I suppose it’s not a big surprise that Slavia Prague started last night’s game quite brightly. Having not lost at home in such a long time, it generates a kind of confidence and I thought they were quite sharp.
We weren’t bad, a little careless on the ball a couple of times which allowed them to have more possession, but then it was like someone flicked a switch.
ENGAGE AGENTS SAKA AND SMITH ROWE.
We had a goal ruled out for offside, Smith Rowe tucking away the rebound after Saka’s initial shot had clattered back off the post. The VAR wait was interminable, especially with no replays and just a shot of the referee’s very shiny head to pass the time. Turns out one seventeeth of half of three quarters of one of ESR’s toes was offside. Thank you technology for sucking the life out of the game to give us correct decision.
It was Smith Rowe who had fed Saka for that first chance, and our response to that disappointment was just stellar. How do you deal with that kind of frustration? Well, if you’ve just had a goal disallowed, why not keep the ball in their area while surrounded by the opposition, nutmeg a bloke, then nutmeg another bloke with a pass to Nicolas Pepe who showed fantastic composure to tuck the ball away at the near post. 1-0. VAR that, you twats.
A couple of minutes later good combination play on the right sent Smith Rowe racing into space, he pulled it back, Saka was fouled, and the referee pointed to the spot. Alexandre Lacazette stepped up, slotted it into the right-hand bottom corner and it was 2-0. His penalty taking this season has been excellent.
As for the third goal, Smith Rowe’s part might have been small, but it was vital. Look how alert he was as the ball was headed forward into midfield. He was on his toes, sharp, and got there before the opponent. Partey almost sold Calum Chambers short with the pass, but the right back kept it and played a smart pass with his left foot to Saka. From there, the 19 year old made it look so, so easy – the mark of a truly great player in my opinion. He took it on, cut inside, and such was the precision of his shot, the goalkeeper didn’t even move. 3-0.
Wow. Wham, bam, and thank you ma’am. Some of the football we played in that first half was just scintillating. And remember, we did it with Granit Xhaka at left-back, we did it without the injured Martin Odegaard, and we did it without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who announced pre-game he’d contracted malaria during the Interlull, which is why he’s looked so below par of late (get well soon to him).
The second half was less explosive, but I did see a team make a quadruple substitution in a competitive game for the first time in my life. I know there have been other examples, but this was just the first time I’ve seen it (at last, a lifelong dream fulfilled – now we just need Arsenal to score the 8th goal).
Elneny came on for Smith Rowe, and late on Pepe provided a pass for Lacazette which led to the fourth goal. The striker showed lovely quick feet in the area, and slammed home with his left foot. At 4-0 we saw Martinelli, Cedric and Eddie introduced, and there was a late appearance for Folarin Balogun. Slavia were well beaten though, beaten the way they should have been in the first leg given the chances we had, and our reward for that is a semi-final with Villarreal, managed by a certain Unai Emery.
I have to say, I wasn’t quite expecting it to be that comfortable, but let me tell you something, I really liked it. If we could do that a bit more, I think all our lives would be better. Something to take into account there, lads. Obviously there’s focus on Smith Rowe and Saka, with Mikel Arteta saying afterwards:
“For me, it’s a joy to watch them play and to watch them every day in training. How they behave, the passion and the commitment they have for the club and how much they love to play football.
“You have to let them express themselves and you have to give them certain room to work, and some ideas of how they can exploit their qualities. Then it’s up to them. I thought both of them were really good today.”
But they were ably assisted by those around them. I know two games against relatively low calibre opposition isn’t the most reliable benchmark, but Thomas Partey really seems to relish being the deepest man in the midfield. His defensive work last night was so good, and helped keep pressure off the back four. Again, the Holding/Mari partnership looks to have something to it, and this is an interesting one for the manager when he thinks about how to maintain defensive solidity – especially in the big games.
It was great to see Pepe make another solid contribution with a goal and an assist. Lacazette did a lot of the heavy lifting for the finish, to be fair, but Pepe’s run and movement into space played a big part in creating the chance. As for the striker, another two goals, and if he can keep scoring between now and the end of the season, the benefits are obvious. We may need him to, depending on how long it takes Aubameyang to get back to 100%.
Credit too for the manager who has rightly been criticised this season for poor results, but in a big game, he found a way to make it work without players who have been key to our best performances this season. The football was good, the finishing clinical, and that period in the game which won it for us was so exciting because you can see what the future should be for this team. The young players have lifted the level, and what they might do for us in years to come provides tantalising thoughts.
So, a European semi-final awaits for third time in four years. We’ve come so close in this competition in the past, what you wouldn’t give to make it third time lucky. The meeting with Villarreal obviously has some spice because of who is in charge there, so expect plenty of think-pieces on that and Unai Emery in the coming weeks. It’s hard not to start getting a bit fluttery about it all, but for now we go one game at a time – although I do think the Premier League team selections will start to show some Europa League influence in terms of rotation.
All in all, a very good night, and a performance and a result like that just throws down a little marker. This team hasn’t always been quite so ruthless, so it was good to have that on display as well as making progress.
Right, let’s leave it there. James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning. If you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
Podcast will be out mid-morning, until then, take it easy.