Arsene Wenger claimed yesterday that the state of the Wembley pitch was so bad it could potentially damage the prospects of the England team and asked why the Football Association had spent £757m on a stadium without getting the most basic component right.
In an outspoken attack that echoed Sir Alex Ferguson's on Sunday, Wenger, whose Arsenal team play Liverpool at Anfield tonight, said that the Wembley pitch was the "worst" in the country and demonstrated a lack of "respect" to the supporters who paid to watch the FA Cup semi-finals.
Wenger said: "If you go to a dentist and he says, 'Listen, I have a tool but it's from the 1950s' then you go to a dentist with a modern instrument. Football is the same. If they try to make you play on a pitch of 20 or 30 years ago then anyone would prefer to play on a new, modern pitch. If the pitch is not right nothing else matters."
The dispute over the state of the Wembley pitch has reached the stage where it threatens to overshadow the FA Cup final on 30 May, with the FA having admitted that there is nothing it can do about the state of the surface before then. The FA said yesterday that it plans to relay the pitch – the fifth new surface it has used since the original was first played upon almost two years ago – before the Community Shield game in August.
The new pitch will not come in time for England's World Cup qualifier against Andorra on 10 June and Wenger warned that it could have a negative impact on the team. "Everybody will come to England with their national team and it will handicap the national team," Wenger said. "Of course it's handicapping the national team, because do you think Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney don't want to play on a good pitch? Of course they want to play on a good pitch.
"It's the worst pitch. In the Premier League, it's 21st position," he added. "Did you see a good game at Wembley on Sunday? You saw a game with very little chances. Have you seen the Carling Cup final? You saw a game with very little chances. It [the pitch] slows the game down and everyone has a chance to come back in the right position because you have to control the ball instead of playing it one-touch and the whole game becomes slower."
The FA explained yesterday that it has been unable to use the turf favoured by the majority of Premier League clubs including Arsenal – designed by Desso Sports Systems – because the concerts and events staged at Wembley make it incompatible with the stadium. Desso pitches have a higher artificial content than Wembley's seeded pitch, but the former take three months to bed in. With Wembley staging everything from AC/DC concerts to rally car races, there would be no time for a Desso pitch to settle.
Wenger said it was too late now for the FA to alter the design of Wembley to accommodate a better pitch. "We got it right at the Emirates because we sat down with the architect when we built the stadium and said the first priority was to get the pitch right and the whole design of the stadium was made so the pitch was perfect.
"Before everybody wanted to play at Wembley because the pitch was so special. Now, nobody wants to play at Wembley because the pitch is bad. When you spend £757m, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a good pitch."
The FA has indicated that the five pitches the stadium has been through so far have been a process of trial and error and that the next one – to be laid after an Oasis concert in July – should be the best yet. The cost of the stadium means that the business plan involves extra events to fund the borrowing to rebuild it. However, using Wembley for the "Race of Champions" event in December, which involved laying an asphalt track, was questioned by Ferguson yesterday.
The United manager said: "Someone told me on Saturday that they had had speedway or some form of motorcycling on it. So, if they are changing the pitch all the time, then it is going to be difficult to bed it down and make it a true pitch. It looked to me on Saturday heavy and slow and that was the feeling all my players had in yesterday's game – spongy, dead."
Ferguson will be less pleased by Wenger's announcement that Emmanuel Adebayor will be rested for tonight's Premier League game because he is suffering pain from an old hamstring injury but should be fit to play against United in the Champions League next week. Adebayor, as well as Robin van Persie, will miss the match because of a recurrence of pain in the tendon.
Turf war Roots of Wembley's problem surface
The new Wembley Stadium opened on 24 March 2007 and it was not long before the state of the pitch was criticised by players and managers.
The turgid 2007 FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United was blamed on the pitch, while the then England goalkeeper Paul Robinson expressed misgivings over the surface after a friendly with Brazil the following month. The American football match the stadium hosted that October was notable for the pitch cutting up, leading the Croatia manager, Slaven Bilic, to voice concerns ahead of the European Championship qualifier a month later. "The pitch is not in the condition that Wembley used to be known for," he said. "The top looks soft, but underneath it is hard, so it is very slippery, like ice."
The high stands of the new stadium do not allow much sunlight on to a pitch which has been relaid five times, most recently in January following December's "Race of Champions" – an asphalt track was constructed – and a rugby match between Australia and the Barbarians, in which a number of players picked up injuries.
Last weekend's FA Cup semi-finals followed two England matches and two cup finals in recent weeks, and the stadium's immediate schedule includes nine football matches – including next month's FA Cup final – and eight concert dates, before the pitch is relaid on 9 August for the Community Shield. The Football Association said yesterday: "The grounds team has made continual improvements to the pitch. Whilst recent changes have seen improvements, we accept further improvements [need] to be made."
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