Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid were frustrated in the Madrid Derby – and have been frustrated throughout the first three months of the season. (Getty)
Three months into the European club season seems like an appropriate time to pose a question that intermittently nags at minds across the globe: Who is the best soccer team in the world?
It’s a question that’s impossible to answer definitively. It’s therefore one that’s wildly entertaining to consider. And it’s the exact question that will guide the newest biweekly feature here at FC Yahoo, our World Soccer Power Rankings – a 1-20 annotated list of the top club teams around the globe.
We’ll roll them out every other Thursday, with the goal of answering that question, but with the understanding that it is unanswerable – and that the hypothetical, non-existent answer is ever-changing. A tangential goal, though, will be to minimize those changes. That speaks to what these rankings actually are.
They are not an assessment of who has been better. They are not an assessment of who was better last weekend. They are an assessment of who is better. They are a very subjective attempt to strip away temporary swings in form and isolate a team’s true performance level.
In that sense, they are forward-looking. They’re not long-term projections. But they’re certainly not overly reactive. This is a hot-take-free zone.
It’s also important to clarify that, despite spanning Europe, the rankings are not solely based on Champions League performance or continental title odds. In fact, they’re more so based on domestic competitions, simply due to match frequency. The Champions League is approaching its two-month, post-group stage hiatus. Our Power Rankings will rumble on while it’s dormant.
And finally, there’s an admission to make. It’s darn near impossible to watch every top 20 contender on a weekly basis. We’ll keep tabs on all 20-plus. But there are only so many hours in a day, and therefore only so many words on this page. In lieu of extended paragraphs on each club, we’ll go in-depth on a few, and very brief on the rest.
But throughout the course of the season, there will be significant discussion of every team that makes an appearance. I invite you to continue that discussion on Twitter, or via email. Just make sure you read the rankings first …
WORLD SOCCER POWER RANKINGS — THURSDAY, NOV. 23
1. Manchester City — A great example of the rationale that governs power rankings. The Citizens sleepwalked through 90 minutes at the Etihad on Tuesday. Their 1-0 victory over Feyenoord was far from the most impressive in Europe this week. But they’ve been consistently resplendent since September.
2. PSG — Twenty-four goals in five Champions League matches. Incredible. Unheard of. Historically potent.
3. Barcelona — Question marks still linger, but Messi and company are still rolling.
4. Napoli — The world is a better place the more Napoli plays football. … OK, that’s hyperbole. But the Champions League would certainly be better off with Napoli in the knockout stages. Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk kept the Serie A leaders alive in Europe.
5. Real Madrid — Real is so fascinatingly difficult to analyze because memories of last year are still so fresh, and because its core remains almost completely intact. Madrid’s first 11 is still the most talented in the world. The vexing question is why they’ve faltered. Has age caught up with the 11, and a shallow bench provided insufficient relief? Have the back-to-back European champs lost their edge? Have they simply spent too much time around each other, thus straining the sinews of relationships? Have they lost their cohesion? Have Zidane’s tactics gone stale? Is this all just an extended fluke?
The first of those questions certainly contribute to the overall answer. Marco Asensio aside, the bench on a given matchday is often startlingly lacking. That’s left the Cristiano Ronaldo-Karim Benzema pairing to flop and flail in La Liga without a Plan B to offset their ineffectiveness. They’ve been as bad as you’ve heard.
But for all Madrid’s shortcomings, luck has played into this too. The last question above contributes to the overall answer as well. Los Blancos aren’t just better than they’ve shown; they’ve been better than their results show. They’re almost certainly still the second-best team in La Liga, and maybe the best. If their chance creation stays consistently great and their finishing normalizes, they’ll be fine. And “fine” for Real Madrid means one of the top three teams in the world.
6. Bayern Munich — Nobody does the unconvincing-but-still-very-impressive nine-game winning streak like Bayern does.
7. Manchester United — The “with Paul Pogba” sample size is still very small.
8. Juventus — A wild 3-2 loss at upstart Sampdoria was Juve’s second of the Serie A campaign, and bumped it into third place, four points back of league-leader Napoli.
9. Tottenham — Losses to Arsenal and Manchester United were the exceptions, not the rule.
10. Chelsea — With N’Golo Kante back, and both halves of the Eden Hazard-Alvaro Morata partnership fit and firing, there are hints that Chelsea could be on the verge of hitting its stride.
11. Roma — There’s absolutely no shame in losing 2-0 at Atletico Madrid – with a slightly weakened team, in a relatively even game, just four days after a massive derby win.
12. Atletico Madrid — Since Diego Simeone began to imprint his philosophy and style on Atletico, the other team in the Spanish capital has alternated between true title contender and La Liga third-wheeler. Last season fell into the latter category. But this season looks set to interrupt the pattern.
And that’s not just because Simeone’s side already sits 10 points behind Barcelona. It’s because the performances, specifically with the ball, haven’t been good enough. Atleti isn’t turning defense into attack with any regularity, and its catalysts have been strangely quiet. Antoine Griezmann, amid seemingly incessant transfer rumors, is mired in an inexplicable slump. He hasn’t scored in the league since Sept. 23. The playmaking of Koke, Saul and Yannick Carrasco has been curtailed. And while Vitolo waits in the wings, ineligible until January because of the transfer ban, Fernando Torres, Kevin Gameiro and Angel Correa have been inconsistent at best.
Atleti can still grind with the best of them. It went nose-to-nose with both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and came away with two draws. But it’s scored just 16 goals in 12 La Liga matches, and unlike its crosstown rivals, the underlying numbers don’t expect that rate to explode in the near future.
Simeone has been able to compete with Spain’s big two in the past without a high-flying attack. There’s no reason he wouldn’t be able to do the same this year. Both Barca and Real are somewhat vulnerable. But this attack isn’t just “not high-flying”; it’s stuck to the ground. It has likely condemned Atleti to third in its Champions League group as well. Something has to change.
13. Arsenal — They always have one or two narrative-busting wins. Saturday’s over Spurs was one. But they never quite replicate them with enough consistency. There are signs that this Gunners team is significantly better than last year’s, but let’s not go overboard.
14. Inter Milan — Not as high-flying as Napoli, not as proven as Juve, but still unbeaten.
15. Liverpool — The most flawed good team in Europe.
16. Valencia — La Liga’s surprise package is wildly overperforming its Expected Goals. It’s in second and still unbeaten, but don’t be surprised if the slide begins soon – and not only because Barcelona visits the Mestalla on Sunday.
17. Dortmund — It’s all gone wrong at Dortmund. Peter Bosz’s side hasn’t won in the Bundesliga or Champions League since September. And with Bosz under so much pressure, it’s worth investigating what’s behind the 180-degree southward turn.
The reality is that both the hot start – which prompted talk of a real Bundesliga title race – and the steep regression are outliers. Dortmund flew out of the gates with 21 goals and two conceded in its first seven Bundesliga matches. Its defense wasn’t breached at all until the sixth of those seven. But the success at that end of the field was accompanied by hefty skepticism. A very similar defensive unit had conceded 40 in the league a year prior, and Bosz wasn’t exactly renowned for his defensive solidity.
In fact, the Dutchman’s system has further exposed a frail back line and goalkeeper. Omer Toprak, Marc Bartra and Neven Subotic haven’t been able to withstand the immense pressure Bosz’s reckless press places on its center backs. Left back has been a problem. Roman Burki’s performance in goal has left much to be desired. And while Julian Weigl and Nuri Sahin are good on the ball in deep midfield positions, neither is a sturdy enough shield for the back four.
Dortmund and pressing have become synonymous, and Bosz isn’t about to stray from his managerial identity. Nor should he. The system itself isn’t the problem. Sticking with it, Dortmund can and should be better than it’s been. Christian Pulisic’s return from a brief injury absence will help. At full-strength, BVB is still the second-best team in Germany. But the last two months have been dreadful.
18. RB Leipzig — Leipzig fans would probably dispute the second-to-last sentence above. On current form, it’d be tough to argue with them (though Schalke might have a say in that argument as well).
19. Sevilla — Our thoughts are with manager Eduardo Berizzo, who revealed to his players on Sunday that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Two days later, those players came back from 3-0 down at halftime to draw Liverpool 3-3.
20. Lazio — The Rome Derby was built up as a litmus test of Lazio’s legitimacy. It ended in a 2-1 loss, but didn’t delegitimize the Biancocelesti’s strong Serie A start.
Best of the Rest: Porto, Monaco, Lyon, Schalke
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.