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.

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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.

Bournemouth 2-2 Watford: Cherries battle back to draw

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Benik Afobe of AFC Bournemouth scores his sides second goal during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Watford at Vitality Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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  • King, Afobe equalize
  • Kabasele, Deeney put Hornets ahead
  • 4 draw in 4 PL meetings

Bournemouth and Watford once again played out an entertaining draw in the Premier League.

In their four meetings in the PL, all four have now ended in draws. Watford twice took the lead through Christian Kabasele and Troy Deeney but goals from Josh King and Beink Afobe pegged the Hornets back twice.

With the point Watford move on to 24 points, while Bournemouth has 26 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Jack Wilshere dinked a lovely ball to Ryan Fraser who headed towards goal but Heurelho Gomes saved well as the home side started well.

Wilshere then struck a strong shot on goal which Gomes had to save as it was one way traffic.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Just as Bournemouth looked to be running away with things, Watford won a corner after a bad back pass from Fraser.

From that set piece Miguel Britos popped up at the back post and his header back across goal was nodded in by Kabasele. 1-0 to Watford as the Belgian international Kabasele had his second goal in the Premier League.

Tom Cleverley went close for Watford before the break but his low shot flashed wide as the Hornets led the Cherries.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Within three minutes of the second half Bournemouth were level as Adam Smith whipped in a great cross and King finished. 1-1. Game on.

Watford almost went ahead as Jose Holebas’ super strike was tipped wide by Artur Boruc. Gomes then denied Fraser with a wonderful stop to his left as the Bournemouth winger cut inside and curled an effort towards the top corner.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Somewhat against the run of play Watford then went 2-1 up as Deeney headed home from close range as a corner caused mayhem in the box. Could the Hornets hold on this time? Nope.

Substitute Afobe then got free in the left side of the box and he sent a shot across goal and into the far corner which went under Gomes and in. 2-2 and that’s how another entertaining clash between these teams finished.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Lineups, Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  General view inside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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The weekend’s marquee match sees Tottenham Hotspur going for a season sweep of Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Gabriel Jesus could make his Manchester City debut, beginning the day among Pep Guardiola‘s substitutes.

On the other side, Eric Dier moves into the middle with Toby Alderweireld in the absence of Jan Vertonghen. Kevin Wimmer slots in as well.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Bravo, Zabaleta (C), Otamendi, Kolarov. Clichy, Yaya, Silva, De Bruyne, Sane. Sterling, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Kompany, Fernando, Nolito, Delph, Stones, G. Jesus.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (C), Walker, Dier, Alderweireld, Wimmer, Rose, Wanyama, Dembele, Eriksen, Dele, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Trippier, Davies, Carter-Vickers, Winks, Sissoko, Son.

West Bromwich Albion 2-0 Sunderland: Black Cats meet 20th

West Bromwich Albion's Darren Fletcher, left, celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game against Sunderland, during their English Premier League soccer match at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich, England, Saturday Jan. 21, 2017. (Nigel French/PA via AP)
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  • Fletcher, Brunt scores
  • WBA stays 8th
  • Sunderland goes bottom

Darren Fletcher and Chris Brunt struck in quick first half succession as West Bromwich Albion handed Sunderland a 2-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

West Brom is up to 32 points, comfortably midtable and aiming for some breaks atop the table and good Cup fortune to get into the European mix.

Sunderland is now three points back of 17th place, held by Swansea City. The Black Cats do have better goal differential than Swans, but sit 20th.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Chances for a minor upset didn’t look good early, though Sunderland dodged a bullet with Billy Jones‘ takedown of Salomon Rondon was judged not to merit a West Brom penalty kick.

Fletcher hit his target in the 30th minute to make partial amends, at least karmically, as West Brom went ahead when he chested Gareth McAuley‘s header into position for a volleyed finish.

Brunt was next, and his goal was just as fine to view. It started with intrepid Matty Phillips, whose cross was palmed back to Nacer Chadli. The ex-Spurs man hit the cross bar, but Brunt volleyed that home.

Jake Livermore nearly scored on debut for the Baggies, who rarely looked to be in trouble.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Stoke City 1-1 Man United: Rooney sets record with late goal

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  • Mata scores own goal
  • United have 25 shots
  • Rooney breaks record 

A historic moment arrived as Manchester United scored a stoppage time equalizer to draw 1-1 against Stoke City at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday.

Wayne Rooney scored that equalizer in stunning fashion to set the new record as United’s all-time leading goalscorer ahead of Sir Bobby Charlton.

[ VIDEO: Rooney reacts to breaking the record ]

Rooney now has 250 goals in his United career and although Jose Mourinho’s side slipped up in their quest to move closer to the top four they have extended their unbeaten run to 17 games in all competitions.

An own goal from Juan Mata after Erik Pieters‘ cross looked like it would be the difference as United had over 65 percent possession and plenty of shots on target but couldn’t break down a stubborn Stoke outfit.

However Rooney’s moment arrived in stoppage time and the rest, as they say, is history.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Early on there was a scare for Stoke as a high ball into the box saw Lee Grant catch the ball but collide with Ryan Shawcross and the loose ball was eventually cleared.

Stoke took the lead in the 19th minute as Marko Arnautovic played in Pieters and his cross deflected off Juan Mata and in at the near post. 1-0 to the Potters via Mata’s own goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Ibrahimovic then set up Mata unselfishly but the Spaniard’s shot went over from five yards out as as Bruno Martins Indi did enough to put him off. United looked increasingly dangerous as the first half wore on as Zlatan set up Mata again but the chance came and went with Martins Indi blocking his shot.

Grant then saved a volley from Marouane Fellaini and another from Zlatan but the Potters led at the break despite United having 12 attempts.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

In the second half Mata went close and United continued to push hard and Marcus Rashford came off the bench to try and get Mourinho’s men back in it.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

On the break Stoke looked dangerous and Xherdan Shaqiri twice went close as the Swiss winger saw his volley saved by David De Gea and then a shot blocked by Chris Smalling.

Paul Pogba had a shot blocked and then Rashford curled an effort a yard wide of the goal when free in the box as United couldn’t find a way through.

On as a sub, Rooney then had a glorious chance to set the new goalscoring record but he sent a header over the bar. Jesse Lingard then had a shot from distance which deflected off Ryan Shawcross and hit the crossbar.

Yet Rooney was not to be denied as he curled him a sumptuous free kick to set the record and grab a point for his side.