No away stadium has played a bigger part in shaping Arsène Wenger’s legacy, for better or worse, than Old Trafford, and the outgoing Arsenal boss saw his side defeated 2-1 on his last trip to the Theatre of Dreams in April.
The loss confirmed Manchester United would finish last season inside the Premier League’s top four – once a guarantee of Wenger’s stewardship.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Arsenal. With one eye on the return leg of their upcoming semi-final against Atlético Madrid in Europe’s secondary competition, Wenger rang the changes, resting several established first-teamers and giving opportunities, either as starters or substitutes, to a handful of youngsters.
And these young stand-ins impressed. So much so, even, that 20-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who started in his preferred centre-midfield position as opposed to the wing-back role he has largely featured in so far at senior level, was named man of the match, despite finishing on the losing team.
What’s more, the next strongest contender to be proclaimed the game’s highest performer was an Arsenal player too, and another of the names less familiar to most fans: Konstantinos Mavropanos.
The 20-year-old Greece under-21 international, signed from PAS Giannina in January, was outstanding at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, making one tackle, three interceptions and four clearances as the largely second-string Gunners line-up kept United at bay for much of the game.
It was Mavropanos’ first-team debut, which makes his assured display against one of the biggest club’s in the country, in hostile territory, all the more remarkable.
At 6ft 4ins, the towering centre-back looks well-equipped for life in the Premier League and inherent its physical demands, and he showed a calmness in possession that belied his inexperience, completing 91.9 percent of his 37 passes.
Reiss Nelson, thought to be an England international in the making, started on the left flank for Wenger’s side, getting 65 minutes of Premier League action under his belt to add to the two appearances he’d made earlier in the campaign. In that time, the 18-year-old demonstrated his confidence with one completed dribble, one chance created and two shots.
And off the bench in the second half came hotly tipped 18-year-old midfielder Joe Willock, whose brother Matty is part of United’s academy. Technically gifted, a fine dribbler with sharp vision, the teenager is regarded as one of England’s top prospects in his age group and didn’t look out of place on the Old Trafford pitch during his 15-minute cameo.
Fellow teenagers Eddie Nketiah (18) and Jordi Osei-Tutu (18) were also on the bench for Arsenal, while the likes of Xavier Amaechi (17) and Emile Smith-Rowe (17) are also very highly regarded within the club, showing the Gunners could be on the cusp of producing a fine crop of academy graduates.
It was Maitland-Niles who stole the show at Old Trafford, however. The England under-21 star has now played 15 times in the Premier League for the Gunners over the last three seasons, as well as racking up 30 games’ worth of Championship experience thanks to a loan spell with Ipswich Town in 2015/16, but this was unquestionably his breakout display.
Starting in the centre of Arsenal’s midfield, the 20-year-old showed poise and precision in all of his work, completing 92.1 per cent of his 38 passes, creating one chance and completing two take-ons.
Maitland-Niles also impressed with his energy and discipline, covering ground in his box-to-box role and chipping in defensively with three tackles and three clearances.
Although Arsenal ultimately lost thanks to Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time header, the young Gunners more than held their own on the big stage.
Fielding such an inexperienced line-up up may have been more a case of necessity than desire for Wenger, with the tricky Atlético tie approaching, but the gifted prodigies took their chance and showed that green shoots of hope are springing at the Emirates, with or without the long-time manager.