If you read the football media or have any interest in the game’s history and development, you don’t need me to tell you who Jonathan Wilson is.
If however, you don’t read about football and you don’t listen to podcasts, and you don’t read any books about football, Jonathan Wilson is a British journalist who writes for a number of publications including The Guardian and SI.com. He is the founder and editor of The Blizzard, which may be the best football magazine ever. More to the point, Wilson is the unofficial god of tactical analysis, and his seminal book Inverting the Pyramid is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the tactical development of the game worldwide.
Wilson just posted on SI.com, the first part of a four-part series of his imaginary tournament of the greatest ever club sides. I suppose this is the next logical progression of what some have already started. Mostly, his series (and the other articles and websites) came out of the press adulation calling Barcelona one of if not the greatest club side ever.
This is obviously a completely subjective exercise, one that you will find in fantasy leagues, discussion boards, and pubs all around the world. There is no way to determine the best ever, but this is geeky fun (Wilson, solely by virtue of his specialty, is also something of the King Football Geek, although I cannot say what he is like in person, never having met him.) There is though, a little too much of Wilson’s own prejudices. Certainly some of the teams that made the 16 Greatest cut (specifically Dynamo Kiev ’86) are there less because of their dominance and more because of how important they are in terms of tactical development. This means that they are more important in Wilson’s eyes. Also, he is an expert in Eastern European football and wrote a book about that too.
Wilson’s tournament is something akin to a smaller World Cup–a group stage four teams play each other once and the best two make the knockout rounds. To some extent he is (rather self-pompously) elevating a barroom debate by using his expertise to create his own fantasy games. It’s not like this hasn’t been done before. (I saw book from the 1970’s in a library once which had very well-done fantasy tennis tournaments, and it was so much fun to read I made photocopies. I probably still have them), but it is important to constantly remember that this is his own interpretation. The truth is that the modern the team, the more likely they are to dominate just because of the dramatic changes in the mundane areas preparation, tactics, training, and youth development. All things can never really be equal.
Nevertheless, it is a neat thought experiment, and I for one love it. I also appreciate that unlike most greatest ever lists, Wilson does not neglect South America. For that alone, his series is worth the read.
Thus far he has Ajax ’72, Milan ’89, Barcelona ’11, and Santos ’62 moving on. I wonder how Pele would react to reading that Barcelona would beat his Santos side 5-0.