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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Wenger's last trip to Old Trafford full of nostalgia as Arsenal face up to an uncertain future

Frenchman's final match against Manchester United had plenty of references to the past while on the pitch, Arsenal offered a glimpse of what a post-Wenger future may have in store

Arsene Wenger's last trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United ended in a last-minute 2-1 defeat. Carl Recine / Reuters
Arsene Wenger's last trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United ended in a last-minute 2-1 defeat. Carl Recine / Reuters

Many a true word is said in jest. So it was when Arsene Wenger reflected on the best reception he ever received at Old Trafford. “Once you are not a danger any more, people love you,” he said on Sunday.

It was a particular insight into Alex Ferguson’s thinking; his old enemy always had a preference for managers who did not challenge his pre-eminence.

But it was a curiously nostalgic occasion at Old Trafford, where Wenger was lauded and applauded and which, with the lulls in play, formed a contrast with the ferocity of the feud between Arsenal and Ferguson’s Manchester United.

Both sets of fans chorused Robin van Persie’s name, but with the difference that they were both laying claim to the Dutchman. The Arsenal supporters also sang about Santi Cazorla, whose last appearance came in October 2016.

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There is a case for anointing the Spaniard Arsenal’s last great Wenger player, a selfless stylist who started off as a No 10, then excelled playing off the left and finally became a deep-lying playmaker and who, unlike Alexis Sanchez, did not deliver a vote of no confidence in the regime by decamping for direct rivals.

There are times when it is preferable to concentrate on the present than the past, and a nostalgic fondness for Cazorla felt all the more logical when Wenger submitted a teamsheet containing rookies and reserves.

Plus Konstantinos Mavropanos contains too many syllables to scan in many a song. After the Greek debutant’s impressive display in defence and Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ encouraging afternoon in midfield, Wenger found himself in both familiar and unfamiliar territory, suggesting they form part of Arsenal’s future (“100 percent”) and hoped his successor would watch the tape of the game.

The promise of a better tomorrow, preferably with an organic or cut-price element, has underpinned much of the second half of Wenger’s reign. It is a promise that, ultimately, too many supporters rejected amid too many false dawns and cases of potential that went unrealised at the Emirates Stadium.

Yet when a man has devoted 22 years of his life to something, as Wenger has to Arsenal, he wants to leave a legacy and it is understandable that the Frenchman hopes that in part it will be found on the field, and not just in the deluxe stadium surrounding the pitch. He has always taken a long-term perspective and it is entirely in character that Wenger will exit believing he has left foundations in place.

Yet Arsenal represent a massive rebuilding job. A team already 36 points behind Manchester City may be weakened further. Jack Wilshere could leave on a free transfer this summer. Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, Nacho Monreal, Petr Cech and David Ospina might follow suit in 2019, when their contracts expire.

As it is, Arsenal require a better goalkeeper this summer, along with a proper defensive midfielder and at least one centre-back, plus the organisational prowess to configure a more redoubtable unit at the back.

And, for once, they are mired in doubt. Normally, Mavropanos and Maitland-Niles would be assured of a place in the plans. Not now. Wenger suggested they have the mentality competitors need, whereby they perform better in games than in training, but his replacement may come to other conclusions.

His priority, anyway, could be fixing the first team, rather than looking at 20-year-old development players. United are a case in point: their academy product Michael Keane was cast aside after Ferguson’s retirement, a decision they repented when they considered paying £30 million (Dh151.6m) to re-sign him.

Now change is coming suddenly to Arsenal. Some may benefit, perhaps being promoted into the side or spurred to reach new levels. Some will suffer, perhaps unfairly. And when uncertainty reigns, excellence on an odd occasion may have no meaning.

It was not just the sight of Old Trafford applauding Wenger that has the potential to prove unique as Arsenal’s future is shrouded in mystery.