Neymar struggles at Barcelona down to demanding schedule with Brazil
Neymar is coming in for some criticism at Barcelona. The numbers are not on his side in this, his fourth season with the Catalan giants.
In 2013-14, his debut campaign, he played 41 games, with 15 goals and 11 assists. In the subsequent two seasons he fully justified all of the hype that had surrounded him. In 2014-15 he played 51 games, with 39 goals and seven assists; followed by 49 games with 31 goals and 20 assists last time out.
Was he perched on the shoulder of Lionel Messi, ready to become the best player in the world? Not on the evidence of this campaign, where so far he has played 26 times, contributing 13 assists and just nine goals.
Fernando Kallas, a Brazilian journalist with Spanish sports daily AS, reported that in Wednesday's 2-1 win against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey, Luis Suarez was shouting at Neymar, calling for more commitment on the field.
"What is striking at the moment is the apathy, almost disinterest, that Neymar seems to be showing," says Kallas.
The concern comes from the context.
"It is reminding people of Ronaldinho and Romario, who here in Spain left the impression that they have a sell-by date," Kallas says. "Ronaldinho played two exceptional seasons for Barcelona and then went away, undermined by a problem of his partying, and Romario played one great season and then went back to Brazil because he wanted to play foot-volley -- a favourite Rio de Janeiro beach pastime.
"All this has left a big fear in Spain. In the case of Neymar, he is very active on social media, and so the question is posed as to whether his extra-curricular activities are taking a toll."
The fear is understandable, but almost certainly overlooks an important detail. Neymar has surely been overplayed. In addition to the lack of strength in depth of Barcelona's attacking resources, there is also his extraordinary importance to the Brazil national team -- as shown by the fact that he has not been allowed to rest and have a full summer break for years.
In 2011, he played the Copa America in Argentina. In 2012, he was on duty in the London Olympics. In 2013, he was the star of the show on home soil in the Confederations Cup, which he was not quite able to repeat a year later in the World Cup. In 2015, he played the Copa America in Chile, and last year he featured in the Olympic football tournament.
Indeed, Brazil wanted him to play in both the Copa Centenario and the Olympics, and asked him to put pressure on Barcelona to free him for the two competitions. Wisely, the club said that it would have to be one or the other -- though it may have been better had it been neither.
Some might quibble and point out, for example, that in the 2015 Copa America he only played two games before being sent off and suspended from the rest of the competition. But it is not simply a case of the matches played. It is also all the time put into preparing for the tournament. There is surely a price to be paid for years of non-stop activity, be it physical or mental.
The good news for the player's wellbeing is that Brazil have not qualified for this year's Confederations Cup. Chile will represent South America in Russia this June. And so for the first time in years, Neymar will be able to enjoy a complete summer break.
Let him enjoy himself. He has surely earned the right. And then he can come roaring back in 2017-18, and look to cap a grandstand club season with a memorable World Cup in Russia.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.