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.

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”