City vs Barcelona: Two of the Greatest Football teams
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The 15 Greatest Football Teams of All Time: Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United & More

The criteria for a truly great football team can vary. For some, greatness is defined by silverware. For others, greatness is defined by aesthetics. In the information age, greatness is defined by efficiency. The truth, as with most vaguely quantifiable declarations, is a combination of those principles.

Striking that fine balance between success, entertainment, and proficiency is the ultimate aspiration of most managers. Even the most pragmatic coach will bristle at the idea that they instruct a brand of ugly, sterile, or, worst of all, “boring” football. (Looking at you, José.) Conversely, a genius manager with a beautiful vision of the game as a fluid art form will be run out of town on a rail if results do not follow suit. (Eventually, you do have to shoot the ball, Arsène.) At the very least, the search for the elusive perfect balance requires one of these visionary managers and a squad of the most talented players ever to walk the earth.

“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”

– Johan Cruyff

The Criteria

The essence of playing any sport is winning. While strategies vary, the ultimate goal remains consistent: securing “Silverware.” Thus, we emphasise these achievements, excluding less significant events like the Club World Cup and smaller tournaments.

Our assessment also considers “Entertainment Value,” acknowledging that a dull style could lead to fan and board dissatisfaction. Common factors like gameplay speed and goal count contribute to this evaluation.

Other factors we have taken into account include: “Homegrown Talent,” which refers to players developed within the club, sometimes including young talents nurtured by the club’s coaches.

Star Power” encompasses iconic players celebrated for their creativity and skill, though opinions may differ. However, it is worth noting that some legends could be considered irreplaceable on one squad but expendable on another, i.e., Zlatan Ibrahimović on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Longevity is a challenging criterion. Few teams maintain success for extended periods. Sustaining high performance against competition and avoiding complacency is exceptionally demanding. However, the greatest teams do, which is why this is included as part of the criteria.

It’s important to note that this analysis pertains to the modern era. Changes in sports science, nutrition, and culture have transformed the game, making comparisons with past decades problematic. The advancements have led to faster, stronger players. For instance, the fastest Olympic 100-meter times have occurred in recent decades.

In essence, today’s football is swifter and more robust, making direct matchups with past teams improbable.

Top 15 Greatest Football Teams of All Time

15. Louis van Gaal’s Ajax of 1992-1996

Noted Accolades: Eredivisie Champions (93/94, 94/95, 95/96), KNVB Cup (92/93), Champions League (94/95), Champions League Finals (94/95, 95/96)

Defining stat: Undefeated in all domestic league and Champions League matches (95).

Legends: Dennis Bergkamp, Frank de Boar, Ronald de Boar, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar

  • Silverware: B+
  • Entertainment: B –
  • Homegrown Talent: A+
  • Star Power: B+
  • Longevity: B –
  • AVG League Position: 1.0

Despite being a devout student of fellow Dutchman Johan Cruyff’s famous 4-3-3 “Total Football” method, Louis van Gaal produced a markedly different style from his idol. Personified by their manager’s own notoriously rigid and methodical character, van Gaal’s Ajax Revolution was defined by set roles and distinct patterns of play. Possession was paramount, as LVG’s mantra was that your opponent cannot score if they do not have the ball.

Mostly favouring traditional technical Dutch players, LVG dominated the Netherlands and Europe with his deliberate brand of pressing football. His further development of youth players from the club’s famous academy ushered in the most successful era since Cruyff’s own silver-laden squads of the 1970s. Unfortunately, by 1998, LVG’s Ajax had completely collapsed as a result of talent raids from almost every major club in Europe.

14. José Mourinho’s Chelsea of 2005-2007

Noted Accolades: Premier League Champions (05, 06), FA Cup Winners (07), League Cup Winners (05, 07)

Defining Stat: Least number of goals conceded in Premier League history (15 goals allowed; 05).

Legends: Richard Carvalho, Petr Čech, Joe Cole, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Claude Makélélé, Arjen Robben, John Terry

  • Silverware: B
  • Entertainment: C+
  • Homegrown Talent: C+
  • Star Power: B
  • Longevity: C+
  • AVG League Position: 1.6

Splashing into London by christening himself “The Special One” after his incredible Champions League run with mile-long-shot Porto, José took full advantage of billionaire new owner Roman Abramovich’s tangible ambition. Setting multiple domestic records for money spent, Mourinho built an impenetrable defence around academy stalwart John Terry and legendary goalkeeper Petr Čech.

The moody Portuguese manager joined the heavyweight fight at the top of the Premier League, which had previously only included Arsenal and Manchester United, by bringing in powerful target man Didier Drogba and Dutch magician Arjen Robben.

Combative press conferences, gruelling defensive play, lightning counterattacks, and ruthless finishes from Lampard and Drogba characterised Mourinho’s first term at Chelsea. As with all of José’s managerial stints, the end of his reign was an angry and bitter divorce amid the flaming wreckage of preceding success.

13. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool 2017-2022

Noted Accolades: Premier League Winners (20), Champions League Winners (19), FA Cup Winners (22), League Cup Winners (22), Champions League Finalists (18, 19, 22).

Defining Stats: Despite winning only one title during this period, they achieved two of the highest point totals in Premier League history with 99 and 97. Also played in three Champions League finals in 5 years, tying several other teams in European history.

Legends: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alisson, Fabinho, Sadio Mané, Andrew Robertson, Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk

  • Silverware: B –
  • Entertainment: A
  • Homegrown Talent: C
  • Star Power: B
  • Longevity: B
  • AVG League Position: 2.8

Decades starved and seemingly snakebitten in league play, Liverpool turned to charismatic German football architect Jürgen Klopp to conquer their demons and challenge Manchester City’s lavish sporting project. Early results were disappointing: the Scousers limped into 8th place in Klopp’s first year and finished 4th in the following campaign, never challenging for a trophy in any meaningful manner. But fortunes were to change with the purchase of the rapid Egyptian lefty Mohamed Salah in 2017.

Salah, along with Senegalese speedster Sadio Mané and selfless Brazilian frontman Roberto Firmino, formed an overwhelming strike force in an unremitting attack. Still listing a bit in the defensive half, balance arrived with the purchase of Dutch strongman Virgil van Dijk and Brazilian goalkeeping savant Alisson. Having effectively closed the backdoor, Klopp’s Liverpool continually challenged European supremacy. However, despite playing in three European finals and racking up a multitude of points in league play, Liverpool only won four major trophies during this period of ascendancy.

12. Viscente del Bosque’s Real Madrid 2000-2002

Noted Accolades: Champions League Winners (00, 02), La Liga Winners (03)

Defining Stat: Despite a team of the most entertaining and famous footballers ever assembled, the Galacticos only won La Liga once during this stretch.

Legends: Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas, Luis Figo, Fernando Hierro, Fernando Morientes, Claude Makélélé, Raul, Ronaldo, Clarence Seedorf, Zinedine Zidane

  • Silverware: B-
  • Entertainment: A+
  • Homegrown Talent: B-
  • Star Power: A+
  • Longevity: C+
  • AVG League Position: 3.0

The idea of the “Galactico Era” describes a fairly loose time frame in Real Madrid’s history. Most mark the start as the record purchase of Zinedine Zidane from Juventus, but the truth is that would cut out at least one Champions League trophy secured in the preceding years.

In reality, the Galactico Era was defined by the financial power of Real Madrid and not their on-field success. Zidane, Figo, and Ronaldo dazzled and created possibly the highest ceiling for entertaining football we have ever seen. Roberto Carlos reinvented the attacking prowess of an outside back, flying forward and often in the box during attacks. In his first season, Zidane scored a phenomenal winner in the Champions League final, and Real Madrid looked on the precipice of dominance.

The stoic del Bosque favoured a deliberate approach with his team roles but gave creative licence to his savants. Perhaps due to an overload of creativity, the team had a noticeable imbalance and lacked the character of gritty, selfless players required for sustained success. Moving forward, the team often flopped out of European competitions in the early knockout stages and failed to impress, going trophyless for the following three seasons.

11. Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal 1998-2006

Noted Accolades: Premier League Winners (98, 02, 04), FA Cup Winners (98, 02, 03), Champions League finalists (06)

Defining Stat: Completed the entire 2003-04 Premier League season without a defeat.

Legends: Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Cesc Fàbregas, Jens Lehmann, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Patrick Viera

  • Silverware: B
  • Entertainment: B+
  • Homegrown Talent: B
  • Star Power: B+
  • Longevity: B+
  • AVG League Position: 1.0

Coming off an impressive debut Premier League and FA Cup double in 1998, visionary French manager Arséne Wenger set about revolutionising Arsenal Football Club. Placing the ball at the feet of his dastardly winger, Thierry Henry, Wenger assaulted Prem defences with a possession-based build-up coupled with a comprehensive midfield overload. Arsenal patiently passed the ball around the box and waited for the decisive run before shooting.

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The composed technique under pressure characterised a squad built with fluidity at the forefront. Wenger battled with Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson head-to-head and fist-to-fist on the sidelines and in all competitions, creating some of the most contentious and monumental matchups in the history of the sport and ushering in a new global fanbase for the Premier League to find its financial dominance on. Wenger’s failure to win the Champions League in any of his 24 years at the club is a slight stain on an otherwise outstanding career.

10. José Mourinho’s Inter Milan 2009-2010

Noted Accolades: Serie A Winners (09, 10), Coppa Italia Winners (10), Champions League Winners (10)

Defining Stats: In 2010, completed a stunning treble, winning Serie A, the Coppa Italia, and the Champions League.

Legends: Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Lúcio, Maicon, Diego Milito, Wesley Sneijder, Javier Zanetti

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment: C+
  • Homegrown Talent: B-
  • Star Power: B
  • Longevity: C-
  • AVG League Position: 1.0

Rising like a scorched peacock from the ashes of his Chelsea tenure, José Mourinho brought all of his dark magic and gritty devices to the blue half of Milan in 2008. At Inter, Mourinho was given the freedom to win by any means necessary and encouraged to play the tetchy football he had patented at Porto and Chelsea. In his first season, he won Serie A and established Inter as the team to beat in Italy.

Following a transformative offseason where Zlatan and Samuel Eto’o swapped clubs and players with defensive weakness or questionable commitment were shipped out (Figo, Adriano, Veira), the Special One tailored a pristinely balanced club built in his own gritty image. Inter showcased a host of dedicated and professional footballers, including captain Javier Zanetti and Ballon d’Or threat attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder, all focused on one objective: defeating their opponents by a single goal.

Mourinho achieved this and every ambition the club had set, winning a glorious treble before jetting off to Real Madrid before he could sour his amazing triumphs by being himself.

9. Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan 2003-2007

Noted Accolades: Serie A Champions (04), Champions League Winners (03, 06), Champions League finalists (03, 05, 06), Coppa Italia Winners (03)

Defining Stat: Lost the 2005 Champions League final to Liverpool after taking a 3-0 lead into halftime.

Legends: Cafu, Rui Costa, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Kaká, Paolo Maldini, Alejandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Andriy Shevchenko

  • Silverware: B+
  • Entertainment: B-
  • Homegrown Talent: B+
  • Star Power: B+
  • Longevity: B-
  • AVG League Position: 2.75

It is a testament to the cruelty of the game of football that Carlo Ancelotti’s brilliant AC Milan team of the early 2000s is known for the collapse in Istanbul. It could also be a testament to the understated personality of the man himself, as Ancelotti’s method has always appeared to be quiet but impactful. Having played for a superb Milan team in the 1980s, the Italian manager was bred to manage the tactically brilliant stars and set a standard for European success for years to come. While the team itself was not built on pace, their decision-making and intelligence within the contest were marvellous.

The legendary spine of Maldini, Nesta, Gattuso, and Pirlo dictated every progression like the conductors of a grand orchestra. Classic Italian methodical procession met precise movement when the deep playmakers sprayed balls in for the marauding Kaká or Shevchenko, with Inzaghi, one of the game’s greatest poachers, always lurking in the half-space. Three-time Champions League finalists but only one-time Serie A winners, Ancelotti’s AC Milan always saved their best performances for Europe.

8. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City 2017-2019

Noted Accolades: Premier League Champions (18, 19), FA Cup Winners (19), League Cup Winners (18, 19)

Defining Stats: Premier League record 100 points (18), Premier League record for most goals scored (106; 18), English domestic treble (19), longest consecutive winning streak in Premier League history (18 matches).

Legends: Sergio Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, Ederson, Vicent Kompany, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker

  • Silverware: B+
  • Entertainment: B
  • Homegrown Talent: D
  • Star Power: B
  • Longevity: A-
  • AVG League Position: 1.67

Following a sobering campaign and a distant third-place finish in his first year in the Premier League, Pep Guardiola set his course for a full-categorical rebuild of Manchester City Football Club. Controversially funded by the oil state of the United Arab Emirates, Manchester City broke a multitude of positional and seasonal transfer records, including the most spent for a centre back, right back, left back, and goalkeeper, all to the tune of approximately £600 million over three years. Never in the history of the sport had a brilliant manager been given the funds and control to build the exact team he required from top to bottom.

With the quickest and most technical players in the world, Guardiola’s playing style mixed Cruyff’s attacking fluidity with a devastating Catalonian pressing defensive style, passing teams to death after frantically recovering possession. Pep’s plan came to full fruition in 2018 as the Blues steamrolled their way to 100 points in the league and smashed the Premier League goal-scoring record on the way. The following season was a near miss on their own impressive record as City produced a stunning 98-point encore.

However, despite constructing the most dominating seasons in Premier League history, Pep’s dream team was astonishingly disappointing in the Champions League, never reaching a final during this period.

7. Luis Enrique’s Barcelona 2015-2017

Noted Accolades: La Liga Winners (15, 16), Copa del Rey Winners (15, 16, 17), Champions League Winners (15)

Defining Stats: In 2015, completed a brilliant treble, winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. Also, won the Copa del Rey all three years during this period.

Legends: Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gerard Piqué, Luis Suárez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Xavi

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment: A
  • Homegrown Talent: B
  • Star Power: A
  • Longevity: B-
  • AVG League Position: 1.33

In 2015, despite an offseason where they transferred out superb talents Cesc Fàbregas, Alexis Sánchez and lost generational captain Carles Puyol to retirement, Enrique’s Barcelona dazzled, collecting a trophy from every major competition they entered.

Averaging 107 goals scored and 27 conceded over three seasons in La Liga, this iteration of Barcelona built its power on perhaps the most talented trio to ever frighten a backline. Neymar, Messi, and Suárez tricked and flicked their way to 122 goals in all competitions, the most ever for three players on the same team.

Using a variety of tactical plans and strategies, Enrique fittingly funnelled his offence through wide forwards Lionel Messi and Neymar and pressed centre forward Luis Suárez relentlessly through the middle.

In the summer of the 2016–17 season, Luis Enrique announced he would be leaving after the season. Rumours of boardroom disputes and intense conflict with Enrique himself swirled under the leadership of elected team president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Flying off the financial boon from their success, Barcelona began to make strange and poor financial decisions, wasting almost a billion euros on failed transfers in the following years and bringing the club to the edge of bankruptcy.

6. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid 2016-2018

Notable Accolades: La Liga Champions (17), UEFA Champions League Winners (16, 17, 18)

Defining Stats: Despite three relatively pedestrian domestic campaigns by their own lofty standards, completed a historic and astounding Champions League three-peat.

Legends: Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Keylor Navas, Luka Modrić, Marcelo, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphaël Varane

  • Silverware: A-
  • Entertainment Value: A-
  • Homegrown Talent: D
  • Star Power: A+
  • Longevity: B+
  • AVG League Position: 2

In 2009, the purchase of Balon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo from English juggernaut Manchester United sent shock waves through the football world. Prior to the transfer, Real Madrid had a relative lull in results, especially considering their historic pedigree and the money spent building their glamorous squads. Despite a marked improvement in domestic results, Ronaldo and a number of other future Balon d’Or winners, including Karim Benzema and Luka Modrić, did not challenge for the Champions League until 2014, winning that title and the league under Carlo Ancelotti.

Alas, the euphoria was cut short as, in the subsequent season, Ancelotti was sacked following another disappointing exit in the Champions League. After an embarrassing half-season under Rafa Benítez in 2016, Real Madrid appointed mystical icon Zinedine Zidane as the new manager.

Zizou, who had been marshalling Real’s reserve team Castilla but had no first-division experience of any kind, was seen as a caretaking manager to finish out the failing campaign with low expectations. However, the Frenchman showed a remarkable sense of tactical balance, and the uber-talented side began to play a simpler style tailored around each player’s best individual role rather than a rigid team system.

Kroos and Modrić were used to shuttle the ball forward from the defence. Wingbacks Marcelo and Dani Carvajal spread to the touchlines, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to occupy the inside defence. Bale alternated between a traditional winger role and an inside forward, depending on the positioning and depth of selfless all-around centre forward Karim Benzema.

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Real Madrid defeated Atlético Madrid in a shootout in a tense Champions League final under the leadership of Ronaldo, who had one of his best goal-scoring seasons. Zidane had earned the trust of the fanbase and the board. A La Liga championship medal served as the season’s capstone, and a 4-1 thrashing of Juventus in the Champions League final served as an appropriate example. Los Blancos were at the pinnacle of the football world, playing exhilarating but balanced football with a host of stars deftly managed by that man Zidane.

However, as sensationally as the ascension had begun, the team’s decline commenced. The squad showed unmistakable signs of complacency and restlessness. The domestic campaign was borderline humiliating, as Real finished 17 points behind Barcelona in third place. Zidane was to be inevitably sacked at the end of the season. Nevertheless, the team still had a penchant for European magic, as Ronaldo scored 15 times in 13 matches, steering the team past Liverpool in yet another Champions League final. Zidane resigned days after this historic European threepeat, with his mystic status fittingly strengthened.  

5. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City 2021-Current

Noted Accolades: Premier League Winners (21, 22, 23), League Cup Winners (21), FA Cup Winners (23), Champions League Winners (23), Champions League finalists (21, 23)

Defining Stats: Completed a dominant treble in 2023, winning the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League. Won three Premier League titles in a row.

Legends: Kevin De Bruyne, Rúben Dias, Ederson, İlkay Gündoğan, Erling Haaland, Rodri, Bernardo Silva

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment Value: B+
  • Homegrown Talent: D
  • Star Power: B+
  • Longevity: A-
  • Average League Position: 1.0

Following a 2020 season in which they were a surprisingly distant second to Klopp’s 99-point Liverpool and another disappointing Champions League exit, Guardiola reinforced his centerbacks and began to sow seeds for the replacement of Sergio Agüero. Back-to-back league titles followed, but still, the Champions League trophy eluded the most expensive sporting project ever attempted. Fortunately for Pep, help arrived in the hulking form of Erling Haaland, a Norwegian giant most adept at finishing any and all opportunities presented.

Haaland scored 36 league goals and 52 goals in all competitions, leading an inevitable title march, despite a 10-point deficit in April, as well as a cantor to that illusive Holy Grail: a Champions League trophy. Pep had added a blunt and overpowering hammer to his usual array of fantastically elite tools, reaching new heights even for a Guardiola squad.

There appears to be no ceiling for this finely balanced team, although the cloud of 115 charges presented by the Premier League for Financial Fair Play breaches threatens to stain future and past success.

4. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 2007-2013

Notable Accolades: Premier League Winners (07, 08, 09, 11, 13), League Cup (09, 10), UEFA Champions League Winners (08), UEFA Champions League finalists (08, 09, 11)

Defining Stats: Won three Premier League titles in a row. Set the Premier League record for consecutive clean sheets with 14.

Legends: Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Carlos Tevez, Edwin van der Sar, Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidić

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment Value: B+
  • Homegrown Talent: B+
  • Star Power: A
  • Longevity: A
  • Average League Position: 1.2

Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams were always lauded for their exciting counterattacks and carefully encouraged individual brilliance. However, the truth about this United squad is that even with one of the most exciting offences ever assembled, it was actually built on a steel curtain defence.

After the famous treble of 1999, United won the Premier League in 2000 and 2003 but failed to make any significant advances in the Champions League. From 2000 to 2006, United exited early in every European campaign, including an embarrassing drop-off in 2006 when they were eliminated in the group stages. European football seemed to be evolving into a defensive showcase, where the winning squads were often defined by controlled and cautious tactics. Ferguson vowed to adapt and spent the season scouting potential defenders from all over the continent.

Stabilising the performance between the posts was the initial step,, as 34-year-old goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, an ageing but extraordinarily accomplished talent, was the first piece to arrive for an astonishing £3 million. In a rare winter indulgence, Serbian centre half Namanja Vidić and French wingback Patrice Evra signed for £8.5 million and £6.5 million, respectively. These three pillars, along with existing stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, formed a masterful shield in front of which Manchester United could freely attack without apprehension. Emerging superstar Cristiano Ronaldo exploded into an attack that already featured fiery wunderkind Wayne Rooney, and legendary winger Ryan Giggs, with cameos by Argentine striker Carlos Tevez and mercurial savant Dimitar Berbatov.

United could attack with speed and defend with power. Amidst the collection of a multitude of domestic honours, Ferguson’s Red Devils reached the Champions League final in three of four seasons, winning in 2008 and only being thwarted by Pep Guardiola’s incredible Barcelona squad.

After Ferguson’s retirement following the 2013 season, United would struggle to challenge for domestic or European honours, having not won a Premier League title or reached a Champions League final since.

3. Bayern Munich 2013-2021

Notable Accolades: Bundesliga Champions (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21), DFB-Pokal Winners (13, 14, 19, 20), Champions League Winners (13, 20), Champions League finalist (13, 20).

Defining Stats: Completed brilliant trebles in 2013 and 2020, winning the Bundesliga, DFB Polka, and Champions League in both of those years. Won 9 Bundesliga titles consecutively during this period.

Legends: David Alaba, Xabi Alonso, Jérȏme Boateng, Mario Gómez, Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich, Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm, Robert Lewandowski, Mario Mandžukić, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment Value: B+
  • Homegrown Talent: B-
  • Star Power: B+
  • Longevity: A
  • Average League Position: 1.0

The Bayern Munich team of the 21st century is a completely unique entity within this contest. On the one hand, domestically, they are the most dominant squad, winning the league more than ten times consecutively; on the other hand, they had more than five managers in the seven years listed, so the exact definition of a definitive “era” is difficult to render.

In the end, we decided that because they won the league every year evaluated and several of their legendary players were present on both of their treble-winning sides, we could quantify the era from treble to treble, which is remarkable in itself.

Much of this brilliant Die Bayern squad was built on the best domestic German talent from the exceptional Bayern academy, as well as aggressively and controversially acquired from Bundesliga rivals.

Philip Lahm, a recent academy graduate, served as the team’s captain, and they were adept at many different tactical approaches. Under Jupp Heynckes, Bayern often played a high offside trap, using Boateng’s recovery speed and aggressive goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s anticipation to force opponents into a choice between a crowded and well-stocked midfield or a doomed long ball.

Offensively, they utilised Mario Mandžukić as the target man, which thrilling inside wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben could run off. Toni Kroos was used in the role under the striker to spray balls wide. All the attacking players could be rotated sinuously as required. Space-invading specialist Thomas Mueller could play any of those roles and was crucial to the offensive success of the tactic.

Conversely, the treble-winning side, orchestrated by Hansi Flick, had a definitive elite scoring striker in Robert Lewandowski for the attack to aim for. Offensive moves may have originated from the center-halves or the marauding wingbacks, but they ended with Lewandowski, although the wide forwards occupying an inside channel was a common thread between both attacking systems. Defensively, Flick had a similar defensive combination to Heynckes, with the exception that he directed the two defensive midfielders, Kimmich and Goretzka, to drop far enough back to negate the counter entirely.

Tactical differences aside, this era of Bayern football was defined by the intelligence and commitment of their biggest stars to follow directions and execute a wide range of styles.

The departure of Lewandowski, partly due to contract negotiations that went sour as a result of the inflexibility and obtuse character of the Bayern administration, instigated a decline in squad strength. A possible partial rebuild awaits under defensive-minded manager Thomas Tuchel after the administrators responsible for the slide, CEO Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, were sacked.

2. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 1993-2001

Noted Accolades: Premier League Winners (93, 94, 96, 97, 99, 00, 01), FA Cup Winners (94, 96, 99), UEFA Champions League Winners (99).

Defining Stats: Won the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League to complete a dramatic treble in 1998 with two goals in injury time against Bayern Munich. Won the Premier League three consecutive times. Had six academy players start 80% of their matches.

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Legends: David Beckham, Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole,Dennis Irwin, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment Value: A
  • Homegrown Talent: A+
  • Star Power: A
  • Longevity: A
  • Average League Position: 1.25

Entering the 1992 season, Manchester United had not lifted a top-tier English League trophy for 26 years. Fierce rivals Liverpool had dominated the domestic football landscape for decades, to the tune of 18 league titles compared to United’s 7. Alex Ferguson, whose arrival from Aberdeen had been met with cautious optimism after numerous Scottish titles and an unprecedented European Cup Winner’s Cup, did not impress for the first six years, logging three finishes below 10th place in the league.

After United lost 5-1 to a decidedly subpar Manchester City team in 1990, things seemed to be reaching a breaking point with Ferguson facing the possibility of losing his job and the Red Devils facing relegation. Newspapers claimed that if they were to lose the upcoming FA Cup tie away to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, Ferguson would be sacked. Fortunately for all Mancunian-interested parties involved, United snuck past Forest 1-0, and Fergie ducked the executioner’s blade, leading the team on a revitalising FA Cup-winning run.

It was still another two years before United would mount a title challenge. A spectacular group of academy graduates gave Ferguson a platform to build on, known as the Class of 92. Six prodigious youths, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes, were pressed into the core of the team despite an average age of just 19. Ferguson’s next move was to authorise the arrival of French maverick genius Eric Cantona, a player with limitless talent but also a man so combustible he had once been sent off for throwing his shirt at the ref and had punched several teammates in the face. With Cantona at the heart of a young and vibrant United, they became the absolute indomitable force in England, winning title after title and inspiring multitudes.

Despite this domestic success, Manchester United failed to challenge for the Champions League. More mature and experienced squads like Maldini’s Milan and Zidane’s Juventus ruled the defensive margins. It seemed Ferguson’s all-out attacking style, despite being wildly entertaining, was not compatible with European glory. As United entered the Champions League knockout rounds in 1999, they scored the most goals in the group stages while allowing two goals a game. Still, United progressed past Inter and Juventus in thrilling four and six goal legs. United would face Bayern Munich in the final, aiming for their first Champions League trophy since 1968.

United went down 1-0, and as the final whistle was sounded in the 90th minute, they seemed doomed to fall short. In the moments that followed, Manchester United and Alex Ferguson would cement their historic legacy in the most dramatic and sensational way possible, with two astonishing goals in the final three extra time minutes. The sport buzzed with astonishment, and Ferguson was knighted.

Manchester United would continue their domestic success in the following two years until Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal emerged as a suitable rival to deconstruct the Red Devil domestic monopoly.

 

1. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona 2009-2012

Noted Accolades: La Liga Winners (09, 10, 11), Copa del Rey (09, 12), UEFA Champions League Winners (09, 11)

Defining Stats: In 2009, completed an astounding treble, winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League. Remarkably, this was the first treble in the history of Spanish teams. Came within a Copa del Rey defeat to Real Madrid of repeating that feat in 2011. Most goals ever for a Spanish club in all competitions (190 goals in 64 matches).

Legends: Eric Abidal, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Samuel Eto’o, Cesc Fàbregas, Thierry Henry, Andrés Iniesta, Javier Macherano, Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Yaya Touré, David Villa, Xavi.

  • Silverware: A
  • Entertainment Value: A+
  • Homegrown Talent: A-
  • Star Power: A+
  • Longevity: B+
  • Average League Position: 1.25

Like two armies of Greek gods destined to wage war for eternity, Barcelona and Real Madrid have fought for global supremacy for the entire length of the sport’s life. The clubs argue over which team had the best players, most trophies, and best style of play. Heading into the 2008 season, Barcelona were coming off a trophyless season and a third-place finish, behind consecutive winners Real Madrid, with a strong squad of homegrown and purchased stars. Despite a shockingly disappointing Round of 16 exit in the Champions League, Real, under German manager Bernd Schuster, had easily won the league and were playing well-balanced, exciting football. Barcelona had won the Champions League in 2005 behind the exhilarating genius of Ronaldinho, but the Brazilian’s legs and focus were beginning to wane. Blaugrana was in desperate need of a revival.

The hiring of Pep Guardiola was as practical as it was sentimental. Guardiola was a Catalan by birth and subsequently a FC Barcelona academy product, having made his debut for the club in 1990 and making 263 appearances as a deep-lying midfielder. Having played under the legendary player and visionary manager Johan Cruyff, Guardiola based his tactical principles on the Dutch master’s ethos of possession dominance as a defensive tactic and constant movement as an offensive policy. These ideas were easier spoken of than executed, as only a full team with the most technical, quick, and intelligent players in the world would be able to implement this philosophy entirely and successfully. Like a misshapen cog in a grandfather clock, any players lacking full commitment to the style were liabilities and had to be removed without sentiment. Former stars Ronaldinho and Deco were sold, and seven first team players were bought in a record spree, including Marauding attacking wingback Dani Alves and former academy star Gerard Piqué. Guardiola had his elite squad challenge Real Madrid.

Within a few matches of the 2008 season, starting with an opening day loss to Numancia and a home draw to Racing Santander, Guardiola began to realise simply possessing the ball was not enough to create scoring opportunities. As a result, the Catalans began to design a more sophisticated pressing scheme higher up the pitch. This suffocating scheme would be the true foundation of his most successful tactics. Winning the ball far up the pitch would lead to an immense number of goals as even the best teams in the world struggled to maintain possession. Barcelona won 19 of the next 20 league matches and all matches in Europe and domestic competitions. The front line of legendary trio former-Arsenal maverick Thierry Henry, Cameroonian titan Samuel Eto’o, and the incomparable Lionel Messi scored an incredible 100 goals between them. Behind those three roamed Xavi, Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets: the greatest midfield ever assembled, conducting Pep’s orchestra for the finest symphony in football history. Even in the Champions League finals, Barcelona crushed Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 2-0 in 2008 and 3-1 in 2011. This was the pinnacle of exciting attacking football and the highest level of success.

As with any glorious stretch of sporting success at the top levels, money rolled in, directly into the coffers of the Catalan club. Barcelona FC became distracted by the financial triumph, and greed surpassed ethos as the club’s primary mandate became commercial supremacy. Claiming he was worn out, but perhaps wisely sensing the change in winds, Guardiola left the club in 2012. There were rumours of professional and personal disagreements with Sandro Rosell, who was elected president in 2010. Under Rosell, a period of fiscal recklessness began that would slowly sink the club into the edge of financial ruin. Rosell himself was jailed in 2017 for unrelated money laundering investigations, and the succeeding president, Josep Bartomeau, was arrested for tax fraud and under investigation for launching an organised defamation campaign against players the club wanted to force out of the club, all while leading the club into debts totaling over one billion euros.

The Beautiful Game

Eras do come to an end, some sooner than others. In the last 30 years, we have witnessed the most beautiful and comprehensive entertainment in the history of mankind. From Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic Balon d’Or tug-of-war, to Sir Alex Ferguson’s homegrown heroes, and all the Baggios, Zidanes, and Ronaldos in between,. We have been blessed to see the elite compete against the elite and produce an art form that is appreciated and celebrated in every pocket of the world, destined to be one of the founding pillars of the legend of football. 

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