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

Leave a comment

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.

source:
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.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

Leave a comment

If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs take on bogey Reds; Everton vs. Arsenal

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Every club in the world has a bogey team (or teams) that no matter what they try, no matter the circumstances, it always seems to go sideways when they meet — a side that everyone associated with the club dreads when they see their name on the upcoming schedule.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man United shocked by Huddersfield; City, Chelsea win ]

For Tottenham Hotspur, the thorn currently in their side is Liverpool, who they’ll host at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, following Arsenal’s seasonal trip to Goodison Park to take on Everton.

Everton vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After starting the 2017-18 Premier League season with just two wins from eight games, every game could very well be Ronald Koeman‘s last game in charge of Everton, thus a visit from top-four-chasing Arsenal is anything but well-timed for the distressed Dutchman. What’s worse, the Toffees are also without a win in their last four games (all competitions) and on the verge of crashing out of the Europa League group stage.

“The performance was under level in the first half,” Koeman said following Thursday’s home defeat to Lyon. “We made a lot of mistakes, and the team played with a lot of doubts and little confidence. It’s very difficult (to reach the next stage). Most of the time you get your points at home but we have only got one out of the two we have had at Goodison. Nothing is impossible, but to gain more points — and I think we need six or seven — we need to improve the level and that is more important.”

Sounds similar to their league performances, strangely enough — Everton currently sit 16th in the PL table, mere months after spending in excess of $200 million during the summer transfer window.

European competition has treated Arsenal far better this season, as Arsene Wenger‘s side is three-for-three in the Europa League following Thursday’s win away to Red Star Belgrade. A number of key figures — Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, to name a few — were left in London, as a reserve- and youth-heavy side got the job done courtesy of an Olivier Giroud goal five minutes before full-time.

Still, the Gunners are in desperate need of a quick rebound following last weekend’s late defeat to Watford, after which Watford captain Troy Deeney publicly characterized the Arsenal players as mentally weak and said they lack the necessary “cojones” to compete at this level. On the bright side, Deeney’s 71st-minute equalizer (from the penalty spot) was the first goal Arsenal had conceded in 444 minutes in the PL, a streak they’ll look to start anew and build off Thursday’s win in Serbia.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (back), Morgan Schneiderlin (knock), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), James McCarthy (fitness), Yannick Bolasie (knee) | Arsenal — OUT: Danny Welbeck (hamstring), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh), Calum Chambers (hip), Santi Cazorla (achilles)

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Mauricio Pochettino has never beaten Liverpool in six tries as Tottenham manager (two triumphs in his 18 months at Southampton); in fact, Spurs themselves haven’t beaten Liverpool in the PL since Nov. 28, 2012 (three draws and six defeats in nine tries) — the north London side’s truest bogey club this decade. Having already fallen eight points behind leaders Manchester City, Pochettino’s side will have to clear that mental hurdle on Saturday if they’re to go on and challenge for the PL title for a third straight season. On the other hand, they’re unbeaten in 10 games (seven wins) across all competitions.

Fortunately for Spurs, the Wembley monkey is off their back after narrowly edging past Bournemouth their last time out at home. Harry Kane is without goal in his last 241 minutes for club (two for England during the last international break), which is practically an eternity after scoring seven goals in the previous 188 minutes.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s side enters Sunday’s clash mired in a month-long slump, having won just one of their last four league games, and just two of their last nine in all competitions. A major part of the problem is more of the poor defending that dogged the Reds last season, but perhaps they’ve been a bit unfortunate as well.

“We had bad luck in the last three or four games,” summer signing Mohamed Salah said this week. “Everyone was confident a good result was coming.”

The tough stretch has seen Klopp somewhat recalibrate his expectations in the direction of reality, dubbing his side the “challenger” when they take on Tottenham.

“(Spurs) are in a really good moment as a club and we are the challenger when we go there, that’s how it is,” he said this week. “But they know it will not be an easy game, so good, let’s play and let’s see what happens.”

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Mousa Dembele (foot), Victor Wanyama (knee), Danny Rose (fitness), Erik Lamela (hip) | Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (hamstring), Adam Lallana (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring)

PL Roundup: City separation; Stunning goal show (video)

Leave a comment

From Pedro‘s pipe cleaner to Boufal’s wondrous solo march, the Premier League’s day started and ended with glorious goals.

[ SUNDAY PREVIEW: Spurs face bogey reds; Everton vs. Arsenal (streams) ]

Manchester United lost for the first time this season along the way, one a few notable score lines on Saturday in the United Kingdom.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]


Southampton 1-0 West Bromwich AlbionRECAP

Tony Pulis tried to park the bus, but Sofiane Boufal is a stunt driver. Southampton found a winner late at home to move into the top half.

Huddersfield Town 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

It had been 65 years since Town beat Manchester United, and the way it looked Saturday it won’t be that long before it happens again. Maybe United was beat from the UEFA Champions League midweek, or just wasn’t prepared to answer the bell, but goals from Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre gave Town a 2-0 lead before Marcus Rashford provided for a tighter ending.

Manchester City 3-0 BurnleyRECAP

United’s neighbors took advantage of their loss, as Sergio Aguero converted a penalty before Nicolas Otamendi and Leroy Sane barged down the door and carried all three points with ease.

Swansea City 1-2 Leicester CityRECAP

A Federico Fernandez own goal gave interim manager Michael Appleton an early lead, and red-hot Shinji Okazaki made it 2-0 just after halftime. Alfie Mawson pulled one back for Swans, but that was all she wrote: Leicester had leapt out of the drop zone, and ahead of its hosts.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Rafa Benitez‘s men might’ve been second-best over 90 minutes to Roy Hodgson’s Eagles, but it was a Matt Ritchie corner kick to the noggin of Mikel Merino that did the trick and lifted Newcastle sixth before Sunday’s matches.

Stoke City 1-2 BournemouthRECAP

Mame Biram Diouf’s pull back was not joined by another Stoke goal, as an Andrew Surman goal and Junior Stanislas penalty kick combined to give the Cherries a notable win at the Potteries. Bournemouth is now just one point back of four teams with eight points, including 18th place Stoke.

Chelsea 4-2 WatfordRECAP

When Abdoulaye Doucoure canceled out Pedro’s fantastic 12th minute goal just before halftime, the Blues and Hornets went to the locker room with very different feelings. When Roberto Pereyra made it 2-1 Watford four minutes into the second, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was desperate. Fortunately, super sub Michy Batshuayi scored a brace wrapped around Cesar Azpilicueta’s 87th minute marker to give Chelsea a big win after its midweek draw with Roma in the UEFA Champions League.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 9 8 1 0 32 4 28 4-1-0 4-0-0 25
 Manchester United 9 6 2 1 22 4 18 4-0-0 2-2-1 20
 Tottenham Hotspur 8 5 2 1 15 5 10 1-2-1 4-0-0 17
 Chelsea 9 5 1 3 17 10 7 2-1-2 3-0-1 16
 Watford 9 4 3 2 15 17 -2 1-2-1 3-1-1 15
 Newcastle United 9 4 2 3 10 8 2 3-1-1 1-1-2 14
 Arsenal 8 4 1 3 12 10 2 4-0-0 0-1-3 13
 Liverpool 8 3 4 1 13 12 1 2-2-0 1-2-1 13
 Burnley 9 3 4 2 8 9 -1 1-2-1 2-2-1 13
 Southampton 9 3 3 3 8 9 -1 2-2-2 1-1-1 12
 Huddersfield Town 9 3 3 3 7 10 -3 2-2-1 1-1-2 12
 Brighton & Hove Albion 9 3 2 4 9 10 -1 2-1-1 1-1-3 11
 West Bromwich Albion 9 2 4 3 7 10 -3 1-3-0 1-1-3 10
 Leicester City 9 2 3 4 12 14 -2 1-1-2 1-2-2 9
 Swansea City 9 2 2 5 6 10 -4 1-0-4 1-2-1 8
 Everton 8 2 2 4 5 13 -8 2-0-2 0-2-2 8
 West Ham United 9 2 2 5 8 17 -9 2-0-2 0-2-3 8

 Stoke City 9 2 2 5 10 20 -10 2-1-2 0-1-3 8
 Bournemouth 9 2 1 6 6 13 -7 1-1-2 1-0-4 7
 Crystal Palace 9 1 0 8 2 19 -17 1-0-3 0-0-5 3

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, BVB level on points; USMNT’s Johnson scores

Marius Becker/dpa via AP
Leave a comment

Borussia Dortmund’s dominant start to the season is no more, and new Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes has his side very much in the race for yet another Bundesliga crown.

[ MORE: LFC prospects buries U.S. ]


Hamburg 0-1 Bayern Munich

Strikers Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and Robert Lewandowski (Bayern) were frustrated, combining for just 47 touches, and it took a fittingly messy goal to separate the two. It came from French midfielder Corentin Tolisso and pulled Bayern level with leaders BVB on points, three goals back in differential.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Borussia Dortmund

BVB is, quite officially, in a bit of a funk. Nuri Sahin and Marvin Philipp gave the visitors a 2-0 lead, but Eintracht sprung for goals in the 64th and 68th minutes to deny the leaders more than a point. Christian Pulisic ran his socks off, as usual, with more than 11km covered, but will not look back on his 90 minutes fondly. It happens.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen

American left winger Fabian Johnson buried a seventh minute goal… then watched the visitors put five of their six shots on target home for a gnarly home loss.

Elsewhere
Schalke 2-0 Mainz — Friday
RB Leipzig 1-0 Stuttgart
Augsburg 1-2 Hannover 96
Koln vs. Werder Bremen — 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Freiburg vs. Hertha Berlin — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Wolfsburg vs. Hoffenheim — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 9 6 2 1 25 7 18 3-0-1 3-2-0 20
 Bayern Munich 9 6 2 1 22 7 15 3-1-0 3-1-1 20
 RB Leipzig 9 6 1 2 16 10 6 3-1-0 3-0-2 19
 FC Schalke 04 9 5 1 3 12 9 3 3-1-1 2-0-2 16
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 3 1 15 10 5 3-2-0 1-1-1 15
 Hannover 96 9 4 3 2 10 7 3 2-1-1 2-2-1 15
 Eintracht Frankfurt 9 4 2 3 10 9 1 1-1-2 3-1-1 14
 Mönchengladbach 9 4 2 3 13 17 -4 3-0-2 1-2-1 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 9 3 3 3 20 14 6 2-2-0 1-1-3 12
 FC Augsburg 9 3 3 3 12 10 2 2-1-2 1-2-1 12
 FSV Mainz 05 9 3 1 5 10 15 -5 3-0-2 0-1-3 10
 VfB Stuttgart 9 3 1 5 6 11 -5 3-1-0 0-0-5 10
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 2 3 3 8 10 -2 2-2-1 0-1-2 9
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 5 2 8 11 -3 0-3-1 1-2-1 8
 Hamburger SV 9 2 1 6 6 15 -9 1-1-3 1-0-3 7
 SC Freiburg 8 1 4 3 5 16 -11 1-3-0 0-1-3 7
 Werder Bremen 8 0 4 4 3 9 -6 0-1-3 0-3-1 4
 1. FC Köln 8 0 1 7 3 17 -14 0-0-3 0-1-4 1