“It made me proud,” Mikel Arteta tells Sky Sports with a smile.
The Arsenal manager is reflecting on Emile Smith Rowe’s double nutmeg in the build-up to the opening goal against Slavia Prague. But he could just as easily be thinking about Bukayo Saka’s finish for the third. Or the driving run that won the penalty for the second.
Arsenal set up a Europa League semi-final against Unai Emery’s Villarreal in the most emphatic style possible and they did it with their young players leading the charge. No wonder Arteta is smiling.
“I love to work with young players and give them the opportunity but it’s not only that,” he adds. “It’s the collective aspect of the game. How we play together and how we enjoy playing our style.
“When you see it in the goals we have scored recently, it’s really powerful because this is why we are here: to entertain, to make our fans proud, and to win football matches.
“When you do all three of them, it’s as good as it gets.”
Arsenal have not done it enough this season. Beat Fulham on Sunday and it will only be the fourth time all campaign that they have won three consecutive games. But it is difficult to watch Saka and Smith Rowe in full flow and not feel excited for their future.
Arteta certainly feels that excitement. “There are parts of the games when I start to see where we can go,” he says. “It’s just about sustaining those levels for longer periods, ideally for 95 minutes.”
That is the next step for this Arsenal side and Saka and Smith Rowe are not the only youngsters who will try to help them make it.
Gabriel Martinelli is vying for a starting spot and there are high hopes for striker Folarin Balogun too. The talent is there.
“The young players have earned our trust and showed that we can believe in them,” says Arteta. “Not only in the games but in the way they are around the place and the way they train every day.
“The freedom and the quality that they are showing is because they have the right people around them as well. Young players can only sustain and evolve their level when they are surrounded by the right characters, and by senior people who make them better.
“They are lucky to have senior players around them who are constantly on them. They give them a lot of confidence and freedom, and they go onto the pitch with that because they know they are fully supported.
“They can make mistakes and they can express themselves knowing the senior players will protect them and that’s really important.”
Intelligence elevates Saka
Saka is perhaps a unique case because, despite his boyish appearance, he already looks like a senior player himself.
The 19-year-old has been outstanding all season, scoring seven goals and providing seven assists in 38 appearances and excelling everywhere from left-back to right wing.
Slavia Prague are just the latest side to have struggled to contain him – Saka was fouled six times across the two legs and is among the 10 most fouled players in the Premier League – but it is a different quality that truly sets him apart in the eyes of Arteta.
“Intelligence,” he says.
“We talk about physicality, we talk about spirit, we talk about technique. But the brain is the one that makes all the decisions.
“‘B’ makes a lot of good decisions because he is such an intelligent player who can read situations. After that, of course, he has the ability to execute them the right way and that’s obviously a big quality.”
Saka has featured regularly throughout Arteta’s tenure but it is only this season that he has become a key component of their attack.
“It took me a while to figure him out,” explains Arteta. “That’s why I tried to play him in different positions, to see how he reacted.
“I wanted to test his character as well because he was playing as a left-back and I know it wasn’t his ideal position but he had to go through that period.”
It took me a while to figure him out. That’s why I tried to play him in different positions, to see how he reacted
There was some clamour among supporters for Saka to return to the left-back position after Kieran Tierney suffered knee ligament damage during the recent defeat to Liverpool.
Arteta, though, feels he has become too influential further forward to be moved back and recent evidence suggests he has a point.
“We’ve seen how he can affect the game more and be a real threat. He has the quality to decide a football match.
“When you have that, you need to try to get the right position for him to be decisive as much as possible because then the team will be closer to winning more football matches.”
Why Martinelli had to wait
Arteta feels Saka has “come a long way” in the last 18 months and says the same of Smith Rowe since his emergence over the Christmas period. Martinelli, however, has had to be more patient.
The Brazilian’s progress was stalled by a knee injury last season and despite making an eye-catching impact when he returned to fitness in December, he has only featured sporadically since.
The 19-year-old’s absence has perplexed some supporters at times when senior players have underperformed but Arteta hopes the period out of the side will benefit him in the long term.
“He came back in and he had an impact but there were still a lot of things that we had to work on with him,” explains Arteta.
“He needs time. He is so willing and so anxious that it can block his development sometimes as well.
“Sometimes he won’t understand my decisions but the only reason I make those decisions is to help him, so that when he gets the chance to sprint, he can sprint, and when he falls, he goes again.
“I want a long run with him, not just a short one, and he’s in a better place now.”
Arteta will not be drawn on which specific areas of Martinelli’s game still require improvement – “I cannot discuss that,” he says with a grin – but he does divulge a need for greater maturity.
“There are a few things that have to be better and one of those is to manage when he doesn’t play because this is part of your career, this is part of being at a top club and being a young player.
“You have to know how to suffer when you are on the bench and you are not selected and somebody else is playing.
“You have to be able to swallow that, all your ego and your anger, all your willingness to play the game, while also living in a different country. That’s a big test and he’s gone through that as well.”
Balogun next in line
Martinelli is now back in the first-team frame having marked first Premier League start since January with a goal in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Sheffield United and Arsenal hope academy product Balogun will soon be more prominently involved too.
The highly-rated 19-year-old appeared to be on his way out of the club as he neared the end of his contract this summer but an agreement has finally been reached on a new deal. Arteta feels it is another example of Arsenal’s commitment to youth.
“It’s really important because it shows that he has enjoyed the time he’s been training with us and that’s why he wants to stay with us. He sees an opportunity here to have the career that he wants.”
Balogun, an Arsenal player since the age of eight, made his sixth senior appearance for the club when he came off the bench against Slavia Prague and Arteta is grateful to academy manager Per Mertesacker and technical director Edu for helping to convince him to stay.
“In all aspects, he knows that we trust him and that we want to have a future together,” says Arteta.
“Then, we needed to link that with the people at the club, with the right support from Per and the academy, and with the work that Edu has done over the months to undo what was happening and the direction the situation was taking.
“He has completely turned that over into a position where now the player is going to stay with us.”
There remains some uncertainty about Arsenal’s other striking options beyond this season, with Alexandre Lacazette yet to be offered a new contract and Eddie Nketiah seemingly falling out of favour. But Arteta is excited by what Balogun has to offer.
He has unique qualities as a striker – his speed and the way he holds the ball. He’s a real goal threat and he works tremendously hard
“He’s a very, very hungry boy,” he says. “He wants to do everything. He wants to practice more every single day.
“He has unique qualities as a striker – his speed and the way he holds the ball. He’s a real goal threat and he works tremendously hard.
“He will be pushing anybody in our first team to get his spot and that’s exactly what we want.
“He’s got the chance; now it’s time for him to prove himself. We have to give him the right support, which he will get, and then it’s up to him and what he does on the pitch.”
Youth emphasis explained
The implication from Arteta is that Balogun could spare Arsenal the expense of needing to dip into the transfer market in search of an external solution this summer.
“For me, if we want to strengthen our position and we need to recruit somebody, first of all we have to look in our academy,” he says. “It’s part of the DNA of the club and we have to do that.
“If we have that product in our club, let’s bring him in. But he has to have the right qualities, the right mentality and character to do so. If not, we have to go and try to find him.
“We are lucky. We have some really good players coming up but we need more and in order to do that we need to keep investing in our academy, to have the right coaches. I think Per is doing a fantastic job. Let’s keep feeding the first team as much as we can.”
Arteta and Mertesacker go way back.
As players, they arrived at Arsenal on the same day in August 2011, from Everton and Werder Bremen respectively, and went on to play together for five years. Their closeness is helping now.
“We look at each other and we know what the other one is thinking,” says Arteta, smiling. “We have the same aim and the same vision for the club. We are really close and hopefully we can do a lot of good things together.”
Arteta nods when asked if he sees more players in the academy capable of making an impact like Saka and Smith Rowe – “I do,” he says – and insists the progress of that duo is a testament to the work being done at youth level by Mertesacker and his staff.
“I think they should take a lot of credit for what those two boys are doing because it’s not only about their qualities, it’s about how well they have prepared them, in the academy, to handle the pressure and expectation that comes when you jump to the first team.”
Some of that pressure and expectation comes from Arteta himself. The 39-year-old is a demanding and vocal presence on the touchline during matches and it is the same story behind the scenes.
Any young players hoping to make the step up must demonstrate defensive diligence first and foremost. Quality alone is not enough.
For me, if we want to strengthen our position and we need to recruit somebody, first of all we have to look in our academy
“If you don’t do that, there’s no chance you can play for us because you’re going to expose the team big-time. If there is a player who doesn’t want to do that, the whole team is going to notice that and we will be in trouble, so that’s the first thing you have to do.
“The moment you lose the ball, you have to chase it all the way, with the right intensity, and if they beat our press you have to run back straight away. If you don’t do that, you cannot play.
“It’s desire and heart. Everybody has the willingness to sprint 30 meters to get a tap in and score a goal. It’s just about willingness.
“If you can’t do it after 90 minutes and you jog back, I understand. But in the first half an hour, there are no excuses.
“You have to go full gas.”
That is certainly what Arsenal did against Slavia Prague on Thursday night – and it is what Mikel Arteta will hope to see more of as Saka, Smith Rowe and the rest lead them into the future.
Watch Arsenal vs Fulham live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 1.30pm