Is #MANUTD the most dominant English football team of all time?

Dr Ian McHale
Dr Ian McHale

Since the foundation of the Football League in 1888, 23 clubs have been champions of the top division in English football. Some were single-season wonders, while others enjoyed more sustained success.

As the Director of the Centre for Sports Business at Salford Business School, and Chair of the Royal Statistical Society’s sports section, I have developed a mathematical method for comparing the performance of every English Football League team, taking into account their varying prowess from season to season and the standard of opposition faced.

As the Football League celebrates its 125th anniversary, and after inputting the results of more than 200,000 matches into a highly sophisticated computer model I believe we have the answer. So, which team is the most dominant of all time?

Analysing every English Football League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup match played since the foundation of the Football League in 1888 until the end of the 2011-12 season, we identified the best decade of maximum ‘strength’ or quality for each team, which can be objectively compared with sides from any era.

Manchester United football team: most dominant English football team of all time

By looking at 206,843 games in which 601,039 goals were scored, and including any team which has played at least 250 matches, my method suggests that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United football team of 1992-2002, which won eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups and one League Cup, is the most dominant in the history of English club football. All-time greatest English domestic football team (10-year dominance)

Ranking Team Years
1 Manchester United 1992-2002
2 Liverpool 1979-1989
3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1951-1961
4 Manchester United 1946-1956
5 Chelsea 2001-2011
6 Tottenham Hotspur 1956-1966
7 Arsenal 1996-2006
8 Leeds United 1964-1974
9 Arsenal 1945-1955
10 Preston North End 1950-1960

The 1990s-era Manchester United, which saw the rise of the ‘Class of ‘92’ players – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt – tops the ranking just ahead of 1979-89-vintage Liverpool, with Wolverhampton Wanderers under Stan Cullis from 1951-61 in third place.

All-time greatest English domestic football team (maximum annual strength)

Using this method we can also calculate a team’s strength in a single year. Using this measure, José Mourinho’s 2006 title-winning Chelsea come first, with 2008’s Manchester United side second and the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-4 in third. All-time greatest English domestic football team (maximum annual strength)

Ranking Team Year
1 Chelsea 2006
2 Manchester United 2008
3 Arsenal 2003
4 Liverpool 1987
5 Manchester City 2011
6 Manchester United 1998
7 Everton 1986
8 Leeds United 1969
9 Liverpool 1977
10 Preston North End 1888

If you consider domestic championships and cups, many people would argue that you can’t look beyond one of the great Liverpool sides of 1970s and 1980s, or Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams of the nineties or the early part of this century, as the greatest English club team ever.

Our study uses a new statistical model to provide an objective answer to whether or not that’s the case and can give an extremely good measure of how good a football team was at its peak.

And by using the overlapping records of teams all the way from 1888 to 2012 we can directly compare great sides from different eras and variables such as improvements in training, tactics and diet cancel each other out.

When it comes down to the most dominant team for season after season, no one can beat Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson from 1992-2002.

Gary Neville, former Manchester United player

Picture of Gary Neville playing football for Manchester United
Gary Neville playing for Manchester United in 2006. Image courtesy of Austin Osuide.

Manchester United legend and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said:

“I played against Chelsea when they won the League in 2006 and they were a fantastic team. We came back to beat them to the title the following year, so the rivalry was extremely intense and I think the fact that Chelsea were up against a really strong United at the time drove them to even greater heights.   “I’m not that surprised that the research has shown them to be the greatest all-time team when it comes to a single year.   “But I think the 10-year dominance is an even better measure of the true strength of a football club, so I’m really pleased to see United coming top of the pile for the 1992-2002 period.   “It’s a real testament to the consistent excellence of United under Sir Alex Ferguson throughout the nineties and the early 21st Century, dealing with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United in the early years and an impressive Arsenal under Arsene Wenger later on.”

Do you agree with the research findings?

What do you think? Do you agree with these findings?  Who would you believe to be the most dominant English football team of all time? Please use the comments section below to share your views! This blog post was written by Dr Ian McHale and Professor Rose Baker.