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A Rival Honoured At The Theatre Of Dreams

As Arsene Wenger emerged from the tunnel to walk the touchline to his technical area at Old a Trafford on Sunday, he received a warm reception from the United fans in the stands. The Manchester club then extended a classy olive branch to their long-time rival, as club legend and the Premier League’s most decorated manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was on hand to present the Frenchman with an honorary vase to commemorate the years of battles that pushed English football to the forefront of the world stage. In a bit of a light hearted moment, Jose Mourinho was beckoned onto the pitch by Ferguson and he too offered Wenger a warm handshake and a private word. It was a moment that clearly touched the boss, and it stood as a reminder that the hate and animosity many supporters feel in the stands is secondary to the respect two giants of the game can have for each other after so many years of incredible on-pitch battles.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger in some ways have each other to thank for their brilliant careers at their respective clubs. After all, would we as fans remember some of those 90s and 00s sides from both clubs as truly some of the best England has ever had if it weren’t for these two historic clubs inspiring each other to new heights? Wenger and Ferguson share a unique bond as long-serving managers at two of the world’s biggest clubs, and their rivalry has morphed into a genuine friendship over the years. The guards of honour and emotional moments are likely to continue for  Wenger for the rest of the season, but Arsenal supporters everywhere truly appreciated the gesture from the only other club that could touch Wenger’s Gunners in their heyday.

Swap Meet

Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho were not the only people at the Theatre of Dreams to offer Wenger their warm wishes, as former Arsenal man (and current Public Enemy Number 1 in the N5) Alexis Sanchez shared a moment with his former manager before kickoff. For Sanchez, as well as Arsenal newcomer Henrikh Mhkitaryan, it was the first time playing against the club he called home from 2014 to January of this year. The diminutive Chilean has had an up and down time since making the journey north, displaying both the bulldog’s determination to perform and the infuriating inconsistency that Gooners had come to know so well over the last 4 years. Mhkitaryan, despite a knee injury that kept him out for much of April, has had a bit of a smoother transition to his new club, contributing with 3 goals and 5 assists in his 11 appearances for the Gunners.

As is often the case in the motivating reunions of this type, both players factored into each of the team’s first goals on the afternoon. Alexis was unable to finish his best chance of the match after Romelu Lukaku dinked an inch perfect ball to the back post that the Chilean thundered into the post from point blank range, only for it to rebound to a waiting Paul Pogba who made quick work of burying his chance for the opening strike of the match. However, it was Mhkitaryan for Arsenal who took the initiative and seemingly rescued the point for his new club with an almost Henry-esque strike along the floor into the corner that even the hottest goalkeeper in the world, David DeGea, couldn’t stop. That was it for their pair’s impact on the match, as Alexis failed to get into the dangerous areas to have another quality chance and Mhkitaryan was withdrawn in the second half for precautionary reasons after taking a knock to his knee. The Armenian was not suffering too badly, as he showed few ill effects after the match when chatting with his former teammates, but Wenger will still be anxious to have him fit for Thursday’s all-important clash with Atletico Madrid.

Returning the Favour a Year On

With a season-defining second leg match-up in the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid next on the docket for the Gunners, it was unsurprising to see a weakened, youthful starting XI on Sunday. Much as it was for United last season when the two teams met in almost the exact same circumstances, only with the Manchester club presently embroiled in a Europa League fixture, Arsene Wenger went with a mix of youth and experience to combat the host’s full-strength side. As was the case last season when Mourinho’s distracted side lost to the Gunners, Arsenal were unable to overcome the quality of United, losing on a last gasp stoppage time header from Marouane Fellaini that looked an awful lot like the sort of match winner Arsenal used to have in Olivier Giroud. 

If there is one good omen supporters can take from this match, it is that Manchester United went on to win their semifinal last year and then took the trophy in the final. The Gunners are desperate to repeat their rival’s feat from last season, as Champions League competition is where this team belongs. Qualification into the biggest club competition in the world will also virtually guarantee the next Arsenal manager and new executive duo Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi have a larger war chest in this summer’s transfer market. This would be vital for the club to help marry their current squad and philosophy to the ideas of Wenger’s successor. 

The Kids Are Alright

Given the rotated mix of players Wenger took to Old Trafford, there was almost a post-Emirates youth movement feel to the Arsenal team on Sunday. Despite the loss, there was something deeply satisfying about watching an undermanned and overmatched Arsenal compete hard against a team with objectively more established talent on the pitch. The young players Wenger entrusted with a role in the match did not disappoint their manager, as they not only played United to a stalemate all the way through the 90 minute mark, but did so while still playing attractive Arsenal football. Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Konstantinos Mavropanos, Alex Iwobi and in the second half, Joe Willock, were all given valuable experience at one of the grandest venues in the sport.

While all of the young players had moments of inspiration, Maitland-Niles and Mavropanos were the most impressive. Maitland-Niles started as an 8 in a midfield 3 and was hugely impressive in the role. He showed all of the tantalising pace, vision and close control that got fans so excited in the summer, and he appears to be carrying a healthy confidence into the end of the season. It is not often that a Arsene Wenger refers to players as simply the “future”, but that is exactly how he has referred to the young Englishman. His versatility and technical ability mean he is likely to be a factor going forward regardless who the next manager is. Mavropanos meanwhile was given his first ever first team start on Sunday, and he was hugely impressive next to Calum Chambers in the centre of the Arsenal defence. While is is clear he has much work to do on his fitness and to get used to the pace and intensity of the football in the Premier League, but the hulking Greek looked the part, and his strength and ability on the ball already have some fans brimmed with excitement over his future in North London.

An Ugly Streak

Despite the heartbreaking last second loss, the relative unimportance of the match meant the usual furor surrounding an Arsenal defeat these days was mostly absent in the aftermath. Sure, the internet “celebrities” who butter their bread by piggybacking on the team’s misfortune took their frothy mouthed shots, but for the most part, fans were appreciative of the organisation and effort their team displayed. However, there is one ugly stat that cannot be parsed, as the loss continued the Gunners streak of away defeats in 2018, with the team yet to steal a point on the road. From the Bournemouth match in January to Sunday, Arsenal have experienced little but heartbreak away from the warm embrace of their Emirates home, and some fans have pinpointed the reason. “It’s those f**king blue kits!” many say, as the peculiar two tone blue away strip Arsenal have worn this season has brought little joy to fans. While it is highly doubtful that a shirt would have anything to do with performance, it is hard to ignore the Gunners’ terrible away form this season. Whatever it is, they must conquer their issues quickly, because they must now go into Madrid and win if they are to advance in the Europa League. For Arsenal supporters, the question now becomes whether the trend continues on Thursday, or if the stage is now set for Arsenal to break through their season long struggle to deliver a magical moment for Arsene Wenger.