Lionel Messi’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, forming a forward line with other double AA-listers Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, is a dream team scenario. I will take a walk back through other dream three-man forward lines over the years.
After Juventus 1996 (Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli), Brazil 2002 is the first of its kind. Lest we forget, football pre-2010s was a cold, bleak world of isolated strikers feeding off stale bread and scraps.
In 2002 Manchester United were converting to one forward, Milan and Jose Mourinho were about to take football by storm, and Greece and Italy would win the next two major international championships with a solitary header from a corner.
Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Rivaldo
With this background, for the 2002 World Cup, supposedly defensive Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari perversely decided to field Rivaldo, a flashy, early-career Ronaldinho and a Ronaldo who had not been a part of world football for three years (!), all in the same line-up.
Neither Ronaldo nor Ronaldinho had been a part of Brazil’s terrible qualifying campaign and it was a gamble to say the least.
This is the trio with the three most blatant stars, all Ballon d’Or winners. They were the ideal individual components for a balanced front trio: one pure forward, one goal-scoring playmaker, and one in between.
For seven games, cue the magic. Against England, Ronaldinho dribbled half the length of the field, Rivaldo peeled off to the right, and Ronaldinho slipped it to him for an effortless finish. This finish was a symbol of why Brazil dominated for two decades: sheer nonchalance in front of the net.
Observations: The trio with the most famous stars. The most effortless trio.
Five of the greatest South American attackers (see above, plus Romario and Lionel Messi) and the greatest African forward have all been, shone, and in some cases sunk and gone from Barcelona since 1994, making Barça the most exotic team to support until Xavi and Andres Iniesta came along.
Many of these trios are variations of each other. The fact they kept changing year on year also indicates the fragility of life at the top, and of life at Barça.
Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi
A team of a high-flying Ronaldinho and Messi dancing in from either wing, the two greatest playmakers of all time, is surely absolutely unbeatable in concept, making this the best trio on paper.
But in real life this was fleeting. Barça’s famous 3-0 win over Real Madrid featured a Messi dribble setting up Samuel Eto’o, before Ronadinho’s two dribbled sprints. The threesome also put Jose Mourinho’s unbeatable Chelsea to the sword in London.
But that was the end. The very young Messi was soon injured and Eto’o and Ronaldinho had to carry this team to Champions League glory all by themselves, as they had mostly done for the two previous years.
It was actually Eto’o who did the final grunt work, as Barcelona clearly deserved to be called Europe’s best over this stretch but limped across the line against Arsenal. That was quickly the end of this team.
Observations: The trio with the best ability and the best ceiling on paper. The one that barely existed in real life.
Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi
This was the one that probably worked the best positionally, as proven in the balance of goals scored between the three. Thierry Henry had always been a combination forward-left winger even in his Arsenal days, so all Barcelona had to do here was make that official.
On paper, all we had done since 2006 was replace Ronaldinho with Henry, but in practice the shift had been greater, the club’s focus now on Messi in his first year as the world’s undisputed great star. Eto’o’s contribution to two great Barcelona teams is utterly forgotten. In both teams he provided the sharp exclamation point, delivering bullet finishes in two Champions League finals.
His interplay and switching of positions with the inverted winger Messi in the 4-0 win over Bayern Munich is amazing, while Henry hangs back more on the left. This first half is perhaps the greatest attacking 45 minutes in football history.
Coach Pep Guardiola didn’t fancy Eto’o and Henry as people and wanted a more direct aerial attacker in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010 (though no one is as direct as Eto’o in reality), so that was that for the two of them.
Observations: The best-suited trio positionally.
Neymar, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi
Barcelona, reversing two years of decay, won all 2015 trophies at an absolute canter, recording the easiest Champions League title of recent times, and it was all due to three South Americans walking into a bar in Barcelona.
Messi had spent 2011-14 as Barça’s central forward, but shifted right again to accommodate his mate Suarez. This is the trio I comprehend the least in a positional sense.
Luis Suarez, whose arrival completely greased the wheels of a not-so-functional Messi-Neymar relationship, was the nominal centre forward. But often Neymar appearing on the left was the attacker finishing all the one-on-ones.
The threesome were a drastic shift in Barça’s characteristics. In the glory years of 2009-11 they were famous for midfield circulation and passing, but Messi, Neymar and Suarez contributed virtually all goals and assists for the team in 2015 as Xavi and Iniesta became semi-irrelevant.
A goal displaying the combination and pace of the three was the final play of Barça’s 3-0 win over Bayern Munich, when Suarez accepted being taken out as the price for continuing a play on to Messi, who placed Neymar through to finish easily on Manuel Neuer.
Verdict: The most dominant. The most fluid. Probably the best.
Manchester United 2008
Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez
Alex Ferguson was not known as a fantasista coach, especially in the second half of his career, but did allow the odd maverick to shine. Here he unconventionally gave Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez the positional freedom of working out their own attacking moves on instinct between them. Ronaldo and Tevez were often telepathic in Premier League matches.
As detailed before, even playing with three forwards, never mind giving them all free roles, was a brave and stunning reversal of the Mourinho-Rafa Benitez zeitgeist (although this Champions League-winning Manchester United team were very tactical and defensive generally).
The point of the whole endeavour was usually to feed Ronaldo, who had one of the greatest individual seasons ever as 31-goal top scorer in England – and top scorer in Europe – from the left wing. It is curious watching Ronaldo in the 2000s, an era with Portugal and Manchester United when he was not yet miles ahead of his teammates in stature.
While Tevez was barely involved by this point, perhaps Man United’s third goal against Arsenal in 2009, a counter attack from Rooney to Ronaldo showcased the speed of his workings in that forward line.
His last match for United, the 2009 Champions League final, was the first great Messi versus Ronaldo moment, but Ronaldo was played out of position as a starting centre forward and it did not go his way.
Observations: One of the most fluid. The most uneven one for name recognition. The bravest move from a coaching perspective.
Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah
This one does not compare for star power but was the trio that featured all of the modern techniques of football. Roberto Firmino was an expert false nine who also selflessly provided the pressing from the forward line for Liverpool.
Mohamed Salah was the clear star, who in one of Liverpool’s signature performances, the 5-0 head-start against Roma in 2018, scored twice and then gave two further right-wing centres for tap-ins for each of the other two. Salah was taken out of that year’s Champions League final and Liverpool’s attack completely broke down without him.
Oddly, in Liverpool’s most famous moment, the miracle 4-0 comeback versus Barcelona a year later, both Salah and Firmino were ruled out. That theoretically killed Liverpool’s chances, but Liverpool had developed. Four goals were fabricated by a bit-part forward and a midfielder substituted in at halftime.
Observations: The most modern. The one most clearly greater than the sum of its parts. The one most dependent on one player.
Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe
Except for super-talented countries like France and Brazil, international football is seldom wall-to-wall stars. It’s more about working with what you have, since that is literally what national teams must do.
So to see Karim Benzema back in the fold for Euro 2021 was overload: Antoine Griezmann, the world’s best forward in 2016, Kylian Mbappe, ready to assume the world’s number one spot once the new generation took over from Messi and Ronaldo, and Benzema, the perfect central pivot from four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, who unlike alternative pivot Olivier Giroud also scored buckets of goals. The dream team, Black-Blanc-Beur incarnate.
History will condemn them for France’s utterly careless elimination against Switzerland, but they had their moments. Benzema scored four goals in two games. Mbappe, though scoreless and castigated post-tournament, was part of the build-up of most of France’s goals and had two electrifying moments versus Germany.
The disappointment was Griezmann, who since 2016 had unwisely been converted into first a playmaker, then by 2021 a virtual central midfielder, a waste of a player with such instinctive goal skills.
The three chained together their poster goal, France’s second goal versus Switzerland, and the world should have been their oyster. But France could only be bothered playing when they could be bothered playing, a dangerous on/off approach that killed them.
Observations: The biggest failure, but there is still potential.
Paris Saint-Germain 2022
Neymar, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe
Sport is about overcoming challenges, which these three will not particularly find in the French league. Neymar and Mbappe’s previous transfers to PSG had already seemed a waste of a player, with Neymar more or less falling off the world scene for a few years as a result, and Mbappe skilled but irrelevant between the 2018 World Cup and the 2021 Champions League. To make Messi similarly complacently irrelevant is a shame.
None of the three is an absolute pure forward (which barely exist anymore anyway), but either Mbappe or Messi would work in the central position. All three could play on the attacking wings. Neymar or Messi would work as number tens.
Observations: The most pointless.
The elephant in the room
I am ignoring Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid, despite multiple Champions League titles together. My main reason is my ambivalence towards Real Madrid, but I am not so convinced that they had that many combination plays together on what was an individualistic team, that Bale is an all-time star name (or even Benzema for that matter), and that Bale was even actually consistently picked for Real, when Isco often got the nod.
Best on paper
1. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo
2. Messi, Neymar, Mbappe
3. Messi, Eto’o, Henry
4. Messi, Neymar, Suarez
5. Griezmann, Benzema, Mbappe
Ronaldinho, Messi, Eto’o would be two if Messi was more developed and they had all played a full season together at their peaks.
Best in reality
1. Messi, Neymar, Suarez
2. Messi, Pedro, David Villa (unaddressed in article, not starry enough)
3. Messi, Eto’o, Henry
4. Mane, Firmino, Salah (lasted multiple seasons)
5. Cristiano Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney
Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho probably really three but they only have a six-game sample size.