There is a lot to be said for having a world-class forward spear heading your team’s attack. There is even more to be said for a harmonious strike partnership of two top-quality stars. So, when three such players can coexist on the pitch at the same time, results can be truly devastating. FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar complete the latest trio on course to be remembered by succeeding generations. Dubbed ‘MSN’, they are already about as popular as the defunct messenger service was in its heyday; just search the acronym on YouTube and already most of the top results are dedicated to Barca’s South American threesome, and their first season together is not even finished yet!
It is a rarity to find the right balance of chemistry required for three such superstar forwards to work together effectively. In the case of MSN, all three just seem to click in a footballing sense perfectly, happy to pass the ball between themselves and provide the goals as much as score them. With Messi as the undoubted ringleader, Suarez and Neymar serve to further the Argentine’s brilliance by providing him with a more than competent pair of teammates who can give and receive a clinical key pass. Together they have contributed 115 goals in all competitions already, with a league fixture and two cup finals still to play. If Suarez manages to recover from injury in time it should be a joy to watch these three maestros try to break down the formidable backline of Juventus.
The Nou Camp’s latest favourites are not, of course, the first team to benefit from a synchronised attacking trio over the years. Here are some of the others destined to be remembered in football history books as the greatest three-pronged strike-forces:
Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry
FC Barcelona – 2007-2009
Where better to start than by comparing MSN with another of Catalonia’s recent successful forward lines? Since Frank Rijkaard took over Barcelona in 2003 especially, there have been multiple successful combinations used to great effect in a 4-3-3 system. Initially Ronaldinho, Ludovic Giuly and Samuel Eto’o led the line in back-to-back La Liga and the 2006 Champions League triumphs; more recently, Lionel Messi was partnered with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez for 2011’s second Champions League final defeat of Manchester United. However, statistically speaking, it was the combination of Messi, Eto’o and Henry used during 2009’s first victory over the Red Devils which yielded the best results together.
With Ronaldinho’s influence waning and Giuly’s departure, Henry was bought from Arsenal to partner the emerging Messi and established star Eto’o. After a year of gelling during the 2007-08 season, which ended in disappointment on all fronts, the three really clicked for the whole of the ‘08-09 campaign. A century of goals in all competitions was split between the trio as they proved unstoppable domestically and across the continent. An historic La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble was completed by the end of the season; Eto’o and Messi scoring the winning goals over United in the latter’s Rome final.
Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law, George Best
Manchester United – 1964-1969
Speaking of Manchester United, they boasted perhaps the world’s most famous footballing triumvirate. Debuting together for the first time in January 1964, the connection was instant, as all three netted in a 4-1 win over West Bromwich Albion. For the next half-decade, everything the Englishman, Scot and Northern Irishman combined to create was pure gold, and Old Trafford regulars must have been proud to watch their heroes – dubbed the United Trinity – notch up over six hundred goals between them during their respective times at the club – a great deal of those while they were on the pitch together.
Perhaps the greatest misfortune was that they could not share United’s finest hour of that generation together, as Law missed the 1968 European Cup demolition of Benfica with a knee injury. Sir Matt Busby’s resignation in 1969 led to the United Trinity’s decline, but for a time his forward line was the most formidable in world football – Law, Charlton and Best each won the European Footballer of the Year award in 1964, ’66 and ’68 respectively.
Best’s unrivalled dribbling ability, Charlton’s rounded genius and Law’s uncanny finishing was a completely complimenting dynamic that has perhaps not been matched to this day. Sir Alex Ferguson did try however, and the 2007-09 combination of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez has often been cited as the United Trinity’s modern equivalent. Back-to-back Premier League titles and Champions League final appearances – including 2008’s triumph over Chelsea – are indicative of the trio’s impact, and it is a shame that we only got an all-to-brief glimpse into their potential.
Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti
Hungary – 1948-1956
It is hard to imagine nowadays that Hungary was once the centre of the footballing world for producing world-class talent. The late forties and early fifties especially yielded unprecedented success for the eastern European ‘Golden Team’ as it swept aside opposition in a manner no team has quite managed since. Leading the line was a threesome so formidable it might still send shivers down the spines of any English fans old enough to remember: Puskas, of Real Madrid fame, Honved and Barcelona legend Kocsis, and the lesser known but arguably most important Hidegkuti, who spent his most successful years with Hungarian club MTK.
While Puskas and Kocsis scored goals for fun, each averaging in and around a goal per game for the national side, it was Hidegkuti who provided the subtle magic behind it all. Scoring a mere (!) 39 goals in 69 appearances, the late genius’s role was to act as a false striker, drawing out the opposition’s central defender by dropping into a deeper position and allowing room for his wealthily talented compatriots to exploit. The trio tore opposition to shreds, cantering to the gold medal position at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics before annihilating England 6-3 at Wembley a year later. In 1954, with the World Cup weeks away, Puskas, Kocsis and Hidegkuti again swept aside England, this time 7-1 in Budapest, and must have looked like overwhelming favourites to lift the pinnacle trophy in Switzerland. Cue the Miracle of Bern, as West Germany somehow found it in themselves to conquer a 2-0 early deficit and 8-2 thrashing earlier in the competition, to snatch the world’s biggest prize from its greatest team at the time.
Combined, Kocsis, Puskas and Hidegkuti scored an astonishing 197 goals for Hungary, playing together for eight years and becoming arguably the greatest team to never win a World Cup.
Piet Keizer, Sjaak Swart, Johan Cruyff
AFC Ajax – 1965-1973
The emergence of Total football– a stark contrast to Italian clubs’ defensive catenaccio –was greatly influenced, of course, by the emergence of Ajax and Netherlands legend Cruyff. In a system that encouraged even centre backs like Ruud Krol to score highly, it might be a tad optimistic to say that Cruyff’s partnership with Keizer and Swart was a traditional forward trio, but they complimented each other so effectively and for such an extended period that the combination’s success is difficult to overlook.
‘Mister Ajax’ Swart was a mainstay at the club already by the time Keizer and Cruyff established themselves in the mid-sixties, and trophies were quick to arrive at the Amsterdam club, and would continue to do so for the next eight years. With Cruyff playing as the central striker, Swart and Keizer were deployed as his chief suppliers and targets on either wing. They did so magnificently well – both scored over a century and a half of goals while Cruyff himself netted over 200 during this period of continuous achievements. Six Eredivise titles and four KNVB Cups came domestically, while the club’s lasting dynasty of three consecutive European Cups from 1971-73 was thanks in no short supply to the club’s classy forward line.
As the years progressed the combination of Keizer and Swart began to vary, as players like Johnny Rep emerged from the next generation and Swart especially headed towards retirement. But Ajax’s traditional forward three was an unrivalled entity at its zenith, defeating the best defensive sides like Internazionale, Juventus and Atletico Madrid with pure, entertaining style of play.
So, where does the Messi, Suarez and Neymar trio combination rank with other forward lines through that found success in the past? For now it is difficult to gauge – a defining Champions League final against Juventus awaits – but the chemistry and effectiveness shown by MSN has made for thrilling viewing this season.
This list of greatest attacking threesomes was only my opinions – if you agree, or have a favourite I have missed, do feel free to share in the comments section below.