Arsenal are flying high at the top of the table, can Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey give United the runaround?

Robbie Earle talks Manchester United v. Arsenal: ‘Wrap Giroud in cotton wool’

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If there’s one Premier League match to have circled on your calendar this weekend it’s Manchester United v. Arsenal (Sunday 11:00am ET on NBCSN or watch live via NBC Sports Live Extra).

The Gunners haven’t won a league match away at United since 2006 but from Robbie Earle’s point of view, Old Trafford simply isn’t the fortress it once was.

Ouch. But don’t despair too much United fans, because from injuries to a difficult string of matches, Arsenal have problems of their own.

So I sat down with the former Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ member and current NBC Sports Premier League pundit to get his take on what to expect in this weekend’s marquee matchup.

Let’s get stuck in.

WHICH CLUB NEEDS TO WIN THIS GAME MORE – MANCHESTER UNITED OR ARSENAL?

Manchester United. Simply because if they loose that means they’ll be trailing the leaders by 11 points, and I’m not sure they can make that up. For Arsenal, the result in this match won’t prove or disprove whether they are title contenders.

People are talking about United being on a nice run but beating Stoke and Fulham isn’t much to brag about. Beating Arsenal, however, would be a massive deal. It would close the gap to five points and then you have the international break coming up to help them re-focus on getting back in the title race.

ARSENAL HAVEN’T WON IN THE LEAGUE AT OLD TRAFFORD SINCE 2006, HOW MUCH WILL THAT FACTOR IN?

I don’t think Old Trafford means that much anymore. That’s one of the things that United have lost during this transition – the fear that opposing teams used to have of playing at Old Trafford. We’ve seen Southampton and Stoke go there and play quite well. So while I think Arsenal will respect Old Trafford, I don’t think they’ll fear it. It’s simply not the fortress that it once was.

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Phil Jones’ man-to-man marking skills could be useful against a midfield like Arsenal.

IF YOU’RE DAVID MOYES, WHAT’S THE BIGGEST WORRY YOU HAVE IN THIS MATCH?

The midfield. So far its been Carrick +1 with Fellaini, Cleverley or Kagawa and I’m still not sure what the best pairing is for United.

Against a team like Arsenal, United’s wide midfield players will be key because the Gunners love to outnumber teams on the wings like they did last week against Liverpool. And if they’re able to do that against Arsenal, the holding players will get stretched wide to the touchlines and this could be big trouble for United.

Despite some injury issues with Flamini and Wilshere, Arsenal still have Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Arteta and Rosicky and I’m not sure United can stop the quick, incisive passing of the Gunners.

One thing United may consider is changing their formation. This could be a game where we might see Rooney drop a bit deeper throughout the match. Because there’s such a dearth of midfield quality at United we could see Rooney in more of what I like to call a “50/50 position” where he’s used 50% as a defender and 50% as an attacker.

With Arsenal, there’s always a period during the game where they dominate possession in the midfield. Rooney will have to recognize when that happens and drop deep into the midfield to help United through it. Once it ends, Rooney can then push on and focus on his work up front. But unless Rooney drops back to key on players like Ramsey and Ozil, it could be problems for United.

One player Moyes could use in the holding role against Arsenal is Phil Jones. He’s defensive minded and loves to match up one-on-one. He marked Cristiano Ronaldo off the park in the Champions League last year and did the same to Marouane Fellaini when he was starring at Everton. For me, Jones is slightly better being one place beyond the mistake that hurts you. When he plays in the back and makes a mistake, he costs United goals. But in the midfield he can make those mistakes and still have the defense to back him up.

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Nemanja Vidic’s organizational skills are a major reason for his impressive return to form.

UNITED’S BACK FOUR HAS BEEN STRUGGLING, WHO IS THE KEY MAN THERE?

I think Vidic is so important to United right now. He made a couple of really telling challenges against Fulham last week. He’s what I like to call a “natural born defender.” He tackles, elbows you off the ball and he looks ugly – defenders should be ugly.

Vidic is a proper defender and I get the sense that he trains everyday like he plays. I bet he kicks you when he’s training. And I think United have missed a bit of that strength and power and physicality at the back. Against Stoke, they looked a bit light-weight to me. I thought Peter Crouch bullied Jones and Evans.

I think Vidic is clever because he’s very tactically aware. He reminds me of how Steve Bruce was at Manchester United. Whenever I used to play against Bruce, I’d think: ‘I’d love to get Bruce one-on-one because I can run him.’ But I never did because Bruce was so clever at organizing his defenders around him. He’d keep Gary Neville and Gary Pallister really tight to him. Then he’d drop Roy Keane right in front of him making it impossible to get in on him.

And that’s exactly what Vidic is starting to do – he’s constantly directing people around him, which helps him deal with problems before they happen. Vidic can read where the danger is going to be and deal with it. That little bit of instruction has been missing the last few years but now Vidic is on it.

It happens in all levels of football, you have to change the way you play. And the clever ones make sure they’re not exposed. I think John Terry’s done the same thing at Chelsea. Last year everyone was saying how his body is broke but this year he’s been outstanding. He gets Ivanovic and Cole tight to him and has Ramires parked right in front. Most importantly, Terry doesn’t put himself into areas where he can be exposed. There was a time when he used to go out on the wings and get roasted. He doesn’t do that anymore. He lets someone else handle that business and stays central. It’s a blueprint that I see Vidic following and it’s crucial to United’s success defensively.

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Shinji Kagawa may need to reinvent himself to find his way into United’s squad.

DO YOU SEE SHINJI KAGAWA FITTING INTO THIS MATCH?

At the moment, no. I think you go with a player with a bit more work rate and physicality, someone like Valencia.

Kagawa was outstanding at Dortmund. Brilliant. But his problem at United is that Rooney operates in the same pockets of space that he likes to play in. And Rooney’s ability to dominate these areas is probably United’s biggest strength – so Kagawa becomes the odd man out.

The only way Kagawa becomes a major factor against United is if they can get a lot of possession. And I don’t see that happening against Arsenal so if Moyes did use him he would become a bit of a passenger.

For Kagawa, it could be a situation of needing to reinvent himself. He could become a “link-continuity player,” one who gets the ball from his defenders and is comfortable receiving it and moving it up the pitch. It’s essentially a cog role that links up the midfield and defense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown himself to be that kind of player yet. He much prefers to be in an advanced role where he can pop in and out of space to make things happen.

That’s a luxury that United can’t afford right now. They’re too rigid. It’s funny though, you could plug Kagawa into the fluidity of Arsenal’s midfield and he’d be perfect.

HOW WILL UNITED BREAK DOWN THE ARSENAL DEFENSE?

They’ll be targeting the center-halves of Arsenal, Koscielny and Mertersacker. I think those two have done quite well this season, they look a bit more robust in defense, but Rooney and Van Persie love to attack through the middle so that’s where they’ll challenge Arsenal.

Van Persie is a great drifter. He loves to get himself in those spaces between the two center-halves so he can make darting runs in behind them and into space. It’s a technique that I call a “false position” for a center-forward, where it tricks both center-halves into thinking they have him covered when in reality, neither of them do. This positioning creates uncertainty among defenders and I think United will look to get Rooney that ball in between the midfield and forward lines so that he can find Van Persie making those darting runs in behind.

Speaking of this strategy really highlights how disappointing the wide players at United have been of late. They used to have guys like Beckham or Ronaldo who you had to worry about outside but that’s no longer the case. So I don’t see United’s wingers eliminating Arsenal’s full-backs like they used to. The key to United’s attack will be in those central areas where they look to hurt teams like they did Fulham last weekend.

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Olivier Giroud has been immense for Arsenal, making him the one man the Gunners can’t afford to lose.

HOW IMPORTANT IS OLIVIER GIROUD TO ARSENAL?

He’s immense. The one thing this Arsenal team cannot afford is an injury to Giroud. He’s the man they need to wrap in cotton wool. As much of an impact as Ozil has made if he went out of the team they could still bring in near like-for-like quality. But if Giroud pulls a hamstring or turns an ankle, Bendtner is not the man to lead the line the same way.

Of course, when Podolski and Walcott return from injury they could play that striker role. But I was also thinking that Wenger could play a False 9 if he wanted.

It would be brilliant, like Total Football. You’d love to see the experiment with the freedom that Wenger affords his players.

THE PARITY OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS ASTOUNDING – WHEN WILL WE SEE SEPARATION?

That stretch of matches around Christmas and New Years comes fast and furious and there’s a lot of points to be had. I think at that time we begin to see some separation as teams begin to sharpen their focus.

When I was a player January was the time of year when teams begin to map out what they want to accomplish in the next month. They’ll look at the schedule and say that by this point in time we need to get X amount of wins. I’ve worked with managers who like to physically show you how close you are to the mark.

So for example, with relegation. One of our coaches used to have a board up with a 40 point line. And with every point he’d move the ruler up a bit closer to that mark. It’s something really simple but we used to go in on a Monday and you’d literally see yourself advancing, getting closer to the mark. All these little things matter – keeping players challenged and motivated to what the targets and goals are.

That period, January and February, there are loads of team meetings. It’s literally meetings all the time about the FA Cup, the Capital Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League. It’s all about goal setting and the mindset. You’re into that part of the season where your fitness is good so mentally it’s so important because it’s make it or break it.

Bundesliga will be ready to use video review next season

Referee Felix Zwayer shows the red card to Leipzig's Emil Forsberg during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig at the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) The Bundesliga says it will be ready to use video review next season.

[ MORE: Fonte’s strange situation ]

FIFA’s rules making panel, known as IFAB, is working with leagues to introduce Video Assistant Referees (VARs) ahead of likely approval for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

FIFA wants video review only for potential “clear errors” in four situations: Goals being scored, penalties being awarded, players being sent off, and cases of mistaken identity.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news

IFAB should decide early next year on using VARs at the World Cup.

Germany’s top league kicks off next season in August.

A Bundesliga statement says it opted for a system “where all VARs will be assembled at a single location on the day of play,” as the NBA and MLB use.

In Russia, FIFA could opt for VARs working at the stadium as part of each referee’s support team.

Premier League Power Rankings – Week 21

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The latest Premier League player Power Rankings are here and we have a new man on top.

Players from Tottenham and Chelsea dominate the list, plus there are plenty of new entries from across the league. In the video above I break down the reasons for picking my top five.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Up 11
  2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – Even
  3. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – Down 2
  4. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 4
  5. Michail Antonio (West Ham) – New entry
  6. Olivier Giroud (Arsenal) – New entry
  7. Adam Lallana (Liverpool) – Down 1
  8. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – New entry
  9. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – Even
  10. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – Even
  11. Kyle Walker (Tottenham) – New entry
  12. Danny Rose (Tottenham) – New entry
  13. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Down 1
  14. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea) – New entry
  15. Abel Hernandez (Hull City) – New entry
  16. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City) – New entry
  17. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – New entry
  18. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) – New entry
  19. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham) – Down 1
  20. Tom Heaton (Burnley) – New entry

Strange Fonte situation nears end as West Ham close in

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Jose Fonte of Southampton celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary's Stadium on December 26, 2015 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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Jose Fonte was linked with moves to Manchester United and Liverpool throughout the summer transfer window and for most of the January window.

Now a move to West Ham or West Bromwich Albion seems more likely.

[ MORE: Vertonghen injury update ]

Multiple outlets are reporting that Fonte, 33, has agreed terms with the two Premier League clubs, while West Ham are believed to be in the driving seat for Southampton’s skipper who they will pay $11 million for.

Fonte, who has been with Saints since 2010, handed in a transfer request earlier this month and is unavailable for selection until he is either sold by Southampton or the transfer window closes without him leaving.

The latter does not look likely, even if West Ham manager Slaven Bilic refused to comment specifically on Fonte in his press conference on Thursday. If the move to the Hammers does go through then it would end a strange, and sad, final chapter in Fonte’s career at St Mary’s.

He joined Saints in the third-tier in January 2010 and the center back is the only player remaining from their League One days. In seven years he has risen with Southampton and has become one of the most reliable center backs in the PL, plus got his chance with the Portuguese national team and started every game in the knockout stage as Portugal won EURO 2016 this summer.

After that triumph Fonte’s head seemed to have been turned and with his new agent Jorge Mendes (the same “super agent” who looks after Fonte’s compatriots Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho) he seemed to be eyeing a move away.

[ LONGFORM: Jose Fonte, baby ]

I was at a preseason game for Saints against Espanyol in August where Fonte turned up late (he had arrived late for preseason after his summer exploits with Portugal) and all of Southampton’s fans stood on their feet to applaud him for his success with Portugal at EURO 2016 and chanted for him to stay at St Mary’s. He rather sheepishly gave a wave but it all looked rather staged. It just didn’t feel right and there was no real surprise that the rumors about him leaving didn’t end until the end of the summer transfer window.

No clubs seemed too interested in taking him from Saints and anyway he had 18 months to run on his current, plus Southampton offered him a one-year extension and a pay raise without him even asking.

Fonte, for some reason, declined that offer and ever since then then there have been reports about him being a negative influence in the locker room and despite his play on the field not dropping dramatically he has put out cryptic message on Instagram, plus he didn’t play a single second of Southampton’s landmark UEFA Europa League group stage campaign for unknown reasons.

This situation is really nothing to do with current manager Claude Puel. He is caught in the middle and Executive director of football Les Reed finally came out and spoke about Fonte’s future two weeks ago as he revealed the Portuguese defender wanted out.

The way this has ended is messy for everyone involved but what more can Saints do?

They have a player who is adored by the fans after rising with them from the lower leagues to a sixth-place finish and European action. He is the captain of the club but is refusing to sign a new deal and has told them he wants to leave. Out of respect for Fonte, Saints will let any reasonable offer take him away from St Mary’s. Yet, it didn’t have to end like this.

If Fonte does go to West Ham, he may get an increase in his wages for the final few years of his career but then what? He would’ve had a job for life at Southampton had he played out the remaining 18 months of his current deal or then extended it for another season to take him towards the age of 36.

This whole situation seems very strange and for everyone involved some sort of explanation would help with wading through the mess if Fonte does leave Southampton, as expected, in the coming days. It is unlikely Fonte had West Ham or West Brom near the top of his ideal destinations when he made it clear he wanted to leave Saints. Now, those are the options awaiting him. Maybe he saw so many of his former teammates leave Saints and go on to better things (look at Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sadio Mane et al.) and fancied some of that following his success with Portugal in the summer.

No disrespect to Fonte but a veteran center back from Saints is hardly as enticing as the likes of Lallana and Mane were in summers gone by.

Amid the current situations regarding Dimitri Payet and Diego Costa in the Premier League, this one involving Fonte and Southampton has somewhat flown under the radar. It shouldn’t have. Serious questions need to be asked about what the heck has been going on.

Survivors gather as Chapecoense plays first game since fatal crash

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 03:  Relatives of the members of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real pay  tribute at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, on December 03, 2016. The players were killed in a plane accident in the Colombian mountains. Players of the Chapecoense team were among the 77 people on board the doomed flight that crashed into mountains in northwestern Colombia. Officials said just six people were thought to have survived, including three of the players. Chapecoense had risen from obscurity to make it to the Copa Sudamericana finals scheduled for Wednesday against Atletico Nacional of Colombia.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday’s friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.

Only six of the 77 passengers survived – and Henzel was one of them.

“The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won’t be that stairway that will stop me,” Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.

Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars – one over his right eye- and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.

Now he’s making his second return – what he calls “Rafael 2.0” – in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.

His left foot is in a cast, but that won’t stop him.

“When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened,” he said, recalling the crash. “Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed.”

Three Chapecoense players survived – 19 were killed – when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final – the No. 2 club tournament in South America.

All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape’s debut on Saturday.

Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.

He’s already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape’s new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil’s first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores – the continent’s No. 1 tournament – and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.

“If I didn’t believe I could recover, I will get depressed,” Neto told reporters. “Doctors said I might return this year, but I don’t know whether my knees are still up for it,” Neto said in a press conference. “I will be here to give support to the players that come. It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.

“I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there,” Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” he said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape’s staff.

The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.

“I choose life over the leg,” he told doctors during his recovery. “We will manage this easily.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese