It is probably best to whisper it, but Manchester United look good for another treble this season. The Red Devils are still in all three major competitions, clear at the top of the Premier League and face a Fulham side stuck in a rut in Saturday’s FA Cup Fourth Round tie.
The caveat is obviously that Real Madrid lie in wait in the Champions League. United will go into the Round of Sixteen games as clear underdogs but La Liga’s champions have had an inconsistent season and look far from invincible. It will be an uphill challenge, certainly, but many United fans are starting to believe that winning all three trophies is within the capabilities of this team.
Of course, Manchester United have several obvious weaknesses: central midfield is an area of on-going concern; there are question marks over first-choice goalkeeper David de Gea; most alarmingly of all, United allow their opponents to take a lot of shots and, as a consequence, concede a lot of goals. As history shows, however, these are no barrier to success.
Despite the fact that United's treble-winning team of 1998-99 has been mythologised as one of football’s all-time greats – at least in England, anyway – most of the criticisms aimed at the current squad were also applicable to them.
Every single one of Manchester United’s current central midfielders has been a figure of fun at some point. They are most often vilified for their lack of aggression or personality, but the treble-winners suffered similar problems throughout their most famous season.
It seems unthinkable to say now, but the pairing of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes did not always exert the control one would expect when considering how brilliant the two were individually. Although they fit nicely into Alex Ferguson’s enduring combination of Runner/Tackler and Passer, the speed at which United played often meant their midfield ended up on the wrong side of the ball, leading to defensive collapse.
In goal, David de Gea has been singled-out as a weak link: a fantastic shot-stopper but not up to scratch at other parts of the game. Another overlooked reality is that Peter Schmeichel, still widely regarded as being one of the best goalkeepers of all time, did not have his best season in 1998-99. Much like de Gea, he made miraculous game-changing saves in some games and dropped clangers in others.
Everyone remembers Schmeichel stopping Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty in the FA Cup semi-final replay and the double save to Barcelona in the Nou Camp, but few bother to recall the Dane dropping the ball into his own net against Sheffield Wednesday, or moving behind his wall to concede Mario Basler’s free-kick in the Champions League final.
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Tactically, the two sides are very similar: the 1998-99 side’s high-tempo 4-4-2 was ludicrously open: they conceded thirty-seven goals en route to winning the Premier League and shipped eleven in the six Champions League group stage games. By and large, they ignored controlling games and focused simply on making as many scoring chances as possible.
When the ball was in midfield, it went wide to David Beckham, Ryan Giggs or Jesper Blomqvist and they quickly supplied a clinical forward line. The system’s beauty was in its simplicity, but the same lack of sophistication was also United’s Achilles heel.
As football theory has advanced, United have undoubtedly progressed, but their current system has often been shown to have similar pitfalls. United have conceded thirty-seven league goals in 2012-13 already. Their response to such frailty has been the same as in the treble-winning season: to pump the ball into the box and score as many goals as possible.
In most of the big games, the current United side smash-and-grab and simply hang on for dear life. Their direct tactics mean they rarely dominate opponents of an equal stature. Similarly, the treble-winners were regularly outplayed – most notably by Inter in the San Siro, in both matches against Juventus and in the final itself – but managed to overcome their opponents seemingly by sheer force of will. Indeed, both the treble-winners and today’s United appear to need to fall behind before they can play their best football.
Everything changed for the treble-winners on March 3, 1999. As with this season’s side, they got out of the group stages only to be written off when paired with a European giant. Given the defensive fiascos in the group stage, there was little chance of their backline holding out against the might of Inter’s Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano and, most fearsomely of all, Il Fenomeno, Ronaldo.
However, hold out is exactly what they did: United’s 2-0 victory over the Nerazzurri at Old Trafford turned out to be the game that gave the players the belief that they could face any of Europe’s best sides and take them apart. They scraped a 1-1 draw in the return leg and went into the rest of the season with an unbreakable aura of invincibility about them.
If the Manchester United of 2012-13 can perform against the galácticos of Real Madrid as the team of 1998-99 did against the stars of Inter, there is no reason why they cannot go on to emulate them in terms of silverware.