If the all-conquering Rossoneri side of the late 1980s and early 90s played the brilliant Blaugrana of today, who would emerge victorious?
It is a question as hotly-contested as a debate on science vs religion, global warming vs natural climate change, and The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones.
Though Real Madrid 56-60, Ajax 71-73, Bayern Munich 74-76, Bob Paisley's Liverpool, Zico's Flamengo, and the Penarol and Santos sides of the 1960s would all put forward very strong cases, the general consensus is that the title for best ever is a straight battle between Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan of the late '80s and early '90s, and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona of today.
Sacchi recently told Goal.com: “Both teams were at the very top in terms of entertainment and results, and played a crucial role in the evolution of the sport.
“In 100 years, they were ahead of all others in terms of progression. They are two great teams from two very different eras.”
Rule changes and game modifications
It is in comparing teams from different eras where most difficulties arise in this analysis. Soccer has altered and evolved immeasurably in the last 20 years. The biggest reason for this – and one that this writer has launched a tireless crusade against – is the use of synthetic soccer balls. The numerous negative effects that this has had on the game can be read in full here, but what is especially relevant in this debate is that synthetic balls have led to the art of defending becoming extinct. The sport has become so chaotic and reliant on speed, as the ball pings around the pitch at 100mph, that intercepting and reading of the game are rare qualities in 2011. Defenders are almost all reactive; very few are proactive. In simple terms, synthetic balls massively favor attacking soccer.
What also favors attacking soccer is today's liberal interpretation of the offside rule. Twenty years ago, anyone situated between the goalkeeper and last defender when the ball was played was deemed offside – regardless of whether he was active or passive. This was very important to Milan's defensive system, which centered around a high defensive line and Franco Baresi pushing up his backline on-call as he anticipated a through-ball. Such was Baresi's genius that he would regularly catch an attacker offside, but were he to utilize the same strategy today then he would be severely handicapped by the rule change. This is a reason why the most fertile breeding ground for defensive talent, Italy, has seen its conveyor belt grind to a halt in the last decade. Italians were the most adept defenders because they were the smartest tactically, a trait they can no longer fully exploit.
Two other minor alterations to the game, both of which - unlike the above – have helped improve soccer, should also be taken into account. Back in 1989 when Sacchi won his first European Cup, goalkeepers were still allowed to pick up backpasses from their own players. Since 1992, this has been outlawed. While Milan rarely indulged in the dark arts of time-wasting and negative play, in a match against Guardiola's Barcelona, the option of slowing down the tempo in this way – especially if ahead – would be worth considering. A game played without the multi-ball system would also prove beneficial to Milan. Today, as soon as one ball goes out of play, a ball-boy on the sidelines throws in another. This means there are no pauses in action, unlike two decades ago when the same ball was retained and players would have to wait – sometimes 30 seconds to a minute - for spectators to return it. Such is Barcelona's intensity, territorial advantage, and dominance of possession – usually at least 60 percent or more every match – that regrouping and re-energizing when the ball is in-touch would be invaluable.
A final modification that could be relevant is the strictness of the referees. By 1989, the leniency that saw hardmen like Claudio Gentile embark an entire career without being sent off had become a thing of the past, but officials were still far more tolerant of foul play. Dangerous tackles such as two-footed challenges, for instance, were still accepted as part and parcel of the game. A defender could accumulate more offenses before being booked and there was less protection for Diego Maradona than there now is for Lionel Messi. Milan was as physical through the likes of Mauro Tassotti and Frank Rijkaard as they were technical – Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Carlo Ancelotti possessed old school cynicism too – so its ability to roughen up Barcelona without severe sanctions could be key in stopping Messi and Co.
Three Musketeers | Milan would have to stop Barca star trio of Messi, Iniesta & Xavi
What we deduce from the above is that if the game was played in 1989 or 1990 the rules would favor Milan, whereas if it was contested in 2011 the rules would support Barcelona.
Trophies won and era competitiveness
In four full seasons at Milan, Sacchi won eight trophies. Guardiola has already surpassed this number, despite only being four months into his fourth term, as he has led the Blaugrana to 12 titles with four more still to play for in 2011-12.
In terms of volume, Barcelona is the clear winner. However, it must be taken into account that the Serie A championship Milan competed in was light years ahead of the current La Liga in terms of quality and competitiveness. The Napoli of Diego Maradona and Careca, Inter of Matthaus, Klinsmann and Brehme, and the Sampdoria of Vialli and Mancini ensured that the Scudetto race was always a red-hot battle – probably the toughest domestic league in history. Today's Primera Division is merely between two squads, and only since the arrival of Jose Mourinho in Guardiola's third campaign have Barca faced a real top-quality challenger in the shape of Real Madrid. In his three seasons, Guardiola has finished a whopping 17, 28 and 25 points clear of third place, which says as much for Barcelona's brilliance as it does for the inadequate also-rans.
|IN TROPHIES | Sacchi's Milan vs Guardiola's Barcelona
||CLUB WORLD CUP
||EURO SUPER CUP|
08-09, 09-10, 10-11
In Europe – which is perhaps the best measuring point – both Milan and Barcelona have two European Cups (Champions Leagues) in three years (Milan was not in the competition when Sacchi took charge), although significantly the Italian outfit remains the last team to successfully defend the trophy. It can be argued that it was easier to reach the final back in the old European Cup format where a team would play just four two-legged ties before the showpiece. This could occasionally include a favorable route to the final – in 1987-87 the eventual winner Porto entered the last four having overcome minnows Rabat Ajax, Viktovice and Brondby. The following year, PSV lifted the title without winning a single match from the quarterfinals onwards.
||THREE MAGICAL MILAN MATCHES
However, Milan's paths to Camp Nou in 1989 and Vienna in 1990 were anything but easy as it overcame outstanding sides such as Real Madrid (twice), Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest. When the Rossoneri thrashed Steaua 4-0 in the '89 showpiece, the Romanians were unbeaten in their domestic league for three years. The 5-0 thumping of Real Madrid in the semifinal second leg arrived just after the Spaniards had gone 27 league games unbeaten and were on the verge of winning the fourth of five straight La Liga crowns.
Barcelona's roads to glory in 2009 and 2011 were more grueling than Milan's. The Catalans had to negotiate 15 games on their way to winning the former – including a two-legged qualifier and six-game group stage – and two matches fewer for the latter. The teams Milan played were tougher than those Barcelona faced – particularly the Real Madrid of Hugo Sanchez and Emilio Butragueno, and the Red Star Belgrade of Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic, but Guardiola's semifinal and final opponents in 2009 (Chelsea and Man Utd) were definitely tough outfits, as was of course Mourinho's Real Madrid from the 2011 semi. Barca would rightly argue that you can only beat what is in front of you, but all in all soccer in 1989 and 1990 was of a higher quality - and more competitive - than it has been between 2008 and 2011.
||THREE BRILLIANT BARCELONA BOUTS
Barcelona came closer than Milan to winning a third Champions League, as only a heroic defensive rearguard action by Mourinho's Inter in the 2010 semifinal denied them a place in the final, where they would surely have overcome Bayern Munich. In 1991, Milan exited the competition in disgrace in the quarterfinals. Trailing 2-1 on aggregate in Marseille in second-leg injury time, the Rossoneri refused to play on after floodlight power was restored and was subsequently thrown out of the tournament.
Tactics and Total Football
Tactics would be a key deciding factor in a hypothetical Milan vs Barcelona clash. Both Sacchi and Guardiola champion the Total Football philosophy of Johan Cruyff's 1974 Netherlands side, which the ex-Ajax star later exported to his own Barcelona 'Dream Team' of the early '90s. Milan fielded a flexible 4-4-2 in which Angelo Colombo often played narrow to form a third center midfielder alongside Rijkaard and Ancelotti, whereas Donadoni was the attacking right winger who would sometimes switch flanks.
In attack, Van Basten and Gullit forged an irrepressible partnership of pace, power, skill and aerial strength.
Barcelona's 4-3-3 is really more of a 4-1-2-3, as Sergio Busquets sits and protects the back four while Xavi and Andres Iniesta exchange intricate short passes to feed the front three. False No. 9, Lionel Messi – dropping deep and roaming when he chooses to – is the undoubted superstar.
Both sides pressed off the ball ferociously, hunting down the opposition in packs to rip the ball back from them and assembling a high defensive line. Barcelona has one way of playing, which is to dominate possession and territory, and pass the opposition to death with quick tiki-taka, one-twos, third man runs, before opening up and blowing their competitors away. Everything is played through the middle and on the ground – direct balls, crosses and long shots are ugly, desperate and thus forbidden. Some are critical of the so-called lack of diversity, yet Barcelona is so good it often doesn't require a Plan B.
Milan, on the other hand, was a more complete side – if less beautiful – and had more ways of scoring. The entire backline of Tassotti, Baresi, Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, like Barcelona's, was comfortable on the ball. The two full-backs were very useful attacking outlets and exceptional crossers. Baresi is famed for his offensive bursts in instigating attacks from the back; technically he was as good as any midfielder or attacker. Van Basten and Gullit scored all kind of goals – right foot, left foot, headers, beautiful goals, ugly goals – as did the Milan team in general, which dominated teams not only skilfully, but physically and tactically too. This Milan outfit could cope with the more physical and athletic modern game, but Barcelona also would have had no problems in adapting to the more technical surroundings of the '80s and '90s. Indeed the current Blaugrana is probably the most entertaining side soccer has ever seen.
Head-to-heads and key battles
Victor Valdes is by no means a perfect goalkeeper, but he is superior to Milan's weak link - Italy's 1986 World Cup flop Giovanni Galli, who never convinced. Dani Alves is better than Tassotti going forward, but as an all-round fullback the Italian wins. Franco Baresi is arguably the best center back of all time (certainly at his peak, which he was in 1989 and 1990), while Alessandro Costacurta was part of an Italian golden era of stoppers and forged a telepathic partnership with his captain. Barcelona's weakest area is at left-back, and none of its options come close to the indomitable Paolo Maldini. As a unit, Sacchi's Milan is regarded as the greatest club defense of all time. It conceded just 14 league goals in its Scudetto winning-campaign of 1987-88, and just one goal from the quarterfinals onwards in the European Cup success a year later. In 89-90, the San Siro giants let in just three goals in nine matches.
Barcelona shipped 14 in 08-09 and nine in 10-11, although it did play six and four more games respectively. With modern defenses probably the weakest they have been for 50 years, there is no doubt that Barcelona – despite a whopping 99 Champions League goals in the Guardiola era – will never have faced a defense even close to as good as Sacchi's Milan, and Messi will never have encountered a marker quite like Baresi. Gullit and Van Basten, on the other hand, would have overcome defenses superior to Barcelona's in Serie A, and would fancy their chances against Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano or Carles Puyol, if isolated.
But in midfield Barcelona would have the upper hand – which as a result would protect their defense. Xavi is probably the best dictator and dominator there has ever been – his partnership and understanding with Iniesta would ensure that Barcelona controlled much of the possession. If the game was played in 2011, these two creative geniuses would find an opening to unlock the Milan defense. In 1989, Baresi's offside trap would pose the diminutive duo an interesting question.
Milan would use more width than Barcelona. Donadoni would cause havoc down Barcelona's left side, ably supported by Tassotti, and would do the same along with Maldini when regularly drifting to the left. Barca's full-backs would struggle to penetrate going the other way. Tassotti was by no means the model right-back individually but he would cope with any forward runs from an Abidal, Maxwell or Adriano, while the rampant Dani Alves would not bypass the world's greatest ever left-back in Maldini, a phenomenon from his teenage years.
Barcelona's best offensive weapon would be Messi dropping into the hole to take advantage of the space in front of the Milan back four. While Rijkaard and Ancelotti would both take turns in sitting deep, 20 years ago there wasn't the emphasis there is now on an anchor man. Milan would aim to stop Messi as a team via their pressing system, which as already explained would be infinitely less successful in 2011 than in 1989.
On corners and set-pieces, Milan would be the more equipped. Barcelona has a small side, with only Pique, Abidal, Busquets and Mascherano/Puyol able to seriously challenge on high balls. The entire Milan back four plus the three Dutchmen were all outstanding in the air, and would expect to threaten the opposition at dead balls. On direct free kicks, neither side possesses a true specialist, while on the counter attack both XIs boast an abundance of pace.
In terms of squad depth, 99 percent of top clubs have much bigger rosters today than they did two decades ago. Ironically, Barcelona do not, yet it would still have slightly more quality to come off the bench than Milan. Barca could (in 2011) call on the services of Alexis Sanchez, Thiago Alcantara, Seydou Keita and Ibrahim Afellay among others, whereas Milan (1989) would turn to Daniele Massaro, Pietro Paolo Virdis, Alberigo Evani, Filippo Galli and Roberto Mussi before having to use youngsters.
Final Score: Milan win on away goals
Milan is more complete, physical and tactical with greater width to its game, has a stronger defense and an additionally clinical and well-rounded attack. It is also better aerially and from corners and set-pieces. Barcelona is more entertaining, agile and technical, superior in the middle of the park, has a higher class goalkeeper and midfield, and more skilful offense - thanks to Messi.
Ultimately it would depend in whose era the tie was played as to which side would win. In 1989, expect Milan to break the deadlock on a Van Basten header from a Donadoni cross, and then maintain a 1-0 lead through intelligence and tactical smarts. In 2011, Barcelona would take advantage of the faster, synthetic game and the passive offside rule to locate holes and pressure Milan in a way they wouldn't have been able to in 1989. Messi and Villa would net for the Blaugrana, but such is Milan's firepower that Sacchi's men would reply with a single goal of their own through Van Basten or Gullit.
Sacchi exclusively told Goal.com a few weeks ago that "I coached the best team in history." His claims are upheld in this analysis - Milan win 1-0 in their 1989 home leg, Barcelona 2-1 in its 2011 hosting - as the Rossoneri emerge victorious on away goals!
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