Arsenal may have narrowly lost against Manchester United in Arsene Wenger’s final game at Old Trafford but they can take pride from the performances of a very youthful side. The French manager fielded his youngest starting eleven in the league for almost seven years, which prompted fears that his farewell could be a chastening experience for the north Londoners.
Wenger was presented with a gift by former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson before the game which immediately brought back memories of the fierce rivalry once held between the two. Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Wenger has never been close, either, but the two shook hands and embraced before the game as United fans applauded the Frenchman for his 22-year service to the Premier League and Arsenal.
On the pitch, Wenger’s side looked calm under pressure and were unlucky to lose the game in the dying minutes after Marouane Fellaini headed in the winner past David Ospina. The opener from Paul Pogba saw criticism once again levelled at Granit Xhaka for his lack of tracking back.
Xhaka has impressed in recent games and he showed his qualities in the second half when he made an astute recovery before finding Henrikh Mkhitaryan who finished intelligently against his former club, refusing to celebrate in the process.
The Gunners have yet to win a game away from home in 2018 and it’s a statistic which has undoubtedly contributed to Wenger’s decision to leave at the end of the season. He gave several young players the opportunity to shine against United and man of the match Ainsley Maitland-Niles was excellent in the centre of midfield – showcasing his athleticism and defensive qualities in an all-encompassing performance.
Similarly, Greek defender Konstantin Mavropanos was a player expected to be loaned out when he signed in January from PAS Giannina but he impressed Wenger so much in his first week of training that the manager decided to keep him instead of sending him on loan to Werder Bremen.
The highly-rated youngster, spotted by the club’s new head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, looked mature beyond his years and composed in defence alongside another young player in Calum Chambers.
Arsenal defended narrowly in numbers and Mkhitaryan’s goal was another reminder to Mourinho why the Portuguese should have kept hold of him. The Armenian midfielder arrived at Arsenal in a swap deal which saw Alexis Sanchez head to Old Trafford in January and with the end of the season near, it’s clear that the Gunners have got the better deal so far.
"Mourinho required a lot from the players," Mkhitaryan told SFR Sport on Friday. "A lot, he was very hard. Arsene Wenger is friendlier, he understands, can think about players' situations, is calmer. That's the difference."
While the result didn’t go in Arsenal’s favour, their young players will benefit from the experience of playing in a top-flight match at Old Trafford. The Europa League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid is the Gunners’ main priority but they can take faith knowing that the next crop of young guns have what it takes to play at the top. As for Wenger, his young team did him proud in his final Arsenal game against the team he battled for so many years against.