Having discommoded Arsene Wenger’s makeshift back-line with a high-pressing, two-striker system, Preston North End’s predictable second-half retreat — and some wasteful first-half finishing — allowed Olivier Giroud to deny them a well-earned replay.
After selecting Jordan Hugill upfront alone away to Burton Albion on Monday, Preston manager Simon Grayson sprang a surprise here by pairing Hugill with Callum Robinson in a 4-4-2.
From the off, pressing appeared to be the rationale underpinning Grayson’s decision to revert to his preferred shape, as North End’s front four — backed up by the tenacity of Ben Pearson in behind — prevented Arsenal from playing out of defence.
Pearson dispossessed Granit Xhaka in a dangerous area, with only one minute on the clock, to set up a blocked penalty-area effort from Robinson, setting the tone for a first-half in which the Manchester United youth graduate completed a staggering seven tackles.
If the Gunners bypassed the initial press, Grayson’s charges duly dropped back into an ultra-compact, Leicester City-esque, triple-wall of ten — designed to deny penetration to Arsenal’s narrowly-arranged band of attacking midfielders by intercepting passes into their feet.
Although the relatively high defensive line necessary to maintain this strategy offered up a golden chance for Olivier Giroud to convert Alex Iwobi’s 34th-minute through-ball — when Paul Huntington erred in playing the Frenchman onside — it was Wenger’s back four that really struggled with the same approach.
Although Arsenal’s two defensive banks were in place for one of several excellent Aiden McGeady-led counter-attacks, Gabriel let his side down by playing Hugill onside from the Irishman’s resultant through ball, allowing Robinson to profit from a fortunate ricochet and turn in the opener.
Gabriel’s offside-trap intincts failed him again later in the half, when the centre-back was alone in rushing out, allowing a criminally free Robinson to square for a late-arriving Hugill.
Counter-attacks and clangers
Wenger’s desire for both Arsenal full-backs to advance and provide much-needed width rendered Preston a regular threat on the break, thanks to the 2-on-2 Grayson’s brave selection created in the Gunners half. McGeady’s thrilling running on the ball compounded that threat, forcing Shkodran Mustafi into a big block to deny Robinson a second goal.
Mustafi, a recent injury-returnee, proved just as rattled by facing a front-two as his central defensive partner, misplacing several easy passes under pressure, and relying on Nacho Monreal to bail him out with a goal-line clearance to deny Paul Gallagher.
Grayson remained brave in the second-half, even after Aaron’s Ramsey’s early equaliser hinted at a momentum-shift. Perhaps mindful of the three wasted clear-cut chances his chosen starting shape created, the former Leeds United manager persisted with it — even after an injury to Gallagher forced the introduction of central midfielder Alan Browne.
After fellow central midfielder Daniel Johnson performed a brief stint on the right of midfield, Grayson eventually moved the Jamaican international back inside in a 4-1-4-1 formation, shortly before Hugill’s 75th-minute departure in favour of fellow target man Simon Makienok.
Aside from Mustafi’s on-target effort from a corner-kick, a slow-paced and congested Arsenal attack struggled to trouble their hosts’ resolute defensive wall.
…and inevitable retreat
Alas for North End, their ever-deeper defensive line eventually played into the hands of Giroud — just as Bournemouth’s second-half retreat allowed the Frenchman’s influence to cost the Cherries a three-goal lead on Monday night.
Despite facing the second-best aerial duelists in this season’s Championship, Giroud beat Tom Clarke to a simple 89th-minute Mustafi hoik, flicking on to Lucas Perez and collecting the Spaniard’s deft backheel — ahead of a lunging Clarke — to break Preston hearts.