The win in Prague on Thursday night was a perfect performance from Mikel Arteta’s team.
Free-flowing attacking football, backed up by a solidity in defence that saw Bernd Leno hardly touch the ball.
He’s had a period where we’ve looked too defensive and unable to penetrate our opponents, he’s had a period where we’ve been attacking at will and then costing ourselves with silly errors, he’s also had that nightmare period where we were incoherent in both parts of the pitch. In the last two games it’s almost as if the best two parts of his reign as Arsenal manager have blended nicely.
Yet the muscle memory of Gooners considering our recent history is to not get too carried away. Some will point to the opposition for our last 180 minutes of football, yet that can easily be dismissed by saying both Sheffield United and Slavia Prague don’t get swept aside like that at home very often.
Team news had a number of people backtracking on their criticism of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as it was revealed just before kick-off that he’d been diagnosed with malaria. In a perverse way it’s good that this news was forthcoming as it will also lead to the rumours of dressing room unrest, particularly the Gary Neville claims on Sky Sports, holding less significance.
While the recent performances without him have been more than adequate, having him back and pulling in the right direction can’t happen soon enough.
On the basis that the Europa League is the top priority then the team selection told us a lot more about who will be figuring in Arteta’s plans for the future.
The defence is surely still a work in progress and at least one of the players on the sidelines, Kieran Tierney, would certainly be in the team if fit. Granit Xhaka an able deputy once again. Yet it did speak volumes about Hector Bellerin who could only make the bench. The analytics staff surely getting the message that the Spaniard is not up to the right level.
I don’t want to tempt fate but the midfield and attack seems to be settled in respect of positions, if not personnel. Being able to rotate and keep everyone happy is a big part of management. Thomas Partey was happy to be left to control his part of the pitch, Bukayo Saka is an absolutely vital cog in the future Arsenal machine.
Real credit must also go to Alex Lacazette who has battled through criticism (including from me) to get his head down and work extremely hard for the cause.
It doesn’t always come off and in some aspects of his game he’s left wanting, but the stuff he does right was fully on show in the Czech capital. His goal on 77 minutes was almost the quintessential Laca strike – sorting his feet out so quickly that the defender didn’t know where the ball was, then achieving almost maximum power and placement with minimum backlift.
As can often happen during this period in the club’s history, you can take one amazing game in isolation like this and then compare it to a recent awful one – say the first leg of this tie – and get mired in how badly inconsistent we are.
Achieving consistency in both performance and results is the next thing on Arteta’s list, yet any sacrifice of league results to negotiate the semi-final and final of this tournament is surely acceptable.
That semi-final tie pitches us against our old boss Unai Emery and it’s one the club, players and fans have to approach with respect. Whatever you think of his tenure at the club there’s no upside in general abuse of the man. He did his best and it didn’t work out. He’ll surely be motivated enough anyway.
We kept our season alive in midweek and that’s a positive to focus on.
The league games are relatively easy and will breed confidence and the opportunity to give squad players game time and the opportunity to push themselves into those Europa games.
It’s an exciting time with so much at stake and the nerves are certainly much better than the season petering out with nothing to play for.