Back in August, Sir Alex Ferguson compared Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez to the iconic strike quartet that led United to their famous treble in 1998-99. Ferguson told reporters:
In 1999, I had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the four best strikers in Europe. We are going toward that now.
Five months on, United's goals tally would suggest Ferguson's foursome are realising his vision. United have scored 79 goals in 34 games, and are on course to beat their haul of 128 in the 1998-99 campaign.
Rooney, playing deeper, has been involved in 22 of United's goals this season, while Hernandez has latched upon his occasional chances like the ravenous Little Pea we came to know in his first season. Van Persie's contribution has been nothing short of astounding—the Dutchman having scored 22 goals in all competitions for United since joining from Arsenal in the summer.
With three parts of four in place, Welbeck's argument has yet to get above a whisper. The 23-year-old has scored just once in 14 starts for United this season. His frequent deployment in midfield, or as a wide man in a three behind the main striker, dilutes some of his goal threat, but Welbeck's four assists also reads as a disappointing number.
In a straight comparison with the 1999 vintage, Van Persie is probably closest to Sheringham. There's no call for blistering pace when you can read the same as intuitively as these two, and Van Persie—like Sheringham did in his heyday—operates with an economy of movement that lulls defences into a false sense of security.
The difference, of course, is that Van Persie is United's main weapon this season. Sheringham was a largely a peripheral figure in the 1998-99 season, making just 11 starts, until he demonstrated his knack for timing with successive goals in the FA Cup final and Champions League final.
Cole and Hernandez are also an obvious match. Two instinctive finishers with pace and intelligent movement, their best work is done on the shoulder of the last defender. These are snipers who wait in the wings and make a living inside in the six-yard box.
Rooney, in his all-round play, penchant for the spectacular and ability to adapt to different positions, is most like Yorke. The Englishman is a more intense character, which works both for and against him at times, but there's no doubting the two players share a mutual vision for a pass and a finish. Yorke top-scored for United in 1998-99.
That brings us to Solsjkaer and Welbeck. The former made 17 starts and 20 substitute appearances in the 1998-99 season, but still managed a return of 18 goals—the most famous his winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
Solsjkaer was technically more sound than Welbeck and a far better finisher, but he lacked Welbeck's searing pace. Moreover, he was a developed player by then, while Welbeck is still very much learning his craft under Ferguson at Old Trafford.
Welbeck's potential is obvious, but we find him this season some way behind where the baby-faced assassin was on his way to achieving immortality with an outstretched leg in Camp Nou.
That said, in his current form you'd swap Van Persie for any for any of the four who came together in 1999. If you had to pick the strongest foursome from the eight names mentioned, I'd go for Van Persie, Rooney, Yorke and Cole. The difficulty would be asking two of those to sit out every game.
In terms of the battle between the foursomes of 2012-13 and 1998-99, we should reserve judgement until United get to work against quality Champions League opposition. Yorke and Cole terrorised Barcelona, Inter Milan and Juventus on their way to the title. Van Persie and Rooney have two legs against Real Madrid to stake their claim.
The 1998-99 quartet are still some way ahead right now, but if United's 2012-13 take on the fantastic four start dining out at Europe's top table, Welbeck finds some form and United come upon a little luck along the way, we may very well be back here in May making a very serious comparison.
The fact we're even having the conversation suggests Ferguson is onto something. Whether it's something special, remains to be seen.