Manchester United: Ultimate Premiership Starting XI

Josh ButlerContributor IIIOctober 12, 2011

Manchester United: Ultimate Premiership Starting XI

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    Manchester United are the most successful team in Premier League history, having won an astonishing 12 titles in 19 seasons.

    Over the years, Alex Ferguson has built and dismantled several sides on United's march to glory. Here is a look at what an ultimate United XI from the Premier League era might look like.

Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel

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    Bought for £530,000 from Brondby in 1991, Peter Schmeichel was arguably Sir Alex Ferguson's most astute signing.

    The 'Great Dane' was voted the "IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper" in 1992 and 1993, as well as picking up four UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year awards, and for his eight glorious years at Manchester United was one of the most formidable goalkeepers on the planet.

    Schmeichel was an excellent shot-stopper, had magnificent distribution skills and indomitable control of his box. This, on top of being 6' 4" and requiring tailor-made XXXL jerseys, meant he was a mainstay in the United team that dominated the Premiership during the 1990s.

    His crowning achievement came in 1999 when he captained the Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich to complete Manchester United's treble, the first for a British club. He left for Sporting CP shortly afterward, leaving behind his own very long and memorable chapter in the history of the Red Devils.

    In all, Schmeichel made 381 appearances in all competitions, scoring one goal.

Right Back: Gary Neville

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    Gary Neville was one of the celebrated crop of players nicknamed 'Fergie's Fledglings', that emerged during the early-to-mid nineties, and held the right-back position in the United team from the 1994/95 season up until a run of serious injuries effectively ended his career in 2007.

    Known for his steaming runs up and down the right flank and his almost telepathic relationship with David Beckham, Neville was a mainstay in the United starting XI. He won eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups and one Champions League, and was made captain following the departure of Roy Keane in 2005.

    His clear passion for the club is perhaps no better encapsulated by the image of him running 60 yards to celebrate wildly in front of the travelling Liverpool fans after Rio Ferdinand's 90th minute winner in 2006. His commitment to the club has been unwavering and it was a testament to his popularity with the fans when he received a deafening ovation on his comeback from injury against Roma in the 2008 Champions League.

    He was both United's and England's first-choice right-back for over ten years, amassing 80 caps for his country and 602 appearances and seven goals for his club.

Left Back: Gabriel Heinze

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    If there is one man who doesn't know the meaning of defeat it's Gabriel Heinze. His stint at Old Trafford was marred by the manner of his departure (he publicly stated his desire to join arch-rivals Liverpool), but many United fans forget he was voted Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year by fans in his first season following a series of committed displays at left-back.

    He spent the 2005/2006 season sidelined due to injury and United struggled to fill the left-back slot, eventually bringing in Patrice Evra who did not win a starting birth until the 2007/2008 season. Heinze returned to help the Red Devils win the their first Premier League title in three seasons, and his first and only winners' medal.

    United fans will remember him for his last-ditch tackle on Fernando Morientes, a move which looked like suicide, but to the robust Argentinian was just part of his everyday playing style. Whether in training (ask Gary Neville or Rio Ferdinand) or on the pitch, Gaby was taking both ball and man, often in spectacular fashion.

    His arrival stabilised a shaky United defence and he was an important cog in a United defence that helped the team to the 2006/2007 title, alongside Neville, Vidic and Ferdinand.

    In all, Heinze made 83 appearances in a United shirt, scoring four goals.

Centre Back: Jaap Stam

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    The colossal Dutchman was bought from PSV Eindhoven for £10.5 million in the Summer of 1998, making him the world's most expensive defender at the time. Jaap Stam certainly repaid that fee during the three seasons he spent at Manchester United.

    He formed a formidable partnership with the versatile Norwegian Ronny Johnsen, adding not only immense strength and aerial ability, but an acute ability of reading the game, a facet that put him always one step ahead of the opposition forwards.

    He won three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and one Champions League during his time with the Red Devils, and starting all 13 games en route to the final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

    Though his departure was under a black cloud (he made several allegations in his autobiography that did not sit well with Ferguson) he is fondly remember by United fans. Fergie later went on record to express his regret at selling Stam and described it as "a big mistake".

    Jaap made 120 appearances and scored one goal whilst at Manchester United.

Centre Back: Nemanja Vidic

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    He arrived in January of 2005 for a modest £7 million and has looked the real deal ever since. 'Vida' took six months to settle initially, before solidifying his place at the heart of the United defence at the start of the 2006/2007 title-winning season.

    Since then, he has amassed four Premier League titles, three Football League Cups and one Champions League (plus two runner-up medals), on top of a heap of personal accolades including four appearances in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.

    The big Serb is adored by United fans worldwide for his undying commitment to the team and his willingness to throw his body in front of any danger. Add to this his composure on the ball and his complete aerial dominance and you have one of the best defenders the Premiership has ever seen.

    Though Vidic has now passed into his thirties, he has rightly assumed ownership of the United captaincy and supporters will be hoping he leads us to another few trophies to come.

    Vidic has played 235 times so far for United, netting 18 goals.

Centre Midfield: Roy Keane

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    Tenacious. Aggressive. Explosive. A winner. Roy Keane encapsulates every single one of these epithets. The most successful captain in Manchester United history, 'Keano' fully deserves his spot in this ultimate Premier League XI and would certainly make a strong argument for an inclusion in a United all time lineup.

    He was the driving force behind Manchester United's success for 12 years, starting in 1993 and ending somewhat prematurely in 2005. On the pitch he was awesome, a raging whirlwind of thumping tackles, uncomplicated football and sheer selflessness. Off it, he was just as fiery; berating fashion football fans and their prawn cocktail sandwiches, pissing off Mick McCarthy to the point of being sent home from the 2002 World Cup, and publicly confirming his intentions to end Alfie Inge Haaland's career.

    Whatever problems other managers, fans and players had with his strong opinions, it remains to be said, no true football fan can deny his importance to Manchester United. Seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and, of course, one Champions League winners' medal, of which he was cruelly robbed of a Final appearance thanks to a yellow in the semi-final against Juventus, speak volumes of his time with the club.

    People talk about Charlton, Robson and Cantona, but of them all, fantastic captains though they were, none exuded such determination to win as Roy Keane. Sir Alex once said of him, concerning his Herculean performance against Juventus: "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

    Roy Keane appeared in 480 games for the Red Devils, scoring 51 goals.

Centre Midfield: Paul Scholes

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    Lauded by contemporary greats such as Zidane, Xavi and Thierry Henry as the 'greatest player of his generation'. Scholesy was one of the most important cogs in the United team for almost two decades.

    Quiet and unassuming off the pitch, the 'Ginger Prince' was the team's creative hub on it; 90-yard passes, defence-splitting through balls, and even simple ten yarders—Scholes made everything look supremely simple. His first touch was perfect and he often dictated the pace of play with his expert vision.

    He burst onto the first team scene in 1994 as a centre forward, but over the years has withdrawn into his more familiar centre midfield role, where he still found the time to score more than his fair share. He bagged a number of important goals, notably against Internazionale in the 1999 Champions League quarter final and against Barcelona with a trademark screamer in the 2007 semi-final.

    He was cruelly robbed of a starting berth through suspension in the 1999 final, but nonetheless has collected a haul of medals, including two Champions League, ten Premier League and three FA Cup. He has made the PFA Premier League Team of the Year on three occasions as well as being inducted into the English Football League Hall of Fame.

    Though praised for his ingenuity and creativity with the ball, the Lancashire lad was oft criticised for his tackling skills; he collected 90 yellows and 4 reds throughout the duration of his career. Scholes himself dismissed claims he 'couldn't tackle', insisting he often sought to 'get back' players who had previously fouled him. Maybe Keano had a bit of an influence, eh?

    When he retired in May 2011, he left United fans with a lasting legacy, and signed out in typical fashion with a 25-yard rocket. He'll be sadly missed.

    Scholes played for United his whole career, amassing 676 appearances along with 150 goals.

Right Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Bought for £12.25 million, sold for £80 million with 118 goals, three Premier League titles, two League Cups and one FA Cup in between, Cristiano Ronaldo seems like the greatest deal ever. But, of course, he was much, much more than that.

    He exploded onto the scene in 2003 as a substitute against Bolton, sporting the hallowed number 7, and cracking out more step-overs than he played minutes that afternoon. Though he took a few seasons to find his feet, the potential was apparent. He terrorised defences, in particular one Ashley Cole, with his exciting running, blistering pace and his unbelievable footwork.

    But that wasn't all. His free kicks were to become stuff of legend as defences soon learnt that conceding a foul forty yards from goal was no longer a safe tactic. As if that wasn't enough, Ronaldo was a tower in the air, chipping in with his fair share of headers over the years.

    Justly so, Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded the coveted Ballon d'Or in 2008, and arguably should have been the recipient in 2007 also. His crowning achievement surely came with United's Champions League triumph in Moscow, where, amongst claims he didn't produce often enough on the biggest stages, he opened the scoring with a brilliant headed goal.

    He still has a place in the hearts of most United fans, as well as in the affections of Sir Alex Ferguson.

    Cristiano Ronaldo played in 292 games for Manchester United, scoring 118 goals.

Left Wing: Ryan Giggs

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    He is the most decorated player in English football history, the player with the most appearances for Manchester United, and the winner of twelve Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and two Champions Leagues.

    Emerging as a willowy, young winger in 1991, Ryan Giggs quickly established himself on the left wing of the Manchester United first team amongst stiff competition from another youth product, Lee Sharpe. Giggs scored on his first full league debut against Manchester City and never looked back.

    Throughout the nineties Giggs was often seen raiding the left wing, tormenting full-backs with his close ball control and astounding changes of pace. He contributed to the team a large number of assists as well as a fair share of goals, none perhaps as spectacular as his solo wonder goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay, where he picked the ball up on the halfway line, beat six players and then smashed the ball into the roof of the net past Seaman.

    And that was just to be one of the important goals Giggsy scored for United down the years. In fact, if Giggs scores this season, he will continue his astonishing record of scoring in every Premier League season since its inception.

    Now in the twilight of his career, Giggs has enjoyed a more withdrawn playmaker role for the last few years, helping United to a second Champions League final victory in 2008 with a substitute appearance that broke Sir Bobby Charlton's long-standing record. He has managed to outlast his contemporaries, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville in his career, and it will be with a very heavy heart that United fans will finally wave him goodbye in the future.

    Giggs holds the record with 884 appearances, having scored 161 goals during his time with the club.

Centre Forward: Wayne Rooney

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    Great things were expected of the young Scouser when he signed from Everton in 2004 for a fee reported to be in the region of £25.6 million. Wayne Rooney did not disappoint.

    Combining a phenomenal work ethic with dazzling technical skills and a keen eye for goal, Rooney has become one of the modern game's true greats. He is robust and combustible, and though he can be prone to the odd moment of rashness, he has led the United line admirably since the departure of serial goal scorer Ruud a Nistelrooy.

    A truly selfless player, Rooney often roamed out-of-position on the left-wing in the years of Ronaldo, showcasing his wonderful vision and passing abilities as he often cut inside to trouble defences. Since Ronaldo's exit to Madrid, Rooney has flourished even further as the genius behind United's attacking prowess. He scored 34 goals from 44 appearances in 2009/10, his best in a United shirt, proving his worth as a genuine goalscorer; whilst since then has shifted with fluidity from the out-and-out striker, to a withdrawn playmaking forward, and has still contributed 9 goals in 8 games in the 2011/12 season.

    He has four Premier League medals to his name, as well as two League Cup medals and one Champions League. In addition, he has won a host of personal accolades including two Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards as well, the PFA Players' Player of the Year and PFA Fans' Player of the Year.

    Though an ill-judged contract dispute, that appeared to be more his representatives' doing than his own, marred his relationship with the club's fans briefly in 2010, Rooney is still regarded as one of the most important players to have played under Sir Alex.

    He has made 330 appearances and scored 260 goals so far in his United career.

Centre Forward: Eric Cantona

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    Maverick. Unpredictable. Eccentric. Gifted. Genius. All these terms can be aptly applied to 'King Eric' but perhaps the most meaningful of them all is the latter: Genius.

    The Frenchman with the midas touch was brought to the Theatre of Dreams by Fergie in 1992 for the paltry sum of £1.2 million in what has to be considered the bargain of the century. What Cantona provided at United was beyond excellence; not only did he inspire the club to their first championship in 26 years, he gave to the fans a collection of memories they will cherish forever.

    He strode about the pitch like he owned it, and considering the quality he oozed, he practically did. He exuded confidence, inspiring all those around him to levels beyond their usual, and his work on the ball was equally as astounding. Deft touches, nimble flicks, intelligent passes, and of course, those trademark chips. Greatest goal in Premier League history? See Cantona's run and chip against Sunderland in December of 1996; then cue celebration.

    'The King' also gained a reputation for being somewhat of a loose cannon, collecting a fair number of red cards, including two in a row against Swindon Town and Arsenal. And who can forget that kung-fu kick against the moronic Crystal Palace fan? Cantona himself recounted the moment and described it as "a great feeling"—you can never accuse him of being anything other than honest. And that's what United fans loved most.

    In the era of overpaid prima donnas, Cantona played with heart and passion, and expected his contemporaries to do so also; perhaps why he was such a telling influence on the United squad. It is no surprise Red Devils fans consider 'King Eric' one of their greatest ever players; he topped a fan survey in 2001, came second in 2010, and is still sang about reverently to this day.

    Cantona played 185 times for United, donning the sacred number 7 for the majority of them, and scored 82 goals.

A Few Honourable Mentions

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    There are many players who missed the eleven starting positions on this list, so I thought it fitting to assemble a 'subs bench of legends' if you like.

    Edwin van der Sar

    When the giant Dutchman retired in 2011, he departed with four Premier League titles, one League Cup and three Champions League final appearances (winning one). Described as the natural heir to Schmeichel, van der Sar was composed, consistent and possessed excellent handling, as well as expert distribution.

    Dennis Irwin

    Never one to crave the limelight, the Irishman was as dependable as they came. He won a hefty haul of medals, including Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League titles, and will be most fondly remembered for his trademark free-kicks and penalties. A true unsung hero.

    Ronny Johnsen

    The towering Norwegian joined in 1996 and although he won Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League medals, his career was curtailed by knee injuries. In his prime he was flawless; strong, committed, composed and adept at reading the game.

    Bryan Robson

    Money was nothing to 'Robbo'; if he lost that was the end of all things. He guided United through difficult times through the 1980s and was rewarded with two Premiership medals in the early 90s. 'Captain Marvel' was as tough and determined as they came.

    David Beckham

    Much is said about 'Becks,' but what can be certain was that at his time with the club he was the best crosser of the ball in the world. His tally of assists was through the roof and he won a fair number of games with his incredible dead-ball ability. Deservedly a winner of a host of accolades, both personal and for the club.

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

    On a 'subs bench of legends' it would be criminal not to include the man who scored four in ten minutes coming off the bench against Nott'm Forest. A clinical finisher and a real threat to defenders late on in the game. Oh, and he scored that goal in the 1999 Champions League final. Enough said.

    Ruud van Nistelrooy

    He scored 150 goals in 219 matches for the club and arguably deserved more honours than he received (one Premiership, one FA Cup and one League Cup medal apiece). Deadly in the box, 'van the Man' was a true goal machine, and would have made the starting XI were it not for a certain Mr. Rooney. The free-scoring Dutchman nevertheless has his place in United history as being their all-time goalscorer in Europe.