Manchester United's Class of 2012-13 vs. Class of 1998-99

Terry CarrollContributor IIIJanuary 7, 2013

Manchester United's Class of 2012-13 vs. Class of 1998-99

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    Manchester United's achievements in 1998/9 would be hard to match, especially this season with the depth of competition in the Premier and Champions Leagues.

    There are already strong similarities, however, and those supporters who remember the sheer elation of the triumph over Bayern or of Ryan Giggs' stunning FA Cup goal would love a dose of deja-vu.

    In this brief review, we consider the possibility of history repeating itself and the reasons why.

    After all, the manager is still here, and so are some of the players, so it is certainly in United's DNA to do it again. 

    Sometimes you need to have a tough challenge or two to realize how good you are. It seems utterly bizarre that, despite being pipped in the League last season with the highest second place points ever and now sitting proudly atop the table, United still come in for criticism.

    There are journos who still say this is not a good United squad. There are even posters who criticise the team regularly and want wholesale squad changes as early as January.

    So maybe a comparison between 1998/99 and 2012/13 can give a sense of perspective as to how well United are actually doing, as well as remind us of the rich heritage of success.

Comparative Achievements

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    1998/99 was the Treble year, a feat that many believe will never be repeated. Or will it?

    Sir Alex Ferguson has been far less successful in the "League Cup" than he has in any other competition. It was a similar story in 1998/99, although United did get as far as the fifth round, where they lost to Spurs.

    That year was probably the first time Sir Alex started quipping about the FA Cup draw. It was a mark of United's considerable achievements that they had to beat Premier League opponents in every single match, although they did have four consecutive home matches at the start of their run to the Final.

    On their way to ultimate triumph they had to beat Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as Middlesbrough, Fulham and Newcastle.

    So United went on to win a unique Treble of League, FA Cup and Champions League. The following autumn, they completed the set by winning the World "Super-Cup."

    Already approaching his sixties, Sir Alex was knighted for his achievements. What more could he get if he repeated the dose this season?

    Lord Ferguson o' Govan?

The Best Strike Force in the World?

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    A few weeks ago, for Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole you would have read Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.

    Now, with a newly established partnership between Van Persie and Chicharito, maybe they are the current equivalent?

    Sir Alex isn't the only one to compare the two strike forces. In 1998/99 it was Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer. Between them they got 76 goals, with 49 in the League.

    So far, with just over half the season gone, the current four strikers have 41 goals in total, with 32 in the League. Well on course then, despite Danny Welbeck firing blanks and Rooney stuttering.

    Of course the current preoccupation is with Van Persie, as he is on fire. He has scored so many critical goals that some supporters have started to fret about what would happen if he was injured.

    But this season, it was naturally assumed that Wayne Rooney would be scoring hatfuls. He currently sits behind Chicharito with eight. The Mexican has also rediscovered the form of his first season.

    So God help the rest of Europe if Welbeck gets his touch back. With youngsters like Will Keane and Angelo Henriquez coming through, United look well set in this department for a few years yet.

    Meanwhile, the rumours about Robert Lewandowski simply won't go away, so if Rooney does, as many expect, drop back into a midfield attacking role, United can expect to be just as exciting in the future.

    In 1998/99, just as this season, United were adept at scoring late crucial goals, none less than the brace that crushed Bayern Munich's hearts. Only that time, it was the third and fourth choice strikers who did the job.

    Send for the SS, the super-subs, Sheringham and Solskjaer.

A Better Defence?

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    On paper, United didn't have a stronger defence in 98/9 than now. Jaap Stam was world class, but was he better than Nemanja Vidic? Surely even at 34, Rio Ferdinand is better than Ronny Johnsen?

    While United scored 80 at more than two goals a game in that season, they only conceded 37 in total, giving them the best goal difference in the League. 

    There was a similar pattern in the Champions League. United had to get through a qualifying round before they arrived in a "Group of Death" with Barcelona, Bayern and Brondby, managing to finish above the Spanish side, but behind the team they eventually conquered in that epic Final.

    In 16 matches, United scored 31 and conceded 16.

    This season in the League, so far United have scored an astonishing 54 goals, but they are conceding far too many with 28, despite Sir Alex's pre-season assertion that they would not lose the League on goal difference.

    Is it the attacking football they are playing? Of course not; it may account for the goals, and the defence may look better; but the answer probably lies in midfield.

    While Scholes and Giggs were in their prime in 1998/99, it could have been two defensive midfielders, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville that probably held the secret.

    Both were combative, and it seems extraordinary that Phil Neville, who left United seven years ago, has played almost as many League games for Everton as he did for United and is approaching 700 games overall. In those stats alone he has well eclipsed his more illustrious brother.

    And there are those who believe United need a defensive midfield now, to cover the defence. Or at the very worst, someone like Kevin Strootman who is a box to box player in the style of Roy Keane and Bryan Robson.

    The real truth of the matter, however, is that the competition overall is much tougher now than in 1998/99.

    And yet United only needed 79 points to win the League; an average of 2.1 per match. This season they already have 52 points at an average of almost 2.5, and they are scoring more than that number of goals per match.

    So maybe we can start to believe that history can repeat itself?

Other Players

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    United fans found it hard to forgive Sir Alex when he let David Beckham go in his prime. 

    Who was the better player for United? They were very different. Ronaldo was the better all-rounder, but Beckham had as much impact in his own way.

    While Valencia and Young can put over a decent cross and Paul Scholes can ping 50 yard passes for fun, nobody could do better than David the long, early ball into the path of his strikers that could break down any defence.

    He played more matches that year than any other player except Schmeichel and Keane.

    United also had a pretty useful left back who is one of their all-time unsung heroes, Denis Irwin. He was the then equivalent of Patrice Evra now, although they were very different players. Irwin scored more goals and was a consummate penalty taker. Evra is the master of the dribble, but Irwin was master of the tackle.

    There are many players who will be remembered from that 1998/99 squad, but who will stand out from 2012/13 if United were to emulate those achievements?

    Van Persie will, whatever happens now. He has rightly been compared to Eric Cantona in the impact he has had.

    Chicharito may go down in history in the same breath as Solskjaer as one of the great super-subs of all time.

    Rooney, Scholes and Giggs are destined to be legends forever anyhow.

    David De Gea may yet be remembered if he goes on to have a stellar career at United, but only if he makes memorable saves that keep United's run going. His stage may be yet to come in the Champions League.

    But there is one player from 1998/99 who has no match in the present squad whatsoever.

Roy Keane

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    Until you reached this slide there were probably many of you who were muttering angrily "but what about Roy Keane".

    Manchester United have never again had a player like Roy Keane. Bryan Robson was his nearest equal before Roy arrived. It is no surprise that people still hunger for a "Keane-type player".

    There isn't going to be one.

    Michael Carrick isn't that player. That's not his fault. Carrick plays a different role as a holding midfielder. 

    As time goes forward, maybe Wayne Rooney can become that type of player. A "box to box" player who can be scoring one minute and clearing up at the back the next.

    And what Roy could do for the team was best exemplified on an April evening in Turin in 1999.

    Yes, of course, many of you will rightly remember Ryan Giggs' goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, without which United were going out. Possibly the best goal ever scored by a United player?

    But United had only drawn the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at home, thanks again to a last minute Giggs goal. Few gave them a chance of progressing in the away leg.

    Roy Keane was having none of it. Playing against one of the five best players of all time, Zinedine Zidane, Keane marshalled his defence, won almost everything in midfield, scored the first goal and drove his team to an unlikely 3-2 win.

    And all at great personal cost, because like Paul Scholes, the yellow card he picked up excluded him from that glorious Final.

    So step forward Captain Roy Keane.

    Is there a player like him in the 2012/13 squad? Frankly, no. Van Persie may have the same impact if he keeps scoring vital goals. Wayne Rooney could have a similar physical presence if he recovers his fitness. Nemanja Vidic will never say die. 

    But there is no Roy Keane, and even Kevin Strootman couldn't fill his boots.

    So can United repeat what they did in 1998/99?

Can History Repeat Itself?

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    An estimated 500,000 people took to the streets to welcome their heroes 24 hours after United won the Champions League.

    Can history repeat itself?

    Yes, but probably not. As we said earlier, the competition is tougher.

    In the FA Cup, United still have to overcome West Ham in a match sandwiched between tough League games against Liverpool and Tottenham. Then they probably have to play Fulham.

    More importantly, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton are still in the Cup as we go to print.

    In the League it would be folly to write off Manchester City after what happened last season. They are not cluttered with Champions League matches, nor are Chelsea. The latter, however are probably too far adrift.

    The biggest test of all comes in the Champions League, however.

    Even if United can overcome a collapsing Real Madrid side in the next round, they still have to get past one or more of Barcelona, Bayern, Dortmund, Juventus, Arsenal, PSG, Malaga and Porto in perhaps the most open competition in years.

    To do so, they will need a much tighter defence, a pacy and mobile midfield, a revitalized Wayne Rooney and a red-hot pairing of Van Persie and Chicharito.

    But it can be done. 

    United are way ahead on points in the League compared to 1998/99. They may not have the number of world class players in their prime that they had then, but they do have better strength in depth.

    The other massive change this year is in tactical formations. Sir Alex hasn't abandoned 4-4-2 but you get the sense that he has learned from the two dismal Finals against Barcelona.

    So, maybe the experiments with the "diamond" and 4-2-3-1 have much more to do with the Champions League than with the Premier League.

    And remember, in 1999, United had Steve McClaren as First Team Coach, so maybe anything is possible.