After watching the 2011 UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona, one could argue that we had witnessed the best team to have ever played the game of football. Barcelona completely dominated that final as if they were playing a mid-table team, and with a final score of 3-1 to Barça, it could certainly have been worse for Manchester United. That sensational performance was preceded by an almost complete season that saw Barcelona play arguably the most beautiful brand of football, winning and dominating the majority of games and only coming short in the Copa del Rey final against arch-rivals Real Madrid.
With Barça failing to reach those same heights in performances and results in the following couple of seasons, it would not have been surprising to think of the 2010-11 season as a once-in-a-lifetime season that would never be replicated again, thereby confirming it as the best Barcelona team ever. But then came the 2014-15 season, a season that saw the arrival of a new manager in Luis Enrique and the recruitment of eight players. In that season Barcelona won their second treble in the club’s history as fans witnessed the emergence of the ‘MSN’ trident and another sensational overall season. So which team was better? Let’s have a comparison.
PLEASE NOTE: For the sake of this article, I will refer to the 2010-11 team as Barça ’11 and the 2014-15 team as Barça ’15.
The Barça ’11 defence consisted of Dani Alves, Puyol/Mascherano, Pique and Abidal. Dani Alves at his prime was sensational to watch, he was always running back and forth on the right-hand side, contributing in attack and in defence. The leadership qualities of Puyol can never be questioned, he was a true warrior in defence and when injured, Mascherano did his job. Abidal was a good overall defender, he was comfortable on the ball, attacked when he needed to, provided height in set pieces and played a formidable role in an occasional three-man backline.
The defence of Barça ’15 was not too different from that of Barça ’11, with the main difference being Jordi Alba on the left-hand side. Jordi Alba would provide more attacking width than Abidal did, meaning that Busquets would fall back to form a three-man defence when both full-backs pushed forward. Dani Alves’ defending abilities had declined in Barça ’15, although it was still better than that of the two previous seasons. Barça ’11 only conceded 36 goals and Barça ’15 were surprisingly not far behind with 38 goals.
Winner: Barça ’15
The 2010 World Cup winning midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets is considered one of the greatest midfield trio of all time. This midfield would starve the opposition of the ball and would create plenty of chances for the front three. Xavi controlled the game and connected defence and attack, Iniesta created the chances and Busquets provided protection in midfield. Whilst Iniesta kept his same role for Barça ’15, Busquets began to have the Xavi role of controlling the games. The addition of Rakitic who was a box-to-box midfielder, ensured that the team applied pressure more effectively and recovered possession of the ball at a quicker pace. The midfield of Barça ’11 was the most important part of the team but the midfield of Barça ’15 played a sort of secondary role.
Winner: Barça ’11
‘MVP’ vs ‘MSN’. Well, I think the clear winner here is MSN, but here is a short comparison nonetheless. Whilst ‘MVP’ worked harder and was more cohesive with the whole team, ‘MSN’ would sometimes be independent of the rest of the team. ‘MVP’ only scored 97 goals, whilst ‘MSN’ scored 70% of Barça ’15 goals with 122. In ‘MVP’ Messi was the main man and in ‘MSN’ the South Americans brought the best out of each other. ‘MVP’ would do more dirty work and when Barça ‘15 counter-attacked, ‘MSN’ was a force to be reckoned with.
Winner: Barça ’15
This is a key difference between the two sides. Barça ’11 would always dominate each game they played, they would have 73% of ball possession on average, make short passes and surge forward as a unit. Regardless of the team they played, they would always have the same strategy and execute it flawlessly.
Barça ’15 had a more adaptive style, they would keep possession of the ball against weaker teams and incorporate a counter-attacking system when they faced stronger sides. They would also play more long balls in order to get the ball from defence to attack quicker. And of course they could rely on the individual brilliance of the ‘MSN’ trident to win games. Evidence of them having an adaptive style is the fact that they had only 53% possession of the ball against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final home leg when on average they would have 67.9% possession that season (less than 73% from Barça ’11).
Winner: Barça ’11
For Barça ’11 it is difficult to choose. Was their best performance witnessed in the 5-0 home win against Real Madrid in the league or was it the 3-1 win against Manchester United in the UCL final? Both were other-worldly performances that left fans mesmerized. Against Real Madrid, Barça ’11 completely dominated from minute 1 to 90. Real Madrid were humiliated as they could not stop goals from Xavi, Pedro, David Villa and Jeffren. Real Madrid ended the game with 10 men as Sergio Ramos saw red. Against Manchester United, Barça ’11 were shaky in the first 10 minutes, then dominated till minute 70 and played conservatively for the rest of the game. It was a game that showcased the brilliance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
For Barça ’15, the best performance would probably be the UCL semi-final home game against Bayern Munich. It was an all-round entertaining game of football that had fans on the edge of their seats. Despite all the chances that were created by both teams, there were no goals until Messi single-handedly changed the result of the game by scoring two and assisting one.
Winner: Barça ’11
The Messi of Barça ’11 was more energetic and was more of a full-time goal-scorer. He would combine well with Xavi and Iniesta to control games in his false 9 role. He worked harder without the ball and had a more aggressive style of playing. He would often win games by himself and was missed when absent.
After having a couple of seasons that were below his own standards mainly due to injuries, Messi returned to his best for the 2014-15 season. He returned to his original position at right-wing but it did not stop him from scoring goals as he ended the season with a tally of 58 goals. He became a more conservative player, not running as much as he used to and having more of a creative role.
He still scored similar goals though:
Winner: Barça ’11
It is very difficult to decide which team was better. They each had their strengths and weaknesses. Football is a game dominated by opinions and it is no different for this mini-battle, the winner is decided by the fan’s preference. Does one prefer the beautiful tiki-taka football of Barça ’11 or the adaptable effective football of Barça ’15?
In his autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted his preference for Barça ’11. "Barcelona were the best team ever to line up against my Manchester United sides," he said. "The accomplishments of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were amazing to me." That is very nice to hear from a man of his character. Barcelona fans have been spoiled by witnessing two fantastic teams, but as Sky Sports commentator Kevin Keatings said, "MSN is arguably the best trio of strikers ever to play for any one club at the same time. Let’s savour them while they are here, after all we may not see their like again."