This Week So Far: Neymar Steps Up
Welcome to The Analysis, our rolling football blog where we try and make sense of everything that just happened.
Remember Neymar? It’s curious how being born roughly halfway between the classic Messi/Ronaldo era and the shiny new Mbappe/Haaland era has put the clearly extravagantly talented Brazilian in a sort of epochal no man’s land.
As a younger player Neymar was frequently and understandably cited as the successor to the older pair, playing alongside Messi at Barcelona for four years of course, before moving to Paris in 2017 as a way of removing himself from the Argentine’s orbit and establishing himself as a successor icon. At the time it was widely assumed this was going to be a brief geographical pivot before returning to La Liga, but this summer he’ll have been a PSG player for as long as he was at Barcelona.
Footballer’s careers are theoretically chronological but sometimes you blink and you’ve leapt forward a decade or more. 30 years ago today, Paul Gascoigne scored his famous FA Cup semi-final free kick against Arsenal. A snap poll on that day asking how many more World Cups Gascoigne would feature in would have seen most people answer two, or maybe three. It was zero.
As noted by Michiel in the tweet below, since the start of 2020, Neymar could have been the top scoring player in the Champions League, if not for the marginal existence of the goalframe. The actual top scoring player in that time period is Erling Haaland, a man who sees the net and invariably puts the ball in the net. A machine and a solution. Neymar is not that player, but who else can do what he did against Bayern, sending Kingsley Coman to a distant arrondissement before clipping the bar with the subsequent shot. That, plus Kylian Mbappé’s disallowed goal in the second half that nearly tore the net from the goal counted for nothing but will be remembered for years nonetheless.
If shots that hit the woodwork would count as goals, Neymar (8 goals, 5 times woodwork hit) would have been on 13 Champions League goals since the start of 2020, more than any other player. They do not though.— Michiel Jongsma (@JongsmaJongsma) April 13, 2021
Behold the sea of purple chances on the left-hand side of the penalty area. Wasted opportunities or moments of joy that will live on? It’s very much in the eye of the beholder. See also: “Neymar goes down too easily.” Possibly, but he’s also won 63 fouls in the Champions League since the start of last year. The next highest players are on 24. If Neymar is a legitimate target then he surely deserves some reparations. And even amongst the constant hum of punishment, he has 67 goal involvements in 67 Champions League games.
The chronology situation is this: on February 5 next year, Neymar will turn 30 and Cristiano Ronaldo will turn 37. At 30 Ronaldo still had three of his five Champions League wins awaiting him, Neymar has won the big one just once, but his performance against Bayern on Tuesday was a sign, perhaps, that he realises that he’s the best player in arguably the best team remaining in the competition. If not now, then when? The clock ticks on.
April 13, 2021
The Final Boss Fight
When West Bromwich Albion appointed Sam Allardyce as manager on Dec. 16, 2020, they believed that his experience of fighting numerous relegation battles with losing one would be the key to securing their Premier League survival.
There was no classic ‘new manager bounce’ at the Baggies, despite a seemingly impressive 1-1 draw away against reigning Champions Liverpool in his second match and a 3-2 away win at Wolves in mid-January.
Since Big Sam’s arrival at the Hawthorns, West Brom have picked up 17 points in 18 games – far from impressive and only more than Newcastle (16), Sheffield United (13) and Southampton (13) over that period. However, consecutive league wins over Chelsea and Southampton have got Baggies’ fans believing in the most incredible of relegation escapes.
As we can see in WBA’s rolling expected goals graphic from 2020-21, the underlying improvement in recent weeks has been impressive, but has it come too late?
Over the last two Premier League games, we’ve seen a freer, more expansive West Brom side that seem to have their confidence and enthusiasm back. With their next two games against an injury-hit Leicester on the back of successive defeats and a Jack Grealish-less Aston Villa, they undoubtedly have a great chance to collect more points.
But this is without a doubt the worst situation that Allardyce has found himself in. This is the final boss fight of relegation battles.
His only slightly comparable situation was back in 2015-16 as Sunderland manager, when his side were in the relegation zone after 31 matches in 18th and only four points away from safety. On that occasion, he steered the Black Cats away from the drop despite being in the relegation zone with only three games left to play, as Sunderland finished 17th, two points ahead of rivals Newcastle United.
If West Brom and Allardyce were to join the group of greatest Premier League survival tales, they will have to do it the hard way. No team has ever been as many as eight points from safety with seven games or fewer left in a season and survived.
They would have to surpass Sunderland’s effort in 2013-14, who found themselves seven points from safety with six games left after a run of five successive defeats. A miraculous run of 13 points in their final six matches saw them amazingly finish 14th. However, even then, Sunderland had two games in hand on 17th placed Norwich City.
If Allardyce does somehow win this challenge against all the odds, he’ll cement his place as the greatest Premier League survivalist of all-time.
April 12, 2021
Considering the two teams involved, the game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium followed an expected pattern this weekend. Tottenham – experts at throwing away points from half-time leads, faced a Manchester United side that seem to only wake up after going behind. Imagine our surprise when Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team came from 1-0 down at half-time to pick up all three points.
It was only last week that we highlighted Spurs’ inability to keep a lead in 2020-21, and it happened again.
With 18 points now lost from winning positions this season – only second to Brighton (20) in the Premier League – Mourinho has now seen his side lose more points from being ahead than he has in any previous top-flight season.
In fact, Spurs have found themselves in a winning position for 42% of time that the ball has been in play during Premier League matches in 2020-21 – only second to runaway leaders Manchester City (52%). This was the seventh match this season that Spurs have led at half-time and failed to win.
On the other end of the spectrum are Manchester United. They’ve been in a winning position for a lower proportion of time than 10 other teams, including 16th placed Brighton. However, they have produced a phenomenal set of comeback victories.
Overall, United have won nine games from losing positions this season – just one off the all-time Premier League record in a season, set by Newcastle United in 2001-02 (10) and equalling their club record from back in 2012-13.
With 28 points won from losing positions in 2020-21, they are now six off Newcastle’s 34-point record from 2001-02 and third in the all-time Premier League ranking for a season, with their own effort in 2012-13 (29) wedged between them and the Magpies’ tally.
This victory at Spurs on Sunday was the 41st comeback victory of the current Premier League season, just six wins off the tally from the entire 2019-20 campaign.
Overall, 13.3% of games this season have seen a comeback win, which is the second-highest proportion in a Premier League season and only behind 2012-13.
Following Manchester City’s shock 2-1 defeat at home to Leeds United on Saturday, United are 11 points behind their rivals with a game in hand. Surely the most unlikely comeback of all isn’t on, is it?
While you’re here, why not test yourself on our Premier League comebacks quiz?