Arsene Wenger has admitted Manchester United deserve their place in the Carling Cup semi-finals – but he does not think much of the tactics used to win it.
After falling behind to lone striker David Bellion’s 19-second strike, Wenger’s youthful Arsenal side lacked the physical presence to force their way through a United rearguard reinforced by a five-man midfield.
The visitors managed just one meaningful shot in the entire 90 minutes, when Tim Howard saved Jermaine Pennant’s free-kick, leaving Alex Ferguson’s side to coast towards a two-legged semi-final tussle with Chelsea next month.
“At the moment in England we are moving towards a trend where teams play five across the middle and one up front,” observed the Frenchman.
“It is very efficient but it is more boring for the spectators. The system is working for Manchester United in the Premiership so they used it with their reserve team as well.
“In the second half they were happy not to come out and to win 1-0, and we lacked the weight or experience to break them down.”
Understandably, Alex Ferguson’s assessment of the game did not match that of his old rival.
The pair exchanged a brief handshake immediately after the final whistle, but it was not long before the United boss was pointing the finger at Arsenal’s Dutch striker Robin van Persie, who appeared to launch an elbow at Kieran Richardson during the opening exchanges of the second half.
Thankfully, the attack missed its target, although it did spark a melee that ended with referee Mark Halsey producing a yellow card for both players.
Having asked Halsey for clarification of his view, Ferguson claimed the official had not seen the elbow. And, with memories of the three-match ban Ruud van Nistelrooy picked up for an off-the-ball challenge on Ashley Cole during the last meeting between the sides still fresh in his mind, the Scot has demanded action.
“Van Persie was lucky to stay on,” said Ferguson. "The FA must look at it because the boy threw an elbow. I asked the referee why both players had been booked, he said ‘for aggressive intent’ and told me he had not seen the elbow.”
Wenger, who is awaiting an FA hearing into his post-match comments about van Nistelrooy, must be fearing the worst though given even he felt van Persie could have been sent off.
“I did fear it was going to be worse than a yellow card, it could have been,” admitted the Frenchman.
“Robin shows great potential but he has to learn to keep his nerves under control and not get over-excited. I considered bringing him off because he was involved in some heated moments.”
With van Persie’s mind not solely occupied on pure footballing matters, United’s vastly more experienced side were never troubled once Bellion had struck one of the fastest goals Old Trafford has ever witnessed.
John O’Shea and Wes Brown remained rock solid in the hosts’ defence, while Liam Miller produced his best performance since heading south from Celtic in the summer to keep the Gunners at arms’ length and had it not been for visitors’ goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, who made a major blunder for Bellion’s goal, the margin of victory would have been wider.
“Scoring so quickly caught Arsenal off guard and we should have finished them off in the first half,” admitted Ferguson.
“But overall we have to be pleased as we have a semi-final to look forward to. I will stick with the same players because they have got us there and they deserve the opportunity to play in the game.”