Sports fans in general – and football supporters more than most – love a good debate. Many arguments (sorry, discussions) centre on who is the best: who is the best player of all time? Who is better: Messi or Ronaldo? Who is the best manager in history? And so on, and on and on.
Today we are considering the best English football teams since 1967. That might seem like a rather random year to pick as our cut-off but we haven’t plucked it out of the air, nor selected it because Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me was the biggest-selling hit of the year. Instead, we have taken as our starting point the year Manchester United won the European Cup (1967/68). They were the first English side to do so, although not the first British side as Celtic won it the season prior.
This seemed like a decent year to start and means we can avoid discussing the great Preston North End “Invincibles” of 1888/89, or the Huddersfield team that won a hat-trick of league titles in the 1920s. As good as they, and sides such as Arsenal’s team of the 1930s were, given very few people alive today ever saw them play it is hard to truly grasp how good they really were. Moreover, the European Cup (rebranded in the 1992/93 season as the Champions League, the name we will now exclusively use) gives us a very good benchmark to assess just how good a team was.
So, in no particular order – as we’ve got to leave some room for you to argue among yourselves – here are the five greatest English sides since 1967/68. Note that we are taking individual seasons rather than eras, and judging solely on the brilliance of that campaign alone.
Manchester City, 2022/23
We’ve said no particular order but – don’t tell fans of Man United, Liverpool, or anyone else – we’re starting (unofficially!) with the greatest English side ever! Probably. As most football fans will know, Manchester City completed the treble in 2022/23, winning the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup. They surprisingly went down 2-0 to Southampton in the quarters of the League Cup, a competition they had won in six of the previous 10 campaigns, so they certainly weren’t all that far away from an unprecedented quadruple.
After a slow start by their high standards, they reeled Arsenal in to win the league. Pep Guardiola’s incredible footballing machine won 12 games in a row, and dropped just two points in 15 matches, as they wrapped up the title with games to spare.
They were stupendous in the FA Cup too, seeing off Chelsea and Arsenal in the early rounds and then rivals Man United in the final. The Red Devils were desperate to deny their cross-city foes the treble but came up short. They did, however, achieve something that no other team did in the FA Cup that year and register a goal against City. In the end, City’s FA Cup goals record over six games was scored 19, conceded just one… yet another sign of their dominance.
The prize Pep and co really wanted, however, was the Champions League, a trophy City had never landed and that had been their owner’s main aim since taking over the club in 2008. They breezed through what could have been a tough group, recording a goal difference of +14 over six games. They then destroyed RB Leipzig 8-1, eased past Bayern Munich 4-1 and humbled Real Madrid in the semis thanks to a 4-0 home win that gave them a 5-1 aggregate success.
They weren’t at their best in the final but beat Inter Milan 1-0 and fully deserved their title. Three trophies, numerous records set, including by Erling Haaland who notched 36 league goals, and the brilliant football they played mean City are, for many, the best of the best. The fact that they beat the strongest teams in all three competitions, and the manner of those wins, especially the Champions League, only adds to that feeling.
Manchester United 1998/99
United also won the treble and there is no doubt that many in the red half of the city will argue that their team was better than City’s. It is not an argument we will enter into too fiercely but there is little doubt that United rode their luck to scoop all three major pieces of silverware in 1998/99.
In the league, their points tally was actually better than City managed in 2022/23, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men reaching 91 points compared to the 89 of City. United also scored more goals, though City had the better goal difference. But it is the Champions League where the Red Devils could so easily have come unstuck.
They were unbeaten in the Group Stage but only won twice, drawing four times. Only two second-placed clubs advanced back then and so they could easily have been eliminated. They progressed with Real Madrid (the highest-ranked second-place side), however. They then beat Inter Milan then Juve to reach the final. In the semis they staged a huge fightback to get past Juventus, being 3-1 down on aggregate, away from home, with just 66 minutes of the second leg remaining.
That comeback was nothing compared to the one they produced in the final. Trailing 1-0 to Bayern, who had finished above them in Group D, as the game entered injury time, they found two goals to somehow get the win. In many ways, the win demonstrated what this United team was all about.
Whilst they had brilliance and individual stars, such as Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, and strike pairing Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, they simply did not know when they were beaten. They also played fabulously exciting football, with some arguing that their style was more thrilling than Pep’s metronomic passing machine.
In a list that is in a sense defined by the Champions League, it may seem strange to include a club that has never won it and a team that was eliminated at the quarter final stage during the season in question. But Arsenal’s Invincibles did something that no side has done (sorry Preston, your efforts don’t count, not least because it was only a 22-game season) by going the whole campaign unbeaten.
Their tally of 90 points was impressive, even if it was relatively meagre compared to the insane highs consistently hit by Man City and Liverpool in recent years. But neither of those teams has a beautiful fat zero in the L column, whereas Arsene Wenger’s brilliant side did. They won 26 and drew 12 of their Premier League games in 2003/04. They also made the semis of both domestic cups and have to be considered one of the greatest English sides ever. Ever, as in since 1967.
Manchester United, 1967/68
This Man United team make the grade thanks to being the first to win the European Cup and thanks to the poignant back story. Out of the Munich Air Disaster came the swashbuckling Busby Babes, a brilliantly exciting team which finished second in the league after losing two of their final three matches.
They would not be denied in Europe though, and a team featuring peak George Best, Denis Law, World Cup winners Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, and several other brilliant players, proved too good for Eusebio’s Benfica in the final. The Red Devils won 4-1 and brought redemption, joy, and perhaps a little closure to the club and perhaps even the nation.
In recent years, Liverpool have registered points totals of 97, 99 (to win the league in 2020) and 92. They landed the Champions League in 2018/19 and have made three finals since 20017/18. However, their achievements of the 1970s and 1980s were even more incredible in terms of sustained brilliance. Between 1973 and 1991 they only finished outside the top two once. In that time, they won 11 league titles, four Champions Leagues, three FA Cups and four League Cups.
Picking one single season from this era of greatness seems both unfair and very difficult. However, we’re going to go with their exceptional team of 1983/84 that landed the league and Champions League double and threw in the League Cup as well.
With Ian Rush a world-class performer up front, the Reds were almost unbeatable under Joe Fagan in his first season after replacing Bob Paisley. They won just two of their last eight league matches but held on to win the title. In Graeme Souness’s last campaign with the club (as a player), they beat Roma in the European showpiece and rivals Everton in the League Cup. It was a team of stars, with Rush, Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen just some of the genuinely world-class performers in the squad.