It used to be an elite rivalry in which fierce foes Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger would send their stars into a genuine battle, with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira so often the chief protagonists.
Arsenal slipped into a chasm in the mid 2000s and United have now followed suit in the barren post-Ferguson years. Both now cling to the prospect of finishing in the top four, as well as the hope that better is to come in the future, pinning hopes on a raft of young talents fighting to emerge.
On the subject of new wave, we take a look at a few of the emerging stars who could dazzle under the lights at Old Trafford on Monday night.
MASON GREENWOOD (Age: 17)
The youngest of all the players we’ll look at in this piece, but none come close to matching his finishing ability. In fact, Ole Gunnar Solskajer said of a player barely out of short trousers “he’s one of the best finishers I’ve seen” prior to him starting the Europa League opener against Kazakh champions Astana earlier this month.
The 17-year-old protégé scored, of course, the winning goal in an otherwise turgid United display. Another goal followed in the midweek Carabao Cup win over Rochdale, though there was not much glory to be had in an embarrassing Red Devils close shave.
He is being thrust into the limelight as much due to United’s shortage of options up front following Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez’s summer exits as much as his promise – not to mention injuries to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
Solskjaer can rightly be chastised for the injuries and sanctioning of sales. But what he must also be championed for is the belief and confidence shown in a possible next generation world-class talent.
DAN JAMES (21)
It’s a damning indictment of United’s miserable start to the season that a kid who has just one full season of senior football under his belt – at the second-tier level – is the club’s most consistent attacking threat.
United fans, even Solskjaer, might not have been expecting too much from Daniel James in his first season at Old Trafford, but he has only gone from strength to strength since a scuffed debut goal in the 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea on opening day.
Composed, rifled finishes have since followed in defeat to Crystal Palace and a draw with Southampton, while the Red Devils’ latest Welsh wing wonder has also dealt maturely with an early season reputation for diving.
That he is developing so quickly is a good sign for the future, but United’s early reliance on James for both goals and incision in attack is a pointed reminder of the flaws of team-mates, not to mention his manager.
AXEL TUANZEBE (21)
Victor Lindelof was unlucky not to be named United’s player of the season for 2018/19 – that any player received such an award is an embarrassment to many.
But the Swede delivered a riposte to critics of a difficult debut 2017/18 campaign. Last term was set as a springboard for further success, but it is the 25-year-old’s very aerial ability which has come in for criticism. Jeffrey Schlupp – yes, Jeffrey Schlupp – outjumped him to set up Jordan Ayew’s goal in Palace’s ultimate 2-1 win at Old Trafford. He was then towered over by Jannik Vestergaard who nodded in Southampton’s equaliser.
Waiting in the wings is academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe, highly thought of at the club and undoubtedly already United’s No3 centre-back.
Seen as a natural leader, the DR Congo-born defender led the side in the midweek victory over hometown Rochdale, and is United’s maiden first-year scholar to captain the under-18 side since Gary Neville.
ANGEL GOMES (19)
He is the godson of former United winger Nani and Gomes shares a lot of similar traits with the tricky Portuguese superstar, who scored 40 goals in 230 games during seven trophy-laden seasons.
Gomes is a technical, skilful, attack-minded midfielder whose slender frame and low centre of gravity allow him to weave space in between the midfield and defensive lines.
Such is the stagnation setting in at United, that fans are practically salivating in their attempts to coax Solskjaer into throwing the exciting but extremely raw Gomes into the starting XI.
Raw? Yes. But of all the emerging wave, Gomes looks like he might be the most polished. That could not have been said on the pre-season tour a year ago, but he has clearly honed his vast skillset in the ensuing 12 months, scoring impressively against Tottenham in pre-season and providing flashes of danger in brief cameos so far.
BUKAYO SAKA (Age: 18)
18y 17d - Bukayo Saka is the third-youngest player on the day of his first Premier League start for @Arsenal, with only Cesc Fábregas (17y 104d) and Theo Walcott (17y 212d) doing so at a younger age. Bloom. pic.twitter.com/H1Kj5he3d9— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 22, 2019
It’s easy to get carried away with a young player’s potential off the back off an eye-catching performance on debut – Federico Macheda anyone?! But while any player can burn too briefly, it’s hard to ignore how brilliant Bukayo Saka was on his season debut for Arsenal.
Simply scintillating in short, scoring and providing two assists as Arsenal opened their Europa League campaign with a 3-0 win against Eintracht Frankfurt.
It wasn’t just his contribution to the stats sheet – it was how seasoned he looked in doing so. His touch, control and technique in arcing beyond Kevin Trapp in the 85th minute to kill the game off was sensational.
His deft flick to put Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the clear for 3-0 was executed as if he had done it 1,000 times before. It was also his slaloming run that led to a second yellow card for Dominik Kohr.
REISS NELSON (19)
A whole host of young British talents are cutting their teeth abroad but it’s fair to say that, unless your name is Jadon Sancho, you weren’t making too many headlines last season.
The former Manchester City starlet bewitched the Bundesliga at Borussia Dortmund, but was far from the only young Englishman enjoying himself in Germany. Reiss Nelson bagged seven goals for Hoffenheim, only five fewer than Sancho, who played 11 more games.
Fresh from his impressive loan stint, Nelson has been thrown into action by Unai Emery and has looked sharp in the early throes of 2019/20.
He’s appeared in three league games and lit up the midweek 5-0 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, grazing the post early on with a free-kick before making it 4-0 with an incisive finish from Calum Chambers’ cross as the young Gunners fired into the fourth round.
AINSLEY MAITLAND-NILES (22)
Perhaps a victim of his own versatility, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – a midfielder by trade – has largely featured at right-back for Arsenal in what is now his third full season as a senior player.
However, 28 and 30 outings in all competitions during the previous two seasons have been punctuated by his own leg break in Emery’s first game in charge last August, while he then established himself as first-choice right-back when he returned following Hector Bellerin’s own injury woes.
Bellerin’s long path back to fitness has afforded the 22-year-old a chance to nail down his spot in the early throes of 2019/20 and the Goodmayes-born product is growing.
He has a joint team high two Premier League assists alongside Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos and is at the top of the charts for average tackles (2) and interceptions (1.8) per game too.
MATTEO GUENDOUZI (20)
So promising is the frizzy-haired Frenchman, that Emery didn’t see fit to pursue a contract extension for Aaron Ramsey last season, content to let the Welshman leave.
Ramsey was plucked by Italian giants Juventus, which might speak volumes, especially with Arsenal already porous both at the back and in their ability to screen the back four.
But Emery didn’t bat an eyelid and truly believes in the Paris Saint-Germain product. The midfielder, born in Poissy, has a lot to learn in terms of midfield position and needs to be more consistent. Eye-catching performances and an impressive repertoire of passing that the pugnacious pivot quite clearly possesses were peppered by sloppy, ambitious attempts that often put his team in trouble last season.
But his greatest flaw right now is also a huge asset. Nothing fazes Guendouzi. He has extreme confidence in his ability and if he can hone his craft, he has a gargantuan future with the Gunners.
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