FourFourTwo’s 50 Best Football Teams Ever: 40-31
Words: Jon Spurling, Paul Simpson, Gary Parkinson, Andrew Murray.
40. Arsenal 1930-35
Deploying the WM formation to perfection, Herbert Chapman's Arsenal team routinely flattened opponents at their Art Deco, palatial Highbury home in the early '30s with a fast, direct and uncompromising brand of football.
The giant centre-half (latterly Herbie Roberts) was instructed to channel the ball as quickly as possible to midfield conduit Alex James. 'Wee Alec' would then steer the orb out to the channels, where Cliff Bastin either finished off the move himself or put the chance on a plate for forwards David Jack or Jack Lambert.
It was the blueprint for the 'eight-second goal.' It sounded almost too easy, but Chapman's men – who won the FA Cup in 1930 and the league championship a year later – preferred to keep things simple, and devastatingly effective.
Following Chapman's untimely death from pneumonia, his successor George Allison added a more physical edge, signing striker Ted Drake and defender Wilf Copping. But Arsenal lost none of their potency, completing a hat-trick of title triumphs in 1935, thereby emulating Chapman's legendary Huddersfield side of the 1920s. JS
39. Ajax 1992-96
When Louis van Gaal took over in 1991, Ajax had won one European trophy – the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup – since the 1970s’ golden era of Michels and Cruyff.
Van Gaal’s situation wasn’t as dire as it looked. The side that won the 1992 UEFA Cup – and saved him from the sack – starred Dennis Bergkamp, Danny Blind, Wim Jonk, Aron Winter and Frank de Boer. The team that won the 1995 Champions League – earning Van Gaal his move to Barcelona – featured Edwin van der Sar, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert (whose audacious goal won the final), Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars.
Playing a 3-4-3 or 3-1-2-3-1, Van Gaal’s players enjoyed less freedom than Ajax’s Total Football stars – even Overmars had to pass, rather than dribble – yet could be devastating. They thrashed Bayern 5-2 in the 1995 semi-final, genuinely looking as if (to use a terrible cliché) they were scoring for fun, inspired by the sublime Litmanen.
With an average age of 23, Van Gaal’s Ajax could have dominated Europe. Yet within weeks, Seedorf had joined Sampdoria and by 1999, all 13 players that made history in that 1995 final had left or retired. PS
38. Brazil 1982
Rarely can a team that achieved so little have been held in such high regard by so many for so long. The Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney called Tele Santana's tournament favourites "the most gifted collection of footballers in the game, the unmistakable nucleus of a great team".
Santana eschewed the failed 1970s Seleçao aesthetic of aping European muscularity, instead entrusting ball-players like Flamengo fantasista Zico (‘The White Pele’), laconic left-sider Eder, Roma playmaker Falcao and Socrates – the beardy smoking doctor who told FFT that “to play for a side like that – irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing – is like dating the woman you’re in love with.”
Brazil sizzled in Seville, beating the Soviet Union 2-1 before steaming past Scotland (4-1) and New Zealand (4-0) with 25-yarders, outrageous chips, scissor-kicks, dummeys, volleys and top-cornered free-kicks. The Guardian’s Patrick Barclay saluted their "unrivalled capacity for producing the most imaginative play"; McIlvanney hailed “the beautiful simplicity of their play, which is a street game made into art”.
In the second group stage, Argentina were beaten 3-1 but disaster struck when they lost 3-2 to Enzo Bearzot’s limited but organised Italy, who would go on to lift the trophy. Zico called it “the day football died”; in Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson refined that to “the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won.” GP
37. Manchester United 1965-68
Ten years after the Munich air crash wiped out the Busby Babes, Matt Busby's Manchester United triumphed 4-1 at Wembley against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup Final in one of the most emotive nights in the history of British football.
After winning the title in 1964/65 and then again in 1966/67, Busby's third great United side finally grabbed the biggest prize of all. With the holy trinity of Best, Law (although he missed the final due to injury) and Charlton – arguably the finest trio of forwards ever accumulated in one club attack – pulling the strings, Old Trafford was the place to be in the swinging ‘60s.
Equally as influential, although less heralded, were the tigerish midfield duo of Pat Crerand and Nobby Stiles, whose no-nonsense and selfless approaches allowed their more polished team-mates to orchestrate United's forward moves. The team’s attacking football has become the stuff of legends, and in the process George Best became British football's first bona fide superstar, never better illustrated than in his quicksilver finish at Wembley. JS
36. Feyenoord 1968-71
Common football lore has it that Ajax, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff invented the modern 4-3-3 in the early 1970s at the same time as inventing Total Football. Well, those pioneering Amsterdammers may have done the latter, but they certainly didn’t do the former. Their great rivals Feyenoord did.
Indeed, it was an April 1970 Dutch Cup game that persuaded Michels to revert from his hitherto-favoured 4-2-4 formation after Ernst Happel’s brilliantly drilled Feyenoord led 3-1 inside 20 minutes. Ajax ultimately drew level, but the Austrian coach had delivered the tactical masterstroke of dropping a forward back into the midfield that would come to define Dutch football.
“The game always unfolds in the midfield,” Happel once reasoned, a philosophy that has dominated football ever since.
Lacking Ajax’s individual brilliance, Happel’s tactical acumen and trust in Willem van Hanegem to dictate games from the left of central midfield brought two Eredivisies in three seasons and the 1970 European Cup, 12 months before Ajax won their first. “Celtic haven’t lost to Feyenoord,” said Celtic manager Jock Stein after his side’s 2-1 defeat in that European showpiece. “I have lost to Happel.” AM
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