26 years, 13 league titles, nine domestic cups, two European Cups and one Cup Winners’ Cup – Sir Alex Ferguson’s incredible success at Manchester United may never be repeated. His impressive ability to continually evolve his side, often ruthlessly discarding former first-teamers, means selecting his best players is a difficult task – but here is Ferguson’s greatest starting XI.
Between the posts, there is simply no debate that Peter Schmeichel was Manchester United’s greatest goalkeeper under Sir Alex Ferguson. Signed for just £500,000 from Brondby – where he’d scored two goals in his four-year spell – Schmeichel became the Premier League’s most celebrated goalkeeper. He was a superb shot-stopper, excellent at commanding his box, and received many plaudits for his excellent overarm throws, before distribution became a key feature of a goalkeeper’s game.
Edwin van der Sar is the only other major success story – Fabien Barthez had moments of brilliance but also made errors, while Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Tim Howard were less successful, with David De Gea improving encouragingly, but isn’t yet at Van der Sar’s level.
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel. Substitute: Edwin van der Sar.
At right-back, Gary Neville is the undisputed first-choice. A reliable squad member for 19 years, Neville was the archetypal steady full-back – clever with his defensive positioning, feisty in the tackle and excellent at supporting David Beckham with overlapping runs and good crossing.
At left-back, it’s a choice between Denis Irwin (who could also play on the right) and Patrice Evra. Irwin would be the traditionalists’ choice – he was extremely consistent throughout his twelve years at United, and he was a handy set-piece taker too.
But Irwin never hit the true heights of Evra, who recovered from a difficult start to his Manchester United career, and eventually became the best left-back in the world for a period, and has regularly captained the club too. He gets the nod, with Irwin a brilliant back-up in both full-back positions.
Full-backs: Gary Neville and Patrice Evra. Substitute: Denis Irwin
This feels like a choice between two great partnerships – Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, or Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand? There’s great similarity between the two combinations, as another former United centre-back David May, fondly remembers. “It’s just like watching Pally and Brucey again with [Vidic and Ferdinand],” he says. “You’ve got Rio in the Pally mode, a tall centre-back who loves to bring the ball out of defence at his feet, while Brucey and Vidic are both those sort of players who would run through brick walls for you.”
It’s also worth considering Dutch hardman Jaap Stam, as well as the underrated Ronny Johnsen, a great tactical option because of his ability to play in midfield.
Again, while Bruce and Pallister were an outstanding partnership throughout the 1990s, they merely conquered the Premier League, while Vidic and Ferdinand conquered Europe. They were the finest combination in the centre of the defence throughout the mid-late 2000s because they were completely different players and complimented each other superbly, and it would be a shame to break them up. Stam’s stay at Old Trafford was short-lived – but he was superb for those three seasons, and Ferguson regretted selling him.
Centre-backs: Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Substitute: Jaap Stam.
There are options here – Michael Carrick has enjoyed his best campaign at Manchester United this season, while Paul Ince was a brilliantly combative box-to-box midfielder at his peak, and Bryan Robson was a formidable opponent in Ferguson’s early years.
But realistically, it’s hard to look past Roy Keane and Paul Scholes – they may have both been suspended for the 1999 Champions League final, but they defined the United side of that era, and were a wonderful contrast in terms of both playing style and personality.
Keane was a fierce character and based his game around ruthless determination, while Scholes is incredibly quiet and brought great technical quality to the side. Keane described Scholes as “an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.”
Central midfielders: Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Substitute: Paul Ince.
There’s no debate on the left. 23 seasons and 939 games means Ryan Giggs is in the side for his longevity : he’s never been United’s key player, but his consistency is remarkable, and the way he’s varied his game to become a central midfielder in the past few seasons is highly impressive.
On the right, it’s a choice between David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. Beckham would complete the 1999 midfield alongside Giggs, Scholes and Keane – but realistically Ronaldo became a significantly better footballer. The Portuguese winger was a weak, gangly teenager obsessed with stepovers at the start of his United career, but went onto win the Ballon D’Or as he led United to the European Cup in 2008.
With good reason, Ferguson encouraged him to take Beckham’s number 7 shirt immediately, and Ronaldo more than lived up to the comparison. “Because of their longevity at the club, others may be ranked above Ronaldo as United greats, but no one was a good as Ronaldo in that two-year period,” says Neville. “He has helped to redefine the game by creating a new breed of flexible forward.”
Wide midfielders: Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo. Substitute: David Beckham.
Upfront is the greatest debate. In terms of individuals, Eric Cantona and Wayne Rooney are probably the most talented players to have played upfront for Ferguson, with Teddy Sheringham also a brilliantly inventive forward, while Ruud van Nistelrooy was a ruthless poacher.
However, if you’re looking at partnerships, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole are unbeatable. Their relationship was superb, with their brilliant goal at the Nou Camp in 1999 summing up their instinctive relationship. Neither were as creative as Cantona, or quite as efficient in front of goal as Van Nistelrooy – but together they worked brilliantly.
So it’s essentially a question about what you prefer – individuals or partnerships, and Ferguson’s priority is clear: a key part of his management has been about reliable relationships throughout a side, so Yorke and Cole get the nod.
“I liked Yorkey straight away and admired how he was completely unfazed by his huge transfer fee. Not many strikers settle as quickly at Old Trafford like Dwight,” recalls Cole. Like Vidic and Ferdinand, and Scholes and Keane, the key was the contrast. “We were totally different people…when we started playing together, it was like meeting a special woman and falling in love,” jokes Cole. “Everything felt right. Whatever he did, I did the opposite.”
Cantona merits a place on the bench for his sheer talent, but with only five years of service compared to Rooney’s nine, the Englishman gets the nod. No-one has scored more goals under Ferguson, and his versatility provided a great option as United developed tactically in the mid-2000s to dominate Europe in the manner Cantona’s side never did.
With one remaining place on the bench remaining, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the natural option, purely because of his habit of scoring as a substitute, most famously to clinch United’s 1999 European Cup. “I had to think about how can I do the most damage for the opposition if I come on? I sat there and I studied football games but I didn’t exactly analyse their strikers,” the Norweigan says. “I would pay attention to what the defenders and full-backs were doing wrong.” That means no place in the 18 for Cantona – despite him arguably being the most talented player Ferguson’s ever had.
Strikers: Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Substitutes: Wayne Rooney and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Greatest Ever Manchester United XI: Schmeichel; Neville, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Ronaldo, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Yorke, Cole.
Substitutes: Van der Sar, Irwin, Stam, Ince, Beckham, Rooney, Solskjaer.
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