Manchester United 1992-2006: Playing With Statistics

Frustrating Statistics…

As a break from a staggeringly tedious update to my professional website, I’ve been amusing myself by trying to work out which was the greatest Manchester United side of the Premiership era. The task has proven trickier than I expected.

For one thing, common sense would dictate ruling out the post-Beckham, post-Stam side. They just haven’t been as good.. have they? I’ll return to them in a moment.

I see three distinct United phases in the Premiership. There’s the Cantona side, 1992- 1995, who were essentially dismantled overnight after the twin defeats of May 1995 – to Blackburn in the league, and Everton in the FA Cup. They are followed, with famous abruptness, by the “Kids”, who continue more or less unaltered until the achievement of the treble in 1999. I’d distinguish the post-treble “Kids” from the earlier variety, although the significant arrivals – Stam, Van Nistelrooy, Veron – trickle in either side of Barcelona. And then.. post-Beckham, since whose departure United have won no titles – or come close, it has to be said.

One of the more bizarre interludes of my career was when I was asked to hypnotise Jim White of the Telegraph. The idea was that I’d make him think he was Jose Mourinho, and then he’d replay the Champions League Semi-Final defeat to Liverpool on Championship Manager on a screen the size of the wall to see if he could alter the course of history. I don’t know whether Jim hated the idea more than I did, and the shameful episode was never screened. (He did beat Liverpool, though). Anyway, I spoke to Jim by telephone a day or two beforehand, so I could get the measure of him and find out something about where he was coming from, football-wise. In the course of the conversation, this issue – which was the best United side – came up, and he plumped for the Kids, a team, he said, that knew the meaning of the word more than any other he’d ever seen.

My own gut choice is the earlier, Hughes/Ince/Kanchelskis/Bruce/Sharpie/Giggs team. The sheer physical presence, the speed of their play, the monstrous destructiveness they could unleash onto opponents who couldn’t cope.. and I’m borne out by statistics. I think.. the 92 points garnered in 1993-4 wasn’t matched by any of the later sides, and only the post-treble team came close, with 91 in 1999-2000. And that early team scored 80 goals in the season twice on the trot.

It isn’t the whole story, though, is it? That early team had decent opposition in only one season, Blackburn in 1994-5. At that time, a curse operated over anyone who challenged United for the title – Leeds and Blackburn were both quickly relegated, Aston Villa disappeared from contention; even Arsene Wenger found retention of the title impossible. Wenger’s first side – that of the young Vieira and Petit – didn’t emerge until 1997, not getting into gear until ’98, by which time we’re almost halfway through our period. And it was in the presence of Wenger’s team that the post-treble team scored 97 goals in 1999-2000, 79 the year later, and 87 the year after that.

These might have been great deeds, but were accompanied by a great sense of anti-climax and disappointment. United’s assured fate was to repeat the Champions League triumph, to rule Europe in the noughties as they had England in the nineties.. and their failure to do this, to come close indeed to Real Madrid as the galacticos swept all before them, is what’s remembered now. And those 87 goals… were scored in the inexplicable absence of Jaap Stam, and United actually finished third that year. One last meaningless title, in the worst season of the Premiership’s history (United won with 83 points, by no means their worst, but only 74 goals. The Kids first title came with 82 points and 73 goals, but those came with hope and promise; the 2002-3 title was won on plastic.) Then Beckham left.

But in defence of the early side, it could be argued that their lack of European impact was entirely down to the foreign players rule (you were limited in your ability to field players of foreign nationality, and back then, Scotland, Wales and Ireland counted as foreign, something that would have crippled the Liverpool and Forest teams of the seventies, although not, probably, the Kids. And the break-up of the team was provoked by a season in which they scored 88 points and 80 goals yet contrived to come second, and also reached the FA Cup Final. Such underachievement required harsh measures, naturally.

So they remain my top United side of recent years.. but I said I’d come back to the side United have now – call it the Rooney team. Last season, they finished second, with 83 points and 72 goals. For a brief moment, it looked as though Chelsea could be caught – for a brief moment, I said. In the period under consideration – fourteen years – United have exceeded that points total only four times. They’ve scored more goals on 8 occasions, which is why the Manchester United Encyclopedia has a special section entitled We Often Score Six. Last season’s performance would have won seven titles of the previous fourteen. Only, it was done, this time, without a midfield. (United’s midfield last season is arguably the worst amongst the sides avoiding relegation last term). And the players who were there, spent the year being called out for lack of effort. Not a great team, then… but a mysteriously great final score at the end of the season. How did they do it? And what will they do if a midfield does materialise in the autumn?

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3 responses to “Manchester United 1992-2006: Playing With Statistics

  1. “I’m borne out by statistics. I think.. the 92 points garnered in 1993-4 wasn’t matched by any of the later sides, and only the post-treble team came close, with 91 in 1999-2000.”

    But that earlier team played 42 games, not 38. So it’s 2.19 points per game (ppg) in 1993/1994, and 2.39 in 1999/2000.

  2. Yes, but, no, but. What have you got to say to that, then, eh?
    On a more intelligent note, Michael Bridges scored 19 goals for Leeds that season. What with Jeffers, we seem to have lost quite a number of promising young strikers in recent years, and one wonders why..

  3. George Szirtes

    As a United fan from the late fifties onward I regard the nineties as an unexpected golden age. Almost all the teams of the time – the latter end of Robson, the onset of Ince, the crowning of Cantona and the kingship of Keane, have had moments of wonderful drama and intoxicating success.

    However, I think that period of greatness – which would have continued but for the sudden arrival of the Chelsea plutocracy – was in fact a sum of moments, a matter of particular matches, rather than of seamless grace, as was the case with Arsenal in their unbeaten year. I never once felt United were invulnerable. That in fact was one of the most attractive aspects of their success. They could be caught on a bad day by Southampton, like Ali looking the other way, being caught by Cooper.

    The backbone of that great team were the squaddies of the youth policy who just needed the right leader at the right time. It is very rare that a generation like that arises and holds together as long as this one did. It was the youth policy plus one or two signings that did the work.

    Selling Beckham was a mistake, and Ferguson has made his share of mistakes, as his critics have pointed out. What they forget is not only that other great managers have made mistakes but that the mistakes were always then rectified through some other stroke. United’s mistakes were like Ferguson’s mistakes, part of their dynamism and charm.

    There is apparently a very good new set of young players coming through. The problem may be that the crowds are so used to success that they have no patience with watching them develop. They want new big names every time. They were very impatient with Fletcher who might yet amount to something. Well, it is true that Keane will not be easily replaced. Gary Neville is a possible leader but he is only likely to be transitory.

    The best United team of the 90s would have to include Cantona and Beckham and Giggs and Keane and Schmeichel and Neville (G). You could move the rest around them. You could do that with any of the current team or the past teams and they would win the normal Premiership, and by normal I mean excluding Abramovich.

    As things stand for next season, I think top three is OK. Then the Ferguson era might be over. Maybe Martin O’Neill. But from there on we are in unknown territory.