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Arsenal FC

This was a victory forged on the fields of Hale End for Arsenal. Certainly there were other outstanding players, perhaps even Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe could argue they outperformed than the youth academy graduates who played alongside them. Yet in the fearless attitude, effervescent interplay and cutting edge the 4-0 win over Slavia Prague reflected everything that Bukayo Saka and latterly Emile Smith Rowe have imbued this team with.

"For me it is a joy to watch them play, to watch them every day in training, how they behave, the passion and commitment that they have for the club and how much they like football," manager Mikel Arteta told CBS Sports in his post-match press conference. "You have to let them express.

"You have to give them a certain framework and some ideas of how they can exploit their qualities. Then it's up to them. I thought that both of them were really, really good."

That was quite the understatement from Arteta. From the outset those two set the tempo, Smith Rowe tapping home the rebound after Saka's rasping shot was parried onto the post by Ondrej Kular. VAR showed that the former was offside by the narrowest of margins yet these two did not fall into the trap of self pity that has snared Arsenal teams on past European nights when luck seems to not be on their side.

Quick feet just inside the penalty area took Smith Rowe away from one, two, three Slavia Prague defenders and in the process crafted just enough space for Pepe, whose finish was no less composed. The interplay between those two was vital in Arsenal's outstanding early start, though Smith Rowe would predominantly find himself involved in the build-up down the right in the blink of an eye he could glide past an opponent, dragging the rest of the team away from the club record signing.

A similar trick brought Arsenal a penalty when Pepe was felled by Jakub Hromada, Lacazette netting the first of two goals of real composure from the penalty spot, before Saka took charge with a dart infield from the right and a low drive into the bottom corner, a move begun when Smith Rowe played the right pass quickly in central midfield.

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Arsenal's pass network in their 4-0 win over Slavia Prague. The size of the lines and circles reflects the frequency with which a player was involved in play TruMedia

At their best Arsenal looked like Arteta's vision for them. Their interplay was elegant, their triangles on the flanks snapped with crisp passing and inventive positioning. Without the ball they pressed with a fervor that fellow star prospect Gabriel Martinelli, who started on the bench with a slight ankle issue, would have been proud of. In the center Thomas Partey held things together on his own – that is what you pay $60 million in one go for – whilst the rest of the frontline were freed to weave their patterns on the flanks.

"To do what we've done tonight, credit to the players for how they've approached the game and how brave they were in our approach," Arteta added. "When we demand efficiency of them today is a good example of why you need it to win matches in Europe or at home.

"The moment Emile scored the goal and it was disallowed the team reacted straight away and they wanted more. We were brave. We were really efficient in our high press – we put them under a lot of pressure – and then when we had to make the decision with the ball in the final third we were really clinical."

Equally credit must go for Arteta for how he has dealt with a mounting injury list at the worst possible moment in the season. Losing Kieran Tierney for the remainder of the campaign threatened to irrevocably damage Arsenal's build-up play from deep, particularly with David Luiz unavailable. Yet in redeploying Granit Xhaka to left-back he found a way to add to that interplay with the Swiss international dropping back to form a back three when the Gunners had possession that freed the impressive Calum Chambers to bomb on.

Meanwhile Alexandre Lacazette looks to be the ideal striker to bring the best out of those around him, constantly drifting away from the action to create angles for the other forwards to drive into. Should he be needed in the penalty area he can show exceptional composure, a smart roll of the ball to his left and powerful finish at the near post to make it four going some way to absolving him of what threatened to be two decisive errors in front of goal in the first leg.

Arsenal will face tougher tests than Sheffield United and Slavia Prague have posed them, not least Villarreal in a semifinal that pits the Gunners against their former manager Unai Emery, whose side have won 11 and lost one of their matches in the competition so far.

"It will be a tough game," Arteta warned, "Villarreal are a top side and Unai is one of the most successful managers in this competition. We know it, [we will] enjoy tonight and we're going to have time for that one and no time to prepare Fulham on Sunday but this is where we are."

Emery is indeed a serial winner of knockout ties in this competition although he fell one step short of replicating his three Europa League wins with Sevilla during his season and a half in north London. Equally his Villarreal side ought to hold no fear for Arsenal, who since Boxing Day have rounded into impressive form albeit with hiccups that seem to always be more dramatic for them than similar teams.

Certainly there is no reason why Smith Rowe and Saka should fear Villarreal. After all it is they that have inspired that post-Christmas revival. The youngsters who took command of this team in that season-changing win over Chelsea have proven time and time again since that their youthful age is no barrier to them setting the tone for those around them. In its best moments this Arsenal side is starting to look like its bright young things and that is no bad thing at all.