PRESTON, England — Three thoughts from Arsenal’s 2-1 win at Preston North End in the FA Cup.
1. Arsenal pull off FA Cup rescue act
Olivier Giroud’s winner came late, but it had been coming. Arsenal are into the next round of the FA Cup, probably the only trophy they have a realistic chance of winning, having been given one hell of an early scare by Preston.
The Championship club, having gone ahead though Callum Robinson, lived to regret not scoring more in their blitz of the first half hour. It was Aaron Ramsey’s equaliser within the first minute of the second half that tilted the game’s balance, even if it was not until the 89th minute that Giroud scrambled home to score.
Arsenal had fallen behind in the eighth minute. Preston midfielder Aiden McGeady pulled off a delightful pair of pirouettes to bamboozle Lucas Perez and then Ramsey as Arsenal’s defence was opened up. Home fans made loud claims for a penalty when Nacho Monreal clattered Jordan Hugill, but indignation turned to celebration within a split second. The ball had spilled to Robinson to slot home.
Preston North End
Arsenal’s defending was lumbering and circumspect, just as it had been during Tuesday’s 3-3 Premier League draw at Bournemouth. Shkodran Mustafi again looked off the pace in the centre, though he did perform a fine block of a goal-bound header in the 22nd minute.
Alongside Mustafi, Gabriel was even more haphazard and appeared to have mislaid his understanding of the offside trap. Preston kept breaking through Arsenal’s defensive lines and went closer still when Robinson escaped to the byline before his low pass was over-hit beyond an onrushing Hugill.
It was Arsenal who looked the lower-league outfit in those early stages as their attacking had hardly been much better than their defending. On the sidelines, cross-armed in his sleeping-bag coat, Arsene Wenger was distinctly unimpressed. His previous record against lower-division opposition in the FA Cup is almost unblemished.
Only Blackburn Rovers, a Championship club when winning 1-0 at the Emirates in 2013, had previously downed him, and he had never lost a third-round tie. But among the away fans, the odd cry of “Wenger out” could be heard. Eventually, understandably tired from their efforts, Preston slowed up as Arsenal gained a foothold for the last 15 minutes of the half without finding much in the way of fluency.
Whatever was said at half-time, where Wenger’s habit is usually to say very little, paid instant dividends. From Alex Iwobi’s neat layoff, Ramsey was given the type of space from which his shooting can be deadly, and within the first minute of the second period, Arsenal had managed to clean up the damage. They would have to wait to complete the job. Arsenal’s aristocratic airs told as their manager’s blushes were spared.
2. Giroud eventually leads by example
Giroud was Arsenal’s captain on Saturday. It looked a piece of Wenger reverse psychology, considering the criticism the France international striker had received for a choreographed celebration of his Bournemouth equaliser when there was time for a winner.
The skipper’s confidence had not been affected by the haters, judging by a first-minute attempt to chip Preston keeper Chris Maxwell from just beyond the halfway line. Having scored three goals in his previous three matches, Giroud was on a hot streak, but this was wasteful — even at that early stage — and he would be seriously starved of service as Preston piled on their early pressure.
In the 34th minute, he at last found space on the left of Preston’s 18-yard box after an Iwobi pass. Again, his attempt was nonchalant, and a delicate chip drifted wide of the post when striking with power seemed much the better option. The goal eventually came and he celebrated it with gusto, though noticeably without performing his previous “scorpion kick” mime act. Wenger’s trust in his choice of captain eventually paid off.
Meanwhile, Ramsey, despite the injury problems that have prevented him from emulating his inspirational performances for Wales at Euro 2016, would have seemed a more obvious candidate for leadership, though perhaps his goal might be a significant milestone on his path back to prominence.
3. Regrets but plaudits for Preston
Preston had Arsenal rocking back on their heels, but some missed chances and mislaid key passes while their opponents were defensively all at sea denied them the feat of pulling off the shock of this year’s FA Cup third round.
Manager Simon Grayson possesses something of a giant-killing pedigree, having overseen Leeds United’s 1-0 at Manchester United in 2010, and his team that’s 11th in the Championship, with the second lowest budget in that division, looked faced with the tallest of orders.
Wenger’s starting team was strong. Only five changes had been made from the 3-3 at Bournemouth, and only Perez and 19-year-old full-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles were not full internationals. Aside from Maitland-Niles, the least experienced Gunner was Iwobi, this week named as African Youth Player of the Year.
And yet Preston began with a zest that took them to Arsenal’s level and beyond. The question was how long they might sustain that onslaught of attacking and the doggedness of their defending. On the bench, only Tommy Spurr and Alan Browne were options who might be able to add defensive ballast for when the Arsenal comeback finally kicked into gear.
It arrived too soon for Preston to be able to cling on. The wind was taken from their sails when Ramsey scored so early after the break. Still, each of Grayson’s men showed their mettle, with Ben Pearson, rejected by Manchester United, particularly excelling in midfield, along with that constantly troublesome striking partnership of Robinson and Hugill.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.