David Beckham’s role in the 1998-99 “Treble” season – The Conventional Playmaker

England’s defeat to Argentina on penalties, and subsequent exit from the 1998 World Cup was doused in controversy, and David Beckham was scapegoated following his red card for kicking Diego Simeone.

But in the season that followed, Beckham proved an essential cog in the Manchester United machine that went on to achieve a historic Treble-winning campaign. Beckham’s work-rate, assists, and goals, led to the midfielder being awarded UEFA Club Footballer Of The Year, whilst just missing out on the Ballon D’or to Barcelona’s Rivaldo.

Beckham was one of the worlds best, and here’s a breakdown of his role and qualities in this iconic United side.

United saw themselves in a close title race with Arsenal, with United earning the crown of Premier League champions on the final day, beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1. United won 24 games, but did draw 11. United ultimately beat Newcastle United 4-0 to win their 10th FA Cup, and battled through the group stage and knockout rounds of the Champions League, before beating Bayern Munich via two stoppage time goals, as we know all too well, in the final.

Interestingly, manager Sir Alex Ferguson did not really deploy a thoroughly consistent XI throughout the 1998/99 campaign. Typically United rotated depending on injuries to players, and the traits of the opposing teams. Tactically, United tended to deploy a 4-4-2, but in some big Champions League and domestic encounters, United would opt for an extra midfielder, making things more of a 4-5-1, as a way of further protecting the back line.

United’s squad, including players to play five appearances or more. There was cover in every position, and an appreciation for squad players.

Beckham typically played on the right side of midfield, and formed a relationship with right-back Gary Neville which shaped many of United’s attacks. Beckham provided width, but also tucked inside, whilst Neville (or brother Phil, or Wes Brown if Neville was deputising at centre-back) made overlapping runs ahead.

Beckham frequently crossed the ball into the penalty-area. Deliveries from open play and from set-pieces were a recurring creator and converter of chances. Beckham’s deliveries from corners set up vital goals, including that scored by captain Roy Keane to reduce the deficit against Juventus in the Champions League semi-final second-leg. Beckham is also, as of writing, the player to have scored the most free-kicks in Premier League history with 18.

Beckham’s first goal of the season was a free-kick to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw with Leicester City on opening day, and Beckham’s 9 goals and 17 assists in 55 appearances during the season was just shy of a goal involvement every two games.

Beckham and the left-wingers in this United side had differing roles. Deployed on the right side, Beckham often tucked inside and combined with defence and midfield, helping overload the centre, looking to play balls from deep, or set up runs made by a right-back, who could provide the width when overlapping. This would sometimes mean United had an extra option in attack.

The left winger was instead more of a frequent out-ball over the top of the defence, and were more direct going forward, tending to isolate the opposing right-back; both Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomqvist were also quicker than Beckham. Blomqvist interestingly played more often than some may think. Giggs played 41 games, but Blomqvist did also play 38 games, 29 of which he started.

When United attacked, Beckham was often positioned narrower than the left-winger on the opposing flank. As Beckham had the ball infield, he would try to pick out runs made by the left-winger holding the width on the far side. Though sometimes the passes were overhit, these switches of play from one wing to the other were a consistent resource used by United to get at space in and around and behind opposing defences.

From infield positions or out wide, Beckham could also send in-swinging crosses into the penalty-area. Sometimes Beckham would have more time and space to prepare than he arguably would have in today’s game. Beckham was by extension United’s best source of chance creation. He was a better crosser than both Giggs and Blomqvist. He was often consistent with his deliveries into the box, but they could sometimes be overhit, or simply be the wrong choice of final ball.

Both sets of full-backs and wingers would also combine with each other. United tended to look to attack via the flanks, with wide players providing ammunition from deeper positions, into runs being made in behind defences, or providing crosses into the box.

United’s shape in the 5-0 win against Brondby.

There were a range of angles and positions from which Beckham could be effective either when drifting infield or holding the width. Beckham would play passes and crosses into good spaces, not always directly at the heads of players, so that the ball could be ran on to. This arguably gave the receiver a bit more time to decide what to do before the ball came.

But it goes without saying that Beckham would also roam down the flank, and not just stay deeper. United’s first knockout games in Europe saw them face Inter Milan, where Beckham once again met Simeone. Two similar, almost identical assists for Yorke were made when running into space on the flank, and delivering well-weighted crosses to be met by Yorke heading the ball goal bound. This was during the first-leg, where Beckham’s energy and work-rate down the right flank was a threat to Inter’s defence. Aron Winter, a 32 year-old midfielder but playing at left wing-back struggled to deal with Beckham.

Ultimately, Winter was replaced by Mikael Silvestre for the second-leg, which ended 1-1. United did go through, but Silvestre was one of a few tactical changes made by Inter, and was both quicker and more reactive when dealing with Beckham.

And Beckham could also be on the receiving end of switches of play. In United’s 5-0 win against Brondby, Blomqvist started an attack on the left, carrying the ball from deep, before switching the ball to Beckham on the right. The ball was behind him, but Beckham had time to adjust and release a cross into the box to set up Yorke.

The final day victory against Spurs came after Les Ferdinand gave the away side a one goal lead. Beckham equalised for United after an attack which saw the ball move from one to the other wing, and this time Beckham being the out ball.

Giggs drove infield and switched the ball to Paul Scholes…

who then picked out Beckham in space just inside the box.

Beckham then struck the ball towards the far post and scored.

Wingers would also track back, as United defended in two banks of four. Beckham would often double up with the right-back against the opposing left-winger. This was notable when watching United play away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, as both Beckham and Neville dealt with Rivaldo, who would both attack via the flank, and cut inside from the left and dribble centrally.

Impact against the likes of Barcelona, Inter, and Spurs showed that Beckham could be influential in so-called bigger games. Beckham even started the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in the centre of midfield alongside Nicky Butt, after both Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended following bookings in the semi-final against Juventus.

Beckham rightfully earned the plaudits come the end of the season, following a tumultuous summer. United were the best team in the land, and Beckham was one of the lands best players.


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