Much has been made of Arsenal’s reliance on their budding youngster’s this season, with their frankly abysmal campaign glossed over a little thanks to the emergence of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe in particular.
While the pair have carried their side at times this season, you only have to look at the Gunners’ league position to work out that they’ve not carried them very far.
And that’s not a criticism of them – far from it – but more of a dig at the club’s elder statesmen who haven’t pulled their weight. In fact, if it weren’t for the aforementioned duo then who knows where Arsenal would be right now.
The Gunners were left sweating over the fitness of Saka prior to their Europa League quarter-final clash with Slavia Prague on Thursday night, though the England international passed a late fitness test to be involved in the action.
The trip to Prague represented arguably one of the biggest games in Arsenal’s recent history, with a Europa League triumph representing their only realistic chance of securing European football next season.
With captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ruled out of the game after contracting malaria, the emphasis really was on the two players with a combined age of just 39 to carry one of England’s biggest clubs through the tricky away assignment.
And wow did they produce.
Both Smith Rowe and Saka were absolutely superb and between them they were the catalyst for everything good about Arsenal going forward.
The young duo combined to almost hand Arsenal the lead early on, with Saka crashing a stunning effort against the woodwork before Smith Rowe was first to react to tap home, only for VAR to curtail their joy as an offside decision was returned.
Not to be deterred, they continued to flood forward with purpose and Saka in particular was a constant livewire, looking menacing and adventurous every time he got on the ball.
Three goals in six first-half minutes blew away their Czech opponents and the tie was as good as over before the half-hour mark. From there it was all about game management for the visitors – something you don’t necessarily associate with youngsters making their way in the professional game – yet, again, Smith Rowe and Saka did it brilliantly.
The latter never looked like neglecting his defensive duties as he continued to track back and work for the good of the team, while Smith Rowe was superb in the centre of the pitch as he kept hold of the ball and allowed his team to move forward and alleviate any pressure the home side was building.
Saka and Smith Rowe have both enjoyed stellar campaigns this season and they’ll undoubtedly be a huge part of Mikel Arteta’s plans going forward, but this display just felt different.
It was almost like a watershed moment, as if to say ‘you thought we were good, but this is how good we actually are’.
There’s not been much to smile about around the Emirates Stadium this season, but Arsenal’s youngsters are offering plenty of reason for optimism, and Champions League football is far from out of the question with the Gunners in the last four of the Europa League.