Football Features

Ranking the best front-three attacks of the 21st century

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:45, 25 June 2019 | Updated: 15:00, 25 June 2020

An attacking trio is one of the most deadly weapons in modern football.

The rise of 4-3-3 in the wake of Pep Guardiola’s 2008 revolution has led to the trio becoming more relevant than the duo. Obviously there are still plenty of sides that persist with 4-2-3-1 or a two-man strike force, and plenty of thrilling sides operate in different tactical set-ups, but the most dangerous thing right now is a “trident”.

Barcelona thrilled everyone for years with M-S-N and then Paris Saint-Germain spent vast amounts of money to disassemble that unit and put together their own trident to varying success. And Liverpool, the team that has made the last two Champions League finals, has got the most potent three-man striking unit in the game right now.

But which trident is best? Which front three plays the best football? Who wins the most trophies? Which is the most thrilling? We here at Squawka considered all these factors to come up with a top 10 ranking for club football in the 21st century.

10. Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo

Club: Milan

Years together: 2004-2005

Trophies won: n/a

These three didn’t play in a 4-3-3 but rather a distinctly Italian 4-3-1-2, and they only played together for one season, winning no trophies. But the football they played together was utterly mesmeric. Milan were an unstoppable force that season, ripping through team after team before inexplicably losing the Champions League despite being 3-0 up with half an hour to play. That failure knocks them down.

9. Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho

Club: Barcelona

Years together: 2004-2007

Trophies won: La Liga (2), 2005/06 UEFA Champions League, Supercopa de España (2)

Barcelona bounced back from years in the wilderness with this spectacular trio of forwards. Ronaldinho was the sorcerer supreme, an untouchable genius whose every touch dripped with magic. Samuel Eto’o was a lethal forward, quick as anything alive with precision technique and a lust for big game performances. And Lionel Messi was the (injury-prone) burgeoning young talent who supercharged the trident and side.

8. Arjen Robben, Mario Mandzukic and Franck Ribery

Club: Bayern Munich

Years together: 2012-2014

Trophies won: 2012 DFL Supercup, Bundesliga (2), DFB-Pokal (2), 2012/13 UEFA Champions League

Having done a “Leverkusen Treble” the previous season, Bayern added workhorse powerhouse Mario Mandzukic to their Robbery wing duo and suddenly exploded to life. This trio was a thrusting spear at the head of Bayern’s side, pummelling opponents with skill and physicality as they won the German side an incredible Treble. Their influence wasn’t as great in the second season under Pep Guardiola but they still managed to retain their domestic double.

7. Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski

Club: Borussia Dortmund

Years together: 2010-2012

Trophies won: Bundesliga (2), 2011/12 DFB-Pokal

People remember Dortmund’s “other” trident with Marco Reus, but while that side was good the one before it was a more expansive, more joyous unit. With Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze pulling the strings behind the riotous Robert Lewandowski, Dortmund shook Germany to pieces by not only taking the Bundesliga off Bayern but then retaining it in spite of a mighty Bavarian challenge in 2011/12. Their finest moment was unquestionably their last: thrashing the juggernaut that is Bayern Munich 5-2 in the 2012 DFB-Pokal final.

6. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane

Club: Liverpool

Years together: 2017-present

Trophies won: 2018/19 UEFA Champions League, 2019 UEFA Super Cup, 2019 Club World Cup

The second Jurgen Klopp trio on this list surpasses the first. In their first season together they had Mohamed Salah score 44 goals and made the Champions League final. On the way there the trio scored 30 goals (10 each), the most by three teammates in any single edition of the competition. They then incredibly fired their side back to the final (albeit with a helping hand from their back-up Divock Origi in the semi-final vs. Barcelona) the following year, defeating Spurs in Madrid and finishing second in the league with a whopping 97 points (Mané and Salah had 22 league goals each). The following season they led the charge as the Reds set the league alight, winning a phenomenal 26 of their first 27 league games and now sit one win away from claiming Liverpool’s first Premier League title in 30 years. Supreme.

5. Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry

Club: Barcelona

Years together: 2007-2009

Trophies won: 2008/09 Copa del Rey, 2008/o9 La Liga, 2008/09 UEFA Champions League

Barcelona’s affinity with 4-3-3 will always see them feature heavily in a list about front threes. And who could doubt their (first) Treble titans? The seeds of this trio’s excellence could be seen in an injury-stricken 2007/08, but once Guardiola took over they took off and blitzed opponents making Barcelona the greatest team in the world, changing football’s paradigms at the same time. Eto’o’s departure and Henry’s decline meant this trio only truly shone for one season, but when that season changed the face of football as we know it, they have to rank highly on any list.

4. Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo

Club: Real Madrid

Years together: 2013-2018

Trophies won: 2013/14 Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League (4), UEFA Super Cup (3), FIFA Club World Cup (4), 2016/17 La Liga, 2017/18 Spanish Super Cup

No trio has won as many Champions Leagues as the B-B-C. Signed as an answer to Barcelona’s M-V-P, the front three used their individual excellence to bulldoze opponents. In their first season they won a cup double with Gareth Bale scoring crucial goals in both finals.

In 2016 Bale guided them to another Champions League final that they won on penalties; then in 2016/17 they were part of a Madrid side that did the impossible and retained the Champions League before a third in a row followed last season, once again thanks to the Welshman.

The only reason they’re not higher is that their work as a trio peaked in 2014. Since then they have won trophies, but mostly as a result of Madrid’s squad as a whole. When they’ve shone it’s been more a duo, with Benzema and Cristiano doing most of the lifting (Bale was a bit-part player for their last two seasons together) or the Welshman having surprise match-winning cameos, than as a proper trio.

3. Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo

Club: Manchester United

Years together: 2007-2009

Trophies won: Community Shield (2), Premier League (2), 2007/08 UEFA Champions League, 2008 FIFA Club World Cup, 2008/09 League Cup

While Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United side was assuredly built on an impossibly strong defence and an excellent midfield as skill at keeping the ball as winning it back, the electricity in the team came from the front three. Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. None of them a true striker or a true winger, yet they worked so well in harmony.

The Portuguese’s thrust and lust for goals was complimented so well by Rooney and Tevez’s selfless team-first mentality. A whirling dervish of an attack that we saw all too infrequently in their second season together in 2008/09. But when Sir Alex Ferguson unleashed them, they wrought true havoc on opponents and powered United to within one win of a second consecutive Premier League and European Cup double. Their dominance was so total it was going to take something special to beat them.

2. Lionel Messi, Pedro and David Villa

Club: Barcelona

Years together: 2010-2013

Trophies won: Supercopa de España (2), La Liga (2), 2010/11 UEFA Champions League

The phenomenal front-line of the best team in the world. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona arguably played their most harmonic football between 2010 and 2012 and it was this trio up-front that was responsible for most of it.

With Messi as a false nine dropping deep to engage with midfield, star striker David Villa could peel in from his left-wing position to devastate opponents with his lethal finishing. Pedro was a perfect off-the-ball workhorse and his finishing ability and composure made him a lethal third scoring option as he took advantage of getting open looks due to the calibre of his team-mates.

The only thing that held this unit back was David Villa’s injury in 2011. The Spaniard broke his leg, which forced Guardiola to adapt his formation. Without Villa, Barça surrendered La Liga and failed hilariously in the Champions League. With Villa back the following season they regained La Liga with an incredible 100 point Title win (before the veteran took his title-winning skills to Atlético Madrid).

1. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar

Club: Barcelona

Years together: 2014-2017

Trophies won: La Liga (2), Copa del Rey (3), 2014/15 UEFA Champions League, 2015 UEFA Super Cup, 2015 FIFA Club World Cup, 2016 Supercopa de España

The gold standard. An absolutely ruthless trio of talents the likes of which we may never see unite again. Having three players this good play this well together and enjoy the hell out of doing so should be impossible. Each of this triumphant threesome is equal parts selfish and selfless, and their styles are so bafflingly complimentary you’d swear this was fantasy football.

In their time together they won three consecutive Copas del Rey, two consecutive domestic doubles (no one had done that in Spain since the 1950s) and who could forget the historic Treble in 2014/15? They’d have probably won more if not for the rigours of transatlantic travel making each international window an extreme fatigue-inducing affair which caught up with them in spring of their second two seasons.

On the field they absolutely dazzled us. Over 350 goals and nearly 200 assists between the three of them. Their play was almost symbiotic – it’s hard to imagine you could do better than this three even with a combined trio of every other trio on this list.

It was just a perfect harmony. Messi the orchestrating force, perceptive playmaker, devastating dribbler and superhuman scorer. Suárez the goal and assist machine – a hurricane of movement and work whose selfless approach paradoxically led to him scoring an incredible amount.

And Neymar the dazzling dribbler and young maverick whose departure ended this terrific trio’s era of dominance with an abrupt and disappointing thud. Now we’ll probably never get to see how this unbelievable unit could have evolved to handle Neymar’s growing influence and Suárez’s decline (though rumours persist that Neymar realises the folly of breaking this band of brothers apart and could yet return to Barcelona) but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It was a privilege to watch them.