The 50 greatest European club sides

Introduction

Contents

Barcelona win 2011 Champions League final

Barcelona win 2011 Champions League final

Alex Ferguson was left in no doubt. “In my time as a manager I would say yes, this is the best team I’ve faced.”

But then, on a Saturday night at Wembley in 2011, the Manchester United manager wasn’t exactly analysing the issue with the most detached viewpoint. His team had just been utterly dismantled by Barcelona. And as he gets closer to the end of his career, it was a performance that will probably leave as deep an impression as that of Real Madrid at Hampden Park near the start of it in 1960.

When watching that landmark 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt now though, it is remarkable just how removed the speed and style are from modern football. In fact, they’re almost incomparable. As such, with the debate about the exact position of Pep Guardiola’s team in history gaining increased relevance, many commentators have complained it’s a futile exercise to try and compare.

And, to a degree, that’s correct. All teams can only ever be products of their own era. Tactical tricks that may have appeared revolutionary in one period may be routine in another. Certain combinations of players that ruled supreme at one stage may have well found themselves routed elsewhere. Indeed, Ferguson saw this with more immediacy than most. His fearsome midfield four of 1999 were rendered outdated by Fernando Redondo’s Real Madrid within less than a year.

As such, it is genuinely futile to try and argue whether one historic side would beat another. The rules, trends and even fitness techniques have all changed far too much.

But one thing never changes: how fully a team dominated their own era.

Since any individual side can only ever be the best in their own time, it is actually possible to compare and contrast how completely they dominated it.

For example, if a side won every competition they entered in their first season – as Barcelona did in 2008-09 – then that translates to 100% domination. Extrapolating that across a team’s ‘cycle’ – as Ferguson would put it – it is possible to put some sort of a number on whether a side was truly all-conquering. This formula formed the basis for our attempt to objectively determine the best club team of all time. How we worked it out can be seen here.

However, there are still different degrees to domination. Most obviously, some winners are more convincing than others. Some did genuinely sweep all opposition away. Others achieved their feats in the most minimalist fashion, just about taking advantage of opposition errors.

To a certain extent, all of this is also quantifiable. For example, the manner in which Chelsea utterly asphyxiated the English league under Jose Mourinho came across in the highest points-per-game records in the history of the competition. Long before then, Real Madrid’s goal-laden Glasgow exhibition in 1960 was only the peak of an already prolific era. They enjoyed the most mesmerising goals-per-game rate in the competition, and that’s even taking into account the extremes of the time. Ajax’s Total Football, meanwhile, translates into some of the cleanest defensive records ever seen. Possession, as has been said about Barcelona a lot lately, evidently isn’t just an attacking tactic.

In order to get as complete a quantification of a team’s quality as possible, then, scaled bonus points were awarded for such feats.

It is acknowledged, however, that excellence isn’t just determined by sustained dominance but also dramatic achievements. As such, points were also awarded for special achievements such as three-in-a-rows and trebles.

Which brings us to another issue: how to separate the team’s cycles and accurately distinguish one era from the next? Where are the seams, for example, in Real Madrid’s almost unbroken period of prize-winning between 1953 and 1969?

Although it’s a little intangible, very often an iconic individual, a particular core of players or even a philosophy will be enough to define a dynasty. In some cases, it was all three.

That Real run, for example, can be split into three periods: (1) the ‘golden era’ of five European Cups brought by Alfredo Di Stefano’s transfer; (2) the period of transition as he and Ferenc Puskas played themselves out; (3) the eventual passing of the torch to the likes of Pirri and Amancio.

At Celtic between 1965 and 1975, it was all Jock Stein. At Bayern Munich of the ’70s, it was the nucleus of Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller. At Benfica, the continental torch lit by Bela Gutmann was continued by Eusebio. At Ajax, all of Rinus Michels, Stefan Kovacs, Velibor Vasovic and – of course – Johan Cruyff set in motion and sustained Total Football.

Liverpool 1975-84 also spanned two managers. But, such was the organic nature in which the team evolved thanks to the Boot Room philosophy, a clean break was hard to find. That wasn’t the case at Manchester United where the abrupt breaks between Ferguson’s great sides have generally been easier to see: the summers of 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2009 being particularly noteworthy.

Perhaps the most contentious, however, is Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Throughout this period, they did admittedly use many of the same players. Especially in defence. But such was the dramatic change in style from Arrigo Sacchi to Fabio Capello that it would have been disingenuous not to split them.

The only thing left then, is to split all of the great teams themselves. We hope you enjoy the list. And, keep in mind, it is one that is always evolving. This is an issue in which it is almost impossible to get an accurate answer. But any comment or suggestion that will help us refine and eventually enhance our findings are always welcome.

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