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.

Argentina shocked by abuse of minors at top clubs

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) The young victims are still here: they’re among the kids who like to share stories while they sip on traditional Argentine tea, who check their phones outside changing rooms, and kick a ball around during a break from practice.

The teens live in the boarding house for Independiente’s youth section, where they should have been safe, dreaming of becoming Argentina’s next soccer great.

Instead, investigators say pedophiles turned their lives into a nightmare when they paid many of these children, who come from poor families in remote corners of the country, as little as a bus ride back home or a pair of football boots in exchange for sex.

The prosecutor investigating the case says that at least 10 minors were prostituted and several other more minors are believed to have been potential victims. So far, seven men, including a referee, have been arrested.

The child prostitution ring at Independiente was followed by reports that minors had also been allegedly abused at River Plate’s youth divisions. The growing scandal at two of Argentina’s most popular and successful clubs has shocked many in this soccer-mad nation.

The Argentine Football Federation has ordered monitoring of club boarding houses nationwide. But former players, sports psychologists and parents say that much more needs to be done to protect the children who train in talent factories where Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and other stars polished their skills growing up.

Independiente filed a complaint with prosecutors earlier this year when the allegations first surfaced after one of the players broke down during a session with a club psychologist.

“We had two paths: reporting this or covering it up, and we decided to look the children and the parents in the eyes and file a complaint,” a club official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the case is still being investigated.

“Thanks to this complaint, all the people involved are behind bars,” the source said. “There’s a huge social phenomenon here: There have been other reports since we filed the complaint, and I hope others have the courage to come out as well, because this goes far beyond Independiente.”

Just days after the Independiente case broke out, River Plate said that it would cooperate with authorities after a local group reported minors were allegedly abused in the club’s youth divisions from 2004-11.

“The state should be much more involved so that a child doesn’t have to sleep with a man for some football boots or money to send back to his family,” said Maria Elena Leuzzi, a founder of the AVIVI Association for Victims of Rape that filed the complaint about River Plate.

“A child should always be cared for. We don’t know if we’ll have a future dad, a president, or a soccer player.”

Argentina is home to some of the world’s greatest players, but also fan violence by hooligans and endemic corruption by generations of soccer bosses and scouts who run the lucrative and often unregulated business of finding future stars.

“At the clubs, the bosses need to understand that kids are not numbers,” said Leonel Gancedo, a former player for River Plate and several other clubs who now runs the “Angeles Unidos” club.

“What has happened is shameful,” he said. “It’s a consequence of poor decisions.”

Many children in club boarding houses come from impoverished faraway communities, living far from their parents under the care of clubs, dreaming of a chance to make it big in the ultra-competitive world of professional football.

But for the thousands of talented youngsters who try out in the lower divisions, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field.

“A kid can’t be pressured to save his family economically. It’s too much,” said Oscar Mangione, a sport psychologist and a former therapist for the Boca Juniors club.

Like elsewhere in the world, Argentina has experienced a string of sex abuse disclosures in the Catholic Church, and more recently, among celebrities and athletes. But the magnitude of the latest abuse scandal in sports is unprecedented in a country that prides itself on its World Cup victories and its Olympic medals in everything from sailing to field hockey.

Argentina’s Olympic Committee recently filed a legal complaint against a gymnastics coach who is accused of abusing a still undetermined number of athletes in the 1990s. As part of the investigation by a local prosecutor, authorities raided the headquarters of the Argentine gymnastics confederation.

“This is being spoken about much more: Newspapers, the radio, they all help to spread the word. We’re helping the victim lose its shame,” Leuzzi said. “The one who has to feel shame is the one who carries out the abuse.”

The kickoff for change should come from a serious effort by the Argentine Football Association to set safety rules among clubs nationwide, said Cesar La Paglia, a former player for Boca Juniors and the manager of Club Social Parque, a youth club.

“There are kids aged 8 or 9 living in these club boarding houses – it’s insane,” he said. “Those kids should be with their parents.”

In all, there are 50 teenagers from across Argentina living at the brick residences painted in the red and white club colors of Independiente. On a recent day, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The sound of a ball being kicked in a field surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees could be heard inside the main hall; Football boots were neatly lined up below the club’s red emblem; and a poster of the stadium with a cheering crowd on a wall, read: “The temple of your dreams.”

The club says that the victims have been reunited with their families in Buenos Aires and continue to receive psychological support while it continues to cooperate with authorities.

Meanwhile, a judge is expected to issue charges this week against the seven people who are being held in the alleged prostitution ring, and the prosecutor investigating the case has requested that they remain in prison.

Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

Christian Pulisic to make USMNT return

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It was announced on Wednesday that Christian Pulisic will return to the U.S. national team and he is heading home.

The Hershey, Pennsylvania native will play for the USMNT on May 28 against Bolivia as the friendly takes place at the Philadelphia Union’s Talen Energy Stadium.

Interim USMNT head coach Dave Sarachan revealed in a press conference that Pulisic will be involved against Bolivia after the youngster was left out of the past few U.S. squads to let him rest up after a busy season in the Bundesliga and Europe with Dortmund.

Pulisic, 19, hasn’t played for the USMNT since their 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017 which sealed their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup this summer.

The teenage sensation (who has nine goals in 20 games for the USMNT) has played 39 times in all competitions for German giants Borussia Dortmund this season, scoring five goals. The game against Bolivia will mark two years to the day that he scored his first USMNT goal, also in a friendly against Bolivia.

Pulisic said the following about heading home.

“I’m really excited to play in Philadelphia,” Pulisic said. “Obviously it’s close to my home and a lot of my family will be there and I’m super excited to put on the U.S. jersey again.”

Speaking about Pulisic’s return, Sarachan was delighted to have him back on board and revealed he hasn’t quite made his mind up about the make-up of his squad for the upcoming friendlies.

“We are excited to have him back with us,” Sarachan said. “We are still forming what make sense in terms of balance between Major League Soccer players and players from elsewhere.”

The USMNT will arrive in Philly on May 20 for a training camp at the University of Pennsylvania before the friendly against Bolivia, while Pulisic is also expected to travel with the team to play in their friendlies at the Republic of Ireland and France in early June.

The kid is back.

Oxlade-Chamberlain injury update

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Jurgen Klopp does not seem confident that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play again this season.

The Liverpool and England midfielder suffered an injury to his right knee early on in Liverpool’s 5-2 win over Roma in their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg, as he appeared to extend his right knee under his body when making a challenge on Aleksandar Kolarov.

Speaking to the media following Liverpool’s dramatic win, Klopp was downbeat about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chances of playing again this season.

“We don’t know exactly but if the medical department are quite concerned without a scan, you can imagine it’s difficult. The season is not that long anymore. It doesn’t look good,” Klopp said. “I’m a very positive person and still hope it only feels bad, but is not that bad. We’ll see. We lost a fantastic player tonight. It’s not good news.”

This injury has come at such a bad time for The Ox.

He has been flourishing with Liverpool in a central midfield role and has delivered key goals and assists in big wins since arriving from Arsenal last summer. Most notably the Ox’s driving midfield runs have caused Manchester City all kinds of problems and he scored two screamers against them in wins at Anfield in the Premier League and UCL.

Georginio Wijnaldum stepped in admirably for Oxlade-Chamberlain against Roma and the Dutch midfielder will be used alongside James Milner and Jordan Henderson from here on out by Klopp, especially with Emre Can battling a back injury.

As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he will now be focused on trying to be fit for the UCL final on May 26 (if Liverpool get there) and on making England’s 2018 World Cup squad. That seems like a big ask given Klopp’s gloomy assessment.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday and whether or not that was helpful, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands.

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away on where he would go. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that he didn’t “want to influence the next manager” of Arsenal with so many contenders mentioned as he also confirmed he will have no say on his successor.

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still has one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season, but he could have simply been saying that he would have preferred an announcement at the end of the season rather than before a big European semifinal. His comments can be interpreted either way but many journalists in the room are all suggesting Wenger was talking about the overall decision to step down now.

The growing, and widely reported, notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger. Intriguing times ahead.