07 January 2017

Pérez puts Preston in their proper place; is he ready for prime time?

It wasn't meant to be like this, not for a second match in a row, as Arsenal limped into halftime on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline—scratch that, at least this second time, we'd retreat down only 1-0 at halftime. Even though the narrow escape from Dean Court should have inspired our squad going into Deepdale, we got off on the wrong foot entirely, and it was Preston who looked much more likely to advance to the fourth round on the strength of their first-half showing. Such a summary would overlook the industry of one Lucas Pérez. Yes, he assisted Giroud for the winner, but it was his overall workrate and industry that, once again, seized the day.

Let's give credit where credit is due. For the second week in a row, we were outclassed and outworked, at least for most of the match. As with last weekend's clash with Bournemouth, most in our squad seemed to underestimate our opponents. For that second week in a row, our apparently lesser opponent took the match to us early and often, and it's a wonder that we didn't go into halftime again trailing by 2-0 if not worse. There are some troublesome questions nagging at us, to be sure; fortunately, there was at least one person in the squad willing to offer answers.

Let's get the gob-smackers out of the way early. Lucas, since joining Arsenal, has contributed six goals and five assists in just 12 appearances. He's delivered despite unpredictable call-outs, subbing on or starting. The one variable that has remained consistent has been his performance. Perhaps alone against Preston in the first half, he was energetic and incisive. Heck—if, late against Bournemouth, Alexis had weighted his through-ball into Alexis; if Lucas could have just finished Giroud's lay-off, we'd be talking him up as the saviour of the season. As it currently stands, he falls under the shadow of Giroud (who has, it must be noted, delivered 13 goals and assists combined from just 14 touches).

Back to the match: the first half contrasted a Preston side full of energy, ideas, and ambition, while the Arsenal side was full of sideways passes, poor first-touches, and malaise. Therein lies the rub. Is Lucas, new to the club, still immune to a certain sense of jaded effort, or does he, like Alexis, offer a new degree of determination, grit, and passion that's been lacking since the departure of Vieira, among others?

As we move into the second half of the Prem season, add in the FA Cup, and ponder the Champions League, we will need the qualities that Lucas showed for the full 90 against Preston. Therein lies the rub. It's one thing to press, harass, and pass against an admittedly spirited Championship side; it's quite another to do the same against a mid-table (or higher) Prem side, not to mention the behemoth of the Bundesliga.

Despite his short time at Arsenal, it does seem like Lucas has forged a partnership with Giroud, one not unlike Giroud's partnership with Podolski. What's more, he seems to have expanded from his earlier role of flat-track bully—his first five goals and two assists came in cakewalks against Nottingham Forest, Ludogorets, and FC Basel; his latest goal and assist have come in more-grinding, crucial affairs at Bournemouth and at Preston, respectively. In short, he's finding ways to make himself crucial to our attack when other, more-seasoned players have fallen short.

Determination, grit, and passion. When skill and pedigree won't cut it, those qualities often will. Lucas, you who are playing to prove your readiness to play more regularly, thanks for delivering those qualities. Long may the other members of the squad learn from you.