Jens justifies the means for Wenger's pragmatic winners

Arsenal win 5-4 on penalties

Arsenal 0

Manchester United 0

Arsenal 0
Manchester United 0

He displayed so little of his customary force and conviction on Saturday that at times it was even difficult to hear Sir Alex Ferguson as he discussed the reasons for a result that seemed to defy every logical rule of football. He delivered his verdict with all the relish of a man reporting to the police the burglary of his own home until finally the question of the match's tactical nuances was raised and at last the Manchester United manager was transformed back into his blunt, garrulous self.

This was one particular war that the old godfather of English football had won in Cardiff and in the aftermath of defeat in a penalty shoot-out - the first in an FA Cup final - he was not about to let the Premiership's professor of tactical formation off lightly. Ferguson grinned as he described Arsenal's "boring" midfield of five and expressed his surprise at Wenger's attacking force of one. "Bergkamp's not really got any pace to run through," he reflected, "and he still gave Rio two yards' start. That was very brave and ambitious."

It is a rare occasion when Arsène Wenger's tactical decisions can legitimately qualify to be the butt of another manager's jokes, but then Saturday was one of those days when nothing was as it should be. The Arsenal manager selected a side that could not attack against a team that seemed determined to do little else but could not score. And that it was then decided by a penalty miss from a striker of the ball as accomplished as Paul Scholes made Arsenal's unlikely 10th FA Cup final victory all the more bizarre.

Not since a couple of opportunists broke the window of a shop front in Birmingham and made off with the original trophy 110 years ago has this venerable competition been the victim of so brazen a theft as it was on Saturday. We expected an unforgiving battle that would quiver on the brink of all-out rage, or at least an anti-Malcolm Glazer protest. But what presented itself was an Arsenal team so lacking in confidence that they approached United as an opponent who had to be survived rather than beaten and the only thing more surprising than this tactic was that it worked.

It leaves us wondering who, from the two great forces deposed by Chelsea, is now the sick man of the Premiership's élite. Arsenal must now question whether they are even half the team without Thierry Henry while United look to their attack and ask why Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo could not conjure a goal between them.

Those themes from Saturday stand out above all, but after them there were some compelling sub-plots. It really was Rio Ferdinand who, on the completion of Patrick Vieira's winning penalty kick, was spotted dabbing away at his eyes in the despair of defeat. United's supporters are entitled to feel a little suspicious at that gesture and would surely rather those tears were blotting the pages of a new contract adorned by Ferdinand's signature.

Earlier, in Jose Antonio Reyes, we saw a player who has become a byword for victimhood in games against United finally gain his retribution at the price of a second yellow card with the last kick of extra time. It was a fate that could so easily have befallen Patrick Vieira, who was only booked for his second bad foul on Ronaldo on 113 minutes and prompted another suggestion from Ferguson that the Arsenal captain benefited from a convenient "immunity".

That the uneven outcome should relegate Rooney's contribution to the footnotes does no justice to a player who was only the thickness of a post away from sweeping away all the details of this strange game and making it his very own FA Cup final. On 67 minutes he pulled down Mikaël Silvestre's crossfield ball in the area and cracked a low shot against the post but the contribution of this rumbling truck of a striker with the sublime touch went far beyond that moment.

He was the match's outstanding performer, closely followed by Ronaldo, who subjected Lauren to the kind of humiliation that you so rarely see in a modern game in which the best players match each other stride for stride. Then came Roy Keane with a performance that lacked the eye-widening finesse of his two young team-mates but was strewn with countless interceptions, tackles and economical passing. United's only failings were played out in their opposition's penalty box.

Keane should have won the game with six minutes left when the ball broke to him in the area but the two most serious chances fell to Van Nistelrooy. The first came seconds after the excellent Jens Lehmann had stopped Keane's shot and, from the corner, the ball drifted across the area before the Dutch striker headed it goalwards - only for Freddie Ljungberg to turn it against the bar. Two minutes from the end of the first half of extra time he directed another free header over the bar.

"I needed to be really tough, because I really couldn't see how we could score a goal," Wenger said. "I was thinking 'do we really go for a poker game, or keep our cautious approach to the end?' It was not easy. I felt that no matter what I did, we did not have the resources to put them under pressure."

From a manager who had been credited in recent years with fielding one of the most uninhibited attacking football teams in memory that is an admission that says much about the lack of resources that Arsenal suffer from. Once Ferguson had regained his good humour, the United manager could at least joke that the Glazers will need to talk to him about transfer budgets before next month because, he said, it is then he's going on holiday "and at my age I'm not changing".

Penalty-kicks was an oddly sanitised way to settle a match between two teams that have such a complicated, embittered history and although Lehmann's save from Scholes was dramatic, by then it felt like the real business had already been done. United have out-fought Arsenal this season and on Saturday they outplayed them. As a consolation prize, however, the FA Cup and second place in the Premiership will suit Highbury very nicely.

Penalties: Van Nistelrooy 1-0; Lauren 1-1; Scholes 1-1; Ljungberg 1-2; Ronaldo 2-2; Van Persie 2-3; Rooney 3-3; Cole 3-4; Keane 4-4; Vieira 4-5.

Arsenal (4-5-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Senderos, Touré, Cole; Pires (Edu, 105), Fabregas (Van Persie, 86), Vieira, Gilberto, Reyes; Bergkamp (Ljungberg, 65). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Campbell.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Carroll; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea (Fortune, 76); Rooney, Fletcher (Giggs, 91), Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), G Neville, Smith.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Arsenal Cole, Lauren, Reyes, Vieira; Manchester United Silvestre, Scholes.

Sent off: Arsenal Reyes.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 71,876.

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