The sudden rumors of Neymar moving to Manchester United at the end of the summer transfer window were a symbolic warning of his desire to lead a team. There had always been hints and moments in his previous two seasons with Barcelona, but his development, rightfully so, was always overshadowed by Lionel Messi.
With Messi’s knee injury keeping him out until the end of November, Neymar responded by driving Barcelona’s attack, at times single handedly (he had four goals and one assist in a 5-1 win against Rayo Vallecano, for instance). If last season was Neymar coming to terms with a sidekick role, this season is his transition where we stop discussing his potential and move onto more tangible terms.
But Neymar’s leap represents only half of the Messi injury equation. Replacing Messi on last season’s historic front three will be split between Munir El Haddadi (who came to La Masia at age 15) and Sandro (a La Masia product since 14 years old). While it will be impossible for the two to reproduce his 58 goals and match winning sequences, the duo must at least do enough to give Neymar and Luis Suarez space. On a secondary level, Munir and Sandro represent the latest in a long line of wingers and strikers who tried to successfully leap from La Masia to a consistent place on the first team.
The contrast between the effectiveness of South American strikers and a lack of quality from their European counterparts has been an underlying theme in the past few seasons, especially highlighted by the Messi, Neymar and Suarez front three, all of whom are equal measures dribblers, creators, scorers, and perhaps most importantly, clever. Arsene Wenger pinpointed two reasons why Europe “doesn’t produce strikers anymore”: tactical variations which focused on developing attacking midfielders, and a lack of shrewdness that comes from gaining individual advantages in unorganized games.
Yet there are other factors to consider. The pressure cooker of being a Barcelona phenom was a common theme in Bojan’s interview with The Guardian from last November. He contrasts the 5,000 supporters and journalists who showed up for Barcelona training sessions to the friendlier atmosphere at Stoke, as well as the tense relationship between player and supporter in Spain to the respectful admiration that England has of its players.
Fellow La Masia graduate Gerard Deulofeu has failed to translate his one-on-one ability into the first team (or Sevilla’s side), and returned to Everton to learn what Unai Emery termed “sacrifice” for the team. Team play is not questioned with Pedro, who would be starting in Messi’s place had he stayed one more season at Barcelona. He may have been the closest template for a La Masia winger - fast, tactically disciplined, scores in big moments, although just not quite the individual creator of Neymar (it is telling that Jose Mourinho dropped Eden Hazard for Pedro in order to shore up Chelsea’s defense, praising Pedro for his work rate).
In the meantime, it will be up to the Munirs and Sandros to give Neymar the freedom that the likes of David Villa, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Suarez afforded Messi (for now, Munir has Suarez as a mentor on how to move into space). Their career development will be an experiment as to whether La Masia can create a striker as effective as their South American counterparts. The question of whether Europe can produce strikers is too general. A more pragmatic question of the moment would be if Barcelona can develop wingers and strikers to play alongside a singular talent in Neymar.
Even before he scored five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg, Robert Lewandowski had already showed signs of hitting the prime of his career. At age 27, his maturation is in line with what’s traditionally seen in the development curve of a target striker.
Much was expected for his career and for future Bayern teams when he announced his signing with six months left on his Dortmund contract in 2014. He represented as much as any player what it meant to be part of the rock and roll era of that club. His movement in and out of channels, plus his ruthless efficiency (his hat-trick against Real Madrid came on six touches), set the tone for those much referenced Jurgen Klopp sides.
But counterattacking requires a different set of movements for a striker than Bayern Munich’s present day positional approach. One is a bludgeoning hammer with speed and dribbling on full display; the other a rehearsed ballet of long passing sequences with midfielders as orchestrators. Creating space with synchronized, off ball movements is as vital as beating a defender.
Although Lewandowski scored a respectable 17 goals in the league last season, he rarely displayed the dominance of scoring goals by beating defenders in the open field through his unique combination of power and skill we had grown accustomed to in his previous years. He remained but a passenger to the system.
The focus on directness with the summer additions of Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa has helped Lewandowski start the season with 12 goals from eight matches. His five goal outburst will be one of the most memorable moments of the year (and in keeping up with the efficiency theme, three of the goals came on one touch), but his goal against Augsburg weeks earlier best displayed his growing confidence.
Down one in the second half, Lewandowski picks up the ball 40 yards from goal with three Bayern teammates and a compact defensive back four in front of him. He beats one defender easily, stumbles, then in a show of his balance, and drive, throws a defender onto the ground before laying the ball off. His continues his run and gets the rebound off the keeper’s deflection. It was Lewandowski as dibbler, creator and poacher. Most importantly for Bayern and Guardiola, it was Lewandowski willing his side to win through sheer force - traits that will be most important come the knock-out stages in the Champions League.
Barney Ronay suggests Lewandowski’s directness holds the key for Bayern Munich going toe to toe with the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. So while Wenger may be correct in his assertion that European strikers don’t have a certain wit found in their South American peers, Guardiola strikers require a different set of nuances altogether. The off ball movement and incorporation into his positionless tactics have their own set of knowing. There’s many paths to brilliance, goals, and ultimately, Champions League glory.