Manchester United vs Arsenal

The back story to this particular match begins in the summer of 1995 when Alex Ferguson embarked upon remodeling his United side for the future. Soon would come the departure of first team regulars such as Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince, and in their place Ferguson would promote a group of exciting home grown youth team players with significant potential.

It’s an interesting proposition to consider whether this group would have been fast tracked as quickly had United qualified for the Champions League that season, as having to navigate UEFA’s draconian foreign nationals ruling had been the scourge of earlier participation in Europe’s elite club competition.

Ferguson’s faith in this band of brothers, in some cases literally, would ultimately pay dividends for both club and country, but fast forward to the summer of 1998 and Arsenal had tread an altogether different path.

The start of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal had also witnessed a transformation in the playing squad, one that would take full advantage the boom in post Bosman player movement, but was also funded by the increase in Sky Television revenue being enjoyed across the Premier League.

Between July of 1997 and January of 1999 Arsenal would release several high profile British players and in turn replaced them with 14 players of EU, African or South American descent. This expedited overhaul was clearly an effort to reduce the average age of an older squad, but it also spoke to the increase in cost to recruit British players in their prime while their foreign counterparts were markedly less expensive.

Manchester United 98/99 Squad

United’s squad was built in stark contrast to Arsenal, with only 9 of their 25-man squad born out with the UK and Ireland. Since the summer of 95 Ferguson had slowly augmented the core of a side who had experienced domestic success, but also had the familiarity of several European campaigns under their belt.

Peter Schmeichel, Dennis Irwin, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole were now mainstays in the United side, having served Ferguson well throughout many of the League Championship winning sides earlier in the decade.

Ferguson’s faith in promoting those from the class of 92 had absolutely paid off, with the Neville brothers, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes all forming a critical part of the side.

Teddy Sheringham, Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Henning Berg represented recent additions that were made in the post Bosman era and were now fully integrated into the side.

Ferguson would make several significant signings during the summer of 1998, but perhaps the most prominent was the capture of Jaap Stam from PSV in a deal worth £10.75M. While the move had been made public for some time, the Dutch international would certainly whet the appetite of United fans with his stellar performances for Holland at that summer’s World Cup.  

United’s second signing was long time target Jesper Blomqvist from Parma for a reported £4.4M. Ferguson had tracked the winger since his days with IFK Gotenburg, however lucrative moves to AC Milan and Parma thwarted any attempts made by United for his signature. When Parma manager Carlo Ancelotti was fired in May of 1998 the Swede decided it was time to move on, with Old Trafford his destination of choice.

Further additions to the first team included Wes Brown, Jonathan Greening and John Curtis, all of whom were players who had been on the fringes but were now deemed ready for the rigors of first team football.

The FA Charity Shield

Arsenal and United would come together to compete in the 76th annual FA Charity Shield (now known as the Community Shield). A crowd of 67,342 was present at Wembley Stadium to see them take on champions Arsenal, in a match that would certainly give the winner the mental edge ahead of the new season.

The two had last met in the FA Charity Shield in 1993, when an Ian Wright stunner cancelled out Mark Hughes opener for United. This led to a penalty shoot-out which United would win 5-4.

Starting Line Ups:


Entering his second full season in charge of Arsenal, Wenger’s line up was now far more in keeping with his vision for the club moving forward. Utilizing the strength and solidity of the famed “back 5”, the only adjustment to the defensive set up was Martin Keown taking a more prominent role in the team, moving in front of Steve Bould in the pecking order to partner Tony Adams in central defense.

The midfield four remained unchanged from what had played much of the 97/98 season, however the retirement of veteran David Platt perhaps put more pressure on Petit and Vieira to take part in this one, especially given the match was taking place less than a month after their World Cup Final win in Paris.

Ian Wright’s summer departure for West Ham United only solidified further that Nicolas Anelka was now Arsenal’s leading marksman, partnering Dennis Bergkamp in attack.

Wenger’s first summer signing, central defender Nelson Vivas, had only just signed for the club five days before the match, so would only make the substitutes bench. Arsenals other substitutes were Steve Bould, Stephen Hughes, Gilles Grimandi, Luis Boa Morte, Christopher Wreh and back up goalkeeper Alex Manninger.

Manchester United

Ferguson set up his United side in a familiar 4-4-2 formation, fielding a starting lineup that would be recognized by most as their strongest eleven.

Jaap Stam’s introduction into the back line would fill the void left by Gary Pallister, who had re-joined Middlesbrough in a deal worth £2M in July of 1998. Roy Keane’s return into central midfield following a 10-month injury lay off was welcome news for United fans, as the Irishman’s driving performances had been sadly missed throughout the 97/98 season.

It would appear this match came too soon for Jesper Blomqvist, who missed out on the match altogether. On the bench for United would be David May, Phil Neville, Henning Berg, Jordi Cryuff, Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and back up goalkeeper Nick Culkin.

First Half Tactical Analysis

Clash of Styles

Given that we know how Arsenal would evolve over time under Wenger, it’s interesting to go back and see how at ease this particular Wenger side was with their opponent controlling large parts of possession.

Let’s start by looking at how Arsenal defend, in particular in the central portion of the field. Arsenal’s back line of Dixon, Keown, Adams and Winterburn have lots of miles on the clock together, so their strength of understanding allowed them to defend as a unit without the need of a dedicated defensive midfielder. Vieira and Petit were given the freedom to press the ball or pick up the second ball should a United striker take a poor touch, all of which can be achieved by Arsenal’s defensive line using aggressive forward pressing movements and quick lateral coverage.

In these clips well see as United build the game forward Arsenal drop into their defensive 4-4-2 shape, standing off the play until United play an attacking forward pass. At this point one of the Arsenal back four will step out to press the ball receiver, with the remaining defenders covering behind and stepping up. These movements have all the hallmarks of George Graham’s tenure as manager, when the back line was drilled to step forward and catch opposition strikers offside should they stray forward too early.  

United Build Pattern

Knowing that Adams and Keown like to step out of the Arsenal defensive line, Ferguson narrowed the top of his attack by pulling Giggs and Beckham into central positions. United’s attacking width would eventually come from Irwin and Neville who supported forward from deep once a United attacker secured possession.

Butt and Keane were very careful when building forward not to pass into a player who was directly marked or in a flat body position, the consequences of which would have played right into Arsenal’s desire to play on the counter.

Should Arsenal choose to drop off and remain in their two banks of four this would afford Giggs and Beckham more space in which to find penetrative passes into Scholes and Cole, who split their runs left and right to attack the blind side of Keown and Adams.

United Right Side Attacks

Another variation of United’s attack was to use the right flank to create scoring opportunities. Through the partnership of Gary Neville and David Beckham on the right wing, Ferguson had two players with the understanding and creativity to cause any side in world football a threat.

Here we see Neville picking the ball up in Arsenal’s half like a traditional midfield wide man, drawing pressure from Arsenal’s left winger Marc Overmars. Beckham moves back to support the space behind Neville like a full back, therefore should Neville be unable to deliver the ball Beckham is positioned in an interior space unmarked. From here Beckham has the freedom to switch play or deliver the ball into the final third.

During the video we can hear a constant dull jeering directed toward David Beckham, which was evident throughout the game. This was of course part of the reaction to his red card in England’s World Cup match with Argentina.

The Flying Dutchman

Marc Overmars’ integration into English football appeared almost seamless in the summer of 1997, so by this stage he had firmly established himself as one of the most dangerous attackers in the Premier League. While starting from a base position as a left midfielder, Wenger would use Overmars as one of the primary targets through which Arsenal attack in transition. There is the simplicity of striking the ball into space for him to use his lightning pace to get on the end of, however Overmars also displayed the technical and tactical nous to play around pressure should he have to combine with teammates in tight spaces. It was obvious that United respected his threat as Ferguson ensured his runs were always picked up by a tracking defender in moments of transition, beyond this United’s players were also instructed to use tactical fouls should the situation warrant it.

Anelka Threat

It’s almost hard to assimilate a Wenger side who’s default strategy was to play long passes, however given the threat posed by Nicolas Anelka’s pace and movement Arsenal simply couldn’t avoid doing so. In the opening forty-five minutes Anelka lived on the shoulder of defender Ronny Johnsen, clearly identified as the weak link in United’s back line. Ferguson chose to limit the space Anelka had in behind by dropping his defensive line, however, should they get caught too high Schmeichel was instructed to protect the defensive third by rushing out to sweep up any through passes.

While this dealt with the ball inside the final third, the source of the initial pass often went unopposed due to the way Ferguson had positioned his attack. The combination of so many United players between Arsenal’s lines and a defensive line that sat deep, this culminated in an increase of the space in which Butt and Keane had to cover defensively. In moments of transition, they simply couldn’t get close enough to Petit and Vieira to prevent threatening entry passes for Anelka in the final third.

It was a ball intended for Anelka that led to the game’s opening goal, a pass which ended up with Bergkamp as Anelka shifted his run toward the penalty spot. A backheel from the Dutchman into the path of Anelka was thwarted by Johnsen, but his tackle fell into the stride of Overmars who smashed the ball into the roof of the net.

In these clips we also got a glimpse of how Bergkamp worked back to defend the space in front of Vieira and Petit, picking up second balls that led to the creation of counter attacks when Arsenal were in a static defending position. This particularly works well against a two-man midfield, given Bergkamp instantly becomes the spare man should the ball turn over as no one from the opposition defensive line can realistically step out to press him.

Keane & Vieira

While this clip isn’t part of the bigger tactical analysis, I felt it was an important part of the narrative that was building between the two sides. Three minutes into Roy Keane’s return and this ludicrously high tackle is intended to send a message to both Vieira and Arsenal, but also serves as the perfect distillation of a time when there was a far more liberal application of the rules.

Half Time Alterations

Arsenal were the only side to make a substitution at half time, with Christopher Wreh replacing Dennis Bergkamp as strike partner with Nicolas Anelka. United would wait until 53 minutes when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would replace Nicky Butt, with Paul Scholes dropping back into midfield.

Second Half Tactical Analysis

Ferguson would adjust tactically by altering United’s build up play on the right-hand side. Beckham moved into a more natural position on the wing, stretching the space in United’s midfield line so Gary Neville could provide central penetrative passes from a deep yet narrow starting position. By encouraging Overmars off the wing to press Neville inside, this gave Beckham more space in which to combine with United’s attackers while exposing the space around Winterburn who stepped out of the back line with no natural cover.

A lot of United’s general possession play looked nice on the surface, but it lacked any qualitative outcome as their final pass or finishing touch continued to elude them. Ferguson’s final tactical tweak saw Giggs become the focal point of the attack, operating as a central number 10 behind the strikers. Giggs had the freedom to link centrally or move diagonally into wide areas, each with the function of creating opportunities for the strikers who were tasked with staying inside the box. The following clip is perhaps the most dangerous United looked during this period.

Arsenal’s general play in the second half was far more measured in possession, slowing the tempo down to draw United out before penetrating forward. Overmars continued to be a threat on the left wing, an area that gained specific focus as Gary Neville was on a yellow card and there was a lack of supporting players United were able to deploy in that area to provide coverage.

It was from an Overmars transition that Arsenal claimed their second goal of the match, a move which started with the Dutchman evading the pressure of Scholes and Neville to carry the ball into the United defensive third. Overmars was perhaps a shade unlucky not to receive a pass back from Anelka, with the Frenchman opting to turn inside and play a pass to Christopher Wreh instead. Schmeichel raced off his line and blocked the initial shot, but as the ball cannoned back to Wreh applied a controlled finish underneath Schmeichel and into an empty United net.

Gunners Dominance

As Arsenal opened up a 2-0 lead Wenger changed shape to a 4-1-4-1, with Christopher Wreh moving to the right of midfield and Ray Parlour coming inside to partner Petit in central midfield. Vieira would drop deeper to screen the back line and offer more protection, while Anelka led the line on his own.

After a wonderful performance to open the season, on 67 minutes Marc Overmars would leave the field to rapturous applause as he was replaced by youth prospect Stephen Hughes. On 70 minutes Ferguson also rang the changes by replacing Ryan Giggs with Jordi Cruyff, Paul Scholes with Phil Neville, and Andy Cole with Teddy Sherringham, all in like for like positions.

Moments after United’s triple substitution Arsenal’s control of the game produced yet another goal, with a move that probed United’s midfield on two occasions before finding Vieira at the base of the center circle. A deft touch from the Frenchman found Parlour inside the United half, who kept the move flowing forward with an inch perfect pass with the outside of his boot that found Anelka in on goal. Despite getting tight, Jaap Stam was unable to block Anelka’s wicked left foot finish, a strike which flashed by Schmeichel who had attempted to close the angle by coming off his line. This goal put Arsenal 3-0 ahead and effectively ended the game as a contest.

Prior to the restart Wenger would remove Emmanuel Petit from the action, with Luis Boa Morte moving to the left wing and Stephen Hughes moving centrally. Steve Bould and Giles Grimandi were introduced soon after to complete Arsenal’s changes for the day, coming on to replace Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira respectively.

Throughout the closing stages of the match Arsenal’s impressive fitness levels gave United further cause for concern, with numerous lung bursting transitions almost extending their lead further.

Ferguson would only make one more change, taking off Roy Keane on 76 minutes with Henning Berg going to center back and Ronny Johnsen pushing forward into central midfield.

While the FA Charity Shield is a competitive occasion, it is ultimately viewed by those in the game as a final preparation ahead of the new season. In my evaluation the takeaways Ferguson and his staff would have poured over were as follows:

How can United better protect the back line in transition?

On too many occasions United simply weren’t set up to prevent counter attacks, giving Arsenal far too much time and space in which to carry the ball into the final third. Their attacking positioning had too much symmetry, which prevented Giggs or Beckham from sliding over to protect the weakside of the field. Keane and Butt had too much space to defend, especially with a back line that dropped off to protect the space in behind due to their lack of pace.

Can United’s strikers penetrate centrally when using this narrow system?

Quite often both United’s forwards were moving in support of the ball instead of in support of each other. While Scholes and Cole have the quality to work together, only on a few occasions in this match did they make complimentary moves that both pull the defense out of position and create penetrative lanes for the other to attack the space. Im unsure that Scholes works as a 2nd striker in a system that has a narrow supporting line underneath, especially given that he likes to drop and receive the ball to feet. In the opening exchanges too many players were showing for the ball versus moving to attack the space inside the box.

Who provides the width when building forward?

When Beckham and Giggs take up a narrow starting position, is there an opportunity for Neville and Irwin to start 10-15 yards higher and penetrate beyond their midfield partners? While the full backs were naturally more conservative in this game due to the threat Anelka and Overmars posed in transition, if Stam and Johnsen initiate more of the United build up play then Neville and Irwin could offer more natural width in attacking phases of play.

Looking Ahead

While there will undoubtedly be a part of Ferguson that was left quietly smoldering after the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal, he and his squad had little time to dwell on the disappointment with the start of their competitive games just round the corner.

In just three days’ time United would face off against Polish Champions ŁKS Łódź at Old Trafford in the first leg of the final qualifying round of the Champions League, closely followed by the visit of Leicester to Manchester in the opening match of the Premier League.

You can follow our in-depth analysis of United’s iconic 98/99 season in our series Football, Bloody Hell, where we breakdown how Ferguson led his side through one of the most memorable campaign’s in the clubs modern history.

About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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