Coding Up History: The Man Utd 1999 Project
It’s been great to see the results of the 1999 Project come to fruition these last few days.
For those who missed it, StatsBomb teamed up with The Independent to run a series of articles looking at three key games in Manchester United’s 1999 treble season through the lens of modern statistics. Twenty years on, the classic Giggs semi-final against Arsenal, the FA Cup final against Newcastle and the crowning glory, the Champions League against Bayern Munich were all coded up with the current 2019 StatsBomb dataspec and Mark Critchley did a great job reframing the narrative in which stats sit alongside the memories.
The original articles can all be viewed here:
Man Utd 2-1 Arsenal
Man Utd 2-0 Newcastle
Man Utd 2-1 Bayern Munich
Mark has covered a lot of detail across the games so do give them a read if you missed them, but I thought i’d add in a few broader notes on top. It’s scarce that we get to see historical football via any other method that our memory and the narratives that persist. Few people can think that luck didn’t play some part in Man Utd turning around a deficit against Bayern in injury time, but one comment we received was that as remembered, Bayern were better overall and United were lucky to even be in the game to stage a comeback. That was my own general recollection too. However, when you pick it apart, sure Carsten Jancker hit the bar with a speculative overhead kick, but Bayern essentially weren’t better. The shot count was fairly equal overall, but Bayern scarcely got decent chances close in and the pass volumes were 60:40 in United’s favour. United did create chances in good locations, and can perhaps be classed as unfortunate not to have drawn level before. It’s likely that our collective memory is influenced by the game state: Bayern leading for 83 minutes in a fairly even game to some extent gives the impression of control.
There is also the historical context of how football has changed. The obvious hook here is the formations the teams essentially lined up in. Man Utd started in a 4-4-2 in all three games we coded as did Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and Newcastle in the FA Cup final. Bayern played with Jancker in a more solitary role up front and Lothar Matthäus in a sweeper role, so more of a 5-4-1/5-2-3. Is it any wonder central midfielders from this era are revered? How much space was there in the centre of the pitch?
Here are the pressure events from the three games:
It’s probably easy to think back and presume the FA Cup final was the least intense of these three games since Man Utd won fairly comfortably, but this is the one game in which pressure events veered away from the midfield, at least for United. For Newcastle, Gary Speed put in a heck of a shift as did Dietmar Hamann before he was replaced at half time. Elsewhere, Arsenal saw Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira most active and Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Roy Keane were most active for United. Interestingly, Tony Adams and Jaap Stam score highly in this match (and Ronny Johnsen does also in the Champions League final). Their no nonsense active defending often saw them move up the pitch to engage with attackers, and this is borne out to a degree here. Adams also recorded three fouls up near the half way line. This style of defending on the front foot, stepping out of the back line to engage the opponent, is something that appears less common twenty years on, and nowadays when we evaluate pressure events, centre backs often rank low. Lastly, in the Champions League final, midfielders came to the fore again with Jens Jeremies and Stefan Effenberg patrolling midfield for Bayern, while Jancker did plenty of work up front, United, with significant possession, were less active off the ball. Their strikers were particularly inactive: see the totals of Dwight Yorke (6) and Andy Cole (5). This is a contrast to just days before and the FA Cup final which saw Teddy Sheringham (35) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (34) racking up the effort. Game state, tactics and respect for the quality of the opposition could all play a part here but such a difference in style and personnel is notable.
It’s quite fun to see peak era David Beckham filling in in central midfield in the Champions League final. As his career moved on he played there more frequently, but earlier on, the very reasonable idea that he wasn’t defensively robust enough meant he wasn’t deemed an ideal fit there. Add in how effective he was as a peerless crosser of the ball and he was most often deployed as a traditional right sided midfielder (he was never really a winger per se). Here’s his pass map from that Champions League final, as the right side of a CM two:
So many long passes! 38/40 ground and low passes, and 6/22 high passes but a real lack of the shorter passes you might expect from a central midfielder. Contrast that with Nicky Butt, a player who very much eschewed the extravagant throughout his career:
Kept it simple! I’m enamoured with the idea that in the most important game of his career, Beckham got the chance to fill in as a central midfielder and proceeded to attempt his full range of passing. Was this the basis of him thinking later that this was his ideal position? Was this the birth of “Quarterback Beckham”? I don’t recall, but much like Wayne Rooney’s latter day England career, in which he appeared to feel he was more of a central creative hub than the forward he had been before, Beckham’s late England career featured many questions about whether he could play in central midfield and was more than just a world class right midfielder with an insane work ethic and top tier delivery. Regardless, in this game it translated as 71% passing from central midfield, quite a lot of turned over ball and essentially a very direct strategy.
This directness also pans out to the bigger picture. In this match as a whole there were 659 open play passes attempted of which around 69% were completed. This was a game between two of the strongest teams in Europe yet neither team impressed with their completion percentage (Man Utd 72%, Bayern 68%). Check out how that shapes up against every single game in the Champions League of 2019:
Passes were completed at a higher rate in every single Champions League game this season and only Porto v Galatasaray featured fewer actual passes. Back in 1999, against Arsenal and Newcastle, the pass volumes were much higher, but the pass completion rates were still low (Arsenal 73% v Man Utd 72%, Newcastle 72% v Man Utd 64%). It’s worth considering that the Spanish teams of the late ’00s, the influence of Pep Guardiola and stylistic hooks to value possession, slow down attacks and be less direct, are all in the distant future here. By coding up a handful of historical games, we don’t necessarily create irrefutable proof but we do get a window into the past and more evidence to consider fun questions like: Would teams of yore match or exceed modern teams? It’s most likely a different game…
Look out for more historical projects in the future.