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.

MLS at Week 13: Rivalries all around, TFC goes for eight games unbeaten

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Week 13 is here and we’ve got ourselves some pretty tasty matchups, after the weekend got off to a fast start on Thursday night when the Chicago Fire downed FC Dallas.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 13 ]

Meanwhile, the match of the weekend likely comes in the form of Toronto FC taking on the Columbus Crew, as Greg Vanney’s side puts their seven-match unbeaten run on the line at BMO Field.

Several other intriguing fixtures, including multiple rivalries, will take place as well, particularly in the Pacific Northwest as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers do battle.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew — 7 p.m. EDT on Friday

It’s been seven straight matches for the Eastern Conference leaders since they last lost and Toronto FC has become the clear favorite to hoist MLS Cup through the opening two months-plus. Of course that can change in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen that with the Crew as of late, who started out hot before losing four out of their last six and falling to fifth in the East.

Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers — 2:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday

There’s nothing like a Cascadia Cup match. Although both clubs aren’t exactly up to par at the moment, it’s still a rivalry match. That has to mean something, right?

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Whitecaps have picked up some steam lately, winning three of their last four, and unfortunately for D.C. they haven’t had any similar fortunes. Ben Olsen’s group are at the bottom of the East, and had it not been for the Rapids there would probably be more attention on how poorly they are playing.

New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Jesse Marsch’s club picked up an important tie against a red-hot Toronto last time out, but now they’ll meet a familiar rival on Saturday as they try to get back to winning ways. Meanwhile, the Revs have played significantly better as of late, scoring six goals in their two most recent outings.

Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Simply put, they only good thing the Rapids have on their side is that the match is at home, where the team has captured both of their wins this season. Sporting KC, meanwhile, continues to tear it up at the top of the West.

Minnesota United vs Orlando City — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Orlando has come back down to earth recently, so it’s time for Jason Kreis and co. to reset. Adrian Heath and the Loons continue to suffer through the growing pains of being a new side, something Kreis can relate to from his time in New York, but Minnesota has shown positive signs during the young season.

Real Salt Lake vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Union are looking really good as of late, and the winners of four straight could very well keep it up on the road against RSL, who have struggled to pick up results for much of the season.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Cali Clasico takes shape at Avaya Stadium as both west coast sides look for bragging rights out west.

Atlanta United vs. New York City FC — 5 p.m. EDT on Sunday

It was Patrick Vieira’s side that got the best of Atlanta when the two clubs met a few weeks back, and it’s bad news for Tata Martino’s men as NYCFC has caught more steam as they continue to rack up positive results in the Eastern Conference.

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo — 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday

We’ve got ourselves a Texas Derby down in Dallas, and this could be quite the interesting matchup as both sides enter Sunday on a bit of a downturn. It’s evident both clubs have exciting offensive firepower but which side will come out on top?

Emre Can’s insane bicycle kick wins 16/17 PL Goal of the Season

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It was about as good a finish as you’ll see in any season, and Emre Can was properly rewarded by the Premier League for his efforts.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

The Liverpool midfielder won PL Goal of the Season on Friday for his audacious and seemingly impossible bicycle kick against Watford.

The goal came off a routine cross from Lucas Leiva into the Hornets penalty area, but what Can did next was simply astonishing as contorted his body and acrobatically finished an overhead kick that was the talk of the PL for the rest of the season.

Can, 23, finished the 2016/17 PL season with five goals in 31 matches for Jurgen Klopp‘s side but none can compare to what he achieved at Vicarage Road.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 13: TFC continues to roll atop MLS

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As MLS heads into Week 13 there are many familiar suspects at the top of the league while some new teams continue their rise to the summit.

Here are PST’s latest MLS Power Rankings as we head into another busy weekend:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

22 (13)

21 (21)

 

20 (17)

D.C. United: Three consecutive defeats and no goals in that span has spelt some serious trouble for Ben Olson’s side, who sit at the bottom of the East.

Colorado Rapids: With just two wins over the first (almost) three months, the Rapids are scoring less than a goal per game (nine in 11 matches). This club needs to add to its attack over the summer.

Real Salt Lake: The Claret and Cobalt have scored just three goals in their last six matches. They’ve only won one of those matches. 

19 (19) Montreal Impact: A big win against Portland could kickstart a turnaround for the Impact.
18 (7) Minnesota United: It’s going to be a long season for the Loons if they cannot fix their backline. The good news is the club is scoring more goals to at least make things interesting.
17 (16) New England Revolution: The Eastern Conference side has improved over recent weeks with back-to-back wins.
16 (12) Seattle Sounders: The Sounders got off to a rough start last season, and they won MLS Cup. It may be more difficult to replicate that feat in 2017 given the quality of teams early in the year.
15 (9) Atlanta United: It’s been a series of ups and downs for Tata Martino’s men, but a thrilling effort against Houston last week showed how brilliant Atlanta can be.
14 (22) Philadelphia Union: After a rough start, the Union have picked up some serious steam as of late, going unbeaten in their last six.
13 (18) LA Galaxy: The Galaxy are looking like the Galaxy we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Let’s see if they can sustain it.
12 (7) New York Red Bulls: Jesse Marsch’s group will look to a familiar foe in the New England Revolution to try to get back to winning ways.
11 (15) Vancouver Whitecaps: The Western Conference side could keep up winning ways this weekend as they face D.C. United.
10 (5) Orlando City: Winless in five, the Lions will travel north to take on an improved Minnesota.
9 (4) Portland Timbers: The Timbers haven’t won in their last four, and their backline is beginning to show signs of weakness.
8 (11) Columbus Crew: One of the top games of the weekend will come on Friday night when Greg Berhalter’s men travel north to face Toronto.
7 (10) San Jose Earthquakes: A draw with Orlando and win over Dallas has the Quakes rising again in the West. 
6 (14) Houston Dynamo: With Erick Torres and co., the Dynamo could very well have one of the top attacks in MLS. 
5 (8) Chicago Fire: Veljko Paunovic’s side kicked off the week with a quality win over FC Dallas, and people should begin to see the Fire how good they truly are.
4 (2) FC Dallas: Back-to-back losses for the reigning Supporters’ Shield holders brings up some questions in Dallas, but ultimately you’d have to imagine this team is going to be alright.
3 (6) New York City FC: The biggest difference between 2017 and past years for this club is the team’s defensive prowess. When you couple that with David Villa and NYCFC’s potent scoring attack, this team is becoming a favorite in the East.
2 (1) Sporting KC: The West leaders continue to play well at home but this weekend could be one of the side’s easier road matchups as they travel to a struggling Colorado.
1 (3) Toronto FC: Seven straight without a loss and Toronto has shown no signs of ending that run in the near future.

Totti leaves future uncertain before final match with Roma

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ROME (AP) Francesco Totti has finally announced that Sunday’s match against Genoa will be his last with Roma after an incredible 25-season career with his hometown club.

Whether the 40-year-old Totti will continue playing with another squad remains anyone’s guess.

The 2006 World Cup winner opened his future to questions by releasing a carefully worded statement on Thursday.

[ MORE: Jordan Morris talks to PST ]

“Roma-Genoa, Sunday 28th May 2017. The last time I can wear Roma’s jersey,” Totti said. “I can’t tell you in a few words how much these colors meant, mean and will always mean to me.

“I just feel that my love for football never fades; it’s a passion, my passion. It’s so deep I can’t imagine not fueling it any longer. Ever. From Monday I’m ready to go again. I’m ready for a new challenge,” Totti added.

The first part of Totti’s statement inferred that it wasn’t his decision to end his Roma career but that of the club, by not offering him a contract for next season.

Totti has not hidden his difficult relationship with Roma coach Luciano Spalletti, who has used Totti mainly as a last-option substitute.

However, Spalletti is widely expected to follow former Roma sporting director Walter Sabatini to Inter Milan; while Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco, a former teammate of Totti’s, could move to Roma.

The second part of Totti’s statement, when he mentioned a “new challenge,” inferred that Totti is considering ending his career with another club.

Miami FC, which plays in the second-tier NASL and is managed by Totti’s former teammate with the national team, Alessandro Nesta, and co-owned by Paolo Maldini – another former Italy teammate – appears to be the most attractive option.

James Pallotta, Roma’s American owner, has offered Totti an unspecified management position.

As for Sunday, Totti is not expected to start.

While the match at the Stadio Olimpico was sold out for Totti’s goodbye, Roma enters the final match of the season still looking to seal second place in Serie A and a direct berth into the Champions League.

Roma is one point ahead of third-place Napoli, which will play at Sampdoria.

Totti has appeared in 785 matches in all competitions with Roma, third all-time in Italy for most games with a single club behind only Maldini (902 with AC Milan) and Javier Zanetti (858 with Inter Milan).

Totti is also second all-time in goals scored in Serie A with 250, 24 short of the record that Silvio Piola established from 1929-54. No other active player has more than 200.

But statistics don’t tell the entire story for Totti, a cultural icon perhaps more linked with his club and city than any other player in Italian history.

Born in the working-class San Giovanni section of Rome, Totti made his debut for Roma at the age of 16 way back in 1993.

In 1998 at the age of 22, Totti became the youngest ever Serie A captain.

At the 2000 European Championship, Totti’s chipped “Panenka” penalty against the Netherlands highlighted his talent and audacity.

A year later, Totti led Roma to its third Serie A title and was the centerpiece of a celebration inside the Circus Maximus attended by a crowd estimated at 1 million.

After a spitting incident with Denmark’s Christian Poulsen at Euro 2004 slightly tarnished his image, Totti regained respect within the national team by returning from a broken leg to help Italy win the 2006 World Cup – playing with a metal rod and about 10 support screws inside his left ankle.

In 2007, Totti led Serie A with a personal-high 26 goals and earned the Golden Shoe award as the top scorer in Europe.

In 2015, Totti scored twice as Roma came back from two goals down to earn a draw with Lazio in the city derby, then took a selfie with Roma’s fans in the background.

A final highlight came in February, when Totti scored in added time to give Roma a 2-1 win over Cesena and a spot in the Italian Cup semifinals.

On Sunday, Totti’s career will be honored with an extensive post-match celebration at the Olimpico.

Whether or not there will be more highlights next season – somewhere – remains to be seen.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf