This was a debate I enjoyed with a few friends down the pub one night and I thought I would share it with you fine people. I have a nagging feeling that this topic has been covered elsewhere on EF, but I cannot be bothered to trawl through the forums, so if it has come up before, sorry. Consider this a revival.
The Question: who would win a match between Manchester United's Treble winning team of 1998-99 and the Arsenal "Invincibles" team that went the entire league season unbeaten?
Probably the most systematic way of tackling this beard-scratcher is comparing the line-ups, which I will lay out my thoughts regarding such thusly. This task is made easier by the fact that they both played 4-4-2.
Goalkeepers - Peter Schmeichel vs Jens Lehmann.
Both had great years but in terms of their overall careers the Great Dane wins hands down. Lehmann, from what I can recall, was capable of making outstanding saves and committing morally questionable acts (in footballing terms) on the same day. Schmeichel had a few high-profile howlers but it is a measure of his greatness that I can only think of one or two off the top of my head. Goalkeeping blunders always seem more significant if committed by a usually reliable player.
Defenders - Gary Neville, Stam, Johnson, Irwin
(with acknowledgement of the contributions of Henning Berg, David May, Wes Brown and Phil Neville) vs Lauren, Campbell, Toure and Ashley Cole
(with acknowledgement of the contributions of Gael Clichy, Pascal Cygan (no, really), Martin Keown and Justin Hoyte).
Some statistics: In the league, Arsenal conceded 26 and lost no games, whilst Manchester United conceded 37 and lost three games. The three games United lost in the league that year contributed 9 goals to the against column. In 2003-04 the top three placed teams in the Premiership scored a higher combined total of goals than in 1999.
One of the reasons why I find this such an interesting footballing question is that there are so many different factors to consider. Statistically, in the league at least, Arsenal have the upper hand. Let's face it, to go the whole season without losing a league game is an outstanding achievement which could not have been done without a reliable defensive unit. But did they benefit from a more defensive midfield in front of them? After all their style of play had slightly more emphasis on counter-attacking football than United's.
As individual players it is hard to separate the seasons enjoyed by whoever was in each position. Jaap Stam proved to be a revelation following his summer signing, but the marked improvements made by Kolo Toure as the season went on were crucial factors towards Arsenal's defensive consistency. Dennis Irwin is arguably United's most reliable left-back ever. Lauren and Cole raised the bar in English football for the standards that attacking full-backs needed to reach.
Out of the two back fours, my vote goes to The Gunners.
Midfield: Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs
(not forgetting Butt, Blomqvist and Cruyff) vs Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Pires
(not forgetting Parlour, Edu and Wiltord).
Starting with Arsenal, when those four played together the combination of qualities was often beautiful to watch. I regard Robert Pires to be the most underrated footballer of his generation (this video goes some of the way to show you why -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28S8kFG7hBM
). Patrick Vieira was one of those rare players who would transform from an immovable defensive obstacle to a graceful attacking weapon in an instant. Ljungberg was a master of arriving late into the box to chip in with useful goals. Gilberto proved to be the tough cookie that Arsenal have lacked since his departure, and supplemented the others nicely.
But I must give this one to United. The four names roll off the tongue like football's equivalent to poetry, for together they formed simply the best midfield ever put out by a British team (and remained the most formidable midfield in Europe for two or three years). A perfect combination of qualities, bite, leadership, edge and combativeness blended with vision, skill, subtlety and finesse. The crosses from the right. The dribbles from the left. Goals, assists, passion, and more goals. By today's standards it is also perhaps surprising that most of the United midfield was 'home-grown'.
Forwards - Yorke and Cole
(and of course Sheringham and Solskjaer) vs Henry and Bergkamp
(and of course Kanu and Reyes).
Goals scored (all competitions): Henry 39, Yorke 29, Cole 24, Solskjaer 18, Sheringham 5, Bergkamp 5, Reyes 5, Kanu 3.
If I were to do this solely on individual talents Arsenal would probably walk this one (not forgetting for a moment my admiration for Andy Cole which you can read about elsewhere). I cannot think of two more technically gifted forwards to grace the Premiership whilst playing for the same team. Dennis Bergkamp encapsulated all of the attributes of European technique, invention and skill which the vast majority of English players yearn for, and by the standards of the current England team can only hope to come close to acquiring. His first touch, close control (yes they are different things), shooting, passing and vision were sublime.
And then there's Thierry Henry. Arsenal and France's all-time top goal-scorer. But not only was he a great goal-scorer, he was a scorer of great goals. Pace that bordered on ridiculous combined with an ability to shoot from anywhere and a total awareness of his position, Henry was the key to Arsenal's attack. He could also pass beautifully and was a highly capable dribbler.
Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke proved to be match made in heaven. Friends off the pitch, on it they combined on a seemingly telepathic level which resulted in more than 50 goals between them, many of them assisted by each other. Most memorable was the one-two against Barcelona, but they were also particularly deadly against Juventus, Brondby, West Ham and Nottingham Forest. Quite simply they were the best strike partnership I have ever seen.
I cannot separate them on this one.
A final factor might be the managers, but as they are both still serving I don't think that this would be fair or appropriate. Style of play, squad depth and overall legacy might also make worthy points of comparison but I feel that on all three I would be nit-picking and hard-pressed to choose a winner.
Instead I will leave it there, and if you haven't fallen asleep by now I invite you to throw your hat in. Unless of course you did the poll and promptly ignored the essay above.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.