Wenger era winds down but Mavropanos and Arsenal rookies provide hope for future
Although Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday, there were not too many riots and recriminations among the travelling support.
That's largely down to the fact that Arsene Wenger's fate is already decided -- the announcement about his departure has quelled much of the unrest that had plagued the club in recent years. However, the supporters will also have been encouraged by the performances of several young players. Perhaps Wenger's parting gift to Arsenal will be blooding another generation of exciting talent.
When the team lineups were first revealed, Arsenal fans must have feared another Old Trafford mauling. The weakened XI, although understandable, was painfully reminiscent of the under-strength sides that suffered 6-1 and 8-2 defeats in 2001 and 2011 respectively.
The centre-half pairing would have been of particular concern. Starting Calum Chambers and debutant Konstantinos Mavropanos would brought back memories of the ill-fated partnership between Gilles Grimandi and Igors Stepanovs that was largely responsible for the 2001 result. However, both young defenders acquitted themselves well, with Mavropanos proving particularly eye-catching on his first Arsenal appearance.
The Greek youngster is an intriguing signing. One of the first things the new head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, did upon arrival was to secure the promising defender's signature. When he initially arrived from PAS Giannina, he was expected to go out on loan. However, after he impressed Wenger in training, the manager decided to keep him around. That was seen as an early victory for Mislinat, and Mavropanos' subsequent development will have strengthened the German's position at Arsenal substantially.
Against United, he looked calm, composed and unusually dominant for Arsenal centre-half. Wenger's best teams had powerful central defenders like Martin Keown, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure. However, in recent years he has favoured more technical players at the back and the consequence has been Arsenal losing far too many duels. Mavropanos looks, on early evidence, like someone prepared to fight as well as play. It's very early days, and Arsenal fans will be way having been stung by young central defenders who've flattered to deceive in the past. Time will tell if Mavropanos is the next Tony Adams or just another Philippe Senderos.
He wasn't alone in impressing against United. Alongside, Chambers assumed responsibility as the defensive organiser. Ahead of the back four, Ainsley Maitland-Niles had an excellent performance, and was even named as man of the match by television pundits. He has picked up game-time in a variety of different positions this season, but it's this box-to-box midfield role that seemingly suits him best. He has remarkable reserves of energy, and combines that with composure on the ball and an eye for a pass.
Then there's Reiss Nelson, who started just his second Premier League match on the left wing. Like Maitland-Niles, he finally got a chance to play in a position that really suits him. From that flank, he can cut inside on to his preferred right foot and look to join up with team-mates in the final third. Nelson is a huge talent, and his decision to stay at Arsenal will be a significant boost to whoever takes over from Wenger.
The new manager will have quite the crop of young talent to work with. Aside from those who started, Joe Willock came off the bench and produced the game's best tackle, while Eddie Nketiah was an unused substitute. There are yet more exciting players out on loan, such as Nigerian playmaker Kelechi Nwakali. There is a core of academy talent to work with, and that could prove invaluable to Arsenal's next coach.
Given the supposed budgetary restraints the club are operating under, they might prove essential to balancing next season's squad.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.