The most iconic XIs that didn't actually play many games together

  • Kat Lucas

Right now, football fans are left with nothing but nostalgia. 

In the absence of live action, the only option is to reminisce about days of old and some of the great sides that graced our eyes when the world was a simpler place. 

With no Euro 2020 to look forward to – not until next year, anyway – the minds of England fans might be drifting back to their ‘Golden Generation’. 

Those long, hot summers, wondering why Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard just couldn’t play together. 

And at some stage, many of us will have dwelt upon why that great Three Lions side never won anything. 

You know the one: 

James, Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Rooney, Owen 

Well, BBC Sport may finally have an answer for us. There were a whole host of problems with that team, the weight of expectation arguably among the greatest, but there might be a simpler factor in why they always fell short of glory. 

They didn’t actually play a single international together. 

It’s a strange part of being a football fan. We remember great sides based on what made them *great*. Often, that means overlooking rotation, injury or retirement.

So as BBC Sport have taken a look at the most iconic XIs who barely played together, we’ve rounded up a few of the best. 

England 1966 

The story behind this is relatively well-known. Geoff Hurst may be a football legend as the only man ever to score a hat-trick in the World Cup final, but he wouldn’t have been playing at all if England’s more regular go-to goalscorer Jimmy Greaves weren’t injured. 

Arsenal’s Invincibles 

Liverpool and Leicester both lost to this iconic Arsenal side at Highbury, but nobody else did. Sylvain Wiltord, Pascal Cygan, Jose Antonio Reyes and Ray Parlour were all in and out of the side, while Cesc Fabregas made the step up the following season. 

Chelsea 2004/05

Jose Mourinho wound them up non-stop by rotating. This was Chelsea at their best, though. It’s how we all remember that era. And yet this lot didn’t actually start a league game together. Eidar Gudjohnsen, Tiago, Alexei Smertin, Geremi and Mateja Kezman all came into the side at various points. 

Manchester United’s treble winners 

Inevitably, winning the treble will take a LOT of players. Sir Alex Ferguson believes his side’s exploits in 1999 couldn’t be repeated today. The memories we have of this precise XI, however, are largely false. They only played together twice: Once in the league against Coventry City and once in the Champions League quarter-final win over Inter Milan. 

England’s Golden Generation

Perhaps you can replace David James with Paul Robinson for a fairer summary of the ‘Golden Generation’ era. And the label still applied when Paul Scholes had quit the international scene too. Players like Owen Hargreaves, Peter Crouch and Jamie Carragher came in and out of the side later. 

Man City’s ‘Centurions’ 

Really, Vincent Kompany ought to be in here, but we all know how devastating injuries were to his later career in the Premier League. Benjamin Mendy’s injury catapulted Fabian Delph towards left-back and Pep Guardiola rotated up front, making use of Gabriel Jesus whenever he could. It meant that these history-makers only started three games together. 

Our minds have been playing on tricks on us all this time, it would seem. 

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