It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

The Baltimore Ravens are set to be without a key cog in their running game after J.K. Dobbins was lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Dobbins was taken off on a cart during the Ravens' win over the Washington Football Team in their preseason finale last Saturday, meaning he will miss his second year in the league after an extremely encouraging rookie season.

The Ravens have enjoyed the benefit of the most efficient running game in the NFL in each of the past two seasons.

However, their position as the league's best in that regard could be under threat without the services of a running back who looked primed for a breakout year in 2021.

Dobbins' dynamic rookie year

Baltimore's second-round pick last year, Dobbins finished his rookie season with 805 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 134 attempts.

His rushing average of 6.01 yards per carry was the best in the NFL among running backs, with his team-mate Lamar Jackson (6.32) and Kyler Murray (6.16) the only two players to rack up yardage on the ground at a more efficient rate.

Running with a combination of burst, elusiveness and balance, Dobbins excelled at staying on his feet after contact from a defender.

He led running backs with an average of 2.68 yards after contact per attempt and was also third in yards before contact per rush with 3.43.

In other words, Dobbins' short-area speed allowed him to quickly advance to the second level of the defense, where his ability to evade defenders enabled the former Ohio State star to consistently gain critical additional yardage.

And, following his injury, it is debatable whether the Ravens have the players in their running back room to effectively replace his skill set.

Can Edwards step up?

Gus Edwards will likely take the bulk of the workload in Dobbins' absence and there are numbers that suggest the drop off may not be that steep.

Edwards was eighth with an average of 2.27 yards after contact per attempt last season, while his 3.06 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption – which is where a defender wins his matchup against a blocker – was superior to Dobbins' 2.51.

However, Edwards averaged 2.78 yards before contact per attempt, speaking to his lack of burst compared to Dobbins. His missed tackle rate per touch of 0.144 was also vastly inferior to Dobbins' 0.237.

Edwards has proven himself an elusive runner, but not to the same extent that Dobbins was last year. Lacking the acceleration to get the second level as quickly as Dobbins can, Edwards does not have the upside of his less experienced team-mate.

Limited seasoning is an issue for the man with whom Edwards is set to share the ball-carrying burden.

Justice Hill has only 70 carries to his name in his NFL career. Of those, 58 came in his rookie year in 2019, and Hill was below the average for backs with at least 50 rushing attempts in yards before contact per attempt (2.41), yards after contact (1.55) and yards per carry on runs with a disruption (1.97).

With little experience and underwhelming production, there is not much to suggest Hill can help fill the void left by Dobbins and, if Edwards is unable to rise to the challenge, the pressure will be firmly on quarterback Jackson through the air and on the ground.

Jackson looks to take flight

Jackson's position as the top runner by yards per carry last season could hardly be considered a surprise, the 2019 MVP having consistently confounded defenses on the ground since entering the league in 2018, with his upside as a runner in the open field enabling the Ravens to operate one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the NFL.

The threat of Jackson continually forces defenses to hesitate at the mesh point when he either hands the ball to the back or keeps it himself. As long as Jackson is on the field, the Ravens running backs should have the opportunity to capitalise on the doubt he puts in the minds of defenses.

Yet if defenses manage to do a better job of mitigating Jackson's impact as a runner than they did last year or in his MVP season, then he will need to take another leap throwing the ball after a somewhat underwhelming 2020 in that regard.

Jackson delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 78.3 per cent of his passes last year, just above the average for quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts of 78 per cent. He was also disappointing as a downfield thrower, posting a passer rating of 89.1 on throws of 21 or more air yards that was 17th among quarterbacks with at least 25 such passes.

More consistency from wide receiver Marquise Brown, who won his matchup with a defender on plays where he was targeted only 58 per cent of the time in 2020, would greatly aid Jackson's cause. The Ravens star will also hope rookie first-round pick Rashod Bateman can return from groin surgery in time for Week 1 and quickly display the form that saw him finish fourth among Power 5 receivers with 25 targets or more in big play percentage (50.4) in his last full college season in 2019.

Dobbins' injury is far from a death knell for a Ravens running game that will always be a concern for opposing defenses with Jackson at quarterback, and Edwards' previous numbers indicate he can keep it operating at an efficient rate. There is now a distinct lack of depth in the backfield, though, and – minus the dynamism Dobbins provides – it would greatly aid Baltimore's quest to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative if the Ravens can win games on the back of Jackson's rapport with his receivers.

Of all the individual achievements in Cristiano Ronaldo's career, this one may well rank the highest. 

The Portugal star is now the leading goalscorer in the history of international men's football, having reached 110 against the Republic of Ireland in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday despite seeing a first-half penalty saved.

Ronaldo surpassed the tally of 109 set by Iran great Ali Daei, a figure once thought unlikely ever to be beaten, in the 89th minute and moved onto 111 with a stoppage-time header in the Algarve to complete his double.

To honour the new Manchester United forward's latest record, Stats Perform picked out perhaps the 10 greatest goals he has scored in his remarkable career... 

 

Manchester United v Portsmouth: January 30, 2008

Perhaps the finest free-kick Ronaldo has struck in his career.

The Portuguese developed his reputation as a set-piece master at United and he lashed a phenomenal 25-yard effort past David James as part of a double to send Alex Ferguson's side to the top of the Premier League.

His knuckleball technique sent the ball swirling into the top-right corner for one of his defining Old Trafford moments.

Porto v Manchester United: April 15, 2009

He had absolutely no right to score this one.

Back in his homeland for a Champions League quarter-final against Porto, Ronaldo picked up the ball in the middle of the opposition half, got it out of his feet and sent a searing strike flying past Helton to seal a 1-0 win at the Estadio do Dragao and a 3-2 aggregate triumph.

 

Almeria v Real Madrid: April 15, 2010

Ronaldo has developed into more of a penalty-box poacher in recent seasons, but this effort against Almeria was a reminder of how devastating he could be when starting with the ball outside the area. 

Rafael van der Vaart won back possession in the Almeria half and the ball was worked to Ronaldo, who accelerated past two challenges, left a third defender for dead with a stepover and then drilled home with his left foot. The visitors would go on to win 2-1.

 

Sevilla v Real Madrid: December 17, 2011

Sevilla grew sick of the sight of Ronaldo during his time in Spain – he did score 27 times against them, after all – but this strike in a 6-2 thrashing is perhaps the best of them.

Collecting Karim Benzema's pass 30 yards out, Ronaldo took advantage of the time and space given to him by the defence to blast a shot into the top-right corner, the swerve on the ball making it totally unstoppable. It was one of three he scored that day at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

 

Real Madrid v Valencia: May 4, 2014

It was not enough to keep Madrid's title chase alive, but this was another goal that showcased Ronaldo's killer instinct and dexterity. 

In second-half injury time, with Valencia 2-1 ahead, Angel Di Maria volleyed over a cross from the left and Ronaldo swivelled to score a backheel volley and snatch a point.

 

Real Madrid v Espanyol: January 31, 2016

Although his game had become more refined from those buccaneering early days, Ronaldo showed here he was not quite done when it came to solo runs and spectacular finishes.

With Madrid already 3-0 up in what would prove to be a 6-0 thrashing, James Rodriguez's pass was deflected into Ronaldo's path and he did the rest, showing brilliant footwork to skip beyond three challenges before rifling home from the edge of the area with his left foot.

 

Hungary v Portugal: June 22, 2016

Portugal thrice fell behind to Hungary in Lyon during Euro 2016, and Ronaldo brought them level on the second occasion with a display of fine skill.

The captain added a deft flick with his trailing leg to Joao Mario's right-wing cross to make it 2-2, and he cancelled out Balazs Dzsudzsak's second with a double of his own. It was enough to send Portugal into the knockout stages and from there they claimed a maiden international title.

 

Juventus v Real Madrid: April 3, 2018

Arguably the finest goal Ronaldo has produced.

Moving away from goal as Dani Carvajal dug a cross towards the penalty spot from the right, the Portuguese rose into the air and connected with a stunning overhead kick. His leg was at a right angle to his body as he struck with the sweetest of volleys that flew past an idle Gianluigi Buffon.

Portugal v Spain: June 15, 2018

Having twice given his side the lead, Ronaldo found Portugal 3-2 down to their Iberian neighbours in their thrilling opener at the 2018 World Cup. 

While there was a sense of inevitability when he stood over an 88th-minute free-kick, the execution was sheer perfection – power and dip combined to leave David de Gea with no chance.

 

Juventus v Manchester United: November 8, 2018

Another decorated Portuguese was celebrating at full-time when Jose Mourinho watched his United team complete a 2-1 comeback win.

But Ronaldo struck first with a sumptuous and technically brilliant strike, watching Leonardo Bonucci's raking ball over his shoulder to volley home.  

The transfer window officially closed on Tuesday, meaning clubs across Europe must now make do with the players available to them until at least January.

It has been an eventful few months, with Lionel Messi ending his 21-year association with Barcelona by joining Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo sealing an emotional return to Manchester United from Juventus.

The drama continued to unfold right through until the final stages of the window as Antoine Griezmann rejoined Atletico Madrid on an initial loan and Chelsea snapped up Saul Niguez from the Spanish champions, while Real Madrid brought in rising star Eduardo Camavinga from Rennes.

With Kylian Mbappe staying at PSG and Harry Kane still a Tottenham player, Jack Grealish's £100million switch to Manchester City from Aston Villa was the biggest deal in monetary terms, followed by Romelu Lukaku's £97.5m (€115m) move to Chelsea from Inter.

Stats Perform takes a look at the best deals that went through.

Hakan Calhanoglu: Inter to Milan (free transfer)

After failing to agree new terms at Milan, Calhanoglu completed a shock move across the city to rivals Inter, signing a three-year deal.

While not necessarily the most popular transfer, getting a player who created 98 chances last season – the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues – for free is quite something.

The Turkey international got a goal and an assist on his debut in the 4-0 win over Genoa, prompting coach Simone Inzaghi to proclaim the player "doesn't realise how good he is".

Manuel Locatelli: Sassuolo to Juventus (loan with €25m obligation)

One of Italy's most prized young assets, Locatelli secured a move to Juventus on a two-year loan that includes an obligation to buy for an initial €25m.

Among midfielders in Serie A last season, the 23-year-old made the most touches (3,304), passes (2,749) and tackles (81). He then impressed as Italy won Euro 2020, scoring twice in the group-stage win over Switzerland.

For a club looking to strengthen while saving money, this could prove a shrewd deal for Juve.

 

Danny Ings: Southampton to Aston Villa (£25m)

Villa appear to have invested the money they received for Grealish in shrewd fashion, signing Leon Bailey, Emiliano Buendia and striker Ings.

While the Ings deal materialised very quickly in early August, he certainly did not seem to need much time to adjust to new surroundings, scoring twice in his first three league games this season.

With 34 goals across his final two league campaigns with Southampton, there is reason to think the 29-year-old could be one of the smartest signings of the window.

Lionel Messi: Free agent to Paris Saint-Germain

The most spectacular free transfer of all time came after Barcelona had agree a new contract with Messi only to be forced to admit they could not let him sign it due to financial restrictions.

A tearful Messi bade farewell to his boyhood club before securing a move to PSG, who now boast a frankly terrifying forward line of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.

Describing it as a 'free' transfer is somewhat misleading given the various costs involved in the different aspects of the deal, but for PSG to sign arguably the greatest player in history without paying a transfer fee is pretty amazing business.

 

Romelu Lukaku: Inter to Chelsea (£97.5m)

Chelsea smashed their transfer record to bring back Lukaku, whose last action in his first spell at the club was to miss a penalty in the UEFA Super Cup shoot-out loss to Bayern Munich in 2013.

Lukaku plundered 24 goals and 11 assists in 2020-21 to fire Inter to the title and claim Serie A's MVP award, after which he pushed for a return to Stamford Bridge, where he felt he had unfinished business.

It might have been a serious financial outlay, but Lukaku showed in the 2-0 win at Arsenal what a difference he could make to a Chelsea side who are extremely tough to beat but not exactly free-scoring.

Eduardo Camavinga: Rennes to Real Madrid (€30m)

Madrid may have missed out on top target Mbappe, but they managed to get a deal over the line for fellow Frenchman Camavinga, bringing an end to 18 months of speculation surrounding the young midfielder.

It is the first time Madrid have spent money on a transfer fee since 2019, when they signed Eden Hazard from Chelsea for €100m, and in Camavinga they are signing a player for the here and now rather than the future.

Since making his debut for Rennes in April 2019, no player in Ligue 1 has attempted (230) or won more tackles (139) than the three-cap France international, who will now provide competition for Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Federico Valverde.

 

Saul Niguez: Atletico Madrid to Chelsea (loan with option to buy for £30m)

After being regularly linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in recent years, Saul will finally get a chance to play in the Premier League with Chelsea this season.

A box-to-box midfielder, the Spain international is at his best operating in a central role, though his versatility and workrate have often seen him deployed out wide by Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

He made just 22 league starts last season, his lowest figure since 2014-15. However, since August 2019, Real Madrid's Casemiro (190) is the only midfielder to have attempted more tackles than Saul (159) in LaLiga.

Antoine Griezmann: Barcelona to Atletico Madrid (loan deal with an obligation to buy)

Two years after leaving Atletico in a big-money transfer, Griezmann has returned to the Spanish capital to boost an attack that already includes Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Angel Correa and fellow new recruit Matheus Cunha.

Griezmann's Camp Nou career never truly took off and he failed to score or create a single opportunity across Barca's first three league games this season.

But Simeone will be confident he can get the Frenchman, who scored 94 LaLiga goals in 180 appearances in his first stint at the club, operating at somewhere close to his former glory.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: Juventus to Manchester United (£12.9m rising to £19.7m)

Twelve years after departing Old Trafford, Ronaldo is once again a Manchester United player after completing a surprise return to the club where he won the first of his five Ballons d'Or.

Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 appearances under Alex Ferguson in his first spell, 42 of those goals coming in the 2007-08 season alone, and he remains a prolific forward despite his all-round game changing with time.

The Portugal captain scored 29 league goals in his third and final season with Juventus to win the Capocannoniere, making him the first player to finish as top scorer in Serie A, LaLiga and the Premier League.

The first international break of the 2021-22 campaign has arrived, and with it comes an opportunity for many national teams to start afresh.

Following the conclusion of the Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro 2020 in quick succession, all roads now lead to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For a number of players, the September qualifiers provide an opportunity to make an impression, while for others it is potentially a first taste of international football. 

With the games coming thick and fast over the next week or so, Stats Perform has looked at those in contention to make their senior international debuts.

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

Belgium's golden generation of talent missed another opportunity to turn promise into something more tangible when losing to eventual winners Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Roberto Martinez has decided against wholesale changes after that disappointment, with Lokonga the only outfield player in line for his first cap, having failed to get further than the bench – against Greece in June – after previous call-ups.

A product of the same Anderlecht youth system that oversaw the development of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, among others, Lokonga sealed a move to Arsenal in July after impressing in the Belgian top flight.

The £15million signing has not had the best of starts to life at Arsenal, the Gunners finding themselves bottom of the English top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 1974.

Lokonga, noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, featured in just two of those games yet still trails Granit Xhaka alone in terms of passes (113 to 139) and successful passes (97 to 118) and is behind only Sead Kolasinac for interceptions.

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

Citing concerns over the availability of his European-based contingent due to clubs being reluctant to release players to red-list countries, Tite has named a bloated Brazil squad for this month's triple-header of World Cup qualifiers.

Those complications appear set to deny Raphinha a debut, having impressed during his first year in the Premier League with Leeds United. 

Raphinha ranks seventh in the division for dribbles attempted since the start of last season (142), completing 42.96 per cent of those. He also ranks in the top 10 for chances created over that period with 68.

But Claudinho remains in line to be capped for the first time, called up after helping his country secure Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The midfielder, whose signing at Zenit was announced not long after the Olympic tournament had concluded, described his call-up as "a dream come true".

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

It is out with the old and in with the new as far as France's first post-Euros squad is concerned – to an extent, at least, with Olivier Giroud one of nine players to make way from the previous group named by Didier Deschamps.

Injuries have also played a part in that, potentially giving a quartet of uncapped players the chance to impress in the upcoming qualifiers with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland.

Hernandez, a more natural left-back option than brother Lucas, will feel his first call-up is long overdue following back-to-back campaigns as a regular for Milan, whom he joined from Real Madrid. 

Since making his Rossoneri bow in September 2019, no defender in Serie A has completed more dribbles than Hernandez (133), while only Federico Dimarco (87) and Juan Cuadrado (107) have created more chances than his 86.

Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Roma's Jordan Veretout may also feature during this international break, but perhaps the most exciting of the new additions is Bayer Leverkusen winger Diaby.

The Paris Saint-Germain product scored twice and assisted another in Leverkusen's opening two Bundesliga games of 2021-22, while Alphonso Davies is the only player in the division to have attempted more dribbles this term (24 to his 22).

Known for his blistering pace and ability to take on opponents, Diaby could well provide Deschamps with a different option in an attack already packed full of talent.

 

Otavio (Portugal)

Three new players have been called up by Fernando Santos, who is looking to the future after his Portugal side's reign as European champions came to an end in July.

Goncalo Inacio is injured, but Diogo Costa and Otavio could each make their senior debuts during this international window, with the latter the name on many lips right now.

Otavio has tallied 11 goal involvementss in each of the past two Primeira Liga campaigns for Porto and has made a fast start to the new season with two assists in his first four games.

Since the start of last season, only team-mate Mehdi Taremi has provided more assists (12) in the Portuguese top flight than Otavio's 10, coming from 51 chances created.

The Brazilian-born attacking midfielder was granted Portuguese citizenship earlier this year and will be eager to show that Brazil's loss is very much Portugal's gain should he get some minutes over the next week.

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

The dual-national drama surrounding Pepi appears to have reached a resolution as the FC Dallas forward has seemingly pledged his allegiance to the United States over Mexico.

After breaking into the Dallas side two years ago and featuring regularly last year, 2021 has been quite the season for the El Paso-born youngster.

Pepi, who does not turn 19 until next January, has 11 goals and two assists in 21 games this term and scored the decisive kick in last week's penalty shoot-out win for MLS against their Liga MX counterparts in the All-Star Game.

He has 13 MLS goals in total, the fourth-most ever by a teenager – ahead of Freddy Adu – and just nine short of the record held by Diego Fagundez.

On the basis of the past four months in particular, the USMNT could have a potentially world-class player to lead their line for a number of years to come.

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

For the first time in 17 years, Germany will play a match without Joachim Low in their dugout either as assistant or head coach when they face Liechtenstein on Thursday.

Hansi Flick is tasked with ushering in a new generation of German talents, with help from the old guard, many of whom were key to his successful spell at Bayern Munich.

Away from regulars such as Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer, Flick has included four uncapped players in his first squad – David Raum, Nico Schlotterbeck, Florian Wirtz and Adeyemi.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3m when he was 16.

Adeyemi, who left Bayern six years earlier, has been given the chance to spread his wings with Salzburg and has been strongly linked with Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig.

He already has six goals in six Austrian Bundesliga appearances this term, just one less than he managed in 29 top-flight appearances last time out – a return he will be looking to build on if he is given the nod by Flick.

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

The Netherlands are another European heavyweight going through a transitional period of sorts after turning to veteran coach Louis van Gaal for a third stint in charge.

Frank de Boer failed to get the most out of this talented Dutch squad and already Van Gaal has put his own mark on the team by calling up a few newbies.

There will be plenty of focus on the goalkeeping position as, with Jasper Cillessen not fully fit and Maarten Stekelenburg recently retiring, Joel Drommel and Bijlow can stake a claim to be the long-term number one.

Bijlow is considered one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe and already has 45 Eredivisie games under his belt for Feyenoord, where he is a real fan favourite.

The 23-year-old has kept 15 clean sheets across those appearances and boasts a save percentage of 72.16. Van Gaal can seemingly rely on the young stopper, as he has made just one error leading to a goal.

It was well after the final whistle on deadline day but, eventually, Antoine Griezmann's return to Atletico Madrid was officially confirmed.

Two years after leaving, Griezmann has joined on a season-long loan from Barcelona, with the deal including an option to extend for a further year and a compulsory permanent transfer clause.

Earlier this month, Barca – in a straw-clutching move following Lionel Messi's departure for Paris Saint-Germain – made a rather big deal of Griezmann making his 100th club appearance. Not even two weeks later, he is gone.

On that landmark appearance, Griezmann hit the crossbar in a 4-2 win over his former club Real Sociedad, where he had developed into one of LaLiga's brightest attackers before joining Atleti in 2014. 

He went on to score 94 LaLiga goals for Diego Simeone's team before a long-rumoured switch to Barca went through. Yet he has never quite managed to scale the same heights at Camp Nou as he did at his previous home.

A disappointing first campaign marred by injuries and inconsistency left Griezmann playing catch up last term, though he did net 20 times across all competitions to finish as Barca's second-leading scorer.

Stats Perform assesses how Griezmann's efforts last season match up to his best campaign from his previous Atleti stint, as well as looking at what he could contribute to Simeone's attack.

 

GRIEZMANN AT HIS PEAK

Griezmann was a model of consistency throughout his time at Atleti, as he became the perfect, versatile forward for Simeone's disciplined side.

He partnered Mario Mandzukic, Fernando Torres and Diego Costa among others during his time at the club, transforming himself from a speedy winger to a centre forward with predatory instincts in the penalty area, as well as harbouring plenty of creative talents.

Though he played more games (54) and scored more goals (32) during the 2015-16 season, Griezmann's finest campaign at Atleti arguably came in 2017-18.

His tally of 19 LaLiga strikes was 11 more than any other Atleti player as he finished sixth in the scoring charts overall.

Griezmann added another 10 goals across the cup competitions, however, including a brace in the Europa League final to help Atleti beat Marseille 3-0 in Lyon.

Only Griezmann got into double figures for Atleti in terms of assists (13), while only Koke (81) created more chances than his total of 65.

Griezmann was clinical when opportunities came his way too, converting 52.38 per cent of the 42 "big chances" (an opportunity defined as one where they player should score) that were crafted for him, while he ranked top for attempts (124) as he averaged a goal every 133 minutes.

To cap off an exceptional domestic campaign, Griezmann put in a man-of-the-match display as France beat Croatia 4-2 in the 2018 World Cup final.

 

PAST HIS BEST?

After making much of his call to stay put at Atleti – he took part in a mini-documentary to confirm his decision before the 2018 World Cup – Griezmann completed a €120million switch to Barca a year later.

It was not without controversy: Atleti insisted Barca had fallen some €80m short of the obligated fee, but the transfer was nevertheless upheld.

His first season at Camp Nou was one to forget, eventually ending with a humbling 8-2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich on home soil.

Griezmann came into his second season with a renewed sense of purpose and finally seemed to click under new boss Ronald Koeman. Playing 51 times in all competitions, including making 45 starts, he clocked up 3,904 minutes in total - the second most he has managed in a campaign since moving to Atletico.

A total of 20 goals sees him fall some way short of the 29 he managed in 2017-18, though his 12 assists come close to matching his Atleti peak.

His expected assists (xA) total of 8.99 does suggest the quality of opportunities he created was perhaps not wholly responsible for his final total. Given he was linking up with Messi, this is perhaps no surprise. It was, though, also the case in 2017-18, with Griezmann tallying an expected assists figure of 6.3, suggesting his Atleti team-mates were finishing chances they may not have been expected to.

Griezmann created more chances (67) last term than in his 2017-18 season, though his conversion rate of gilt-edged opportunities dropped to 39.39 per cent.

Only in 2018-19 (15.11) did Griezmann have a lower shot conversion rate than last term (18.02) while there was no international glory for him this time around either – he scored once as France dropped out of Euro 2020 in the last 16.

 

BACK WHERE HE BELONGS?

Griezmann was the main man at Atleti but had to play in the shadow of Messi at Barca, not to mention Luis Suarez before he moved on to Madrid.

Barca sold Suarez to Atleti last year and, well, the rest is history – the former Liverpool star scored 21 league goals as Atleti clinched their second title under Simeone.

Griezmann's haul of 13 goals would have put him as Atleti's second-highest scorer in LaLiga last term, four ahead of the next forward in Angel Correa, though midfielder Marcos Llorente plundered 12 in a more advanced role.

Of Atleti players, only Llorente (11), Yannick Carrasco (10) and Correa (8) provided more league assists than Griezmann's seven from 42 chances created in total.

While he has failed to score or create a single opportunity across Barca's three league games so far this season, Simeone must surely be confident he can get Griezmann operating at somewhere close to his former glory.

With city rivals Real Madrid failing to land Kylian Mbappe in the transfer window, Atleti will surely fancy their chances of reigning in Spain once again.

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United is complete.

A deal reportedly worth an initial £12.9million (€15m) was agreed with Juventus on Friday and, after undergoing his medical in Portugal over the weekend, Ronaldo has now finalised personal terms and completed the move.

Ronaldo returns to United as a vastly different player to the one that left Old Trafford for Real Madrid a little over 12 years ago, however.

Then a flying winger, he has adapted his game as he has grown older and is now a clinical penalty box poacher – diminishing goal returns he may have, but 36 in all competitions last season would still have had him as the leading goalscorer in English football.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at how Ronaldo has altered his game ahead of his United comeback.

Positional sense

In his final league game with United – a goalless draw against Arsenal in May 2009 – Ronaldo played on the right, though was given license to roam infield and exert his influence, as had been the case for much of a season in which he scored 26 goals across all competitions. 

However, only five of his touches on the day came inside Arsenal's penalty area, with the majority out on the right wing and a cluster from an advanced, central position. 

Contrast that appearance with his final Serie A start for Juve back in May, when he scored in a 3-2 Derby d'Italia triumph against Inter: only three touches in the area but fewer overall, heavily weighted to the centre of the pitch.

It speaks to the way Ronaldo has greatly altered his game over the past 12 years. 

During his time at United, he netted 115 goals in all competitions, making him the club's leading scorer in that six-year span from 2003 to 2009. In his final season at Old Trafford, Ronaldo scored eight goals from outside of the area – a feat he matched in four of the next five seasons and surpassed in the other, with 10 in 2011-12 (his third season at Madrid).

Yet by his final season at Juve, Ronaldo had refined his game to become the poacher United are adding to their squad. Across his three seasons at Juve, the 36-year-old scored just seven times from outside the area, from a total of 101 goals.

Wing wizard to penalty box king

During his formative years at United, Ronaldo's mazy dribbling and eye for a showboat caught the eye. It is no surprise, then, to see the numbers back this up. In 2004-05, he attempted 9.55 dribbles per 90 minutes, a career high. 

As he grew in stature, adapted to the rigours of English football and became a more powerful presence, rather than the wiry winger that burst onto the scene, Ronaldo's dribbling figures dropped – 8.22 in 2005-06, 5.65 the following year and 6.28 in 2007-08.

By 2008-09, Ronaldo's attempted dribbles per 90 were down at a relatively modest 4.73, completing 1.92. By the end of his last year at Juve, Ronaldo was down to 3.07 dribbles per 90, though his success rate of 61.72 per cent ranks as the highest in his career. He has not lost the ability to dribble, but rather picks his moments to do so.

Of course, there is less need for taking on the opposition when you are positioned in the opposition's area, ready to pounce on a cross or run onto a throughball.

Ronaldo's adaptation into a number nine had started before his move to Turin. Indeed, in his final campaign with Madrid, Ronaldo registered 1,913 touches in total, with 409 of these coming in the opposition's area – his highest total in the box in a single campaign.

Contrast that figure with his totals from his second season in the Spanish capital – just 82 of his 3,344 touches came within the opposition box as he scored 60 times in all competitions, a tally he bettered in 2014-15 (61).

The 2014-15 season was no doubt Ronaldo's zenith. Turning 30 halfway through the campaign, he was at his best in front of goal and creatively. His 21 assists were a career high, as were the 97 chances created.

If United are looking for a creative force now, though, they have chosen the wrong forward.

Ronaldo's 2008-09 season saw him create 82 opportunities and lay on 10 assists (at an average of 1.71 and 0.21 per 90). Last term, he created a career-low 1.15 chances per 90, with his 0.12 assists better only than the previous campaign with Juve.

Ronaldo averaged 50.55 touches per 90 in 2020-21, with 6.81 in the penalty area. In only four seasons, all at Madrid, did the Portugal captain touch the ball less on average, though his figure of penalty box touches ranks as the fourth-highest across his career.

Heads up

Looking back at images of Ronaldo's early days at United, it is hard to imagine how that rapid, tricky winger developed into one of the most feared headers of the ball in world football.

Ronaldo's leap – his ability to hang in the air at great height, while generating unbelievable power – is something not many players have come close to emulating. It might as well be trademarked, at this stage.

If his all-round array of talents were not already enough, Ronaldo also gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team an aerial threat that only Edinson Cavani brings. Cavani, another veteran at 34, can no longer play every game.

Ronaldo scored seven headed goals across all competitions in 2020-21, as many as Cavani and Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who were the leading players from Premier League clubs in that regard.

Since he left United, 70 of Ronaldo's 450 club goals have come with his head – no player across Europe's top five leagues has scored more, with Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski ranking second with 57.

With Luke Shaw rejuvenated as an attacking force and Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba all capable of brilliant deliveries, Premier League centre-backs should fear Ronaldo's leap in 2021-22.

Cristiano Ronaldo will be playing back at Old Trafford in 2021-22 after Manchester United confirmed his signing from Juventus.

The Portugal great has returned in a deal worth up to €23million (£19.7m), which was sensationally agreed with Juve on Friday.

For a short while, it looked as though Ronaldo – who had asked to leave the Bianconeri – was heading to Manchester City after they missed out on the signing of Harry Kane.

Instead, he is heading back to the red side of Manchester.

With the deal now finalised, Stats Perform takes a look at other greats who went back to their former homes, starting with the Portugal captain...

Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United

Ronaldo spent six years at Old Trafford during his previous spell, arriving as a lanky teenager who loved a stepover and leaving as a Ballon d'Or winner and ice-cold finisher. His then-world-record move to Real Madrid had been a long time coming and he spent nine years at the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming the club's all-time top scorer as he continued his transition from winger to out-and-out 'number nine'. There he won four Champions League titles before moving on to Juve, for whom he plundered 81 goals in 98 Serie A matches and picked up two Scudetti. But now he is returning to England. Whether he can match the standards he set last time remains to be seen, with his 31-goal haul of 2007-08 only bettered once in a 38-match season, but United fans will be convinced he can fire them to a first league title since Ferguson left.

Juan Roman Riquelme – Boca Juniors

Synonymous with Boca Juniors, Riquelme made his professional debut for the Buenos Aires giants and returned to the club for the majority of his final years as a player, following spells with Barcelona and Villarreal. After a breakdown in his relationship with Manuel Pellegrini, Riquelme – the classic number 10 – returned to Boca initially on loan in 2007, going on to stay until 2014. He helped Boca win the Copa Libertadores in 2007, the Recopa Sudamericana a year later, Apertura titles in 2008 and 2011 and the Copa Argentina in 2011-12. He is currently Boca's vice-president.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Milan

After a difficult spell under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Ibrahimovic – who had excelled at both Juventus and Inter – moved back to Italy, joining the Nerrazurri's city rivals Milan on loan for 2010-11. He became an instant star for the Rossoneri, picking up where he left off in Italy with 21 goals, a tally he bettered in 2011-12, scoring 35 times in all competitions. Paris Saint-Germain came calling and he went on to become the Ligue 1 giants' record goalscorer (a title now held by Edinson Cavani), before joining Manchester United and LA Galaxy. Despite being in his late 30s, Ibrahimovic still had more to offer and rejoined Milan for the back half of the 2019-20 campaign, netting 11 goals. He carried on his form into an injury hit 2020-21, scoring a further 16 times, and he is set to be a pivotal figure at San Siro once again this season.

Romelu Lukaku – Chelsea

Part of United's reasoning behind signing Ronaldo was to perhaps ensure they kept pace with their title rivals. For the past two seasons, Ronaldo has gone head-to-head with Lukaku in Serie A. Though Ronaldo won the battle last season, scoring 29 league goals, compared to Lukaku's 24, it was the Belgian who won the war by leading Inter to the title, and now the duo will face off again in the Premier League after Chelsea smashed their transfer record to re-sign the 28-year-old 10 years on from his initial arrival from Anderlecht. Lukaku did not manage to push himself into the starting XI back then and was loaned out to West Brom and Everton, before moving to Goodison Park on a permanent deal in 2014. He returns to Stamford Bridge as the complete package, however, and bullied Arsenal's defence on his second debut, scoring the opener in a 2-0 win for the European champions.

Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Part of the allure for Lukaku returning to Chelsea was to emulate his icon Drogba, who left Stamford Bridge after helping the Blues clinch a Champions League crown in 2012. The Ivorian went back to west London in the 2014-15 season, with Drogba explaining he could not turn down the chance to work with Jose Mourinho once again. He scored four league goals in 28 appearances to help Chelsea win the title, before heading off for a swansong in MLS with the Montreal Impact.

Thierry Henry – Arsenal

Another Premier League great, Henry rejoined Arsenal on a short-term loan deal at the start of 2012. He scored on his second debut against Leeds United in the FA Cup, converting his only attempt of the game in a 22-minute cameo from the bench. He went on to play a further six times, scoring in the Premier League against Sunderland, before he returned to the New York Red Bulls to round off a wonderful career.

Carlos Tevez – Boca Juniors

The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham were by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Man United and City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca," was Maradona's assessment upon the forward's return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021 and it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

Wayne Rooney – Everton

With Lukaku joining Man United in 2017, it opened the door for Everton to bring back Rooney, who had left his boyhood club in 2004 on the back of a stellar performance at Euro 2004. Then just 18, Rooney went on to become United's record goalscorer – and England's, too – and he returned to Goodison Park for the 2017-18 season. He scored on his league debut, heading in the winner against Stoke City, and though he netted 11 times in total for the Toffees, a difficult season saw Ronald Koeman sacked and replaced with Sam Allardyce, who was subsequently shuffled out of the door for Marco Silva. With Everton looking to go in a new direction, Rooney left to join MLS side DC United in 2018.

Gianluigi Buffon – Parma

Buffon likes a comeback. Having returned for a second spell at Juventus in 2019, the goalkeeping great departed the club for a second time at the end of 2020-21. The Italy legend had not finished playing yet, though, and Parma quickly emerged as a potential destination despite their relegation to Serie B. After a few weeks of contemplation, it was confirmed that Buffon was heading back to the club where he made his name. Now 43, the iconic stopper is wearing Gialloblu for the first time in 20 years, and he is set to remain with them until he turns 45, given he signed a two-year contract. What happens after that is anyone's guess, but calling it a day with his first club could be a satisfyingly romantic conclusion to a remarkable career – that or he ends up at Juve again!

He is back where he belongs.
He is back home. #SupermanReturns @gianluigibuffon @Kyle_J_Krause @ParmaCalcio_en pic.twitter.com/bh2FO6P8YX

— Parma Calcio 1913 (@1913parmacalcio) June 17, 2021

Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to Manchester United. It was a move that took many by surprise, given he was linked to arch-rivals Manchester City initially, but the deal is done.

After a 12-year absence, via stops at Real Madrid and Juventus, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner has made it back to Old Trafford.

Ole Gunnar Solskajer's last-ditch intervention invoked memories of Barcelona in 1999, though this time he nipped in front of Pep Guardiola instead of past Oliver Kahn.

Rio Ferdinand and Alex Ferguson are said to have played a key role, too, reminding Ronaldo of United's halcyon days, nudging him towards one final dance – or drop of a shoulder – with the Stretford End.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind the 36-year-old star's career and his return to the Red Devils.

MANCUNIAN MAGICIAN

Formerly a dazzling winger but now a penalty-box poacher, Ronaldo has netted 674 times across 895 club games in all competitions, averaging a goal every 108 minutes.

Those 674 goals break down into 122 with his supposedly weaker left foot, 110 with his head and 440 with his favoured right boot.

Following his arrival as a fresh-faced teenager from Sporting in 2003, he scored 118 times for United across 292 appearances before his departure in 2009.

Between his entrance on the Premier League stage and his final appearance in May 2009, Frank Lampard (131) and Thierry Henry (124) are the only two to have a hand in more English top-flight goals than Ronaldo (118) – Henry (92) the only one to outscore Ronaldo's 84.

Ronaldo's most productive spell in Manchester came in 2007-08, when he scored 42 goals in 49 games in all competitions – the third most ever by a United player in a single campaign. Denis Law and Ruud van Nistelrooy the only ones to score more.

During that term, 31 of Ronaldo's 42 strikes came in the Premier League, Dennis Viollet the only Red Devils star to net more in a single league season way back in 1959-60.

Indeed, only two other United players have passed the 30-goal mark in one season, while Alan Shearer, Mohamed Salah, Andrew Cole and Luis Suarez are the only Premier League players to achieve the feat.

Throughout his time in England, Aston Villa were the Portugal international's favourite Premier League opponents, netting eight times in 12 appearances.

However, four of his favourite seven opponents – Fulham, Bolton Wanderers, Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic – are no longer in the English top flight, West Ham and Newcastle United making up the other two.

The Magpies, though, are the only team Ronaldo scored a United hat-trick against, his first of 57 for club and country coming in January 2008.

MAGNIFICENT IN MADRID

A world-record move to Real followed in 2009, Ronaldo adding 450 goals to his record in a mere 438 games across a 10-year spell in Spain.

Florentino Perez's new record-breaking Galactico averaged a goal every 84 minutes across his time in Madrid and found the back of the net 60 times in 2011-12 for former Red Devils boss Jose Mourinho.

He went one better in 2014-15, firing in 61 goals in 54 games as he and Messi produced frankly ridiculous numbers year on year in what quickly became a two-way battle for the Ballon d'Or.

In total, Ronaldo was on target 311 times in LaLiga, Sevilla the club he enjoyed the most success against as he scored 27 times, Atletico Madrid a close second with 25 but Barcelona not too far back in joint-fourth with 20.

While the forward could only boast one hat-trick in England, he made up for that in Spain, too, collecting the match ball on 44 occasions before another staggering transfer to Juventus, where he would add another 134 goals to his name.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LEADER

Ronaldo, who tied Ali Daei's all-time international scoring record in June, did not just enjoy domestic success, his name almost synonymous with the Champions League.

He is a five-time winner of Europe's club competition, leading the all-time scoring charts with 134 goals in 176 games – 14 ahead of second place, and eternal rival, Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo collected his first of five Champions League crowns with United and managed 15 Champions League goals in total over 52 matches.

During United's triumphant 2007-08 European campaign, he powered in eight goals in a victorious run that culminated in a goal against Chelsea in the final – Van Nistelrooy the only player to score more in a single campaign for the club.

Patrick Bamford scored a late equaliser to salvage a point for Leeds United against his former club Burnley on Sunday, having gone through a proper tussle at Turf Moor.

Burnley – accused of "wrestling" last week by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp – were full-blooded once again as they fell just short of securing a first Premier League win of the season.

"It's always tough coming here because, you don’t want to be disrespectful, but you know what you're going to get when you play against Burnley and they do make it difficult," Bamford, who had an ongoing skirmish with centre-back James Tarkowski, told Sky Sports.

"I was a little bit annoyed at [James] Tarkowski because it was just that tussle on the floor when he tried to do some weird jiu-jitsu thing on me. I don't know what he's doing!"

A Premier League landmark was also reached at Turf Moor, while Arsenal might just have a different kind of fight on their hands after suffering a third successive defeat.

Here are some of the more curious Opta facts from the latest round of games.


Turf Moor tussle sees Premier League milestone

The new initiative for referees to be somewhat more lenient seems to be paying dividends, although Wolves fans will argue otherwise after their late defeat to Manchester United.

Before what unfolded at Molineux, however, Leeds were also on the receiving end of some rather tough treatment at Turf Moor, with the game seeing seven bookings.

There was a Premier League landmark set in the Lancashire sunshine too, as Chris Wood opened the scoring.

Eric Cantona (100), Alan Shearer (4,000), Dennis Bergkamp (7,000) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (25,000) are some of the names to have previously hit the milestone goals in the competition's history, and now New Zealand forward Wood has cemented his name into the record books.

It was not exactly one to remember, Wood just managing to get a toe onto Matthew Lowton's low shot, with the ball rolling off Illan Meslier's shins and trickling over the line for the competition's 30,000th goal. 

Strangely enough, it was just a third assist for Lowton in his last 84 Premier League matches, but all three have set up goals for Wood, who scored for the first time against former club Leeds for Burnley.

Yet Burnley could not hold on, with the Clarets now on a 12-game winless run at Turf Moor in the league, their longest such streak.

Mikel's misery compounded as Arsenal's lack of fight is shown up once more

It has been a humbling start to the season for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, who is sure to be under plenty of pressure heading into a fixture with Norwich City – one of the other two teams without a point so far – after the international break.

Arsenal ended the weekend at the bottom of the top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 25 in 1974, having suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the champions – Manchester City's third successive 5-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium.

The Gunners are only the second team in Premier League history to lose their first three matches in a season and have a goal difference of -9, after Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2003-04, who went on to finish bottom of the table, while Tottenham's win on Sunday means Spurs top the table and Arsenal sit bottom for the first time in top-flight history.

Arsenal's cause was hardly helped by Granit Xhaka's sending off in the first half on Saturday – the 10th time the Gunners have had a player dismissed in the league under Arteta. In fact, since the Spaniard took over in December 2019, that is four more than any other club.

Xhaka has picked up two of those dismissals, with David Luiz leading the way on three. In those fixtures where they have had a player sent off, Arsenal have failed to win a single one, collecting just five points in total and losing the last three league matches in which they were reduced to 10 men.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Jesus has not lost any of the 43 Premier League games he has scored in, a record bettered only by James Milner (54) and Darius Vassell (46).

A long shot for Son as Lage matches De Boer

Son Heung-min's free-kick handed Spurs a 1-0 win over Watford. It did not look intentional, but the South Korean forward's delivery nevertheless curled into the far corner.

Three of Son's last four goals for Tottenham in all competitions have come from outside the box, as many as his previous 43 for the club, while Sunday's effort was his first Spurs goal from a direct free-kick.

Sunday's headline fixture saw Manchester United – buoyed by the impending return of Cristiano Ronaldo – defeat Wolves thanks to Mason Greenwood's late winner.

Referee Mike Dean chose not to award what looked to be a clear foul from Paul Pogba in the build-up, as Greenwood became only the second teenager in Premier League history to score in each of his side's first three games of a season, after Robbie Fowler for Liverpool in 1994-95.

It was a tight game, with Wolves creating plenty without converting the chances, and new boss Bruno Lage is the first manager to lose his first three Premier League games without his side scoring a goal since Crystal Palace's Frank de Boer in August 2017.

Known for his creativity and goalscoring, United playmaker Bruno Fernandes often cut a frustrated figure, and he was booked for dissent. He has now been cautioned for questioning the referee in each of his last two games – in fact, the Portugal midfielder is responsible for a third of the six yellow cards handed out for dissent so far this season.

Novak Djokovic is a strong favourite to become only the third man to complete a calendar Grand Slam and make history at the US Open.

Djokovic has won all three majors this year and can complete a 2021 clean sweep at Flushing Meadows.

The irrepressible world number one would also go beyond Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – both absent due to injury – with 21 grand slam singles titles if he triumphs in New York.

There will be no elusive record-equalling 24th major singles crown for Serena Williams, who has not recovered from the hamstring injury she suffered at Wimbledon.

With Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka the leading contenders to take the women's singles title, Stats Perform use Opta data to preview the final grand slam of the year.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES FOR DOMINANT DJOKOVIC

Djokovic was thrown out of the US Open last year after accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball.

The 34-year-old arrived in New York in far better spirits than when he left last September, having taken on all comers this year.

Djokovic missed out on a Golden Slam when he failed to win Olympic gold in Tokyo, but he could join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to win all four majors in the same year.

Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (970) and Steffi Graf (1988) are the only women to achieve the incredible feat.

 

BARTY TO GO BACK-TO-BACK?

Barty became the first Australian woman to win a Wimbledon singles title for 41 years in July.

Not since Williams in 2012 has a player claimed back-to-back women's singles major crowns in the same year, but Barty could take some stopping.

She could become the ninth woman in the Open Era to win Wimbledon and the US Open in the same season. 

Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams can boast that achievement.

OSAKA BACK TO DEFEND TITLE

Japanese sensation Osaka won her third grand slam title at Flushing Meadows last September and went on to add a fourth at the Australian Open this year.

Osaka returns to grand slam action for the first time since withdrawing from the French Open, citing struggles with her mental health.

The world number three could be the first woman to win consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows since Serena Williams claimed three in a row from 2012 to 2014.

Osaka is the only woman to win at least one major title over the past four seasons, winning the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, as well as the US Open in 2018 and last year.

 

ZVEREV BIDS TO BANISH PAINFUL MEMORIES

Alexander Zverev was beaten by Dominic Thiem in his maiden grand slam final in New York last year after the German had been two sets up.

He will not have to face Thiem this time around as the defending champion is sidelined due to injury.

Zverev was the only player to serve 100 or more aces during the tournament last year, firing down 131 but also racking up more double faults (64) than anyone else.

The world number four won his fourth title of the year in Cincinnati last week but Djokovic is undoubtedly the man to beat at Flushing Meadows.

A common perception in 2020-21 was that Liverpool's struggles at home were partly down to playing in an empty Anfield, with their raucous support not there to get the Reds over the line.

How important that actually was is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to quantify, though Liverpool did endure a club-record run of six successive league defeats last term.

But Anfield was full on Saturday and rocking for their first 'big' match of the season with Chelsea on Merseyside, and once again Liverpool looked a shadow of the inventive side that won the 2019-20 Premier League season so impressively.

They were even given the boost of seeing Reece James sent off, yet Jurgen Klopp's side failed to make the most of that advantage in their 1-1 draw.

So much of the build-up centred around arguably the most anticipated duel since Anakin Skywalker v Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Romelu Lukaku – fresh from bullying Arsenal last week – went up against Virgil van Dijk.

Of course, the Dutchman missed most of last season with a knee injury and endured a pretty tough second match back last time out against Burnley.

His 41.7 per cent success in aerial duels was way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the start of 2018-19, highlighting just how "intense" – as Klopp put it – Burnley were.

While few would've expected a similarly direct approach from Chelsea, Lukaku's second Blues debut last week really increased the anticipation for his contest with Van Dijk.

Lukaku was certainly involved in a gruelling opening 45 minutes, his first proper duel with Van Dijk coming in the 18th minute as he rather easily shrugged the defender off out on the right before seeing a cross dealt with.

The Belgian was brutal with his desire to get into the danger zone last week and he showed similarly impressive movement just before the half-hour mark – but first N'Golo Kante failed to spot his run and then Kai Havertz did as well when a first-time pass would've set Lukaku through on goal.

Havertz had just given Chelsea the lead with a header Lukaku would've been proud of, otherwise he would likely have got an earful from his team-mate.

Lukaku's excellence then should've made it 2-0 10 minutes before the break, as he brilliantly rolled Joel Matip and fed Mason Mount, only for the England star to shoot wide of the bottom-left corner.

Van Dijk's anticipation when predicting Lukaku would try to let the ball run past him in the 43rd minute drew the biggest cheer of the day from Liverpool fans up to that point, and just a few moments later the game was turned on its head, rendering their personal duel almost irrelevant.

James handled on the line and, after a VAR check, was shown a red card. While the dismissal may have seemed harsh, it was ultimately inevitable with the wing-back denying a goalscoring opportunity, and Mohamed Salah converted the penalty.

The incident forced Thomas Tuchel into a significant re-think.

When Chelsea came out for the second half, their setup had changed dramatically. Having looked effective in the first half with a low defensive block, a very high front three occupying Liverpool's backline and an energetic midfield ensuring the gap wasn't too much of an issue, after the break their forwards simply couldn't continue in the same vein.

That, therefore, took away a key component of Tuchel's system. The 8.9 opposition passes allowed outside of Chelsea's own defensive third before a defensive action (PPDA) was second only to Leeds United (8.2) in this fledgling season before Saturday, indicating a high level of pressing.

Unable to maintain this with 10 men, Van Dijk and Matip were far more relaxed.

This translated to 77.1 per cent possession for the Reds in the 15 minutes that followed half-time, yet for their dominance of the ball, Liverpool's opportunities were hardly clear-cut.

Before a late onslaught in the final six minutes, only one of Liverpool's 10 second-half shots had an xG (expected goals) value over 0.1 – that was a Sadio Mane effort in the 56th minute, it's 0.105 xG value essentially equating to a scoring likelihood of just over 10 per cent. Not exactly nailed-on.

In the end, Liverpool's predictability in attack gave Chelsea the upper hand. The Reds constantly looked to the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson playing five and four key passes respectively.

Salah (three) was the only other Liverpool player to play more than one, and again he was most prominent out wide rather than inside.

Chelsea, with their packed defence, rarely looked particularly worried and were ultimately good value for the point.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Liverpool to make a "statement" against a likely title contender, but Klopp's men lacked the imagination to overpower Chelsea's resilience.

Football fandom's unofficial laws dictate you must feel a sense of optimism however unrealistic they may be.

But surely even Arsenal supporters were just hoping to keep the score down at the Etihad Stadium before kick-off?

After all, history provided very little cause for positivity given they'd lost their previous six games against whichever team were the Premier League's defending champions and been defeated in each of their past eight top-flight meetings with City.

And, true to form, it happened again.

This 5-0 embarrassment made it nine successive losses to City, a new Arsenal record for the most consecutive defeats to the same opposition in league competition.

While Arsenal and Mikel Arteta relieved the pressure slightly in midweek with their 6-0 thrashing of West Brom in the League Cup, in reality that will carry little importance within the wider narrative of the Gunners' hapless start to the campaign.

Of course, they have had a tricky beginning to 2021-22 with injuries and coronavirus cases, plus Chelsea and now City in their first three matches… though they also lost to promoted Brentford on matchday one, so it's not all just down to facing deeper or better squads.

Against City, much that went wrong initially was more to do with Arsenal being quintessentially Arsenal than City being excellent.

The hosts were in front after just seven minutes, Ilkay Gundogan nodding home after Calum Chambers misjudged the flight of Gabriel Jesus' cross, while Bernd Leno seemed to do his best to get out of the way.

Gundogan and Bernardo Silva in particular were causing Arsenal significant issues with their forays between the lines, City's fluidity and flexibility going forward leaving the Gunners' backline panicking on a regular basis.

City's control in those early stages just seemed to startle Arteta's men – whether by design or not is unclear – into a state of hyper-defensiveness and that too backfired as they fell 2-0 down after just 12 minutes.

Arsenal simply refused to press City after a short free-kick. Bernardo had the freedom to play a cross into the box from deep, and although it wasn't even particularly good, Cedric Soares' feeble attempt to clear just nudged the ball through to Ferran Torres for an easy finish.

At that point, the only thing preventing this from being 'peak Arsenal', as the kids would say, was a red card for Granit Xha…

With half-time approaching, the Swiss midfielder went flying in on Joao Cancelo with both feet off the ground. He may have got the ball and the contact on the City man seemed minimal, but it was dangerous, reckless and a blatant red card.

Of course, he's become accustomed to those, with his four red cards since the start of 2016-17 a joint high in the Premier League.

Eight minutes later, City had their third through Jesus after great work by Jack Grealish and there will surely have been a few Arsenal fans fearing the worst on what was the 10th anniversary of their worst Premier League defeat – that's right, the 8-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Ultimately – and this may or may not be a consolation to Arteta – it didn't get quite that bad as City only added two more goals through Rodri and Torres in the second half, but in fairness to Arsene Wenger, at least his team scored two of their own 10 years ago.

At the Etihad on Saturday, just getting a shot away would have been considered an achievement for the Gunners, as they only managed one in the entire match. That sixth-minute Bukayo Saka effort's xG value of 0.11 was higher than their xG-per-shot average of 0.06 going into the weekend, though no team in the division had a poorer record before Saturday.

On top of that, striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn't have a single touch in the opposition's box during a game he started for only the fourth time in his Premier League career – three of which have been against City – and the first time since October 2019.

Sure, Arsenal were a man light against a very good City, but it would still be expected to see a little more fight. Instead, they looked resigned to a hammering.

Questions of Arsenal's mentality have been rife throughout Arteta's time in charge, particularly relating to their discipline, and this performance was just another in a long series of no-shows.

Heading into Saturday, so much of the talk surrounding this match wasn't even focused on the fixture, rather City's inability to bring in a new striker – or, more specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Arsenal's meek performance stole the show. Just as the Premier League table now shows for at least a few hours, this was top versus bottom in every sense, and from Arteta's perspective there's no more damning conclusion to be made than that.

Arsenal have made their worst start to a league season in their 118-year history in England's top four tiers with back-to-back defeats without scoring against Brentford and Chelsea.

The Gunners find themselves in the relegation zone after more than one match for the first time since August 1992 and the pressure is growing on manager Mikel Arteta to turn things around.

Arteta is no stranger to slow starts, having been signed by Arsenal on deadline day in 2011 with the club struggling near the bottom of the division with one point from three games.

The catalyst for that signing, plus the arrivals of Yossi Benayoun, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos and Park Chu-young, was a humiliating 8-2 loss against Manchester United that reduced the Gunners to the butt of all jokes on social media – "I'd 8-2 be an Arsenal fan," as the saying goes.

It remains one of the most extraordinary results in Premier League history, one that legendary boss Arsene Wenger later described as one of his lowest moments in management.

Exactly a decade on from that heavy loss at Old Trafford, Stats Perform takes a closer at the numbers behind the scoreline.

 

GOALS GALORE... BUT JUST SHORT OF RECORD

The 10 goals scored in the match is the joint-second most ever netted in a single Premier League game, with Portsmouth 7-4 Reading in September 2007 leading the way.

The win remains United's biggest against one of their 'big four' rivals in the Premier League era and is one of four occasions they have scored eight or more in the competition.

It is one of only two occasions Arsenal have conceded eight or more goals in a league game in their history, the other being an 8-0 loss to Loughborough in 1896.

The Gunners have since suffered another six-goal loss in the top flight, going down 6-0 to Chelsea in March 2014 in what was Wenger's milestone 1,000th game in charge.

WENGER'S YOUNG GUNS BRUSHED ASIDE

Wenger fielded a young side at Old Trafford that day, using seven players aged 21 or younger – something Arsenal have not repeated since in a Premier League match.

Those seven players were Armand Traore, Henri Lansbury, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Only on two occasions have the Gunners ever fielded more players aged 21 or under in the competition, using eight against Manchester City and Portsmouth in 2008-09.

 

ROONEY AND YOUNG THE KEY ARCHITECTS

Wayne Rooney grabbed the headlines by scoring three of United's goals, with that one of eight hat-tricks he scored for the club and his final one of three at Old Trafford.

Ashley Young was on the scoresheet twice and provided three assists as well, making it one of only five occasions a player has achieved such a feat in Premier League history.

The only player to repeat that accomplishment – two goals and three assists in a single game – since Young a decade ago is Jack Grealish for Aston Villa in their 7-2 win over Liverpool in October 2020.

 

FERGIE'S GREAT ENTERTAINERS

Legendary United boss Ferguson was no stranger to seeing his side rack up goals in games, with this fixture one of 44 times the Red Devils scored five or more in a single match under the Scotsman.

Only Wenger comes close to that figure among Premier League managers, with Arsenal scoring five or more goals 41 times during his 22-year reign.

Despite only being in English football for five years, Guardiola may well overtake both those managers one day as Manchester City have plundered at least five goals in 25 games since he took charge.

Sunday marks a special occasion in the managerial career of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The 48-year-old will take charge of Manchester United in a Premier League match for the 100th time, becoming only the ninth man in the club's history to oversee as many top-flight games.

He could also lead the Red Devils to an English football record should he mark the milestone by avoiding defeat against Wolves at Molineux.

Stats Perform takes a quick data dive into Solskjaer's top-flight record as boss at Old Trafford...

 

In his 99 league games in charge, Solskjaer has managed 52 wins, 28 draws and 19 defeats. That gives him a win percentage of 52.53, with an average of 1.86 points per game.

Of the eight previous managers to reach the milestone for the Red Devils in the top flight, only Ernest Mangnall (54) won more of his first 100 in charge than the Norwegian.

Solskjaer's side have scored 181 goals and conceded 107. Their biggest win came in February, when they equalled their Premier League record by beating Southampton 9-0. That was the fifth time under Solskjaer that United have scored at least five goals in a league match - something they failed to do once under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho.

Solskjaer's average points per game puts him third among United managers in the Premier League era, behind Mourinho (1.89) and Alex Ferguson (2.16). He has the best attack in the post-Ferguson era, but also the leakiest defence.

United have taken 184 points under Solskjaer, a figure that puts him 10th in a league table of managers over their first 99 games in the Premier League. He is just three points off the tally amassed by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, but well short of the 210 accrued by Ferguson, Pep Guardiola's 234 at Manchester City, or the record of 237 set by Mourinho at Chelsea.

The signing of Bruno Fernandes last January was transformative for United and Solskjaer. They won 21 and lost 13 of their 45 league games under Solskjaer before the Portugal star's arrival; since he joined, they have won 31 of 54 games, and lost only six.

On average, United have scored more goals per game, from a lower expected goals figure per game, all while attempting fewer shots. At the same time, they have faced fewer attempts on average, conceded fewer goals and posted a lower expected goals against figure since Fernandes arrived.

As for game 100 itself, the omens are against Solskjaer: of the previous eight United managers to reach 100 games in charge in England's top flight, only Matt Busby and Tommy Docherty celebrated the milestone with a win.

Of course, if United do avoid defeat at Molineux, they will set a new English football league record of 28 consecutive away games unbeaten.

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