Mikel Arteta has been accused of prioritising caution at times, but last night he sent out an attacking line-up and it paid off.
In 24 minutes we completely overran Slavia Prague, scored three good goals and were a Rizla paper away from having a fourth. We looked like a team that knew what it was about in all departments.
After that early goal burst the tie was over. So over, in fact, that the Prague coach subbed off four of his first-teamers at half time, clearly deciding it was better to save them for domestic competition than waste their energy in a lost cause.
The team performance was good throughout and wiped away the frustration of the first leg, during which we had spurned several good chances to make the tie safe and allowed Prague to score a late equaliser.
Now the semi final awaits, in the shape of Villareal and the spectre of Uni Emery.
Emery’s tenure in N5 is not fondly remembered by most Gooners, but his side pose a serious obstacle between us and a Europa League final. As a manager he has won the competition three times and took Arsenal to a final (about which the less said the better).
We can worry about Emery and his team in two weeks time (the press will have a field day with that storyline), but for now we can bask in a very accomplished away win and the fact that we have scored seven goals in our last two games.
We knew we had to score in Prague and El Patron selected a team that would give us the best chance of doing so. Odegaard was not available through injury and the captain, Aubameyang, was unwell (it was revealed he is suffering from malaria: blood sucking parasites are a problem in football, but usually they’re called agents).
Nevertheless, we still had plenty of attacking firepower to choose from and a front four of Lacazette with Saka, Smith Rowe and Pepe behind looked promising. Partey and Ceballos had the midfield duty while Xhaka was used at left back again, Chambers at RB and a Holding-Mari partnership in the middle. Leno was in goal and hoping for his first clean sheet since before he started shaving.
The Xhaka at LB thing is interesting. He is properly left footed (which is good) and is a very neat footballer who’s comfortable on the ball (also good), but he’s not fast (less good) and is therefore not the sort of fullback who’s going to be bombing up and down the line. However, as a way of managing the absence of Kieran Tierney it clearly has merit.
As I’ve mentioned, we started very much on the front foot and had the ball in the net after 14 minutes. A lovely move ended with Saka firing a goal-bound shot across the Prague ‘keeper who did well to tip it onto the post. It rebounded kindly for Smith Rowe to stroke home only for VAR to rule it out for the most fractional of offsides.
Our disappointment did not last long. Four minutes later some beautiful footwork from Smith Rowe at the apex of the Prague area ended with him nutmegging a defender to slide the ball to Pepe. The Ivorian stayed strong despite the attentions of another defender, dummied the ‘keeper then lifted the ball into the net from a tight angle. One-nil and the vital away goal in the bag.
Three minutes later the excellent Saka was brought down in the penalty area and Lacazette (captain for the night) sent the goalie the wrong way with a well taken spot kick. And after another three minutes we were three up when Saka drove into the area from the right, shaped to shoot to the far post (the ‘keeper’s right) but instead slotted home cleverly at the near post, leaving the goalie rooted to the spot.
After that it was all about game management – and we did, indeed, manage the game well. With such a comfortable lead we inevitably eased up a little and Prague were finally able to make some attacking headway of their own, but they seldom caused us any real trouble. All our back four did well and the Holding-Mari partnership was very good (again).
Given the amount of scars we Arsenal fans have from self-inflicted wounds I suspect no-one really relaxed until Lacazette killed off any minuscule Prague hopes with a fourth in the 77th minute, displaying some gorgeous footwork to bamboozle the defender and fire home.
In the later minutes there were runs-out for Elneny, Martinelli, Nketiah, Cedric and Balogun as we coasted to a well earned win.
A friend texted to say it reminded him of the time when the great Arsenal teams of the early Wenger years would kill a game stone dead inside half an hour with three or four goals then spend the rest of the match taking it easy while not letting the opposition have a sniff of goal.
Leno – 6
Very little to do.
Chambers – 7
He looked very strong in defence and continued to contribute well going forward. It’s nice to see the rehabilitation of a talented young English player continue apace.
Holding – 7
Rock solid. He seems to play particularly well with Mari.
Mari – 7
The more I see of Mari the more I like. He has an air of composed confidence about him and he is also a big unit who seems to relish the physical battles.
Xhaka – 7
Having a good left-footed passer like Xhaka at LB improves our ability to play out from the back compared with using a right footer like Cedric. Granit did his job well.
Partey – 7
I still feel we’re a long way from seeing the best of Thomas, but he had a good game last night particularly in the first half and was a big contributing factor to our early dominance.
Ceballos – 7
I have been harsh on Dani after some of his recent poor performances, but he has now had two good games back to back and I’m delighted for him and us. He worked hard and played some very nice passes in the attacking third.
Saka – 8
What a little bundle of talent. Every time he picked up the ball on the right the Prague defenders looked terrified. Was unlucky not to have an assist with the disallowed goal and scored a beauty.
Smith Rowe – 8
I know I sound like a stuck record, but I just love watching this kid. The first time passes, that way of always playing on the half turn, the sublime first touch, the incredible footwork, the footballing intelligence. I honestly think he could be a £100m player in a couple of years if he can stay free of injuries.
Pepe – 8
Took his goal with aplomb and was part of some excellent moves. In an attacking line-up like the one we sent out last night he can really shine. Forget the price tag, if he continues performing like this he is very much a first team player.
Lacazette – 8 (MoTM)
I suspect most people would give MoTM to Saka but I think Laca played a real captain’s innings last night. Aside from his two goals he worked really hard, dropping deep at times to help start attacks with quick passing and feet. We know the younger players look up to him and last night it showed how much they enjoy playing with him. He should wear the armband for the foreseeable future, assuming Auba will be out for a while.
Elneny – 6
Cedric – 6
Nketiah – 6
Didn’t get much opportunity to shine but it was nice to see him get minutes.
Martinelli – 7
Unlucky not to score after a great run into the box (his shot bobbled just wide of the post).
Balogun – 6
Didn’t have time to get much of a look-in, but it was good to see him on the pitch. The mood music around keeping him at N5 is sounding more positive.