Ranking the top 10 Premier League teams of all time before this Man City team renders it moot

 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Fun debate, isn’t it? Which is the best Premier League team of all time? We’ve got ourselves a top 10 for you to disagree with here.

Some (pretty fluid) ground rules. We’ve gone for a single season, but obviously plenty of these teams had multiple seasons of greatness. We’ve tried to pinpoint the absolute peak season, which was fun because we got to leave out the Treble winners. Oh yeah – that’s because this is specifically Premier League. Our League. The proper stuff. None of that foreign muck. 

When two or more iterations of the same team are included, we’ve applied arbitrary but we like to think fair rules about whether there has been enough evolution for them to be a significantly different or separate side. So we couldn’t just cheat and have United 99 and United 2000. Consider theirs a shared entry if you like. Or don’t. Up to you.

One thing we absolutely haven’t used to determine the rankings is the drab strict numbers of final points totals. For one thing, the league has changed a lot over 30 years with more and more points hoarded at the top these days in football’s own sordid little version of trickle-down economics, while for another we obviously know better than such drudgery as results. We’re also quite strict here that by definition the best teams will all be teams who won the title, and going purely on points muddies that.

Anyway, here’s our list…

 

10) Arsenal 1997/98
P38 W23 D9 L6 GF68 GA33 Pts 78

There are plenty of contenders for the 10th spot on this list. The dreamers would probably opt for Leicester’s miracle men, which would be fair enough. But there is no denying that literally everyone else was crap that year and, quite simply, we don’t think that Leicester side beats any of the other sides on this list, or – crucially – this Arsenal one.

There’s also wider context to consider. This Arsenal side is a vitally important one in the whole Premier League story. Without Arsene Wenger snaffling the title – and The Double – in his first full season we might never have had the rivalry with United and Ferguson that became such a defining feature of the Premier League’s first decade. It might well also have just meant United winning the title every single year, which would have been dreadful dull. They didn’t even have a nonsense like Erling Haaland to make that interesting.

Arsenal had been in the post-George Graham doldrums for a few years but did a couple of very important things in August and September 1996. In August, they signed Patrick Vieira for £3.5m. In September, they appointed Arsene Wenger manager. He took them to third place in 96/97 with a distinctly 1990s point haul for such an achievement of 68.

The following year they toppled United and became only the third different team to win a Premier League title. As well as it’s overarching narrative importance, it’s the manner of that win that gets them on this list.

A run of four defeats in six games in November and December left Arsenal trailing the unstoppable, all-conquering United by 12 points and languishing in sixth. The idea of winning The Double then seemed notably far-fetched. The Gunners didn’t lose another game until May, by which time a 10-game winning run had already secured the title. Losing their last two games of the season for a laugh only grows the legend, in our opinion.

Best XI: Seaman; Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn; Overmars, Parlour, Vieira, Petit; Bergkamp, Wright

Other notables: Keown, Anelka, Grimandi

 

9) Chelsea 2016/17
P38 W30 D3 L5 GF85 GA33 Pts 93

We reckon this Chelsea team is probably a touch unfairly overlooked when the great teams are discussed. They slip under the radar perhaps, coming as they did in the year between the Great Leicester Fairytale and the noisy years of City-Liverpool excellence that have followed.

But this team’s record stands scrutiny and in context is an even more startling achievement. Chelsea had finished 10th the previous season and the club was beset by problems when Antonio Conte was brought in to right the ship. They didn’t start the season well, either. Back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal inside the first six games of the season put Conte under huge pressure, but he and his team responded with one of the most successful tactical switches of all time.

In came the Conte 3-4-3 we all now know and love, and away they ran. Thirteen straight wins followed and Chelsea never looked back. New signings David Luiz, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante were all crucial as the Blues put all the previous campaign’s unpleasantness behind them. It was truly the most unlikely rise to title glory since, well, since Leicester the year before. But it was still mad. Victor Moses at right wing-back in one of the best Premier League teams ever? You’d better believe it.

Best XI: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Costa, Hazard

Other notables: Willian, Fabregas, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Terry, Zouma, Oscar

 

8) Manchester City 2021/22
P38 W29 D6 L3 GF99 GA26 Pts 93

Just about enough churn here to count this as a second great City side built by Guardiola, even if it isn’t quite as good as the 2017-19 vintage.

It’s another absurdly good side, one that made light of not really having a striker by still scoring 99 goals anyway via an assortment of clever skilful little bastards and the creative genius of Kevin De Bruyne.

At the back Cancelo was a slice of pure fun in a team that, for all that free-flowing brilliance all over the place, still knew how to keep the back door shut. Except against Tottenham, to whom they inexplicably lost home and away. A whole team of boffins could waste their whole careers looking into that anomaly and still find no answer for how it could be.

We did consider removing them from the list for that alone, but if Arsenal can draw 12 games and still be hailed as greats then surely we can allow Guardiola and co this weird Spurs weakness.

It was just about the only weakness they had as the all-time City greats of Kompany, Fernandinho, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were all skilfully and infuriatingly successfully eased out or replaced in the latest chapter of City dominance, a dominance that has brought them four of the last five titles. And, let’s be real, there probably a few more to come.

Best XI: Ederson; Walker, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo; Rodri, Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne; Sterling, Foden, Mahrez

Other notables: Jesus, Gundogan, Grealish, Fernandinho, Zinchenko, Ake, Stones

 

7) Manchester United 1993/94
P42 W27 D11 L4 GF80 GA38 Pts 92

The first of Sir Ferg’s great United sides that squatted like a giant toad across English football for the first 20 years of the Premier League. This team won the first title in 93 but really peaked the following year with Eric Cantona its strutting, collar-popping talisman and the addition of Roy Keane proving a pretty tidy bit of business.

To highlight just what a different era of football we’re talking about, only 14 players made more than five appearances for United in what was back then a 42-game season. And the three reduced to ‘reserve’ status were handy enough: Lee Sharpe, Brian McClair, Bryan Robson.

There’s a lovely straightforward balance to this United side, with the quintessential early Premier League years United defence and a proper 4-4-2 midfield with two titans in the centre and flying wingers either side. Then Cantona doing bits and Mark Hughes scoring volleys, probably.

Their 92 points stood as a Premier League record for more than a decade, although it was basically cheating because they played four extra games than everyone else who followed. Classic Fergie Time.

Best XI: Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes

Other notables: Sharpe, McClair, Robson

 

6) Manchester United 2007/08
P38 W27 D6 L5 GF80 GA22 Pts 87

These days Sir Alex Ferguson’s only real job is as cutaway fodder after whatever latest atrocity has befallen Manchester United at Old Trafford, the camera inevitably finding his reddening face watching proceedings with a look that says he isn’t angry, just disappointed. But also angry.

For a couple of decades, though, Ferguson’s job was building absurd title-collecting Manchester United sides, and he built three of them. His outrageous talent and sheer force of will delivered a couple more titles with the dregs of this team before he finally called it quits in 2013 by winning the title despite having to pick Tom Cleverley 22 times, but in 2008 they were proper.

That front three is a particular nonsense, while the midfield ticks all the boxes and Ferdinand and Vidic were plenty immense enough that, with Van der Sar at last proving the heir to Schmeichel Ferguson had struggled to locate, you can get away with Wes Brown at right-back.

This iteration of United won three straight titles between 2007 and 2009 but this was the best of them. Ronaldo spanked 31 Premier League goals, equalling the record for a 38-game season until Mo Salah went one better in 2017/18. Those are genuinely impressive numbers, even if they are about to be completely blown away.

This team was perhaps Ferguson’s best in terms of marrying defensive solidity with attacking verve. They conceded only 22 goals in the Premier League and won 11 games by three or more goals.

They also won the Champions League, which isn’t strictly relevant here and wasn’t enough to get the Treble winners in but is still nevertheless quite good. It was also funny, because John Terry fell over.

Best XI: Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo

Other notables: O’Shea, Nani, Anderson, Hargreaves, Saha, Fletcher, Park

 

5) Manchester United 1999/2000
P38 W28 D7 L3 GF97 GA45 Pts 91

The 1999 side obviously has its place in history for winning the treble – even though they should have won the quadruple because with hindsight it turned out they only needed to beat a pre-Big Six Spurs and then Wimbledon and Leicester to do so – but as Premier League winners they were pretty ordinary. They only just scraped home ahead of Arsenal as the fighting on three fronts inevitably took its toll.

The following year, they crushed the Premier League. Doing so with a pretty wonky backline and most strikingly absolutely no real goalkeeper to speak of was a classic piece of Ferguson magic, but look at that front six. An iconic midfield with a brilliant pair of strikers who were famously backed up by handy super-subs Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham.

Anyone aggrieved that this lot have got the nod over the Treble side can take it up with Ferguson himself, who called this team his best during all his years at United.

Best XI: Bosnich; G Neville, Stam, Silvestre, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Cole, Yorke

Other notables: Solskjaer, Sheringham, Irwin, Berg, Van der Gouw

 

4) Arsenal 2003/04
P38 W26 D12 L0 GF73 GA26 Pts 90

The Invincibles, isn’t it? Hmm. Enduring image. Obviously the best of Wenger’s great Arsenal sides even if by absurd modern standards set by your Citys and Liverpools their final points tally of 90 looks a bit underwhelming. They may have been unbeatable, but you did have half a chance of a draw if you played your cards right.

Absurd team, though, when you look at it on paper. No wonder no bugger could beat them. Vieira and Gilberto is as good a midfield pairing as you could wish to see and it’s in front of an impeccable defence. But the real fun is all ahead of that, with four bona-fide Premier League greats led by Thierry Henry, who scored a Golden Boot-nabbing 30 goals that year.

You can sniff at the 12 draws if you like – and we do, at great length, whether anyone is listening or not – but while it does slide them down this list a place or two it’s still worth pausing to take into account the sheer scale of the achievement in going unbeaten through a whole season’s worth of games in Our League. Nobody else has done it, not Ferguson, not Guardiola, not Mourinho, and only one other team has ever done it even in the dark and irrelevant pre-Premier League history of the English top flight. And Preston only played 22 games.

Best XI: Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Gilberto, Vieira; Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp; Henry

Other notables: Edu, Parlour, Cygan, Reyes, Clichy, Wiltord, Keown, Kanu, Aliadiere

Arsenal Invincibles celebrate their league titles Credit: PA Images
Arsenal Invincibles celebrate their league titles Credit: PA Images

3) Chelsea 2004/05
P38 W29 D8 L1 GF72 GA15 Pts 95

You don’t have to like them but you do have to admire them. Okay, you don’t have to admire them, but you do have to admit they were a proper good football team. Okay, you don’t have to admit that if you really don’t want to. But they were.

Fifteen goals conceded is a genuine nonsense and a record that will surely never be beaten, while there was enough about Chelsea’s attack that they weren’t always as dull as we harshly remember.

This was Jose Mourinho’s doing, of course, the great man then in his absolute pomp, waltzing into English football and instantly charming the press before blowing up the cosy Arsenal-United, Ferguson-Wenger duopoly that had come to rule English football for years.

Chelsea’s only Premier League defeat came in October, a 1-0 reverse at Manchester City that sounds a lot less weird now than it did at the time.

The summer of 2004 must rank among the very best transfer windows for a club as well. Again, you don’t have to like how it came to be, but Mourinho arriving and bringing Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira with him from his Champions League-winning Porto side as well as Didier Drogba and Petr Cech is impressive work by anyone’s standards. And his holding midfielder was so good that he had a whole position named after him.

Best XI: Cech; Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; Makelele; Lampard, J Cole, Duff, Robben; Drogba

Other notables: Gudjohnsen, Tiago, Kezman, Johnson, Smertin, Bridge, Jarosik, Geremi, Huth

 

2) Liverpool 2019/20
P38 W32 D3 L3 GF85 GA33 Pts 99

People who dislike Liverpool for some inexplicable reason are fond of pointing out that Liverpool’s only Premier League title comes with an asterisk because of the Covid. That this season is forever tainted by the inconsistent ruleset under which it was played, and that a big chunk of the season was played in the summer in empty stadia just to get the season boxed off.

Really, though, Liverpool had already won the title long before lockdowns and social distancing and daily briefings became part of our lives. If anything, their record would have been better without the interruption.

Given this is the one interruption to City’s current era of Premier League dominance, the ease of Liverpool’s win was absurd. They won 26 and drew one of their first 27 matches to take total control before a weird defeat to Watford scuppered the Invincibles talk and then came the Premier League lockdown.

With nobody to push them on or off the field, Project Restart was perhaps understandably underwhelming. Liverpool won only six of their last 11 games to fall short of the 100-point mark. Ninety-nine is still really very good indeed, though, and this thrilling yet resilient team had the title in their pockets after a 30-year wait with seven games still to play.

The front three were obviously key, while Alisson was superb in goal and Virgil van Dijk began drawing comparisons to the very best defenders of all time for his flawless and often apparently effortless defensive displays.

The clearest indicator of just how good this team was is the fact history is already being rewritten to note that in only winning one Premier League and one Champions League they can’t have been all that. Harsh, but you can see it. It’s a near-flawless team expertly led by a great manager. They are definitely the best Premier League team ever constructed to only win a single title anyway.

Best XI: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum; Salah, Firmino, Mane

Other notables: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Origi, Milner, Keita, Lallana, Adrian, Lovren Minamino, Matip, Shaqiri

 

1) Manchester City 2017/18
P38 W32 D4 L2 GF106 GA26 Pts 100

We all had a good laugh when Jose Mourinho insisted that finishing second to Manchester City in 2018 was one of his finest achievements but, as is still even now quite often the case, the miserable old bastard had a point. There’s also an element of mischief from dear old Jose there, because they were a very distant second, but still. Nobody was getting close to these jokers.

A hundred points, even more goals, and the true start of the Guardiola Dynasty at City. Players famously are said to need a year to adapt to Guardiola, and he took a year to adapt to the Premier League as City finished third in his debut season a full 15 points behind champions Chelsea.

He’d got the hang of it, though, and the 2017/18 season had records coming out the wazoo. Most points, most goals, most away points (50), most consecutive wins (18). It was the season Raheem Sterling matured into a real goalscorer with 18 to complement Sergio Aguero’s 21, but the truly daft numbers came from the creators.

Absurdly, City boasted the top four names in the assist charts for the league that year, with Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, David Silva and Sterling all reaching double figures.

Best XI: Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Kompany, Delph; Fernandinho, De Bruyne, David Silva; Sterling, Sane, Aguero

Other notables: Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Gundogan, Danilo, Stones, Toure

 

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