This current Manchester City team has been hailed as the greatest ever in the Premier League era after blowing away most opponents they face week-after-week. It’s not just the number of goals they’ve scored or points they’ve amassed, but the style of the football they play that has earned praise.
They have ridden their luck at times too, relying on injury-time winners to seal victory on more than one occasion, but that is a characteristic seen from all title-winning teams. City players have incredible faith in their ability to win and don’t give up until the final whistle.
However, Martin Keown bucked the trend last week when writing an article that claimed Manchester United’s side from 1999 were even better that City’s current one and it received mixed reactions.
Time distorts the memory, so depending on whether you loved or hated United in the 90’s, you’re likely to have different perceptions of that team.
It has to be said that Keown is no United fan though, quite the opposite in fact, but as a member of the team that lost out on the title to United in 1998-99, as well as the FA Cup semi-final, he has a begrudging respect for them.
After Ryan Giggs’ wonder goal for United’s 10 men, he went in to the Villa Park dressing room to shake the hands and congratulate the winners. That was before Ruud van Nistelrooy’s time though, so he might not have been as magnanimous a few years later!
Still, when looking at the strengths of a team, it’s worth looking at the quality of the opposition they have to beat.
United have been second to City for most of the season, yet while Jose Mourinho’s team has improved since he took charge, they are a far cry from the title winning teams Sir Alex Ferguson produced. Most weeks, regardless of the score, pundits and rival fans alike will aim digs at the performance and players.
Fans of The Red Devils aren’t happy with the players in the squad. In years gone by, any player that wasn’t world class would have been the odd one out. When looking at their first XI in the 1998-99, it’s difficult to find one weak link, let alone several.
In contrast, David de Gea and Paul Pogba are arguably the only established top-drawer players in the starting team, with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly showing the potential to join them.
Compare Phil Jones with Jaap Stam, Ashley Young with Denis Irwin, Nemanja Matic with Roy Keane, David Beckham with Juan Mata, and so on. It’s enough to give their supporters nightmares.
Some Reds fans would argue that their 2007-08 team was better still. When you contrast United’s current bunch with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and so on, the verdict is damning.
So, if this United team is the best of the rest, then what does that say about the quality of the other teams in the league this season?
What Ferguson would have given to face a team on the same level as this current United one.
Compare this United side to Arsenal of 98-99 or Chelsea of 07-08. Like Keown claims United of 1999 is better is better than City of 2018, those Arsenal and Chelsea teams would wipe the floor with Mourinho’s team this year. Yet those are the sides United’s best teams had to beat to be crowned champions, and they did.
When Arsenal were Fergie’s closest challengers in the Treble-winning year, their squad included the best defence in Europe, with them conceding just 17 goals in 38 games. In midfield and attack they had world-class talents including Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars, among others.
Not only did United beat them to the title though, they did it while also competing for and winning a further two major trophies, playing 63 matches in all competitions. These were the days before squad football had really taken off so effective rotation wasn’t available. Eight players made more than 50 appearances that season, with Beckham and Keane making 55, one short of Peter Schmeichel’s 56.
Rival fans claim that United always get an easy draw in the Champions League, but they had to progress from a group that contained both Bayern Munich and Barcelona that year. The Germans won their league by 15 points that season, while the Spaniards finished 11 points clear of the Real Madrid side that included the likes of Raul, Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf and Balon d’Or runner up from the previous year, Davor Šuker.
United didn’t lose a single game in Europe that season though, beating Inter Milan and Juventus on the way to being reunited with Bayern in the final. Were they lucky in the Nou Camp?
Metmet Scholl and Carsten Jancker both saw their attempts come back off the woodwork and the Germans were largely comfortable over the 90 minutes. It would likely have been game over if these shots had gone in. But they didn’t.
For United to then have the desire and determination to score two goals in injury-time isn’t luck, it’s years of hard work and preparation being realised in the perfect moment. It would be unfair not to mention that they were without two of their of their most influential players that evening too, with Keane and Scholes suspended.
It wasn’t just in Europe where they had tough games either. In the FA Cup, United played Premier League opponents in each round, knocking out Arsenal (2nd), Chelsea (3rd), Liverpool (7th) and Middlesbrough (9th), on their journey to the final against Newcastle. The games against Arsenal were particularly telling of United’s character.
Three days after meeting Juve in the Champions League semi, they drew 0-0 with Arsenal in the FA Cup semi.
The replay was held three days later and United went down to 10 men, losing their captain Roy Keane, with 15 minutes left the play. In the last minute of the game, with the scoreline at 1-1, Arsenal won a penalty which Peter Schmeichel saved, forcing the game in to extra-time.
After 35 minutes with a man disadvantage, Giggs took on the whole Arsenal defence to win United the game. Three days later they played in the league, and won, before coming back from two goals down away to Juventus four days later. It was remarkable.
Still, accurately comparing teams from different eras is almost impossible and will usually be swayed by bias. Every United fan would pick Scholes over Kevin De Bruyne, while City fans would likely choose to reverse.
In terms of the quality of their opposition, you can only beat what is in front of you, so it’s not City’s fault that their incredible form happens to coincide with a period where the standard of other Premier League teams is poor. Yet until City see off top class opponents and maintain this while competing on all fronts, it’s foolish to liken them to United’s best teams.
City’s treble hopes for this season are already over thanks to their defeat against League 1 outfit Wigan in the last round.
Man United were 16 points clear of City in 2012-13 on the night they won the title, following their 3-0 win over Aston Villa. Roberto Mancini had the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Carlos Tevez and Vincent Kompany at his disposal.
Yet no one in their right mind would mention that United team in the same breath as their greatest squads. Them being so much better than everyone else didn’t prove anything.
And that’s before you start to look at prolonged success over more than one season. United’s team of 1998-99 went on to win the league three years in a row, with the odd addition and departure.
After his retirement, Ferguson claimed that his greatest challenge wasn’t building teams that were capable of winning the title, rather ensuring they had the hunger and fight to come back and do it the following season.
“The hardest thing is to maintain a level of success that keeps going year after year,” he said. “I have never looked back, always forward.”
The depths that Chelsea have fallen to in the seasons following their title wins under Antonio Conte and Mourinho, despite keeping the same manager, is testament to how difficult it is.
If Premier League opponents can raise their game over the next few seasons and Guardiola’s side still dominates, while winning other trophies aside from the League Cup, then conversations over their place among the league’s greatest teams should be had. But for now, it’s far too premature.