Manchester City are not the greatest side in Premier League history – yet
This may come across as the ramblings of a biased, bitter, United fan but let me assure you that it most certainly is not. Manchester City has played some outstanding football this season. Pep Guardiola's side are worthy winners of the Premier League title. They have broken records for the most goals and points.
However, Man City have not earned the right to be called the best Premier League team ever, at least not yet.
City has to follow up their success. In recent times, sides crowned Premier League champions were extremely poor the following season. This is a cycle the Citizens must break if they want to claim the best ever crown. I would argue that there are three contenders for that title at this point. They all meet the criteria of sustained success, playing an attacking, or at least thrilling, counter-attacking brand of football. They also had the ability to replace and refresh talent.
The Premier League's greatest teams in history are Manchester United 1996-2001, Arsenal 1998-2006 and Manchester United 2006-2009. All three are, at present, ahead of the current City side.
Manchester United 1996-2001
The first of our contenders is Sir Alex Ferguson’s second great side that rose from the ashes after losing the Premier League title to Blackburn Rovers in 1995, as well as the FA Cup final to Everton.
The success of this side is frankly astonishing. From 1996-2001, United won five Premier League titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup, which of course formed part of the unprecedented and, thus far, unrepeated, treble. But this side also reached the semi-finals of the Champions League three times and finished second in the only season within this period that it failed to secure the title
This first couple of seasons were defined much more by a solid defence and grinding out results. United was usually outscored by Liverpool and Newcastle in the early stages. But by the time of the 1998-1999 season, this had changed dramatically. As Clive Tyldesley said on that famous night in Munich “Can Manchester United score? They always score.”
In that Treble season alone United scored 80 goals, nearly 20 more than the next highest (Leeds United with 62) whilst conceding 37, 20 more than 2nd placed Arsenal. They followed this up with 97 the following season and that campaign remains the Premier League record for the earliest title victory, something City tried, and failed, to break recently. Over these two seasons, United went 46 games unbeaten across all competitions.
Even leaving this aside one thing that we saw regularly from City this season was late goals, often in added time. This United vintage was such specialists in it that it became known as ‘Fergie Time.’ A season that famously ended with two injury-time goals began in the same way with an injury time free kick from David Beckham securing a point at Leicester and of course, famously included two late goals to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup. In the seasons prior to this United had gained a reputation for 1-0 wins secured with a solid defensive base and a goal on the counter. But whichever way you view this, this United vintage found a way to get a result when one seemed impossible. If City can maintain that aspect of this season then they will go a long way to securing the status of greatest ever.
As for the ability to refresh the squad, this United holds up very well. All these seasons were built on the foundations of the fabled ‘Class of ’92’ with David Beckham, Gary and Phillip Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. But also key were mainstays like Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, John Terry’s hero, David May. But beyond this, we saw other changes. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister became Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen, Eric Cantona became Teddy Sheringham, Lee Sharpe was replaced by Jesper Blomqvist, Brian McClair by Dwight Yorke and eventually Andy Cole would become Ruud van Nistelrooy. Of course, not all replacements were successful as the club struggled to replace Peter Schmeichel, but the successes outweighed the failures.
In this period Arsenal won two league titles, two FA Cups, reached a Champions League final and accomplished another unprecedented (in the Premier League era) and unrepeated feat of going an entire league season undefeated. The success is certainly not on the scale of United’s but is still noteworthg. Going 49 league games (over two seasons) unbeaten deserves recognition.
As far as style goes this group is perhaps still unsurpassed. Arsene Wenger revolutionised football in England. From training to diet to style, Wenger set a trend that forced the rest of the league to adapt. While United under Ferguson had often focussed on swift, lethal counter-attacking, Wenger brought something else. His sides were about quick, swift incisive passes to carve open the opposition. It forced the rest of the league to adapt.
Wenger inherited a fairly strong team, with the back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould or Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn and goalkeeper David Seaman already in place, alongside Dennis Bergkamp. But in these years Wenger showed his talent for spotting a player and knowing when to move others on. His first signing was Patrick Viera, captain of the ‘Invincibles’. In later years, though, we saw plenty of changes. David Seaman to Jens Lehman, Lee Dixon to Lauren, Tony Adams to Sol Campbell, Steve Bould to William Gallas, Nigel Winterburn to first Sylvinho then Ashley Cole
In midfield, there was Emmanuel Petit, who became Gilberto Silva, Marc Overmars, who became Robert Pires and also Freddie Ljungberg. Up front, Ian Wright became Nicholas Anelka, who became Thierry Henry, and then there was Kanu.
For me personally, this side’s lack of success in comparison to United’s perhaps rules them out. But for style and recruitment, it deserves to be considered among the best.
Manchester United 2003-2009
Our last contender is taken over a much shorter period but still deserves major consideration. It was, arguably, the last great side produced by Sir Alex Ferguson, featuring the first United player since the 1960s to win the Ballon d'Or.
From 2003-09, this team won four Premier League titles, three of them in a row, two FA Cups, a European Cup, two League Cups and a World Club Championship. There was also a further FA Cup final, a Champions League final and semi-final. They also went undefeated in the Champions League for nearly two years, from the start of the 2008 season through to the final the following year.
This was a team built to win and win thrillingly. It was certainly different from the other sides on this list, but again, watching this side guaranteed entertainment and goals. They contained some of the best-attacking talents the Premier League has seen, but also one of the best defences. The core of Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra was one of, if not, the world's best and set a World Record, going over 1000 minutes without conceding a league goal on the way to securing the league title in 2009.
The most successful period for this side was made of a core group but there was still replacement and renewal within this period. Andy Cole became Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Dwight Yorke became Louis Saha, and Teddy Sheringham was moved on, with Wayne Rooney coming in. David Beckham departed to be replaced by Cristiano Ronaldo. We also saw changes at right back with first, Gary Neville, then Wes Brown and finally Rafael Da Silva taking the spot. Roy Keane departed to be replaced by Michael Carrick. This period also saw the arrivals of Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson and Nani.
For me, the side that wins the debate is United's Treble Winners. They had everything. This was a side that had unparalleled success, played thrilling football, always found a way to get a result and saw players leave with others arriving without any interruptions to the juggernaut (the 2003-2009 United side, for example, went out of the 2005 Champions League at the group stages before it came good). The blot on the Arsenal copybook is the failure to capture the elusive European Cup. This was a side that had everything and the feat they accomplished is shown that no one managed it before and no one has done it since.
City’s ‘Centurions’ deserve to be considered amongst the best single seasons, alongside United’s 1998-99 Treble Winners and 2007-2008 League and European Cup winning side, as well as Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-2004. One could even argue that the best single season in history belongs to Leicester City. Manchester City, meanwhile, still have some work to do to be classed as the best ever.