English football ends the 2010s on a high. Liverpool have won the Club World Cup, having been hugely impressive Champions League winners in June. Even if Manchester City are in something of a mid-season slump, with the future of Pep Guardiola getting cloudier, they have produced two years of excellence and together those clubs have produced a rivalry to set hearts racing in the style of Arsenal and Manchester United a Premier League generation ago.
The last few weeks have seen various publications and experts produce their teams of the decade, and to the chagrin of John Terry, who felt he had been snubbed by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher when both of Sky Sports’ leading pundits did not select him. “09/10 14/15 played every minute of every game!” railed JT, though many would point to his being better in the previous decade when he and Rio Ferdinand had been an almost universal choice as the centre-back pairing.
Could Terry claim to have hit the heights of Vincent Kompany? Or Virgil van Dijk, even if Liverpool’s Dutchman’s brilliance has been squeezed into the last 18 months of the 2010s? Perhaps Chelsea’s captain, leader, legend has been a victim of recency bias. Terry, though, might console himself that he was at his very best during a superior decade to this one since a glance at the Premier League team of the decade for the 2000s suggests that was a better time in English football.
Take two personal selections, subjective as they may be:
The 2000s (4-4-2)
Petr Cech (Chelsea)
Gary Neville (Manchester United), John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Ashley Cole (Arsenal and Chelsea)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Ryan Giggs (Manchester United)
Thierry Henry (Arsenal), Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United)
The 2010s (4-3-3)
David de Gea (Manchester United)
Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
N’Golo Kante (Leicester and Chelsea), Yaya Toure (Manchester City), David Silva (Manchester City)
Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Those teams leave out some true greats like Paul Scholes and Roy Keane from the 2000s team and Wayne Rooney from both decades, while Luis Suarez perhaps deserves to be in the 2010s team, but loses out of for not being around long enough. And the same goes for Gareth Bale, whose 2012-13 season was as good as anyone has produced in the Premier League era.
That team from the 2000s features only one player, Ruud van Nistelrooy, who did not collect a Champions League winner’s medal in his career, whereas only Van Dijk has done so in the 2010s team. Though English football currently rides high, the time between Chelsea winning the Champions League in 2012 and Liverpool losing the 2018 final registered as something of a lost decade.
The Premier League became by far the richest league in football but could never quite attract the very best players in the game. Cristiano Ronaldo escaped in 2009 and became even more of an elemental force at Real Madrid than he had been at Manchester United, and Lionel Messi was on a truly extraterrestrial level to anyone the Premier League has thrown up against him, even allowing for his marshalling by Van Dijk at Anfield in May.
The likes of Suarez and Bale left England to better themselves. That has often been the case, as it was when David Beckham left United in 2003 for Real Madrid but he had been in a United team that had competed for the Champions League, been a contender, for the last six years of his time in Manchester. Eden Hazard has just made a similar journey, having won the title twice with Chelsea and the Europa League twice, but never having really made much of an imprint on Europe’s biggest competition.
The 2010s have not, beyond Manchester City, been a time of dynasties in the style of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal or the whirlwind three years or so that Jose Mourinho spent at Chelsea first time around. City have been through four managers in that time, and won titles under three – Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Guardiola – but the Champions League has remained beyond their ken.
City fans are entitled to point at the brilliance of players like Aguero and David Silva, and question why they are not more widely appreciated but those failings in Europe are chief among the reasons, and also the sense that the Premier League has not always been at its strongest in the last decade, despite all the money coming in.
Ferguson’s departure in 2013, and the slow decline of Wenger’s Arsenal into a club happy with the top four, left a power vacuum for the rest to step through, but the Chelsea team of 2014-15 was nowhere near that of the quality of a decade previously. And Leicester’s surge to the 2015-16 title was a glorious ride tale of the unexpected but owed plenty to the mediocrity of the rest.
A rather naive Tottenham were their most credible rivals, and that is a club that is yet to win a trophy despite the superlative form of Harry Kane since his late-2014 breakthrough.
Only City could manage to win the title twice in succession during the 2010s, as opposed to United winning two in a row at the start and then three in succession at the end, either side of Mourinho’s monstering the rest in 2004-05 and 2005-06. And Arsenal’s unbeaten season in 2003-4 was as great an achievement as the rest. And even for the team that went without a title, Liverpool, won the 2005 Champions League with Steven Gerrard an often unstoppable force in Europe.
Back in the 2000s, there was a sense that the likes of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – the Big Four as it used to be called – pushed each other on. That has only recently been the case with Liverpool and Manchester City and, should either Guardiola stay around or he be replaced by someone who can continue his work, then that may push the teams of the 2020s to the same heights as their predecessors in the 2000s.