A dire defeat against Liverpool proved to be fatal for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United in 2018, but an even more humiliating loss to the Reds didn't – somehow – spell the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he continues to cling on.

That's not to say it was a comfortable week for Solskjaer after that 5-0 annihilation at Old Trafford – if you believe the speculation, he probably wouldn't have been in charge for Saturday's trip to Tottenham were it not for Alex Ferguson coming into bat for his former player in the boardroom.

Solskjaer was afforded time, how much we can't be sure, but it was enough to at least prevent United suffering three successive league defeats for the first time since December 1961, with the Red Devils so effective and clinical in a 3-0 victory that subsequently heaped the pressure on opposite number Nuno Espirito Santo.

Perhaps we should've seen it coming? "Lads, it's Tottenham."

There were a couple of major surprises when Solskjaer's team was announced: firstly, that he was making just two alterations to the side that was humiliated last weekend, and secondly, they were switching to a back three.

While United have played such a system numerous times under Solskjaer before, it's difficult to say that setup has been consistently effective for them, with results ranging from 2-0 wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, to 3-1 and 3-2 defeats to the Blues and RB Leipzig.

But it allowed United to address a couple of key issues from the Liverpool defeat – their defensive frailty and a lack of pressing from the frontline.

After all, precious few of United's pressures against Liverpool came in the opposing half. Edinson Cavani's presence alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at least alleviated that to a certain degree, and it might have paid off early on when the Uruguayan managed to get a tackle in on the dawdling Japhet Tanganga, only for Spurs to be let off the hook by a kind ricochet.

Nevertheless, United's start provided indications of how the opening 45 minutes was going to play out for them, with wing-backs Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushing high to good effect and the midfield trio taking it in turns to support Cavani and Ronaldo.

There was a sense that Solskjaer's decision to go with a back three was down to a lack of trust in his team off the ball, which would have been fair on the evidence of last week, but generally the switch worked well for United as Spurs struggled to impose themselves in the first half.

While they managed seven shots and had a goal disallowed for offside, none of those efforts were on target, with Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane – absent last week – working well in tandem.

That extra protection at the back allowed for the United midfield to be more aggressive as well, both on and off the ball. Between them, Scott McTominay and Fred combined for seven tackle attempts in the first half, while both routinely helped on the attack – the Scotland international making the run and pass for Ronaldo's own disallowed strike, as an example.

Of course, having a finisher of the standard of Ronaldo in attack is always a bonus and his wonderful volley proved that point perfectly, as he lashed into the far corner from a tight angle as he latched on to Bruno Fernandes' lobbed pass in the 39th minute.

That goal meant Nuno's men had to become a greater threat after the break, and to their credit, Spurs' possession had increased to 59.6 per cent for the second half up to the 70th minute, but United's back three continued to provide a solid foundation – in the same time period, the hosts had just one shot.

The standing of the match was undoubtedly playing even further into United's hands – if there's any feature of their play that has been consistently good under Solskjaer, it's their counter-attacking, and they finished Spurs off just past the hour in a not too dissimilar manner.

Fernandes was the one to rob Oliver Skipp just inside the United half before darting forward and feeding Ronaldo. His clever flick opened up space and the Portugal talisman sliced open the Spurs defence for Cavani expertly make it 2-0.

The average age of United's starting XI (28 years, 325 days) was the oldest Solskjaer has named in the Premier League, and here were his two most experienced players doing the business when he needed them most.

Solskjaer got the players, system and substitutes – spoiler alert – right, with Marcus Rashford wrapping things up on the break towards the end shortly after his introduction.

Of course, it's worth saying that Spurs were always likely to be a potentially kind opponent for a United side desperate for a response. Prior to the weekend, Nuno's side had the second fewest shots (94) and joint-third poorest xG record (9.2) in the Premier League this season.

In the end, everything played into United's hands and Solskjaer got the response he needed – but with a trip to Atalanta and a Manchester derby coming up, the pressure is by no means off.

Even in the wake of their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2021 NFL season viewed by many as favourites to get back to the grandest stage and regain the Lombardi Trophy.

A banged-up offensive line that was dramatically overmatched against the Buccaneers' defensive front in their chastening February defeat in Tampa had been seemingly fixed by what looked an astute investment in both youth and experience in the trenches. Kansas City appeared poised to reassert themselves as a dominant power.

Yet the issue with using your resources primarily on one area is that other concerns can be swept under the rug, only to rear their head when attention turns back to competitive action.

That has proven the case for the Chiefs, who at 3-4 look anything but Super Bowl contenders, with a disappointing pass rush and the consistently poor play of an extremely vulnerable secondary resulting in a defensive performance that has seen them give up a league-high 6.57 yards per play.

Their defensive struggles have come combined with turnover problems for Patrick Mahomes and Co, meaning the Chiefs are some way short of the team that reached three successive AFC Championship Games.

Indeed, Kansas City entered Week 8 ranked 27th in Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected (EVE) model, which looks at down, distance, yards from goal, quarter, time remaining, and score difference and uses those six factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation. From there, the projected yards are compared to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

With the Chiefs performing at the level of a bottom-half team and arguably facing a make-or-break game against the New York Giants on Monday to even stay in the mix, who are the lead contenders for the Super Bowl? Stats Perform looked at the EVE rankings to identify the two AFC and NFC favourites.

AFC

1. Buffalo Bills

The Bills entered Week 8 ranked second by overall EVE, their drop from the top spot a result of them having a bye in Week 7.

At 4-2, the Bills have work to do to secure the top seed in the conference, but they have a compelling case for being the most complete team in the AFC.

Eighth in yards over expected on offensive plays, their average of 0.593 yards over the projected was bettered by only three AFC teams ahead of Week 8.

Meanwhile, on defense, the Bills are allowing 0.788 yards under expected, which put them second in the league behind the New Orleans Saints prior to Thursday Night Football.

Their ranking and their performances have served as a reflection of quarterback Josh Allen's ability to prove his gargantuan year-three leap was no fluke and the significant strides made by the defense through six games.

Six of the Bills' final 11 games are against teams ranked in the bottom half of the league via EVE, giving them a clear opportunity to recover from early slip-ups against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans and establish themselves as the cream of the AFC crop.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

However, the gold standard of the AFC and - according to EVE - of the league as a whole are the Cincinnati Bengals.

That is not a sentence many will have expected to read after Cincinnati's first seven games but, in a tightly packed conference, they are worthy of consideration as genuine contenders to go all the way.

Their position atop the league by EVE is built on an offense that is fifth overall with a yards-over-expected average of 0.699, the best in the AFC, and a defense ascending earlier than anticipated.

The Bengals are third in the NFL in yards allowed under expected, though they figure to be sternly tested on both sides of the ball down the stretch.

Indeed, the Bengals have two games against a Browns team ranked third overall as well as meetings with another top-10 team in the Las Vegas Raiders and a 2-4 San Francisco 49ers team whose ranking of 13th is not reflected by their record.

A rematch with the Baltimore Ravens and an offense that entered the week seventh in yards over expected looms in Week 16 and that slightly more difficult road compared to the Bills makes it tough to install the Bengals as AFC favourites.

There can ill-afford to be any let-up from Joe Burrow - fifth among quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 82.4 - and dominant rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase if the Bengals are to emerge as a legitimate threat to win it all, but their Week 7 win thrashing of the Ravens suggests they will be undaunted by the challenge.

NFC

1. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams' bet that Matthew Stafford's arrival would take them to the next level is proving a successful one to this point, with Los Angeles 6-1 and looking every bit a team ready to make a concerted push to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Sean McVay's team went into Week 8 fourth in EVE and as the class of the NFC, despite their heavy home defeat to the Arizona Cardinals back in Week 4.

After the malaise of Jared Goff's final year as quarterback, Stafford has elevated the offense to one that trailed only the Dallas Cowboys in yards over expected with an average of 0.965 pre Week 8.

That lift has been crucial in a year where the defense has, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken something of a downturn following offseason losses in the secondary and the departure of coordinator Brandon Staley.

Yet the Rams remain a top-half team on that side of the ball (11th in yards allowed under expected) and face a schedule that sees them take on just two top-10 teams by EVE the rest of the way.

They do have two games with a 49ers team the Rams have not beaten since 2018 but, analysing what they have produced so far and the tests to come for the Rams, it is difficult to envision an NFC Championship Game in which they do not feature.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Cardinals are the second-highest ranked NFC team after the Rams by EVE, occupying fifth spot overall prior to their defeat to the Green Bay Packers on Thursday.

Despite their 7-1 record, it is tough to make a case for the Cardinals over the defending champion Buccaneers, who approached Week 8 only just behind Arizona in sixth and have the benefit of an easier run-in.

In addition to facing those strange but potentially dangerous – if they ever put it together – 49ers in Week 9, the Cardinals must face the Rams again and have a meeting with a Cowboys team whose league-leading offensive effort had them ninth in EVE following the last slate of games.

While the Buccaneers have the significant challenge of facing the Bills in Week 14, a New Orleans Saints team 24th in offensive yards over expected are the only other remaining opponent on Tampa Bay's schedule in the EVE top 10.

The Bucs are 20 places higher than New Orleans on that side of the ball, with Tom Brady in the MVP conversation having thrown a league-leading 21 touchdowns through seven games.

Trust in the 44-year-old Brady and this Bucs offense continues to grow. By contrast, there are likely to be plenty of questions about the Cardinals after they fell short against a Packers team missing their three top wide receivers on Thursday.

The Rams and the Bucs are the best the NFC has to offer at this stage and, come the end of Week 8, the EVE rankings will likely reflect that.

When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid in 2019, it's fair to say there were plenty who doubted it would be a happy marriage.

Atletico shelled out €126million on the Portuguese talent who had taken the Primeira Liga by storm in his first season, scoring 15 times despite not even being in the Benfica first team when the campaign had begun.

But how was this technical virtuoso going to fit into an Atletico side characterised by its work rate? How would he adapt to the demanding principles implemented by Diego Simeone?

Maverick talents known more for their technical attributes than anything else had often been seen as Simeone's blind spot, hence some trepidation about whether he was the right man to nurture Joao Felix.

The Portugal international's Atletico career has been a slow-burner, but once again there are signs he is beginning to find himself.

Stuck in limbo

Joao Felix had to miss the start of this season through injury, which was obviously not ideal, particularly given how 2020-21 ultimately turned out for him after a promising start.

For a period last season, there were real signs that he was finding his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisaged, his role in the first half of 2020-21 – being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left – saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Lionel Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-the-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But he didn't manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

A potential explanation for Joao Felix's disappointing form overall for Atletico was the lack of creativity in central areas behind him. While some might suggest Marcos Llorente's 11 assists in 2020-21 disproves that idea, the former Real Madrid man over-performed his expected assists (xA) by 5.6 – a figure unmatched across LaLiga, suggesting such productivity was not sustainable – while he also did a lot of his best work towards the right.

There had undoubtedly been a major difference between how Joao Felix was used during his first two seasons at Atletico compared to his time with Benfica, where he was seen as more of a genuine striker.

He averaged 2.5 shots per game in 2018-19 with Benfica, and although there wasn't a massive drop-off in his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano (2.4), his expected goals per shot slumped from 0.15 to 0.12. While that may not sound like a lot, it shows a clear indication that the quality of his chances decreased and therefore suggests his similar shot frequency was a result of poor decision-making.

 

His xG per shot improved back up to 0.14 last term, though he was averaging just 1.26 shots each game, half as frequent as at Benfica.

The fact his average number of touches in the box fell from 4.9 per appearance in 2018-19 to 2.7 the following season and then 2.0 last term further highlighted the different role he was adapting to and went some way to explaining why he was having fewer shots.

Certain transfer window additions – especially Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha – had some fans concerned for Joao Felix, given they were likely to be in direct competition with him for places.

Some felt his future was in a more deep-lying role as part of the central midfield trio, but recently he has excelled in a similar playmaking function but further up the pitch. Suddenly it has him looking like the Joao Felix we all knew was in there somewhere.

Rising to the challenge

Following an uncharacteristic recruitment drive for technical players in the most recent transfer window, a key buzzword around Atletico was 'balance'. Preserving balance in the team was going to be a major focus for Simeone as he looked to truly maximise what is arguably the most talented squad he's had as a coach.

At the moment, it appears to be working well, and Joao Felix seems to be nicely suited to the set-up that's being deployed.

Simeone is favouring the use of a front three that is spearheaded by Suarez, with Joao Felix to the left and Griezmann towards the right.

The roles of Joao Felix and Griezmann allow them a certain flexibility. They can go down the outside, but with the use of wing-backs there's not a necessity, therefore Atletico can really overload teams in the final third when the likes of Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco are overlapping out wide.

This appears to suit Joao Felix in particular, and he has thrived in an advanced playmaker role against Real Sociedad and Levante over the past week.

 

Now, it's worth noting that Joao Felix was at fault for La Real's first goal in last weekend's 2-2 draw, but he played a similarly important role in ensuring Atletico fought back, his neat and intricate play in possession a real asset.

He was involved in 41 open-play passing sequences in that match, second only to Koke among Atletico midfielders and forwards. Given it's a metric that tends to be dominated by defenders and central midfielders, Joao Felix's high involvement here speaks to his significant influence.

He was then involved in 44 such sequences against Levante – again, Koke was the only midfielder or forward to be more influential in Atletico's build-up play than Joao Felix.

But there has been more substance to his performances than just build-up involvement – he seems to be relishing the attacking responsibility he has, and there's a certain maturity to be gleaned from that.

For example, it would have been quite easy for Joao Felix to go back inside his shell after coughing up possession in the lead-up to La Real's first goal, but he continued to demand the ball and drive at the defence.

His 22 ball carries was four more than any other midfielder or forward in that game, and there was such positivity in his movement in possession – he progressed 137.5 metres upfield with the ball, at least 45.8m more than any other non-defender on the pitch.

 

These often brought him inside as well as down the wing, from where he caused numerous problems and even set up Suarez's first goal with a gorgeous cross.

Joao Felix's output was then almost identical against Levante, with his carry progress increasing to 140.6m upfield, which was again a match-high among non-defenders, while his 21 overall carries was second only to Koke's 27 in that same group of players.

There are undoubtedly those who will remain unconvinced given he has had only one goal involvement (that assist against La Real) in five league games this season, so why are these figures important?

Well, Joao Felix's prominence in Atletico's build-up shows the influence he's beginning to exert. That, coupled with the positive nature – and frequency – of his ball carries, suggests he's finally found his niche in this team. He's injecting direction and purpose to their attacks.

Obviously, in an ideal world he will manage to add plenty of goals and assists as well in the long run, but for the moment the important thing for Joao Felix is that he finds continuity and consistency.

He looked to have been on the right path this time last year before a complicated second half to 2020-21 – hopefully for his sake this isn't another false dawn.

Rejoice, Leicester City fans – it looks like you've turned a corner.

A run of two wins in nine games in all competitions had led to all sorts of head-scratching, not to mention a few worried mumblings about Brendan Rodgers and whether he might think fifth place, an FA Cup and a Community Shield was as much as he could realistically achieve at the King Power Stadium.

Things have looked a little less scary in the Hallowe'en season, though. That emphatic 4-2 win over Manchester United kick-started a run of four consecutive victories (well, three, plus a shoot-out defeat of Brighton and Hove Albion in the EFL Cup). OK, they conceded eight goals in those four games, but one thing at a time.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest concern for Leicester right now is the major positive of their season: the form of Youri Tielemans. The Belgium international is being linked with new clubs with every passing man-of-the-match display amid little obvious progress in talks to extend his contract, which expires at the end of next season.

Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are just some of the sides said to be interested in the midfielder, described by Rodgers as both "a really gifted young player" and "a really respectful guy".

It's tricky to back up the latter with numbers, so we'll take Rodgers' word on that. As for being a talented footballer, there can be little argument. Not only is Tielemans Leicester's stand-out performer, but he has also been arguably the finest midfielder in England in 2021-22.

Youri-n good company

Signed initially on loan from Monaco in January 2019, Tielemans has come to define the Rodgers era at Leicester as much as the manager himself. After all, he's only missed seven out of 126 matches in all competitions since the former Liverpool boss took charge of his first game, shortly after Tielemans had made the move from Monte Carlo.

Since his debut against Tottenham on February 10 two years ago, Tielemans has played more Premier League games (97) than any other midfielder. He is one of just three midfielders, along with Declan Rice and Matt Ritchie, to play in every minute of 2021-22, and his 65 consecutive appearances represent the longest active such streak in England's top flight (James Ward-Prowse's 102-game run came to an end on October 16).

Among Premier League midfielders, only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (780) has had more touches of the ball this season than Tielemans (707), while only the Tottenham man (626) and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson (565) have attempted more passes than Leicester's Mr Reliable (542).

Hand at the Tiel-ler

The most obvious – and visually striking – aspect of Tielemans' play is his long-range shooting. He has a real knack for kicking the ball into the opposition goal from a long way away, and at particularly important moments.

This year alone, there was the FA Cup final rocket against Chelsea, the thunderbolt in the 2-1 win at Brentford and that impudent curler against Manchester United (one that may or may not have been an attempted cross). Four of Tielemans' goals in 2021 have come from outside the box, which is a tally no Premier League player can surpass.

Still, Tielemans' midfield role at Leicester is hardly of the free-scoring Frank Lampard ilk. The best of his attacking output comes in creating openings for others. Since his Premier League debut, only Bruno Fernandes (127), Jack Grealish (166) and Kevin De Bruyne (190) have created more chances from open play than Tielemans (115). It's a figure that's helped Leicester to 171 league goals in his time at the club, a tally only bettered by Liverpool (210) and Manchester City (232).

Although Leicester's early-season form fell short, Tielemans seemed to embrace the burden of expectation. There are just four midfielders this term to create more chances from open play than him, and all of them tend to inhabit more advanced roles in their sides.

What's more, only Raphinha (24) and Fernandes (23) rank higher when it comes to the number of involvements in open-play sequences when their only action was to take a shot. Similarly, just Fernandes (22) has had more involvements than Tielemans (12) in sequences where their sole contribution was to create a chance.

Tielemans, then, has grown increasingly effective in the decisive moments of a period of possession, the kind where more advanced playmakers tend to thrive. But in Leicester's 3-4-1-2 system, where he sits at the heart of midfield, he is expected to contribute much more – and does.

As can be seen in his high touch and pass count, Tielemans is at the centre of Leicester's efforts in possession. Among Premier League midfielders this season, he has been involved in the most unique open-play sequences (458), defined as a passage of play that belongs to one team and is ended by defensive actions, stoppages in play or a shot. In such sequences to end in a shot, only West Ham's Said Benrahma (53) and that man Fernandes (68) have had more involvements than Tielemans (51).

This is balanced by his work without the ball. Of those five top-ranked players for open-play chances created in 2021-22, Tielemans has won by far the most tackles (11) and possession in the middle third of the pitch (33). He is a combative as well as creative force, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Leicester's defeat of United this month.

Bedevilled

Alongside the improving Boubakary Soumare, Tielemans was the best player on the pitch against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Red Devils. He had the most shots (four) and created the most chances (three) of any Leicester player and, level with Soumare, won possession the most for his side (seven times). Meanwhile, his 66 completed passes, 41 of which were in the United half, and 96 touches were the most of anyone in the game.

Simple offloads of the ball are to be expected from central midfielders, of course, but this was not an exercise in mere sideways passing. The variety of his distribution, the commitment to breaking lines and advancing play into the United half was clear. This was a performance worthy of capturing the interest of some of Europe's grandest clubs, as well as a bit of leeway when it comes to judging whether he meant that goal.

Tielemans has come to represent the best things about Rodgers' Leicester: talent, tenacity, and tactical acumen. He's a player who has won admiring glances from across the continent and one who faces a big decision in the months to come over his future.

For now, Leicester fans, he's yours to enjoy.

This weekend could perhaps spell the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United tenure, and opponents Tottenham have a player capable of causing real damage.

Elsewhere, the form of Manchester City's sort-of-striker Gabriel Jesus and Newcastle United's possibly-only-striker Callum Wilson make them worthy considerations for your fantasy teams for this weekend.

There is also a more surprising pick from Southampton who could offer some real value.

Below are Stats Perform's weekly suggestions for fantasy football players, powered by Opta data...

 

AARON RAMSDALE (Leicester City v Arsenal)

It was a signing that did more to raise supporter eyebrows than excitement levels, but Aaron Ramsdale is beginning to prove his worth for Arsenal.

Having grasped the number-one spot with two gloved hands, the former Sheffield United man boasts a save percentage of 80, having kept out 16 of 20 shots on target faced.

Given only Edouard Mendy can do better among goalkeepers to play more than 90 minutes this season, Ramsdale has surely earned a shot in your side.

TINO LIVRAMENTO (Watford v Southampton)

Trent Alexander-Arnold is the only defender to create more chances in the Premier League this season (12) than Southampton's Tino Livramento (10).

Something of a revelation on the south coast, he could become just the third 18-year-old this century to start the first 10 games of a Premier League season after Micah Richards (2006-07) and Phil Jones (2010-11).

Since Watford have won just one of their past 13 league games with Southampton, Livramento seems worth a punt.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Liverpool v Brighton and Hove Albion)

If you don't know by now that Trent Alexander-Arnold tends to get quite a lot of points for a defender, you've probably not been paying attention.

This season, the Liverpool star is ranked eighth in the Premier League for expected goal involvements (excluding penalties), while only Bruno Fernandes (34) has created more chances (25). And he's a right-back.

Alexander-Arnold might just be prime captain material for this weekend, particularly if you think the Reds can keep a clean sheet at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.

DEMARAI GRAY (Wolves v Everton)

It's not all going swimmingly for Rafael Benitez at Everton, but Demarai Gray is looking like a real bargain, having joined for around £1.7million from Bayer Leverkusen.

With three goals and two assists in nine games this season, he has already matched his best tally for direct goal involvements in a single Premier League campaign.

He also happened to score the last time he played against Wolves, for Leicester City in January 2019.

 

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Manchester United)

Of Son Heung-min's 17 Premier League goal involvements in 2021, 13 of them have come at home, a tally bettered only by Bruno Fernandes (15).

The Tottenham star has developed a knack for playing against Manchester United, too. After going eight games without a goal against the Red Devils, he scored three and set up another in their two meetings in 2020-21.

Could he be the man to spell the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

 

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Crystal Palace)

Gabriel Jesus has scored three and assisted six goals in his most recent nine league starts for Manchester City. His five assists in 2021-22 means he is already just two shy of the most he has ever managed in a single season.

Saturday's game with Crystal Palace will be a special occasion for City, as it will be Pep Guardiola's 200th Premier League game in charge (naturally, his 146 wins in his first 199 matches is a record).

It's hard to look beyond a comfortable City win: they have lost only once to Palace in 12 league meetings, while that 3-2 defeat in December 2018 was the only one of their past 50 matches to kick off at 15:00 local time on a Saturday that has ended in defeat.

CALLUM WILSON (Newcastle United v Chelsea)

Plenty of star names could be on the horizon for Newcastle United, but Callum Wilson has looked determined to prove he has a place in the new era at the club.

The striker has six goals in his past six league games, as many as he managed in his previous 21, and is hoping to score for the fourth match in a row for only the second time in the Premier League.

Newcastle might be up against it to beat Chelsea, but the Blues have so far conceded just three times which is almost eight fewer than their expected goals-against total of 10.7. At some stage, that will have to give...

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

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

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

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

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

 

Packers lacking firepower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deck stacked for MVP contender Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No case for Green Bay’s defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MESSI'S DEPARTURE

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

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

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

CLASSICO WOES

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

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

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

EUROPEAN HUMBLINGS

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

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

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

COPA TRIUMPH EASES PAIN 

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

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

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

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

 

A NEW DAWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

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

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

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

Few things in the NFL are as important as continuity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Burrow joins exclusive group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chase on course for history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense defying expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

United's Oktober(goal)fest

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

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

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

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

Four England!

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

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

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

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

Royal rumble

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

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

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

Fifteen minutes of infamy

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

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

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

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

Kane unable

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

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

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

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

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

There has now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry's potentially historic average

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

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

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

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

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

A favourable schedule

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

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

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

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

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

Destined for Canton?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the managers match up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the right track?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO MESSIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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