Seven weeks of hard evidence suggest that the Green Bay Packers' Thursday Night Football clash with the Arizona Cardinals should be one of the games of the year.

The 6-1 Packers travel to face the 7-0 Cardinals for a meeting of two teams to have emerged as clear frontrunners for the top seed in the NFC playoffs and who boast a combined winning percentage of 92.9.

That is the best combined winning percentage for a game in Week 8 or later played on a Thursday since the 11-0 Chicago Bears played at the 10-1 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, 1934. 

Yet recent history and misfortune on the side of the Packers may see what many hoped would be a fascinating spectacle fail to live up to its billing.

Including the playoffs, the Cardinals have won each of their last three games against Green Bay, and the contrast in the talent the two offenses will have available means the most likely outcome is that streak continuing in the desert.

 

Packers lacking firepower

The Packers are set to be without their top offensive weapon on Thursday after Davante Adams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Adams needed to provide two negative tests, 24 hours apart, and be asymptomatic for 48 hours to be permitted to play against Arizona. He has reportedly not travelled with Green Bay and is not expected to play, leaving the Packers minus arguably the most complete receiver in the NFL, one who is maintaining the remarkable All-Pro standard he produced last season.

Adams is third in the NFL in receiving yards with 744. He has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 65.8 per cent of his targets. That is not too far above the average of 60.9 per cent, however, Adams leads receivers with at least 25 targets in burn yards per route with 5.1.

In other words, when Adams does win his matchup, he makes the most of it and creates significant separation, reflecting his reputation as one of the NFL's elite route-runners.

His absence will leave a massive void, one that will be more apparent because of the loss of the lead candidate to fill it.

Allen Lazard was placed on the COVID-19 list on Wednesday as a close contact of a person to have tested positive.

Unvaccinated, Lazard is out for five days, robbing the Packers of a receiver with a 71.4 burn percentage who has produced a big play on 44.3 per cent of his targets.

Without Adams and Lazard, the Packers are light on receiving threats to legitimately scare a Cardinals defense ranked second in yards per pass play allowed.

Running back Aaron Jones is Green Bay's second most prolific pass-catcher behind Davante Adams with 26 receptions. He may need to take on more of the receiving workload this week, though the Packers are hoping Marquez Valdes-Scantling can return from a hamstring injury and provide a spark with his downfield speed.

However, Valdes-Scantling's burn percentage of 43.8 from 16 targets so far this season indicates he may find it tough to lift a depleted group. Yet, regardless of whether it comes from Valdes-Scantling, Jones or tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis, Green Bay will likely require a significant contribution from an unlikely source to keep pace with a passing attack that is loaded by comparison.

Deck stacked for MVP contender Murray

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is firmly in the MVP race and, while that is in large part down to his own remarkable accuracy – 83.3 per cent of his attempts have been well thrown, the best ratio among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts – and playmaking ability, a lot of credit has to be attributed to the stellar performances of several receivers.

Three-time first-team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins has unsurprisingly hit the ground running in 2021, posting a burn percentage of 80, the highest ratio among receivers with a minimum of 25 targets, and producing a big play on 45.7 per cent of his targets.

Christian Kirk, with a burn percentage of 75 and a big play rate of 38.8 per cent, is not far behind while veteran A.J. Green (35.6 per cent big play rate) has been unexpectedly rejuvenated after trading Cincinnati for Arizona.

The X-factor, however, is rookie Rondale Moore, whose speed out of the backfield has added another dimension to Kliff Kingsbury's offense.

Moore's average depth of target is just 2.3 yards, the lowest in the NFL (min. 10 targets), yet Moore is averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, above the average of 2.5, illustrating his effectiveness in the quick game with his ability to beat defenders with both speed and elusiveness.

His presence has allowed Kingsbury to get more creative in the deployment of his offensive personnel, using the threat of Murray and Moore as runners to his significant advantage.

That particular string is not one the Packers have in their bow and, despite an impressive performance against the Washington Football Team in Week 7, their defense appears ill-equipped to deal with an offense that also saw tight end Zach Ertz score on his debut last week.

No case for Green Bay’s defense

The numbers for the Packers on the defensive side of the ball are impressive in terms of limiting the efficiency of their opponents.

Indeed, Green Bay's defense is 10th in the NFL in opponent yards per play allowed (5.38), while the Packers have given up only 19 plays of 20 yards or more, the third-fewest in the league.

But the Packers' defensive absences are such that it will be a tough ask for them to slow down a potent Cardinals attack.

Jaire Alexander remains out with a shoulder injury, leaving the Packers bereft of his versatility to play as a starting outside corner and at the 'star' position on the inside.

Rookie Eric Stokes has not been a liability in coverage, however, he is allowing 2.04 burn yards per snap (the league average for corners is 2.01) and, minus Alexander's services, the Packers do not have a cornerback capable of consistently locking down his opposing receiver.

Only six interior defensive linemen have defeated a blocker on a pressure more often than Kenny Clark (22), but the Packers' defensive tackle is lacking support off the edge, with Za'Darius Smith a long-term absentee following back surgery and Preston Smith questionable for Thursday due to an oblique issue.

Of quarterbacks with 25 attempts under pressure, Murray's well-thrown percentage in those scenarios of 81 is second only to Mac Jones (81.2).

The Packers do not have the resources up front to make his performance under duress drastically worse nor do they have the resources in the defensive backfield to keep all the Cardinals' weapons under wraps.

With their own offensive arsenal severely reduced, it may take a vintage Rodgers performance of the highest order for the Packers to avoid enduring another frightful experience in Arizona.

Ronald Koeman's 14-month spell in charge of Barcelona came to an end on Wednesday following another humbling defeat.

Barca fell 1-0 at Rayo Vallecano, fresh on the back of losing to fierce rivals Real Madrid, and find themselves ninth in LaLiga with 10 games played. 

The Dutchman departs Camp Nou with a win percentage of 58.21 across a 67-game tenure that provided more negatives than positives.

Here, Stats Perform picks out a few of the highs and lows from Koeman's reign, which coincided with the most difficult off-field period in the club's history.

MESSI'S DEPARTURE

When looking backing on Koeman's time at Barcelona in years to come, it will be best remembered as the period in which the Blaugrana were having to adapt to life without all-time leading goalscorer Lionel Messi.

Years of financial mismanagement predating Koeman's arrival in August 2020 meant Barca were unable to tie Messi down to a new deal and he left for Paris Saint-Germain shortly before the start of the 2021-22 campaign.

Sergio Aguero arrived but it was always going to take considerable time to replace a player that had scored 672 goals and provided 265 assists across 778 games. So it proved, with Barca's goalscoring problems laid bare this term.

CLASSICO WOES

While the loss to Rayo proved to be the final straw for Koeman, there had been growing talk that he would be on his way out regardless following Sunday's 2-1 Clasico defeat to Madrid.

Barca simply failed to turn up against their biggest rivals – and not for the first time given it was their fourth successive loss to Madrid in all competitions, making it their worst such run in the fixture since 1965.

Koeman is only the second manager in LaLiga history to lose his first three Clasicos, after Patrick O'Connell between 1935 and 1940, and that latest loss was not taken well by Barca supporters. The former Netherlands boss had his car mobbed by a crowd of disgruntled fans as he attempted to depart Camp Nou.

EUROPEAN HUMBLINGS

Barca's on-field struggles were not limited to LaLiga, either, as they made a historically bad start to this season's Champions League campaign with 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica.

Never before had they lost their opening two games in the competition and, while they did just about recover with a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev last time out, whoever succeeds Koeman still has plenty of work on their hands to advance from the group.

Indeed, before that win over Dynamo, Barca had lost four and drawn one of their last five games in the Champions League, having also lost to Juventus in the final game of their group campaign last term before losing to PSG over two legs in the last 16.

COPA TRIUMPH EASES PAIN 

Exiting the Champions League in the first knockout round last season was one of a number of disappointments for Barca in their only full season under Koeman.

Barca finished the LaLiga season in third, seven points behind champions Atletico Madrid, and also lost to Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana in dramatic circumstances.

But Koeman did win one trophy at Camp Nou thanks to success in the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. After overturning a two-goal first-leg deficit against Sevilla in the semi-finals, Barca exacted revenge on Bilbao in the final with a 4-0 win.

That made ex-Valencia head coach Koeman the second manager after Luis Enrique to win his first two Copa del Rey finals this century.

 

A NEW DAWN

Koeman will rightly point out that he had to operate with one hand tied behind his back due to Barca's financial difficulties, with Antoine Griezmann following Messi out of the door in the most recent transfer window.

Barcelona's squad became substantially weaker as a result, though it did at least present a chance to bring in some new blood. Koeman has brought the average age of the side down to 25.5, ranking Barca as the third-youngest team in LaLiga this season.

Ansu Fati's development may have been stunted by knee injury issues, which again kept him out of the Rayo loss, but the club's new number 10 has been given a firm footing to potentially succeed all-time great Messi as the face of Barca going forward.

Pedri and Gavi have also made a big impact under Koeman, the latter overtaking his team-mate to become the youngest player to start an El Clasico this century last weekend at the age of 17 years and 80 days. 

It will be those players, and not Koeman, who will attempt to return the club to former glories.

With the NFL approaching the midway point of its season, time is running out to stack fantasy wins and make a run at the postseason.

Whether you're right in the mix or on the outside looking in, now is the moment to go on a run and ensure you will be playing in the championship bracket.

The best way to do that is to identify the players with the opportunity to produce a performance that can serve as the backbone of a matchup-winning effort.

Here Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are well-positioned to do just that in Week 8.

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

Hurts is developing a reputation as the king of garbage time stats and, though fantasy owners may not have the benefit of him playing from behind in garbage time this week, he does have an extremely favorable matchup to exploit.

Through his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback, Hurts has accounted for 2,077 yards of offense and 15 touchdowns so far this season.

He is averaging 245.1 passing yards per game and 51.5 yards on the ground. Going against a Detroit defense ranked 30th in yards per play, Hurts is a strong candidate to deliver gaudy fantasy numbers.

Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

On the surface, Jones' matchup with a Cardinals defense ranked eighth in opponent yards per play allowed is a tough one.

However, only the Los Angeles Chargers are allowing more yards per rush than the Cardinals (4.97), and Jones should see a heavy workload on the ground and through the air.

Indeed, with Davante Adams a doubt after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Allen Lazard out for the same reason, Jones - who is second on the Packers behind Adams with 26 receptions - could see a bump in targets from Aaron Rodgers.

Always a must-start as Green Bay's lead back, Jones' performance on Thursday could be a decisive one for fantasy owners, especially those who play in points per reception leagues.

Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots

The Chargers will be out to get back on track as they return from a bye week following their Week 6 shellacking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.

And they will be hopeful of hitting on several explosive plays against a Patriots defense that has given up its fair share.

The Patriots have conceded 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh-most in the NFL.

That should be music to the ears of Williams, who has eight receptions of 20 yards or more, four games with at least seven receptions and a touchdown and two 100-yard performances. Expect this big-play threat to exploit a vulnerable New England secondary to a significant extent.

Tight End: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers

The Falcons are surging, and much of that is down to the play of rookie tight end Pitts, who is living up to the reputation that saw him picked fourth overall in this year's draft by Atlanta.

Pitts has at least eight targets in each of his last three games and goes into Week 8 on the back of successive 100-yard performances.

Having clearly earned the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan, Pitts is receiving the target share and delivering the production to make him a must-start regardless of a tough matchup against a Panthers defense allowing the third-fewest yards per play in the NFL.

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

The 49ers are firmly in must-win mode having dropped to 2-4, and the foundation for a winning effort in Chicago appears more likely to be laid by the defense.

San Francisco forced a pair of turnovers in the Week 7 loss to the Colts and the Niners' chances of adding to their takeaway tally seem strong with Chicago's rookie quarterback Justin Fields having thrown at least one interception in four of his seven appearances.

Fields committed five turnovers in Chicago's blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last time out and a 49ers' front led by one of the NFL's premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa should be confident of forcing him into more.

Few things in the NFL are as important as continuity.

Teams that develop an understanding through the experience of consistently lining up with the same players have a distinctly better shot of enjoying success than those who are constantly chopping and changing.

Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase already had a well-established rapport from their time at LSU, in which they combined for 20 passing touchdowns in 2019 as a high-powered passing game helped the Tigers surge to a National Championship.

The Cincinnati Bengals banked on that partnership translating to the pro game. A year after taking Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020, they passed on the top offensive linemen in the draft, much to the bemusement of many observers, to select Chase fifth overall.

Their faith in the mind meld between quarterback and wide receiver has, to this point, been handsomely rewarded.

Burrow threw for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday while Chase went for 201 yards and a score on eight catches to help the Bengals emphatically brush aside the Baltimore Ravens 41-17 and take the lead in the AFC North.

With Cincinnati sitting pretty at 5-2, doubts over whether Burrow could showcase the required progress after the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year are a thing of the past. Meanwhile, Chase is in hot pursuit of history and looks a near-lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Separated by a year, Burrow and Chase remain firmly on the same page, and they are helping a well-balanced Bengals team write an exciting new chapter in the story of a franchise that has predominantly been a tale of its shortcomings.

 

Burrow joins exclusive group

Burrow, having racked up 406 yards and three scoring throws in a meeting with the Cleveland Browns last year, became the fourth player with two games with at least 400 yards and three touchdown passes within his first 20 career outings. 

He joins a select club also featuring Patrick Mahomes, Nick Foles and Billy Volek.

Given the contrasting careers experienced by those three quarterbacks, that achievement is no guarantee of future success.

However, the displays Burrow has put on show through seven games suggest he is on the right path to vindicating his selection as a first overall pick and becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback.

Burrow does not have the strongest arm in the league, but he can beat defenses with his accuracy and his poise, both of which came to the fore against the Ravens.

He delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 80.6 per cent of his passes against the Ravens, according to Stats Perform data. That was only just above the league average of 79.8 for the week but it was the highest among quarterbacks who threw 10 passes to have averaged at least nine air yards per attempt.

Burrow finished the game with 11 air yards per attempt, illustrating his willingness to push the ball deep regardless of his perceived deficiencies in arm strength compared to some of the league's best.

And he remained accurate and aggressive in the face of pressure, his composure and intelligent movement in the pocket allowing him to excel even with Ravens pass rushers in his vicinity.

Burrow's well-thrown percentage under duress was 81.8 per cent, while he averaged 13.55 air yards on his 11 pass attempts with pressure.

Frustrating the Ravens with his ability to evade defenders in the pocket, Burrow's cool was exemplified by the Bengals' first touchdown of the game, which saw him shuffle to his left to avoid the monstrous figure of Calais Campbell after a play-action fake and uncork a perfect deep ball to an open C.J. Uzomah.

His prowess in that area has enabled Burrow to thrive while negating the issues on a still problematic offensive line, and having a receiver on a record-setting pace who has put concerns over his skill set to bed has significantly aided the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner's cause.

 

Chase on course for history

The Bengals selected Chase after a pre-draft process that saw plenty of pundits voice their doubts about a player who opted out of the 2020 college football season and who often relied more on physicality than his route-running to defeat the coverage of opposing cornerbacks.

Yet across the first seven games, Chase has made the Bengals' selection look astute by posting 754 receiving yards and scoring six touchdowns.

Chase's total puts him second in the league in receiving yards and means he has surpassed Harlon Hill (685 in 1954) for the most such yards by a player in his first seven career games all-time.

Averaging 107.7 yards per game, he is on track to smash the rookie receiving yards record set by former LSU team-mate Justin Jefferson, who finished the 2020 season with 1,400.

Chase is on pace for 1,830 yards and he is producing at such a rate in part because of the prowess he has displayed as a route-runner.

Going against an All-Pro cornerback in Marlon Humphrey, who went into Week 7 having allowed receivers to get open on only 19 of his 72 coverage matchups, Chase excelled at creating separation.

With 32 seconds left in the first half, Chase beat Humphrey's press coverage through selling an outside release and cleverly using his hands to render the corner's attempt to jam him immaterial as he got free over the middle for a 26-yard catch and run, setting Cincinnati up for a go-ahead field goal.

But Chase saved his best for the game-breaking play of the contest. Initially stemming outside as he lined up against Humphrey again, Chase showed his lower-body flexibility with a fluid break back to the inside on the slant. He then adjusted to a pass thrown slightly behind him before using his balance and body control to avoid three tackle attempts and proceeded to gallop free for an 82-yard score from which the Ravens never looked like recovering.

Announcer Kevin Harlan's description of Humphrey being "in a blender" could hardly have been more accurate and it encapsulated what Chase has blossomed into at the next level.

Producing a big play on 41.1 per cent of his targets – the sixth-highest rate among receivers with at least 25 targets – Chase is a wideout who can discombobulate even the most accomplished NFL corners, and more defenders seem likely to suffer the same fate as Humphrey as the Bengals plot a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

Defense defying expectations

Cincinnati's rise back to prominence is not all about Burrow and Chase, though.

They have played the most substantial role in the Bengals putting up 6.22 yards per play on offense, the third-best average in the league.

Yet a Bengals defense that held the Ravens to their lowest points total of the campaign is also worthy of significant praise.

Cincinnati's defense is allowing 5.14 opponent yards per play, the fourth-fewest in the NFL, the Bengals doing an excellent job of putting their opponents behind the sticks.

Indeed, only the Carolina Panthers (48) have forced more negative plays from their opponents than the Bengals (47).

The combination of an efficient offense boasting a receiver adept at delivering explosive plays and a defense that excels at creating plays where their opponents lose yardage is a winning formula that can lift the Bengals to stunning upsets over well-established contenders like the Ravens.

It remains to be seen whether it can be sustained, but a franchise that at regular intervals in its history has been known for poor personnel decisions and underwhelming performances is being rewarded for making the right choice in this year's draft and seeing its roster compete with rivals that entered the season viewed as existing on another level altogether.

It's way too early to declare the Bengals a complete team. Seven weeks of evidence is not enough for an organisation that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2015. However, what can be said with some certainty is Burrow, Chase and a defense performing well above expectations have put the Bengals in a position where results akin to what they produced in Baltimore will not be a surprise for much longer.

Sunday must have felt like a horror film for Manchester United fans as their team endured perhaps their most humiliating defeat of the Premier League era.

Still, ghoulish goings-on are not uncommon for the Red Devils during the month of October.

Elsewhere, Chelsea's demolition of Norwich City came largely thanks to their English contingent and the in-form Ben Chilwell, who is on the kind of goalscoring run that struggling Spurs could really use.

Read on for more of the stranger Opta facts to emerge from the Premier League weekend...

 

United's Oktober(goal)fest

Plenty of fans would think there must be something spooky going on at Old Trafford if the manager is not under threat of losing his job after the biggest loss to Liverpool in 126 years.

If the Glazers do indeed continue to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, perhaps it's because they have embraced as the norm United's history of some truly terrifying results during the Hallowe'en season.

The debacle against Liverpool was the fifth time United have lost a Premier League game by a margin of five goals. All of those matches have come in October: 5-0 defeats to Newcastle United (1996) and Chelsea (1999), the 6-1 thrashing by Manchester City in 2011, and last season's 6-1 loss to Tottenham.

Given their next two league games are against Spurs and City, Solskjaer must wonder whether he will still be in a nightmare after October 31.

Four England!

Battering another team 7-0 is a decent opportunity to rack up some goalscoring stats, which is exactly what Chelsea did against Norwich City.

While Mason Mount took the plaudits for his hat-trick, he was one of four English players to score in the game, the others being Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Ben Chilwell. Never before have the Blues had so many Englishman find the net for them in a single Premier League match. Indeed, the last side to do so (excluding own goals) was Bournemouth against Hull City in October 2016.

Chilwell has now scored in four league games in a row for Chelsea, having only managed two goals in his previous 26 appearances in the competition. The previous English player to score in as many consecutive matches for the club was Frank Lampard in February 2013.

If that form continues, the left-back will match Lampard's club-record 177 Premier League goals for Chelsea at some point in the 2026-27 season...

Royal rumble

Watford's 5-2 win at Everton on Saturday was... well, it was just a bit weird, wasn't it? After all, it made Watford the first Premier League team to concede five and then score five the next week since 2018, while no side in the competition's history had ever trailed by two or more goals after 75 minutes and won by a margin of at least three.

Emmanuel Dennis, a 64th-minute substitute, was directly involved in three of Watford's goals, scoring one and assisting two. That's the same return managed all season by Raul Jimenez, Jarrod Bowen and £100million man Jack Grealish. Indeed, only Paul Pogba, Gabriel Jesus, Jamie Vardy, Michail Antonio and Mohamed Salah have had more direct goal involvements than Dennis (six) in 2021-22.

And what a regal performance it was for former Toffee Joshua King. A visiting hat-trick would be a tough one to swallow for the Goodison Park faithful at the best of times, but King scored as many goals on Saturday as he attempted shots for Everton in his 11 league appearances for them.

Fifteen minutes of infamy

Paul Pogba became the first United player since Luke Chadwick in December 2000, also against Liverpool, to be sent off in a Premier League game after coming on as a substitute.

The red card changed the game only inasmuch as it prompted Jurgen Klopp's men to take pity on their opponents – only five of their 19 shots overall came in that final half-hour.

Between his introduction at half-time and his dismissal 15 minutes later, Pogba certainly tried to make an impact on more than just the shin of Naby Keita. He completed eight passes in Liverpool territory, more than half the number Cristiano Ronaldo managed in the whole game, while also losing possession five times (one of which led to the fifth goal). Scale those numbers up for a full 90 minutes, and Pogba would have ended the game with 56 opposition-half passes, by far the most of any United player, but he would have lost the ball 35 times. Only once this season has a Premier League player lost possession more often in a single match: that was Matt Lowton for Burnley against Norwich City (37 times).

Pogba, dropped from the starting line-up against Liverpool and Atalanta after proclaiming something had to change following the Leicester City defeat, presumably wanted to make a point to his manager in his time on the pitch. You'd imagine this wasn't it.

Kane unable

Tottenham didn't manage a single shot in the second half of their 1-0 loss to West Ham. That shouldn't come as a great surprise given they have only attempted 94 all season, the lowest tally in the division apart from Norwich (89).

At their current rate, Spurs will finish 2021-22 with roughly 302 attempted shots, which would represent their worst such return for a single season since... well, last season (443). In seven of the past 12 Premier League campaigns, they have managed at least double that number.

It's not all about Harry Kane, of course, but the England striker's numbers are a good yardstick. His average of 0.26 non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes in 2021-22 is his lowest rate ever in a Premier League season, and his 2021-22 tally stands at one goal in 648 minutes across eight league appearances.

Manchester City's 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, 10 years and one day ago, was probably the worst defeat ever endured by Alex Ferguson.

In the club's modern history, even in the post-Fergie wilderness, there had never quite been an occasion to match it, even accounting for Tottenham's victory by the same scoreline last year.

There has now.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the hero of Barcelona 1999, knew a thing or two about creating spectacles as a player. As a manager, he still has the knack.

Manchester United 0, Liverpool 5. Has there ever been a more abject, visceral demolition of the 20-time English champions in the Premier League era? Has it ever looked this bad?

A goal down after five minutes and a missed Bruno Fernandes sitter. A hat-trick for Mohamed Salah, the first in the league away to United since QPR's Dennis Bailey in 1992. A disallowed goal for Cristiano Ronaldo. A 15-minute cameo for Paul Pogba that ended in a red card. A total of 35 home goals conceded in 2021, their worst such return for 60 years. The biggest win for Liverpool over their rivals since 1925. And hardly a whiff of surprise about the whole sordid thing.

As former midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger tweeted at full-time: "A devastating day for all Man Utd supporters and the club but it didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a surprise."

City's 6-1 win in October 2011 was a watershed moment; a giant step on the way to their first Premier League title. But it was still an aberration: after all, United finished level on points that season and responded by winning the trophy back a year later.

This was more in keeping with Liverpool and City's 3-0 wins over David Moyes' United. Those games, too, were barely contests, barely surprising given United's problems, and barely left the manager anywhere to hide.

The Glazers have stood by Solskjaer, resolutely, perhaps misguidedly. Watching United lose 3-1 at Anfield was enough for them to sack Jose Mourinho three years ago. If they tuned in to Sunday's match, if they saw homecoming hero Ronaldo eclipsed by Salah and 'legacy fans' leaving in droves at half-time, can they afford not to act?

United have played nine games since the fanfare of Ronaldo's goalscoring return against Newcastle United. They have won three of those, drawn one and lost five.

That's bad enough, but consider the circumstances. Only a last-second penalty save from David de Gea ensured the 2-1 win at West Ham; only Ronaldo's injury-time intervention salvaged an undeserved victory over Villarreal; only Tom Davies' strange decision to pass to the offside Yerry Mina, rather than shoot, meant Everton left Old Trafford with only a 1-1 draw.

Fine margins have been the difference between United's form being considered merely unacceptable, and the alarms this embarrassment will sound. Nobody who has watched them across those nine matches could seriously claim what happened against Liverpool could not have been foreseen.

The rain-soaked turf was a glistening canvas depiction of everything wrong about Solskjaer's team – if we needed reminding.

There are the collective tactical concerns, as seen for Naby Keita's opening goal, when Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave up their positions to press Liverpool with all the ferocity and endeavour of an apathetic tortoise.

There are the individual mistakes, some of which would be incomprehensible for amateurs, never mind those playing for the world's most supported football club. Keita and Salah each scored with the United back five blocking not their route to de Gea's goal, but back to the halfway line. Before Diogo Jota's tap-in, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, defenders who cost a combined £110million, shied away from a loose ball as though under duress to keep dirt off the sponsor logos on their shirts.

United have committed eight errors leading to shots this season, the joint-most in the Premier League along with Wolves. But where Bruno Lage's men counter that through tackling – only eight sides have won more – United have won a league-low 61. When it comes to making amends for these mistakes, the Red Devils right now are either not interested or not capable.

Salah completed his hat-trick early in the second half, Ronaldo had a fine goal of his own disallowed by VAR, but many United fans were no longer in the stadium to watch. The loyalty to Solskjaer's legacy as a player has kept him immune to the kind of vitriol seen in the final days of Moyes, or Louis van Gaal, or Mourinho, but little served up by any of Fergie's successors was quite as horrifying as this.

United's daunting run of games since the October international break has yielded one win, two defeats, five goals scored and 11 conceded. With Tottenham, Atalanta and City to come next, you'd expect them to lose all three.

This is Manchester United's new normal: a total, shameful mess.

Chelsea maintained their position at the Premier League summit as they thumped sorry Norwich City 7-0 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Manchester City remain two points behind after cruising past Brighton and Hove Albion 4-1 at the Amex Stadium.

Watford produced a stunning comeback to thump Everton at Goodison Park, while Leeds United left it late to snatch a point against Wolves.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform takes a look at the pick of the fixtures from the day.

Brighton and Hove Albion 1-4 Manchester City: Foden inspires City's latest win over Seagulls

Phil Foden was at the heart of City's big win at the Amex Stadium as Pep Guardiola's side sealed an eighth win in nine Premier League games against the Seagulls.

Ilkay Gundogan put the visitors ahead before Foden scored just his second brace in the Premier League, previously doing so against Burnley in June 2020.

Alexis Mac Allister pulled one back for Graham Potter's side to became the first player to score a Premier League penalty as a substitute for Brighton.

Riyad Mahrez added gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time, though, after being teed up by Foden. The Algerian has scored more goals in all competitions (16) than any other City player so far in 2021.

The result meant Brighton conceded four goals for the first time in 43 Premier League games, since a 4-2 loss against Everton in October 2020. Indeed, the Seagulls conceded as many goals as they had in their previous seven league games combined.

Chelsea 7-0 Norwich City: Mount puts Blues in seventh heaven

Chelsea made light work of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner's absences, winning a Premier League game by seven or more goals for the fourth time and the first time since an 8-0 win over Aston Villa in December 2012.

Mason Mount was the star man, the England international becoming the 20th different player to score a Premier League hat-trick for Chelsea. Only Arsenal (21) have had more hat-trick scorers in the competition.

Ben Chilwell was on the scoresheet as well, the former Leicester City left-back becoming the first Englishman to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances for Chelsea since Frank Lampard in February 2013.

The defeat was Norwich's joint-heaviest in Premier League history, the Canaries also losing 7-0 to Manchester City in November 2013.

Their haul of just two goals after nine league games this season is the joint-lowest tally ever at this stage of an English league campaign, and just the third time a team has registered such a low return at this stage in the Premier League (Crystal Palace in 2017-18 and Everton in 2005-06).


Everton 2-5 Watford: King comes back to haunt Toffees

Watford scored four times in the final 12 minutes to complete a remarkable fightback at Goodison Park.

They were indebted to a superb hat-trick from former Toffees striker Josh King, who became just the third player to score a Premier League hat-trick against a side he has previously played for in the competition, after Andy Cole (for Manchester United vs Newcastle) and Marcus Bent (for Wigan vs Blackburn). 

It was just the second time Watford had scored five goals in an away Premier League game (also vs Cardiff in February 2019), becoming just the seventh newly promoted side in Premier League history to score five or more goals in an away game.

The result also marked the first time the Hornets had come from behind to win an away Premier League game since January 2019 vs Crystal Palace, having lost each of their previous 21 such matches in the competition.

Leeds United 1-1 Wolves: Rodrigo leaves it late for Bielsa's men

Despite earning a late point thanks to Rodrigo's stoppage-time penalty, seven points from nine games marks Leeds' worst start to a top-flight campaign since 1981-82 (six points), a season in which they were relegated to the second tier.

Wolves had looked destined for all three points thanks to another goal from Hwang Hee-chan. The South Korean has scored four goals from just four shots on target in the Premier League this season, the best such 100 per cent conversion rate in the competition so far this term.

Rodrigo stepped up late on to salvage a point, though. His equaliser from the spot was just Leeds' third penalty goal scored in the final minute of a Premier League match, after Gary McAllister against Coventry City (October 1995) and Ian Harte against Derby County (December 1999).

Even in an age where the passing game is king, the best teams in the NFL can still fall victim to a dominant rushing performance.

Derrick Henry proved as much on Monday Night Football in Week 6, putting the Buffalo Bills to the sword with a 143-yard, three-touchdown performance as the Tennessee Titans claimed a thrilling primetime win.

It was Henry's fifth successive 100-yard game and his third this season with three touchdowns.

Unsurprisingly, the man who has won the rushing title in each of the last two seasons again leads the league in yardage on the ground.

More noteworthy, however, is the fact Henry is on pace to comfortably break Eric Dickerson's record for most rushing yards in a single season.

Dickerson's mark of 2,105 has stood since 1984, but Henry critically has the benefit of a 17th game in which to make NFL history.

But is Henry's pace sustainable? And, beyond writing one of the most incredible chapters in the NFL record books, what would it mean if Henry does surpass Dickerson?

Henry's potentially historic average

Following his dominant showing against Buffalo, Henry is averaging 130.5 yards per game, putting him on track for 2,219.

Such a gaudy average would be unsustainable for most backs. However, Henry has the exceptional skill set to again prove as the exception.

He finished last season with similar numbers, putting up 126.7 yards per game while leading the league with 378 carries – Dalvin Cook was second with 312 –  as the Titans star surpassed 2,000 for the first time in his career.

And his frightening combination of his size and speed has allowed Henry to display durability beyond most players at his position.

Henry has missed only one game across the previous two seasons, a period in which he carried the ball a league-high 681 times, with his 6ft 3in and 247lb frame and his explosiveness ensuring it is opposing defenders who typically come off worst in collisions.

A favourable schedule

Speaking to that explosiveness is Henry's 2021 yards before contact per attempt average of 3.01. That figure is comfortably above the league average of 2.40 and the difficulty in stopping Henry once he bursts to the second level of the defense is reflected by his number of big-play runs.

Henry leads the league with 19 rushes of 10 yards or more while he is the only player in the NFL with two runs of at least 50 yards.

Simply put, being in the path of this behemoth when he breaks into the open field is the most difficult position for an NFL defender to be in, and he will face plenty of defenses vulnerable to run during the remainder of the season.

On Sunday, the Titans face a Kansas City Chiefs defense ranked 30th in rush yards per attempt allowed (5.15), with six of the last 11 weeks of the season seeing Tennessee meet a team ranked in the bottom half of the league by that metric.

The blend of Henry's proclivity for big gains and a schedule that should present a plethora of opportunities for displays akin to his devastating effort in Week 6 is a perfect recipe for the former Alabama star sustaining his current pace and shattering Dickerson's record, which would be significant for several reasons.

Destined for Canton?

The magnitude of Henry breaking the rushing record cannot be overstated.

At present, it is only the advent of the 17th game that would make his current pace enough for him to surpass Dickerson, who averaged an astonishing 131.6 yards across 16 games.

Yet that would not detract from the scale of Henry's achievement, with that potential piece of history standing as a monument to his consistency.

In addition to claiming a record that has long since seemed unbreakable, Henry would become the first player in NFL history to record multiple 2,000-yard seasons, doing so in successive years.

Putting that into context, no player in NFL history has even posted back-to-back 1,900-yard seasons, with Dickerson the sole player to go over 1,800 yards in consecutive years, his record-breaking 1984 following a 1983 campaign he finished with 1,808 yards as a rookie.

Henry may only be in his sixth season as a pro but, should he maintain his pace and make NFL history, he can surely look forward to a place in the Hall of Fame.

The argument could be made that he would require a longer spell of dominance to secure a spot in Canton. However, Henry is on course for an unmatched two-year run at a time where the unstoppable bell-cow running back is considered a thing of the past.

This is the era of committee backfields, one where any running back taken in the first round can be viewed as a reach, and yet Henry is producing at an unprecedented rate amid a workload that would physically break many tailbacks and carrying the Titans to victories that have helped establish a two-game lead in the AFC South as they look for back-to-back division titles.

Tennessee's flaws on defense will likely prevent the Titans from seriously contending for a deep playoff run this year, but Henry has the distinct opportunity to make sure this season is memorable for entirely different reasons that would be worthy of him being immortalised and receiving a gold jacket after an increasingly astounding career comes to a close.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often seems destined to fail at Manchester United, and this season the stakes appear higher.

With media scrutiny mounting, Solskjaer's future looked bleak at half-time against Atalanta on Wednesday, with United 2-0 down and staring at a fifth defeat in eight games across all competitions.

"There is pressure all the time. There is pressure on me of course but we've been through this before and come through it stronger as a team and as individuals," Solskjaer said before that match.

His players came good. Goals from Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose arrival seems to have presented more questions than answers regarding Solskjaer's tactical set-up, rescued a vital three points in the Champions League, but Sunday brings an altogether different challenge, with Liverpool in town.

How the managers match up

Prior to the clash with Atalanta, Solskjaer had taken charge of 162 games at United, with Jurgen Klopp having hit that figure at Liverpool back in September 2018.

Four months earlier, Liverpool had slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Strengthened by the arrivals of Alisson and Fabinho, they would go on to win the European trophy in 2019 – Klopp's first piece of silverware at Anfield. A Premier League title followed in 2019-20.

Yet looking back over the pair's first 162 matches at the helm, it is Solskjaer who can boast the better win percentage (54.9 compared to 53.1).

While Klopp recorded fewer defeats in those games (31 to 37), Solskjaer won 86 times, three more than the Liverpool boss managed.

Klopp did, however, take Liverpool to two finals in his first half-season in charge, only to lose both, in the EFL Cup and Europa League. His third final, and the last within his first 162 games, was the defeat to Madrid in Kiev.

Solskjaer, comparatively, has reached just one final – United going down on penalties in the Europa League showdown against Villarreal at the end of last season.

United scored 299 goals under Solskjaer before Wednesday, from an expected goals (xG) value of 269.6, suggesting the level of chances they have created has not quite matched the finishing. That xG figure outperforms Liverpool's xG of 259.9, though the Reds netted 327 times.

Defence has been a major cause for concern this term, but overall Solskjaer's United kept 59 clean sheets in 162 games prior to tackling Atalanta, conceding 168 goals.

An expected goals against (xGA) of 185.2 suggests United's goalkeepers had plenty to do, though Liverpool only kept 62 clean sheets in the same amount of matches under Klopp, conceding four more goals (172).

Alisson's signing in July 2018 has certainly proved key, given Liverpool's xGA from Klopp's first 162 games was 135.3, suggesting goalkeeping may have been responsible for some of the Reds' issues.

On the right track?

"We've progressed over the years since I was [first here for] half a season. Sixth, third, second. You can see the progress, development and improvement. This season we still want to improve. We've signed players that have raised expectations," Solskjaer said before the Atalanta game.

While the underlying metrics may back up Solskjaer's point, digging deeper presents a more worrying picture.

United's goal tallies have improved, yet Solskjaer's crux is clearly in defence. His team allowed 685 shots last season, 70 more than in 2019-20 from the same number of games (61), with their xGA leaping from 59.2 to 71.5.

Klopp's side, on the other hand, managed to get Liverpool's defeats down from 12 to nine (in both 2016-17 and 2017-18) to seven in his third full season.

As Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah hit their stride, Liverpool's goal totals ticked up, from 87 to 92 to 129, and their highest xGA value in this period was 49.5, way down on United's worst figure.

While there may be similarities in results, Klopp used the first half of his Liverpool spell to implement a style of play, and lay the groundwork for European and domestic triumphs.

Solskjaer will insist he has a vision of what his incarnation of United should be, and though his record against other 'big six' Premier League sides is decent (W13 D10 L10), Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 league games, the longest current run in the top four tiers of English football.

Away from Anfield, they have scored at least three goals in each of their last five Premier League games. United have not kept a clean sheet at home in nine top-flight matches and, despite the calibre of players brought in during Solskjaer's tenure, the old rivals look worlds apart.

Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Lionel Messi has Le Classique on his mind, not El Clasico. Cristiano Ronaldo faces the daunting challenge of trying to out-match Mohamed Salah, arguably the best forward in the world at this moment.

This Sunday is one of those remarkable days in European football, with Messi and PSG heading to Marseille for a Velodrome battle, while Ronaldo and Manchester United tackle Liverpool.

Sunday also sees Barcelona and Real Madrid clash at Camp Nou, in LaLiga's first Clasico since Messi followed Ronaldo by bidding Spain farewell.

It is one of those quietly momentous moments in sport. The recent US Open tennis tournament happened without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and now a Clasico in Spain's post Messi and Ronaldo era is upon us.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looked at the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on world football's biggest club game.

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

For the duration of Ronaldo's nine-year stint with Madrid, neither he nor Messi missed a Clasico in LaLiga. Both started 17 games and appeared as a substitute once each.

And the raw facts tell us Messi had far more to celebrate in the league series, with Barcelona winning 10 times and Madrid notching just four victories, with four games drawn, an aggregate scoreline of 39-23 going in the Blaugrana's favour.

Madrid had an average of 14.1 shots per game to 13.0 by Barcelona, but the capital side could not make that slight advantage count in the overall reckoning.

Taking all competitions into account, Madrid's overall Clasico record in the Ronaldo era perked up slightly (W10 D8 L14). They had two Copa del Rey final wins over Barcelona in this time, with Jose Mourinho's side snatching a 1-0 win thanks to Ronaldo's extra-time header in 2011. Ronaldo was then absent through injury for the 2014 final, Madrid winning 2-1 after a late golazo from Gareth Bale.

A Champions League semi-final success for Barcelona in 2011, however, was a sweet knockout blow, delivered after a swift double jab from Messi, his double in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu being the telling contribution. Messi's goals that night, from a personal expected goals (xG) total of 0.8, were a blow from which Ronaldo and Madrid could not recover in the second leg at Camp Nou. Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final, Messi scoring the second goal and being named man of the match.

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

Messi hit an all-time record of 474 goals in LaLiga and Ronaldo grabbed a sensational 311 in nine seasons, but who saved their best finishing form for El Clasico?

The data tells us Messi wins this one, with both players deadlier away from home during their head-to-head rivalry.

Ronaldo hit six goals in nine LaLiga games at Camp Nou, but he only managed three at the Bernabeu against Barca, and they were all penalties. In Madrid's home league tussles with Barcelona, Ronaldo's shot conversion rate was just 6.4 per cent, but it would have been 0.0 per cent without those spot-kicks. The 6.4 per cent conversion rate ranked, of all the fixtures in which he scored in LaLiga, as Ronaldo's fourth worst.

Messi, during that same 2009-18 period, grabbed nine goals in nine league games at the Santiago Bernabeu, four of them penalties, and also scored three in nine home games against Madrid, a free-kick and two from open play. His shot conversion rate of 11.1 per cent at home was balanced out nicely by a sharp-shooting 27.3 per cent away to Los Blancos.

Six assists from Messi to just one from Ronaldo in the nine-season rivalry further underlined the Argentine forward's upper hand in these games.

Across his entire Barcelona career, which spanned 17 years at first-team level, Messi scored 18 LaLiga goals in Clasico battles.

 

What more can we learn from the Leo v CR7 LaLiga years?

Madrid targeted Messi, or at least the numbers suggest they tried to stop him through fair means or foul, albeit with limited success.

He was fouled 30 times at Camp Nou and 26 times at the Bernabeu during Clasico league games. No LaLiga opponent fouled Messi more than that combined total of 56 during the nine-year spell of the Ronaldo rivalry (Atletico Madrid - 47, Espanyol - 46).

Madrid conceded an average of 18.2 fouls per Clasico during that era, and won 12.6, and such margins can be significant.

Barcelona had a string of pass masters in their ranks, with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets bossing the midfield for much of this vaunted period, and in the LaLiga Clasico games their precision was noticeable.

Passing accuracy of 84.2 per cent in the opposition half during games against Madrid during the Ronaldo years showed where they excelled, and Madrid's 74 per cent mark in this category showed they were often losing possession.

Giving the ball away to any team can spell trouble, and being inaccurate with more than a quarter of passes in the Barcelona half pointed to problems. Only against Rayo Vallecano (71.7 per cent) did Madrid have worse accuracy in that area of the field while Ronaldo was at the club, and that hardly mattered as they won all 10 of their LaLiga games against the side from nearby Vallecas.

Ronaldo's 73.6 per cent passing accuracy against Barcelona was his third worst against any LaLiga opponent, while Messi soared above him with 83.7 per cent, his sixth highest against all league opposition for the seasons from 2009-10 to 2017-18.

The fact he pulled off such consistency while targeting high-tariff manoeuvres in enemy territory further served to underline Messi's dominance of perhaps the greatest LaLiga Clasico head-to-head of them all.

 

Liverpool meet Manchester United in a clash of two of the Premier League's fiercest rivalries on Sunday, and it will also see two of the competition's star forwards face off.

Cristiano Ronaldo's move back to United was a sensational story late in the transfer window, and though the 36-year-old picked up where he left off in England back in 2009, it is Liverpool's Mohamed Salah who has taken the limelight so far this season.

Salah leads the way with seven goals from eight league appearances in 2021-22, including two quite sensational strikes in his last two top-flight matches, against Manchester City and Watford respectively.

His efforts, which also include four assists, a tally so far bettered only by Ronaldo's United team-mate Paul Pogba (seven), have helped Liverpool to five victories and three draws.

On Friday, Jurgen Klopp was asked in his pre-match news conference to compare Salah and Ronaldo, as two of the league's – and indeed world football's – best players.

"I never thought about that," he said. "Why should we compare Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah?

"Both are world-class players and that's it. I would say, even though Cristiano Ronaldo's left foot is not that bad, I'd say Mo's left foot is probably better!

"Maybe then in the air Ronaldo is slightly better and his right foot is probably better! But speed wise they are both pretty quick, very desperate to score goals, so maybe that's it but I really never thought properly about that and never really thought about it."

While Klopp may not think to compare the duo, Stats Perform has used Opta data to assess how the star forwards stack up.

 

Premier League records

While Ronaldo always seemed set for stardom since bursting onto the scene under Alex Ferguson in 2003-04, Salah did have a rather more stagnated journey to becoming one of the top-flight's best players, with the Egypt forward initially struggling at Chelsea after a move from Basel in January 2014.

He scored twice in 10 league appearances in his first half-season at Stamford Bridge but, under Jose Mourinho, played only three times in the competition in 2014-15 before loan moves to Fiorentina and Roma, the latter switch eventually being made permanent.

But in his first season at Liverpool in 2017-18, Salah broke Ronaldo's record of 31 Premier League goals in a single campaign, scoring 32 times across 36 matches, averaging a strike every 91 minutes.

Salah's shot conversion rate of 22.22 per cent that season (from 144 attempts in total) is the best either he or Ronaldo have managed in their Premier League careers.

In terms of assists, Salah has twice reached 10 for a campaign, in 2017-18 and Liverpool's title-winning season of 2019-20. Ronaldo's best figure of eight was recorded in 2006-07.

Klopp pointed to Ronaldo's aerial prowess as an area where the Portugal star certainly edges out his Egyptian counterpart, and that is reflected in the data – the former Real Madrid man having scored 11 of his 87 Premier League goals with his head, compared to just six from Salah.

Salah has scored a remarkable 104 league goals from 166 appearances, while Ronaldo has scored his tally from 201 games in the competition.

 

The season so far...

Salah also edges the statistics when taking this season specifically into account. In all competitions, he has already netted 12 goals in 11 games, all of which have been starts, while Ronaldo has scored six times in eight matches.

Ronaldo has averaged a goal every 107 minutes, while Salah has done so every 80 minutes. The latter has also been involved in 16 goals compared to Ronaldo's tally of six, with the Liverpool attacker crafting 25 chances for team-mates.

Much has been made of Ronaldo's transformation into a penalty box poacher, though his 54 touches in the opposition area is some 39 fewer than Salah (93), perhaps speaking more to the differing styles of play between United and Liverpool.

Both players have outperformed their expected goals (xG), suggesting their finishing has been better than would be expected. Salah, however, is some three ahead (12 goals from an xG of 9.0), with Ronaldo's six goals coming from an xG of 5.4.

Salah scored three goals in his two away games against United last season (two in the FA Cup, one in the Premier League), and he could become the first Liverpool player to net in three consecutive matches at Old Trafford.

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips as Europe's elite try to get their hands on the Borussia Dortmund and Norway sensation.

Haaland is already on the cusp of half a century of Bundesliga goals, having scored 49 in 49 league appearances since swapping Salzburg for Dortmund in January 2020.

It is a remarkable return – the 21-year-old has 70 goals in 69 games for the German club overall, only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (89 goals in 74 games) has a better return among players from Europe's top-five leagues.

Haaland has always been a goalscorer.

Born in Leeds in 2000, where his father Alf-Inge played for Leeds United in the Premier League at the time, Erling relocated to Bryne by the age of three – the hometown of his parents in Norway.

It is there where Erling Haaland took his first steps in football.

Alf Ingve Berntsen spent more than eight years coaching Haaland, including several matches for Byrne's first team in 2016 following the sudden departure of Gaute Larsen.

"He was the best from the first day. Scoring a lot, smiling a lot, training a lot," Berntsen told Stats Perform as he recalled Haaland's time at Byrne, where the pair worked together between the ages of eight to 16.

 

Haaland was part of a group of 40 talented youngsters coached by Berntsen at Bryne.

But Haaland – even playing with older kids – always stood out in a city with a population of just over 12,200 people on the southern shores of the lake Froylandsvatnet.

"A player of that level, you can spot the class from the first day… the first day you spot something special like Erling, one way or another. You can see it from the beginning," Berntsen said.

"In Norway we have a few big clubs who have academies and select best ones from a region. But most of the clubs, they have a big grassroots path. Our club is like that – part of is like a top club but a big part is grassroots. Often we try to hold them together.

"Erling was one of 40 players who trained together, in fact until they were 15. That was the first year we separated them. Erling was one year younger than the others because he was too good for his age group. He was 14. Twenty of them wanted to train four times a week and 20 wanted to train twice a week. Even then we kept them together. In that group, Erling was quite a normal guy. Funny and a desire to train and win. He was the best from the first day. Scoring a lot, smiling a lot, training a lot. He was quite similar to how he is today."

"He was quite average size but because he trained with older boys, he lacked a bit in his height. He wasn't small in size but he was skinny, very skinny," Berntsen said. "He had his growth spurt when he was 14-15. Until then, he was normal height. From 14 he started to grow very quick. He kept growing until we went to Molde. When you stop growing, it's time to develop your muscles. It's not always wise to do much building your muscles when you're growing. We knew this would happen because his family, his older brother, he is fast and strong, we knew when he was 11-12 that we had to wait some years, this was something special in the making."

After a brief period with Byrne's senior team, Haaland was lured to Molde in 2017 and after 20 goals in 50 appearances overall, the Norwegian was eventually lured to Salzburg two years later.

Haaland dazzled with Austrian giants Salzburg, scoring an absurd 29 goals in only 27 games across all competitions – he joined Alessandro del Piero, Sergei Rebrov, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lewandowski as the only players to score in the first five matches of a Champions League group stage, while becoming the first teenager to achieve the feat.

He also scored nine times for Norway's Under-20 team in a 12-0 rout of Honduras at the 2019 U20 World Cup. Haaland did not see out a season at Salzburg, prised to Dortmund in January last year and he has not looked back.

In this season's Bundesliga, Haaland surpassed his expected goal (xG)-value by 2.9 (nine goals, 6.1 xG) – only Bayer Leverkusen sensation Florian Wirtz eclipsed his value (3.0), per Opta.

Since Haaland joined Dortmund, he exceeded his xG-value (38.7) in the Bundesliga by 10.3. It is the highest value of a player in Europe's top-five leagues in this time.

"He is very similar to now to when he was 11-12. He scores a lot. In that group, if there were 40 players, many of them were of good quality. Ten of the players with Erling, nine other players played in the region team. Four of them later came into the Under-18 national team. Erling had to conquer each training session, to win. He didn't have it always easy," Berntsen said.

"The personality and quality you see is quite similar. When he played with two defenders, they played for Norway U18 - they are strong and powerful. If he had to score in the training session, he had to be smart in his movement. Quite early he developed the smartness, the tactical ability. The whole of the group trained much outside the main session - in the indoor hall, hour after hour having fun. He gained very good technical skills.

"His mental skills were strong early. He was always more willing to win. The technical and mental part were very good. He lacked a bit physically. We knew to wait some years and this might explode. The personality, desire and passion is just what it was earlier."

 

"When he moved up to us, because of the quality of the group, he didn't have to be too high on his self because it wasn't too easy," Berntsen continued on Haaland's attitude and character. "We didn't know if we were going to lose or win in training.

"This is a small place where 12,000 live. everyone knows each other. He had to develop with no media around. It was a good place for him. No big attention. He had to train and develop without any disturbance because if you are in a big city and club, you can have a lot of attention and it isn't so easy. But here he could train with his friends and develop steady. His father had played in the Premier League, so in this area everyone knew who he was."

Since Haaland's arrival in Dortmund, he has scored 13 Bundesliga goals after carries – in Europe's top-five leagues, it is only bettered by six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi (15).

In the 2021-22 league campaign, Haaland is one of four players who has been involved on 10 open-play sequences which ended in a goal – together with Hoffenheim's Andrej Kramaric, Bayern veteran Thomas Muller and Wirtz.

While Berntsen predicted a great career, not even he could have envisaged the speed of Haaland's rise to the top amid links with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

"I didn't see that at this age that he would become top scorer in the Champions League like he did or score in each match at this level. But we're not surprised that he is doing well," Berntsen said.

"When he got the first possibility to play in the regions team, he was picked then the national team, you can play from 15, and he was picked and scored. He always kept scoring at a new level. At a time when he lacked a bit physically. We knew he would become strong and fast. Of course we didn't see that level at that early age. But many of us, we were quite sure he was going to have a good international career, from 12 years old."

He added: "When you're 21, the body isn't fully grown yet. It can develop in all aspects of the game but it's not too easy now because the level he is on is high already. But when you're trying on a daily basis, you train to get better. If you do that, you'll have a small percentage of growth.

"He is one of the new rising stars that can do a lot of different - high pressure, low pressure, he can run, smart in the box, quite good in offence and defence. The next generation of players will have that variety - not just one type on top. He can be a front man or in counter-attacks. That might be common in the future. You have quite good variants in quality. There are still things for him to develop."

Prior to matchday-three fixtures in the Champions League, only Lewandowski had scored more goals and a higher xG-value across all competitions in the top-five leagues this season than Haaland.

Dating back to his switch from Salzburg in 2020, Haaland eclipsed his xG-value in his Champions league performances by 4.1 – the highest value of a player in the Champions League in this time prior to the club's 4-0 rout at the hands of Ajax.

While only Lewandowski has been involved in more Champions League open-play sequences that ended in a goal than Haaland since the latter's transfer to Germany (before Dortmund and Bayern's fixtures this week).

When asked where Haaland – who has a return of 12 goals in 15 international appearances for Norway – would be best suited if he were to leave Dortmund, Berntsen replied: "There's not so many possibilities now. There may be a few clubs who can afford him. It's not for everyone.

"Erling and his family, they've done a brilliant job to select the next level. If he stays in Dortmund, if he was to end his career there, still he had a brilliant career because he's a funny guy from a little town. 

"Erling is down to earth. If you have a job and have big defenders knocking you down, you have to make a statement and prove yourself. He is a loveable guy and we are proud of him. Humble. If you asked me a year ago, I'd say maybe Spain or England but Spain or France now."

Replacing Romelu Lukaku was never going to be easy, though, in Edin Dzeko, Inter may have gone some way to doing just that.

The 2021-22 campaign may still be in its infancy, but 35-year-old Dzeko has made a fantastic start as Inter look to defend the Serie A title that Lukaku's goals propelled them towards last season.

Dzeko took his tally for the season to seven with a sublime volley against Sheriff in the Champions League on Tuesday. Inter were pegged back, but the former Roma man turned from scorer to provider to tee up Arturo Vidal and swing the match back in the Nerazzurri's favour.

Heading into the first Derby d'Italia of the season, Simone Inzaghi's Inter sit three points above Juventus, who themselves have had to contend with the loss of a superstar forward.

Cristiano Ronaldo beat Lukaku in the Serie A scoring charts in 2020-21, yet while Inter, spearheaded by Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, lead the way for goals scored so far this season with 23, Juve are lagging some 11 behind.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the two giants of Italian football have adapted – and are still adapting – to the attackers at their disposal, and if that could prove the difference on Sunday.

Replacing Rom

Chelsea broke their transfer record to re-sign Lukaku in August for a whopping £97.5million (€115m). The cash was needed by Inter, who had already sold Achraf Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain and lost their title-winning coach Antonio Conte as well. Lukaku had initially been happy to stay on under Inzaghi, but the pull of a return to Stamford Bridge ultimately proved too strong to turn down.

Across his two seasons with Inter, Lukaku scored 64 goals in 95 games across all competitions. Last season he scored 24 goals and set up a further 11, putting the suggestion he was merely a penalty box poacher firmly to bed. Indeed, Lukaku's tally of seven secondary assists (the pass before the assist) ranked joint-highest in Italy's top flight.

Lukaku refined his game and has returned to the Premier League a better player, leaving Inter with a huge void to fill. Dzeko represented a prudent option.

Having spent the last six seasons at Roma, Dzeko needed no adaptation to the league. He scored 85 Serie A goals during his spell in the capital, having previously played a huge role in Manchester City's Premier League title successes in 2012 and 2014.

Since his move to Wolfsburg in 2007, Dzeko has only scored under 10 goals in all competitions in three seasons, while he missed only 22 league matches during his stint with Roma. Reliable, experienced and a proven goalscorer. With Inter's financial restraints, it was a no-brainer.

Joaquin Correa, capable of playing anywhere across the frontline, has also come in to boost Inter's ranks, though the start Dzeko has made may have even exceeded the club's expectations. 

Dzeko is averaging just under a goal per game in Serie A, having netted six times across eight appearances, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 35.29 per cent and scoring five of the six big chances that have come his way.

He has also picked up where Lukaku left off in terms of creativity, crafting 15 chances so far across his 11 appearances in all competitions, registering two assists.

 

Partners in crime

Lukaku's departure also left Inter needing to find a suitable partner for Martinez. The duo combined for eight Serie A goals last season, more than any other pairing, albeit the first of those did not arrive until matchday eight in November.

In total, Lukaku found Martinez on 68 occasions in Serie A last term (at an average of 1.9 per game), with 16 of those being key passes, and five resulting in assists.

A brilliant example of their stellar combination in action came in a pivotal 3-1 win over Lazio in February; Lukaku – on a hat-trick at the time – charging clear of a desperate defender before coolly sliding it across for the waiting Martinez to tap in.

Martinez picked out Lukaku 52 times, providing three assists and creating a total of 13 chances for his strike partner. They played 36 league matches together, accumulating 2,069 minutes.

Dzeko too, however, has been able to link up well with Martinez. On average over the seven matches they have played in, he passes to his team-mate 1.7 times per game, with the Bosnia-Herzegovina forward creating two chances for his Argentine counterpart.

Across the 357 minutes played together, the duo have found each other 22 times, though Martinez is yet to craft a chance from those passes.

Inter, who have scored 78 goals across 32 Serie A games in 2021 (only Bayern Munich have managed more across the big five European leagues), would be extremely fortunate if this partnership proves as profitable as the Lukaku-Martinez axis did, though there are certainly bright signs.

 

Replacing Ron

Inter might have struck gold with Dzeko, but Juve have struggled in attack early in Massimiliano Allegri's second spell in charge.

With Ronaldo gone, the onus is on Paulo Dybala. He scored against Udinese in the opening game of 2021-22 and found the net against Sampdoria last month, only to succumb to an injury that has since kept him out.

Only four players across Europe's top five leagues managed more goals in all competitions than Ronaldo did last season (36), while Alvaro Morata (20) and Federico Chiesa (14) were the only other Juve players to get into double figures.

Dybala's injury issues have derailed his last few campaigns, leaving Morata as Juve's main goal threat.

The Spain international enjoyed an impressive partnership with Ronaldo, providing four assists and creating 15 chances in 2020-21, though the favour was not returned – Morata only receiving four key passes from Ronaldo in 27 league matches.

 

Yet if Juve can keep Dybala fit, there may be something for Allegri to build on, with Morata playing more passes to the Argentina forward than he has done to any other team-mate so far this season (12), albeit that has only resulted in one goalscoring opportunity.

Sunday's showdown at San Siro comes too early in the season to be truly decisive, though a second successive home win over Juve would be a huge boost.

In Dzeko and Martinez, Inzaghi has a functioning strike force that has already contributed 12 goals to Inter's cause. Allegri's two central forwards, meanwhile, have only managed six between them. 

Andres Iniesta arrived at Vissel Kobe amid plenty of fanfare in May 2018.

One of the most successful players in Barcelona's history, having won LaLiga nine times and four Champions League crowns among his haul of 35 trophies, Iniesta was brought to Vissel to deliver silverware.

Up until his arrival three years ago, Vissel had never won a trophy but during the Spain great's time in Kobe, the ambitious Rakuten-backed outfit have won the Emperor's Cup (2019) and Japanese Super Cup (2020).

Vissel also qualified for the AFC Champions League for the first time in their 55-year history in 2020, reaching the semi-finals.

Iniesta and Vissel are on track to feature in the Champions League again – Atsuhiro Miura's men are third in the J1 League this season and on course for their best finish in the top flight, three points clear of Nagoya Grampus in the race for the final qualification spot ahead of Sunday's showdown – as they seek to become kings of Asia.

"The team have been saying we want to become the number one team in Asia so the first big goal is to win the Asian Champions League," Vissel defender Leo Osaki told Stats Perform about the project in Japan.

"Of course we have to win the J1 League, we can't just be focused on the Champions League. But the biggest goal right now is to win the Champions League. We just have to finish third and hope we can play for the Champions League next season."

 

When Iniesta swapped Camp Nou to join captain Lukas Podolski at Kobe Wing Stadium, it brought more eyes onto the club and attracted a host of stars the following year.

Spain's all-time leading scorer David Villa, former Arsenal and Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen and Sergi Samper all followed Iniesta to Kobe.

Vissel's investment in Iniesta paid off in 2019 after conquering Kashima Antlers for their first ever piece of silverware before overcoming 2019 J1 League champions Yokohama F.Marinos on penalties in the Japanese Super Cup in 2020.

Since his debut, Iniesta has showed no signs of slowing down, with the 37-year-old maestro boasting 175 completed dribbles (second in the J1 League) and a 64 per cent success rate (third among at least 100 attempts) to go with 164 created chances (fifth) in 81 league appearances.

In total, captain Iniesta has scored 17 goals and supplied 17 assists to spearhead Vissel's cause under the ownership of Rakuten, who continue to dream big after buying the team from the Crimson Group in 2014.

"He didn't come here to finish his career. He came to win and you can see it in the training and locker room," Osaki said, with Vissel's 2021 squad including Vermaelen, Bojan Krkic and Samper. "I think bringing him into the team opened the path for other world-class players to come in and it attracted a lot of people to watch the J1 League and Vissel Kobe. In that point of view, it gave the team a positive reaction.

"For him playing with us, since the first day he came, there was a positive reaction. Watching him from behind, it's a dream come true because most of us were just watching him on TV.

"Playing wise, he demands a lot from everybody, not just players next to him but behind him, goalkeeper and strikers. In our bad times, he tries to talk to players and motivate them so the team doesn't fall apart.

"Winning that title changed everything in a good way," Osaki added. "Since it was the first title in the club's history, that boosted the confidence for everyone. Also the expectations got higher. Winning those two titles changed a lot."

"I think we haven't accomplished anything, so the job isn't finished. We have to play in the Champions League and become the number one team in Asia. We've made progress in terms of getting two titles. The team had never won any titles, so that was big progress," the 30-year-old said.

"Playing in the Champions League gave us experience and confidence, which has helped us this season. In the Champions League, we didn't end up winning but I think that experience gave us confidence and that's why we are in this position now."

 

Since Iniesta's arrival, Vissel have ranked third in the J1 League in possession (57.2 per cent), passing accuracy (85.5 per cent) and shooting accuracy (47.3 per cent), while they have outperformed their expected goals (xG) value of 171.4 by scoring 183 goals – the fourth most in that span.

"Bringing in Andres and all those world-class players always gives a positive reaction to the team but at the same time, fans are like 'you have these players, so you have to win'. But football isn't that easy," he added.

"Of course we have quality players and we play with 11 players, but it's a team sport. It takes time. Fans can't wait, they want results instantly. We struggled in the beginning and we were focused on possession and everything but now we are probably 50 per cent counter-attack and 50 per cent possession - and we started getting results."

He added: "I think sometimes we focus on the project too much in the past. Of course, we want to play out from the back, press the ball and dominate the game but sometimes we focus on that too much. At times we had 60-70 per cent possession but we couldn't get results or win. We're still working on that actually, playing out of the back. We kind of added a different kind of style, just go forward at times.

"Now, we're focused more on the result. At times we play good and at times we don't, but still focusing on the result is keeping us in this position now."

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