out of signing Mbappé by the latter. Manchester City could afford him, but would Neymar fit into a system-driven team coached by Pep Guardiola? And what of Manchester United, desperate to climb out of their current malaise, but would another ageing star merely underline how wretched they have become?

PSG have a problem and it is nearly as big as Neymar’s dilemma. Nobody is going to spare much sympathy for either party, but if there is a club that can afford to take a loss on the chin, it is surely PSG. As for Neymar, he’s got a World Cup to prepare for. He needs a club and he needs football at the highest possible level. He’s running out of options because he is seen as representing football’s era of hubris.

Yet out of this mess could be a lesson for clubs. The risk of over-paying a player who stops being an asset and becomes a liability is something they have to be aware of. We may have seen the best of Neymar, albeit fleetingly, but his story should serve as a warning for any club that pushes the boundaries so far to gain a competitive edge. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

The fall and rise of Unai Emery

WHEN Arsenal appointed Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery as the successor to Arsene Wenger in May 2018, it was seen as a somewhat imaginative appointment. He was a coach who was on his way up, he knew how to win major prizes in Europe and he was, for want of a better cliché, a “special one”. Smart and personable and untainted by cynicism. Arsenal were hoping for a new Wenger, a manager who could be a change agent just as the professorial Frenchman had been back in the late 1990s.

If Emery had been hired in 2016 rather than 2018, the story might have been different. PSG had secured Emery after he had pulled off a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, beating Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2016 final in Basel. It was arguably the third of these successes that convinced PSG he was a coach with a future and he was lured to Paris and expected to make a team of globetrotters into European champions. He was also given the footballing diva, Neymar, to help that process.

But Emery found getting past clubs from his homeland a problem, notably in the catastrophic and somewhat embarrassing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League. This seismic defeat, along with the loss of the Ligue 1 title in 2017, sowed the seeds of Emery’s ultimate downfall in Paris, even though nobody has managed to bring home the trophy that “project PSG” has really been all about. By the time he arrived at Arsenal, Emery had won six major trophies, including a league title. There appeared to be something rather classy about Emery, who was 46 when he joined the Gunners.

It was clear from his early press conferences and interviews that Emery’s English was going to be a problem, especially if things didn’t go well on the pitch. It made for some slightly uncomfortable post-match discussions and also made him something of a figure of fun with some hacks. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian, Emery was “written off by Arsenal because his Vs sounded a bit like Bs.”

At the Emirates, Emery took the club to the Europa League final in Baku but saw his lack-lustre team torn apart by Chelsea. Arsenal finished fifth and were losing their place among Champions League qualifiers. Confidence in him started to wane in the early weeks of 2019-20 even though Arsenal lost just one of their first eight league games. Even when they were finding it hard to win games, they had still lost just three times at the time Emery was sacked in November 2019 after a Europa League defeat at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. But performances were, generally, not good and the fans turned against him, claiming he didn’t care about the club. A lot of people probably thought they had heard the last of Unai Emery for a while as he returned to Spain and was eventually appointed Villareal manager.

Did Arsenal give up on Emery too soon? Certainly, the early months of his successor, Mikel Arteta (possibly the man they really wanted to take over from Wenger) didn’t suggest they had found a better choice. Indeed, Emery’s win rate at Arsenal was 55.1%, Arteta’s is currently 54%. Unfortunately, he was the wrong man for the wrong club just as David Moyes was never going to be successful after the departure of an icon at Manchester United.

How satisfying it must have been for Emery when Villareal knocked Arsenal out of the Europa League in 2020-21, although he had far too much dignity to gloat. He then went on to beat Manchester United in the final. He credited his former employer with helping him to win the Europa League, the experience of managing in England had been invaluable. At the same time, there was an underlying feeling Emery had been thrown back in the pond rather hastily.

In his own backyard, Emery was a man in demand. Villareal came calling eight months after he left Arsenal and he took them to seventh in La Liga. With a minimum of fuss, Villareal slalomed their way through the Europa League, going 15 games without a defeat and disposing of Arsenal and, after a prolonged penalty shoot-out, Manchester United. It was clear that United underestimated both Villareal and their specialist coach.

In the Champions League this season, they came through a group with United and then into the knockout stage, overcoming Juventus and Bayern Munich. Nobody really envisaged they would get past the round of 16, but their away form in the Champions League has been impressive. On the back of these surprises, a reassessment of Emery has begun and the verdict seems fairly unanimous – he is a quality coach who knows how to negotiate cup competitions and difficult opponents. In fact, only Zinedine Zidane has a better scorecard in knockout games in Europe.

Can he pull-off what would be a massive shock and eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League? It is the biggest ask because Villareal simply don’t have better players than the Reds, so Emery would have to produce something very special out of his hat. But their record in Europe means Klopp’s side will need to be at their very best over both legs, because Unai Emery seems to have perfected the sort of two-leg strategy that was a hallmark of teams like AC Milan, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, way back in time.

It’s truly good to see him back to where he belongs and a contender at the top table. It didn’t take long for him to return to the game after what had clearly become a nightmare in north London. The big question is, will he yearn to revisit the Premier League at some point, considering he has unfinished business in England, or will he eventually take one of the really big jobs in Spain? He may have a number of choices for his next big move, especially if he can add a Champions League final to his CV.