The days of their lives – from Arsenal in the 30s to City under Pep, consistency has created legends

OVER the past few years, we have supposedly seen the “best ever” club sides in the Premier League and even Europe. When Liverpool and Manchester City went head-to-head in 2019, some were quick to proclaim them the greatest of all time, but in 2019-20, City fell short and a year later, Liverpool’s defence of their Premier crown was rather tepid. The real test of a great team is consistency over a period of time and both of these clubs have shown they have that quality. A team has a lifespan and it’s usually no more than three years, but clubs can rebuild and reinforce over that same time period. Manchester City’s team in 2017-18 is very different to the side that won the club’s fourth Premier title in five years in 2022.

City are enjoying the best period in their history. In the past five years, they have won nine major trophies, all under their enigmatic coach Pep Guardiola, including a ground-breaking treble of domestic honours in 2019. There’s only one prize that would complete the portfolio for Guardiola, and that’s the elusive UEFA Champions League. City have won four of the last five Premier League trophies, which could soon compare to Liverpool’s five in six between 1979 and 1984 and a similar haul by Manchester United between 1996 and 2001. Back in the 1930s, Arsenal were champions five times in eight years. City have won six in 11.

Periods of excellence

Arsenal

Arsenal became the first London club to win the Football League championship in 1931. It heralded the start of a glorious era for the club in which they won four more titles in the 1930s and also won the FA Cup in 1936. Arsenal’s success was triggered by Herbert Chapman, the legendary manager who also led Huddersfield to two of their three titles in the 1920s. In the 1930s, there was only the league and FA Cup, but as the game developed, there were more pieces of silver to win. Arsenal had their very lean spell, from 1953 to 1970 when they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and then picked up an unexpected “double” in 1971. But the most consistent spell in the club’s recent history was undoubtedly under Arsene Wenger, when they won three titles in seven seasons and three FA Cups. Either side of the period 2002 and 2005, Arsenal almost added more trophies, notably when they reached the Champions League final in 2006, losing to Barcelona in Paris.

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Manchester United

If Arsenal were the most successful club in the inter-war period, Manchester United promised to dominate the early post-war years and the 1950s, only for tragedy to strike in 1958 when their most exciting young team perished in the snow at Munich airport. United had won two league titles with this side (1956 and 1957), and it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they had a team that was worthy of being champions once more. This was actually quite short-lived (1964 to 1968) and after Sir Matt Busby retired, United declined. After a string of failed managerial appointments, United reclaimed their place at the forefront of English football under Alex Ferguson. After a stuttering start at Old Trafford, Ferguson eventually presided over the most successful period in the club’s history, which included 12 league titles and two UEFA Champions League triumphs. Even though the club’s position came under threat from Arsenal and then Chelsea, Ferguson still managed to bow out with a Premier League title in 2013.

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Tottenham Hotspur

In the early 1960s, Tottenham produced a team that people talked about for decades afterwards. Under Bill Nicholson, Spurs won the first 20th century “double” in 1961, playing a brand of football that delighted crowds all over England. Nicholson won four trophies in four seasons and then spent the next decade trying to replicate this period. Indeed, Spurs have struggled to win trophies ever since, their last accolade coming in 2008. There have been brief periods where they have won major prizes, notably in the early 1970s and early 1980s, but they remain an under-performing club that still promises much more than it achieves.

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Liverpool

Merseyside started to dominate football in the early 1960s when both Everton and Liverpool won the league title. Liverpool, under Bill Shankly, had a golden spell between 1963 and 1965, winning two league championships and the FA Cup. Shankly had to wait until 1973 for another trophy, but then retired, handing over to his number two, Bob Paisley. He began an even more successful period that included the continuation of the dynasty created by his predecessor. Liverpool dominated the late 1970s and 1980s like no other club had achieved before and became England’s first real European force. It all ended in 1990 and, predictably, the club struggled to recapture their status, not to mention the league title. Only in recent seasons have the club returned to the forefront of the game, rekindling the spirit that took them to the top in the 1960s. With Jürgen Klopp as manager, Liverpool have won the league, the FA Cup, the Football League Cup and the Champions League.

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Chelsea

Chelsea were another under-performing club for many years, winning four trophies in the first 90 years of their existence. They had a flurry of success in the late 1990s, winning two FA Cups, the Football League Cup and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, but it wasn’t until 2003 that their fortunes really changed when the club was acquired by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Chelsea’s financial strength grew overnight and in their second season under Abramovich, they hired José Mourinho as coach and signed exciting talent from around the world. Chelsea’s reputation changed and their trophy cabinet bulged, culminating in their first Champions League title in 2012. The club became a revolving door with respect to hiring and firing coaches and their frequent forays into the transfer market meant their team was constantly being turned over. In 2022, with war raging between Russia and Ukraine, the club changed hands after Abramovich was subject to sanctions from the UK government due to his connection to the Russian administration. It would seem doubtful that Chelsea will enjoy the same level of success going forward.

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Manchester City

Manchester City have taken over where Chelsea left off in terms of financial strength. Before the club was acquired by investors from Abu Dhabi, City had won just nine honours, the last being in 1976. Their best spell before the current era was between 1967-68 and 1969-70 when they won four major trophies. Since 2018, they have secured nine prizes, including four Premier League titles (six since 2012). They were also the first club to win the domestic treble of league, FA Cup and Football League Cup. European success still eludes them, although they did reach the final of the Champions League in 2021, losing to Premier rivals Chelsea. City have become very proficient at making every signing count, they rarely make a bad buy and they are now an attractive proposition for any potential new player – they have the resources, the top coach in the world and the track record. This is really City’s golden age.

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Most clubs have enjoyed periods where they have been the pre-eminent force in the game, although it is a relative thing. Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland all had their era when they were the top clubs around, but this was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Leeds United, between 1967 and 1972, were arguably the best team in England. At the moment, it is City’s time, but where will the next market leader come from? Newcastle United, with their new ownership model may be the next club to climb aboard the serious gravy train. They may have to push one or two stubborn contenders out of the way, though.

Top coaches can be found outside the Premier League

ASK any football fan who they believe is the best coach in European football and they will roll-out names like Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti. But despite their impressive records and the number of prizes they have won in their glittering careers, the two coaches with the best win rates among Europe’s top leagues are relatively unknown outside the countries they in which they work.

Rúben Amorim of Sporting Lisbon and Matthias Jaissle of Red Bull Salzburg have win rates of 73.15% and 72.92% respectively in their current jobs. Both win slightly more often than Guardiola at Manchester City, who has the best record among the top five leagues.

Amorim is just 37 years old and took Sporting to their first league title in years in 2020-21. The former Portugal international earned his spurs at Braga and took over at Sporting in March 2020 and in his first full season led the club to the Primeira Liga with just one defeat in 34 games, their only loss coming against Lisbon rivals Benfica.

Amorim also has the best career win rate as a manager, 73.48% versus Guardiola’s 72.83%. But he cannot match Pep’s trophy haul of 17 major trophies (League, Cup and Europe). Unsurprisingly, Amorim has attracted the attention of Paris Saint-Germain according to reports coming out of the French capital.

Red Bull Salzburg’s Jaissle (34) is another young coach who was appointed in July 2021, taking over from Leipzig-bound Jesse Marsch. In his first season, he won the double in Austria, finishing 18 points clear of second-placed Sturm Graz and beating Ried in the cup final. Of course, any team in the Red Bull franchise has distinct advantages over their competitors and that’s very clear in the case of Salzburg. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous energy drink continues to build a network of coaches that can be used across their multi-club model.

Win rates at their current club

  ClubCurrent win rate %Career win rate %
1Rúben AmorimSporting Lisbon73.1573.48
2Matthias JaissleRed Bull Salzburg72.9270.77
3Pep GuardiolaManchester City72.7372.52
4Sérgio ConceiçãoPorto71.9658.48
5Julian NagelsmannBayern Munich70.251.1
6Ange PostecoglouCeltic7052.09
7Carlo AncelottiReal Madrid69.658.3
8Ole WernerWerder Bremen68.4253.13
9Giovanni van BronckhorstRangers68.2959.17
10Mauricio PochettinoParis Saint-Germain65.4848.49
Top five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) plus Portugal, Netherlands, Austria, Scotland.

Guardiola has had a charmed career in that he has managed only very top clubs – Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Hence, he has had every chance to succeed, but there’s no denying the intelligence and influence of his approach. Guardiola’s career record is a win rate of 72.82%, almost identical to his figures at Manchester City.

Statistics only illustrate one aspect of performance and they can be misleading. It has to be noted that the records of Guardiola and some of his contemporaries have been built over many years, whereas some coaches have had relatively short careers and therefore, the true measurement of their ability will be revealed in time. A good example of this is Ole Werner of Werder Bremen, who has a win rate of 68.42% from just 19 games with the Bundesliga club.

Sérgio Conceição, Porto’s 47 year-old coach, has had a 271-game career with his club and has accumulated a win rate of 71.96%. Admittedly, Porto are one of three clubs dominating Portuguese football and there’s some distance between that trio and the rest of the league. His compatriot, José Mourinho has one of the best career records in the game, a win rate of 63.05% and a trophy haul of 17 major prizes. Yet Mourinho’s current rate – 52.73% at AS Roma – ranks among the lowest of his time in the game, even though he continued his penchant for lifting trophies in the form of the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League. Just ahead of Mourinho in terms of career win rates is Erik Ten Hag, the new Manchester United manager. Ten Hag’s figures, arguably, should be weighted because he’s yet to manage in a top five league, although he was very successful at Ajax, who rightly belong among Europe’s royal family of clubs. By contrast, Mourinho has coached in England, Italy and Spain, as well as his homeland of Portugal and has been employed by five former European champions. Carlo Ancelotti, who has a career stat of 58.3% and has won no less than four Champions Leagues as a manager, also has a killer CV that includes AC Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Juventus. Another top 10 coach, Ange Postecoglou, is a 70% success with Celtic, but he has made his name in lower level leagues, which does somewhat dilute his position.

Interestingly, notable managers of the past did not have anything like the statistics of Guardiola (72.82%), Klopp (61.4%), and Thomas Tuchel (61.29%). Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman, for instance. He won 49.64% of his games with the Gunners and secured two league titles and the FA Cup once. The current boss at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta, has won 54.2% of the 131 games he’s been in charge and yet it is unlikely Arteta will create the sort of impact Chapman made. Liverpool’s Bill Shankly had a win rate of 49.24%, much lower than his successors Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish, but the legend of Shankly lives on. Matt Busby (Manchester United), Don Revie (Leeds United), Bill Nicholson (Tottenham) and Bobby Robson (Various) all hovered around the 50% mark. Brian Clough’s career record was 46.5%. Different times, different methods and perhaps a more democratic era for football.

The figures for the current batch of managers will not change the perception people have of the really top coaches. They are the big names in the management game because of the quality of their CVs. These generally take time to compile, so some of the characters in the current list will either rise or fall, depending on performance. Just as we have elite teams and competitions, football also has an elite group of coaches who command the very best jobs.