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 a very decent case, too, for Antonio Conte’s 2016/17 Chelsea team, who racked up 93 points in bouncing back from a 10th-place finish during the Leicester Fairytale to romp home by seven points from, er, Spurs. The speed and scale of the transformation in that side was ludicrous. But it was also very much a one-off, and Chelsea have done vanishingly little since to give Manchester City or Liverpool much to think about.
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 its 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. Not for this Arsenal generation any hint of shrugging the shoulders, pointing forlornly at the dominant force out of Manchester and insisting it was simply impossible to compete.
Best XI: Seaman; Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn; Overmars, Parlour, Vieira, Petit; Bergkamp, Wright
Other notables: Keown, Anelka, Grimandi
9) 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
8) 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
7) 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
6) Manchester City 2022/23
P36 W28 D4 L4 GF93 GA31 Pts 84
The debate over the 22/23 City side is not really whether they merit a place in the list, but whether they count as a third Guardiola side or not. We’d argue that yes, they do. The addition of Erling Haaland alone would probably be enough, changing so thoroughly the entire approach. City’s 2022 success was built on sharing goals around among a whole host of clever attacking players. This year, almost 40% of their absurdly large number of goals – a total that could well go beyond 100 by the weekend – have come from their great Norwegian battering ram. And it took half a season for Pep Guardiola and his players to really get their heads around it.
Before the World Cup, City were – by City standards – not all that. They are now assuredly all that, and we’re pretty confident that next season we will absolutely be replacing this team with the 2023/24 version. Very probably in top spot.
They have won 14 and drawn one of their last 15 games, scoring 40 goals and conceding 11. During that run they have obliterated Arsenal – the only team to offer any challenge at all this season – home and away as well as demolishing Liverpool 4-1. Even in the first part of the season as Guardiola tried to work out how best to make this new-look side work, they could still get it devastatingly right against the best the league had to offer; most memorably in a 6-3 thrashing of Manchester United notable for containing hat-tricks for both Haaland and Phil Foden but more so for being an absurd scoreline that nevertheless really, massively flattered United. The 4-0 half-time score was a far more accurate rendering of what went down.
By the end of the season, Guardiola’s side were switching effortlessly between a back four and a back three – another factor that marks this side out as a new iteration – and are thus perhaps the hardest team of all on this list for which to concoct a ‘Best XI’. It’s an almost entirely nominal process because there isn’t really such a thing. But we’ve forced one into existence and it doesn’t, for instance, include Julian Alvarez despite his nine goals coming at a rate of one every 147 minutes in his 29 often brief appearances.
Even with three centre-backs there is no place for Aymeric Laporte, who didn’t even play 1000 minutes of Premier League football, or John Stones. Our nominal ‘Best XI’ also has no place for Kyle Walker. Or Riyad Mahrez. They have a lot of really good footballers, is what we’re saying here. And it means only six of the 2021/22 ‘Best XI’ are also in this one. It’s a new team. A new, terrifying team.
Best XI: Ederson; Ake, Akanji, Dias; Rodri, Gundogan, De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva; Grealish, Haaland, Foden
Other notables: Alvarez, Mahrez, Walker, Stones, Cancelo, Lewis, Palmer, Laporte, Gomez, Phillips
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. Especially towards the end of the season when, with the title pretty much in the bag, there was definitely a pretty clear determination to preserve that unbeaten record above all other concerns.
Fair enough, as well. Even if they would never admit to it. Five draws in the final nine games of the season are largely responsible for that vaguely underwhelming final points tally, but you can’t tell me that turning four of those into wins but just one of them into defeat would make this a more memorable football team. The 90-point Invincibles have immortality. The 97-point Vincibles would now look like nothing more than a half-decent Manchester City. Choices were made. Good choices.
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 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, not Klopp – 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
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.
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, LIverpool’s Project Restart form was perhaps understandably underwhelming. Jurgen Klopp’s side 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