This week has proved that it is never boring following the Arsenal. After Olivier Giroud’s wonder goal against Crystal Palace, there was the comeback from 3-0 down at Bournemouth. On Saturday, Arsenal did things the hard way again with a woeful first half against Preston North End in the FA Cup but responded with a turnaround and another late goal from Giroud.
The FA Cup is a brilliant tournament, but it is striking how seriously some teams, and their fans, take the competition. There were plenty of games in the third round that were played in front of half-empty stadiums with managers making almost 11 changes to some starting XIs. For a manager that has won the FA Cup so many times, it always seems daft to question Arsene Wenger’s commitment to the competition and I’m glad that he takes it so seriously. Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin, all of whom were struggling after Bournemouth, were rested but otherwise with the exception of changing the goalkeeper, Wenger picked the strongest team available to him. Arsenal also had almost 6,000 travelling fans behind them as a full house at Deepdale made for a cracking cup atmosphere. But the side sent Arsene Wenger sent out did little in the first half to suggest that the club were serious about the tournament.
The Gunners were off the pace of the game as the hosts played at a high tempo and deservedly took the lead inside the first ten minutes. Arsenal didn’t have any control in midfield, couldn’t really get Olivier Giroud involved up front and looked vulnerable at right-back with Ainsley Maitland-Niles showing his inexperience. Preston should have increased the lead before half-time as they butchered a clear chance with a square pass missing the onrushing forward with the goal gaping and Nacho Monreal had to clear a lobbed effort off the line.
Questions still have to be asked about how and why Arsenal are continually struggling to impose themselves early in games. It happened at Bournemouth and, to a certain extent, against West Brom on Boxing Day. But what can’t be doubted is Arsenal’s response to adversity. It was weak last month against Everton and Manchester City, but since then, Arsenal have shown a determination to not meekly let games peter out. After half-time, the Gunners showed they meant business by zipping the ball around much quicker and playing with a desire for the fight to stay in the FA Cup.
That was typified by Olivier Giroud, who in the absence of Mertesacker, Koscielny, Cazorla and Cech, was given the responsibility of wearing the captain’s armband. Unlike when some players get the armband, Giroud didn’t seem to view as just a nice reward for good service for the club, he took the leadership role on with relish. He was regularly in the ear of the referee, constantly tried to gee his team up and was the focal point for the team to play round up front. As I wrote after Bournemouth, Giroud cares about the club and that showed in how impressively he took on the captaincy for the day.
After the break, Arsenal levelled up quickly as Aaron Ramsey found space on the edge of the box to hammer in his first goal of the season. He was under pressure so did well to sneak the ball inside the near post as the goalkeeper didn’t move as the shot flew past him. The goal seemed to reinvigorate Ramsey who, like most in yellow, stunk the place out with the first half performance. With all of the injuries in the centre of Arsenal’s midfield, Arsene Wenger needs a fit and firing Aaron Ramsey, and there were signs in the second half that he was getting back to somewhere near his best.
For the rest of the second half, Arsenal always looked the more likely team to score a winning goal. Giroud was denied by an offside flag and Shkodran Mustafi was denied by an excellent save. Preston also increasingly became tetchy with niggly fouls and players going down easily to try and break up play.
The pressure finally told though as Olivier Giroud bagged a fourth goal in as many games, and the third of those four to come inside the last seven minutes of the game. The ball into the area was flicked on by the Frenchman for Lucas Perez, who in turn back-heeled the ball back into the path of Giroud near the six-yard box. The shot was deflected, but found a way past the goalkeeper as Giroud showed his incredible sense of timing again.
Along with Giroud bagging another goal, there was also a welcome return for Danny Welbeck. He appeared inside the final ten minutes and almost marked his comeback from injury with a curling effort that was well-saved when bound for the top corner. With Lucas and Giroud both in good form and making important contributions, Welbeck can be eased back into action without too much pressure, but he is a player that can make a big impact on the second half of Arsenal’s season. Even in the short appearance he made at Preston, he looked sharp and showed the pace and direct forward play that he can offer.
Arsene Wenger has never lost in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, and although that record was in danger, Arsenal responded and managed to avoid an inconvenient replay. Not for the first time in recent weeks, it was thanks to Olivier Giroud.