Marcelo Bielsa was typically honest as he faced questions about his future. After all, they were inevitable after the 7-0 battering by Manchester City earlier this week.

While Leeds fans might try to convince you it was a less frustrating match than their late 3-2 defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, from the outside it looked as bleak as it gets.

"Do you think that after suffering a 7-0 defeat I can discard the instability?" Bielsa asked on Thursday. "Do you think there's a coach that can't be sacked, who is unsackable? Do you think I'm so vain that I think I can't be sacked?"

Given everything Bielsa's done for Leeds in his four years, it might be fair enough to ponder whether he was untouchable or not, but Tuesday was grim.

It was Leeds' joint-heaviest defeat ever in the Football League/Premier League and the first time Bielsa conceded seven goals in one match over his entire management career – that equates to 568 matches.

While it was only the first time Leeds have suffered back-to-back league losses this term, defeat to City was the continuation of an unequivocally bad start to the season.

Great expectations

In all competitions, Leeds have won just four matches in 90 minutes and only one of those has come since the start of November.

Things don't look much more encouraging this weekend either as they face Arsenal. A third defeat in a row could potentially leave them just two points above the bottom three at Christmas.

Injuries aren't helping their cause, with as many as seven players set to miss out this weekend and Junior Firpo is suspended. Among the absentees is Patrick Bamford, the scorer of 17 Premier League goals last season.

He's already missed a chunk of the season, featuring just six times in the Premier League, perhaps going some way to explaining some of Leeds' issues.

Their injuries, form and proximity to the bottom three are all putting extra expectation on one player.

Raphinha wasn't exactly an unknown when he joined Leeds – Rennes and Ligue 1 are hardly 'obscurity', but he's undoubtedly seen his reputation grow exponentially during his 14 months in England.

His debut season was very promising as Raphinha managed to combine the work rate demanded in a Bielsa team with on-the-ball flair and an eye for the spectacular.

Feisty, flamboyant and forceful – Leeds fans could barely believe they'd managed to retain him when the most recent transfer window shut.

Among the league's most-crucial players

It's fair to say he picked up where he left off, having already surpassed last season's goals total when his penalty against Chelsea took him to seven in 15 games.

Though, with Bamford missing, Raphinha is having to operate slightly differently due to there being the need to pick up the slack caused by absences.

Given Bamford's injury problems, it's unsurprising to see Raphinha's shot frequency has increased from 2.6 to 3.1 every 90 minutes and that's probably had a knock-on effect to his creativity.

His two chances created on a per-90-minute basis is down slightly from 2.4 – similarly, his expected assists (xA) has also decreased fractionally to 0.22 from 0.26. Of course, he probably would have been aided in this area had Leeds' best striker been available all season – rather, Raphinha's the one having to lead from the front and be a creative spark.

An increase in touches per game (59.9 to 63) suggests greater general influence, and while that's not translated to more key passes or assists, Raphinha's importance is further highlighted by his involvement Leeds' build-up play.

He's been involved in 592 open play passing sequences this term, a figure only four players designated as strikers or wingers can better. Among the same group, only eight have played a part in more sequences that ended in a shot than the Brazilian (74) and six of those represent members of the so-called 'big six'.

Raphinha's explosive talents and ball carrying skills make him a great asset when Leeds are trying to relieve pressure and get back up the pitch, but we can also see that his team-mates recognise his usefulness when they're trying to retain the ball.

There's a case to be had that, relative to their respective teams, Raphinha is among the most crucial players in the Premier League – after all, since his first start in November 2020, only five players have had a hand in more non-penalty goals than him (21).

While Arsenal may not be the force they once were, beating the Gunners would be a significant feat for Leeds when you consider their current form.

Raphinha was quiet in the mauling by City, failing to register a single shot or key pass, a performance he'll surely be eager to prove was a one-off.

And if anyone can get Leeds out of their slump by terrorising an Arsenal side often accused of lacking personality, it's Raphinha.

If Kyogo Furuhashi is any indication, Celtic should be looking to Japan for more players, right?

Former Yokohama F.Marinos boss Ange Postecoglou used his J1 League insight to lure the previously unheralded Kyogo to Parkhead and what a signing it has proven to be – the Japan international has taken Glasgow by storm with 14 goals in all competitions.

Now, Celtic manager Postecoglou is reportedly preparing another raid on Japan's top flight, including his former club, to help bolster his title-chasing side in the January transfer window.

F.Marinos star and joint Golden Boot winner Daizen Maeda, Kawasaki Frontale utility Reo Hatate and Gamba Osaka's Yosuke Ideguchi are believed to be all closing in on moves to Celtic as the Bhoys' Japanese contingent grows.

With speculation mounting, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind the trio, using Opta data.

 

Daizen Maeda, Yokohama F.Marinos

Postecoglou leaned on his experiences as a rival coach to prise Kyogo from Andres Iniesta's Vissel Kobe at the start of the season, but it is a completely different matter regarding Maeda, who was signed by the Australian coach, initially on loan in 2020.

Following a difficult loan spell in Portugal via Maritimo, Postecoglou turned to Maeda after leading F.Marinos to their drought-ending J1 League title the season prior. The 24-year-old has not looked back, taking his game to a new level with the runners-up in 2021.

The two-time Japan international shared the Golden Boot with Frontale talisman Leandro Damiao after the pair both scored 23 goals, while he was named in the league's Best XI.

With pace to burn and the ability to play on the flank or through the middle, Maeda fits Postecoglou's high-octane brand of football and pressing philosophy to a tee – he tallied the most sprints across the league (1,457), well ahead of Consadole Sapporo's Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa (869).

Maeda, who likes to cut inside from the left, also led J1 League in shots on target (51), shooting accuracy (63 per cent), big chance total (33), big chance scored (18), expected goals (21.3) and touches in the opposition box (190). He was second for total shots (92) and shot conversion rate (23.9).

 

"I never imagined I would end the season as top scorer in the league. I feel I have been able to prove I was a good signing here," Maeda, who could provide another dynamic to Celtic's attack having scored a joint-league-high six headed goals, said at the end of the season. "As always it was great to score, but I would have liked to have ended the season with a win.

"I've had a great season although I am disappointed we never managed to win the title, but on a personal level, I am very proud I was able to finish as top scorer. I always want more goals. You can never score enough.

"I believe this team can go on and have a great season next year too. Whatever happens, Marinos are a great club. I've never hidden my ambition to play in Europe. When I tried before in Portugal, Covid ruined it for me. This season has changed everything for me. Goals and a call-up for my country. For me, it's just the start."

 

Reo Hatate, Kawasaki Frontale

If Celtic want a man that can cover a number of positions, Hatate is their guy.

A defender, midfielder or forward, Hatate is coming off his second successive top-flight crown with the league's dominant force Frontale, who have won the title in four of the last five years.

Hatate has played a key role in helping maintain Frontale's dominance since making his debut in 2018.

The versatile 24-year-old – who has not played abroad, unlike Maeda or Ideguchi – is fresh off a stellar season that saw him named in J1 League's Best XI.

Like 2020, Hatate scored five goals in 30 appearances, while he supplied two assists in the league as he often played in the middle of the pitch, though he can also be deployed at left-back.

Comfortable on the ball and secure in possession, Hatate boasted a passing accuracy of 82.1 per cent in 2021. As for his creativity, he created 33 chances, highlighting his vision. He ranked in the top five for shots on target (third, 22), total shots (fourth, 59) and passes in opposition half (five, 1,297) among all defenders and midfielders.

Covering plenty of ground, Hatate also demonstrated his defensively capabilities throughout the campaign with 45 interceptions and 159 duels won, with a 53.4 success rate.

 

 

Yosuke Ideguchi, Gamba Osaka

Of the three players targeted by Celtic, the 25-year-old is somewhat the most surprising.

Labelled "wonderful" previously by former Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa, Ideguchi endured a forgettable time in Europe – he joined then-Championship outfit Leeds United on a four-and-a-half-year contract in 2018 but never made an appearance for the club.

Ideguchi then bounced around on loan at Cultural Leonesa in Spain and Greuther Furth in Germany before returning to boyhood club Gamba Osaka, where he has excelled across two spells.

A player with a lot of potential upside, Ideguchi is more of a holding midfielder and is capable of finding the back of the net.

Ideguchi – part of the Gamba team that tasted domestic success via the J1 League (2014), Emperor's Cup (2014 and 2015), J.League Cup (2014) and Japanese Super Cup (2015) prior to his Leeds departure – is coming off a 29-game season, his most since the 2017 campaign.

While he did not score or register an assist, unlike the season prior when he scored four times and teed up three goals, Ideguchi's work rate and tenacity was invaluable for Gamba.

In 2021, the 15-time Japan international won 55.5 per cent of his tackles with 36 interceptions and 78 duels won. Since 2019, Ideguchi is a top-10 midfielder in tackles (fifth, 145), tackles won (fifth, 85) and interceptions (10th, 109).

 

As one of only two NBA teams that have never won a division title, the Memphis Grizzlies are in prime position to cut that number in half this season.

Since joining the NBA as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96, Memphis have finished second five times but have never captured a division crown. The Charlotte Hornets are the only other franchise never to win a division title, though they did finish in a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast in 2015-16 but lost the title to the Miami Heat on a tie-breaker.

Roughly two months into this season and Memphis sit atop a weak Southwest Division with the franchise's first division title a distinct possibility.

No division has a worse composite record than the Southwest with Memphis (17-11), the Dallas Mavericks (14-13), San Antonio Spurs (10-16), Houston Rockets (9-18) and New Orleans Pelicans (8-21) combining for a 58-79 record (42.3). Weaker division opponents certainly will not hurt the Grizzlies' cause, but they appear more than capable of beating just about any team, evidenced by their 13-6 record against the Western Conference.

While Ja Morant has established himself as one of the game's young superstars in his third season, what is most impressive about the Grizzlies is how they have performed without him.

Morant has not played since November 26 due to a sprained left knee and he then entered the NBA's health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 on December 8.

Somehow, Memphis have been even better with their leading scorer on the shelf, going an inspired 8-1. Prior to this stretch, Memphis were 6-9 in Morant's career when he missed a game.

It has been a dominant run for the Grizzlies, who have outscored opponents by 176 points in those nine games. Since November 28 in their first game without Morant, the Grizzlies rank fifth in the NBA in points per game (113.7), ninth in three-pointers made (112) and lead the league in total rebounds (449) and total steals (108).

Clearly, Memphis are much more than just Morant.

During a five-game winning streak – all without Morant – the Grizzlies led every game from wire-to-wire before the run ended with a 104-96 loss to visiting Dallas on December 8. Included in that five-game surge was a stunning 152-79 thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the largest margin of victory in league history.

Memphis only rank 20th this season in opponent points per game (109.2) but something has clicked with the defence allowing a league-best 94.1 points during this 8-1 stretch. In the first 19 games this season, Memphis held foes to 101 points or fewer just twice but have done that seven times in the past nine contests.

Memphis are 13-1 (92.9) this season when holding opponents under 110 points. Only the Phoenix Suns (18-0), Charlotte (7-0) and Brooklyn Nets (15-1) have a better winning percentage in such games.

Maybe it was Morant's absence that forced the rest of the team to turn up the defensive pressure, but whatever the reason Taylor Jenkins' team now know they can win either with offense as they rank sixth in the league in scoring (111.0) as well as at the opposite end of the court.

Perhaps no victory was more indicative of what the Grizzlies can do than last Thursday's 108-95 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite missing Morant and starting guard Dillon Brooks (health and safety protocols), Memphis set a franchise record with nine steals in the second quarter en route to a season-high 18 and became just the second team in the past 13 games to hold star-laden Los Angeles under 100 points.

Several players have stepped up to fill the void left by Morant and none bigger than second-year guard Desmond Bane. A serious contender for the Most Improved Player award, Bane has taken a huge step forward in his sophomore season to become much more than a shooter with his usage rate going from 16.1 to 22.3 per cent.

In the nine games without Morant, Bane has averaged 17.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 44.8 per cent from three-point range (26 for 58). He averaged 15.5 points and 3.8 rebounds while connecting on 37.4 per cent (46 for 123) from deep in the season's first 19 games. His points per game average has risen from 9.2 in 2020-21 to 16.0 this season – his plus-6.8 improvement only bettered by Reggie Jackson (+6.9), Miles Bridges (+7.1) and Tyrese Maxey (+8.7) among players to have played in 70 per cent of team games in both campaigns.

When a team's leading scorer misses time, the second-leading scorer is asked to pick up most of the slack and Jaren Jackson Jr. has answered that call.

During the 8-1 stretch, Jackson is scoring 21.1 per game on 50.4 per cent shooting, including 38.5 per cent (20 for 52) from beyond the arc. In 19 games played with Morant this term, Jackson averaged 14.8 points on 39.7 per cent from the field and 33.7 per cent from long range.

Jackson has scored 25 points or more in four of his last seven games after having only one such game through his first 20 this season.

With 25 points and five blocks in a win over the Toronto Raptors late last month, Jackson became just the third Grizzlies player to reach both those totals in a game since the team moved to Memphis. Pau Gasol (six games) and Marc Gasol (four games) are the only others.

Memphis' defensive improvement is clearly a team-wide concept, but Dillon Brooks may be the player most responsible. Brooks did not make his season debut until November 10 due to a broken left hand and the team clearly missed his intensity and leadership.

In 14 games this season with Brooks in the line-up, Memphis have surrendered 103.6 points per game and held opponents to 44.0 per cent shooting. In the 14 games he has missed, the Grizzlies have given up 114.9 points with opponents making 48.3 per cent of their shots.

Taking over at the point in Morant's place has been Tyus Jones, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league each of the last three seasons and is on his way to doing it again with 119 assists to 21 turnovers (5.67).

The biggest improvement in Jones' game has been his three-point shooting, making 40 percent of his first 65 attempts after he hit on just 32.1 per cent last season.

One area where Memphis have excelled all season is on the boards.

The Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in total rebounds (1,323) and tied for second in offensive rebounding (358). Steven Adams leads the way with 8.6 per game but gets plenty of help as Memphis are tied for second in the league with seven players averaging at least four boards per contest.

Those rebounds play a role in helping Memphis top the NBA in both second-chance points (479) and points in the paint (1,504).

With Phoenix and the Golden State Warriors looking like world beaters right now and the Utah Jazz not far behind, Memphis have been able to fly under the radar in the Western Conference.

While there is no telling how Morant's return will affect the Grizzlies, the team have done all the little things in his absence and that can only help them in their quest to finally hang a division championship banner at FedEx Forum.

The carnage of the Premier League festive schedule is well and truly upon us.

Arsenal, who stripped Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of his captaincy on Tuesday, snatched West Ham's Champions League spot with a comfortable victory in Wednesday's headline clash.

Just 11 miles away in London, Crystal Palace hosted Southampton following a 3-1 defeat of Everton but they could only muster a draw against Ralph Hasenhuttl's side.

Brighton and Hove Albion succumbed to yet another defeat against Wolves in the other clash of the day, after Watford's visit to Burnley was postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Hornets' squad.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of Opta data from the top-flight action.

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham: Youth shines again for Arteta's top-four chasers

West Ham have a woeful record at Emirates Stadium and extended that poor run as they lost their 11th league match in 12 games at Arsenal's ground, trading fourth spot with Mikel Arteta's side, who were inspired by two of their young stars.

Gabriel Martinelli broke the deadlock in the second half with his seventh Premier League strike, Gabriel Jesus (16) the only Brazilian with more goals in the competition before their 21st birthday.

Vladimir Coufal then became the 15th Czech Republic player to receive his marching orders in the Premier League when he received a contentious second caution for bringing down Alexandre Lacazette, who saw his penalty saved by Lukasz Fabianski.

Lacazette's miss may have been Arsenal's third consecutive failed penalty in the league – doing so for the first time since 1992 – but substitute Emile Smith Rowe sealed the victory with the Gunners' 10th goal scored by an under-21 in the competition this season, which is more than any other side.

David Moyes, who became the fourth manager to 600 games in the Premier League, has never won at Arsenal in 18 top-flight attempts, extending the record for the most times a manager has played away against a side in the competition without winning.

Brighton and Hove Albion 0-1 Wolves: Saiss scores as Seagulls grounded once more 

Wolves headed to the South Coast without a win or a goal in four top-flight games, facing five consecutive blanks for the first time since 2003, but held on in a marathon slog against Graham Potter's timid Brighton.

Roman Saiss nodded in what proved to be the winner for Bruno Lage's side on the stroke of half-time, as Wolves scored their first top-flight goal before the interval in seven matches – dating back to when they netted twice in the first half against Everton in early November.

The Morocco international now has five league goals to his name since the start of last season – only Raul Jimenez (nine) and Ruben Neves (six) have managed more for Wolves in that period.

Wolves, though, had to wait for their win as they battled for 106 minutes and 29 seconds of action in total in the longest English top-flight game since Manchester City and Liverpool in September 2017 (108 minutes and 35 seconds).

In contrasting fortunes, struggling Brighton are still without a win in all competitions since beating Swansea in the EFL Cup in September, while the Seagulls have not tasted top-flight victory in a club record 11 games.

Crystal Palace 2-2 Southampton: Broja form continues as Ayew breaks duck

The Premier League's most fragile away defence in 2021 travelled to Selhurst Park having conceded 50 times on the road, but were unlucky to not walk away with all three points against Patrick Vieira's side.

Wilfried Zaha struck first after just 119 seconds as he fired another away goal past Ralph Hasenhuttl's team, with what was Palace's fastest Premier League goal since May, which also came against Southampton.

However, James Ward-Prowse restored parity with his 11th direct free-kick goal in the league – only David Beckham (18), Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola (both 12) have scored more in the competition.

Armando Broja deservedly nudged the visitors ahead with his fourth finish in six league starts, with Mason Greenwood (also four) the only played aged 20 or younger to have scored as many times in the competition this season.

Jordan Ayew then ensured the sides shared the spoils with his first goal in 43 Premier League games, his last coming against Leeds United in November 2020, while the Saints claimed an unwanted record as the first top-flight side to ship more than 50 away goals in a single year since West Brom in 1985 (52).

Sergio Aguero has decided to retire.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

After consultations with specialists, the Argentina international has been told it is too much of a risk to continue playing.

Barcelona were the last club Aguero played and scored for in a storied career, but it'll be his exploits for Manchester City that will be remembered most fondly in the football world.

He left the club earlier this year after a decade in Manchester that cemented his status as one of City's greatest ever players – he made an immediate impact upon joining from Atletico Madrid in 2011, plundering 23 top-flight goals in his first season, including the dramatic stoppage-time winner against QPR on the final day of the campaign to seal their first-ever Premier League title. 

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at the legacy of Aguero's exceptional career as a matchwinner and goalscorer. 

Aguero untouchable as City's leading marksman

No City player comes close to Aguero's simply outstanding scoring record.

He left City having scored 184 times in the Premier League at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition's history.

The City player closest to that ratio (min. 20 goals) is Edin Dzeko, who scored a goal every 141.6 minutes for City in the English top flight. 

City's second-highest scorer in the Premier League is Raheem Sterling, though he is 102 goals adrift of Aguero on 82.

Behind Sterling is Yaya Toure (62), followed by David Silva (60), Carlos Tevez (58) and Dzeko (50).

Even when you extend it to all competitions throughout City's history, no one gets within 80 goals of Aguero, with his 260 well clear of Eric Brook (177).

In esteemed Premier League company

Sadly, the final season of Aguero's Premier League stint was blighted by injuries, restricting him to just 12 appearances and four goals.

Nevertheless, he departed England as an all-time great such was his consistent excellence in front of goal.

Indeed, only three players have scored more than his 184 in the competition: Alan Shearer (260), Wayne Rooney (208) and Andrew Cole (187). 

All three, however, required significantly more minutes to score each goal, with Aguero's rate (one every 108 mins) comfortably better than Shearer's 146.86, Rooney's 182.78 and Cole's 169.14. 

Thierry Henry is the only player to have gotten close to a similar standard in the Premier League, with the Frenchman netting every 122 minutes on average – Mohamed Salah might fancy his chances of rivalling Aguero, however. His 111 goals have been scored at a rate of one every 127 minutes.

One-club man… sort of

Aguero's goal frequency was just one of several areas where he stands out in front, though.

Of course, he was never able to topple Alan Shearer's overall record for Premier League goals (260), but Aguero has scored more goals than anyone else for a single club.

His final goal for City, a header in a 5-0 demolition of Everton back in May, saw him overtake Wayne Rooney's haul of 183 for one club (Manchester United).

Remarkably, Aguero needed 118 fewer matches to reach the landmark than Rooney, which is saying something.

Harry Kane (167) may yet surpass Aguero – though if he ultimately ends up being the Argentinian's 'heir' at City, that record may stand for quite a while.

A box of hat-tricks

It's arguable the Premier League has never seen a more insatiable striker.

Some might be tempted to kick back once they have one or two goals – sure, a hat-trick would be nice, but their job is already done…

That certainly wasn't the case with Aguero, who was utterly relentless.

His 12 Premier League hat-tricks is a record and will likely remain the benchmark for years given only Shearer (11) has reached double figures for trebles in the competition.

It wasn't a case of Aguero filling his boots against the same lowly opposition all the time either. He only got more than one hat-trick against two teams (two each versus Newcastle United and Chelsea).

One of those hat-tricks against Newcastle came in a remarkable five-goal haul back in October 2015, helping City to a 6-1 victory. Granted, four players had managed such a feat before, though Aguero did his damage in just 66 minutes on the pitch – the previous quartet all played for 90 minutes.

Among Europe's elite finishers

Rightly or not, Aguero was probably too much of a pure finisher to ever really be considered in the same standing as players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who generally scored and contributed more in general.

But there's little doubt the Independiente youth product was one of the finest forwards of his generation.

Since January 1, 2000, only five players – Cristiano Ronaldo (483), Lionel Messi (475), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (300), Robert Lewandowski (295) and Edinson Cavani (261) – have scored more goals in Europe's 'big five' leagues than Aguero (259) across his spells with Atleti, City and Barca.

His minutes-per-goal rate jumps slightly to one every 128 minutes when factoring in his time in LaLiga, which puts him 10th among players to have scored at least 150 goals in the major European leagues, but let's not forget that includes his days as a teenager as well as last season when he was having to battle fitness issues.

Sadly, we never got to see Aguero return to the heights he scaled during his peak at City, with injuries restricting him to only five appearances for Barcelona.

But given the circumstances surrounding his retirement, things could have been a lot worse. This farewell gives us the chance to happily reflect on what a privilege it was to watch Sergio 'Kun' Aguero.

For football enthusiasts, watching Ajax dazzle on the international stage soothes the soul.

At a time when the world game has been taken over by the mega rich, Ajax represent football's pure and glorious past.

Ajax's most famous name – Johan Cruyff – made the club what it is, imposing the style that would become so successful for years, helping the Dutch giants to win the Champions League in 1995.

That DNA continues to flow through the veins of players and staff – Cruyff's unforgettable legacy not lost on those in Amsterdam, where Erik ten Hag's history-makers have dazzled in the Eredivisie and Champions League in 2021-22.

Continuing to stay true to Cruyff's values five years after his death, Ajax have swept all before them in Europe this season.

Ajax became the first Dutch team to win all six of their games in a single Champions League group-stage campaign, while they also celebrated six successive victories in the European Cup/Champions League for the first time in their illustrious history.

"I think he would be proud of the level of football and type of football Erik ten Hag is playing with the team," Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar – who was part of that triumphant 1995 team – told Stats Perform.

A world-renowned philosophy, the manner in which Ajax teams are built remains largely in the image of their favourite son. Cruyff's influence on the club's academy is still so ingrained.

After all these years, Ajax still seem so happily married to the romantic notions of how the game should be played thanks to Cruyff, but is there a need to adapt or modify when it comes to being faithful to his masterplan?

"Football adapts and evolves all the time," Van der Sar said. "I got a call from Johan Cruyff 10 years ago when I was still playing at Manchester United. He wanted to have players into the board of directors. He asked me the question if I was open to that. I had to think about it and speak to some guys like former United CEO David Gill – what it involves etc. I took up the job in 2012.

"Of course the philosophy of the club is quite similar. We changed some things in the youth setup and making sure to bring Ajax back to European level. Not buying players for big money and not delivering. We had to refocus on bringing our players into the team. Four or five years ago, we took a new step with the reserves we had, the scouting department. A lot of things are connected with Cruyff."

While not around to witness Ajax's reclamation, Cruyff would approve of Ten Hag and his men.

Possession and pressing have been paramount under Ten Hag's watchful eye since he moved to Amsterdam in 2017 and, heading into a Champions League last-16 date with Benfica, Ajax lead the way this term for shots after high turnover (16) and passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA – 7.9).

Title-holders Chelsea, meanwhile, are the only team to have managed more high turnovers and possession won in the final third than Dutch champions Ajax.

It is a similar story in the Eredivisie, with Ten Hag's men – a point behind leaders PSV – leading the way for high turnovers (210), possession won in the final third (126) and PPDA (8.9). De Godenzonen have scored a whopping 49 goals in 16 games, while conceding only four.

"It's always a challenge being a respectable, big club from a small country to make an impact in the football world," said former Ajax, Juventus, Manchester United and Netherlands goalkeeper Van der Sar said. "We've done that over several decades of football. To the level we're playing at the moment, in the Champions League playing six and winning six. It's great encouragement for the coach and compliment for the players and the way they're playing. It's fantastic to be the director of Ajax."

Ten Hag guided Ajax to a remarkable Champions League semi-final in 2018-19 before that team was dismantled – Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt were lured away by Barcelona and Juventus respectively. Hakim Ziyech made the move to Chelsea, while Donny van de Beek eventually joined United last year.

But the highly rated Dutchman and two-time Eredivisie winner is leading a new mini-era of success with a mix of youth and experience – spearheaded by the likes of Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind, Antony and Sebastien Haller, who this term became the quickest player to reach 10 goals in a Champions League career, eclipsing Erling Haaland.

Haller also became the first player to score in each of his opening six games in the competition, while the former West Ham forward is only the second Ajax player to score 10-plus goals in a single season of the premier club competition following Soren Lerby in 1979-80.

"It's fantastic if you say the 18-19 team – De Ligt or De Jong they left us after the year – and if you see now, we have Ryan Gravenberch in midfield and Jurrien Timber, both coming from our academy and slotting into those places that those two big-name players, replacing them and reaching a similar level," added Van der Sar. "Compared to the experience of Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind and Antony coming in as a young Brazilian striker. The team is gelling fantastically together but of course we know in the last 16, quarter-finals, there are massive teams coming up. We're confident."

Van der Sar also underlined the club's faith in the next generation.

He said: "Promoting youth is in our DNA. We will always do that. That combination – four or five years ago we changed the approach a little bit to make sure if we want to compete or be in the Champions League, you also have to have experienced players. The desire and mentality, so in that way we changed the approach a bit. We combine it with the young players here who are getting opportunities to make their first steps on the international podium. That approach works fantastically for us."

Ten Hag's exploits have not gone unnoticed amid growing links to Premier League giants United, who are on the hunt for a new long-term manager following the interim appointment of Ralf Rangnick until the end of the season.

Since Ten Hag was named coach four years ago, Ajax this term boast their best figures in terms of high turnovers (13.0) and possession won in final third (8.0) across all competitions, highlighting their continued improvement on the 51-year-old's watch.

"You see it also with players, sometimes they think they're finished at Ajax and want to take the next step," Van der Sar said when discussing Ten Hag's future and whether the environment was key to his next club. "I've seen it myself when I went from Ajax to Juventus – it wasn't a natural fit. The level of football, the family, the expectations, it can be difficult abroad.

"But someone with the quality of Erik and the way he lets Ajax play and tick for the last four years, it's obvious there's a lot of interest in him. He is named among the big clubs in Europe. Eventually he will take the next step, but we will try to delay it as long as possible but of course, at a certain point it's up to him. But we have to challenge him and make sure he maybe sees will there be a next level – can we be even better? That's what we're working hard for to make sure the players are staying, the scouting brings new talents and the structure around him are ready for a successful period."

Recalling Ten Hag's arrival, Van der Sar added: "I remember speaking with him at Marc Overmars' house. Marc lives in the east of Holland, not as big as Australia but for Holland, it's still a drive. Came very well prepared. Knew what to expect. Talked about philosophies and things that needed to change. Taking the next step, putting the bar even higher every time. The last four years, every year he has taken the bar higher and higher.

"You also need the organisation to come up with that and that's been provided – the scouting, youth set up, commercial guys and media guys. Not only on the pitch we want to play in the Champions League, also the office. I live in two worlds – the training ground and the office I'm looking to the stadium. In both worlds, we want to play Champions League football. Being at the highest level."

Rio Ferdinand has been vocal previously regarding player signings and managerial appointments at Old Trafford. So, has Van der Sar been approached by his former team-mate when it comes to Ten Hag?

"Rio is quite vocal on his own media channels and the DMs [direct messages]," said the 51-year-old. "He is a great character and fantastic player, and pundit and business also. I respect him a lot. I texted him stop hassling me about players, coaches and directors to come over to England [smiling]."

The return of club legends Van der Sar and Marc Overmars, as CEO and director football respectively, have been key in maintaining Ajax's legacy and position among Europe's elite, despite contrasting budgets.

Van der Sar won four Eredivisie titles, the Champions League, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup among his 14 honours at Ajax in the 1990s before leaving in 1999, while former team-mate Overmars was also part of that conquering European outfit 26 years ago.

Now, the Dutch duo are embracing their Ajax roles off the pitch.

"We've had success and the money we've earned in our career, but it all started here at Ajax. We're happy to give something back to the club that gave us our first opportunity and a lot of things," Van der Sar said, having returned to the club in 2012 as marketing director before becoming CEO four years later.

The pair's work has not gone unnoticed. Overmars – who first became the director of football in 2012 – was sought after by Newcastle United before re-signing a week ago.

Van der Sar's future is now in the spotlight, linked with a return to Manchester United, where he enjoyed Premier League and Champions League success between 2005 and 2011.

However, Van der Sar is in no rush to leave his beloved Ajax.

"The last sentence was a good one – once your work at Ajax is done," Van der Sar replied when asked if he had a desire and interest to make his back way to United once his work with Ajax was done. "I think Marc and myself are enjoying it very much here at Ajax. The freedom and rewards, the level of the club is still growing. That brings joy to yourself and gives you a lot of confidence. We're easy in that way.

"For the moment I'm really happy in Amsterdam. I think we're not ready yet. We can make a step higher and that's something we're aiming for. To be really, really successful on the pitch. It's not easy, but we're going [to give it a] go."

Van der Sar and Overmars have established a successful structure at Ajax and it is something United are believed to be prepared to mirror by bringing in their former goalkeeper as Ed Woodward prepares to vacate his role as CEO.

Having not won the Premier League since 2013, United – up until this point – have been reluctant to appoint a director of football.

That reluctance and lack of a clear and unified vision in Manchester has seen the style of play and philosophy chop and change – David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have come and gone, and with them, the need for the club to constantly tailor to the needs of the next manager.

Ajax on the other hand, their philosophy remains the same and it will continue to be the case with Ten Hag and beyond.

"That is one of the things we changed 10 years ago that the structure is good for the club," Van der Sar said. "There's experience and quality, there's a desire to perform at the highest level and then the coach or maybe with assistant coach, one-two persons must fit into our system at the club. That's completely different in England. If you get a new manager, seven, eight, nine, 10 people, video, scouting, data, physios, doctors and everything.

"I don't think that is the right approach. I want to make sure the heart of the club and the knowledge of the club is there, that we know about the young players coming through, they know the young players need to adjust, what kind of sessions and training they need and then they're ready to be in the first team. That's why the assistant coaches are the guys who have been at the club – Michael Reizeger, Winston Bogarde, Richard Witschge, John Heitinga being the coach of the second team. We need that experience to make sure and aware to the coach that these players are coming through. That we don't have to buy a player, give this guy a chance and he will perform for you."

While popular in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, the director of football model is a topic that generates debate, particularly in England. Is it more helpful than obstructive for a coach in football?

"A coach is very important for the team," said 130-time Netherlands international Van der Sar. "He has a short-term future and for Marc and myself, we have to think long term about what's good for the club. But yeah, it can be difficult, difficult part of conversation with coach and director football.

"But I think at Ajax, we find an ideal solution at the moment. Marc and Erik have a fantastic working relationship together. Let's see what the future brings us for the club. First focus on the league and then look forward to the Champions League games in March. Hopefully a great team comes here to Amsterdam and hopefully we can entertain fans across the world."

One title race ended in controversial fashion this past weekend, but the Premier League's charge to the top is only just clicking into gear.

Lewis Hamilton will not be the only one left feeling harshly penalised after events over the last few days, after eight spot-kicks were awarded across the latest round of top-flight fixtures.

Chelsea were a major benefactor, as their win over Leeds United saw them keep pace with title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool.

Ralf Rangnick's Manchester United also scored from the spot in a win over Norwich City, while Conor Gallagher inspired Crystal Palace to a victory over Rafael Benitez's Everton.

Benitez's former club Newcastle United, meanwhile, suffered another damaging defeat in their quest to make it to the January transfer window with a fighting chance of staying up.

With all that and more, here are some of the weekend's quirky stats from the Premier League...

 

Penalties galore

The season of giving is approaching and it seems Premier League referees were more than willing to hand out goalscoring gifts.

Brentford beat Watford thanks to a last-gasp penalty on Friday, when the fun started. Bryan Mbeumo's resultant strike saw the Bees become the first team in Premier League history to have each of their first 10 home goals in the competition scored by different players.

Champions City then needed a spot-kick to defeat 10-man Wolves, with Raul Jimenez receiving his marching orders for blocking a free-kick from being taken, just 31 seconds after he had received his first booking. Raheem Sterling put it away, scoring his 100th goal in the Premier League. He is the 32nd player to reach that landmark in the top flight.

Chelsea's clash with Leeds really boosted the penalty numbers, with three awarded at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Rudiger became only the second Chelsea player to win two penalties in a single Premier League match, after Yuri Zhirkov against Aston Villa in March 2010. Jorginho put away both penalties to secure a 3-2 win, with Raphinha having put Leeds ahead from 12 yards.

Cristiano Ronaldo made no mistake at Carrow Road and Youri Tielemans was also on target for Leicester City in their demolition of Newcastle. Mohamed Salah converted a penalty he won in order for Liverpool to see off Aston Villa and club legend Steven Gerrard at Anfield.

Each penalty at Stamford Bridge resulted in a side taking the lead, a Premier League first, while Saturday was the first matchday to have three 1-0 wins all settled by spot-kicks.

Seven penalties awarded eitiher on Saturday and Sunday ranks second in Premier League history across a single weekend, after September 13-14 in 2003 (eight). Last season saw 125 spot-kicks given, the most ever in the competition, at a rate of 0.33 per game. The count for 2021-22 so far stands at 41.

Records set to go

Sterling's goal for City was the 499th scored in the Premier League under Pep Guardiola, in what was his 206th top-flight match in charge.

Guardiola is set be the Premier League manager to have seen his side score 500 goals in the fewest games, with Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp the current record-holder on 234.

Staying with City, they have already won 32 league games in 2021, one shy of Liverpool's top-tier record for a calendar year, set back in 1982. With four games remaining before the turn of the year, that is surely another record the champions are set to take.

Meanwhile, Liverpool are now on 1,999 top-flight victories, and will become the first team to reach the 2,000 milestone with their next success.

Benitez on thin ice?

It was always going to be a difficult task for Benitez to win over the Everton faithful. Given the chants directed his way by the travelling support at Palace on Sunday, he is as far away as he ever was from achieving that. A 3-1 defeat at Selhurst Park means Everton are on a run of one win in 10 league matches.

The wonderful Gallagher was their downfall, scoring twice either side of James Tomkins bundling home from a corner. The on-loan midfielder has now scored six goals and laid on three assists, contributing to nine of Palace's 22 league goals this season (41 per cent).

That ranks him eighth in the league when it comes to goal contributions for a side, and top among English players in the competition, and first for players aged 21 or under.

Everton have come from behind to claim 10 points this season, which already marks their best total since 2017-18 (14) and is the most in the competition this season, but based on the frustration directed Benitez's way, the former Liverpool boss might be in need of a Christmas miracle.

Howe's that defence staying up?

One place Benitez would certainly feel the love is St James' Park. Newcastle finally claimed their first win of the season by beating Burnley, but they were on the end of a 4-0 pasting at Leicester.

Newcastle's defence is the primary course for concern. They have already conceded 34 goals, the worst in the league. After 16 top-flight matches, they have conceded as many goals on eight other occasions, the last being in 1977-78.

Newcastle went down in that season, as they did in the 1960-61 campaign, but Eddie Howe might at least take some solace from the fact that the Magpies survived on the other six occasions.

The Premier League provided its usual drama on Saturday with decisive penalties awarded in all but one of the fixtures.

Chelsea left it late against Leeds United in a game that saw referee Chris Kavanagh award three penalties, while Manchester United earned a narrow win thanks to another Cristiano Ronaldo spot-kick.

Liverpool also profited from the penalty spot as Steven Gerrard made his return to Anfield with Aston Villa, and another conversion from 12 yards aided Manchester City at home to Wolves.

Elsewhere, Arsenal cruised past Southampton, who are yet to win at Emirates Stadium in 23 Premier League attempts – the longest winless run for one club away to another in the competition's history.

With tons of action to unpack, Stats Perform takes an in-depth look at the pick of Opta facts from Saturday's clashes.

Manchester City 1-0 Wolves: Jimenez moment of madness gifts Citizens win

Raheem Sterling reached a century of Premier League goals as City scraped by 10-man Wolves, who could not hold on after Raul Jimenez's bizarre red card for two yellows in a matter of seconds.

Jimenez became the first ever Mexican player to receive a red card in the Premier League, making Mexico the 76th nation to have a player dismissed in the competition.

Sterling then scored from the penalty spot after Joao Moutinho was adjudged to have handled, becoming the 32nd player to 100 Premier League goals and the eighth-youngest at 27 years and three days.

Pep Guardiola's side held on to that slender lead and have now won 32 of their 40 league games in 2021 (D2 L6) – only Liverpool in 1982 (33) have won more matches in a single calendar year in English top-flight history.

Chelsea 3-2 Leeds United: Spot-kick drama condemns Whites to another London loss

Leeds have a miserable record in London and that was extended to just two wins in their past 33 matches in all competitions in the capital despite Raphinha finding the net when a first penalty was awarded in the visitors' favour at Stamford Bridge.

Mason Mount cancelled out that opener, before Raphinha became the 13th player – and first Leeds star – to both score and concede a penalty in the same Premier League game when he brought down Antonio Rudiger, allowing Jorginho to score.

Although Joe Gelhardt netted Leeds' first top-flight goal by a teenager since James Milner versus Everton in April 2004 to level the match again, Rudiger won a second penalty – the first Chelsea player to earn two in a Premier League game since Yuri Zhirkov against Aston Villa in March 2010 – deep into stoppage time.

Jorginho settled the result with his second from 12 yards after 93 minutes and 11 seconds, the Blues' latest winning goal in the competition since Florent Malouda's strike against Stoke City in September 2009 (93:36).

Liverpool 1-0 Aston Villa: Salah downs shot-shy Villans

Returning hero Gerrard was greeted with a standing ovation back at Anfield, but the latest king of the Kop ensured his Villa side went away empty-handed. 

Mohamed Salah again made the difference, the Egypt international converting his 15th straight Premier League penalty – the second-longest ever such run in the competition after Matt Le Tissier (23 between 1994 and 2000).

Salah is also now just one game away from Jamie Vardy's record of either scoring or assisting in 15 straight Premier League matches between August and December 2015.

This was Liverpool's 100th 1-0 win in the competition and their second in a row for the first time since December 2015, requiring just the one goal as Villa failed to register a single shot on target in a league match for the first time since December 2019 against Sheffield United.

Norwich City 0-1 Manchester United: Another Ronaldo rescue act for Red Devils

Ralf Rangnick has pinpointed United's defensive issues as a key area to fix and there were more positive signs on that front – at least on the stats sheet.

Rangnick became just the second Manchester United manager to register a clean sheet in his first two league games after Ernest Mangnall in 1903.

United were far from convincing in either defence or attack, though, again relying on David de Gea and match-winner Ronaldo, who won and scored United's 50th successful away Premier League spot-kick – only Liverpool (60) have netted more such goals in the competition's history.

Ronaldo also became only the third player to score for three different United managers in a single season after James Hanson and Joe Spence both did so in 1926-27.

The game is won in the trenches. 

It's an old NFL axiom that has rung true regardless of era, regardless of the changes in philosophy that have defined those eras, and it is one that holds particular weight as the season approaches the business end.

If you can win the battle up front in December and January, chances are you will be in a strong position to challenge to go all the way.

Rarely is one player the difference one either side of the trenches. A superstar edge rusher can be taken out of the game if he does not have support, while an offensive line can still collapse even with a dominant left tackle if it does not have the necessary cohesiveness and continuity.

Yet when two position groups are so dependent on the success of the entire unit, it can make it difficult to decipher who is among the elite when it comes to pressuring the quarterback and protecting him.

That is where the numbers provide that crucial bit of added context. Stats Perform's adjusted win rate does just that, looking at how often a pass rusher or pass protector wins or loses a one-on-one matchup and adjusting that percentage based on their success on stunts.

And there are clear and, in some cases, surprising standouts in that metric through 13 weeks of the NFL season.

Menace in the middle

The identity of the best interior pass rusher in the game has rarely been in dispute and, though he likely will not win Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, Aaron Donald is delivering another year to serve as a reminder of his status as the league's best on that side of the ball.

Donald has the highest stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of any defender in the league (min. 100 matchups). The Los Angeles Rams star has a win percentage of 64.29, no other defender to meet that matchup threshold even comes close to a win rate of 60 per cent.

Indeed, Donald's closest challenger is Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, his win rate of 50.35 surprising given the former first-round pick has seen much of his assistance taken away through injuries to edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat.

No defensive tackle with 150 snaps on the interior of the defensive line has more quarterback knockdowns (20) than Allen, the quickness, athleticism and power he has at his disposal in part fuelling the resurgence of a defense helping Washington climb back towards the playoffs.

Living on the edge

T.J. Watt leads the NFL in sacks with 16, yet it is the man most likely to rival him for DPOY who leads the way among edge rushers in terms of win rate.

Myles Garrett has won 62 of his 130 one-on-one matchups in 2021, while his stunt-adjusted win percentage of 48.40 is the best for edge players, dominating opposing linemen at a level to suggest he could have even more than 14 sacks.

Indeed, Garrett's 20 adjusted sacks are the most among edge rushers, his adjusted sack rate of 10.7 per cent also leading the way at the position group (min. 100 snaps).

While Garrett's progression to contender for one of the most prestigious individual NFL awards is a natural one for a first overall pick long since viewed as a home run, fewer will have anticipated the kind of dominance Maxx Crosby has produced this season.

Crosby's stunt-adjusted win percentage of 45.03 is second among edge rushers, while no defender in the NFL other than Donald (87) has more one on one wins than Crosby's 82. 

They have come from 185 matchups, but the fact his team-mate Yannick Ngakoue has won only 39 of his 215 matchups illustrates just how quickly Crosby has ascended to an edge rusher superior to many of his more high-profile contemporaries.

Unexpected pressure

When the New York Giants selected Dexter Lawrence with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, his impact was expected to come predominantly in the run game.

Yet after Donald and Allen, it is he who is the cream of the crop when it comes to interior defensive linemen dominating opposing offensive linemen on pass-rush snaps.

Lawrence, whose career-high for sacks in college came when he had 6.5 as a freshman at Clemson, boasts a stunt-adjusted win rate of 46.26.

Yet his success in pushing the pocket from the interior has not translated into impressive sack production, Lawrence has only 1.5 on the year to go with five quarterback hits.

Residing in the same division, Micah Parsons' sack numbers are more illustrative of his ability to generate pressure.

Parsons playing on the edge occasionally was something most expected when the Cowboys selected him 12th overall this year, yet nobody could have envisaged just how devastating a player Dallas picked to play off-ball linebacker could be in that role.

He has a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 38.32, just below that of former Defensive Rookie of the Year and San Francisco 49ers star edge rusher Nick Bosa (40.31).

That has translated to a 10-sack season for Parsons, who appears destined to end the year joining Bosa among the group of players to have won DROY.

Parsons' season, regardless of when it concludes, will be fondly remembered and marked by accolades, while Lawrence's efforts will likely be quickly forgotten, that contrast reflective of the difference in their roles and the markedly different directions in which their two franchises are headed.

Pass-blocking bullies

Recognition can be tough to come by for offensive linemen, yet it will be a surprise when the dust has settled on the 2021 campaign if these three offensive tackles are not at least able to celebrate a Pro Bowl nod.

The end date of Tom Brady's career is unknown and, after looking close to the finish line in defeat in his final game as a New England Patriot, the injection of life into his career since moving to Tampa Bay has a lot to do with the young blood on the right side of the Buccaneers' offensive line.

Tristan Wirfs, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2020, leads all tackles with at least 100 matchups with an incredible stunt-adjusted win percentage of 95.94. In his second year in the league, he has lost just nine of his 236 one on ones.

Such dominance makes Wirfs' presence integral to the Bucs' hopes of retaining the Lombardi Trophy, and the importance of the man second at his position has rarely been in doubt.

The Cowboys' offensive line was a shambles in 2020 without Tyron Smith, as well as several other missing parts, and he has reaffirmed his value in 2021, losing only nine of 159 matchups for an adjusted win rate of 94.24.

Behind him, Trent Williams (89.91) has been mentioned as an offensive lineman who would be worthy of consideration in a pretty open race for Offensive Player of the Year due to his continued success in pass protection and the monstrous athleticism he demonstrates in blocking for the 49ers' ultra-versatile run game. 

Having traded back with Tampa Bay to allow the Bucs to select Wirfs in the same draft in which they traded with Washington to acquire Williams, there may be some regret in the Niners' front office about that first deal. Hindsight is 20-20, yet with their current issues on the right side of the O-Line, it is hard not to think about just how impressive a front featuring both Wirfs and Williams could have been.

Interior excellence

Joel Bitonio doesn't quite meet the 100-matchup threshold, but an exception should be made in this instance given the exceptional play he is again producing for the Cleveland Browns in providing interior pass protection.

The three-time Pro Bowl guard has lost nine of his 99 matchups, his stunt-adjusted win percentage an outstanding 92.13 per cent. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield may be banged up, but that is hardly the fault of a player who continues to set the standard for protection among interior offensive linemen.

Zack Martin has long since met that standard and the Cowboys' right guard is back to his best after an injury curtailed 2020, boasting an adjusted win rate of 88.78 and losing only 13 of his 100 one on ones.

With Martin and Smith playing at an All-Pro level again, it is no surprise Dak Prescott is enjoying a Comeback Player of the Year season.

Struggles on the offensive line have damaged Lamar Jackson's MVP hopes, but the Baltimore Ravens' star can have no complaints about the protection he has received from guard Kevin Zeitler.

While the play of those around him has declined, Zeitler remains the picture of consistency with an adjusted win percentage of 88.60. In a season where so much about the Ravens has been difficult to trust, Zeitler has offered a much-needed reliable presence in the middle.

Rising to the challenge

Not helped by Wirfs' efficient acclimation to life at the highest level, the rookie returns from 2020 fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas appeared disappointing.

But the Giants' left tackle's progression this season serves as further proof that development is not always linear and can vary greatly from player to player.

This season, he is performing at the standard the Giants anticipated when they made him the first offensive lineman off the board. He has lost 14 of 130 one on ones and boats an adjusted win percentage of 88.64.

New York's patience with Thomas is being rewarded but the Los Angeles Chargers haven't had to wait long for Rashawn Slater to justify his first-round status.

Slater has produced a season worthy of putting him in the mix to be the first lineman to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Whether his efforts in protecting Justin Herbert translate into actual votes remains to be seen, however, no lineman in the NFL has faced more one on ones than Slater's 257, and he has lost only 30 of them.

With a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 88.47, Slater has compiled an outstanding OROY resume, his case furthered by him doing so after a year away from the game in 2020.

Early-career success completely evaded Ereck Flowers, yet he looks to have found a home as the left guard for Washington.

The former Giant is in his second spell with Washington and is proving a pivotal part of a playoff push, coming off worst in just 17 of his 134 one on ones and posting an adjusted win rate of 87.59.

His success is enabling Taylor Heinicke to keep defying the odds at quarterback and put Washington in position for a Wild Card berth.

Slater has settled quickly while Flowers bounced around and took significant time to find his footing. But, at very different points of their careers, both could be rewarded for excellent campaigns with postseason football.

The Eastern Conference clash between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls on Saturday would have been a fascinating contest regardless, but as we are all learning to live with, matters have been complicated by COVID-19.

The Bulls have seen their options depleted, with several players entering the NBA's health and safety protocols in recent days, including star man DeMar DeRozan.

Coming off a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago will be determined to get back to winning ways in Miami, but it is unclear at this stage who will even be taking to the court for Billy Donovan's team.

The Bulls (17-9) are second in the Eastern Conference as they travel to Florida to face the fourth-placed Heat (15-11), but have seen DeRozan, Derrick Jones Jr, Coby White, Matt Thomas and Javonte Green all sidelined by the health and safety protocols.

The Bulls' form has been one of the stories of the season in the NBA, with those who delighted in the Netflix documentary 'The Last Dance' dreaming of a first championship for Chicago since 1998.

Miami have been impressing as well, though. Having disappointingly followed up their run to the NBA Finals in 2019-20 with a first round playoff exit in a whitewash 0-4 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks last season, they appeared to be back to previous levels after winning six of their first seven games of this campaign.

That form has evened out in recent times, but with a home record of 7-4, including an impressive win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, the Heat will be confident of taking advantage of a depleted Bulls team, who they beat only a couple of weeks ago in Chicago.

One key area could well be how often the Bulls get into the paint, with Miami highest in the league for field goal percentage allowed in the paint (59.9), while Chicago have the second lowest (52.1).

Expect a strong start from Chicago, who boast the second most points per game from starters in the league (82.5) compared to Miami who have fifth fewest (68.2), although things may well turn as the Heat have the fifth-highest average points from the bench (39.1) while the Bulls have the second fewest (26.4).

DeRozan would undoubtedly be a huge miss for the Bulls. The 32-year-old has found life a breeze in the Windy City, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of his 24 appearances so far, sitting fourth in the league for average points per game (26.4).

Another possible absentee in the game is former Bull Jimmy Butler, who is 16th in the league for average points per game (22.8) but has missed the last few outings for the Heat with a tailbone injury, while Bam Adebayo will definitely be out after requiring thumb surgery.

Caleb Martin posted career-highs in points (28) and triples (six) as the Heat beat the Bucks 113-104, and along with Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Tyler Herro, will be hoping to go big again and take advantage of the shorthanded Bulls.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Chicago Bulls – Zach LaVine

If DeRozan is unable to play, the onus will fall on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball to carry the Bulls to victory in Miami, with LaVine in particular almost certainly required to post a big score.

That should not be too much of a problem for the top point scorer in the NBA right now (670) who has played all 26 games for the Bulls so far this season, only failing to score more than 20 points on three occasions.

The shooting guard is also third in the league for dunks on a fast break with 17, which could come in handy when up against one of the older rosters in the NBA. Miami has the third-oldest active roster (28 years and 291 days) compared to the tenth-youngest Chicago (25 years and 112 days).

Miami Heat – Tyler Herro

The man announced as the best dressed athlete at Sports Illustrated's SI Awards on Tuesday will be hoping to look as impressive on the court when the Bulls come to town.

Herro scored 20+ points in 12 of his first 17 games this season, but has managed it just twice in his last six outings, including only scoring nine in the win against the Bucks.

The 21-year-old in his third season is increasingly becoming the Heat's key player, averaging 20.8 points per game, the 23rd most in the league, and will hope to impress more than judges of his attire with a big showing on Saturday.

KEY BATTLE – Will Bulls be able to find their mid-range?

The topic of mid-range shots and their usefulness seems to divide basketball fans, but it is an area that the Bulls in particular like to utilise as the team with the third-highest field-goal percentage from mid-range this season (45.1), behind only the Brooklyn Nets (49.0) and Portland Trail Blazers (46.7).

However, the Heat tops the table for lowest percentage of field-goals allowed from mid-range (34.7).

With DeRozan – who has the most field-goals made from the elbow this season (79) – likely to be missing, it could be that Chicago has to adjust their method of attack in Miami.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Heat prevailed 107-104 when these two met in November, and have won five of the last six meetings between the teams.

There was nothing especially surprising about Vinicius Junior's performance against Borussia Monchengladbach in last season's 2-2 Champions League draw in Germany.

The Brazilian played as he usually did, with wastefulness interspersed by occasional flashes of flair and trickery.

And there's every reason to suggest that's what you should expect from a teenager still finding his footing. Even the most talented superstars struggle with consistency during their formative years.

Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo. When he first joined Manchester United, he was even more of a showboater who frustrated and entertained in equal measure – a few years later, he was probably the best striker on the planet.

Development is a process, everyone knows that, but it doesn't mean everyone is understanding or patient – even a player's team-mates can get the hump.

Karim Benzema certainly appeared to fit that description at the halfway mark of the game at Gladbach last year.

The target

In the tunnel, Benzema was caught on camera talking to some of his team-mates, allegedly criticising Vinicius in French. He was claimed to have told Ferland Mendy not to pass to the Brazilian, convinced he was "playing against us", according to widely reported translations.

The clip was subsequently shared all over social media, causing a fair bit of embarrassment for Madrid and Benzema. It was pretty humiliating for Vinicius as well.

Vinicius downplayed the situation the following month but it was too late to eradicate the belief held by many, that Madrid's changing room was increasingly divided.

Benzema's half-time comments came after playing just three passes to Vinicius in the first 45 minutes, a period in which the Flamengo youth product could do little right.

There were misplaced short passes, an overhit cross, a ball played behind Luka Modric as the Croatian looked to burst into the box in threatening fashion.

Over the course of the full game (well, the 70 minutes Vinicius played), he failed to get any of his three shots on target, including one woeful slice from a cut-back to the middle of the area, and his 71.4 per cent pass success was the poorest of any Madrid starter.

Of course, players who operate in attacking areas of the pitch do tend to complete fewer passes in general, but Alassane Plea (85.2 per cent), Benzema (87.5) and Marcus Thuram (92.6) were all working in similar positions and were far less wasteful in possession.

In the second half, Benzema didn't pass to him once.

The bond

Following that Champions League encounter, the on-pitch relationship between Benzema and Vinicius proved to be a regular source of debate – while the Frenchman enjoyed a fine individual campaign, his team-mate was still not at the same level of importance to Madrid, as highlighted by his modest 22 LaLiga starts.

But their apparent lack of cohesion on the pitch was by no means one-sided. In fact, during matches both started over the course of the 2020-21 LaLiga season, Benzema actually played slightly more passes to Vinicius (3.3 per match) than he received (3.25 per match).

Their combinations this season accentuate the previous disconnect even more. In the 13 league games both have started, Vinicius has averaged 5.9 passes to Benzema, while the latter has sought out the youngster 4.9 times each match.

They have already combined for 16 chances created in the league this term, just one shy of their total for 2020-21, and that's translated to more goal combinations as well – in all competitions, Benzema and Vinicius have set each other up for seven goals.

Before that October night in Monchengladbach a little over 13 months ago, Benzema and Vinicius had only ever linked up for a goal three times (all competitions) and none of those had been since February 2019.

While it might be a bit of a stretch to suggest Benzema's criticism spurred Vinicius on, they've undoubtedly moved past any lingering awkwardness to form a genuine understanding.

The arrival

Ahead of Sunday's derby with Atletico Madrid, no attacking duo in the top five leagues can better Benzema and Vinicius' collective haul of 22 top-flight goals, while no other club has two players already on double figures.

Of course, there remains the possibility Benzema can't play after sustaining a muscular injury against Real Sociedad last weekend. He had to sit out the 2-0 Champions League win over Inter and is reportedly set to undergo final tests on Friday.

Carlo Ancelotti had been optimistic after the defeat of Inter, so he's certainly not a lost cause. But being without their talisman for such an occasion would really throw a gauntlet down to Vinicius to prove he can handle being the main man – after all, that's presumably the status Madrid chiefs see him taking over the next 10 years or so.

Yet the very fact Vinicius is even being considered as a key player speaks volumes for his progression in a fairly short period of time.

If we go back to that aforementioned awkwardness in Monchengladbach, Vinicius' effectiveness did appear to dip afterwards. Whether that's down to his confidence being rocked by Benzema's criticism is impossible to prove, but the numbers show there was a drop-off.

In his 76 Madrid games prior to that match, Vinicius averaged 3.4 shots, 0.27 goals, 2.0 chances created and 0.2 expected assists on a per-90-minute basis. Across the 42 matches that followed until the end of 2020-21, his productivity decreased significantly in all of those areas.

But Ancelotti's arrival has seen him really kick on. For a while it looked as though Vinicius' days at Madrid were numbered, now he could be a mainstay at the club for years.

Above all, Vinicius appears to have matured massively when it comes to his decision-making. His shooting frequency hasn't recovered all the way (2.9 per 90 minutes), but he's getting 1.5 of those on target, giving him a shooting accuracy of better than 50 per cent – he didn't manage that before or after Benzema's comments.

Similarly, his expected goals has increased slightly to 0.44 every 90 minutes and his average of 0.6 goals is more than double what it had been before Monchengladbach, highlighting not only better shot selection but also greater composure in more difficult situations.

He has enjoyed improvement in terms of chance creation (2.3 per 90 minutes) and xA (0.25) as well. Overall, it feels like Vinicius has finally arrived – but what's changed?

Besides him just getting a bit older and more experienced, it would seem Ancelotti simply has greater trust in him than Zinedine Zidane did, hence why all of Vinicius' 18 most recent appearances have been as a starter.

This time last year, the thought of Benzema missing the derby and having to rely on Vinicius to step up would've filled many Madrid fans with dread. How things change.

When Steven Gerrard was appointed Aston Villa boss at the start of November, there was one fixture fans, pundits and, possibly even Gerrard himself, will have immediately looked for.

Villa visit Liverpool on Saturday, as Gerrard makes his first managerial return to the club where he became a legend.

Gerrard won the Champions League, two FA Cups, three EFL Cups, the UEFA Cup and a European Super Cup across his Liverpool career. The Premier League title, of course, evaded him. His tally of 710 games in all competitions is the third-most in the club's history.

A first league title of his career did arrive last season, as manager of Rangers, who ended Celtic's quest for a 10th successive Scottish Premiership title.

Now, Gerrard heads back to his former stomping ground on the back of an impressive start with Villa. He has won three of his four matches in charge, losing only to Liverpool's title rivals Manchester City.

But history is not on Gerrard's side when it comes to former Liverpool greats going up against their former side at Anfield.

Ex-players managing against the Reds at Anfield in the Premier League have lost 14 of their last 16 visits (W1 D1), with the last win coming in 2003. Will Gerrard be able to buck that trend?

 

Return of the king(s)

Stats Perform has dived into Opta's archival data to assess how three great Liverpool players coped in their respective returns to Anfield as managers of opposition teams – Graeme Souness, Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish. 

Those three club legends visited Anfield on 18 occasions in the Premier League, across a span of 16 years from 1992 to 2008. Between them, the trio managed just three wins.

Souness did not claim any victories from six trips back, across spells with Southampton, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers. Indeed, five defeats and one draw (one point from a possible 18) makes his record the poorest of the three. His worst result was a 4-0 defeat with Blackburn in 2004.

Keegan also lost on five occasions at Anfield in the Premier League, but did claim two wins as well, guiding Newcastle to a 2-0 success in 1993-94 and earning a 2-1 triumph with Manchester City in May 2003.

However, Keegan's most memorable return to his former club was a defeat. In April 1996, with Newcastle fighting Alex Ferguson's Manchester United for the title, they went down 4-3 in a Premier League classic.

Stan Collymore scored a famous stoppage-time winner to deal an ultimately fatal blow to Newcastle's title challenge – the Magpies having squandered the 10-point lead they held at Christmas.

 

Just under a year before, in May 1995, 'King' Kenny Dalglish took his Blackburn side to Anfield needing a win to guarantee the Premier League crown. They were also going up against United in the title tussle.

Liverpool had little to play for. They were already sure of a European place and a victory would mean United could win the title by beating West Ham.

"The only thing in our minds that afternoon, though, was winning the game," ex-Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp told the Reds' website. "We're professionals and we want to win every game we play."

Liverpool did indeed inflict a 2-1 defeat on their former player-manager, who won three First Division titles in his first spell at the club, with Redknapp scoring a stunning winner. 

"It was one of the strangest moments of my life on a football field," Redknapp said. Fortunately for Dalglish, Blackburn and Liverpool's fans, the Reds' win did not hand United the title, with Ferguson's team only able to draw with the Hammers.

That loss was one of four Dalglish suffered at Anfield as an opposition manager. He claimed one win, in 1993.

Remarkably, Dalglish took Newcastle to Anfield in the 1996-97 season and, just under a year on from Keegan's famous defeat on Merseyside, the Magpies again lost 4-3. Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Patrik Berger got the goals for Liverpool.

The new kid on the block

Gerrard will have to ignore the history books heading into this one, but he should not head to Anfield with in fear.

Villa have made an impressive start under their new manager. Across their four league games under Gerrard, they have scored 7 goals, with only four teams (Liverpool, Manchester City, Watford and Chelsea) netting more in that time.

They may have only created 34 chances, ranking them 12th in the league, but their nine opportunities crafted from set-pieces during Gerrard's first few weeks puts them second in the competition behind Watford (12).

 

That average of 2.25 chances from set-pieces per game under Gerrard is an improvement on the 1.6 each match across Dean Smith's his 10 Premier League games in charge this term, while the new-look Villa have also managed seven shots from set-piece situations already, the joint-most in the league.

Villa's defending has also improved. Whereas the Villans' defence was the third-poorest in the competition throughout the opening 10 top-flight matches (19 conceded), Gerrard's side have only let in four goals.

While Liverpool are in excellent form – even if they did only snatch a 1-0 win in the dying embers against Wolves – Gerrard can return with confidence.

And given he is often cited as a Liverpool manager in the making, this could be the first of several auditions for the Anfield hot seat.

Premier League games are coming thick and fast, with European competition now on hiatus until the New Year.

The next few weeks provide fantasy football managers with a great opportunity to quickly rack up the points, but smart selections will be more important than at any other point of the season as rotation takes place amid the congested schedule.

In our latest batch of picks, Manchester City and Chelsea are particularly well represented, while a Manchester United talent will be hoping to kick-start his campaign.

Squeezing all of these into your team might be a little costly, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest they will reward you handsomely.

EDERSON (Manchester City v Wolves)

Brazil international Ederson is usually a pretty safe bet between the posts in fantasy football – you could argue this weekend makes him an even more interesting option.

For starters, no one has more than his 26 Premier League clean sheets since the start of last season, and then there's the form of visitors Wolves.

Bruno Lage's men have scored just once in their past five league games, the fewest in the division. Is that clean sheet number 27 incoming?

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Wolves)

For the reasons mentioned above and also the fact Wolves' 12 Premier League goals this term are the second-fewest after Norwich City, you might be inclined to get as many City defenders in your team as possible.

If that is your tactic, Joao Cancelo should be your first pick given he also offers a threat going forward. Granted, he's not scored yet this season, but the statistics would suggest it's only a matter of time.

Based on the quality of chances that have gone his way, Cancelo's 1.88 expected goals (xG) is the third-highest among players not to score in 2021-22 – he's also had the most shots (33) of all the goalless players. Surely his luck will turn soon?

REECE JAMES (Chelsea v Leeds United)

If we're honest, you should probably have Reece James in your team already given how good he's been this season – but if you've not got him, consider this your final warning.

The England international is thriving in Thomas Tuchel's wing-back-friendly system, boasting comfortably the most goal involvements per 90 minutes (0.98) among Premier League defenders. Ben Chilwell is second with 0.67.

He's creating 2.47 chances per 90 minutes, a figure only bettered by Kostas Tsimikas and Trent Alexander-Arnold, while he's level with Chilwell for the most touches in the opposition's penalty area (4.33).

MARCUS RASHFORD (Norwich City v Manchester United)

It's been a slow start to the season for Marcus Rashford, who missed the first few weeks due to injury and has subsequently struggled to build up sharpness.

But if there's any opposition he'd back himself to impress against, Norwich would be the one.

In 149 minutes played against the Canaries, Rashford has four goal involvements (three scored, one assisted) – that works out at one every 37 minutes.

Only against Sunderland, whom he's played only 26 minutes against, does Rashford have a better record.

MASON MOUNT (Chelsea v Leeds United)

A curious quirk of Tuchel's time at Chelsea has been the lack of goals scored by recognised strikers, but that's translated into a healthy spread across the squad.

Mason Mount is Chelsea's top scorer in the league since Tuchel took charge, his nine efforts three more than anyone else. Similarly, his six assists also represent a club-high.

Mount's recent purple patch has undoubtedly played a role in that, with the England international both scoring and assisting in three of his past four top-flight starts.

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Wolves)

He may not have been expecting to play such a regular role for City this term, but Gabriel Jesus has been quietly effective out on the right flank.

Jesus will be keen to build on his fine record in clashes with Wolves, too, having scored in all of his three previous league starts against the Molineux club.

That equates to a total of five goals – only against Everton (eight) has Jesus scored more, although he's played 256 more minutes in meetings with the Toffees.

JOSHUA KING (Brentford v Watford)

If Watford are going to avoid the drop, Joshua King will have to play an important role. He's certainly shown signs of his quality this season, such as his hat-trick at former club Everton back in October.

That's contributed to him registering nine goal involvements in his past nine away starts in the Premier League.

Granted, that run does stretch back to 2020 and his time with Bournemouth, so it only counts for so much, but at the very least it suggests he can be an effective option when Watford's backs are against the wall.

Barcelona tackle Bayern Munich on Wednesday in a crucial Champions League game, knowing they probably have to win in the Allianz Arena to qualify for the knockout stages.

The Germans are already safely through as winners of Group E, but Barca will crash out at the group stage if they fail to win and Benfica beat Dynamo Kiev in Portugal.

One player who made a notable cameo when Barca and Bayern played one another in the quarter-finals of the Champions League two seasons ago was Philippe Coutinho, whose star has fallen so far since a record move to the Camp Nou in 2018 that he may not even feature in the vital clash.

Stats Perform has taken a look at what happened to the £142million man.


Get back... injuries

It was the day before the start of the 2017-18 season, and Liverpool's campaign already felt like it had been thrown into chaos.

Jurgen Klopp was getting ready for a trip to Watford when news broke that his star man Philippe Coutinho had handed in a transfer request, supposedly after the Reds had rejected a £90million bid from Barcelona.

Liverpool ended up drawing 3-3 at Vicarage Road with new man Mohamed Salah scoring his first goal for the club in a game in which Coutinho did not feature, insisting that he had a sore back.

The Brazilian was ultimately forced to stay until the January transfer window when he eventually sealed his dream move to the Camp Nou for a deal that, with add-ons, would amount to around £142million, a record for the Catalan club.

To his credit, Coutinho got his head down after the disappointment of being denied a move in the summer of 2017, playing 20 more games for Liverpool in the first half of the campaign, scoring 12 goals and registering eight assists.

His numbers were up there with the rest of what remains to this day Liverpool's main front three of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, but back then he was part of what was briefly known as 'The Fab Four'. His minutes-per-goal record (one every 125.67 minutes) was second only to Salah (94.68) among those with one than one appearance, while he created more chances than anyone else (56).

He did miss a few more games closer to the January transfer window through more apparent back issues, but scored one final screamer at Anfield against Swansea City in his last game for the club, coincidentally the same team he had scored his first Reds goal against in February 2013 after arriving from Inter Milan for just £8.5million.

In his five years on Merseyside, Coutinho won the hearts of the Kop with his skill, his effort and increasingly, his end product, bagging 54 goals and 43 assists in 201 games for the club.

However, it seemed his heart lay elsewhere, finally securing a move to Barcelona in January 2018.

Philippe Cout-Iniesta?

There was pressure on his shoulders immediately, arriving just a few months after the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, with much of the money Barca received being spent on prising Coutinho from Anfield.

There was also talk that he was ultimately being tasked with replacing Andres Iniesta, who was to leave Barca at the end of the 2017-18 season, with taking over from such a club legend a formidable task for anyone.

Coutinho did not start too badly in his first five months, scoring 10, assisting six and creating 33 chances in 22 appearances as Barca lifted the Spanish title and Copa del Rey.

However, his first full season did not quite go according to plan, with Coutinho managing 11 goals and five assists in 54 appearances, actually scoring fewer than he had done in his final half-season at Liverpool. He created 59 chances, compared (admittedly cruelly) to the great Lionel Messi's 141 in fewer games across that 2018-19 campaign.

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde did not seem to know what he wanted from Coutinho, sometimes playing him in Iniesta's old position in midfield, sometimes playing him in Neymar's old position out wide on the left. Coutinho was criticised by some for appearing to not be suited to either, despite the fact he fulfilled both well enough in the Premier League.

To rub salt in the wounds, Coutinho would return to Anfield that season as part of a Barca side that capitulated in the Champions League semi-final, throwing away their 3-0 advantage from the first leg to crash out of the competition, with the Brazilian's old Liverpool team-mates going on to lift the trophy in Madrid a few weeks later.

Bavarian adventure

Despite progress not running smoothly for Coutinho, it was still a surprise for many to see Barca agree to loan him to Bayern Munich the following season. Antoine Griezmann had been signed from Atletico Madrid, which would have limited Coutinho's Camp Nou game time, so the hope was either that he would rediscover peak form in Germany, or at least do well enough that Barca could make some of their money back with a future transfer.

He showed marginally more of his former self, scoring 11 and assisting nine in 38 appearances, albeit only 22 games from the start, while creating 50 chances, and 11 big chances. But it was difficult to stand out much in a team that included Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski.

Never one to miss out on ironic Champions League moments, Coutinho came off the bench to score the final two goals of an 8-2 thrashing of his parent club in the quarter-finals.

He ended that season with a Champions League winner's medal, as well as winning the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal in an impressive treble, but Bayern decided against signing Coutinho permanently.

One last shot

Under Ronald Koeman, Coutinho was determined to finally make a success of his career back at Barcelona, and showed glimpses in the 14 games he managed in the 2020-21 season before injury struck as he suffered a torn meniscus, ending his campaign before the new year.

It seemed one of the transfer market's worst kept secrets that Barca were open to selling Coutinho at the end of that season, among several other players, as financial woes mounted at the club, but there were understandably no takers given his form and injury issues.

Both parties were left with no choice but to try again this season, and while he has been given chances, they have been sporadic, with just five starts and nine substitute appearances so far, registering two goals. Coutinho has yet to provide an assist, and he has only created two chances.

Xavi is now in the hot seat at the Camp Nou, pledging to return a struggling team to the "Barca way", and he opened the door for Coutinho to perhaps have one last shot of establishing himself.

"Coutinho is someone who can play in various positions, and he can be important for the team," Xavi told reporters ahead of his first match in charge against Espanyol.

"He needs to re-find himself and recover his confidence. If he does, he will help us a lot. He has an innate talent. It depends on him. He will get chances because he's a player I like personally. It's more psychological than anything because he has talent."

Anyone who watched Coutinho regularly at Liverpool will know there is a world-class player in there somewhere. Klopp was able to get a tremendous tune out of him despite not necessarily playing in a style that suits him, and with the player not even wanting to be there in the last few months.

Xavi is right, though. When Coutinho is given opportunities, it will depend on him.

He will just be hoping those opportunities don't come in the Europa League.

Manchester United's Champions League campaign has been one of the finest of margins, to say the least.

A shock defeat at Wednesday's opponents Young Boys on matchday one was a dreadful start, and at numerous occasions in their following two matches they appeared to be in trouble again.

They needed late winners from Cristiano Ronaldo at home to both Villarreal and Atalanta, coming back from 2-0 down at half-time against the Italians.

Ronaldo then got a last-gasp equaliser away to Atalanta to salvage a 2-2 draw. Had he not delivered the goods on that occasion, United would have gone to Villarreal on matchday five knowing they could be eliminated there and then.

As it was, they ultimately left Spain with a 2-0 win thanks to a couple of goals in the final 12 minutes, with Michael Carrick – who had taken up a caretaker manager position after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's dismissal – ensuring United finished top of the group.

Ralf Rangnick will be United's third manager of the group stage when Young Boys visit, and he has the luxury of being able to rest certain players and give others a chance to impress.

So, who will be hoping for a rare opportunity?

Dean Henderson

It wasn't perfect, but Henderson's first season in the Man United first team last term was promising. David de Gea suffered a knee injury that allowed the academy product his first serious run in the side after previously impressing on loan at Sheffield United.

He featured 26 times for the Red Devils across all competitions, keeping as many clean sheets (12) as De Gea despite playing 10 matches fewer.

De Gea prevented fractionally more goals over the season (1.9 to 1.6), according to Opta's expected goals on target (xGOT) data, although Henderson boasted a better save percentage (75.8 to 66.4).

This season, due to injury and illness – and De Gea's improved form – Henderson has only managed a single appearance.

With rumours linking him with a loan move to Ajax in January, it's certainly a good time to start getting minutes again, whether that's to improve his standing at United or put himself in the shop window.

Donny Van de Beek

As with Henderson, Rangnick confirmed Van de Beek will start on Wednesday, which will make it five appearances since Solskjaer was sacked; up until that point, the former Ajax midfielder had played in just six games all season.

It's been well publicised how Van de Beek's career seemingly stalled after joining United, making only four Premier League starts in 2020-21, despite costing just over £40million, and falling out of favour at international level.

Solskjaer appeared unsure how best to utilise Van de Beek's talents, but at the very least he looks set for a few more opportunities under Rangnick.

He's one of several who have been linked with a move away from Old Trafford, but an eye-catching display against Young Boys might just provide Rangnick with proof Van de Beek can be a valuable option in midfield.

Jesse Lingard

Everything was looking promising for Lingard at the start of the season. He'd returned from a remarkable loan spell at West Ham and Solskjaer was talking a good game about how much football the attacking midfielder was going to get.

Fast forward to the present day... Lingard has racked up just 87 minutes in the Premier League, with those coming across eight brief substitute appearances.

This has hardly been ideal given United apparently rejected bids of around £25m for Lingard in pre-season because Solskjaer wanted him for the first team; additionally, the England man's contract expires at the end of the season, so if they cannot convince him that he'll be playing, the club looks certain to lose a valuable asset for free.

Last season reminded everyone Lingard is not lacking talent. Between his Hammers debut in February and the end of 2020-21, the 28-year-old scored nine times in the Premier League, a haul bettered by just five players.

Only one of those was a penalty, leaving him with a non-penalty expected goals (xG) outperformance of 4.7, the second-best record in that time. Of course, such form isn't necessarily sustainable, but it speaks to how effective Lingard can be when he has the belief of his manager.

Rangnick would do well to recognise that.

Amad Diallo

It's been a difficult season for Ivory Coast winger Amad. He was about to go on loan at the start of the season before an injury robbed him of that opportunity.

He returned to the pitch for United's Under-23s at the end of October and has played two games for them, netting a couple of goals against Leeds United.

United are well-stocked in the wide positions, which provides another obstacle, but Amad has been on the bench twice in the past few weeks under Carrick – against Villarreal and Arsenal.

One would expect United to arrange another loan move for Amad in January, but before then he may just represent something of a wildcard option for the new manager.

Teden Mengi

Centre-back Mengi has been highly rated at United for a while and even spent the second half of last season on loan at Derby County.

It seemed likely he'd return to Pride Park for 2021-22, but a deal was apparently scuppered by Derby's financial woes, with Mengi instead staying with United's Under-23s.

Mengi spent the pre-season with the first team and featured for Solskjaer's side, although that did not translate to any minutes in competitive action.

But with Raphael Varane not ready to return from injury and Phil Jones not registered in the Champions League, United's senior options at centre-back are limited to just Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly.

If Rangnick does want wholesale changes, which has been suggested, Mengi may be a surprise starter – and what an opportunity it would represent for the 19-year-old.

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