With Sir Alex Ferguson stating in his latest book that in his 26-year tenure as Manchester United boss he only had four world-class footballers, the question as to what exactly constitutes as world-class begs. The four players he mentioned were Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo.
How can a team that dominated English football and who were also very successful in Europe, only have had four world-class players over such a long period of time? Were those four players really that special that they carried the team to such success? Or is it simply Ferguson's way of saying how good of a manager he was?
We are talking about a team that won an incredible 13 titles under Ferguson's reign, a further nine domestic cups, two Champions League titles and countless other trophies. Suffice to say that wasn't down to Ferguson's managerial abilities alone.
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He can't have had all that success by only having good players and his managerial skills made up for the rest, it just doesn't happen in a sustained period like that, you have to have top quality players to win trophies year after year in such a competitive league.
Make no bones about it, he got the best out of most of his players and that includes the ones that came through the ranks and the ones he signed himself.
Fine line between great and world-class
In his short list, Ferguson opts to only include attacking players. He's not included any goalkeepers, no defenders and no real proper midfielders. Scholes used to play very high up the pitch and it didn't get much more attacking than wingers Giggs and Ronaldo. So where did Peter Schmeichel, Rio Ferdinand, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and David Beckham rank among his best players? I could go on.
But were they simply just great players and to be considered world-class, you need other qualities? Scholes was arguably one of the most intelligent footballers of his generation, if not ever. Giggs and Ronaldo were devastating on the wings and also adapted their games as they got older, whilst Cantona had an unerring presence about him unlike any other player really, or very few at least, and the talent to go with it. They could all win a game single-handedly on their day.
They are also the players that get you on your feet every time they have the ball. It just feels like anything can happen when they are in possession of a football. On the other hand, just because a player can go slightly unnoticed in a team, doing a fantastic job defensively, for example, it doesn't mean they aren't world-class too.
You don't win 13 Premier League titles without a solid defence and over the years, they've had some of the best defenders football has ever seen. A back five of Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin and any two of Ferdinand, Stam and Nemanja Vidic would surely be seen as world-class.
Vast attacking options
Over the years, Ferguson also had an abundance of striking options. The much-loved partnership of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke helped them on their way to an unmatched treble in the 98/99 season, whilst they had support from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
However, it wasn't until Ruud van Nistelrooy in 02/03, that Ferguson had a striker who won the golden boot. With all the titles he had won up until that point, he had managed it without the highest scorer in the division, quite remarkable really. Perhaps that makes more of a case for more of his defensive players to be named as world-class than his attacking players.
Since then, Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie have all been top goalscorer in the league under Ferguson and you can also make a strong case for the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez to be called world-class.
The Ballon d'Or is awarded to the best player in the world and despite his enormous success, Ferguson only had one player win it in his time, Ronaldo in 2008. Beckham once finished second in 1999 and Cantona came third in 1993. Having said that, players from the Premier League have never had too much success in winning this trophy, even in our years of dominating the Champions League.
Additionally, the Ballon d'Or has always been very difficult for non-attacking players to win, with only Fabio Cannavaro winning it in the last 20 years after he led Italy to the World Cup in 2006.
A very select group
Lionel Messi and Ronaldo have made everyone else look ordinary in the last seven years, taking turns to share the Ballon d'Or, scoring hat-tricks week after week and obliterating goalscoring records that will most likely never be broken again. When either of them go two games without a goal, suddenly they are on a 'drought' and it's clear to see their frustration at not scoring, particularly Ronaldo of course. It's become expected.
But where does that leave everyone else? It's easy to reel off the top ten players in the world, you add the likes of Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Thomas Muller, Alexis Sanchez, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski and Andres Iniesta, just off the top of my head and in no particular order, but how much further do you go?
It will always be down to any given person's opinion, some will use the term sparingly, like Ferguson, whilst others will brandish it around like no tomorrow, which, of course, gives less purpose to the term.
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