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.

source: Getty Images
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.

source: Getty Images
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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Koeman: Manchester United “don’t deserve a medal” for treatment of Louis van Gaal

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Louis van Gaal, Manager of  Manchester United talks to Ronald Koeman, Manager of Southampton during the  Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Southampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images
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When it comes to the firing of Louis Van Gaal, his countryman has his back.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman doesn’t like the way Manchester United handled LVG’s fate with the team, firing him within hours of the Red Devils winning the FA Cup.

Like many, Koeman doesn’t buy that the LVG to Jose Mourinho transition happened in a week.

[ MORE: Early and (purposefully) absurd 2016-17 PL predictions ]

Given the gossip mill since Chelsea fired Mourinho in January, that’s not a hard thing to buy, and Koeman is angry that LVG was kept out of the loop. Reports claim that Van Gaal had drawn-up plans for 2016-17 with him on the day he was let go.

From Sky Sports:

“If Louis was not told about getting the sack until after the FA Cup final, then Manchester United as a club don’t deserve a medal for the way they treated him.

“If you know a little bit about the business at the highest level in football, then you know that these kind of deals are not done overnight.”

Koeman hedges his words with conditionals, but there’s little doubt what he means. Managers generally stand together when it comes to dismissals, but it’s nice to see someone stand up for LVG’s treatment (whether he deserved to be canned or not).

Early and absurd predictions for the 2016-17 Premier League season

LUTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Geoff Cameron (R) of Stoke City celebrates scoring the winning penalty with Jonathan Walters after the penalty shoot-out during the Capital One Cup second round match between Luton Town and Stoke City at Kenilworth Road on August 25, 2015 in Luton, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
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It’s Sunday morning, a time to reflect and enjoy some rest, coffee and “Meet the Press”, so why not let your imagination wander as I tell you exactly how the 2016 Premier League season will play out?

Anyone will tell you that the world of football is a copycat affair, one where the latest big thing — counter attacking, the 4-5-1, false nines — often runs wild.

So if the next year of club football goes similar to the latest campaign, from remarkable fairy tale runs to powers dropping off and the UCL not going according to early season forecasts, how will it all look?

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things |Player ratings ]

Deep breath and…

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are incredibly busy in the summer transfer window, and City wins a massive bidding war to scoop up Paulo Dybala for a cool $120 million. Chelsea nabs Breel Embolo, United gets Romelu Lukaku, and Liverpool signs Christian Pulisic. But it’s not just the youngsters, as no one wants to miss “the next Jamie Vardy“. Well, almost no one. Nineteen teams sign a non-league striker. Arsenal does not, as Arsene Wenger decries reactionary big money signings with the Gunners sitting in first at the close of August as one of two unbeaten sides. He buys four midfielders and a backup goalkeeper “just in case”.

Tottenham Hotspur begin the season well and are the darlings of Europe by mid-January after escaping a group of death with Real Madrid, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. However, a late April draw makes it impossible for them to catch the Premier League’s top side, and Mauricio Pochettino focuses on the UEFA Champions League. Spurs shock Atletico Madrid in the UCL final, qualifying for the 2017-18 tournament despite losing their last five PL games and finishing fifth, behind Arsenal on goal differential but depriving the fourth-place Gunners of the UCL. Wenger says his club was “unlucky” because some guys got hurt.

Reigning champions Leicester City start with some stumbles, and Claudio Ranieri goes from lovable leader to “over his head” manager despite Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante being joined at the King Power Stadium by Sandro Ramirez. Ranieri is ungratefully canned in December for being too nice to the team doctors and shaking too many hands at press conference. Still, the Foxes make a run to the UCL quarters where they fall to PSG, finishing eighth in the PL.

Mendy (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Southampton, Swansea City and West Ham United tempt their supporters with strong campaigns but can’t crack the Top Four, which isn’t a problem for Stoke City. That’s because led by CONCACAF defender Geoff Cameron, Ligue 1 relative unknown Nampalys Mendy, Algerian playmaker Ryad Boudebouz and National League striker Elliott Buchanan (formerly of Bishop’s Stortford, as we all know), the Potters rise to the top of the Premier League. They lose to Arsenal twice, but win every other game with a remarkable counter attacking style as “new” manager Marco Hugheso endears himself to the world with his odd habit of banging a gong and saying “silly sing, silly song”.

A movie is cast, with Ranieri playing Hughes, and Kante, Mahrez, Wes Morgan and Vardy being asked to star. Three accept, but Vardy says, “This film idea is derivative and fails to live up to the lofty example set by my personal idol, Roberto Benigni. Ciao Bella, Get Benigni.”

Somehow it’s shocking to see Chelsea finish 12th despite last year’s struggles, as Diego Costa and Eden Hazard show true character in purposely scoring into their own net during a December match against Manchester United, two days after swearing a blood oath that they are doing their best for manager Antonio Conte, who is soon fired with Chelsea in 20th.

Liverpool looked set to make a title charge, but is left scratching their heads when Jurgen Klopp celebrates a Merseyside Derby goal from Christian “Still Here, Guys” Benteke by jumping so aggressively that his momentum carries him into outer space, where he takes the helm of Moonventus, leading the Old Lunar Lady to its 23rd Milky Way Premiership title. The club can’t regroup under new manager Steven Gerrard.

[ UCL: Real wins, Ronaldo with clinching PK | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

Frank de Boer takes over at Everton, but the hire goes awry before a late-season manager change happens too late for the Toffees to survive an inexplicable drop to the Championship. Caretaker boss Louis Van Gaal decides to stick around for a season in the second tier in an almost unprecedented move. Sunderland fires Sam Allardyce after a woeful start, and Rolland Courbois can’t save the day as two more PL mainstays are relegated along with Middlesbrough. That means two Northeast sides go down, while one comes up.

West Brom and Crystal Palace finish 14th and 15th. Tony Pulis hails it as a remarkable success for his Baggies, who sometimes take naps on the pitch during the final five matches. As for Palace, Alan Pardew wears leisure suits to every game and claims Palace are “dancing on the edge of the Top Four, just really unlucky when you consider well-regarded I am.”

Ah, but what about Manchester United and Manchester City? It’s a dogfight between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and by the end of the season Mourinho refuses to answer questions with anything other than facial expressions and quotes from “Ocean’s Eleven”. City finishes second to United thanks to goal differential, as Mourinho oddly benefits from Chelsea malcontents Costa and Hazard scoring all those own goals in December.

Steve Bruce leads Hull City to an 11th place finish in the Premier League, wearing a tuxedo to every game because “Life’s a big wedding party”. Bournemouth buys Neymar, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thiago Silva, but all are injured for six months and Eddie Howe still leads the side to safety. Watford is mired in the relegation fight for the first half of the season, but swaps sides with also relegation-threatened Malaga and both sides survive as the Hornets bring back Quique Sanchez Flores for the final four months. Burnley actually finishes in 18th, but is allowed to finish 17th because manager Sean Dyche “scares the ever loving heck” out of everyone.

Premier League 2016-17 table

  1. Stoke City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Manchester City
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham United
  8. Leicester City
  9. Southampton
  10. Swansea City
  11. Hull City
  12. Chelsea
  13. Bournemouth
  14. West Bromwich Albion
  15. Crystal Palace
  16. Watford
  17. Burnley
  18. Everton
  19. Middlesbrough
  20. Sunderland

Premier League Team of the Season

Butland

Yedlin — Cameron — Otamendi — Shaw

Ozil — Boudebouz — Mendy

Pulisic — Buchanan — Embolo

“Nobody remembers the losers” — Simeone admits he’ll consider his future at Atleti

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Head coach Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid gestures during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Diego Simeone is an emotional man, and big days are no exception to the rule.

The Atletico Madrid boss is a man who, according to legend, grabbed the mic at his wedding and apologized to his bride for Argentina falling short at the 1994 World Cup, then began crying.

So perhaps we should measure our reaction to his comments after Atletico Madrid lost a combination Madrid Derby-Champions League final for the second time in three years, but his words do matter.

[ UCL: Real wins, Ronaldo with clinching PK | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

The much-desired manager would be the hottest commodity on the market should he leave Atletico following a loss to Real in penalty kicks, and Simeone admitted he’ll think about resigning his post.

From the BBC:

“I am thinking that I have to start thinking. It’s a logical question for you to ask after a defeat like the one we’ve suffered today.

“We had the chance to become champions, we didn’t take that chance. We need to continue working, I have to think things out on my part – that’s what I’m doing now.

“What is clear to me is that nobody remembers the losers. We have to get over this and heal our wounds.”

With so much turnover in the Premier League already this season and few jobs open, where would Simeone go? He’s a football junkie, not someone we’d expect to “take a year off”, and his passion for Atleti still makes it feel unlikely he’d leave the club at all.

That said, he’s conducted some monumental reorganizations around the Vicente Calderon, and the energy it takes to do such a thing may have him considering whether he should try his luck at another locale (especially if Antoine Griezmann and other big stars find new homes).

MLS roundup: Drogba the hero; Multiple Kamaras score (but not the one you expect)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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Major League Soccer had plenty of entertainment in store for those who focused on it Saturday despite the USMNT, UEFA Champions League and English promotion playoff final dotting the landscape of football.

[ USMNT: Match recapThree things | Player ratings ]

A league superstar scored a hat trick, but so did a new face. Two surging and surprising clubs drew in Colorado, and two stumbling powers went head-to-head in New England.

Montreal 3-2 L.A. Galaxy

The big names came out to play in Quebec, as Didier Drogba, Giovani dos Santos, Ignacio Piatti and Steven Gerrard all played part in a thriller. Drogba was the key, setting up a goal before scoring at the very end of stoppage time to lift the Impact past the Galaxy. Then again, you could make a pretty valid argument that L.A. goalkeeper Brian Rowe was the key, because… dude:

http://player.ooyala.com/iframe.js#pbid=4bfc225f82bf46c48dfb065eda97f74f&ec=VjYXhzMzE6D3Br5qxiMUbv_R1DcsHlHo&platform=html5-priority

New England 2-1 Seattle

The Sounders have seen a lot of penalty calls against them this year, but this one will make fans think there’s a conspiracy against them. With a 1-0 lead, a Seattle clearance pegged Erik Friberg in the gut, catching him in a clear act of ball playing hand. Lee Nguyen converted the penalty, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen scored late to give the Revs a much-needed win and sink Seattle further down the “Why?!?” rabbit hole.

Colorado 1-1 Philadelphia

There wasn’t much brewing until late between the two conference leaders, who kept hold of their No. 1 seeds after Sam Cronin and Brian Carroll traded goals in the final five minutes of play in Colorado.

New York Red Bulls 3-0 Toronto FC

Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the fastest hat trick to start a match in Major League Soccer history, while the reigning MVP had to leave the game with a non-contact injury. Gonzalo Veron saw red for RBNY, but it did not help TFC get back in the game. To make things worse for TFC, Will Johnson made a PK only to miss when forced to retake for encroachment.

Columbus 4-3 Real Salt Lake

Hola, Ola. Ola Kamara scored a hat trick around a Justen Glad own goal as the hosts scored four uninterrupted goals as the Crew and RSL played a pair of busy halves in Ohio. Joao Plata had a goal and an assist for the visitors, while Jordan Allen and Luke Mulholland also got on the board.

Elsewhere
Vancouver 1-1 Houston — RECAP
Chicago 1-1 Portland
Sporting KC 0-1 DC United —
RECAP
San Jose 0-0 FC Dallas