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.

Sheffield United battle past Crystal Palace

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Sheffield United beat Crystal Palace 1-0 on Sunday, as the Blades’ first home game back in the Premier League ended in victory.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

John Lundstram was the hero at Bramall Lane as his goal just after half time sealed all three points for the Yorkshire club, which was their first PL win since 2007.

Chris Wilder‘s side have now picked up four points from their first two games back in the big time, while Palace have yet to score across their opening two matches.


3 things we learned

1. Bramall Lane can become a fortress: The home fans created a wonderful atmosphere in their first PL home game since 2007, and they dragged their team over the line late on. As hefty challenges flew in and Chris Wilder wound up his players from the sidelines, this will be an intimidating place for teams to play. If the Blades are going to stay up, their home form needs to be very good and it seems like that is going to be the case.

2. Overlapping CBs a joy to watch: Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell marauding down the flanks was a joy to watch, and something we will see a lot from Sheffield United this season. Basham and O’Connell are encouraged to fly down the flanks and join attacks, with the holding midfielders sitting in for them and it certainly gives opponents a very different tactical headache to solve. O’Connell pushed forward down the left wing for United’s opening goal and the overload it created in a dangerous area worked superbly. Pretty soon a lot of other teams will be copying the Blades.

3. Wilfried Zaha not up to speed: In his first start of the season, Zaha spent most of the first half having a row with the home bench and fans. Roy Hodgson was hoping he would be focused after a summer-long saga which saw him state his desire to leave Palace, but moves to Arsenal and Everton both fell through. Zaha’s display on the pitch looked like a player who doesn’t really want to be at Palace. That is very worrying for the Eagles.

Man of the Match: Chris Basham – A dominant force in the air and on the ground, the center back held United’s defensive unit together and he epitomized their gritty display. The Blades’ longest-serving current player stood tall.


After a steady start to the game for both teams, Sheffield United started to cause plenty of problems as David McGoldrick had a shot blocked and Palace managed to scramble clear from a corner as the hosts built up a head of steam in the first half.

Callum Robinson struck an effort over the bar as the Blades dug deep and substitute Luke Freeman (who replaced the injured John Fleck) brought plenty of energy to the midfield battle.

The Blades should have taken the lead just before half time as Lundstram’s perfect cross the back post found McGoldrick but Vicente Guaita saved well.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Sheffield United got off to a perfect start in the second half as Jack O’Connell raced down the left flank and Freeman cut inside and sent a ball across goal which Guaita saved but the ball fell to Lundstram who slammed home to send Bramall Lane wild.

That opening goal sprung the game into life as Andros Townsend‘s deflected shot from distance was pushed out by Dean Henderson and even though Palace tried their best to get into the game, Sheffield United’s defense held firm.

Some meaty challenges flew in late on as substitute Ollie McBurnie made a nuisance of himself, as the home fans roared their team to victory.

Report: Alexis Sanchez pushing for Inter Milan loan

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A report from Italy states that Manchester United are in talks with Inter Milan over loaning Alexis Sanchez for the 2019-20 campaign.

Sanchez, 30, has reportedly asked United to send him to Inter for the upcoming season as the Chilean star has failed to settled at Old Trafford over the last 18 months and scored once in 20 Premier League appearances last season.

He has yet to play this season or over the summer after being injured playing for Chile in the Copa America this summer, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been positive about Sanchez whenever he’s spoken about him this summer and said wants to keep him at Man United.

However, per the report from Fabrizio Romano in Italy the former Arsenal star wants to head back to Serie A — where he started his career in Europe with Udinese — and Inter only want to pay $16.6 million to sign him permanently next summer when he will still have two years left on his contract at United.

With the summer transfer window still open in Germany, Spain and Italy until Sept. 2, this move is something to keep an eye on.

This is a big call for United.

Do they really want an unhappy and lackluster Sanchez around, blocking the pathway for the likes of Mason Greenwood to break into the first team?

Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard will provide goals and will be helped out by Juan Mata and Greenwood, but if one of Rashford or Martial gets injured, Solskjaer’s attacking options diminish quite rapidly.

Selling Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan already has them down a senior striker and if they have to subsidize Sanchez’s huge wages just to send him out on loan, is it really worth it?

After VAR drama, does new handball law need to change?

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The fallout from Manchester City and Tottenham’s wild 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium continues, as late VAR drama stole the show with Gabriel Jesus‘ strike ruled out deep into second half stoppage time.

[ MORE: VAR drama dominates

Jesus’ goal in stoppage time was ruled out for a handball on Aymeric Laporte after being checked by VAR, as the new laws brought in by IFAB this summer were interpreted correctly. The exact same thing happened as Wolves had a goal chalked out against Leicester during the opening weekend of the season.

But do those new laws need to be tweaked?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The new rules state that if there’s a handball in the box from an attacking player which either a) leads to the ball going into the net or b) leads directly to a goal being scored, then it will be called a handball.

However, the same law states that if a defending player handles in the box then it is down to the referees discretion to decide whether or not it was a deliberate handball.

As you’d expected, Man City midfielder Ilkay Gunodgan has strong feelings on this law change, and our broadcast crew discuss whether or not this law needs to be changed in the video above.

The overall feeling is that the law needs to tweaking to state that handballs in the box by either attacking or defending players are treated the same and called a handball.

Watch Live: Sheffield United v. Crystal Palace

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Sheffield United host Crystal Palace at Bramall Lane on Sunrday (Watch live, 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blades fans will enjoy their first home game back in the Premier League.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Chris Wilder, the lifelong United fan who is now their manager, will be emotional and fans of the Yorkshire club will create a heated atmosphere for opponents to visit this season.

In team news Sheffield United are unchanged from the team which drew at Bournemouth last week, with club captain Billy Sharp on the bench.

Crystal Palace bring in star man Wilfried Zaha who starts up top


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