It's difficult to go back to back in any sport and, in the marathon that is an NBA season, that rings particularly true.

Seven franchises have achieved the feat, with the Golden State Warriors the last team to do so in 2018.

But the fact the 73-9 Warriors of 2016 proved unable to retain the title illustrates just how difficult a challenge it is to repeat and hold on to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Milwaukee Bucks will attempt to become the eighth franchise to successfully defend their crown, though they will face no shortage of competition.

With the 2021-22 season beginning on Tuesday, Stats Perform looks at some of the top contenders for the title in the coming campaign.

Milwaukee Bucks

Let's start with the obvious. The Bucks are the favourites because they have the best player on the planet, with all due respect to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was fourth in points per 75 possessions last regular season with 29.6 and dominated on the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding percentage of 28.9 was 12th in the league.

The main feather in his cap going into 2021-22 is his ability to elevate his game to another level. In leading the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns in last season's Finals, he racked up 211 points. That tied Bob Pettit for the third-most in a Finals debut behind Rick Barry (245) and Jerry West (218). Only West and Michael Jordan (both four) can better his tally of three games with 40 points or more in a single Finals.

Supported by Khris Middleton, who had five games of 30 points or more in the postseason, and an elite facilitator in Jrue Holiday, whose 10.5 assists per 48 minutes ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games, Antetokounmpo has a deep and dynamic surrounding cast, making the Bucks excellent candidates to go all the way again.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns may not be the first name on everyone's lips when it comes to title contenders but, having led 2-0 in the Finals before succumbing to Giannis and the Bucks, they are deserving of a place on the list.

In an offseason that could have seen much change, the Suns managed to keep the band together, the headline deal being an agreement that saw Chris Paul signed to a new contract.

While Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are both the present and the future for the Suns, their title aspirations rest largely on the ageing shoulders of Paul. 

Paul was the only Finals player to finish above Holiday in assists per 48 minutes in the postseason (minimum 10 games), averaging 12.0 across the course of the playoffs.

He set up Ayton 143 times in the regular season and reached three figures in laying on buckets for Booker (118) and Mikal Bridges (106), living up to his moniker of 'Point God'.

However, with a combined plus/minus of -37 across the four successive losses to Milwaukee, he will have to raise his game when it matters most if he and the Suns are to end their respective waits for a title.

Los Angeles Lakers

Rarely has LeBron James not had a chance to win the NBA title over the course of his illustrious career.

However, injuries limited James to just 45 games and Anthony Davis to 36 in the regular season, forcing the Lakers into a play-in game.

James performed heroics to lead the Lakers past the Warriors in that game but they were subsequently bounced out of the playoffs by the Suns.

The Lakers' response was to add to their arsenal of stars by acquiring Russell Westbrook in a trade with the Washington Wizards.

 

Former MVP Westbrook tied Jokic for the league lead with 45.5 points/assists/rebounds per game in 2020-21 while breaking Oscar Robertson's record for career triple-doubles.

Such numbers will not be possible playing alongside James and Davis but, if he can thrive in a more supplementary role, the Lakers should be firmly in the mix to regain their 2019-20 title.

Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to be made that, had the Nets not been hit by injuries in their Eastern Conference semi-finals series with the Bucks, they would have been the ones lifting the trophy.

However, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were limited to only four games in that seven-game series, leaving the burden primarily on Kevin Durant.

For very different reasons, there will be a lot of strain on Durant in 2021-22.

The Nets are facing up to not having Irving for most of if not all of the campaign as the issue of his vaccination status casts a cloud over the start of their season, which begins against the Bucks.

Unable to play in home games or practice with the Nets due to being unvaccinated, the franchise has said Irving will not play until the matter is resolved.

That means the Nets face being without a player who averaged 51.7 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes last season.

Despite his absence, the Nets cannot be discounted as contenders due to the presence of Durant (57.5) and Harden (56.9), but that duo must stay healthy and must at least maintain if not exceed their 2020-21 levels for Brooklyn to have a legitimate shot.

Golden State Warriors

Once perennial favourites, the Warriors are perhaps more of an outside bet these days. However, when you have Stephen Curry, you cannot be taken lightly as a potential contender.

The Warriors missed out on the postseason in 2020-21 following consecutive defeats to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, Curry having willed Golden State to an eighth-placed finish in the Western Conference.

Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points per game and his scoring average of 32.1 points per 75 possessions was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9).

 

Converting a league record 5.3 threes per game, last season was the third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He is the only player to achieve the feat even once.

And with fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson due back at some point, having missed the past two seasons through injury, and Andre Iguodala returning to likely finish his career with Golden State, Curry should have much more help this time around.

He still has his main facilitator Draymond Green, who led the league in setting up Curry 194 times last term, while the onus will be on 2020 first-round pick James Wiseman to develop into the floor-stretching big man the Warriors drafted him to be after an injury-curtailed rookie year.

Andrew Wiggins' vaccination status is cleared up, ensuring the Warriors will have a former number one overall pick who shot a career-high 47.7 per cent from the field in the previous campaign.

Jordan Poole's 18 points in 19 minutes in preseason against the Lakers gave further rise to hopes he can emerge as a valuable piece for the Warriors, whose two rookie first-round picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody add to an intriguing blend of experience and youth that could help Golden State get back among the elite.

The Champions League group stage reaches the halfway point this week and Tuesday provides another set of tasty fixtures.

Liverpool travel to Atletico Madrid seeking revenge two seasons on from their last-16 exit to Diego Simeone's side in the pick of the games.

Real Madrid and Manchester City are each looking to respond to defeats last time out when they take on Shakhtar Donetsk and Club Brugge respectively.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain host RB Leipzig and two of Europe's great entertainers in Ajax and Borussia Dortmund face off in Amsterdam.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of some key contests.

 

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: Reds face bogey side

Following their last-16 exit to Atletico two seasons ago, Liverpool are winless in four Champions League meetings with the LaLiga champions – only Basel have they faced as many times without winning in Europe's top competition.

The Reds have also lost six of their past seven games on Spanish soil in the tournament since beating Real Madrid in the 2008-09 last 16, though they were victorious at the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham in the 2018-19 final.

Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in that meeting with Spurs and he has more recently scored in each of his past five away games for Liverpool in the Champions League – the longest-such streak by a Reds player in the competition.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Madrid: Will Ancelotti be Los Blancos' lucky omen?

Shakhtar beat Madrid home and away in the group stage last season and could become just the third side to win three in a row against Los Blancos in the competition after Bayern Munich and Juventus.

While Madrid's recent record against the Ukrainian outfit is poor, head coach Carlo Ancelotti has won all four of his previous Champions League games against Shakhtar – only against Bayern (six) and Liverpool (five) has he won more often.

Prior to their shock defeat at the hands of Sheriff last time out, Madrid beat Inter 1-0 at San Siro in their opening Group D contest. However, not since 2014-15 have they won their opening two Champions League away games.

 

Paris Saint-Germain v RB Leipzig: History not on Germans' side

After netting in PSG's win against Manchester City three weeks ago, Messi is looking to join Neymar (2017), Alex (2012) and George Weah (1994) in scoring in his first two home games for the club in the competition.

PSG have a great record against German opponents, having won seven of their eight meetings with Bundesliga clubs on home soil, though the exception in that run was in April this year when Bayern won 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

The Ligue 1 side do not tend to slip up at home in the group stage, losing just one of their past 28 such games – against Manchester United in October 2020 – and netting 2.7 goals per game on average.

Club Brugge v Manchester City: Pep seeking response to Paris pain

Ahead of this first ever meeting with City, Brugge are winless in 12 matches against English opponents in all European competitions since beating Chelsea in the Cup Winners' Cup 26 years ago.

The Belgian champions are unbeaten in their past four home group matches in the Champions League, though, picking up eight points across that run – only once have they gone five in a row without defeat (a run of six that ended in October 2019).

But Pep Guardiola will be confident of City getting their campaign back on track following defeat in Paris, the Catalan coach having lost successive away games in the competition once previously when in charge of Bayern in 2014-15 (against Porto and Barcelona).

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Borussia Dortmund

2 - Dortmund have won their previous two major European matches in the Netherlands, both in the Champions League. Their last defeat on Dutch soil was in the 2002 UEFA Cup final against Feyenoord.

3 - Ajax are aiming to win their opening three games to a Champions League campaign for the first time since 1995-96 under Louis van Gaal, the season in which they last made it all the way to the final.


Besiktas v Sporting CP

4 - Sporting have failed to win a European match on Turkish soil, drawing three times and losing once, with that loss coming against Istanbul Basaksehir in February 2020 in the Europa League. Besiktas, though, have won just once in 11 home Champions League games, beating RB Leipzig 2-0 in September 2017.

3 - Sporting lost their opening two group matches, against Dortmund and Ajax, and are at risk of losing three in a row for the first time in the current group-stage format.


Porto v Milan

6 - Porto have kept a clean sheet in six of their past seven games in the group stage of the Champions League, though they did concede five times in their last outing in the competition against Liverpool.

7 - Including qualifying matches, seven of Milan's eight away matches in UEFA competitions in Portugal have ended as a draw, with their only win coming against Porto in March 1993 courtesy of a Jean-Pierre Papin goal.


Inter v Sheriff

- Inter have failed to score in their previous three home Champions League games (the last two group games in 2020-21 and against Madrid this term). They have never previously gone four major UEFA European home games without scoring.

- Sheriff are looking to become just the third team this century to win their first three games in the Champions League, after Leicester City in 2016-17 and Malaga in 2012-13.

There has never been much room on the 'America's Team' bandwagon.

Each NFL season seems to begin with scores of pundits and observers scrambling to find a reason why this could be the Dallas Cowboys' year.

The difference in 2021 is they may actually be right.

Not since their Super Bowl win at the end of the 1995 season have the Cowboys reached the NFC Championship Game.

But riding a five-game winning streak after a thrilling 35-29 overtime victory over the New England Patriots in Foxborough, there is no doubt the Cowboys are legitimate contenders.

And, though there are supplementary factors behind their success on both sides of the ball, the primary reason for that status is clear: Dak Prescott is playing arguably the best football of his career.

A stellar three-quarter century

On his 75th career start, Prescott was once again imperious against the Patriots.

He passed for 445 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, posting a passer rating of 108.7.

It marked his 39th game with a passer rating of at least 100, surpassing Philip Rivers (38) for the third-most such games by a player in his first 75 starts.

The two players above him are the man he replaced in Dallas, Tony Romo (41), and Aaron Rodgers (43).

Should he continue performing at the standards he has displayed through five weeks, a Prescott vs Rodgers conference title game is not out of the question.

Accurate in every situation

Returning from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle suffered in Week 5 last year and entering the season with concerns over a shoulder injury, there were plenty wondering whether Prescott could recapture the form that saw him receive a four-year, $160million contract extension from Dallas in the offseason.

Any such doubts have been emphatically dispelled.

Helming a Dallas offense that leads the NFL with an average of 6.58 yards per play, Prescott is second in the NFL with a completion percentage of 73.1, while he and Matthew Stafford are tied for the league lead in throws that have resulted in a first down, moving the sticks on 44 per cent of attempts.

Completion percentage is not necessarily connected to a quarterback's accuracy, yet in Prescott's case, the link is clear.

Prescott has delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 82.9 per cent of his attempts, according to Stats Perform data. That is fourth among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts this season, trailing Kirk Cousins (84.6), Kyler Murray (84) and Patrick Mahomes (83.3).

A quarterback who has received comparisons to Peyton Manning for his work at the line of scrimmage, Prescott's poise has allowed him to maintain his accuracy almost irrespective of the situation.

His well-thrown percentage under pressure is 77.1 per cent, the average being 70, with only Murray (78.1) and the Patriots' Mac Jones (81.4) above him among quarterbacks to have come under duress on at least 20 attempts. 

Prescott has also been precise when throwing on the move, producing an accurate pass 85.7 per cent of the time in that scenario.

The former fourth-round pick's composure under pressure and ability to deliver on the move shone through in the biggest moments at Gillette Stadium.

On second-and-11 early in the fourth quarter, Prescott connected with CeeDee Lamb for 33 yards having shuffled to his right and reset his feet before delivering with late-arriving pressure in his face.

The final drive of regulation for Dallas saw Prescott put the ball where only Cedrick Wilson Jr. could go up and get it on a critical fourth-and-five with Matthew Judon bearing down on him following a spin move on right tackle Terence Steele.

His first throw of overtime was another hookup with Lamb while rolling to his right and that drive culminated in Prescott finding the same receiver after executing a play-fake left and moving the opposite direction, hitting the second-year receiver on the over route on a throw delivered with his weight falling away to give Dallas a walk-off win.

It could be argued that the Cowboys' own miscues put themselves in such a tight game, and his own coach is perhaps Prescott's most significant obstacle to him delivering long-awaited glory to Dallas this season.

McCarthy's mistakes

The Cowboys will be glad of the upcoming bye week, having seemingly survived a scare when left tackle Tyron Smith limped off with an ankle injury on Sunday, only to return after having it taped.

Smith will have the chance to rest and nurse his ankle and a troublesome neck problem, and by the time the Cowboys are back in action they should have the entirety of their starting offensive line, with right tackle La'el Collins set to return from a five-game ban.

Dallas and head coach Mike McCarthy could also use the extra week to evaluate in-game decision-making, which made life a lot harder on Prescott in Week 6.

Whether it was the decision to call four successive runs from the New England one-yard line in the second quarter, a sequence that ended with Prescott fumbling at the goal-line, or McCarthy's call to settle for a go-ahead 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-two late in the final quarter, the Cowboys' game management was a problem throughout.

McCarthy was bailed out after the latter mistake, Greg Zuerlein's missed kick followed by a pick-six of Jones from Trevon Diggs, but the Cowboys cannot expect to get away with such misjudgements every week.

The Cowboys have an offense teeming with playmakers that is the most efficient in the league by yards per play and a defense second in takeaways with 14, Diggs (seven interceptions) accounting for half of those.

A potent offense and an opportunistic defense is a formula for a Super Bowl challenge, yet it can be ruined if the head coach consistently comes up short with his decisions in situational football.

Prescott has the Cowboys firmly on the path to the title push they have long since craved. It is the man they hired to lead that charge who is the biggest threat to their dreams coming to fruition.

After nearly two weeks off due to the international break, Premier League football was back this past weekend and it was as intriguing as ever.

A new era began at St James' Park, though the outcome of the match was arguably as familiar as ever for Newcastle United fans, while similar could be said of Watford as they began Claudio Ranieri's tenure by being battered by Liverpool.

That game saw Mohamed Salah spectacularly edge closer to Liverpool history, while their next opponents – bitter rivals Manchester United – continued their dreadful run by conceding four to Leicester City.

But Harry Kane got himself back among the goals and Wolves pulled off what of the most unlikely comebacks the Premier League has seen.

Below, Stats Perform delves into some of the quirky Opta facts from the weekend…

Salah on verge of historic achievement

The early frontrunner for individual end-of-season awards in the Premier League is undoubtedly Salah, who has made a scintillating start to 2021-22.

He somehow reached a new level of spectacular on Saturday in the 5-0 dismantling of Watford, his incredible solo goal showcasing the kind of improbable dribbling one would expect to see in an unrealistic football film or naff television advert – only this was real.

But more than the sheer audacity of the goal, it was the eighth goal in a row that Salah has scored in for Liverpool – not only was that a personal best for him, it equalled a club record set by Daniel Sturridge.

If Salah scores in his next appearance, which will presumably be either against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday or United at the weekend, he will become the first Liverpool player to net in nine successive outings.

Newcastle, the Premier League's pressing anomaly

Sunday ended up being something of a reality check for Newcastle. While most fans will have turned up to St James' Park with a sense of optimism for the first time in years, all will have left at full-time with the realisation that – Saudi money or not – this is a team that could conceivably be in the Championship next season.

But one area that they are seemingly proving quite efficient is with regards to their pressing leading to goals.

Now, it's worth saying that Newcastle aren't among the most intense teams when it comes to their off-the-ball setup, as their 47 high turnovers is only more than four clubs in the Premier League.

However, three of those situations have led to a goal, which is more than anyone else in the division and speaks to an impressive level of efficiency.

That probably won't come as much of a consolation if they do get relegated, though.

Kane at home on the road

What with all the furore surrounding Newcastle heading into the weekend, Kane's Premier League woes for this season seemed to take a backseat in the build-up.

Whether that played a role in him finally getting his first Premier League goal of the season is impossible to prove, but his clever finish in Spurs' 3-2 win did highlight just how reliable Kane has been as an away striker over the years.

It was his 88th away goal in the competition, taking him past Alan Shearer and to within six of the record holder, Wayne Rooney. But Kane's haul comes from just 128 away games.

Rooney's 94 was from 243 matches on the road, Shearer needed 219 for his total. For Kane to reach such a figure so soon is a truly astonishing accomplishment.

Wolves' turnaround a comeback for the ages

Is there anything in football that matches the sheer joy of a late comeback? You go from being resigned to defeat, then having a little hope and ultimately becoming overwhelmed with emotion as the turnaround is complete. It's a rollercoaster.

Most fans know what it's like to see something similar, but what Wolves supporters witnessed on Saturday was even more remarkable because due to the speed at which everything unfurled.

They were 2-0 down at local rivals Aston Villa in the 80th minute, but then Romain Saiss, Conor Coady and Ruben Neves scored in the final 10 minutes to earn a 3-2 win.

Only once before has a team comeback from two or more goals down later than the 80th minute in the Premier League (Reading against West Brom in 2013), which puts Wolves' feat into historic context.

On the eve of the 2021-22 NBA season, the league appears well-positioned with as much talent and star power as in any year in recent memory. 

Future Hall of Famers like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant remain at the centre of the basketball universe, while a younger generation led by Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson continues to grow stardom. 

But the most recent additions to the league – those in the 2021 NBA Draft class – appear to be in prime position to make their mark in their rookie seasons. 

This year's class of rookies was targeted years ago as a deep crop of talented prospects, and some of the most coveted players landed in situations that will allow them to contribute immediately. 

Early and frequent contributions – in combination with the NBA's current wide-open, high-scoring style of play – mean that this year's talented rookie class has a chance to make history. 

Shaq and Co. set the standard

The top five picks from the 1992 draft class averaged 19.0 points per game in the 1992-93 season, the most by the top quintet of first-year players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. That class featured Shaquille O'Neal (23.4 points per game), Alonzo Mourning (21.0), Christian Laettner (18.2), Jim Jackson (16.3) and LaPhonso Ellis (14.7) taken with the first five picks. 

The top five from 2018 was the highest-scoring rookie class in recent memory by averaging 17.3 points, led by Doncic (21.2 points per game) and Trae Young (19.1). 

Michael Jordan's 28.2-point rookie scoring average boosted the top quintet from the 1984 class to 16.9 points per game. 

 

The high end of the lauded 2003 class – which included James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – averaged 15.9 points per game despite scant contributions from the infamous Darko Milicic (1.4 points per game). 

But can this year's top five picks compete with some of the best draft classes in league history?

Green already impressing in Houston

The Detroit Pistons took Cade Cunningham number one overall, the Houston Rockets selected Jalen Green second and the Orlando Magic picked Jalen Suggs number five – three natural scorers on the perimeter who landed on teams deep in the rebuilding process. 

Cunningham and Suggs both averaged more than 15 points in Las Vegas Summer League action, while Green was a top-10 scorer there, averaging 20.3 points in just 24.1 minutes. 

Detroit and Orlando ended last season with two of the youngest five rosters in the NBA, making it likely that they feature their rookies early and often in the 2021-22 campaign. 

Cunningham has been held out all preseason after suffering a sprained ankle in a late-September practice, but Pistons head coach Dwane Casey classified the injury as "mild", giving Detroit hope that the top pick will be available for the team's season-opening game on Wednesday. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected versatile big man Evan Mobley number three overall, seem to have intentions of making a playoff push and have more experienced players inside like Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and the estranged Kevin Love. A slight frame and Cleveland's crowded frontcourt could limit Mobley's minutes in his first year, but he has shown his versatility in exhibition play, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds while averaging 11.7 points per game in Summer League and exhibition play. 

Scottie Barnes was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Raptors and, like Mobley, is more of an all-around player than a pure scorer, but the six-foot-nine forward has averaged 10.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first three exhibition games, handling the ball plenty for a team that lost Kyle Lowry this offseason. 

Potential for eye-popping numbers

It is far too early to count on the 2021 class to be one of the best in recent memory, but today's rookies have the advantage of putting up big numbers in a high-scoring league, especially with each of the top five selections showing promise from three-point range. 

When LeBron James was a rookie in 2003-04, teams scored an average of 93.4 points per game and attempted 79.8 field goals per game. Last season's league scoring average was 112.1 points, a 20 per cent increase, and a typical team launched 88.4 shots, up nearly 11 per cent. 

Last season saw 32 different players score at least 20 points per game. Just a decade ago, only 19 players hit that milestone. 

The NBA's pace and scoring continue to rise, and young players are seeing statistical bumps as well. Last year's top pick, Anthony Edwards, struggled to begin his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He finished the season by scoring at least 15 points in 36 of his last 40 games and averaged 23.5 points per game over that span.

 

Cunningham, Green and Suggs are all considered better outside shooters than Edwards was heading into his rookie season, and this crop of rookies could let it fly from three-point range early and often. 

While the ultimate verdict on the 2021 draft class will be decided several years down the line, the door is open for some of league's most coveted prospects to put up eye-popping numbers in today's wide-open NBA. 

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

Manchester United suffered a torrid second-half spell to succumb to defeat against Leicester City in Saturday's headline Premier League clash.

Failure at the King Power Stadium places further questions over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tenure ahead of a daunting schedule but neighbours Manchester City did not experience similar problems as the defending champions cruised to yet another victory over Burnley.

City's fellow title contenders Chelsea made London derby history as they battled past Brentford after Liverpool's fearsome front three had comfortably dispatched Claudio Ranieri's new Watford side.

In the other fixtures, Wolves shocked Aston Villa to overturn a two-goal deficit and Norwich City fought for a goalless draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, while Southampton registered their first win over a depleted Leeds United.

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

Watford 0-5 Liverpool: Mane hits century as Salah continues scoring run

Roberto Firmino became the first Brazilian to score more than one hat-trick in the Premier League as Ranieri fell to defeat by the biggest margin of any manager in their first home game with a new club in the competition.

Firmino's first two goals followed Mane's opener as the Senegal international hit his 100th Premier League goal, without scoring a penalty, with only Les Ferdinand (149) and Emile Heskey (110) previously achieving such a feat.

Mohamed Salah played an exquisite pass for Mane's landmark goal but the Egypt forward also found the net as he danced through Watford's defence to become the joint-top scoring African – level with Didier Drogba (104) – in the history of the competition.

His left-footed curler also made him the first Liverpool player since Daniel Sturridge in 2014 to score in eight consecutive games in all competitions as Jurgen Klopp's side became the first top-flight side to ever score three-plus goals in seven consecutive away games across all competitions.

Leicester City 4-2 Manchester United: Foxes end Red Devils record away run

Mason Greenwood edged United ahead with his fifth strike from outside the box in 21 Premier League goals – only David Beckham and Nani have managed a higher share of goals for the club from in such a fashion of those to score 20 times.

However, just 54 seconds split Marcus Rashford's equaliser for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to make it 2-2 and Jamie Vardy putting the hosts 3-2 to the good.

Patson Daka then became the first Zambian scorer in the Premier League, with 105 different nations now having a goalscorer, as Leicester won three consecutive games in all competitions against the Red Devils for the first time since 1901.

Not only did the Foxes, who have conceded in seven straight top-flight games under Brendan Rodgers, make history they also ended the visitors' record run as 30 games without a loss on the road came to an abrupt end.

Brentford 0-1 Chelsea: Blues make history in the capital against unlucky Brentford

Ben Chilwell's third goal in three games – as many as in his last 33 appearances in the league – inspired Chelsea to a record-breaking seventh consecutive away win in London derbies.

Thomas Tuchel's men have conceded just three goals this term – the fewest they have conceded at this stage since 2010-11 (two) – as the Blues won their 15th game against new top-flight opposition in 16 attempts.

Meanwhile, Brentford – who were stifled by Edouard Mendy's 20th clean sheet in 38 games – remain winless in seven matches against Chelsea, losing each of their last three by an aggregate scoreline of 9-0.

Manchester City 2-0 Burnley: Guardiola's men maintain dominance over the Clarets 

City cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory at Etihad Stadium, meaning they now boast a 32-1 aggregate scoreline over Burnley in their last nine games across all competitions.

Pep Guardiola's side have now kept clean sheets in six of their eight league games this term – more than any other side – as Kevin de Bruyne netted for consecutive top-flight games for the first time since July 2020.

The Clarets, who are on the longest winless run in England's top four tiers (11), are Bernardo Silva's favourite opponent, the Portugal international directly involved in seven goals in eight games.

Offensive linemen do not win NFL awards.

For as much as their performance is pivotal to the success of an NFL team, the cold hard truth is the narratives that decide the MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards are not built around those who spend their time in the trenches.

But if there is going to be an end to the wait for the first offensive lineman to win Rookie of the Year, then it may come from Rashawn Slater of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Slater is enjoying a stellar beginning to his NFL career, the 13th overall pick vindicating his draft status and locking down the left tackle spot to allow quarterback Justin Herbert to enjoy an MVP calibre start as the Chargers have gone 4-1 through five games.

With the class of rookie quarterbacks enduring plenty of first-year struggles and few of the highly drafted skill position players delivering results worthy of such significant recognition, Slater should have a better chance of at least receiving some Offensive Rookie of the Year votes.

And ahead of a blockbuster clash between the Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens, Stats Perform assesses whether Slater can take home the prize.

Slater's stellar performance

Though he had difficulties protecting Herbert from Cleveland Browns star Myles Garrett in Week 5, giving up a sack on a stunt involving Garrett and Malik McDowell and another following a spin move from the 2017 first overall pick, Slater has otherwise done a superb job keeping his quarterback clean.

His pressure rate allowed of 5.3 per cent ranks fourth among left tackles with a minimum of 100 pass protection snaps. Digging deeper into his numbers, Slater has lost only 13 of his 110 pass protection matchups, a win rate of 88.18 per cent.

Slater's stunt-adjusted win rate of 87.29 per cent is 13th among tackles with at least 50 matchups and is superior to that of Penei Sewell (76.27), the seventh overall pick of the Detroit Lions.

With his athleticism translating superbly to the highest level, Slater has been similarly effective in the run game, with a double-team adjusted win rate of 85.25 per cent from his 37 matchups.

Rarely would such sound offensive line play even put a rookie in the conversation for an individual award; however, 2021 could prove a unique case.

A lacklustre QB class?

Much was made of the strength of the 2021 quarterback class, yet that has not been reflected in the play of the five signal-callers to be taken in the first round so far.

Truly standout performances from rookie quarterbacks have been thin on the ground to this point, and the fact 15th overall pick Mac Jones leads the group in passing yards (1,243) and percentage of accurate, well-thrown balls (83.2) speaks to the mediocrity of their displays.

Jones has been accurate while struggling to push the ball downfield, with his air yards per attempt average of 7.51 the lowest among rookie quarterbacks.

First overall pick Trevor Lawrence's six touchdowns lead all rookies, yet his well-thrown percentage is a disappointing 75.2 per cent and his pickable pass percentage of 4.85 is well above the league average of 3.16.

The only two rookies to have excelled at avoiding turnover-worthy throws are Justin Fields (1.43 per cent) and Trey Lance (2.13 per cent). However, Fields has yet to put together a game to suggest he could win the award while Lance's one start so far was an uneven performance in which his positive flashes were negated by the poor execution of his offensive team-mates.

With the quarterbacks failing to build a convincing case, the favourite for Offensive Rookie of the Year must be Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

Chase's 456 receiving yards are seventh in the NFL and he already has five touchdowns to his name. The fifth overall pick is producing a big play on 38.9 per cent of targets, comfortably the best rate among rookie receivers with at least 10 targets.

Such numbers would seem to make him the clear frontrunner, but with the Bengals now 3-2 and facing a more difficult schedule than they have contended with through five weeks, his stock could soon take a dent and open the door for Slater, whose case would be strengthened by a strong performance against a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Oweh a significant challenge

The Chargers' ability to move the ball against the Ravens on Sunday may be contingent on how well Slater performs against another first-rounder in Baltimore pass rusher Odafe Oweh.

Oweh already has three sacks to his name and his 14 pressures were second only to Miami Dolphins' rookie Jaelan Phillips among first-year edge rushers heading into Week 6.

Boasting only 12 wins from 54 pass rush matchups, the more granular numbers are not as impressive for Oweh.

But his production to this point in terms of sacks suggests Oweh is a player who is quick to take advantage of opportunities that come his way.

A freakish athlete with elite short-area and long speed, Oweh only started playing football in high school, meaning there is likely plenty more growth to come from a defender who has already developed rapidly in his short time with the Ravens.

Slater, therefore, cannot afford to take the challenge of facing Oweh lightly despite the matchup numbers indicating he should have a clear advantage over his fellow rookie.

Coverage of the sport is such that more focus is given to the plays where the pass rusher beats his man and gets to the quarterback than to the plethora of snaps where the offensive lineman stops a defender from making an impact.

As a result, Slater's Rookie of the Year argument perhaps rests on him completely stopping Oweh from producing any splash plays.

Even if he does so, the prospect of him claiming the honour will be an unlikely one, but a performance that sees him shut down Oweh, help the Chargers to 5-1 and assist Herbert in further building his MVP case will at least be worthy of a wider conversation about recognition for arguably the premier offensive rookie of the class in the opening month of the season.

The October international break has provided an opportunity to reflect on the club season so far, with the campaign starting to settle into some sort of pattern.

Paris Saint-Germain have quickly moved clear at the top of Ligue 1, but there look to be genuine title tussles on the cards in the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A.

However, while there are familiar names involved in each league, that does not mean the same individuals are excelling as in previous seasons.

A close-season that saw two of the sport's greats make moves shook things up a little, giving other emerging stars the opportunity to establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.

Studying the best shooters, creators, dribblers and goalkeepers, Stats Perform takes you through the standout statistical performers of 2021-22 so far.

Hotshot Haaland and luckless Lorenzo

There were familiar faces at the top of the shooting charts last season, as Lionel Messi (196 shots) led the way ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (168). This term, although Ronaldo has hit the ground running, neither rank among the top marksmen.

Kylian Mbappe (35) has had the most attempts, but Erling Haaland is averaging 5.2 per 90. While that is the most among players with 20 total shots or more, it falls short of the 5.8 Messi was mustering last term.

Haaland is certainly making the most of his opportunities, though. From chances worth just 4.77 expected goals (xG), he has produced finishes worth 7.05 expected goals on target (xGOT) – a metric measured after the shot. These efforts have led to seven goals, performing in line with the quality of his finishing.

The Borussia Dortmund man is not outperforming his xG by as much as Karim Benzema, who leads the way in that regard. His nine goals have come from opportunities worth 4.43 xG, although his shots have only accounted for 5.22 xGOT, suggesting poor goalkeeping has also contributed to his success.

Lorenzo Insigne certainly has not encountered any below-par work from opposition keepers. His 27 attempts have been worth 5.5 xG, and he has narrowly surpassed that mark with his xGOT of 5.57. Yet the Napoli captain, third behind Messi and Ronaldo last year with 144 shots, somehow has only two goals.

Just two players in the whole of 2020-21 – Houssem Aouar (seven goals, 10.75 xGOT) and Edin Dzeko (seven goals, 10.58 xGOT) – fell so far short of their xGOT, suggesting Insigne's fortunes must surely change soon.

Benzema benefiting like Kane last year

Bruno Fernandes is one of Europe's best creators and scarcely gets a rest at Manchester United, so it is no surprise to see him figuring high up the rankings for key passes both this season and last. In 2020-21, Fernandes created the second-most chances (95) and the second-most chances from open play (77). This term, he is joint-fifth for total chances created (23).

Eden Hazard is back producing once again, averaging 3.99 key passes per 90 – all from open play. He is third for chances created and first for chances created from open play among those to forge 10 or more opportunities.

But Hazard has only a single assist to his name, not so far as fortunate as Fernandes' team-mate Paul Pogba or his own colleague Benzema.

Pogba has created chances worth just 1.45 expected assists (xA) and Benzema 2.05 xA, yet the pair have seven assists apiece thanks to the fine work of their club-mates. It means Benzema has been involved in 16 goals despite his combined xG and xA making up a mere 6.48. He is a man in top form, but this statistical output does not seem sustainable.

It is Harry Kane's example that Pogba and Benzema are following. His 14 assists led the Premier League last term, but he only actually created chances worth 3.63 xA, far and away the most spectacular disparity as Son Heung-min and Co. boosted Kane's figures.

Messi actually went in the opposite direction, last season creating chances worth 13.37 xA but only being rewarded with nine assists.

Adama dominant with Messi missing

As well as being one of Europe's most prominent shooters and creators, Messi was right at the top for dribbles last term. No player attempted (261) or completed (159) more take-ons. Given Neymar attempted the most dribbles per 90 (11.28) among those with 50 or more attempts, slow starts for two Paris Saint-Germain stars have left a gap in the market.

Unsurprisingly, Adama Traore has stepped into that void. The Wolves winger was next behind Messi for attempts (232) and completions (153) in 2020-21 and now comfortably leads the way (61 and 49). Among those with 20 attempted take-ons or more, Traore is now completing more dribbles per 90 (9.63) than any other player in Europe is even attempting. His success rate is an astonishing 80.33 per cent.

The Spain international has 14 times this season beaten multiple players in the same run and has created six chances immediately after a successful dribble – two more Europe-wide highs.

Traore only ranks joint-second for chances created from all carries, however, his nine trailing Allan Saint-Maximin's 11, with the pair out in front of the rest across various metrics with the ball at their feet.

Oblak off the mark and Keylor kept out

There were two clear outstanding goalkeepers in Europe in 2020-21, as Jan Oblak led the way for goals prevented using expected goals on target data (8.58, having conceded only 25 times excluding own goals) while Keylor Navas had the best save percentage of those to face 50 or more shots on target (80.43). Oblak was second for save percentage (80), with Navas third for goals prevented (8.11).

But both men have slipped below those standards this season.

Oblak has endured a significant wobble, saving only 57.14 per cent of 14 shots and conceding five goals from efforts worth 4.22 xGOT. Navas has a better save percentage of 72.73 but still is not having a positive impact, conceding six from an xGOT of 5.02. He also now looks to have lost his place to Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Going the other way, though, there has been a positive change in fortunes for Aaron Ramsdale, who last year had to make 147 saves – behind only fellow relegated England international Sam Johnstone (166). Since joining Arsenal, Ramsdale has faced just 10 shots on target and saved nine of them, a benchmark save percentage.

Matias Dituro is the standout difference-maker this term, however. Despite conceding 11 times, excluding own goals, since joining Celta Vigo, he has actually prevented 4.05 goals.

You wouldn't necessarily know it given some of the scrutiny, but things aren't going all that terribly at Manchester United.

With four wins and two draws from their first seven games of the Premier League season, they are just two points behind leaders Chelsea. It's a solid improvement from 2020-21, when, at the same stage of the campaign, they were four points worse off and with a negative goal difference.

Exiting the EFL Cup was frustrating, as was losing to Young Boys, but that last-gasp win over Villarreal means their Champions League fate remains firmly in their own hands. It also ensured their challenge for the two biggest trophies on offer are very much alive, and it's why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job is not currently under threat.

Their next 10 games could change that. It's very hard to predict United results and quality of performances from week to week, but their coming fixture list looks seriously daunting on paper. Before the end of November, they must face league visits to Leicester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, home games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, a Champions League double-header with Atalanta and a trip to Villarreal, LaLiga's only remaining unbeaten side.

Solskjaer could approach the third anniversary of his return to Old Trafford on the back of a buoyant run of results, with a renewed spring in his step ahead of the festive season. Alternatively, December may bring about a deafening clamour for a change of management, just as Jose Mourinho faced in 2018.

Hallowe'en season makes for scary reading

One thing that's marked Solskjaer's time in charge is a tendency to pull out big results when the pressure is on. He's lost just one of five league games against Pep Guardiola and is the only United manager to win all three of his first league visits to the Etihad Stadium. He is unbeaten in five against Chelsea and has been beaten just once by Tottenham.

With two wins in six matches before the international break, the Norwegian will need to summon something similar in the coming seven league fixtures. The trouble is, these games did not go according to plan last time.

United's next league fixtures are Leicester City away, Liverpool at home, Spurs away, Man City at home, Watford away, Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. Last season, the only one of those same games that resulted in a United victory was the trip to Spurs and the embattled Mourinho. Of course, Watford weren't in the top flight last season, but United's last visit to Vicarage Road in December 2019 ended in a miserable 2-0 defeat.

In the Champions League, Solskjaer's men face Atalanta at home and away before heading to Spain to play Villarreal. They edged out Unai Emery's side at home thanks to a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo goal at the end of a contest in which the visitors had 2.31 expected goals to United's 1.07 but were thwarted by goalkeeper David de Gea.

While that was an important result, it didn't gloss over wider concerns. United have kept only one clean sheet in 12 Champions League games under Solskjaer, losing seven of them in total. That's only one defeat less than predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho suffered in 30 matches combined in the competition.

In short, it would take a serious optimist to expect United to get through this run of matches in overwhelmingly positive fashion.

What's the plan, Ole?

But hang on: two points off the top, only one defeat... United's Premier League form isn't that bad, surely?

Well, it's certainly not awful. United have scored more open-play goals than anyone else this season (14) and conceded four, a figure bettered only by Man City (three), Brighton and Hove Albion (two) and leaders Chelsea (zero).

There is often criticism around United's perceived lack of control over games, but that is perhaps not as bad as some think. Only Man City (63.4 per cent) average more possession per game than United (60.7 per cent), while their tally of 55 open-play shots against is the same as Liverpool's and only five down on Chelsea. Indeed, their expected goals against figure in open play (5.5) is slightly lower than that of Jurgen Klopp's men (5.9).

The problem is, as injury-time Ronaldo goals and De Gea penalty saves will tell you, United are treading a fine line between success and disappointment.

Those league-high 14 open-play goals came from 86 shots, a figure only bettered by Man City (94) and Liverpool (97), but one worth just 7.9 expected goals. That differential of 6.1 between goals scored and xG is by far the biggest in the league, and will almost certainly begin to level off at some stage.

That xG figure is in spite of United registering 1,256 passes ending in the final third, a tally only beaten by Man City (1,340). They also rank just fifth for passes into the box (234) and are well behind Liverpool (270) and Man City (273) for touches in the opponents' penalty area (206). Despite having lots of the ball, those clear-cut chances are scarce.

That relatively high possession figure apparently doesn't offer the security at the back that it should, either. But United have still faced 77 shots this season and are on an 11-game run without a clean sheet at home, their worst such sequence since 1964. Champions City, meanwhile, use keeping the ball as their first line of defence: they have only faced 42 shots, just 10 of which have been on target compared to United's 24.

At least United can't generally be accused of a want of trying. There are only two teams – Southampton (997) and Leeds United (1,210) – who have tallied more team sprints than United (991), which is impressive given the length of time they keep the ball rather than scurrying around trying to win it back.

Plus, only Liverpool (147) and Man City (127) have attempted more shots overall than United (120), while there are four United players among the top 18 in the division for attempts at goal this season. Those four – Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba – have also created 50 goalscoring chances between them. In fact, Fernandes leads the league when it comes to shots attempted and chances created combined.

Solskjaer's ethos, it seems, continues to be based on individual inspiration: put enough talented attackers on the pitch, and, more often than not, they'll do enough to win you a game. But that tactic did not work against Everton, or Aston Villa, or Young Boys, or Southampton. Will it be enough against the rest of the 'big six' between now and December?

Will it be enough, indeed, to keep the wolves from Solskjaer's door?

After a COVID-19 enforced postponement, the T20 World Cup will finally get underway on Sunday.

Initially scheduled to take place in Australia last year, and then India following the postponement, the competition will now take place in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

A first round featuring eight teams, including debutants Namibia and Papua New Guinea as well as 2014 champions Sri Lanka (who have reached three T20 World Cup finals, more than any other side), gets the tournament up and running, with four teams progressing into the Super 12 stage.

The West Indies are aiming to defend their title, having edged out England in the 2016 edition. Eoin Morgan's team, who have the world's top T20 batsman in their ranks, are sure to be one of the main challengers for the Windies' crown.

Virat Kohli's India are among the favourites, while Pakistan will be hoping captain Babar Azam delivers. Australia and New Zealand (the most economic side when it came to bowling in 2016) cannot be discounted either, with South Africa also improving in recent years.

It promises to be a thrilling tournament and, with the help of Opta, Stats Perform looks at some of the key data points heading into the tournament.

 

Gayle on the record trail

The Windies have won two of the last three T20 World Cups, triumphing in 2016 and 2012 either side of Sri Lanka's success, and they remain the only team to have won the tournament on multiple occasions. Key to their sustained success has been Chris Gayle, who at 42, is still the face of the sport in the Caribbean.

He is just 80 runs away from becoming the second player to score 1,000 runs at the T20 World Cup. In fact, he needs only 97 runs to surpass Mahela Jayawardene's record tally of 1,016. Gayle already holds one competition record, for the number of sixes (60), while he averages 40 across 26 innings at the tournament, with a brilliant strike rate of 146.7.

New Zealand great Brendon McCullum (123) is the only player to have a higher T20 World Cup score than Gayle's 117, and you would not bet against the Windies talisman claiming that record either.

Gayle will have able support from the likes of Kieron Pollard (1,378 T20 runs), Dwayne Bravo (1,229) and Lendl Simmons (1,508), not to mention Nicholas Pooran.

Despite batting in the middle order, Pooran hit the second-highest number of sixes in this year's Caribbean Premier League (25). He also has form in the middle east, having struck 350 runs at a rate of 170 in the most recent edition of the Indian Premier League.

 

Malan and Livingstone to lead England

The Windies' first opponents in the Super 12 phase will be England, who will be out for revenge. They had a batting strike rate of 148 in 2016, the best of any team, but still fell short. Yet while the West Indies are now ninth in the ICC's T20I rankings, Morgan's men sit top of the pile.

Dawid Malan is the star batsman. He is ranked number one in the world in T20Is, with a rating of 841, way clear of second-placed Babar (819). Over 30 innings, he has amassed 1,123 runs at an average of 43.2 and a strike rate of 139.3.

Morgan, not shy of a big innings himself, is also able to call on Liam Livingstone, who has made a fantastic start to his T20I career. 

From seven innings, Livingstone has hit 206 runs with a strike rate of 167.5. His high score of 103 is the joint-highest in England's squad, level with Malan (103 not out).

As was the case at the 2019 World Cup, England's batting depth is exceptional, though they are shorn of Ben Stokes, who always seems to deliver when it matters most.

 

Kohli's last shot

Not too far behind Malan in the ICC's T20I batsman rankings is India star Kohli, who is stepping down as the captain in the shortest format of the game following the World Cup.

Winners of the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, India have only reached one other final, back in 2014. Kohli was named player of the tournament, top-scoring with 319 runs, and as he prepares to bow out as captain, he will be determined to cap off his tenure on a high.

No player has made more half-centuries in the competition than the 32-year-old (level with Gayle on nine), though Kohli is yet to log a century.

Kohli's hopes may well rest on the shoulders of Rohit Sharma. The opener debuted with an unbeaten half-century back in 2007 and has made 111 T20I appearances, behind only Shoaib Malik (116) and Mohammed Hafeez (113).

Only Martin Guptill (147) has struck more sixes than Sharma (133) in the format, while over the last five years, India have won every time the batsman has scored 50+ runs.

 

Captain fantastic

Shahid Afridi has taken the most wickets of any player in T20 World Cup history (39). Indeed, Bangladesh's Shakib Al Hasan has taken the most wickets at the tournament of any player set to participate in this edition (30), which shows the void Pakistan are having to fill following Afridi's retirement.

They do, however, possess a supreme batsman in the form of captain Babar. 

Since his T20I bow in 2016, Babar has tallied up 2,204 runs. His average of 46.9 puts him third on the all-time T20I list (20+ innings), behind Kohli (52.7) and his fellow opener Mohammad Rizwan (48.4), who provides another string to Pakistan's bow.

Babar, who has only managed one century to date (122 from 59 balls against South Africa earlier this year) was the fastest player to 2,000 T20I runs (52 innings) beating Kohli's previous best of 56, and an enticing encounter between the sub-continental rivals takes place on October 24.

Karl Darlow, Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden all started for Newcastle United in the final game of the Mike Ashley era. Dwight Gayle appeared from the bench.

Those were five of Newcastle's 12 most-used players in the Championship in 2016-17, appearing for a combined 14,122 minutes. Gayle, with 23 goals, was their leading scorer.

Steve Bruce, in charge against Wolves, regularly cited this longevity as a positive as the team battled relegation.

Like Bruce, though, clinging to his job ahead of his 1,000th career game in management against Tottenham, their stays are highly unlikely to be extended long into the ownership of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which last week purchased 80 per cent of the St James' Park outfit to become the richest football club owner in the world.

Amanda Staveley, whose PCP Capital Partners bought 10 per cent of Newcastle, has already talked of matching Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who this year respectively became the first British club to make a £100million signing and recruited the greatest player in the history of the game.

The mere thought of Jack Grealish or Lionel Messi might make steady, unspectacular centre-back Clark a little dizzy.

"We are in the market to compete for world-class players," Staveley said in another interview, before generously adding: "We already have world-class players."

One-paced right-winger-turned-left-back Ritchie certainly cannot be counted in that group. But Allan Saint-Maximin, with a little time and some elite coaching, might yet be.

Key like Kompany

It is easy to imagine Newcastle's bottomless budget allowing them to cast aside their entire existing XI.

A viral social media post shared by Gary Lineker last week showed a video clip of an alternative Magpies team lining up for the Champions League anthem on EA Sports' FIFA: Mohamed Salah, Messi, Kevin De Bruyne, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe, Son Heung-min, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo, bolstered by N'Golo Kante in goal.

But if City's 2008 takeover provided the blueprint, it showed how some players already at the club can have vital roles in the years ahead.

In their final game before the Abu Dhabi United Group took charge, Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany both started. Pablo Zabaleta was signed the same day.

Kompany (358), Zabaleta (333) and Hart (308) to this day rank third, fifth and seventh for City appearances in all competitions in the Abu Dhabi era, each sticking around for at least two of the club's five Premier League title triumphs.

So, who might be the Newcastle equivalents?

"I don't think anyone has lived up to their potential," former Newcastle captain Rob Lee told Stats Perform. "You've got to be brutally honest and say we wouldn't be in this position we're in [19th] if they'd played as well as they can."

However, he added: "Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson I'd leave out of that."

Wilson and Joe Willock were both reportedly of interest to Staveley's group before they were brought to Tyneside, but Saint-Maximin is the genuine jewel in Newcastle's knock-off crown.

In fact, if not for this takeover, Newcastle fans would have been fearing a January exit for their exciting number 10.

A year ago, Saint-Maximin said: "If the club is developing well, and it's in line with my desires, staying is a possibility. Afterwards, if things don't turn out like that, obviously the question of leaving will arise."

Since that interview, Newcastle have earned the joint-fewest points of all ever-present Premier League teams (41 – tied with Southampton). Saint-Maximin, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength.

Maximin impact

Saint-Maximin arrived at Newcastle with a reputation as an entertainer, equal parts exhilarating and frustrating. Across his first two seasons at St James' Park, he lived up to that billing.

Among players to make 10 starts in that time, the winger ranked third in Europe's top five leagues for both dribbles attempted (9.1 – behind Neymar and Sofiane Boufal) and dribbles completed (5.7 – behind Neymar and Adama Traore) per 90 minutes, but his end product was too often lacking.

Three goals and four assists in 2019-20 represented a goal involvement every 267 minutes, ranking between Jonjo Shelvey (265) and Matej Vydra (271) in the Premier League. When he reproduced the same figures again the following season, Saint-Maximin improved to an involvement every 224 minutes – just behind Danny Welbeck (221).

However, with two goals and three assists already this term, he has an involvement every 126 minutes, which puts him directly between Bruno Fernandes (125) and Son (130).

Indeed, only seven Premier League players have this season created more than Saint-Maximin's 16 chances – Ritchie (21) is actually joint-second – which include 15 from open play and four 'big chances', from which Opta would expect a player to score.

These attacking statistics are all the more impressive given the role Saint-Maximin is asked to play for Newcastle.

The Magpies start their possessions just 39 metres from their own goal on average – third-deepest in the league – meaning Saint-Maximin, of late playing as a central striker in either a 3-5-2, 5-4-1 or 4-3-3, is tasked with taking the team up the pitch.

That is why Saint-Maximin has carried the ball 1,950m, further than any other player in the league, including 1,212m upfield – trailing only Traore (1,267m). His 99 carries upfield are the most of any attacking player.

Traore is the sole player in Europe to successfully take on more players (49) than Saint-Maximin's 33, although only five of the Newcastle man's 54 attempted dribbles have been in the box – some way shy of Mbappe's leading 18.

Saint-Maximin is Europe's outstanding counter-attacking creator, forging 11 chances from carries (two more than Traore), but he might be even more effective a little closer to goal in a better, more progressive team. That opportunity should now arise on Tyneside.

"Imagine what these players must be thinking," Lee said. "I'd love to be a player at the minute at Newcastle.

"I'd be thinking, 'If I win something here, there'll be statues of me everywhere'. That's what you've got to look at. The first people to win something after that long are going to be idolised forever."

Saviour, then superstar?

There will undoubtedly be some high-profile, high-cost arrivals to come at St James' Park – Lee, doing his best Kevin Keegan impression, "would love it" if Newcastle signed Sunday's opponent Harry Kane – but Saint-Maximin must first lead his side to Premier League safety.

Newcastle are without a victory in seven this season and winless in four at home against Spurs.

But City also found life tough in 2008-09, tumbling into the bottom three at Christmas despite being afforded a single day in September to sign Robinho following the takeover.

Three goals from Robinho across the next two games provided a little breathing space going into January, when City were able to spend again and finish the campaign comfortably in midtable – their form from Boxing Day onwards the seventh-best in the division.

For now, Saint-Maximin is the closest thing Newcastle have to a Robinho, who provided a goal involvement (14 goals, five assists) every 139 minutes in that campaign.

Across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Newcastle won 42.9 per cent of the 42 matches in which Saint-Maximin started, earning 1.5 points per game, versus 14.7 per cent of 34 without him, collecting just 0.8 points.

That puts into context their awful start to this season, in which Saint-Maximin has been one of only two Newcastle players – Ritchie the other – to play all 630 minutes, a bright spark in a gloomy stretch.

If the Frenchman can continue to stay fit, he will be key to ensuring results quickly turn in this new era – starting against Tottenham.

"I'd love to see superstars [at Newcastle] – that's what we all want to see," Lee said. "'The Entertainers' was all about having a very, very good team but also signing superstars, like Alan [Shearer], Tino [Asprilla] and David Ginola."

Forget Kane, Philippe Coutinho and Mauro Icardi; Saint-Maximin is primed to be this team's first superstar.

A lot can change over the course of the international break – Newcastle United have gone from losing 2-1 at Wolves to becoming the world's richest football club, in a sense.

It's all change at St James' Park and you can guarantee a charged atmosphere for the first match of a potentially exciting period for a club that has underachieved for years, with Tottenham the visitors on Sunday.

A couple of Newcastle players might be worth your consideration, while Leeds star Raphinha – who would ordinarily be an easy pick – this week represents something of a risk.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform picks out seven players for your consideration.

AARON RAMSDALE (Arsenal v Crystal Palace)

His signing was scoffed at by many in pre-season, probably partly due to the significant £24million fee Arsenal spent, but Ramsdale has enjoyed an encouraging start after dislodging Bernd Leno for the Gunners.

He has featured four times in the Premier League and conceded just once, giving him the best minutes-per-goal-conceded ratio in the division (one every 360 mins).

Ramsdale will be confident of continuing that theme on Monday against Crystal Palace, whose open-play expected goals (xG) of 5.2 is better than only five teams this term.

MATT RITCHIE (Newcastle United v Tottenham)

Now, selecting a Newcastle defender might ordinarily be considered something of a risk, but it's fair to suggest there may be a slightly more positive aura around the team – for obvious reasons – when Spurs visit.

If the feel-good factor at the club following their takeover does translate into a strong performance, the early signs this season would have you believe Ritchie will be influential.

The converted left-back's 21 chances created is second just to Bruno Fernandes, while only Trent Alexander-Arnold (2.6) and Mason Mount (2.1) have better expected assists (xA) records than Ritchie (2.0) – he's also played the third-most amount of passes into the box out of everyone in the top flight (63).

KIERAN TIERNEY (Arsenal v Crystal Palace)

Another left-back who is pretty effective going forward is Tierney, who has widely been considered one of few consistently solid performers for Arsenal during his time at the club – when he's fit, that is.

As mentioned previously, Arsenal's next opponents Palace aren't among the league's most threatening team, so there's undoubtedly potential for clean-sheet points, though Tierney also provides plenty in attack.

Among defenders yet to score or assist, only Everton's Lucas Digne (17) has recorded more than Tierney's 15 shot involvements (shots and key passes), while the Scotland international is third among defenders for chances created (nine, two less than Alexander-Arnold).

RAPHINHA (Southampton v Leeds United)

Admittedly, this one's a bit of a gamble. With Raphinha away with Brazil for their World Cup qualifier against Uruguay on Thursday night (early Friday morning UK time), roughly 36 hours prior to Leeds facing Southampton, Marcelo Bielsa has already acknowledged Raphinha's status is at the very least unclear.

But he's looked exciting in his Brazil cameos so far, and his form in 2021-22 would leave few doubting Raphinha has the ability to have a decisive impact on Saturday even if just playing as a substitute.

Currently, he tops the rankings among Leeds players for goals (three), shots (24), chances created (14) and passes into the box (59) – he's surely too important for Bielsa to leave out entirely.

JESSE LINGARD (Leicester City v Manchester United)

After a brilliant few months at West Ham, Lingard is still waiting for a proper run of games this term at United, but he's already chipped in with a couple of goals in just three league appearances.

The second of those came against the Hammers, and up next is another of his former loan teams: Leicester.

He already boasts a great record in meetings with the Foxes, having been involved in six goals (three goals and three assists) against them – that's a joint-personal best (also six versus Arsenal).

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN (Newcastle United v Tottenham)

If there's one member of the Newcastle squad who promises to be the most buoyed by the club's new situation, it's surely the one who wouldn't look out of place in a team of expensively assembled superstars.

Saint-Maximin is box office – he's an entertainer and always looks like he's having a rollicking good time on the pitch, but this season the Frenchman has added a little more substance to his play as well.

With two goals and three assists already in 2021-22, he has an involvement every 126 minutes, massively improved on 2020-21 (one every 224 mins). In front of new owners, few would bet against Saint-Maximin dazzling as he looks to prove he'll be right at home in the new era.

RAUL JIMENEZ (Aston Villa v Wolves)

Back from a serious head injury, Jimenez did not have much luck during his first five Premier League appearances of the season, not getting a single goal or assist despite attempting 14 shots and delivering 15 key passes.

But since then, the Mexico international has been involved in all of Wolves' three most recent goals.

Jimenez has been something of a double-threat under Bruno Lage, with his shot involvements tally of 36 bettered by only Bruno Fernandes (47), Mohamed Salah, Michail Antonio and Raphinha.

From "Arsene Who" to "The Invincibles", via all those things he did not see, Arsene Wenger brought a whole new lexicon to English football.

He also changed the way the game is viewed in England, completely altering the horizons of a largely closed-off football culture to turbo-charge its transformation into the home of the most diverse, globally respected and richest domestic league on the planet.

Wenger's legacy in the Premier League is beyond question and its roots go back 25 years to October 12, 1996, when he oversaw his first ever match in charge of the club.

Across more than two decades, Wenger's Arsenal broke records, moved homes and changed their image forever. Here we look back at some memorable moments and the Opta numbers behind a towering sporting era.

Ton-up strikers

Wenger's initial years in north London saw him skilfully combine the rugged English core of a team that previously enjoyed trophy success under George Graham with his more pioneering ideas – a blend that found full realisation with the 1997-98 double success.

"One of my jobs was to keep faithful to the qualities I had found here. I tried always to maintain the tradition and values of this club," Wenger said on the eve of his final game at Huddersfield Town in May 2018.

That was game 1,235 and game one took place on the other side of the Pennines against Blackburn Rovers.

Foremost among the qualities Wenger found at Arsenal were those of the man who would become the club's record goalscorer on his watch.

Ian Wright scored both goals to get the brave new era up and running with a 2-0 win over a club who had been champions of England a little over a year earlier.

Wright was 33 when Wenger arrived and injury curtailed his involvement in the glorious 1997-98 run-in. However, earlier in that season he broke Cliff Bastin's long-standing Arsenal club record and concluded his Gunners' career with 185 goals in 288 appearances.

The England striker's best mark would, of course, be surpassed by the great Thierry Henry, whose phenomenal haul of 228 all came on Wenger's watch.

Overall, there were five goalscoring centurions during the Wenger era, with Robin van Persie next on the list with 132 before his acrimonious departure to Manchester United in 2012.

Theo Walcott (108), Olivier Giroud (105) and Wright's one-time strike partner Dennis Bergkamp (102) were the other men into three figures.

Glory days at Old Trafford

That first taste of victory was one of 10 wins in 17 visits to Ewood Park, a win percentage of 58.8 per cent. Of the away or neutral venues Wenger's Arsenal played at in Britain, that ratio was only bettered by seven wins from 11 at Fulham's Craven Cottage (63.6 per cent).

Of course, there are other grounds far more synonymous with his reign, not least the home of Manchester United and his great rival Alex Ferguson.

Other than Highbury and the Emirates, Wenger managed his biggest number of Arsenal games at Old Trafford – 31 in total.

It was often an unhappy hunting ground, the scene of an 8-2 defeat in August 2011 that was his worst in terms of goals conceded and joint-heaviest by margin.

Only at Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium (18.2 per cent) and Tottenham's White Hart Lane (24 per cent) was Wenger's win ratio lower than at Old Trafford (W8 D6 L17 for 25.8 per cent). But when the wins came, they were seismic.

In March 1998, Marc Overmars nodded Nicolas Anelka's flick-on into his own path and steered beyond Peter Schmeichel for a 1-0 victory that proved pivotal in that season's title race.

Another iconic Arsenal moment came in May 2002, when Sylvain Wiltord pounced to beat compatriot Fabien Barthez and the Gunners secured Premier League glory on United's own patch.

There were more recriminations than celebrations in September 2003 after an ill-tempered 0-0 draw between the sides. However, had Ruud van Nistelrooy not crashed a penalty against the crossbar – much to Martin Keown's contorted, vein-popping satisfaction – Arsenal would not have been Invincibles.

7-up and springing Prague

An away ground not quite as synonymous with Wenger is the Madejski Stadium.

Nevertheless, Reading are the opponent Arsenal played most often while maintaining a 100 per cent record under the Frenchman, winning 10 out of 10.

The most famous of these wins was a 7-5 triumph in Berkshire in October 2012, where Arsenal averted EFL Cup embarrassment in utterly berserk fashion.

After 35 minutes, Reading were 4-0 up thanks to Jason Roberts, a Laurent Koscielny own goal, Mikele Leigertwood and Noel Hunt. Afterwards, their manager Brian McDermott, a former Arsenal player, would reflect upon the "worst" defeat of his career.

Walcott reduced the arrears before the interval and the England winger's second of the match deep into injury time, after a goal from Giroud and one at the right end from Koscielny, forced an additional half hour.

Marouane Chamakh put Arsenal ahead for the first time in the tie and, although Pavel Pogrebnyak made it 5-5, the Moroccan forward scored his second after Walcott completed his hat-trick to crown what Wenger dubbed "maybe my greatest comeback", with a touch of understatement.

It was not the only time Arsenal scored seven under Wenger, and the biggest wins of his tenure came when they kept the back door shut, with Everton, Middlesbrough and Slavia Prague all beaten 7-0 in a spell spanning May 2005 to October 2007.

Coincidentally, Slavia's neighbours Sparta are next on Wenger's perfect record list after Reading, losing six out of six against Arsenal in the Champions League.

Mourinh-woe

Over time, an underlying warmth revealed itself in the Wenger-Ferguson rivalry. It was hard to say the same when it came to his jousts with Jose Mourinho.

Wenger was a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure" according to Mourinho's acidic tongue and the older man could be similarly biting.

"When you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent," he witheringly observed after Mourinho announced himself in English football with his 2004-05 Chelsea sweeping all before them.

It will therefore have stung deeply when Wenger's 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal saw them ransacked in a 6-0 demolition at Stamford Bridge on March 22, 2014.

If the manner of the loss was humiliating, the defeat itself was one to be expected. In 19 encounters with Mourinho, Wenger won two – a 10.5 per cent win ratio that is by far his worst against another manager, with 30.6 per cent thanks to 15 victories from 49 attempts versus Ferguson next on the list.

Those paltry returns against the self-styled 'Special One' mostly come within a wider context of decline.

Wenger's first decade at Arsenal – spanning 1996-97 to 2005-06, their last at Highbury – yielded 11 trophies out of the 17 he won overall in north London, including all three Premier League titles.

Arsenal's win percentage dropped slightly after the move to Emirates Stadium, going from 70.2 per cent to 67.9 per cent, though they did score slightly more often, with their goals-per-game figure up from 1.8 to 1.9 in the latter period.

By this point, Wenger was joined in the Premier League by the finest coaching talents from across Europe. It was a far cry from his own appointment, when he became only the fourth manager in England's top flight to hail from outside the British Isles.

Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and others had all come along to raise the bar Wenger set to even greater heights, although he would enjoy one last defining triumph at the expense of one of their contemporaries.

FA Cup specialist

Chelsea entered the 2017 FA Cup final as hot favourites to complete the double after romping to Premier League glory in Antonio Conte's first season in charge.

A 3-0 defeat to Arsenal the previous September inspired Conte to revert to his favoured 3-4-2-1 system and was the catalyst for a dominant revival.

This turn of events seemed to encapsulate the futility of the late Wenger years, when every small success appeared only to serve as a precursor for a greater disappointment.

You could even say the same for his last final in the competition he dominated, given it preceded his lowest ever Premier League finish of sixth in his farewell campaign.

But Arsenal were stirringly brilliant that day at Wembley. Per Mertesacker was wheeled out of cold storage to put in a colossal display at centre-back as Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey sealed a deserved 2-1 win.

Ramsey ranks 10th among Arsenal's top scorers of the Wenger era with 58 and two of those were FA Cup final winners, the Wales midfielder also netting decisively against Hull City in 2014.

Those were Wenger's fifth and seventh successes in a competition he has won more than any other manager in history, where his incredible Arsenal tenure means his position is ensured for posterity.

In Week 4, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced an AFC East defense and by, their standards, looked out of sync. In Week 5, they faced an AFC East defense and could hardly have looked more impressive.

Freed from the rainy confines of Foxborough and away from the defensive scheming of his old boss Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers routed a Miami Dolphins team whose rebuild appears poised to come crashing down 45-17 to improve to 4-1 on the season.

Back in the Florida sunshine, it was very much a return to business as usual for the Bucs, but, for Tampa Bay, business as usual is looking steadily more remarkable.

Speaking after Sunday's game, running back Leonard Fournette said: "Prior to the third quarter Rich [Richard Sherman] came up to me and said, 'Man, I've never been part of a team with so much talent.'

"And I'm telling him like, and excuse my language, but this s*** is different."

It is tough to disagree with Fournette's assessment of the Super Bowl champions. When performing at their peak, the Bucs appear to be on a different level to almost every team in the NFL.

They were several leagues above their in-state neighbours at the weekend, with the gulf in class illustrated by a rapport between Brady and arguably the NFL's premier group of wide receivers that appears to be growing ever stronger.

Brady heading for more history

Brady finished with 411 yards passing and five touchdowns against the Dolphins for a 144.4 passer rating, tying Peyton Manning with his ninth career game with at least five touchdown passes. Only Drew Brees (11) has more in NFL history.

It was his 36th game with at least four touchdown passes, taking him past Manning (35) and one shy of Brees. Brees (16), Manning (14) and Dan Marino (13) are the only players with more 400 passing-yard games than Brady's 12.

A 62-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown marked Brady's 45th of 50 or more yards, moving him level with Brees and John Hadl for the third most in league history. Johnny Unitas (51) and Manning (46) stand ahead of him in that regard.

Leading the league in passing yards (1,767) and second in passing touchdowns (15) and plays of 25 yards or more (16), Brady will be a strong bet to keep moving up those lists, provided he and his wideouts continue operating at a level that left a Dolphins defense known for producing momentum-stopping takeaways powerless to stem the tide.

Pressure? What pressure?

Brady delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 81.6 per cent of his pass attempts against Miami. The average for the week heading into Monday was 81.7, but Brady was close to that mark while also averaging 10.53 air yards per attempt.

Only two quarterbacks who averaged more air yards had a better well-thrown percentage. Russell Wilson was accurate on 93.3 per cent with 12.00 air yards per attempt before his injury, and Josh Allen was on target 87.5 per cent of the time with an average of 12.46 air yards.

It was under pressure where Brady stood out in Week 5, as his first of two touchdown hookups with Brown saw him stand in against the interior rush and deliver a perfectly timed ball to the former Pittsburgh Steeler on a crossing route despite falling away from the throw.

Brown was able to collect the pass in stride, racing into open space to find the endzone and give the Bucs a 17-10 lead they never looked like relinquishing.

Arguably as impressive was Brady's 34-yard bomb to Mike Evans. The first of two touchdown catches for Evans, Brady dropped a downfield shot into the bucket despite dealing with late-arriving pressure from the backside and Byron Jones being in phase in good trail position covering the receiver.

Brady was accurate on four of his five attempts under pressure, on which he averaged 9.80 air yards, with his release time of 2.41 seconds on those passes the second-fastest in the NFL.

In a league increasingly dominated by quarterbacks who can escape pressure with their legs, Brady is a 44-year-old statue winning through his mind and his arm operating at a faster speed than everyone else on the field while continuing to demonstrate remarkable placement on throws that seemed beyond him as recently as 2019.

Part of the credit for his success, though, must be attributed to a receiving corps firmly living up to its reputation.

Business booming for AB and Co.

Evans, Brown and Chris Godwin can each be considered elite options at the wideout position, and their status in that regard was further solidified in a game where the Bucs shredded the opposing defense despite Brady being without a tight end in Rob Gronkowski who is averaging a big play on 57.0 per cent of his targets.

Brown finished with seven receptions for 124 yards and his two scores, becoming the fastest player to reach 900 catches as he took his tally to 906 in 143 career games, breaking the record set by Marvin Harrison (149 games).

He also became the fifth player in league history to reach 12,000 receiving yards in fewer than 150 games and, while Brown may never reach the levels he demonstrated during his time in Pittsburgh, he is undoubtedly worthy of Brady's increasing faith in him.

Producing a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – 69.0 per cent of the time, Brown is tied-third among receivers with at least 20 targets with his 5.3 burn yards per route.

Evans, meanwhile, is seventh on the list of receivers who meet that same threshold with a big play on 41.7 per cent of his targets, and Godwin – the quietest of the trio versus Miami with seven catches for 70 yards – is fifth in burn percentage for receivers with a 20-target minimum, winning his matchup on 74.4 per cent of targets.

Godwin's average depth of target of 8.3 yards speaks to a receiver who is working more as an underneath option while Evans (14.2) and Brown (13.9) are being relied on to produce the more explosive plays downfield.

Yet when performing at the standard they showcased on Sunday, the nature of their deployment is almost immaterial. With three receivers who could be number one targets on most teams in the NFL and a quarterback whose arm and ability to process are seemingly unaffected by the passage of time, a Bucs offense that is clicking is a near-impossible one to stop.

Any notion of a short stay in Tampa being akin to a Florida retirement home for Brady has long since been dispelled. With an embarrassment of riches at receiver, he is continually polishing a legacy that glistens more than any other in league history. With more offensive performances like his 400-yard blitz of the Dolphins, he may end the year buffing up an eighth Lombardi Trophy.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.