Premier League Big Six – when did they have their best days?

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.

UEFA Europa League: Arsenal and United swing into action

TWO English clubs who would really prefer to be slugging it out in the Champions League start their Europa League campaigns. Arsenal, who have not participated in the premier competition since 2016-17, return to Europe with a trip to FC Zurich. Manchester United, who reached the last 16 of the Champions League in 2017-18, have had to settle for the Europa this season.

Arsenal are playing in St. Gallen because the match clashes with an athletics meeting in Zurich. Despite losing their unbeaten record against Manchester United, they arrived in Switzerland as Premier League leaders, with five wins from six games. They have been in excellent form, playing attractive football and scoring goals, a big contrast from their opponents, who have started 2022-23 abysmally. Zurich, Swiss Super League champions in 2021-22 for the first time since 2009, have just two points from their first even games. The mood was set on the opening day of the season when they were thrashed by Young Boys 4-0.  

Zurich lost their coach, André Breitenreiter to Hoffenheim and appointed Franco Foda as his successor in June 2022. Foda is a very different manager to his predecessor. “We were deliberately not looking for a copy of Breitenreiter, but an experienced coach who can develop this team both technically and tactically,” explained Zurich’s president Ancillo Canepa. Despite their league form and an early Champions League exit, Zurich shifted to the Europa and have beaten two British clubs already, Linfield and Hearts.

Arsenal will be among the favourites for the Europa League this season. Their two European trophies have, unfortunately, been consigned to history. The first was won in 1970, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, which was not a UEFA-inaugurated competition, and they lifted the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1994.

Manchester United are in far better shape than they were a few weeks ago and will also be among the more fancied teams. They have beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in recent games and have dispersed the black clouds that descended on Old Trafford in August. Manager Erik ten Hag has turned round what was becoming a very tricky situation. Their 3-1 win against Arsenal was impressive and marked the debut of Brazilian striker Antony, who scored the first goal in that victory. Ten Hag has shown resilience in the way he has handled the Cristiano Ronaldo affair well and the Portuguese striker has been used sparingly. United won the Europa in 2017 and were finalists in 2021.

Real Sociedad have had a patchy start to the season and have struggled to score goals. They could include former Manchester City midfielder David Silva in their line-up. They have a modest European record having played in the Europa for three consecutive seasons, but their best run was in the European Cup in 1983 when they reached the semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Hamburg SV.

There are other attractive games in the first matchday of the Europa League. Lazio are playing Feyenoord, the runners-up in the UEFA Conference League last season. Lazio, under Maurizio Sarri, have lost just once in Serie A and have been in decent form. They still have Ciro Immobile in their forward line, but the sharp-shooter is now 32 years old. They finished fifth last season and they should be in for another good year. Feyenoord are unbeaten, winning four of their five games, and are third in the Eredivisie. They are old European campaigners, having won the European Cup in 1970 and UEFA Cup in 1974 and 2002.

Red Star Belgrade have also won the European Cup, in 1991, and they remain Serbia’s most visible club on the international stage. They host Monaco, who reached the Champions League final in 2004 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1992. Red Star were denied a place in the Champions League group stage by Maccabi Haifa, while Monaco were eliminated in the third qualifying round by PSV Eindhoven. Red Star are unbeaten in their domestic league, but trail surprise club Novi Pazar by a single point. Monaco’s league form has been mixed so far.

There are 12 other group games:  PSV v Bødo/Glimt; AEK Larnarca v Rennes; Fenerbahce v Dynamo Kyiv; HJK Helsinki v Real Betis; Ludogorets v Roma; Union Berlin v Union Saint-Gilloise; Malmo v Sporting Braga; Omonia Nicosia v Sherrif; Sturm Graz v Midtjylland; Nantes v Olympiakos; Freiburg v Qarabag; Ferencvaros v Trabzonspor.