Manchester United have almost always been one of the traditional ‘big-clubs’, a few barren years in the 70’s and 80’s – coupled with Liverpool’s continental and domestic dominance – meant that the Red Devils have been playing catch-up with their arch-rivals over the past few decades.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at the club saw unprecedented levels of success, a large part of which can be attributed to some phenomenal players that the Scotsman signed over the course of his reign.
There have been many gifted players who have graced the hallowed turf at Old Trafford, and here, we present the all-time greatest Manchester United XI in a 4-4-2 formation.
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel
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A case could definitely be made for Edwin Van Der Sar, but we’ve decided to go with Peter Schmeichel, a stalwart between the sticks for United, making 398 appearances for the Red Devils between 1991-1999.
Schmeichel won almost every major honour during his time at Old Trafford, including an unforgettable treble during his last year with the club. An incredibly vocal keeper and skilled organiser of his defence, many will remember him for loudly berating the defenders in front of him anytime he believed that they committed a blunder.
The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) ranked him as one of the top ten keepers of the 20th century in 2000 and in 2001. He came at the very top of a poll held by Reuters wherein a majority of the 200,000 odd participants voted him as the best goalkeeper ever – ahead of the likes of even Lev Yashin, the only shot-stopper to have ever won the Ballon D’Or.
He ended his United career on a high after the 99’ treble. Besides the Champions League, his illustrious career at Old Trafford saw him win five league titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup, four Charity Shields and a UEFA Super Cup.
Right-back: Gary Neville
Gary Neville was the epitome of a one-club man, coming through the Manchester United academy and making his debut for the first-team in 1991. His went on to spend his entire career at the club, making 602 appearances and scoring seven goals before eventually calling it quits in 2011.
A consummate professional, he was not only United’s, but arguably also the Premier League’s best right-back for a vast majority of his career at the very top-level. In his 2 decades as a first-team player, Neville won 20 major honors, including eight league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, and two Champions League crowns.
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He was also voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year on five separate occasions and even served as club captain for five years. A brief and ill-advised stint at Valencia aside, Neville has now made quite a name for himself as one of the most respected and well-informed pundits around.
Centre-back: Bill Foulkes
Now we come to one of the signings in this list that wasn’t in the Alex Ferguson era – Bill Foulkes. Initially discovered by United while playing for Whiston Boys club, he joined the Red Devils’ youth academy as an 18-year-old before eventually making his professional debut against Liverpool in 1952.
While he initially continued to work part-time at a coal mine, feeling he wasn’t good enough to play full-time league football, Foulkes would go on to stay at Old Trafford for nearly two decades, making 688 appearances for the club and scoring 9 goals.
He was one of the few survivors of the Munich air disaster that claimed the lives of eight of Manchester United’s first team, he even went on to captain the club during one of the most difficult periods in its storied history.
He would start the fabled match against Benfica in the European Cup final on 29 May 1968 as United became the first ever English club to win the prestigious trophy. His time at the club also saw him win four league titles, an FA Cup and four Charity Shields.
Centre-back: Nemanja Vidic
This was a toss-up between Vidic, Steve Bruce and Rio Ferdinand, but we decided we’d like to go with the Serbian amongst three, though you could make a case for any of the aforementioned individuals.
One of the more amazing things about Vidic is that his signing was a fairly quiet one, without much pomp. Signed for a bargain fee of £7 million from Spartak Moscow, he went on to become a mainstay in a United side dominating both the domestic and European scene, forming a formidable partnership with Rio Ferdinand; memorably starting every match in the league as Manchester United went a record 14 games without conceding a goal.
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In his nine seasons with the club, the big Serb won five league titles, three League Cups, two FIFA Club World Cups, five Charity Shields and the 2007/08 Champions League title while also becoming a fan favourite.
Left-back: Duncan Edwards
Edwards was a graduate of United’s youth academy and part of the team that lifted the first ever FA Youth Cup in 1953. He also set a record on his debut in the First Divison in a match against Cardiff City; aged 16 years and 185 days, he became the youngest ever to play in the top division.
His consistent performances for the first team saw him called up to the national setup, making his debut for England aged 18 years and 183 days, the team’s youngest debutant since the second World War; a record that stood until it was broken my Michael Owen in 1998.
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He would then play an instrumental role as United won the league in 1955/56 by 11 points, making 33 appearances that season. He also appeared regularly in United’s first ever campaign in the European Cup, including a 10-0 win over Anderlecht; a margin that remains the biggest ever in the club’s history.
He was sadly one of the victims of the Munich air disaster, having survived the crash, but passing away in the hospital. In total, he made 177 appearances and scored 21 goals for the club and had long cemented his reputation as a club legend.
Centre-midfield: Paul Scholes
Widely regarded as one of the best midfielders of the Premier League era, Scholes was another who was a one-club man. Coming through the United academy and part of the famous ‘Class of ’92’, Scholes spent nearly two decades at Old Trafford, winning every single club honour available.
So highly was Scholes regarded for his technique, accurate passing, movement and powerful shooting, that Ferguson called him out of retirement during an injury crisis and he went on to play a significant role as they won another league title – all at the age of 37.
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Equally capable of alternating between defensive, offensive and playmaking roles, Scholes was admired by even his peers; with the likes of Zidane, Edgar Davids, and Xavi all speaking of their admiration for the Englishman.
Scholes made 718 appearances for the club over the course of his career and scored 155 goals, all the while winning 25 major honours, including 11 League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and two Champions League crowns.
Centre-midfield/Attacking-midfield: Bobby Charlton
Bobby Charlton is regarded by many as the greatest to have ever played for the club and held the all-time scoring record with 249 goals in 758 appearances before it was recently broken by Wayne Rooney. He coincidentally also held the record for most goals for the national team, another record that was recently surpassed by Rooney.
Charlton was another who survived the Munich air disaster and stayed at the club during incredibly difficult times, helping the club get back on its feet and reestablish itself in both the domestic and European scene.
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An incredibly gifted player, Charlton won the European Footballer of the Year in 1968 and also the FIFA World Cup Golden Ball in 1966, during England’s one and only World Cup triumph.
A legend at the club, he won three league titles, an FA Cup, four Charity Shields and an European Cup with the Red Devils, before eventually calling it quits after the 1972/73 season.
Right-wing: Cristiano Ronaldo
This was one name that everyone knew they would see on the list, and for good reason. Signed by Ferguson from Sporting CP as an 18-year-old after having impressed the Scotsman in a friendly, Ronaldo’s explosive pace and wide array of tricks saw him instantly become a favourite at Old Trafford.
An exquisite striker of the ball, Ronaldo truly came to life in the 2006/07 season, scoring 23 goals from the wing, helping United to their first league titles in four years and became the first player to win all four PFA and FWA honours in a single season.
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He maintained similarly high standards over the next couple of seasons, all culminating in seeing the Portuguese forward winning the 2008 Ballon D’Or, before eventually moving to Real Madrid for a then world record fee of 80 million pounds.
He made a total of 292 appearances and scored 118 goals for the Red Devils, winning three League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and a Champions League, and made a case for himself to be considered as one of the greatest wingers to have ever graced the Premier League.
Left-wing: Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs can lay claim to the record for most appearances in the club’s history; making 963 appearances for the club after being handed his debut in 1991.
A speedy and tricky winger, he became the first player in history to win two consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 1992 and 1993 and scored in 21 consecutive Premier League seasons. He was also elected into the PFA Team of the Century in 2007, the Premier League Team of the Decade in 2003, as well as the FA Cup Team of the Century.
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His two-decade career also means that he holds the record for the highest number of Premier League appearances with 632 and his productivity remained constant throughout, having the highest number of assists in the competition with 271.
The most decorated player in footballing history, Giggs won a massive 34 trophies in his career, boasting of 13 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues and a UEFA Super Cup.
Striker: Denis Law
After spending his initial years turning out for the likes of Huddersfield Town, Manchester City and Torino, Denis Law joined United in 1962 and would spur the club to greater heights in his 12 seasons at Old Trafford. His time at the club saw him win the European Cup in 1968, as well as 2 League titles, an FA Cup and a Charity Shield.
Law won the European Footballer of the Year in 1964 after scoring 46 goals in just 42 appearances that year; something that still remains a club record.
Law was a gifted striker, scoring 237 times for the club in 404 appearances across all competitions. While he would eventually leave the club following chronic knees injuries and retire at arch-rivals Manchester City, his status as a legend at the club will definitely not be called into question.
His prolific scoring form throughout most of his career also saw him voted into the PFA Team of the Century in 2007, alongside Ryan Giggs.
Striker: Eric Cantona
While he did court controversy through a large portion of his career, it shows how highly the gifted Frenchman was regarded at United considering he was given the nickname, ‘The King of Old Trafford.’
A physically strong and tenacious forward, Cantona used to bully defenders at will and played a key role in the revival of Manchester United as a footballing force in the 90’s. He is regarded by many fans as the greatest ever to have pulled on the iconic number 7 shirt.
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He initially had a bit of a journeyman career in France, he established himself as a truly elite striker in England with Leeds and Manchester United. While he did score goals consistently, Cantona was held in such high regard because of his tremendous technical ability and creativity.
In five seasons at Old Trafford, he made 185 appearances and score 82 goals, helping the team to four League titles, two FA Cups and three Charity Shields, before eventually retiring after the 1996/97 season.