EPL

Premier League fixtures 2021-22: Salah and Sterling looking to continue prolific opening-day records

By Sports Desk June 16, 2021

The Premier League fixture release for the 2021-22 has thrown up some intriguing opening-day clashes.

Champions Manchester City head to Tottenham, with the future of Harry Kane and speculation over which club he might be representing by August 14 still up in the air.

Arsenal are at newly promoted Brentford, while there is a familiar feel to Liverpool travelling to Championship winners Norwich City.

Manchester United v Leeds United is very much in the conversation when it comes to what might be the pick of the initial games, while Chelsea's quest to add domestic dominance to European glory begins against Crystal Palace.

Here, with help from Opta, Stats Perform looks at some of the landmark numbers thrown up by the big kick-off and who might be gunning for a piece of history this time around.

Chelsea to soar against the Eagles?

Still without a manager and facing a close season of extensive squad turnover, Palace certainly have a daunting assignment in prospect at Stamford Bridge against Thomas Tuchel's Champions League winners.

Chelsea boast the biggest opening-day win in Premier League history, a 6-0 thrashing of West Brom in August 2010.

That result replaced the previous most emphatic triumph by Liverpool, who won 6-1 away from home back in 1994. Their opponents? Crystal Palace.

Klopp and Salah send out another welcome party

For a third consecutive season, Liverpool will face a promoted team in their first match of the campaign, having thumped Norwich 4-1 at Anfield in 2019-20 before sharing a 4-3 thriller with Leeds last time around.

Mohamed Salah fired a hat-trick against Marcelo Bielsa's men – the ninth opening-day treble in the competition – and was also on target versus the Canaries.

Salah's six goals on the first weekend place him joint third in the Premier League's all-time standings, level with Leicester City's Jamie Vardy. Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearer (eight) have more matchday one goals than any other player.

Rooney's five assists leave him out in front on 13 goal involvements, ahead of Shearer and Teddy Sheringham (10).

More capital punishment from Sterling?

Alongside Salah, Raheem Sterling is the only other active Premier League star to have an opening-day hat-trick to his name, having claimed the matchball in Manchester City's 5-0 win at West Ham in 2019.

Overall, the England winger has five goals and two assists on matchday one, and Pep Guardiola's side will be looking to continue a habit of making flying starts.

City have won all of their opening day fixtures in Guardiola's previous five seasons in charge. Indeed, they have won each of their past 10 games on the opening weekend, dating back to a 4-0 triumph over newly promoted Swansea City in 2011.

However, the last time they failed to take an initial three points was in a 0-0 draw at Spurs in 2010. Additionally, in three visits to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in all competitions since its 2019 opening, City have suffered three defeats and failed to score a goal.

Gunners must keep cool to avoid Bees sting

History is to repeat itself on a historic day for Brentford. Arsenal's visit will be their first top-flight game for 74 years, since a 1-0 defeat to the Gunners in May 1947.

Thomas Frank might be able to count on ill-discipline afflicting Mikel Arteta's side if Arsenal's previous efforts are anything to go by.

No team in Premier League history has collected as many as the north London club's six opening-day red cards, one more than Charlton Athletic – a fairly remarkable return given the Addicks were relegated in 2007 and are yet to return.

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    Sri Lanka will be hoping a win in 50-over cricket can trigger a white-ball resurgence as they prepare to take on India in a three-match T20I series, beginning on Sunday in Colombo.

    Half-centuries from Avishka Fernando and Bhanuka Rajapaksa helped Sri Lanka win the third and final ODI between the nations on Friday, just their second win in 11 outings.

    They have struggled in T20 action too, winning just once in their previous 13 completed fixtures. Home advantage should help, yet they have not triumphed at the R. Premadasa Stadium – the venue for all three of the upcoming fixtures against India – in the shortest format since August 2018.

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    Sri Lanka at least avoided that fate against India in one-day action, aided by a turning track on Friday that allowed their spinners to trigger a batting collapse – the tourists lost their final seven wickets for just 68 runs following a rain delay.

    They could also be boosted by the return of Wanindu Hasaranga, who missed the final ODI due to an injury concern.

    India, meanwhile, remain without a number of their star names, so these games provide crucial opportunities for fringe players as they look to impress, particularly as this is a World Cup year.

    Pushing the boundaries

    Sri Lanka have hit a boundary once every 7.7 balls faced in the powerplay overs since the beginning of 2020 in T20I action, the worst rate for any team in that period. 

    India have the third-slowest rate, taking 5.6 balls for every boundary. Captain Shikhar Dhawan will hope to help lower that number as he continues to lead the team, while Prithvi Shaw could get the chance to stake his claim for a regular top-order spot.

    Positive spin can help India

    Varun Chakravarthy could finally be handed his international debut in the series. India appeared keen to pick the mystery spinner against England in the T20I series on home soil earlier this year, yet concerns over his level of fitness ruled him out of contention.

    The 29-year-old is a compelling option, though. He has taken 25 wickets in 21 matches in the Indian Premier League, 17 of which came in a 2020 campaign for the Kolkata Knight Riders that saw him finish with an economy rate of 6.84 runs per over.

    Key series facts

    – India are unbeaten against Sri Lanka in multi-game bilateral T20I series (W3 D1). India have beaten Sri Lanka in each of the past three such series, the most recent meeting being in January 2020.

    – Sri Lanka have one win from their past 11 completed T20I matches against India (L10). The solitary triumph was achieved in March 2018 when the Lions beat the Men in Blue by five wickets at the very same venue this match is being played.

    – Since the beginning of 2020, only 43 per cent of the runs scored by Sri Lanka in men's T20I matches have come via boundaries, the lowest rate for any team in that period.

    – Dasun Shanaka has a batting dot ball rate of 48 per cent in T20I matches since the beginning of 2020. Only two players have a higher rate than the Sri Lankan (Chris Gayle at 53 per cent and Andre Fletcher at 51 per cent, minimum 100 balls faced).

    – Bhuvneshwar Kumar needs five wickets to reach 50 in T20I action for India. He will become the fourth player to achieve this feat for his country, with his career-best figures seeing him take 5-24 against South Africa in 2018.

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    Meanwhile, Banda equalled the record for most goals scored by a woman at a single Olympics, matching Christine Sinclair's tally of six for Canada at London 2012 with another treble, this time against China.

    Zambia's captain scored all her country's goals in a 10-3 loss to the Netherlands in their Group F opener. She followed up with three more in a thrilling 4-4 draw on Saturday, though China's Wang Shuang went one better as she hit four in a see-saw contest.

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    Ellen White continued her impressive start to the tournament with the winner as Great Britain defeated hosts Japan 1-0 to qualify for the last eight.

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  • Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address? Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address?

    Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

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    Physical dominance is the key

    There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

    While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

    Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

    In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

    In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

    Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

    Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

    But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

    And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

    While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

    That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

    But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

    United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

    Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

    Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

    The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

    That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

    Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

    For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

    But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

    Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

    If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

    But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

    Pressure now on Ole

    Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

    But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

    Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

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