We kick off our 2016/17 Emirates FA Cup campaign at Preston on Saturday, and ahead of the game Chris Harris spoke to Arsene Wenger.
“It’s always that day or never and I love that.” - Arsene Wenger
The FA Cup has been good to Arsene Wenger, and Arsene Wenger’s been good to the FA Cup.
As he waits in the starting blocks for his 21st run in the competition, the boss can look back with pride on six triumphs and ownership of the cup’s two longest winning streaks.
Wenger’s love affair with the FA Cup - the Emirates FA Cup as it’s now officially known - shows no sign of abating.
“I just believe that the cup is more intense, more concentrated, more focused on the day than any other competition,” he told Arsenal Player.
“It’s always that day or never and I love that. I’ve won the cup in every country I’ve worked in and, for me, it’s something special. It’s always a special opportunity.
“You always remember a Wembley final, an FA Cup final, and you always have to adapt very quickly to a problem which you may not always know. You do not always play against teams you know well, so your adaptation level and your concentration level is tested.”
Almost 17 years to the day since our last trip to Preston, Wenger returns to the scene of a third-round victory that began his first FA Cup defence.
He didn’t lose that third-round tie and he hasn’t lost one before or since. That’s because Wenger never takes these games lightly - and he expects the same attitude from his players.
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“We have to prepare well,” he said. “I believe it’s a special period which always comes after a congested Christmas period and, naturally, you want to switch off a little bit to have a breather.
“But it’s very important that you make a conscious effort to focus, because every time it’s a tricky game. Let’s hope we get it right again.
“Preston v Arsenal is a classic cup tie scenario,” added the manager. “It’s maybe what makes football interesting, because it’s the only sport where the difference of divisions does not play a part on the day. Football is more unpredictable than any other sport and that’s why it creates such an interest.”
It creates belief, too. Our wins in 2014 and 2015 ended a nine-year wait for silverware, gave our fans something to celebrate - and made the players believe they could scale greater heights.
“I think when you do not win a trophy for a while, you have things questioned,” said Wenger. “I believe that [winning the cup] gave us some better ground to focus again on what we want to achieve and to build our team.
“It gave the team the feeling that they can win trophies. People always want more - and rightly so.”
ONE TO WATCH
The manager faces the usual balancing act of selecting a winning team while resting those who need it most.
The enforced absentees will be joined on the sidelines by Alexis, Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, and the latter’s break opens the door for Rob Holding to return to the side for the first time since his assured display helped us beat Basel to clinch top spot in our Champions League group.
Holding has played seven times in three competitions this season and he should complete the set at Preston - a team he beat while at Bolton last year. It’s been six months since the 21-year-old swapped the north west for north London, and he’s on a steady upward trajectory - and Arsenal fans are keen to see him paired with Shkodran Mustafi this weekend.
“I rate him highly,” said Wenger. “I think he’s learning his job at the moment at the top level and overall I think he has done extremely well. I believe that he has a bright future at this club.
“People say often, ‘Is he to go out on loan or not?’ I think it’s too early for him to go out on loan. I think it’s very interesting for him to see how people behave, how Premier League top teams work.
“He has improved the speed of his game and the speed of his understanding of the game. As well his aggression level has gone up and he knows that you cannot lose a decisive fight at that level. He develops as well by being in touch with players like Koscielny, like Mustafi, like Gabriel, Mertesacker - all experienced centre backs. They teach him as well.”
Will Holding partner Gabriel or Shkodran Mustafi on Saturday? Tell us your top centre-back pairing.
Wenger is right in the middle of his Preston homework but he knows the history of our trip to Deepdale in January 1999.
It didn’t start well - we were two down in the first half - but two goals from Emmanuel Petit helped us to a 4-2 win on a night that featured stalwarts like Steve Bould and rarities like Fabian Caballero.
“I remember that we put ourselves in trouble,” said the boss. “It reminds me of our last game at Bournemouth because we went 2-0 down there as well. Petit scored two goals and he was not a goalscorer, but an exceptional footballer.
“For me at the time, it was a great introduction to the FA Cup because you know you’ll have a fight anywhere in England. You need to perform or you’re out. If you want to stay on the train, you have to to turn up from the first minute. We were nearly knocked out there.
“When Arsenal goes to a Championship team in the FA Cup, it’s a special atmosphere from the start because Arsenal is a big club. For the Championship team it’s a big opportunity for them to show their quality and you always expect a special atmosphere.
“We are used to that but of course it will stimulate Preston and create a special motivation for them.”
For us, the chance of a record 13th FA Cup is motivation enough.
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