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England’s greatest football team: is it really Chelsea?

England’s Greatest Football Team. It’s an easy phrase to say, but which specific team is it referring to? Perhaps for each of us it’s a different team. It likely depends when you grew up, where you live, and what people you know are saying on the subject.

Mauricio Pochettino discussed this subject in an interview given as he took over as Chelsea manager. He had this to say as he talked up the winning record of his new employers:

It’s an eye-catching claim, that Chelsea have been the greatest team of recent times in England. But is it right?

Trophies Won

The team with the strongest claim to be England’s greatest football team is the one that wins the most major trophies. Let’s take a look at the numbers for the 15-year period that Pochettino is talking about:English clubs listed by their number of major trophies won 2009-2023

The numbers confirm what many of us likely suspected when we first saw what Pochettino had said in this interview. Chelsea have been very successful in the past 15 years. However, they’re not the greatest English football team at winning trophies. That honour instead goes to Manchester City.

Chelsea do have an edge in European trophies. The Blues have won two Europa League and two Champions League titles in this period. However, I am not sure this is enough to overhaul Manchester City’s overall record. This is especially the case with Manchester City winning the Champions League this season. City fans would also point out that a 4-1 lead in European trophies is not as impressive as a 7-2 lead in league titles.

Historic Achievements

Another way a team can stake a claim as England’s greatest football team is by sealing a historic achievement. By achieving something unique, a football club secures a long-standing position in football history. This is then also an argument that they stand out above other sides.

Even if Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal Invincibles had won any other trophies, they would still stand tall in history. Their unbeaten league season in 2003/04 was only the second in English football history and the first in 115 years. This alone gives them a great argument to be one of the era’s great sides. Similarly, Manchester United’s Treble in 1999 – the first achieved by an English club – is an era-defining achievement. The Treble sealed Man Utd’s dominance of the English game in the 1990s.

Chelsea have not really achieved something in line with these achievements. Furthermore, Manchester City’s own Treble last season seals their own recent dominance. This makes it even harder to argue that Chelsea have been the greatest team.

Underdog Stories

English football is a deeply unfair game. Some clubs are able to compete and others are not. The relative status of different clubs is largely entrenched. We should seriously respect clubs that break through the glass ceiling and win things against the odds. All football fans should celebrate these moments, not just fans of the clubs in question.

The top clubs in the chart above of recent trophy winners are largely who you would expect. But they’re not the most notable.

In the 15-year period that Pochettino has focused us on, two stories stand out for me. Leicester City’s remarkable league title win as 5000-1 outsiders and Wigan Athletic’s incredible upset of Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup Final.

The odds in English football are thoroughly stacked against these things happening. Five clubs are in the business of hoovering up most of the trophies. This means there’s an argument that Leicester in particular might themselves be the greatest English football team of the past 15 years. They’re certainly one of the best stories.

Capturing the Imagination

Of course, it’s not all about winning. A team can also be great by capturing the imagination of fans or by influencing the wider game by setting trends which other teams choose to follow.

When fans remember the great teams of the 1990s, it’s not just the teams that win a lot that come to mind. Newcastle United and Parma are two teams which are often fondly remembered from this period. They could only finish as runners-up in the Premier League and Serie A respectively. However, they made a lot of fans with their styles of play. Some of their players are very fondly remembered by neutrals as well as by their own fans.

I would argue that Chelsea have been the zeitgeist club that was capturing the imagination. However, this was in the period 2004-2010, rather than the last 15 years. In the years immediately after José Mourinho’s arrival in England, Chelsea redefined how football was played in England. Most teams changed from the 4-4-2 of the 1990s to emulate Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 setup. Football discussion became much more aware of the roles of defensive midfielders. We began to see much more use of inside forwards instead of traditional wingers, inspired by Mourinho’s use of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff.

During the last 15 years, it hasn’t been Chelsea that have been setting the direction in this way. Rather, it is Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp who have captured the imagination of both fans and coaches. Now many more teams are using goalkeepers in possession, and a high-pressing system to win possession back quickly. Klopp’s “heavy metal football” has influenced the whole of English football and gives Liverpool a stronger argument as one of the greatest teams of this recent period.

Conclusion: Not the Greatest Team

I’ve tried to look at what a great team is in a few different ways. I still find it difficult to say Chelsea have been the greatest during this period of time.

Chelsea are no doubt a great club that has some great players on the books. Pochettino has a real chance now to restore them to the top part of the table, competing for trophies again. However, you have to go beyond that to be considered truly the greatest team. A team needs to clearly dominate the count of trophies won, achieve something unique or surprising, or capture the imagination of fans and other teams. Pochettino will hope that some of these things are in his future. Of course, he will need to buck the long-term trend at Chelsea of managers having a short shelf life.

As of today, Manchester City are the obvious answer for the greatest team in recent English football history. I think Liverpool and Leicester have strong arguments too. But Chelsea have work to do if they want to truly be considered the greatest.

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