21 years on: Manchester United vs Arsenal, 1999

Sam Preston April 14, 2020
21 years on: Manchester United vs Arsenal, 1999

14 April 2020 marks 21 years to the day since one of the most famous goals in FA Cup history.

On that date in 1999, Ryan Giggs’ mazy run and strike settled a titanic encounter between Manchester United and Arsenal in the last ever semi-final replay in the famous old competition.

Most people have seen the goal countless times but there are a generation of fans who weren’t old enough to see the full 120 minutes live.

Your writer is among them so, in the absence of live football, let’s take a look back at the clash between the two best clubs in the country at the time to see what the modern football fan might make of a game that spawned such an iconic moment.

Ferguson ahead of the curve – again

That night at Villa Park ended up defined by Giggs – but he wasn’t included in United’s starting line-up.

Sir Alex Ferguson left the Welshman – as well as Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke – out of the starting XI, freshening his team as the rigours of competing for three trophies began to take its toll on United’s squad by mid-April.

Squad rotation is common now – especially in the cup competitions – but was a far less familiar concept in the late 1990s.

Ferguson was ahead of the curve in that respect, taking a calculated gamble with his team selection that paid-off on the night as well as in the long run, with United having the energy to secure a historic treble in the weeks to come.

Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Free-kicks in dangerous areas

There were free-kick specialists on both sides, including David Beckham and Dennis Bergkamp, and in a comparable match in 2020 both sides would be keen to avoid conceding fouls in dangerous areas.

Here, that caution was superseded by a desire to put a foot in and for players to impose themselves physically.

There were some spiky challenges and silly fouls in the opening exchanges. Some may say that passion has left the game, while others will be pleased to see players take a more reserved approach to tackling given the danger free-kicks can present.

The different attitude in 1999 was never more evident than when Roy Keane, booked in the first half for a late, reckless challenge on Bergkamp, was handed a second booking for an even later one on Marc Overmars not long after Arsenal made the score 1-1.

When Keane received his first booking, the commentator reminded viewers the Irishman was sent off in the 1995 FA Cup semi-final.

Such – repeated – naivety would receive stronger criticism in the modern era, with Keane probably among the chief pundits dishing it out.

The strengths and weaknesses of 4-4-2

It is rare to see any elite clash in the modern area contested by two sides playing 4-4-2.

The strengths and weaknesses of the system were plain for all to see in 1999. Both pairs of centre-halves were kept busy throughout the match, with United matching Arsenal’s level of threat ‘in behind’ until they went down to ten men.

But when the match opened up slightly, around the 30-minute mark, both sides found space between their opponents’ defence and midfield; the zone from which Beckham opened the scoring.

Today, the box-to-box midfielder is thriving but back then United and Arsenal were adept at finding the space a 4-4-2 system leaves for opponents.

Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Substance over style

From the early stages it was noticeable neither side was shy in playing a direct game.

In the modern era, defenders or goalkeepers may feel they have to look for a shorter pass before playing a longer ball, but substance came first in 1999.

It worked reasonably well for both sides in terms of not inviting pressure and starting direct attacks, partly because both sides had two strikers to occupy the opposing centre-halves.

The teams were the most accomplished in England at the time but they rarely tried to overplay, while players were seldom asked to do something they weren’t comfortable with. Both sides attempted their short, passing football in the right areas of the pitch.

Fans on the pitch at an FA Cup semi-final

After Giggs netted the goal to settle the tie, he exploded into the now-famous celebration in which he removed his shirt and whirled it above his head in a moment of unbridled joy.

He was swiftly joined on the pitch by a swathe of United fans, who invaded the pitch to celebrate.

In the modern era, there would be massive safety concerns accompanied by similarly massive fines if jubilant fans clambered all over multimillionaire stars. However, the current alternative is a semi-final trip to Wembley with far too many seats going to corporate fans.

There’s a balance to be struck but the connection and emotion between fans and players was there for all to see when Giggs’ shot hit the net – and that’s not always the case in 2020.

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Sam Preston is an NCTJ gold standard news and sports journalist who studied with the Press Association. He also has a 2:1 law with French law degree from the University of Birmingham, which included a year studying at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He is an FA Level 1 football coach who appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show in 2018 and has also written digital football content and match-day programme pieces for Colchester United, Mansfield Town and Stockport County.