Are Barcelona the best soccer team ever?

July 3, 2011

I say yes.

I’m referring to the Barcelona team of the past three seasons, 2009-11. Despite a few nontrivial player changes — Samuel Eto’o replaced by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010 and then by David Villa in 2011, Thierry Henry replaced by Pedro Rodriguez, Yaya Toure replaced by Sergio Busquets — the squad remained largely intact over this period.

Who are their chief rivals? And on what grounds can we consider Barça superior?

NATIONAL TEAMS

Nearly everyone who isn’t a diehard partisan views Brazil’s 1970 squad the best national team ever. A recent poll of experts yielded this conclusion, with Brazil 1970 followed by the mid-1950s Hungarian national team and the Netherlands’ 1974 World Cup team. The 1970 Brazilian team featured Pelé, the widely-acknowledged best player of all time, along with several other entertaining attacking talents like Jairzinho, Tostão, and Roberto Rivelino. It played with a seldom-replicated panache and soundly defeated most of its opponents.

In a head-to-head match, the contemporary Barça team would demolish the 1970 Brazilians; fitness, strength, skill, and tactics have advanced a good bit in the past four decades. The only fair way to compare across such a long stretch of time is by assessing the teams relative to others in their own era.

I give the edge to Barça for three reasons.

First, Brazil were pretty equally matched by England in the 1970 World Cup. The two teams met in the first round. Brazil ended up winning 1-0, but it easily could have gone the other way. England played Brazil straight up and gave as much as they got.

To my knowledge, in the past three years no competitor has played Barcelona straight up and succeeded in giving them a genuine challenge. Manchester United tried in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals. In both matches they did well for the first ten minutes, but after that Barcelona thoroughly dominated. Real Madrid, perhaps the second best team in the world this year, tried to play Barça straight up in a league match this past fall. Barcelona won 5-0.

Barcelona are so good — so capable of keeping the ball for long stretches, creating scoring opportunities, and getting the ball back quickly when they lose it — that even the most talented attacking teams tend to feel no choice but to retreat into a defensive shell against them. The strategy is to “park the bus,” pulling most players back into the defensive third of the field, and hope for a counterattack goal or two. Three of the best attacking teams in recent memory — Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semifinals, Arsenal in 2010 and 2011 Champions League ties, and Real Madrid in this year’s Champions League semifinals — were reduced to this approach.

Is this because these next-best teams simply aren’t very strong? On the contrary. In today’s soccer the top club teams are better than the top national teams. Globalization and the absence of a salary cap have allowed the world’s richest clubs to concentrate talent from around the world in a way that national teams can’t. This year’s Real Madrid team is one of the best we’ve seen in years. It features some of the top attacking players on the planet. Against Barcelona in the Champions League, however, Real’s coach Jose Mourinho kept several of them on the bench and played with, in effect, seven defenders. In the end it didn’t work, but it probably was their best hope of winning.

My second reason for preferring Barcelona 2009-11 over Brazil 1970 is the Brazilian team’s dodgy goalkeeper. It was a major liability. Barça has no comparable weakness.

Third, Spain won last year’s World Cup in what I think was the most dominant performance since Brazil’s in 1970. They took the game to every team they faced and won the tournament convincingly, even though a number of their victories were by small margins. Barcelona’s club team is essentially that Spanish national team plus Lionel Messi, the world’s best player and one of the ten best of all time. It’s a bit like taking Brazil’s 1970 team and adding Johan Cruyff or Franz Beckenbauer (or perhaps Gordon Banks in goal).

CLUB TEAMS

Are there club teams that might rival Barcelona 2009-11 for the title of greatest team ever? One obvious candidate is Real Madrid 1956-60. Their record of five consecutive European Cup (the predecessor of the Champions League) titles likely will never be equaled. The team featured two of the premier players of the 1950s in Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano. But that was an utterly different soccer era, before teams knew how to defend. And I’m skeptical about the quality of the competition they faced. Rightly or wrongly, I exclude them from consideration.

Here are four others.

Ajax 1971-73. This team won three consecutive European Cup titles and dominated the Dutch league until Johan Cruyff left to play for Barcelona. It also included the nucleus of the great 1974 Dutch World Cup team. But herein lies a problem. Most would consider the 1974 Netherlands team better than the Ajax team, and most also rank Netherlands 1974 below Brazil 1970.

Bayern Munich 1972-76. Bayern dominated the German Bundesliga in the early 1970s and won three successive European Cup titles following Ajax’ run. It then dropped off when Franz Beckenbauer left for the New York Cosmos in 1976. Here too, though, we have a club team-national team difficulty. The Bayern team contained the nucleus of the World Cup-winning German national team in 1974. But that World Cup squad probably was better than Bayern, and the World Cup squad is generally rated below the team they beat, the Netherlands, which in turn is ranked below Brazil 1970.

Liverpool 1977-84. Liverpool won four European Cup titles in eight years, including three in five years. They also won six English league titles during those eight years.  There was a good bit of turnover during this span — the key forward, for instance, shifted from Kevin Keegan in 1977 to Kenny Dalglish for the bulk of the period to Ian Rush by the end — so it’s a stretch to think of this as a single team. I suspect that’s why relatively few seem to include them on the list of top contenders for all-time greatest status.

AC Milan 1989-91. This was a mesmerizing squad, with Paolo Maldini and several other Italian stalwarts alongside the brilliant Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard. The team won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990 and went through the entire 1992 Italian league (Serie A) season undefeated.

Great teams dominate their competition. There’s a qualitative aspect to dominance, but we can also look at the numbers. I think the two key indicators are titles and goal difference.

Begin with titles. Barcelona has now won the Champions League two of the past three years. (It’s won three of the past six, but the squad that won in 2006 was sufficiently different that I’m not including it here.) This isn’t the best title run ever. But it’s no less impressive than the earlier runs by Ajax, Bayern, Liverpool, and AC Milan. Virtually all of the world’s best players now play in Europe, with many of them concentrated in just ten clubs. Barcelona therefore faces stronger competition than its predecessors.

Barça has won its domestic league (La Liga) each of the past three years. The Spanish league is less competitive than the English Premier League, but it’s quite good. And in the past two years Barça’s main domestic rival, Real Madrid, has been one of the world’s top two or three teams.

Including titles in the assessment diminishes the luster of the AC Milan team of 1989-93 somewhat. Though it won the European Cup twice in a row, Milan won the Italian league title only twice during that five-year span.

Along with titles, goal difference (goals scored minus goals allowed) is probably the best quantitative indicator of dominance. The following chart shows per-game goal difference for each of these five club teams in domestic league matches and in Champions League matches. Performance in Champions League matches is the better measure for comparison, since domestic league quality varies a good bit. Ajax stands above the other four in goal difference in domestic matches, but the Dutch league competition was likely the weakest of the five.

Barcelona looks good relative to the others in both Champions League and domestic league goal difference. Is its impressive Champions League goal difference a product of some early-round 10-0 thrashings of weak opponents? No; Barça’s largest margin in any Champions League match during its three-year run was five goals.

LUCKY RATHER THAN GREAT?

One possible knock on Barcelona is that they got a bit lucky in their Champions League seminal tie in both 2009 and 2011. In 2009 they faced Chelsea. In the first leg, in Barcelona, Chelsea parked the bus and got a 0-0 draw. In the second leg Chelsea again played counterattack, and it worked well. They generated several good scoring chances, including a couple of possible penalty kicks that the referee didn’t award. Barcelona got a very late goal to tie the match 1-1 and go through to the finals on away goals. In this year’s semifinal Barça beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the first match and drew 1-1 in the second. In the first match, several Barça players reacted theatrically to some Madrid fouls, which may have contributed to Madrid’s Pepe getting red carded early in the second half. That probably helped Barcelona, though I’m not sure Real would have stopped Messi’s second goal even with eleven (or twelve or thirteen) men.

The thing is, every successful team needs a bit of luck to get by. Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team were lucky not to have to face England in the final. In the quarterfinal match between England and West Germany, England went up 2-0. England’s coach substituted for two of the team’s best players, to rest them and safeguard against injury. The Germans pulled off a remarkable comeback to win 3-2 and England were out of the tournament. In AC Milan’s first victorious European Cup run, in 1989, they faced Red Star Belgrade in a second-round home-and-away contest. They tied in the home match in Milan and were behind 1-0 in the 65th minute of the away match when a fog rolled in, forcing cancellation of the match. The full game was replayed the next day. It ended in a draw, with Milan then winning in penalty kicks.

Over time we forget the luck and remember the brilliance. A decade from now hardly anyone will remember these details of Barcelona’s Champions League triumphs. What people will recall, rightly, is Barça’s exquisite play.

A THING TO BEHOLD

Are Barça the best team of all time? There’s no way to settle the question objectively, and in the end it doesn’t much matter. What matters is the joy of watching them play. I was too young to appreciate Brazil’s 1970 squad and Cruyff’s Ajax team, and television coverage then was too limited in any case. What good fortune to live at a moment when it’s been possible to see a team as glorious as this Barcelona side work its magic on a regular basis.

25 Responses to “Are Barcelona the best soccer team ever?”


  1. Lane, can I ask what software was used to create the dotplot? It looks better than my own attempts in R.

    And, it was good to hear you talking so insightfully about ‘soccer’ (‘football’ as we’d say in Britain).

  2. Lane Kenworthy Says:

    Stephen: I use Stata.

  3. Tomboktu Says:

    What swings it for me has nothing to do with their scoring ability. They are the only team I know where the payment for the sponsor’s logo on the players’ shirts is from the club to the sponsor: UNICEF.

  4. Raghu Says:

    I rate Barca as the best team ever for one simple reason, playing soccer the way it should be played, passign the ball in clinica; precision, no other team has done it so precisely, so consistantly , for so long.


  5. Having watched Manchester United demolish the opposition throughout the domestic season, the transformation when facing Barcelona was almost unbelievable. The same could be said about the trouncing of Madrid. I don’t think any of the other teams you mention could beat such strong rivals so comprehensively.

  6. Marco Ochoa Says:

    Barca plays soccer the way fans expect Brazil to play but did not in the last World Cup. Barca has some great individual players who play as a “team” and have done so for the last 4 years.

  7. Outis Says:

    Please don’t call it soccer…

  8. Marco Ochoa Says:

    Futbol

  9. Tom Addison Says:

    Great stuff, really enjoyed reading this. I’m 24 so yes, hands down, this Barca side is the best side I’ve ever seen. I think that comparing teams from different decades is a bit of a pointless exercise, same goes for players as well, but from what I can gather, Sacchi’s AC Milan were a pretty handy side, and are probably the only team that would rival Barca in a head-to-head game. If Barca have a weakness it is toughness and pure, defensive discipline, but because of how good they are at keeping the ball and winning it back in the opposition half, this doesn’t really matter.

    I’m a Man United fan (season ticket holder), and that 2011 CL Final was, well, unique for us United fans. We’ve been a great team my entire lifetime, and I’ve never seen us outclassed as comprehensively as that.

    But arguments against Barca. Well, as you mentioned, there was the theft of Stamford Bridge in 2009. Not only did Iniesta score a very late goal, but Chelsea should have had about 3 penalties before that. Then there’s Inter in 2010 under Mourinho, who showed that, using incredibly defensive and cunning tactics, it is possible to stop the Barca train. But they required luck as well, I think Pique had a goal controversially disallowed for Barca in that game.

    Anywho, great stuff, shall spread the word.

  10. Bill Says:

    The difference is in the way Barcelona pass. So many are short distances on the ground. The players keep close to one another while spinning off to receive the next pass, making space and options nearby. The team go forward, or just keep the ball and by keeping close short passing, their passes are accurate, and wear out the opponents who get reduced to playing piggy and the middle, and hitting hopeless long balls when they eventually win possession, Barcelona press them – even Messi does this.

  11. Henry Says:

    There is no doubt that Barcelona has been the best team ever, i used to watch brazil, my favorite team, but when i saw Barcelona playing, i changed my mind, I’m 39 and i’ve never seen a team like Barcelona dominating the oponents so easy, i don’t miss a game, is amazing how they play specially Lionel messi, spectacular.

  12. Fernando Says:

    How could you not include the Real Madrid of 1997-2001? With Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Raul, and David Beckham? Perhaps not the most defensive team but come on!!! Just with Figo and Zidane feeding balls to the greatest striker of all time is enough to beat this Barca. You just can’t compare Zidane and Figo were far better than Iniesta, and Raul was farrr better than both Pedro and Villa, and of course Roberto carlos is just much better than Xavi. Player by player comparison, that Madrid team was better.

  13. Fabiano Says:

    Sorry, but you seem to lack knowledge of South American football history, apart from international fixtures. The choices are a bit eurocentric. The style of passing play by Barcelona is very much similar to the passing game that was practiced by Brazilian clubs in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, and which formed the basis of the brazilian national teams of that era. This includes the Santos team of the 60s, the Flamengo of the 80s (which soundly beat the Liverpool team you mentioned 3-0) and the Brazilian 1982 team. This style has been basically dead for more than 2 decades in Brazil, due to the adoption of European tactics and the choice of physicality over technical ability in the selection of players, starting in the 1980s. I hope Brazil reintroduce their original passing game, which has now been lost for too long.


  14. Fernando all the players you mentione, were great players but they had a team that sucked, the post is about team work not individual players, is like comparing Messi with Pele or Maradona, they are from different eras, futbol is now faster, so i give it to Messi.
    You also mentione the very specific thing about this post, real madrid didnt have a very diffensive team, well Barcelona has everything from defense to middle and forward players, is a complete team, they work together as a team, and like Lane Kenworthy said, it doesn’t matter about being history best team, is the joy to watch Barcelona play.

  15. Isaac Says:

    One thing good about statistics, is that you can come to point you want to put across based on what you actually want. (What would happen to your data if you included Real Madrid – as just an objective observation).
    Secondly, an analysis based on a time span which has limited data on one conducting it, has bias results in the end. Pele will soon drop from the top players on the basis that more people will not have witnessed his football and will actually think he was not great when they watch his games. I used to say this when Zidane or Ronaldo (The Brazilian) was playing, how they seem to have faded so soon because people see Messi!!!

  16. zion Says:

    barce is the best team even by far trust me cuz i only used to watch eglish team play over the years but when i come across this barce team change everything..when i see messi do is thing with the ball make me cry no joke so what im sayin right now im so happy that im here in this time to see this barce foot ball team

  17. emma Says:

    offffffffffffffffffff course barca is the best an every time i see the video fc barcelona 5-0 real madrid all highlights

    i feel l ike im in hevean best video and the melody is sooooooo goooddddddd

    go barca gooooooooooo i hate real


  18. barca is the bestttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt

    i would kill my self for them

    best team ever

  19. f.c.b Says:

    FC Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid || Goals & highlights || 29-11-2010 || High Definition would some one pls watch this

    the besttttttttttttttttttttttttttt vidoe eva

    barcaaaaaaaaaaaaaa is deep in my heart

  20. victor kwena Says:

    barca are on top of the world history of football. this is a new era whereby football is faster. nowadays individual effort is minimal. concluding that lionel messi is the best ever.

  21. Jon Pirovsky Says:

    There is no way to know whether one team is the best ever, simply because there will never be a direct match between these teams you mentioned… And there is much more than just preparation of the athletes, fitness levels and tactics. Football was just different in the past: there were different rules, different equipment, different conditions that created scenarios that are no longer emulated today.

    For instance, we’ll never know if Barcelona would perform with the same flair if they were placed in another era: say, would they be able to keep their tempo and pacing if they wore the heavy boots and hot cotton shirts of the 50′s? Would they be able to keep the fluid passing on the ground on the appalling pitches and with the heavy balls of yesterday? Would they understand how to keep all players healthy and fit during the entire match, as no substitutions were permitted and violence levels were significantly higher? Would Messi thrive as much as he does now without protection from referees and playing against defenders that focused more on breaking his legs instead of reclaiming the ball? How would they react to intimidating, frequently violent, supporters and adversary staff?

    Another thing people tend to forget is weather and altitude: Barcelona usually play in the warm-cool temperatures at sea level of Europe, which is perfect for high tempo footballing… Now try to do this in the hot climate and high altitude of Guadalajara that Brazil ’70 had to deal with!! Ever tried playing football in a 39ºC climate? You CAN’T keep pressure on the level that Barcelona does in such conditions… and the pace of the game slows down out of necessity. In high altitude, things can be also be tougher, as the thinner air makes the ball faster and reduces O² concentration in the athlete’s blood stream. Teams are forced to slow down.

    Barcelona plays as it does simply because it maximizes the opportunities the modern game allows, conditions that are simply not the same as in the past. Now, I’m not saying Barcelona wouldn’t adapt to this, I’m sure a team of such quality would adapt to other conditions remarkably; but this would need concessions on certain aspects of their game and they would probably need to play something different to what they do today.

    And why is it that no one mentioned the Santos team of the 60s? They served as the basis of the great brazilian teams of that era and pretty much dominated football during that time… They frequently trashed high-profile european clubs during their long world tours…an what about the Flamengo team of the early 80′s, which tore apart the same great Liverpool you mentioned in a game back in 1981, dominated south american football and boasted Zico and Junior, among others?

  22. Nic Says:

    Nice Article, well thought out points; however, as mentioned a bit Eurocentric. Santos of the 60′s was the best club side of its time and dominated European rivals in it’s world tours as we as in the yearly battle with the European Champions called the Intercontinental Cup. This team was the foundation of the Brazilian national team but there were others like Tostao and Rivelino from other club teams making Brazil 1970 the Dream Team of Brazil. It is closest to the American Dream Team in basketball and no one would argue that any club side be it the Celtics or Lakers of any age could beat that team.

    Brazil had the ability like Barca to play the short pass with precision but they had an added dimension in that they had at least 4 or 5 players who could break down defenders off the dribble. Barca have 1 in Lionel Messi. This is a crucial but overlooked fact. When the passing game is not working for Barca, they unleash Messi and he breaks down a few defenders and then releases the short pass to an open teammate and the ball is played one touch around until the open player is found with the highest percentage shot. Against bunkered teams sometimes 1 man even if he is the greatest player in the world is not enough. Sometimes you need 2 or 3 and Brazil 1970 had that and the greatest player in the world at that time who as it turns out is also considered the greatest ever. Also sometimes you need the long range shot to break down bunkered defences. It forces defenders to come out and challenge the shot thereby creating space in behind. Brazil had a fabulous dribbler and long range shooter in Roberto Rivelino. Barca are lacking that. Also Jairzinho, Pele, Tostao and Gerson were quite good from distance as well.

    As far as the speed and athleticism of the different ages, watch videos of the 1970 World Cup, players are much better protected today(slides from behind and between the legs were legal and rugby or American football tackling was done on occasion particularly to Pele), and Brazil had some phenomenal athletes stronger, faster, and more pure skill on the ball than Barca man for man.

    Barca’s pressing is not new, England 1970 and Italy 1970 exhibited similar defences with better keepers than Barca’s. Also Holland 1974, and AC Milan 89-91 had a similar style of pressing defences and smothering teams however they were all teams that were slaves to a system. It was arguably their strength and Barca similarly is a team of system, though they are better in possession than any of the aforementioned teams. If you take any one player with the exception of Messi out of the system, and put them on another team it is doubtful they would have the same impact as they do collectively. All of the Brazil 1970 team individually were stars in their own right and made huge contributions to their individual club teams, like the Dream Team of American basketball. They were not players whose talents were multiplied merely by playing purely in a system.

    So Brazil 1970 had the ability to improvise which Barca lack with the exception of Messi. Chelsea have since proved Barcas’s weakness to encamped defenses as did Inter with Mourinho. Italy invented the catenaccio and no one was better at it than Italia 1970. Their encamped defense and system were dismantled by a team that could play beyond system and think outside the box. The best offense beats the best systemic defense because of improvisation and initiative. It was Fischer vs Petrossian in the Mexico1970 final and I fear it would be the same with Barca, the world’s 2nd best team ever against the 1970 Brazilians because as Morpheus put it so eloquently in the Matrix, “…yet, their strength, and their speed, are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong, or as fast, as *you* can be.” You being Neo or in this case the Brazil 1970 team that was like Jazz or rather Samba to Barca’s classical music. Barca is a subset of Brazil 1970 not the other way around.

  23. J. PAT Escandon Says:

    Barcelona the BEST. no other team has shown the highest quality of game like the eleven of Barcelona!!!. they have the best player in the world ever has seen!: Messi. Nor Pele, nor Maradona come close to this genio . Yes Barcelona is the best ever!!!!!!

  24. Phil Says:

    LOL, an American who think that understand about football (not soccer, please!) The best team ever is Santos, from 1957 to 1969 and the best national team ever is Brasil (with s not z) 1958 not form 1970.

    I’d like to share with you an information: the best player ever is Pelé. Maybe if Messi keep playing at this level for more 10-12 years, maybe he can be the best player ever… But first, he needs to win 2 or 3 World Cups, score more than 1.000 goals and reinvent the soccer game. Yes, after that we can compare Messi to Pelé. I have a suggestion: you should see a movie called “Pelé Eterno”.

    Just to let you know: The second best soccer player in the History is Garrincha. That’s why Brasil’58 is the best national team ever, both played together…

  25. Henry Says:

    Phil, for you, the best team is Santos, but is going to be hard to make other people beleave otherwise, you can go back and watch pele’s videos, it almost looks like he’s playing in slow motion, I’m an American Central American to be more specific and I know about FUTBOL, it doesnt take a scientist to figure out who is the best team ever, is like comparing 1958 tv, and a 2013 LED tv, futbol now in days is faster, more technical, more spectacular,specially when you watch Barcelona play. I guess you cover your ears when you hear sport news saying that the best team in history is Barcelona, Maybe they forgot about your Santos team,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 136 other followers