It’s a throwback to 18 years ago, when the clubs last met at Deepdale. Arsenal recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 the Third Round contest that day.
The 2017 encounter is likely to jog memories in other ways. First, it’s a classic setup—a top Premier League club, not yet recovered from the major exertions of the festive period, visiting a determined Championship side.
That dynamic makes Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger wary. As he told his pre-match press conference, “We know as well that after a congested Christmas period that the third round is always a tricky game. That is why I believe it is a mental challenge for the Premier League teams to prepare well and not have a bad surprise - especially when you go to a Championship team, as it is always difficult.”
The second reflection of the past will show in Preston’s style. Even in the context of the less technical Championship, manager Simon Grayson starts his team with the traditional English playbook.
The Lilywhites attempt the seventh highest number of long passes in the division and close to the fewest (22/24) number of short passes (Stats from whoscored.com). They both engaged in and won the second-highest aerial duels in the league, while they have suffered the fewest fouls.
These numbers suggest that Preston will make little attempt to contest Arsenal on the ground and will try to bypass the midfield.
In the attacking zone, Grayson’s men are relatively effective on set pieces, having scored 10 goals off stoppages, sixth most in the Championship. That’s another old-school approach Arsenal will need to prepare for.
On the defensive side, Preston lean to the aggressive, ranking seventh in the league in tackles and sixth in interceptions. They’re also effective at reducing danger in their own penalty area: The league’s third-highest number of clearances point to that.
Expect them to try to stymie Arsenal with a similarly assertive—though not overly physical--approach.
These tactics won’t be news to Arsenal’s staff and players, who recently faced Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce in the Premier League. The question is, will the lineup Wenger selects have the chemistry, focus, and patience to succeed.
Chemistry or synchronicity tops the priority list because Arsenal’s first XI may have had little game time together. Mainstays Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez will definitely get a breather, while playmaker Mesut Özil continues to recover from his respiratory ailment. Rob Holding and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should get chances to play as a consequence, with Alex Iwobi or Aaron Ramsey candidates for the #10 role.
There’s little question that whomever Wenger sends out will have the necessary quality. As we saw, though, in the 2-0 EFL Cup defeat to Southampton, untried relationships don’t always blossom.
The second question concerns the attention those selected will apply to this match so soon after the roller-coaster 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday. The poor performance of that match’s first hour owed more, I think, to mental rather than physical fatigue only two days removed from the team’s win over Crystal Palace.
Another psychological test will come on Saturday.
Finally, given all those tactical, personnel, and mental factors, the team might need patience to see off the hosts. It’s a quality we’ve seen the Gunners display often this season, most recently in the win over West Brom. Can they replicate that in the maelstrom of a classic cup tie when the opposition’s emotions are running high and the terraces are rocking?
Alex Iwobi against Ben Pearson. Again, in the absence of Özil, expect Arsenal’s creative burden to fall to Iwobi. He did not look up to the task against Bournemouth on Tuesday, but he certainly wasn’t alone in this respect. A return to the form he showed against Crystal Palace will be most welcome.
Iwobi will probably come up against Manchester United product Ben Pearson in the midfield. The 22-year-old is not afraid to put a foot in, as his eight yellow cards in 16 appearances indicate. Iwobi will have to deal with that physical resistance to keep Arsenal ticking.
Where to Worry
Headers from set pieces are Preston’s bread and butter and a combination Arsenal seem susceptible to. The 12 goals Arsenal have conceded from headers represent the most in the Premier League (Squawka.com).
This is not going to be as easy as the clubs’ statures and positions suggest. In the end, though, Arsenal’s quality and patience should carry the day.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Lucas Pérez. There’s a question about the Spaniard’s availability, as Wenger said he’d picked up a slight injury during his turnaround substitute appearance against Bournemouth. If he can play, his combination of clever movement and clinical finishing could be the difference for Arsenal’s attack.
Preston. Callum Robinson. Much of Preston’s offensive activity comes via the 21-year-old Englishman. Robinson leads the team in shots; his total of 75 more than doubles that of his second-ranking teammate. And no Lilywhite has more goals (five).