Ranking things across eras -- teams, players, or anything -- is a fool's errand. How do you compare Tom Brady to Johnny Unitas? George Mikan to Shaquille O'Neal? Soccer's no different. Club rosters are far more cosmopolitan than they used to be, wins are worth three points instead of two, and money disparities have created a far less even playing field at the club level (not that it was ever totally even). How would we possibly go about comparing the 1968 Manchester United team that won the European Cup, to the Chelsea team that did the same in 2020-21? It's pretty much impossible.
We're going to do it anyway, of course, and while there's no perfect way to attempt this exercise, that's never stopped this fool before. So first things first: let's define the basis of the rankings themselves.
If you wanted to simply grade teams by point totals or points per game, then you're going to end up with the 2017-18 and 2018-19 Manchester City and 2018-19 and 2019-20 Liverpool teams atop a "Best Ever" list, and it would be difficult to argue with that. If you wanted to order teams by résumé and accomplishment, then the treble-winning 1998-99 Manchester United and unbeaten (but with many ties) 2003-04 Arsenal will likely take the top spots, followed in succession by England's other European champs.
Either approach would be fine. Hell, they might be better than the path I chose, but I wanted to try to add something interesting to the conversation.
We know the recent City and Liverpool teams have been awesome, but they've been playing in an era of great financial disparity. The distance between the top and bottom teams in the Premier League is massive compared to how it once was: The standard deviation for points per game was in the 0.2s as recently as 1992-93, but it was up to 0.55 in 2018-19, meaning the average variation from team to team is far greater than it was in a different era.
We expect the best teams to be better (and richer) now, so what was really the bigger accomplishment: Manchester City averaging 2.6 points per game in 2017-18 or Tottenham Hotspur averaging 2.3 (if we give them three points per win) in 1960-61? What's more impressive, Liverpool averaging 2.3 points in 1978-79 (again, with three points per win) and 1987-88 or averaging 2.6 in 2019-20?
The list below is derived in part by old-fashioned percentile ratings: Who stood out from the pack the most on a given season's bell curve? It primarily looks at league performance, but it does also factor in teams' EloFootball.com ratings, which weighs league and both domestic and continental tournament performances, where applicable. How good was the field of teams you were playing against, and how well did you differentiate yourself from them?
One more note: I began this research with teams at the start of the 1950s, the decade in which official European competition began. Apologies to Herbert Chapman's great Arsenal teams and the other prewar greats who got short shrift, but that start date made as much sense as anything else. (Also, I indeed went back and created new tables for the years before 1980-81, giving everyone three points for a win, so congratulations to 1978-79 Liverpool; you just went from winning the league with 68 points to winning it with 98.)
So here are the 20 best teams of the past 75 years of English football.
The Top 20
20. 1956-57 Manchester United
The first of two Matt Busby teams on the list, this one defended its top-division title with ease -- by eight points over Preston North End and a quickly rising Tottenham Hotspur (14, with adjusted scoring) -- while giving Bobby Charlton his debut (he scored twice in it, naturally), reaching the FA Cup finals and beating Anderlecht, Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Club on the way to the semifinals in their first European Cup. They lost to a Real Madrid team at the peak of its powers.
19. 2010-11 Manchester United
United came up one point short of a fourth straight Premier League title in 2010 thanks a late (and offside) goal from Chelsea's Didier Drogba in an April loss at Old Trafford. They responded with venom, winning a loaded and deep Premier League by nine points the following season and blazing past Chelsea and others into the Champions League final before falling to a loaded Barcelona. Sir Alex Ferguson would win one last league title in 2013, but this was his last genuinely fantastic team.
18. 1990-91 Arsenal
With one of the greatest defenses in English history, the Gunners reached a peak under George Graham, winning their second league in three years and doing so by seven points over a loaded Liverpool -- despite a two-point deduction for a brawl against Manchester United, no less! They allowed only 18 goals all season, four fewer than Arsenal's Alan Smith scored by himself. Their lead was just one point following a February loss to Chelsea (their only of the season), but they hit the accelerator from there.
17. 1989-90 Liverpool
A year after losing the league title to Graham's Arsenal on the final day of the season, Kenny Dalglish's Reds left no doubt. Thanks to a run of four losses in seven matches in October and November, it took them a while to claw past Aston Villa, but they lost only once from November onward, and their +41 goal differential was more than twice as strong as that of any other team. This team is famous for winning Liverpool's last league title for 30 years -- until Jurgen Klopp did it in 2019-20 -- but it was also a fantastic squad.
16. 1958-59 Wolverhampton Wanderers
From 1957-58 through 1960-61, Stan Cullis' Wolves were electrifying, scoring over 100 goals in every season, winning two league titles and coming within one point of a third. Against a crowded field of competitors -- eight teams finished within six points of third place -- Wolves slowly pulled away, losing only once after Jan. 3 and winning their last four matches by a combined 10-0 to keep United at bay. They scored the most goals in the league and allowed the fewest.
15. 1957-58 Wolverhampton Wanderers
During an era of rampant scoring, Cullis' Wolves scored 103 goals in 42 matches (behind only Manchester City's 104) and got more league goals from Jimmy Murray and Norman Deeley (52) than they allowed as a team (49). After losses to Everton and Luton Town in their first five matches, Wolves embarked on an 18-match unbeaten streak to seize control. Only two teams had a goal differential greater than +22: Preston at +49 and Wolves at +56. A brilliant team in a particularly competitive era.
14. 1998-99 Manchester United
A particularly difficult team to judge for a list like this. United became the only English team to win the Treble -- Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League -- but Ferguson's most accomplished team was in no way his most dominant. For a start, United took the Premier League title with only 79 points, and their last eight league matches featured four draws and three one-goal wins. This team mastered the art of doing just enough down the stretch, which is incredible, but doesn't leap off the page from a dominance perspective.
13. 1987-88 Liverpool
Banned from European competition for six years following the Heysel disaster, Liverpool might have had the best team in Europe for two of those years. Despite losing forward Ian Rush to Juventus, the Reds scored 87 goals (only one other team topped 67) and allowed a paltry 24 in 40 matches. They began the league campaign with a 29-match unbeaten streak and missed out on a league double due only to a shocking 1-0 loss to Wimbledon in the final. This team was nearly untouchable.
12. 1993-94 Manchester United
After bottoming out at 14th in his fourth season in charge, Ferguson rewarded United's patience with the most incredible sustained run you'll ever see. United finished in the top three every season from 1991-92 to 2012-13 and established their first of many peaks with back-to-back titles in 1993 and 1994. Eric Cantona reached his top form -- 25 goals in all competitions -- and from August through late-March, United lost only to Chelsea... whom they pummeled 4-0 in the FA Cup final to take the domestic double.
11. 2018-19 Liverpool
Klopp's chaotic and indomitable Reds are the only team on this list that didn't win a league title, but they of course had to be here all the same. They lost only once all season on the way to 97 league points -- at the time, the third-most in Premier League history -- and they forced Manchester City to win its last 14 matches to take the crown. Oh yeah, and they sprinted past Bayern Munich, unleashed an historic comeback on Barcelona and beat Spurs to take their first Champions League crown in 14 years.
10. 1999-2000 Manchester United
After winning the Treble in 1999, United somehow got better, scoring 17 more goals -- Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole combined for 39 -- and earning 12 more points in league play. They won their last 11 league matches of the year by a combined 37-11 and failed in defending their Treble due only to (a) sitting out the FA Cup because of Club World Cup obligations and (b) Real Madrid's Raul scoring two goals on them in three minutes in the Champions League quarterfinals.
9. 1992-93 Manchester United
If you're inclined to think of Ferguson as the greatest manager in English football history, the fact that he managed five of the 20 teams on this list, and in three rather distinctive eras, is pretty good support for your claim. His very first league champion took its time finding form, winning just five of its first 15 league matches and briefly falling to 10th place while also losing in the League Cup and UEFA Cup. But after adding Leeds' Eric Cantona in November, the Red Devils ignited, losing only twice more and zipping past Aston Villa, Norwich City and Blackburn for a 10-point league win.
8. 1978-79 Liverpool
Liverpool won four European Cups and seven league titles in a nine-year span from 1976-84, but maybe the best team of that run was eliminated in the first round in Europe. Brian Clough's upstart Nottingham Forest upset them by a cumulative 2-0, except that freed them up to focus on the league. They lost only once before December and only once after December, they scored 13 more goals than anyone else (85), and they allowed 10 fewer than anyone else (16).
Even by their own standards, this team stood out.
7. 2019-20 Liverpool
After losing the most incredible two-team race in Premier League history in 2019, Liverpool somehow found another gear. While City was uncharacteristically dropping points here and there, the Reds dropped only two during a 27-match unbeaten streak to start the EPL season. They briefly ran out of steam right before the COVID-19 lockdown -- they lost their first league match, then suffered elimination from the FA Cup and Champions League all within 12 days -- but they had already done their damage. They finished with 99 points, second-most in EPL history and 18 more than City.
6. 2018-19 Manchester City
After a tricky first season in the Premier League, Pep Guardiola proceeded to field two of the greatest teams in league history, back-to-back. After becoming the first EPL team to hit 100 points in 2017-18, the Sky Blues merely hit 98 the next year, losing three of four in a brief December slump, but winning 18 of 19 from there to hold off Liverpool. They beat Chelsea in penalties to snare the EFL Cup, then destroyed Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final as well. Only an away goals defeat to Spurs in the Champions League prevented them from winning all four major trophies.
5. 2003-04 Arsenal
Arsene Wenger's Invincibles: another difficult team to properly evaluate. They were the first and, to date, only team to finish unbeaten in Premier League play, but they finished with only 90 points -- outstanding, but far from the best ever -- because of 12 draws. They were also eliminated by Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Still ... 38 matches unbeaten! In an era with a rampant Manchester United, a stalwart Liverpool and a rising Chelsea! Thierry Henry scored 39 goals in all competitions, Robert Pires added 19, and Wenger's vision of elegant attack and beyond-sturdy defense came into perfect light in the 2003-04 campaign.
4. 2017-18 Manchester City
Remember in the spring of 2017, when you could find loads of pundits wondering if the Premier League, with its depth and physicality, might be a bit too much for Pep Guardiola and his pretty possession ball? Those voices went silent awfully quickly when City began the EPL campaign with 20 wins and two draws in 22 matches. Manchester United kept up for a while, but City led by double digits by mid-December and never looked back. They lost only twice, won the league by 19 points and finished with a best-ever +79 goal differential. They won the League Cup as well, and only a quarterfinal exit to Liverpool in the Champions League blemished an otherwise amazing résumé.
3. 1960-61 Tottenham Hotspur
No team since 1897 had won the English double before Bill Nicholson's remarkable Spurs squad did the deed, and in a particularly competitive era for English football. They lost only once in their first 25 league matches, steamrolled their way to the FA Cup title and, despite excellent play from both Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday, they won the league title by eight points (16 with adjusted scoring), scoring 115 goals in the process.
This was Spurs' only title in Nicholson's 16 years in charge, but they came a combined six points short of winning in 1960 and 1962 as well. In an era in which English club football blossomed, Spurs were as consistently dominant as anyone.
2. 2004-05 Chelsea
Guardiola and Klopp have come to dominate English football, but they both needed a breaking-in period before they could get rolling. Chelsea immediately became a finished product when Jose Mourinho came to town after winning the Champions League with Porto. They spent nearly £100 million in transfer fees, allowed just one goal in their first eight league matches, assumed first place in November and, despite incredible league depth -- Liverpool would win the Champions League, Arsenal had just come off of its Invincibles run, and United remained United -- rolled to 95 points and a 12-point league win. They allowed only 15 goals, won the League Cup and took down Barcelona and Bayern in the Champions League knockouts before an upset against Liverpool.
1. 1955-56 Manchester United
Matt Busby was renowned for developing from within, and he painted his masterpiece with this team. Despite leaning primarily on players in their teens and early 20s, United started with just three wins in their first eight matches, but quickly found form. In a league with no genuinely bad teams -- last-place Sheffield United won 12 matches with nine draws -- United finished the year on a 14-game unbeaten streak and won the league by 11 points (16 with adjusted scoring). Tommy Taylor and Dennis Viollet combined for 45 league goals, while the back line allowed the fewest goals in the league.
Both the 1955-56 and 1956-57 United teams made this list, which of course only serves to enhance the tragedy of what happened next. Taylor was one of 23 people (including eight United players) who died in a plane crash following United's European Cup quarterfinal match against Red Star Belgrade in February 1958. Busby was severely injured and was hospitalized for weeks, but he eventually returned to the sideline at Old Trafford. His United would again return to prominence, winning the league in 1965 and 1967 and the European Cup in 1968.
Best offenses of the past 75 years
Since I went to the effort of setting up all these tables and adjustments and whatnot, let's work through a few more lists before we go. Because scoring has gone up and down in waves through the years, I thought it would be fun to look at what were, through this math prism I set up, the best attacks and defenses of the time period.
1. 1999-2000 Manchester United
2. 2004-05 Arsenal
3. 1998-99 Manchester United
4. 1987-88 Liverpool
5. 2019-20 Manchester City
6. 1978-79 Liverpool
7. 2006-07 Manchester United
8. 1982-83 Liverpool
9. 2017-18 Manchester City
10. 1979-80 Liverpool
Three clubs and eras stand out here: turn-of-the-century Manchester United, late-1970s Liverpool and Guardiola's City.
Best defenses of the past 75 years
In 1960-61, when Spurs were dominating, English teams averaged 1.9 goals per match. In 1970-71, it was down to 1.2. It's oscillated between about 1.3 and 1.4 for most of the last decade. Adjusting for these wild swings, here are the 10 teams that stood out the most in terms of goal prevention.
1. 1990-91 Arsenal
2. 1998-99 Arsenal
3. 1977-78 Nottingham Forest
4. 1964-65 Manchester United
5. 2004-05 Chelsea
6. 1981-82 Manchester United
7. 1978-79 Liverpool
8. 1992-93 Manchester United
9. 1960-61 Sheffield Wednesday
10. 1952-53 Cardiff City
That's right, Busby's United allowing 39 goals in 42 matches in 1964-65 was just about the same accomplishment as Mourinho's Chelsea allowing 15 in 2004-05. That might be a shock, though a George Graham team landing atop the list probably isn't.
Best teams by decade
1. 1955-56 Manchester United
2. 1957-58 Wolves
3. 1958-59 Wolves
4. 1956-57 Manchester United
5. 1950-51 Tottenham Hotspur
A number of clubs got their act together in the late-1950s. Busby's Babes stood out, but Wolves and Spurs were also embarking on incredible runs.
1. 1960-61 Tottenham Hotspur 2. 1964-65 Manchester United 3. 1966-67 Manchester United 4. 1969-70 Everton 5. 1968-69 Leeds United
Fewer teams stood out at a genuinely elite level during the 1960s, a decade defined as much as anything by Busby's United rebuild.
1. 1978-79 Liverpool
2. 1970-71 Arsenal
3. 1976-77 Liverpool
4. 1972-73 Liverpool
5. 1979-80 Liverpool
After nearly a decade in the second division, Liverpool got its act together under Bill Shankly in the 1960s, then established sustained dominance when Shankly handed the reins to Paisley in 1974.
1. 1987-88 Liverpool
2. 1989-90 Liverpool
3. 1981-82 Liverpool
4. 1988-89 Liverpool
5. 1984-85 Everton
Dalglish's Liverpool nearly matched Paisley's heights, though obviously the Heysel ban prevented the Reds from establishing the same European bona fides.
1. 1992-93 Manchester United
2. 1999-00 Manchester United
3. 1993-94 Manchester United
4. 1998-99 Manchester United
5. 1990-91 Arsenal
This decade is remembered primarily for two things: the formation of the Premier League in 1992 and an incredible run of domination by Ferguson and United.
1. 2004-05 Chelsea
2. 2003-04 Arsenal
3. 2005-06 Chelsea
4. 2002-03 Manchester United
5. 2008-09 Manchester United
Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea in 2003 changed English football, because of how quickly the Blues became one of Europe's best teams and because of the other billionaires and oligarchs who followed.
1. 2017-18 Manchester City
2. 2018-19 Manchester City
3. 2019-20 Liverpool
4. 2018-19 Liverpool
5. 2010-11 Manchester United
After some down years, the Premier League as a whole began to find a load of European success in the late 2010s, but two clubs, with two teams each, still very much stood out from the pack.