It’s the age old question that people have when they talk about football – is football better now? Are the players more skilful? Sure, the fitness and technology around the game have undoubtedly improved, but has the quality of the play and of the players for that matter improved?
For example, take two great teams from two different eras of the game and put them together – how would the match play out? Could Arsenal’s Invincibles defeat Barcelona’s dream team of the mid 90s? Could Manchester United’s treble winning team of ‘99 defeat Guardiola’s Manchester City? How would Brazil 2002 fair against Spain 2012? And what would happen if Liverpool in their early 80s pomp took on the mighty Real Madrid team that has won 3 out of the last 4 Champions League titles?
The conversation is endless. On the one side, you’ll have people arguing that modern day players are far superior to those that proceeded them, with even a mid-table modern day Premier League team being quite capable of winning the Old First Division at a canter. But then you’ll also have those that argue that true greatness transcends time and circumstance, whether it be players or coaches, and that if you were to put Ajax coach Rinus Michels – the father of Total Football – in charge of a modern day Barcelona, his tactics would still be above and beyond all others.
No one can truly know the answer, given that none of us have a time machine at our disposal, but it is certainly fun to think about.
That question has often been posed in the Premier League. As we look back on the history of the greatest league in the world, we often ask ourselves, which era was the best? Who had the best players? And most importantly, could the team of the 90s, for example, defeat the team of the 2010s?
Well while we can’t give you the answer, we’re certainly going to give you the means to discuss it, as we are going to give to you the teams of the decade from the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s.
With a few simple rules – all formations must be 4-4-2 and no player can be picked for two different teams – we will show you the teams of the decade from 1990 right up until modern day. Get ready to disagree!
If there was one thing we had in the 1990s in England, it was an embarrassment of riches when it came to strikers. In fact if there’s one thing that the English national team have always had, it’s a completely imbalanced squad, with either five world class defenders, five world class strikers or five world class midfielders, capable of getting into any team on the planet, but never at the same time.
England’s ‘Golden Generation’ of 2002 to 2006 was really the old time we had a fully balanced squad, but even then, we only ever managed the quarter finals. Seriously, if we didn’t win the World Cup in 2002 or 2006, when we probably had the best starting 11 in the tournaments, then we’re never winning it.
But my point is, apart from one pivotal point in time, England have always been imbalanced, and in the 1990s, we had more world class strikers than you could shake a stick at. Especially when you consider the Premier League in general, let alone the England national team. Then, it gets even more difficult when you have two striker positions to fill and you’ve got Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright, Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke and Marc Overmars among others to choose from.
There were some truly great players in the 90s, which made this team of the decade all that more difficult to pick.
In the end, the two striker positions have to go to Eric Cantona and Alan Shearer. In one, Shearer, you’ve got the best out-and-out goalscorer in Premier League history who opted to join Blackburn instead of Manchester United and help the former to their one and only Premier League title win (who are, until Leicester inevitably get relegated one day, the only team to win the Premier League and then get relegated) before turning down United once again to join his hometown team Newcastle United.
With an astonishing 260 goals – the most ever scored in the Premier League, Alan Shearer has to go down as one of the all time greats of his or any other era, but it was in the 1990s that he was enjoying the peak of his powers.
In the other, you’ve get Eric Cantona, a player who helped build United into the force that it is today with his messianic influence on the class of ’92, who looked up to him like a god.
Speaking on the effect that Eric Cantona had on Manchester United, former player Gary Pallister said in an interview: “We had a very strong team spirit and some great personalities and characters. But Eric just walked in with that straight-back stance as if to say, ‘I was born for this place.’ Being a character is one thing but to carry it off you have to have the ability to go with it. Eric did.
“We were a professional squad but Eric brought a new professionalism to the club. It was unique. He started training before us and stayed out longer than anyone else. It was a real eye-opener. It had a big effect on us and I also know how much it impacted on the Class of ’92. The likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville learnt so much from Eric and his professionalism.”
So without further ado, here is the team of the decade for the 1990s…
Subs: David Seaman, Gary Pallister, Emmanuel Petit, David Ginola, Gianfranco Zola, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler
The 2000s saw the breakup of the two-horse race that the Premier League had become during the 90s, between Manchester United and Arsenal. The two clubs were so much better than all of the rest, but as old football gave way to the oil money in the mid 2000s, we saw a shift of power, and new boys on the block Chelsea managed to get their feet under the table of the elite.
And with that power shift, we start to see a more balanced amount of players from the elite clubs of England being represented in the team of the decade. In the 1990s, nine out of the eleven picks for the first team were from either Arsenal or Manchester United, but now, we have four from Chelsea, one from Liverpool, three from Arsenal (I’m counting Cole as representing both teams) and four from Manchester United. Pretty even I’d say.
This is where it gets really tricky, because two of the entrance for the team of the decade for the 2000s –Scholes and Neville – could quite have easily found themselves in the team of the 90s also, but hey, I didn’t make the rules.
But as it is, football in the 2000s went through a definite shift away from the old and in with the new, and that, in part, was because of the influence that Arsene Wenger had on English football.
The drinking culture that had permeated English football seemingly since the beginning of time came to an abrupt end with the reign of Arsene Wenger, and though it took a little bit of time for his influence to filter through to the other teams, slowly but surely, clubs began to produce fitter, healthier, stronger and faster players. The beer was out, the late nights were out, and instead it was water and clean living.
Look at it this way, remember the flack that Jack Wilshire got for smoking a cigarette whilst on holiday? Well, by today’s standards, that is deemed to be extremely unprofessional behaviour, but back in the 80s and 90s, Arsenal had a club called “The Tuesday Club” where the players would meet in a pub and get smashed. My, how things have changed.
And with that change came a more fast paced game. Players got stronger, faster and fitter, and as such, the debate begins about whether the players of yesteryear could hang with the players of today.
And what I find interesting about this team of the decade is that it focuses more on the team itself. Because often is the time when it comes to picking a team of the year, the best players in their positions often get put in, which I think is the case if you’re trying to pick a team of players who have performed the best for their clubs in that position, but some would argue that if you’re picking a true team of the year, it would be different.
For example, in the 2000s team of the decade, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney have not been selected for the team. Now you have to whittle it down into the very best, but here we have an instance of a team of the decade working practically. Didier Drogba is chosen over the aforementioned players because more so than the others, he was able to take a game by the scruff of its neck and drag his team over the line.
He could brute force his way into scoring goals, and often he was the difference between three points and defeat for Chelsea. Though the others were all fantastic players, you could argue they were all part of a great team, and as a result never had the chance to prove just what their match winning talents could be. Drogba, however, turned up when it mattered most, and that’s why he gets the nod.
So here is the team of the decade for the 2000s.
Subs: Edwin van der Saar, William Gallas, Claude Makelele, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy
I think the team of the decade for the 2010s doesn’t necessarily reflect the shift from the dominance of English players to foreign players, rather, it reflects the end of England’s Golden Generation.
Looking at it from the perspective of an England fan, as well as a lover of football, it’s clear to see by judging the team of the 2000s that despite the dominance of fantastic foreign players, the fact that it still has seven out of eleven English players in it is a reflection on just how good the England team really was from 2002 until 2006.
Honestly, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that on paper, England had the best international team in the world for that four year period. It’s just a shame that they could never get their sh*t together.
But eventually, the Golden Generation came to an end, and with it ended our best chance to win a major tournament for a very long time. And as the 2010s rolled on, we saw an influx of yet more foreign superstars but also a regression of the quality of the England team.
This is a difficult one to judge, because there are still two years of the 2010s yet to play out. But you can only really judge it on what has happened from 2010 until 2018.
So while at the moment you’ve got Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez up top and Harry Kane on the bench, it’s completely foreseeable that Harry Kane overtakes both of them in the next two years – given that he hasn’t even reached his prime yet – and becomes the single best striker in the world. He’s probably the best striker in the world already, but he hasn’t had the same time at the top level as Suarez and Aguero have.
N’Golo Kante finds his way into the side and that is really the only position that can’t be debated. The very fact that Chelsea snapped him up for about 30 million quid is nothing short of insane. As the only player to win back to back Premier League titles with two different teams – and probably being the biggest reason that Leicester and Chelsea won the league – N’Golo Kante is by far and away the best central defensive midfielder in the world, and if he keeps up his form, it’s only a matter of time before he makes a move to either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
But what is surprising about the midfield of the 2010s is the relative lack of midfielders the Premier League had to choose from during this decade. We’ve had some fantastic midfielders during this time period, but it was never quite like it was back in the day.
People may also be surprised to find that Leighton Baines finds his way into the side at left back, but don’t forget, for a pretty sizable chunk of time between 2012 and 2016, he was one of the best left backs in the world, and probably the best left back in the league. It’s just a shame for Leighton Baines. Because if he was the age of 20 now on his 2014 form, he’d be in the England team for the next 15 years, and the same would probably be true for his eventual move to Manchester United.
But time was never on his side, at 33, he’s out of his prime days now, but when he was during his prime, Ashley Cole was still the best left back in the world.
So with that, let’s have a look at the 2010’s team of the decade (so far)…
Subs: Joe Hart, Nemanja Vidic, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Robin van Persie, Harry Kane
So now we have the teams of the decades for the Premier League era, and there are just two questions left to ask. Firstly, do you agree with these selections? Who would you have picked? And secondly, which team would win if they all played each other?