Out of all of the clubs in the Premier League, Manchester United is the one that has won the most silverware and, therefore, poses the biggest challenge in picking a best starting XI of all time from its plentiful list of world-class footballers.
While there’ll be debate about who has been left out of this starting XI, the 11 footballers featured below certainly are deserving of a place in this all-time Manchester United team.
Here’s the best starting eleven of all time for Manchester United:
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel (Denmark)
For me, there are only two keepers who contend to be among the best ever eleven starters for Manchester United. One is Dutch Edwin van der Sar. The other is Danish Peter Schmeichel. If David de Gea is to be counted among the Old Trafford elite, he needs to win trophies, reproduce his current form over a longer period, and settle down in Manchester for more seasons. Schmeichel gets the nod from me because I consider him more important and also better overall than Van der Sar. Schmeichel was bought for almost nothing by Alex Ferguson and played a pivotal role in the club’s rise to prominence in the 1990s. Schmeichel excelled in the one to one duels with opponent strikers and he owned the penalty box due to his physical and vocal presence. He cut an imposing figure and often won the psychological battles against his opponents, some of whom freezed in front of The Great Dane. Schmeichel crowned an impressive Old Trafford career with lifting the trophy after that memorable Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999, the year the club won The Treble. He was twice crowned the best goalkeeper in the world.
Right back: Gary Neville (England)
There are several criteria that influence my decision on who to include in the best-ever Manchester United eleven. One is club longevity and loyalty, titles, and caps. In that sense, Gary Neville is up there among the best, not just in the history of Manchester United. He developed into a modern full back with a great positional sense, a decent technique, and a mind to attack. Neville also had speed, he could cross the ball, and he was a good tackler. His understanding on the right with David Beckham was a classic partnership in which both knew how to complement each other.
Right central defender: Rio Ferdinand (England)
Rio Ferdinand was one of the best cultured defenders in world soccer. He had a long and successful career including many trophies at Old Trafford. His major strengths were his elegance and passing skills, his physical presence and vision, and his composure.
Left central defender: Charlie Roberts (England)
This one is also tricky. Nemanja Vidic is the obvious modern choice. Steve Bruce is also a contender. Bill Foulkes, the Munich survivor, another. But I choose Charlie Roberts from Ernest Mangnall’s first Manchester United championship winning team in the first decade of the twentieth century. Ghost in Boots, he was nicknamed, because of his physical appearance. Vittorio Pozzo, the legendary Italian coach who won two World Championships with Italy, called him the best player in the world after he saw him in Manchester. The story even goes that Pozzo changed the old 2-3-5 Pyramid formation into the more flexible 2-3-2-3 Metodo formation because Roberts revolutionized soccer with his dynamic style. Roberts was also a political figure in soccer and fought for players’ rights in establishing a players’ union.
Left back: Patrice Evra (France)
At left back, I think it becomes trickier. I promised myself that the present should not necessarily have an advantage over the past just because our memory tends to be weak and forgetful. Roger Byrne, the first babe, captain of the Busby Babes, and a casualty of the Munich Air Disaster was for me a candidate from the 1950s, so was the ever-reliable Denis Irwin from the 1990s, but I still believe that Patrice Evra deserves to be in the team. Evra suffered a difficult start to his United career, but after a couple of months he never looked back. His strengths were above all his attack-minded raids on the left, his physical aggression, his technical skill, and his leadership qualities. Even more than Neville, Evra was a modern full back.
Defensive midfielder: Duncan Edwards (England)
There are a few players in my team who are untouchables. Edwards is one of them. He could probably play as one of the central defenders as well, but I chose to put him in midfield where his dynamism can best be utilized. Edwards is a true legend, not just because he was one the Munich casualties, but also because he was – and still is – considered one of the best English players ever – if not the best. He was quite simply a nuclear plant on the pitch, a powerhouse who was also gifted with a great shot, a decent technique and excellent heading abilities. Edwards is the reason why otherwise automatic choices such as Roy Keane and Bryan Robson are left out of my starting eleven.
Offensive midfielder: Bobby Charlton (England)
Again, the obvious modern choice would be Paul Scholes, but I also have an obligation toward history. If anyone is the embodiment of Manchester United, it is Sir Bobby Charlton. European Player of the Year in 1966, World Cup winner in 1966, and European Cup winner in 1968, until recently holder of the club record in appearances, survivor of the Munich Air Crash, and Busby Babe. Charlton was a gifted midfielder, who had a powerful shot and great technical abilities. Mr. United, no need to say more.
Right midfielder: George Best (Northern Ireland)
The selection doesn’t get easier, but here is another untouchable. European Footballer of the Year in 1968, George Best played a key role in Matt Busby’s hunt for the Holy Grail with his performance in the European Cup final victory at Wembley against Benfica. The fifth Beatle, Best was a pop icon as well as a soccer super star (as was an early contender for this position, Charlie Roberts’ teammate Billy Meredith, as well as a later contender, David Beckham), and he is probably the most gifted player ever on the British Isles. Best is a true United player, attack minded, technically gifted, and with a demonic personality – his brothers in that sense are players such as Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, and Wayne Rooney.
Roaming striker: Eric Cantona (France)
The catalyst behind Manchester United’s transformation from title contenders to genuine and multiple champions, Alex Ferguson’s French talisman is such an important player in the modern history of Manchester United. He had the touch of brilliance like Best, and like him he also had the occasional demonic behavior. Cantona’s presence and technical abilities helped educate the Class of ’92 and pave the way for the United success many take for granted today.
Striker: Denis Law (Scotland)
Another European Player of the Year (1964), Denis Law belongs to Matt Busby’s Holy Trinity (Best-Charlton-Law) and played a key part in Busby’s entertaining team of the mid-60s. Law was a prolific goal scorer. His major strengths were his ability to be at the right place at the right moment as well as his heading abilities and shooting skills. He was brought back to England from Torino by Busby a couple of years after the Munich Disaster and helped transform Busbys Manchester United into the best team in Europe.
Left midfielder: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
The last untouchable in my team, the name of Ronaldo at this moment also means that I couldn’t find room for neither Ryan Giggs nor Wayne Rooney. One could say that my choice to not let the present dominate by bringing in players such as Roberts, Edwards, Charlton, and Law is the reason why I haven’t been able to accommodate players such as Scholes, Keane, Beckham, Giggs, Mark Hughes, and Rooney into my team. But Ronaldo is probably the best player ever to have worn the Red Devils jersey. He had six seasons, two of which were exceptional out-of-the-world-seasons, at Old Trafford and was crowned the best player in the world in 2008 after leading Manchester United to Champions League glory. Together with Best, Charlton, and Law, Ronaldo is the only United player to have received the Ballon d’Or. For that reason alone, they all deserve a place in my team.