Europe’s Last Great Footballing Sides: The Common Denominator

I’m unsure what exactly brought this thought to my attention – perhaps the turgid, ‘functional’ dross served up by Manchester United in the last two months – but I became intrigued by the change of footballing philosophy and the way that teams play in the Champions League generation. There have been great football teams in this era like the criminally underrated Milan side of 2003-2007 under Carlo Ancelotti and Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich at the turn of the century; but certainly a paucity of great footballing teams, of which there have only been three true immortals.

In slightly different ways, the youthful Ajax team of 1994/1995, Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998/1999 and the epochal, football-defining Barcelona of 2010-2011 all transcended the trophies they won by winning them with football as it was created to be.

Why were these sides able to break the monotonous predictability of the last fifteen years at the pinnacle of the game? Possibly because of each team’s reliance on a nucleus of home-grown talent who religiously followed a footballing ideology of passing, movement and high-tempo pressure.

Other teams occasionally came close to attaining this exalted status. Real Madrid’s Galacticos were probably able to reach even greater heights on their day, an utter evisceration of United in the first hour of the Champions League quarter-final in 2003 a particular highlight. That day; Figo, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo ran riot, but a combination of maddening inconsistency and gargantuan ego slowly killed that team from within.

For those who might suggest one of Arsene Wenger’s incarnations of Arsenal; The Invincibles were still a fundamentally functional side usually reliant on magic from Henry, Bergkamp or Pires to win matches. For a single season they delivered these moments consistently, before they were extinguished permanently as a force at Old Trafford in 2004.

Teams who have succeeded in the Champions League in the last fifteen years have regularly relied on a combination of pragmatism, solid defence and reliance on a special player to bend matches to the force of his will. Examples of this include: Juventus 1996 (Peruzzi, Ferrara & Del Piero), Borussia Dortmund 1997 (Kohler, Sammer & Moller), Milan 2003 (Nesta, Maldini & Shevchenko), Porto 2004 (Carvalho & Deco), Liverpool 2005 (Carragher, Hyypia & Gerrard), United 2008 (Ferdinand, Vidic & Ronaldo) and Internazionale 2010 (Lucio, Samuel & Sneijder). Ultimately, I suppose the formula doesn’t matter as all these teams actually lifted the trophy, a staggering achievement in itself; but in order to be truly timeless, there must be something more.

All Champions League winning teams are equal, but some are more equal than others. Occasionally the afore-mentioned sides rose above this monotonous template for winning the tournament, but they are certainly a level below these particular merchants of buckle and swash: Ajax, Man United and Barcelona.

Man United 1998/1999

Manchester United 98/99, controversially, might be the least of these three teams; with the most imports (Schmeichel, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin, Keane & Cole) and playing a slightly different style of football to the totalvoetballing Ajax and Barcelona. Their home-grown stars: Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville Brothers, may have bestridden the peak of the game for nearly a decade but this was undoubtedly their Everest. While they may have been inferior to the other two sides in some regards, United regularly had to go to the very limits of endurance and human desire – a place where Ajax and Barcelona never had to venture.

Always true to United’s attacking heritage, the 1999 team might be the greatest British style team of all time. Fast, strong, powerful, quick in possession, devastating on the counter attack and from set-pieces, blessed with the most indefatigable self-belief and determination any side has ever had, and with the best balanced midfield in history (crosser, destroyer, passer, dribbler – work it out) they defined a generation of English football with their careering, cavalier, score-one-more-than-the-opposition philosophy. A reincarnation of Brazil in 1982, but with better results.

Ajax 1994/1995

Ajax of 94/95 were slightly different again. Their team was made up of Dutch disciples (and Jari Litmanen) of the Church of Cruyff at differing stages of their footballing maturity, who combined to produce one of the greatest seasons in football history. The youthful exuberance of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars; the footballing intelligence of the De Boer brothers and Edgar Davids; was all supplemented by a totemic goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar, and the immense experience of Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.

Undefeated league champions and undefeated European champions in the same season; neither United nor Barcelona can match this. A late Kluivert goal helped beat an AC Milan who were probably improved on paper from the side who throttled the Dream Team 4-0 in the previous years’ final.

However, the piece-de-resistance for Ajax was an annihilation of Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. According to The Independent’s match report Ajax were an ‘inexorable tide’ who ‘recalled the pomp of their 1970’s prime’ with a rampant display of attacking potency. A double from Litmanen and goals from Finidi George, Ronald de Boer and Marc Overmars in a 5-2 victory laid the foundations for their eventual success in Vienna against Milan.

Barcelona 2010/2011

Barcelona under the management of Pep Guardiola have taken the ideal of pass and move to another level. Their patented tiki-taka is Johan Cruyff’s footballing vision on speed. While I have previously suggested that their 08/09 version may have actually been slightly more effective, the Barcelona of 2010/2011 is received wisdom’s greatest Guardiola side – and at its absolute strongest, filled with eight academy products. An astonishing statistic.

The club academy La Masia produced the utterly supreme midfield comprising Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets; a talismanic captain in Carles Puyol; the best footballing centre-half in the world – Gerard Pique; ‘keeper Victor Valdes, a stopper and starter of attacks; and the hugely underrated Pedro – one of the best exponents of off the ball running and finishing in the world.

However, Barcelona have also been graciously blessed with that truly special player that neither United nor Ajax actually possessed. As one of the all-time greats – possibly just behind Maradona and Pele; possibly beside them already – the majestic Lionel Messi transforms Barcelona from a great club side into the greatest club side.

Conclusion

The argument is not that these teams produced their transcendent football on the biggest stage – Ajax needed a late winner to beat Milan in 1995 and United floundered for 89 minutes against Bayern in the Camp Nou – but that they sustained this elevated level of performance for a sufficient period of time for it to become trademark.

So why the lack of spectacular footballing teams in this Champions League generation? Is it the inclination towards pragmatism and the birth of the Dunga/Deschamps/Makelele position? Or possibly the exorbitant sums of money that clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Internazionale, latter-day United – spend striving to achieve the ultimate goals instead of promoting from within; something that Ajax, Manchester United and Barcelona all did with the reward of sporting immortality.

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5 thoughts on “Europe’s Last Great Footballing Sides: The Common Denominator

  1. jamawesome says:

    Good article!

  2. Michael says:

    Niece piece, I really enjoyed this. In particular, the point about United’s 1999 midfield being so balanced is superb, one of the best observations I’ve read for a long time.

    Two minor things I disagree with: think you’re quite harsh on Arsenal by calling them a functional side; in my view the understanding and fluidity across the pitch was wonderful. I think they had much more of a cohesive approach. Plus I think they delivered those moments consistently in 2001/02 too. Let’s not forget that they scored in every game that season – a wonderful achievement never matched in the Premier League, and somewhat unfairly overshadowed by their own unbeaten season two years later.

    Should add, though, that I’m not arguing they should be on the list along with the other three.

    Also rather disagree about Barca being being more effective in 08/09 than in 10/11 – I think the 10/11 side was far superior, the way they pressed was magnificent. If you watch the 08/09 final now, it’s amazing how little Henry, Eto’o and Messi press. They stand on the halfway line, it’s bizarre…

  3. Richard Wilson says:

    Interesting piece, and I agree with much of what you’ve written, but the Ajax side you refer to was very much a product of Louis van Gaal’s philosophies, not Johan Cruyff’s. Van Gaal is a more pragmatic thinker than Cruyff, and he tended to play three at the back and with a classic No10, whereas Cruyff’s Ajax, and the Barcelona he has had such a deep influence on, was based on attacking full-backs, three midfielders, and the centre-forward being the fulcrum. Doesn’t change the conclusion, though, that these three teams stand apart from others who have won the Champs League by containing so many youth products. Also, only Barcelona seem to be able to win consistently at that level, since Ajax (because of the Bosman ruling that saw so many of their young stars leave) and United could not win the tournament again with that line-up

  4. Ah says:

    Everything fine.. but Gerard pique best footballing centre half? NONSENSE !!

  5. Harvey Kelly says:

    Nice read. As someone else noted the van Gaal Ajax was slightly different to the Cruyff-template in ways more than just formation 3-4-3 vs. 4-3-3 (for example, van Gaal banned overlapping down the flanks! He wanted everyone to stay in an area of the pitch and let the ball do the work, not silly things like players running!). My favourite game of theirs was away to Real Madrid when they made Real look like a pub team. Wonderful side.

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