The Greatest Barça Forward of the Modern Era: A Debate in Numbers and Style

I ran across a tweet a few weeks ago that questioned who was better in blaugrana, Samuel Eto’o or Luis Suarez. My immediate reaction was that Eto’o was better, but that was, upon even a brief further reflection, based entirely on how much I love Eto’o, not on what he actually accomplished compared to Luis Suarez. And so I set about to compare the 2 in as many ways as possible to answer for myself which of the players I would rather have in my squad.

First, some ground rules: I am simply comparing them as well as possible in a simplistic manner. I’m not claiming that I will be able to tell you who had more take-ons or key passes because I simply don’t have access to that information. Had I more information, I would do more, but I think there’s a lot missing, especially from Eto’o’s statistics, that we’re going to leave to the side simply because it will be hard or impossible to compare apples to apples.

Second, there are nuances to this that are going to escape because of time and place. Samuel Eto’o was born in 1981 and Luis Suarez in 1987, which makes them not so far apart in age, but they happen to be from what I think of as distinct eras in football: pre-2009 and post-2009. Interestingly enough, Eto’o continued to play professionally until 2019, just 1 year ago when he ended his career at Qatar SC, but he had spent the previous 8 years since his departure from Inter Milan in 2011 playing in what amounted to a variety of backwater clubs: Anzhi Makhachkala, Antalyaspor, Konyaspor, Chelsea. Luis Suarez spent those same 8 years in the extreme top flight at the peak of his career: Liverpool and Barça. And it just happens to be that it’s those 2 teams that can be most clearly credited with the current trend of physical and technical level in top flight football (probably along with Bayern Munich, shoutout to madman Bielsa).

At 39, Eto’o feels like he’s from a bygone time. At 33, Luis Suarez feels like he is simply aging out of the requirements for Champions League caliber clubs, as is natural. It’s a world of difference and comparing them will be difficult based on this and the differing demands clubs place on their players now than in 2004 when Eto’o signed from Mallorca.

To the numbers and memories:

Eto’o had 5 years with Barça, Suarez had 6. This is not an insignificant difference necessarily, but we’re not exactly comparing the contributions of Hleb to Xavi either. Eto’o’s years were my years of truly becoming a Barça fan and when my financial situation allowed, I became a soci towards the very end of his time at the club. I had been smitten in 2001 by the club, but college interrupted many of those years and only in the spring of 2004 did I really truly become devoted. Suarez’s years, by contrast, were spent atop a mountain of trophies and included my absolutely brilliant trip to Berlin for the 2015 Champions League final. Yet Eto’o exists in the past where nostalgia reigns supreme and Suarez in the present, where boardroom shenanigans make for regular headlines. Before, there were questions of squad direction; now there are questions of debt servicing. And neither of those things are on the players, of course, but they color how we remember certain things.

If you came to the club in 2014, you could be forgiven for thinking that 2015 was the pinnacle. If you came to the club in 2010, you could be forgiven for arching an eyebrow at those who say Samuel Eto’o was devastating, given what you witnessed from Messi in 2012 alone. If you came to the club in 1991, you could laugh at everyone who forgets that Wembley was a place of reverence for the true Barça fan long before Pep was Pep. Back then, he was just Pep.

But Samuel Eto’o was devastating. He played in 199 matches, scoring 130 goals and assisting* 29 times. That’s an average of 40 matches, 26 goals, and just shy of 6 assists a season. He accounted for 23% of the goals scored during his time with the club, including a couple of years where he only made about half of the matches due to injury. That’s impressive.

Luis Suarez, though, has been equally devastating: 283 matches, scoring 198 goals and assisting* 92 times. That’s an average of just over 47 matches, 33 goals, and just over 15 assists a season for 6 consecutive years. He accounted for 22% of the goals scored during his time at the club. That’s impressive.

*Assist information was a little difficult to put together and the match and goal tallies didn’t necessarily match the assist information I was able to find here (big shoutout to jwood for finding this), so I took the most reliable match/goal information and added the assist numbers I could find. It could be off a little bit, but the numbers are divergent enough that the broad questions are answered with the available information.

If we break it down into a table, we’ll see that Suarez has the more impressive numbers, overall:

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But if we adjust for number of games played, we see a slightly different story:

If Eto’o had played 283 matches and scored and assisted at the exact same rate, he would have 185 goals and 42 assists. We don’t have to guess as to what Suarez may have gotten had he played only 199 games like Eto’o. In his first 4 seasons, Suarez played 198 matches scoring 152 goals and assisting on a further 70 goals.

So, in short, Suarez had more total matches, more matches per season, more goals, more assists, more goals per match, and more assists per match. Take out penalties (8 for Eto’o and 11 for Suarez) and the numbers are actually worse for Eto’o. Yes, Suarez played with a better version of Messi and also had Neymar for a bit, but it’s not as if Eto’o was being played in by cadavers. Ronaldinho, Deco, Henry, Yaya, Thuram, Abidal, Keita, Marquez, and Dani Alves were all on the field with him at various points. And that excludes the Spanish core of the team: Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Pedro, and Valdes. Am I forgetting anyone? Oh right, Messi was there too.

It’s also not as if Eto’o didn’t show up in big games: he scored the first goal for Barça in the 2006 and 2009 Champions League finals, equalizing against Arsenal and taking the lead against Manchester United en route to the first treble in history.

Eto’o, of course, was 23 when he joined Barça and 28 when he left. Suarez was 27 when he joined and is currently 33, so you could argue that Eto’o was growing into his prime when he was jettisoned in favor of Zlatan while Suarez was theoretically in his prime and is now tailing off (rather rapidly). What could have been is definitely a question, but he made 48 appearances, scoring just 16 times and assisting 7 for Inter Milan during their treble year. For what it’s worth, that same year a 22- year old Luis Suarez was at Ajax and also appeared in 48 matches. He scored 49 goals and got 20 assists.

There’s an argument to be made that Eto’o contributed every time he was on the field for every minute he was out there while with Suarez we have seen that his tank is basically empty – and has been. Look at the goal returns by season and the goals per game over the course of their Barça careers:

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When Eto’o was on the field, he delivered. Period. But he faced a few injury layoffs that Suarez has not. That’s arguably a point in Suarez’s favor as durability is always a big deal (it should be noted that Suarez would have been injured this season had it not been for the pandemic moving the season 4 months down the road). After he left Barça, Eto’o played in 48 matches in 2009-10 and 53 matches in 2010-11. His move to Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011 saw a precipitous decline in his time on the field: only once in the next 8 years did he appear more than 35 times (44 times for Anzhi in 2012-13).

Suarez, on the other hand? Only once in his career has he appeared in fewer than 35 matches in a season: his debut season where he made 34 appearances for Nacional (in 2010-11 he appeared 24 times for Ajax and 13 times for Liverpool after transferring in January).

I do wonder, though, what would have happened had Eto’o stayed instead of being flipped for Ibrahimovic. If he had stayed healthy and played 48 matches for Barça in 2009-10 and scored as many goals per match as he did in 2008-09, he would have scored 33 more goals, taking his 6-year total to 163. It still wouldn’t have compared to Suarez’s 198 (the 3rd most in team history, after all—Eto’o is T-8th and would be 7th with 163), but there might be fewer questions about Samu.

It is perhaps worth nothing that internationally, the players are almost the same in terms of goal output: Eto’o played in 118 matches for Cameroon and scored 56 times; Suarez has played 113 matches and scored 59 times. Suarez has played for arguably both a better national team and faced a tougher schedule, so take that as you will. I imagine that Suarez assists players like Forlan and Cavani more than Eto’o assists players like Pierre Webó or Choupo-Moting (good players in their own right, but simply put not as good as Suarez’s teammates).

And so: who was better in the colors, Suarez or Eto’o? My answer is Suarez. Who was my favorite between the two? Eto’o forever and ever. Not only is yelling “Samuuuuu” way more fun than “Urguashooooo” but also Eto’o never racially abused or bit anyone. Suarez was better on the field and you’d be forgiven for signing him instead of Eto’o, but the Cameroonian was part of the generation of players who changed the club forever, who grew it from a big club to the big club.

Eto’o was there for the Rijkaard years of rejuvenation and he was there for Pep’s first year when he revolutionized Barça and football in general. He was the sacrificial – um – lion to a system that required new blood, new moves, new adaptations. And he probably should have stayed given just how good he was, but the allure of Ibrahimovic was too much (and understandably so – adding him was brilliant, until it wasn’t). The modern success was built on the backs of men like Eto’o and he should never be disparaged simply because he did not contribute as much as someone who came after him.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.