This was an incredibly difficult seven to compile, so I decided to come up with a system to make myself feel a little more confident with my eventual selections and their ordering.
That system was to rank every trio out of ten in terms of both how good the three players were (or are) individually and how well/effectively they play together, to give an overall total out of 20. There are no bonus points for longevity, the only condition was that they must have spent at least a season playing together, and there’ll be some honourable mentions featured between first and second place.
Here are our 7 best-attacking trios of all time:
7. Pele, Pepe & Coutinho
When you start with a front three like this, that should serve as some indication of the level of competition in this seven and the honourable mentions. Pele, Pepe and Coutinho formed the attacking trio of Santos for a decade, a decade which Santos spent most of as the best club side on the planet. Pepe was the oldest of the three, and he operated out wide on the left. Pele was of course the most famous and talented footballer on the planet, and he tended to operate in a slightly withdrawn number 10 position behind the baby of the group, Antonio Wilson Vieira Honorio, better known simply as Coutinho.
In terms of the sheer numbers, Pepe scored 405 goals in 750 games for Santos, Coutinho scored 370 goals in 457 games for the club, and Pele scored 643 goals in 656 games for the Brazilian giants. There’s not much left for us to say about Pele, we have entire videos dedicated to the guy, so we’ll talk a little bit about Pepe and Coutinho. Pepe was a sensational dribbler who was incredibly direct and possessed a thunderous shot. Coutinho was arguably an even better dribbler, who enjoyed excellent chemistry with Pele, as well as being ruthless in front of goal with either foot and his head.
Together, they won 19 trophies in 10 years, including two Intercontinental Cups, and they have to feature in this seven.
6. Di Stefano, Puskas & Rial
It’s hard to keep the Real Madrid team of the mid-late 1950’s out of any football’s greatest list, and this one is no exception. Alfredo Di Stefano is the greatest footballer to ever don the famous white shirt of Real Madrid, Ferenc Puskas is the third greatest centre-forward of all time, and Hector Rial is perhaps one of the most underrated and overlooked players in the history of the game.
As with Pele, we have often talked about Di Stefano and Puskas previously, so we’ll focus on Rial here. Somewhat similar to Di Stefano, Rial was an Argentine whose career took him from his native Argentina to Colombia and eventually Real Madrid. Also similarly to his compatriot, Rial was somewhat difficult to pin down, as a prolific offensive player whose supreme technique and engine often saw him dropping very deep.
Rial and Di Stefano were part of all five of Real’s consecutive European Cup titles, but Puskas’ later arrival meant this trio only spent three seasons together, but they turned scoring goals into an art form during those three years, as well as being remarkably successful.
5. Moreno, Pedernera & Labruna
Right, this was the entry I was most doubtful about, simply because River Plate’s all-conquering side of the 1940’s famously deployed a front five, not a front three. However, since two of that five were very definite wingers, and the other three operated largely in tandem in central attacking roles, we think they’re more than eligible.
Spearheading a team nicknamed La Maquina – or ‘the Machine’ – these three spent five years playing together. Pedernera was the biggest star in Argentine football, a seemingly untackleable technical and tactical genius nicknamed ‘the Master’, whose serious injury and subsequent defection to Colombia served as a dagger to the heart of Argentinian football. Moreno is considered by some to be the greatest Argentine footballer of all time, and Labruna was a brilliant and instinctive centre-forward who scored goals at will.
4. Best, Charlton & Law
It seems ridiculous that a front three comprising of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, all Ballon d’Or winners, should only come fourth, but that’s where their combined total placed them. Nicknamed the ‘United Trinity’ or the ‘Holy Trinity’, and immortalised by a statue of all three outside Old Trafford today, these three played together for ten years.
Charlton was the talisman, Best the most naturally gifted and Law the most prolific. Between 1964 and 1968, all three won the Ballon d’Or, as United won their first European Cup in 1968. Despite his flaws, that season belonged to George Best, who scored 32 goals from the wing, whilst Charlton chipped in with 20 and Law a further 10.
3. Puskas, Kocsis & Hidegkuti
In terms of how well they played together, no trio scored as highly as these three, who we gave a perfect 10. As for their individual talents, Puskas – the only man to feature in this seven twice – we have already stated we consider to be among the three finest centre-forward’s of all time, Sandor Kocsis was a little less gifted but even more prolific for the national team and quite possibly the finest attacking header of a ball in history, and Nandor Hidegkuti changed the way in which football was played forever.
In a team built on the philosophy of every player being able to transition seamlessly from defence to attack and vice versa, Puskas and Kocsis played as centre-forwards, but they weren’t static number 9’s as was typical of their era. Hidegkuti was the lynchpin, and the reason why Hungary’s Magical Magyars continued to bamboozle the best national teams on the planet for more than five years. Stop him, and you could stop this team, but few came close.
A wonderfully intelligent footballer who centre-halves had no idea whether to track in his withdrawn role, he caused havoc on a routine basis, and his pinpoint passes were a dream for two of the most deadly strikers the game has ever seen.
2. Ronaldo – Rivaldo – Ronaldinho
Ranking very highly for both individual talent – all Ballon d’Or winners once again – and their chemistry/effectiveness together – having won the World Cup – few of you will be surprised by the inclusion of Brazil’s famed attacking trio of the early 2000’s. Affectionately known as the three R’s, they should have spent four years together in the national team, between the baby of the group Ronaldinho’s debut in 1999 and Rivaldo’s last cap in 2003, but in reality it was much less.
Ronaldo was the pick of the bunch. The perfect blend of pace, power and skill, he came seventh in our list of the greatest footballers of all time. His peak actually came before Ronaldinho’s international debut, and injuries meant he won no caps in 2000 or 2001. It is 2002 that these three are best remembered for though, when they formed an unstoppable attacking trio at the World Cup.
Ronaldo and Rivaldo had both been losing finalists four years earlier, but with the addition of Ronaldinho, they weren’t to be beaten in South Korea and Japan. Ronaldo scored eight goals in seven games to win the Golden Boot, Rivaldo was the tournaments second top scorer with five and Ronaldinho chipped in with two goals and two assists. All three players made the Team of the Tournament.
0. Honourable Mentions
There were so many trios that made our original shortlist that I would bore you to death if I were to mention them all here. Instead, we’ll just pick out some of the most notable and some who scored the highest using our ranking out of 20 criteria.
Possibly the most unlucky trio not to feature were Anton Schall, Matthias Sindelar and Josef Bican, who formed the front three of Austria’s Wunderteam in the 1930’s. Sindelar is possibly the greatest pre-war footballer of them all, or at least he’s our favourite. A master tactician with superb technique, he was Austria’s star man. Bican was a relentless goal-getter who could outrun Olympic sprinters, and the least well-known of the trio – Schall – scored 27 goals from 28 caps for his country.
Then there is Gre-No-Li, the colloquial term for Swedish forwards Gunnar Gren, Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Nordahl, who spent four years together at AC Milan. Nordahl was the pick of the bunch, just about the perfect centre-forward, but all three could accurately be described as world class.
Speeding things up, the most obscure trio on our shortlist may just have been the most prolific, Atletico Mineiro forwards Mario de Castro, Jairo and Said, collectively known as the Trio Maldito, whilst the Netherlands 1974 forward line of Cruyff, Rensenbrink and Rep had to score highly.
More recently, Manchester United’s two-season trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez was packed full of talent, energy and hunger, whilst the highest scoring current three came courtesy of PSG, and the varied talents of Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
Those are just our most notable honourable mentions, but we’d love to hear some of your suggestions and undoubted outrage in the comments – but before we get to that – there is the small matter of first place….
1. Messi, Suarez & Neymar
Controversial though it may be, using our criteria of measuring both the individual talents and cohesion + effectiveness as a trio to give an overall score, no-one scored higher than Barcelona’s three-season-long combination of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
For much of this time, it could be reasonably argued that Barcelona’s front three comprised of three of the four best players in the world, or at least three of the four best forwards. Spearheaded by the greatest footballer to have ever lived, the brilliance began in 2014 with Luis Suarez’s arrival, by which time Neymar had been at the Camp Nou for a season already.
In three seasons together, Messi, Suarez and Neymar scored a combined total of 364 goals. We gave them nines for both individual talent and collective excellence, and a combined score of 18 makes them the greatest attacking trio in football history by our estimation.