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The Neymar Deal Was Certainly Crazy. But Was It Smart?

Paris Saint-Germain didn’t break the transfer record when it signed Neymar from Barcelona on Thursday, it destroyed it. Over the last decade, the transfer record has been nudged forward by small increments, 5 to 10 percent every few years: Real Madrid’s 2009 signing of Cristiano Ronaldo for $110 million was surpassed four years later when Madrid dropped $117 million on Gareth Bale. And last summer Manchester United set a new record by spending $123 million on Paul Pogba. Then PSG cut a check to Barcelona for just over $260 million.1 It’s unprecedented. Neymar’s reported wage of $53 million per year could lead to Pogba, stuck on a piddling $20 million, demanding a raise himself soon.

Neymar isn’t twice as good as any other top soccer player, as you’ll see below. By any normal accounting, PSG overpaid. But the precise mechanics of the transaction may explain the why the club forked over all that money. All Spanish contracts must by law include a buyout clause, under which the player can pay to sever the contract. Barcelona set Neymar’s buyout well beyond his presumed market value. But the buyout meant Neymar was available for a fixed price. If Neymar offers a combination of skills and value which cannot reasonably be replicated on the transfer market, then overbidding the market at least leads to a return that couldn’t be replicated any other way.

And Neymar does offer unusual value as a forward. He provides an elite goal-scoring threat, ranking sixth among all players in the top five leagues2 in combined non-penalty goals and assists in his last two seasons for Barcelona. He is also a playmaker, using dribbling skills and creative passing to open up opposition defenses. There are a good number of strikers who get shots and goals at similar rates to Neymar, and there are midfielders who provide great ball progression value, but the combination of the two in one player is rare.

To measure Neymar’s production, we can use two sets of statistics. The first, expected goals and expected assists, estimates the quality of scoring chances. The second, progressive passes and runs, identifies actions which advance the ball 10 or more yards in attack, or into the 18-yard-box. A successful progressive pass or run doubles the likelihood that the attacking team will score within the next seven seconds, on average.

Of the 32 players with at least 0.6 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes in the last two seasons,3 only seven have created more than three progressive passes or runs per 90 minutes as well.

Neymar has a rare combination of playmaking and scoring

The major European league scorers with the highest rate of progressive passes and runs in the past two seasons

NAME CLUB AGE SCORING BALL PROGRESSION
Lionel Messi Barcelona 30 1.31 7.64
Alexis Sanchez Arsenal 28 0.83 5.79
Angel Di Maria PSG 29 0.67 5.72
Neymar Barcelona 25 0.94 4.69
Gareth Bale Real Madrid 28 0.87 3.76
Dries Mertens Napoli 30 1.01 3.40
Raheem Sterling Manchester City 22 0.61 3.33

Scoring measured by expected goals + expected assists per 90 minutes (XG+XAOP/90) excluding assists off set pieces
Ball progression measured by progressive passes or runs per 90 minutes (PPR/90)
Players who registered 0.6 or more Expected Goals + Assists Per 90 (XG+XA/90) qualified as scorers; min. 4000 minutes played in club league and Champions League play

Source: Opta Sports

Other than Raheem Sterling, whose expected goals production is far short of Neymar’s, the other players on this list are well into the primes of their careers and unlikely to maintain peak production through a five-year contract. If PSG is aiming to get the full possible return on a five-year contract, Neymar is the best bet. The best bet just happened to cost $261 million in this case.

At the same time — if you ignore age — the Brazilian forward falls well short of his now former teammate, Lionel Messi. Neymar may be the best creative forward of his generation, but his generation did not produce a Messi. Barcelona will still have the better player leading its attack, at least for now.

The weakening of Barcelona may be a side benefit for PSG. The French side has been eliminated by Barcelona from the Champions League knockout round three times in the last five years. In those five seasons, PSG has never made the semifinals. Last season, in league play and Champions League competition, only Barcelona and Real Madrid had a better expected goals difference per match than PSG. If Barcelona does struggle to replace Neymar, it may benefit PSG in European competition.

The problem is, Paris Saint-Germain just gave Barcelona hundreds of millions of Euros to spend to improve its team. Barcelona will be able to claw back some of Neymar’s production from the wide forward position, and then spend the remaining cash on another star. To identify players that will fit Barca’s needs, I created a similarity score to Neymar based on the key creative forward statistics listed above — as well as minutes played in a wide role over the last two seasons:4

Neymar’s possible replacements at Barca

The players rated most similar to Neymar based on scoring, progressive passing and share of time spent in the wide forward position

NAME CLUB AGE SCORING BALL PROGRESSION POSITION SIMILARITY SCORE
Neymar PSG 25 0.94 4.69 98% 0.00
Gareth Bale Real Madrid 28 0.87 3.76 87 3.19
Angel Di Maria PSG 29 0.67 5.72 94 4.19
Alexis Sanchez Arsenal 28 0.83 5.79 71 4.24
Ousmane Dembele Dortmund 20 0.57 4.64 67 4.38
Lorenzo Insigne Napoli 26 0.56 4.44 96 4.80
Douglas Costa Juventus 26 0.47 4.81 89 5.17
Eden Hazard Chelsea 26 0.45 5.50 85 5.19
Dries Mertens Napoli 30 1.01 3.40 38 5.29
Philippe Coutinho Liverpool 25 0.58 6.16 81 5.34

Scoring measured by expected goals + expected assists per 90 minutes (XG+XAOP/90) — excluding assists notched off set pieces
Ball progression measured by progressive passes or runs per 90 minutes (PPR/90)
Position measured by share of time in the position of wide forward

Source: Opta Sports

Among the younger players, Douglas Costa just moved to Juventus and is likely unavailable. Likewise, Eden Hazard is under contract with Chelsea and is also unlikely to be sold. That leaves three Neymar replacement options: Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele, Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. The fact that Dembele makes this list based on the strength of his performance when he was only a teenager is particularly impressive. If he can be pried from Borussia Dortmund, the French attacker could immediately replace a major chunk of Neymar’s production for Barcelona, and would have room to grow into a superstar.

With the right purchase at wide forward, Barcelona could take advantage of PSG’s unprecedented spending. But Barca has less than a month until the transfer window closes. The Catalans are flush with cash, but they need to get busy shopping.

Footnotes

  1. These figures are based on 2017 conversion rates. The conversion rate between euros/pounds and dollars shifted between 2013 and 2016 such that Pogba’s fee, while the largest in history in pounds or euros, comes in as fewer dollars based on the exchange rate at the time.

  2. The Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany, Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1 in France.

  3. Excluding assists off set pieces.

  4. This similarity score compares other players to Neymar across five statistics: xG+xA/90, ProgPassRun / 90, combined xG + Prog, % of minutes played at wide attacker, and combined ratio of xG to xA and ratio of prog passes to prog runs.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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