Neymar is one of the exciting young players in Brazil, one who has been attracting the attention of many of Europe's top clubs. Santos, his club, have even gone so far as to slap a 30 million Euro price tag on him. Without doubt he is an exciting young talent but are there any statistics from his performance in the campeonato that merit this valuation?
Since Neymar is a striker, goals is the first statistic that springs to mind and with 17 goals, good for second in the league, Neymar certainly appears to be a special talent. However, of those 17 goals 4 were from the penalty spot (he had a poor 50% conversion rate from the spot including 1 penalty which was blatantly illegally taken but allowed to stand) Still 13 goals isn’t a bad return from any striker and he still remains second in non-penalty goals. Also most of the significant goal scorers from last year under the age of 30 were transferred outside the country. Jonas, Obina, Diego Tardelli, and Elias all moved to foreign clubs, however, only Jonas went to a big European club (Valencia) and his move wasn’t very expensive so its not necessarily a given that there is large demand for players who score goals in the campeonato.
One notable deficiency in Neymar’s game is his heading ability. He didn’t score a single goal with his head and only attempted 3 headed shots all year. Standing in at 5’8’’ he lacks an imposing stature and couldn’t possibly be thought of as a target man, where in England he would certainly be bullied. He almost certainly be deployed in attacking role off the wing where finding space would be much easier, allowing him to run at players which he is so good at. However, in a roll like this, creating goals for others is almost important as scoring them yourself.
At first glance Neymar looks like an excellent shot creater, somewhat surprising as at times he appears selfish, as displayed by the time he confronted his coach for not letting him take a penalty kick (apropos my earlier reference to penalties the coach seems justified in his decision). League wide he created the sixth most shots of any player (the most by a player who wasn’t a central midfield playmaker) to go along with his six assists. He did touch the ball in the final 1/3 more than any player other than Cruzeiro’s striker Thiago Ribeiro. When comparing the number of shots generated to the number of touches in the final 1/3, Neymar’s high volume of touches reflects poorly in comparison to midfielders who have better ratios of touches to shots created. However, this should come as no surprise since Neymar often receives the ball as one of the most advanced players down the field leaving him few options to create shots unless he shoots himself. When we compare Neymar’s touches/shot creation he compares favorably amongst other attacking players. Basically stated, when Neymar receives the ball in the final 1/3 he is one of the most effective at scoring and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Neymar does have weaknesses, his complete lack of aerial engagement aside, his largest statistical red flag is his turnover frequency. He far and away loses the ball more than any other player through errant crosses, passes or losing the ball in possession. However this should be somewhat tempered by the fact that of all forwards he touches the ball the second most (forwards are the most likely to lose the ball). He loses the ball about 40% of the time which is about average or slightly below for forwards- the best percentages are in the low 30s while the worst are in the high 50s.
Most of his turnovers come from losing possession of the ball while dribbling or having the ball tackled away (about 10 times a game). In fact Neymar loses the ball far less from errant passes than many other forwards despite receiving the ball more often and he completes 76% of his passes in the final 1/3 which is an excellent ratio. However even if we adjust for the frequency of his possessions in the final 1/3 he still loses the ball in possession more than most forwards in Serie A (only Mazola is higher amongst the forwards who played consistently). Now this may just be a reflection of the fact that Neymar frequently tries to take on defenders but the location of the turnovers may reflect some poor decision making (this certainly is up for debate)
Below is a map of where Neymar loses the ball in possession (we don’t include errant crosses or passes) placed alongside Thiago Ribeiro’s map.
Not only is Neymar losing the ball more frequently but he is losing the ball in a less advanced position which is somewhat counter intuitive since most players risk losing the ball in possession when they try to take on players in the final 1/3 in attempting to break down the defense. This diagram seems to indicate that Neymar might be too careless with the ball especially in areas where some might say maintaining possession is more important than risking taking on defenders.
Of Neymar’s weaknesses his loss of possession is probably the less worrisome. His decision making will probably improve over time in addition to his skills as well as the off the ball movement of his teammates when he plays for Brazil or an inevitable move to a top European club. His aerial ability probably won’t improve as he isn’t getting any taller and its just not part of his game but this shouldn’t be too worrisome as he clearly is most comfortable (and probably always will) operating on the wings.
So why is Neymar so highly valued? Statistically speaking he is already one of the most effective players in terms of generating offense in the Brazilian Campeonato and all at the age of 19. He clearly possesses some of the most sought after abilities some of which take several more years to develop- his finishing is clearly excellent he has great vision (as displayed by his excellent shot creation ratios), he is capable of beating men on the dribble and then taking advantage to create shots. The only question will be how he handles better defending. It would be great to look at similar Brazilian standouts and see how they faired in making the jump to Europe. Robinho for example moved from Santos at a similar age but we have no data from his time in Brazil.