EPL

Solskjaer praises influential Martial: That was more like the Anthony of old

By Sports Desk March 07, 2021

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was delighted to see Anthony Martial back to his best in Manchester United's derby win, particularly as the forward nearly missed Sunday’s game at the Etihad Stadium.

Martial was an injury doubt right up until kick-off after not featuring in the 0-0 draw away at Crystal Palace in midweek due to a knee problem.

However, the Frenchman produced an outstanding display against Manchester City, including winning the early penalty that allowed Bruno Fernandes to fire the visitors in front after just 101 seconds.

Luke Shaw doubled the lead in the 50th minute having also been doubtful to play himself, with the Red Devils putting an end to their neighbours' 21-game winning streak in impressive fashion.

"I thought Anthony was absolutely superb today, more like the Anthony of old," Solskjaer told Sky Sports.

"And to think he was a doubt this morning. He was until two hours – or after the warm-up, to be fair. I wasn't sure he was going to play or not. It was the same with Luke. 

"Today he [Martial] rediscovered himself, I feel. He was really strong on the ball, positive, and we have to be a positive team.  

"We want to play at a high tempo, of course we do, but we had to defend well. You’ve got to defend so you can attack the spaces that appear."

Martial played in a central role with Edinson Cavani unavailable, completing 95 per cent of his attempted passes as he consistently caused problems to City's previously stingy defence.

The only disappointment was his failure to convert a glorious opportunity to score himself in the second half, a goal his performance richly deserved.

"When you come away with a 2-0 win and another clean sheet, and a performance like this, you're delighted," Solskjaer said of his team's display against the runaway league leaders.

"We knew it was a challenge. Of course, the first goal dictates a lot of what happened out there.

"We could play more on the result, I didn't like us coming into half-time as we played too much on the result, because we were winning.  

"In the second half we got on the ball a bit more and the second goal was fantastic."

Pep Guardiola's side had not lost in their previous 28 games in all competitions, a run that stretched back to a 2-0 reverse away at Tottenham in November 2020. 

However, Solskjaer has developed a welcome habit of winning at the Etihad. The Norwegian is the first manager in United's history to win each of his first three away meetings in all competitions against City, who still remain 11 points clear at the Premier League summit. 

"They are too far ahead to think we can catch them," Solskjaer said. "Last year, we caught up 15 points up to Leicester, but those are different propositions. 

"Even today, they do put you under so much pressure that you can see you’re playing against a very, very good team."

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    Sadio Mane cast doubt on his Liverpool future by saying he will reveal whether he is staying at the club after the Champions League final. 

    Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have been heavily linked with a move for Mane, who has one year remaining on his contract at Anfield. 

    After missing out on Premier League glory at the weekend, the Senegal international hopes to help Liverpool lift the trophy in Europe's leading club competition for the seventh time. 

    They will need to overcome Madrid at the Stade de France – a repeat of the 2018 final that was won by LaLiga's champions – for their third piece of silverware this season. 

    Madrid's interest in Mane has reportedly stepped up after they missed out on Kylian Mbappe, and the 30-year-old intends to provide clarity on his future after the final. 

    "I will answer after the Champions League. Whether I'm staying or not, I'm going to answer after the Champions League," he told Sky Sports. 

    Mohamed Salah, whose Liverpool deal is also set to expire in June next year, confirmed on Wednesday that he will still be at the club next season. 

    The Egyptian winger said the Reds want revenge over Madrid following the result in the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv, but Mane does not feel the same way. 

    "I think Mo is just Mo," he said with a smile. "For sure it's not a revenge. In four years a lot of things have changed, we have more experience and quality in the team. 

    "I think we've all forgotten about what happened in 2018. For sure, Real Madrid were the better team and deserved to win the final, but it's going to be a different game." 

    Mane added: "For me, relaxed, no pressure, nothing at all – just enjoy it. I think it's a dream moment for us, so let's enjoy it without putting pressure on ourselves. 

    "Everybody is smiling and confident, which is amazing. We know it won't be an easy game against one of the best in the world, but that will make the game special." 

  • French Open: Zverev was 'planning a holiday' before fighting back to beat Baez French Open: Zverev was 'planning a holiday' before fighting back to beat Baez

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  • Eagles to join the elite, Browns set for AFC challenge - Who is projected to contend in the NFL in 2022? Eagles to join the elite, Browns set for AFC challenge - Who is projected to contend in the NFL in 2022?

    The start of the 2022 NFL season is still over three months away.

    However, rarely is it considered too early to make predictions about what is to come in the upcoming campaign.

    And, with the draft in the books, teams having made the vast majority of their offseason moves and the scheduled, we now have all the information we need to make such prognostications.

    So after an extremely dramatic offseason defined by blockbuster trades, which teams are in the mix to excel in 2022 and which should already have half an eye on the 2023 draft?

    To answer those questions, Stats Perform has produced projected totals for every team for the forthcoming season.

    The projection projects every future game to give a predicted win percentage for each team across their games.

    Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team’s quarterback and QB Efficiency versus Expected – performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations – as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.

    There are several standout takeaways from this season's projection, with a new power potentially emerging in the NFC and one of last year's Super Bowl teams seemingly set for regression.

    Eagles to join NFC elite?

    The Eagles suffered a meek exit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs.

    Their win projection following an impressive 2022 offseason suggests replicating that this year would mark a gross underperformance. Indeed, Philadelphia's projected total of 12.0 is the second best in the NFC, trailing only defending champion Los Angeles Rams (12.2).

    The Eagles' position is built on their strength in the trenches. Philadelphia finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate.

    On the defensive side, the Eagles were eighth in pass-rush win rate and 11th in run disruption rate and made moves to boost both areas, signing Haason Reddick to a one-year deal after a second successive double-digit sack season in 2021 and drafting defensive tackle Jordan Davis – the star of the NFL Combine renowned for his ability to soak up double teams and excel against the run – in the first round.

    Philadelphia also improved the back seven through both the draft and free agency, taking advantage of the slide of Davis' former Georgia teammate Nakobe Dean to boost a linebacker group seen as a weakness. Dean had six sacks, six pass breakups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021.

    And last week, the Eagles signed cornerback James Bradberry to a one-year deal. With Bradberry and Darius Slay, the Eagles now have the only two players to register at least 15 interceptions and 80 or more pass breakups since 2016 in a secondary that finished 11th in open-allowed percentage last season.

    Quarterback Jalen Hurts' 10 rushing touchdowns were tied for the sixth most in the NFL last season. However, the pressure on him to improve as a passer will be immense following the Eagles' acquisition of A.J. Brown in a trade with the Tennessee Titans. Brown (32.8%) and the Eagles' 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith (35.0%) were both in the top 12 in big-play rate last year.

    Brown registered a burn (when the receiver wins his matchup with a defender when targeted by his quarterback) 64.0 per cent of the time (league average was 59.5%) and he tied for the league lead with 4.0 burn yards per route.

    Hurts had a 77.1 well-thrown percentage in 2021, which was below the NFL average of 77.9. An improvement will be needed for the Eagles to realise their potential. If that does not happen given the wealth of talent around him, then they may use their extra first-round pick in 2023 to help them find a quarterback better equipped to help them do so.

    Can the Vikes Challenge the Pack?

    The Vikings have not come close to challenging the Packers in the NFC North in recent times, missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

    But the projection indicates that could change.

    Bidding to stay competitive while undergoing a sea change in the front office and at head coach with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah taking over as general manager and Kevin O’Connell replacing Mike Zimmer on the sideline, the Vikings have a win projection within striking distance of the Pack.

    There are several reasons for the gap between the two being so marginal. Aaron Rodgers was second in QB EVE last season, but Kirk Cousins was not too far behind in seventh for the Vikings.

    Cousins also has the advantage of throwing to a receiving group that won a collective 35.3 per cent of its coverage matchups in 2021. The Vikings were fourth in the NFL in that regard. The Packers were third but have since traded Davante Adams, whose combined open percentage against man and zone coverage of 46.6 per cent was fifth among receivers with at least 100 matchups.

    Thanks in part to an impressive 2021 season from Rashan Gary, the Packers were fourth in pass-rush win rate, but the Vikings were 10th and will hope to get Danielle Hunter healthy this year to aid their cause. And while Minnesota struggled on the offensive side of the trenches last season, their pass-block win rate standing of 26th was still only three spots below that of a Packers line that still has issues on the right side.

    The Packers remain the better football team in most areas, but the loss of Adams has levelled the playing field somewhat for Cousins, whose efficiency numbers reflect his ability to produce on a similar level to Rodgers in the passing game.

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    The Trey Lance question

    It's difficult to make a judgment on how Trey Lance will perform as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback after just two starts as a rookie last year.

    Lance produced some encouraging flashes when he did play, blending aggressiveness with accuracy. But the volatility in range of outcomes for a player of his inexperience is higher than that of the man he will likely replace as the starter – Jimmy Garoppolo.

    With the projection assuming Lance plays 75 per cent of the snaps and Garoppolo 25, the Niners – who went 10-7 last year before surging to the NFC championship game – are projected to win 8.4 games. That puts them second in the NFC West behind the Rams, with the Cardinals in third with 8.1 in part due to DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension.

    The takeaway from this is clear. The Niners, who were first in pass-rush win rate, eighth in run disruption rate, 10th in pass-block win rate, sixth in run-block win rate and 10th in collective open percentage among their pass catchers last season, have the support system to elevate Lance and ensure he keeps them in the mix.

    But playing the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL, it's impossible to predict how a move from a player in Garoppolo, who was 10th in QB EVE in 2021, to a high-upside relative unknown will go.

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    The Deshaun Watson question

    While the Browns' trade for Deshaun Watson was the most controversial move of the offseason, there is no doubt his arrival in Cleveland has the potential to catapult them to the top of the AFC.

    The projection certainly expects his acquisition to have that impact, with the Browns predicted to win 10.8 games. That’s behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (11.2) and Buffalo Bills (10.9) in the AFC.

    Cleveland's schedule, which is the second-easiest in the NFL, plays a substantial role in the projection, which accounts for potential league discipline against Watson.

    The Browns' predicted win total is also illustrative of the gap between Watson and the man he will displace as the starting quarterback – Baker Mayfield. Watson was seventh in QB EVE in 2020, whereas only eight quarterbacks with at least 100 pass plays in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Mayfield last year.

    Possessing a defensive line that was ranked in the top five in pass-rush win rate last year and an offensive line that was in the top 10 in run-block win rate along with two premier backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns have the personnel in place to dictate games in the trenches. After landing Watson, they now boast a quarterback who can help them properly capitalise on their advantage in those areas.

    A Browns ascension could come at the expense of the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl last season – the Cincinnati Bengals. With a prediction of 8.1 wins, the projection does not anticipate the Bengals competing for the Lombardi Trophy in 2022. Instead, it expects a drastic bump back down to earth.

    So, with the Bengals playing the 21st-toughest schedule in the NFL, why is their projection so low? Though the Bengals have made moves to improve an offensive line that was 25th in pass-block win rate last year (acquiring Alex Cappa and La'El Collins), their roster is not in a position to survive a Joe Burrow injury.

    And with the Bengals' pass catchers 23rd in open percentage in 2021 and their defensive front 29th in pass-rush win rate, Cincinnati's projection serves as a clear indicator that the magic of last year’s playoff run may be very difficult to replicate.

    While the Bengals' win total is closely tied to an over-reliance on Burrow, the Miami Dolphins' projected number is a product of a lack of faith in the man he beat to the honour of the number one pick in 2020.

    Betting on Tua

    The Dolphins had a busy offseason making aggressive moves to help set Tua Tagovailoa up for success under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. However, those big swings will not be enough for Miami to make the leap, at least according to the projection.

    A prediction of 7.8 wins and a third-place finish in the AFC East would represent a huge disappointment and likely push a franchise that has two first-round picks in 2023 to move on from Tagovailoa. Tua was 24th in QB EVE last season and, among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, he averaged the seventh-fewest air yards in the NFL (7.35).

    While the Dolphins may look to use Tyreek Hill to stretch the field horizontally following his arrival in a blockbuster trade with the Chiefs, at this point it's tough to envision Tagovailoa making the most of having one of the best downfield weapons in the league at his disposal.

    The Dolphins do not look likely to challenge Buffalo in the AFC East, but it may be a familiar tale for the Bills in which they play second fiddle to the Chiefs. Though Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes went blow for blow in one of the finest playoff games in NFL history last season, there was a decent gap between the two in 2021 EVE with Mahomes third and Allen 11th.

    The Chiefs may have lost Hill this offseason, but – to make an obvious statement – as long as they have Mahomes under center, they will remain near the top of the conference.

    Playing behind an offensive line that was masterfully reconstructed in 2021 and ended the year third in pass-block win rate and first in run-block win rate, Mahomes still has the ecosystem around him to make the most of his remarkable gifts.

    The one thing that could hold him back is the strength of the division in which he plays.

    A tale of two divisions

    The Chiefs have seen the rest of the AFC West load up in an effort to end their reign in the division.

    Yet none of the high-profile moves made this offseason – Russell Wilson's switch from the Seattle Seahawks to the Denver Broncos, the Las Vegas Raiders trading for Davante Adams and the Los Angeles Chargers acquiring Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson – will tilt the balance of power away from Kansas City, according to our model.

    But the AFC West looks set to take the title of the best division in football with all four teams projected to win over nine games.

    That is in marked contrast to the AFC South, where the Indianapolis Colts (8.6) have the highest total in the division.

    The Titans, meanwhile, are predicted to slump out of contention after earning the number one seed in the conference last season. The Titans have the seventh-toughest schedule in the NFL and are projected to win only 7.5 games after winning at least nine in each of their four seasons under Mike Vrabel.

    Despite traditionally remaining competitive under Vrabel, there are several red flags for Tennessee. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 17th in EVE last year playing behind an offensive line that was 28th in pass-block win rate. 

    Tennessee's pass catchers ranked 18th in collective open percentage and on draft day traded Brown, who was third in combined open percentage (48.96) against man and zone coverage among receivers with at least 100 matchups in 2021. In other words, the deck is stacked against Tannehill preventing a poor division from being handed to the Colts.

    If their season goes as the projection expects, the Titans may start focusing on 2023 and building a contender around Malik Willis.

    And in the NFC South, it's probably not surprising that our model expects the Buccaneers to stay on top with Tom Brady back for another season.

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