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.

Zlatan after Manchester United win: “I expect much more from the team”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrate following their sides 1-0 victory during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Manchester United has gone from a three-match losing streak to a three-match winning streak after Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s second half goal led the Red Devils to a 1-0 win over Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on Thursday.

The UEFA Europa League match was heavily titled in United’s favor, as Jose Mourinho’s men controlled the ball but didn’t find a finish outside of their big Swedish striker.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Ibrahimovic was happy to pick up all three points after losing the group stage opener to Feyenoord, but expects better moving forward.

From the BBC:

“It was not an easy game, we played well, created chances but this is a typical game. When you don’t score in the beginning, the spaces get smaller and smaller. After the goal, we had more space but it was a decent game. We won and that is what counts after losing against Feyenoord.

“If you want to go through, you need to win the game, we did that. We could have done much more though and I expect much more from the team. We did not score as we did against Leicester but it is good for confidence. If we continue this and step it up, we will do good.”

United didn’t look like they’d concede a goal during the match aside from a very brief stretch early in the second half. Next up is an Oct. 20 trip to Fenerbahce.

Europa League: Zlatan leads Manchester United; Dundalk, Zenit win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Mikhail Sivakov of Zorya Luhansk and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United battle for the ball during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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  • Rooney assists Zlatan winner
  • Roma, Zenit win big
  • Irish history for Dundalk

A 68th minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic header spurred Manchester United past visiting Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk X-0 at Old Trafford on Thursday in UEFA Europa League play.

United is a point behind Fenerbahce in Group A, level on points with Feyenoord but would sit behind them on head-to-head tiebreakers.

[ MORE: Early match roundup ]

Marcus Rashford hammered a Paul Pogba flick off the goal post moments after Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a chance of his own, and Manchester United was rampant.

United was in control all half long, and even strings of passes were rare for Zorya. But the match remained 0-0.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

Funny thing, though, as Zorya really started to find some chances by crossing from wide positions as the second half got moving at Old Trafford.

The Red Devils got back on track with about 35 minutes to go, and it began to feel like the first half, that a goal was inevitable. Timothy Fosu-Mensah cut back for Wayne Rooney, who mishit a side volley directly to the back post. There, Ibrahimovic leapt to take advantage of baffled Zorya keeper Oleksiy Shevchenko, heading it over the line.

The Red Devils gave away a dangerous free kick with 12 minutes to play, but Jaba Lipartia hit his left-footed attempt over the bar.

Dundalk 1–0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Semi-pro side Dundalk became the first Irish team to claim a point in European play on the last match day, so it stands to reason the defeat of visiting Maccabi Tel-Aviv is the first win in Irish history. Big striker Ciaran Kilduff scored the goal that kept Dundalk second in Group D, two points behind Zenit Saint Petersburg. Dundalk is off to Zenit on Oct. 20.

Zenit Saint Petersburg 5-0 AZ Alkmaar

Speaking of Zenit, they didn’t just beat AZ, the Russians cruised past their Dutch visitors with five different goal scorers netting in the win.

Elsewhere
Saint-Etienne 1–1 Anderlecht
Genk 3–1 Sassuolo
Olympiacos 0–1 Apoel Nicosia
Fenerbahce 1–0 Feyenoord
Athletic Bilbao 1–0 Rapid Wien
Austria Wien 0–0 Viktoria Plzen
Zenit Saint-Petersburg 5–0 AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma 4–0 Astra Giurgiu

Giovani Dos Santos returns to Mexico team for Panama, New Zealand matches

CARSON, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 10: Jack Jewsbury #13 and Ned Grabavoy #10 of Portland Timbers battle Giovani dos Santos #10 of Los Angeles Galaxy for a loose ball during the first half of their MLS match at StubHub Center on April 10, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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Mexico’s friendly matches against New Zealand and Panama next week will see a return to the fold for in-form LA Galaxy striker Giovani Dos Santos.

The 100-times capped 27-year-old is having an MVP caliber season in MLS, and is one of only three non-Mexico based call-ups for head coach Juan Carlos Osorio.

The other two? Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marco Fabian, who is red-hot in the Bundesliga, and Giovani’s younger brother: Villarreal’s Jonathan Dos Santos.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Mexico plays New Zealand on Saturday in Nashville before heading to Chicago for Tuesday’s match against Panama.

Here’s Mexico’s full list of call-ups:

Moises Munoz – America
Jesus Corona – Cruz Azul
Rodolfo Cota – Guadalajara
Hugo Ayala – Tigres
Hedgardo Marín -Guadalajara
Oswaldo Alanis – Guadalajara
Silva Jordan – Toluca
Jesus Duenas – Tigres
Jorge Torres Nilo – Tigres
Adrian Aldrete – Cruz Azul
Luis Robles – Atlas
Jesus Molina – Santos
Jonathan Dos Santos – Villarreal
Orbelin Pineda – Guadalajara
Erick Gutierrez – Pachuca
Elias Hernandez – Leon
Angel Sepulveda – Querétaro
Hirving Lozano – Pachuca
Isaac Brizuela – Guadalajara
Giovani Dos Santos – LA Galaxy
Marco Fabian – Eintracht Frankfurt
Oribe Peralta – America
Alan Pulido – Guadalajara

Europa League: Saints draw in Israel; Schalke, Fiorentina roll; Inter 0-2

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25:  Fraser Forster of Southampton catches the ball ahead of Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham United during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Southampton at London Stadium on September 25, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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An update on the early matches of Europa League play, with Manchester United amongst 20 European teams dealing with 3:05 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Southampton traveled a long way and is coming home with a point.

A shorthanded Saints side without Jose Fonte and Charlie Austin amongst others played Hapoel Be’er Sheva to a 0-0 draw in Israel on Thursday in Europa League play.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

“It’s a good result,” said Saints boss Claude Puel. “We played a very good team. When you cannot win a game it’s important to take one point and it’s an important point for the future.”

The Premier League side won its first group stage match, and remains level with Hapoel Be’er Sheva for the Group K lead. Sparta Prague beat Inter Milan 3-1 in the Czech Republic to move into third place, while Inter is dead last at 0-2.

Mario Balotelli scored to open Nice‘s match at Krasnodar, but that was one of the only bright spots in a 5-2 win for the Russian side.

Schalke put aside its poor Bundesliga form to batter Red Bull Salzburg 3-1. Benedikt Howedes’ 58th minute goal gave the Germans a three-goal lead.

Full Europa League scoreboard

Qabala 2-3 Mainz
Astana 0-0 Young Boys
Zurich 2-1 Osmanlispor
Schalke 3-1 Red Bull Salzburg
Slovan Liberec 1-2 PAOK Salonika
Fiorentina 5-1 Qarabag
Steaua Bucuresti 1-1 Villarreal
Krasnodar 5-2 Nice
Ajax 1-0 Standard Liege
Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 Braga
Celta Vigo 2-0 Panathinaikos
Sparta Prague 3-1 Inter Milan
Gent 2-0 Konyaspor

3:05 p.m. ET kickoffs
Manchester United – Zorya
Saint-Etienne – Anderlecht
Genk – Sassuolo
Olympiacos – Apoel Nicosia
Dundalk – Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Fenerbahce – Feyenoord
Athletic Bilbao – Rapid Wien
Austria Wien – Viktoria Plzen
Zenit Saint-Petersburg – AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma – Astra Giurgiu