After another busy off-season at Bayer Leverkusen, many would have tipped a slow start with a new face in the dugout.

With Peter Bosz relieved of his duties, Simon Rolfes and Leverkusen turned to Gerardo Seoane on the back of three consecutive Swiss Super League titles at the helm of Young Boys.

Star winger Leon Bailey also headlined the departures at BayArena, a year on from Kai Havertz's big-money move to Chelsea. Factor in major international tournaments prior to the 2021-22 campaign – Euro 2020, the Copa America and the Olympic Games – and it made for a challenging pre-season.

But Leverkusen have hit the ground running in the Bundesliga – a 4-0 rout of Borussia Monchengladbach and wins over Augsburg (4-1), Stuttgart (3-1) and Mainz (1-0) helping Die Werkself to second place through six games, three points behind leaders and champions Bayern Munich.

Leverkusen sporting director Rolfes told Stats Perform: "We're happy with the start of the season because it was a difficult summer for us but also the other teams who have a lot of international players. This summer with the Copa America, Euros, Olympic Games... there were a lot of players from us involved. A player from us won the Copa America and Olympics, so only the Euros we missed.

"That's why the pre-season was really difficult. The players step in, week by week, and I think one week before the start of the season, we had our final squad together. The transfer market due to coronavirus was also very different and late. That's why I'm very happy. We had good opponents."

"We were not happy with the last season," said Rolfes, whose Leverkusen finished sixth in 2020-21 while losing in the DFB-Pokal last 16 and Europa League round of 32. "A very good start but the end was difficult. We reached international competition okay, but we are ambitious and want more this season. You can imagine the Champions League is a big goal but also the DFB-Pokal and Europa League to go further.

"What's very important for our club is development. One thing is performance and also the result at the end of the season, but development is very important. Develop the players, make them better. Then we have the chance to also perform today in the best way. We have a lot of young players – we want to develop them to their best level. That's also good for the performance today."

 

Seoane's 13 points after six Bundesliga matches represent the best record of any Leverkusen head coach since Sami Hyypia (15) in 2013. For the North Rhine-Westphalia outfit, it is their best start to a top-flight season since 2019-20 (also 13), while they have only scored more goals after six matches in 2008-09 (18) than in the current campaign (16).

Leverkusen have exceeded their expected goals (xG) tally by almost eight goals this Bundesliga campaign – 7.7 (16 goals at 8.3 xG), a league best.

"One important point is football knowledge," Rolfes replied when asked what attracted Leverkusen to 42-year-old Swiss coach Seoane. "Also the leadership, that's very interesting. The leadership of the group as a head coach is very important. If you're in training, the assistant coaches can do things. If you don't feel so comfortable or don't have so many qualities, you can find the right team.

"The leadership as a head coach, you must have. That's a big strength, besides the football knowledge he has. He speaks six different languages – very good for an international squad to speak with the players in their language. That helps a lot to get the right connection to take them on their way and development."

Under Seoane, Leverkusen play a more patient brand of football, allowing their opposition more time on the ball in the Bundesliga rather than consistently pressing high up the field.

Through the first six games last season, Leverkusen allowed 11.1 passes per defensive action, compared to 12.2 with Seoane in charge, as Leverkusen look to instead create counter-attacks from deeper positions – their averaging starting distance at 38.6 metres from their own goal, compared to 42.2m previously. Their 17 direct attacks this term dwarf last year's six at the same stage.

Leverkusen recorded 8.7 high turnovers per match through six rounds last season, compared to 5.3 this time around, but they have scored four goals from such situations already in the Bundesliga – at least twice as many as any other side and more than any other team in Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22. They actually had fewer goals (three) from high turnovers after six games last time out, proving more ruthless this term.

Still, Leverkusen's philosophy remains the same, despite a new coach and altered approach, and it will continue to be the case with Seoane and beyond under Rolfes.

"We choose players, signing as a club," Rolfes said as he discussed the need to adopt a clear vision, instead of changing philosophy with every coach. "We sign the players for a specific style to get the most out of the squad, the player and to develop them in the best way. If you play in the totally other direction than you want to develop the players, you will not succeed. That's important to have a clear vision as a club. How you want to play and then choose the right coach in the best case.

"Every head coach of a pro team has their specific style. That's not the problem, but the main direction has to be clear. That's my task at the end to choose the right coach for the main direction. And then, the individual approach or quality of the coach, it's important you get something fresh in the club, team. The main direction is important and the club has to define the vision."

Leverkusen are one of Germany's biggest clubs, but not since the 1993 DFB-Pokal have they celebrated silverware.

They have come close on numerous occasions in the Bundesliga – runners-up in 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2010-11 – while they also reached the 2001-02 Champions League final, succumbing to Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane's iconic volley in Glasgow. There were Pokal final appearances in 2001-02, 2008-09 and 2019-20, too.

But an exciting and entertaining Leverkusen, even in the post-Havertz era, are on the right track amid Bayern's domestic and European dominance.

And that is thanks to teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

The 18-year-old prodigy has continued to shine, filling the huge void left by countryman Havertz, amid rave reviews from across Europe.

Wirtz, who was prised from boyhood club Cologne last year, is the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 10 goals.

Leverkusen's Wirtz has already been directly involved in eight Bundesliga goals (four goals, four assists) in 292 minutes across the first six matchdays in 2021-22. Only Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland has had more direct goal involvements this term than the teenager.

Since Opta's detailed data collection began in 2004-05, only Patrick Helmes in 2008-09 and Stefan Kiessling in 2013-14 had previously registered as many direct goal involvements for Leverkusen after the first six matches to a Bundesliga season

Setting the standard across Europe, the new face of Leverkusen averages 37 minutes per goal involvement, which ranks best among players in the top five leagues (minimum 100 minutes played), ahead of Madrid superstar Karim Benzema (41 minutes). The 34-year-old Frenchman is the only one of those players to have exceeded his xG by a larger margin (4.8) than Wirtz (3.2) this season.

Already capped three times at international level, Wirtz has scored in four straight games, including Leverkusen's Europa League win against Ferencvaros on matchday one.

 

As Wirtz soars to new heights, Leverkusen are reaping the rewards of a unified philosophy and their faith in the midfielder.

"I think it's a real good example of how the club is working and how the club is thinking," Rolfes, who made almost 400 appearances for Leverkusen between 2005 and 2015, said. "The situation with Kai and Florian. Florian was here or came in the winter [of 2020] and made eight appearances after the lockdown with the first team. Then at the end of the [2019-20] season, Kai went to Chelsea.

"For sure, we got a lot of money for Kai, but we decided to focus on Florian Wirtz for the number 10 position. We don't sign any player as a replacement for Kai. For sure, we had some money to spend on an experienced player in the number 10 position, but we didn't do that. We said okay, the young guy will be the future and has the potential to replace or play very good in that position. We have him already in the club, so we trust him and try to develop him. That's why we sign players in other positions, where we needed improvement.

"That was a big sign for the player and for the chance you have as a young player in Leverkusen. If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club."

Wirtz's exploits have not gone unnoticed, however, with Bayern reportedly trying to sign the Germany international, while the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have also been linked.

But Leverkusen have no plans to sell as Rolfes – who first watched Wirtz as a 13-year-old – added: "He has a long contract until 2026. We do not have to sell players early. We want to develop him, develop our team and club with him.

"So, there are rumours, okay. You cannot avoid that, but it's not our goal to sell him. The players at one time or point in their career make the next step to world-class level, that's okay for us, but not too early. He is a really young player. That was also with Kai – he was also extraordinary and some years with us and then maybe there's the next step. But not too early.

In February, Leverkusen extended their partnership with Stats Perform for the use of Edge Analysis – the most sophisticated football match preparation tool available.

Powered by tracking and event data, Edge Analysis applies unique AI models to unlock objective, dynamic and predictive insights to enhance pre and post-match analysis processes, delivering unique performance insights on all upcoming opponents. The platform uses over 100 AI-driven KPIs to deliver eight unique patented AI models, delivering objective insights within seconds, all linked to video.

"Data/sport technology is very important for us because I think there's huge potential in the future," Rolfes said of the deal. "Data will be better and better because the cameras/GPS tracking provides more precise data.

"We have now not only data in the computer and no one has the time to analyse it, we have the tools with AI, and find the right KPIs for you. That's very important for the match preparation and for the scouting process to be fast, really precise. That's why we invest in that topic here. That's through partnership and investing in our staff to get knowledge, to develop because, at the moment, we are only at the beginning. That's why you have to invest, to be a pioneer or leader in that topic."

The NFL season is heading towards the quarter mark and it's likely desperation time for those fantasy owners who are yet to claim a win.

Thankfully there are several matchups in Week 4 that figure to be very high scoring and deliver huge fantasy performances.

Which players should you be looking at slotting into your lineup for the upcoming slate of games?

Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense that can help propel you to glory this week.

 

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans @ New York Jets

Tannehill followed up a 300-yard performance in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks with a three-touchdown display in a win over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Jets' defense is the strength of their winless team but still ranks 17th in the NFL in yards per pass play allowed with 6.79.

Given the ineptitude of New York's offense, which has committed the second-most turnovers in the NFL (7) through three games, the Jets' defense is likely to eventually wear down and provide Tannehill with plentiful opportunities to enjoy another strong fantasy outing.

Running Back: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Las Vegas Raiders

The Chargers have their own problems with run defense, allowing the highest rushing average in the league at 5.8 yards.

However, fourth on that list are the Raiders, who have given up 4.81 yards per carry through three games.

Ekeler's yards after contact per attempt average of 2.5 is sixth among running backs with at least 10 carries and he is again a focal point in the passing game having made 15 receptions over the last two games. 

In a game likely to be dominated by high-powered offenses, Ekeler figures to play a pivotal role and, taking the favourable matchup into account, is a must-start in points per reception fantasy leagues.

Wide Receiver: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers

Lockett has never had a 100-yard game against the 49ers, but caught 12 of 14 targets for 90 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against San Francisco last year.

Registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where is targeted, on 68.4 per cent of his targets Lockett is second among wide receivers that have been thrown to at least 10 times with a burn yards per target average of 19.29.

Going up against a banged-up San Francisco secondary, Lockett's ability to create consistent separation could prove pivotal in a matchup where Seattle may have to get into a shootout to prevail given the porous nature of the Seahawks' defense.

Tight End: Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans

Still the most difficult position in fantasy football to judge, managers can often find themselves in a difficult spot if they do not own one of Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Darren Waller.

However, those lacking a dependable option at tight end may find Knox a worthwhile pickup for this week. He has a touchdown in each of his last two games, hauling in four of his five targets last week against the Washington Football Team, and gets an extremely enticing matchup in Week 4.

The Texans are allowing the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends and, with the Bills' offense beginning to fire on all cylinders, Knox could prove an extremely astute addition to fantasy lineups if he is still available on your waiver wire.

Defense: New Orleans Saints vs. New York Giants

The Saints' defense had a field day in Week 3, picking off rookie Mac Jones three times, including one interception returned for a touchdown, in a bounce-back win over the New England Patriots.

This week, New Orleans gets to play a game at the Superdome for the first time this season, and the impact of a raucous home crowd will surely only make things more difficult for the Giants' offense and quarterback Daniel Jones.

He has been pressured 53 times already this season, the Giants allowing the 11th-most in the NFL, while the Saints' defense has racked up 56 pressures, putting New Orleans seventh in the league.

While the Giants' signal-caller has only committed one giveaway in 2021, that is a recipe for a disastrous day for a quarterback known for his lack of ball security. Should this go to form, the Saints will make life miserable for a quarterback named Jones for the second successive week.

Manchester United need points to get their Champions League campaign going, and doing so by getting revenge for their Europa League final shoot-out loss to Villarreal would be a moment to enjoy for the Old Trafford fans.

When it comes to established elite needing results, United are not alone. Barcelona head to Benfica looking to banish thoughts of that humbling home loss to Bayern Munich on matchday one, while Massimiliano Allegri could use a strong performance against strong opposition when Chelsea visit Juventus.

Bayern themselves host Dynamo Kiev, as Mircea Lucescu looks to fare a little better than the last time he took a team to the Allianz Arena.

Read on for more as Stats Perform looks at the key Opta facts ahead of Wednesday's Champions League action.

 

Benfica v Barcelona: Can Memphis Depay breathe life back into Catalans?

Barcelona's 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich on matchday one was the first time in at least 186 Champions League matches in which they did not attempt a single shot on target.

Memphis Depay did not manage a shot of any kind, something he had never before experienced when starting a game in this competition. However, with two goals in his previous two games against Benfica, he could be the man to get Barca firing in Lisbon.

Benfica have not beaten Barcelona since the European Cup final in 1961, but if they do manage to pile more pressure on Ronald Koeman with a victory, it will mark the first time the Blaugrana have lost their opening two games of the season in Europe since 1972-73, when they lost twice to Porto.

Bayern Munich v Dynamo Kiev: More unhappy memories beckon for Lucescu

The Allianz Arena was the scene of Lucescu's heaviest Champions League defeat: his Shakhtar Donetsk side lost 7-0 to Bayern Munich in March 2015.

Having failed to score in seven of their previous 11 games in this competition, it is hard to expect Dynamo to stop Bayern from claiming what would be a 33rd home win out of their most recent 35 in the group stages.

In fact, across the past three seasons, Bayern have won the most games (20) and scored the most goals (73) of any team in the tournament. In 14 of their 22 games in that time, they have netted at least three goals.

 

Juventus v Chelsea: Bianconeri out to keep up king-slayer tradition

Juventus have won seven matches against the holders in this competition's history, a figure only Real Madrid can beat (11 wins). They also beat Chelsea 3-0 in their previous meeting back in the 2012-13 group stage.

Still, Chelsea have only lost three of their past 32 group games and none of their most recent 12. Thomas Tuchel's 68 per cent win ratio is bettered by only two men among managers to take charge of 20 or more group games: Pep Guardiola (71 per cent) and Jupp Heynckes (73 per cent).

The last time Juve hosted an English team in the Champions League, Jose Mourinho's Manchester United snatched a 2-1 win in November 2018. Massimiliano Allegri's side have never lost consecutive home games to English opponents.

 

Manchester United v Villarreal: Goals at last in Europa League final repeat?

All five previous European meetings between Manchester United and Villarreal have ended in draws. The first four did not even see a goal scored – it's the most played Champions League match never to see a goal – while the Europa League final last season finished 1-1, with the LaLiga side winning 11-10 on penalties.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the only manager to take charge of 10 or more Champions League matches at an English club and lose more than half of them (he's lost seven out of 11). Should they suffer defeat at Old Trafford, it will mark the first time in history they have ever lost their first two European games of a season.

If he plays, Cristiano Ronaldo will break Iker Casillas' record of 177 Champions League appearances. However, he has failed to score in four games against Villarreal in the competition – only against Lille and Benfica has he played as many times without finding the net.

Other fixtures:

Atalanta v Young Boys

30 – Atalanta's 30 Champions League goals have all been scored by non-Italians. They have netted more goals without any coming from a player of the nationality of the club he's representing in Champions League history. Young Boys have scored six times in the competition, but none has come from a Swiss player.

17 – David Wagner's side had 17 more shots than Manchester United in their opening-round win (19 vs 2). The last time a coach saw his team have that many more attempts than their opponents in his first game in charge was when Hansi Flick's Bayern Munich had 27 shots to Olympiacos' three in November 2019.

Zenit v Malmo

1 – Zenit have only taken one point from their previous eight group-stage matches and have lost four of their past seven home games in European competition.

8 – No team faced more shots on target than Malmo on matchday one of this campaign (eight against Juventus), while their xG against total of 3.5 was the most of any team in the opening round.

Salzburg v Lille

40 – This will be Lille's 40th Champions League match. They only won six of their first 39 - only Dinamo Zagreb (five) and FCSB (four) have ever won fewer than eight of their first 40 games in the competition.

35 – Although 10 of Salzburg's starting XI against Sevilla last time out were aged 24 or younger, they also included 35-year-old Andreas Ulmer, who was two years and 158 days older than his coach, Matthias Jaissle. It's the first time a player has been over two years older than their manager in a Champions League match since Naldo for Schalke in December 2018 under Domenico Tedesco (three years and two days older).

Wolfsburg v Sevilla

3.7 – Wolfsburg's previous six games against Spanish opponents in European competition have seen a total of 22 goals scored (11 for, 11 against), at an average of 3.7 per game.

7 – Sevilla are unbeaten in their past seven away games in this competition (W3 D4), their longest ever unbeaten run away from home in the European Cup/Champions League. They last suffered defeat on the road in October 2017, losing 5-1 away to Spartak Moscow.

For so long, the idea of Lionel Messi being anywhere other than Barcelona seemed utterly alien, but if he was going to leave, teaming up with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City – a club so heavily influenced by the Blaugrana – was surely the most likely option.

But there he was, lining up in the navy blue of Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday, Guardiola in the opposite dugout and City on the other side of the pitch.

There was more than a hint of inevitability about what came to pass, as Messi made a telling impact in trademark fashion towards the end to put the match beyond City in what was a 2-0 win for PSG.

But the predictability of his decisiveness didn't exactly come from an overriding brilliance that was displayed in this encounter in general.

In fact, Messi was somewhat subdued for much of the match.

His first-half performance was littered – by his standards, anyway – with heavy touches and his influence in the final third was lacking.

After all, he finished the game without contributing a single key pass, making this one of only four matches across all competitions since the beginning of last season that Messi's started but not set up a chance in.

Of course, it's worth taking into consideration that Messi's arrival at PSG was delayed by his Copa America involvement, he then went away on international break and also recently suffered a minor knee injury.

A slow start was almost to be expected in those circumstances, even for someone as good as Messi, but with City throwing men forward in search of an equaliser, you always got the sense he would get one opportunity on the break.

He did, and it produced a goal that will go down in history as his first club goal away from Barcelona.

Messi received the ball out on the right flank, just inside the City half, darted forward with much of the visitors' side on the offensive, and as Achraf Hakimi overlapped on the right, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner cut inside.

He held off Rodri as he played a one-two with Kylian Mbappe, the Frenchman's touch exceptional given the pressure he was under, and Messi strode on to the return pass before guiding it effortlessly into the top-right corner with a first-time finish.

So much of it was quintessential Messi, from the surging 19.2-metre dash to the glorious ease with which he picked out the one area of the net Ederson wouldn't be able to reach. It also summed up just how devastating he is: one shot, one goal.

Even with 672 club career goals preceding that one, it's still impossible to tire from seeing Messi hit the back of the net – or, perhaps it is now a little boring if you support an English club.

That was his 27th Champions League goal against a Premier League team, which is – remarkably – 15 more than any other player (Cristiano Ronaldo, 12) in the competition's history. Ronaldo is the only player to score more against teams from a specific nation (28 versus German clubs) in Europe's elite competition.

While Arsenal may have proven particularly powerless against Messi over the years, conceding nine times to him in just six games, it's fair to say he boasts a stunning record against City that few could match in this era, his tally now sitting at seven from as many games.

Messi seemingly has a similar kind of hold over Guardiola as well, given that was the seventh time he's scored against his old boss in the Champions League, a record.

It was under Guardiola at Camp Nou that Messi was initially elevated to his world-class perch, and there he has remained.

After a rather uncharacteristically quiet beginning in Paris, perhaps it was only fitting that his mentor was there behold Messi's true arrival in Paris.

Paris Saint-Germain will be out for revenge when they face Manchester City in a blockbuster Champions League clash. 

City reached their first Champions League final last season by beating PSG 4-1 on aggregate last season and they will meet again in a Group A clash at the Parc des Princes. 

PSG were held by Club Brugge in their opening game, while Premier League champions City hammered RB Leipzig 6-3. 

Milan face Atletico Madrid in their first home match in Europe's premier cup competition since 2014. 

Leaders Liverpool travel to Porto in the other Group B game with fond memories of their previous two trips, while Real Madrid entertain Sheriff in the battle between the top two in Group D. 

Here, Stats Perform look at the key Opta data ahead of the games taking place on Tuesday. 

 

Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester City: Messi could face another Guardiola reunion

Lionel Messi, who was linked with City before his sensational move to PSG, has been sidelined be a knee problem and it remains to be seen if he recovers in time for a reunion with his former boss Pep Guardiola.

PSG and City will meet for the sixth time, while the Ligue 1 side still looking for their first win in this fixture (D2 L3). Only against Juventus (8) have they played more games in European competition without winning.

City are unbeaten in 10 away Champions League away games (W8 D2), not losing in the competition outside of England since December 2017 (against Shakhtar Donetsk).

Milan v Atletico Madrid: Rossoneri eyeing happy homecoming

Milan and Atleti's only previous meetings came in the 2013-14 Champions League, with the Rossoneri losing both legs in the round of 16. The clash with the reigning LaLiga champions seven years ago was Milan's last at home in the competition. 

Antoine Griezmann is Atleti's all-time top scorer in the European Cup/Champions League (21 goals), and could also become their outright top scorer in away games if he finds the net in this game (currently on five). 

In the loss at Anfield, Brahim Diaz (22 years 43 days) became the youngest player to score on his Champions League debut for Milan since Yoann Gourcuff in September 2006 (20 years 64 days v AEK Athens). 

Porto v Liverpool: Reds to cut loose again?

This will be the fifth time Liverpool have faced Porto in the Champions League since Jurgen Klopp became the club's manager – they have won more games (3), scored more goals (11) and kept more clean sheets (3) against them than any other opponent in the competition.

Porto have only scored once in those four previous meetings (D1 L3), despite attempting 45 shots. In contrast, Liverpool's 11 goals have come from 54 attempts. 

Sadio Mane has been directly involved in five goals against Porto, scoring four times and providing one assist. Mane's four goals are the joint-most by a Liverpool player against an opponent in the competition, along with Steven Gerrard v Marseille and Philippe Coutinho v Spartak Moscow. 

Real Madrid v Sheriff: Madrid on brink of century

Madrid are one short of becoming the first team to record 100 home victories in the Champions League. Their win percentage of 73 is the highest for any team in the competition's history with at least 10 home games played (99/136). 

Sheriff won 2-0 on their Champions League debut last time out against Shakhtar Donetsk - they are looking to become the first team since Leicester City in 2016-17 to win their first two games in the competition. 

Sheriff's Cristiano scored twice on his Champions League debut against Shakhtar, becoming the first Brazilian to score a brace in his first game in the competition since Chelsea’s Oscar in September 2012 (v Juventus). 

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Besiktas

4 - Ajax striker Sebastien Haller scored four goals on his Champions League debut against Sporting CP. If he gets another against Besiktas, he would move clear of a tie with Marco van Basten, Diego Simeone, Didier Drogba and Erling Haaland for the most by a player in their first two appearances in the competition.

2 - Besiktas have conceded at least two goals in each of their previous four games against Ajax (10 in total).

Shakhtar Donetsk v Inter

1 - Shakhtar have only scored one goal in their previous five meetings with Inter and have failed to find the back of the net in the three most recent encounters.

32 - Inter and Shakhtar played out two goalless draws in the Champions League last season despite the Serie A champions attempting 32 shots, with an expected goals total of 3.1 across the two games.

RB Leipzig v Club Brugge

10 - Club Brugge have not won any of their past 10 games against German opponents in European competition (D3 L7).

4 - Christopher Nkunku scored a hat-trick for Leipzig against City, but became just the fourth player in Champions League history to score at least three goals and still end on the losing team. 

Borussia Dortmund v Sporting CP

100 - Dortmund have a 100 per cent win record at home to Portuguese opposition in European competition, winning all six of their previous games by an aggregate score of 17-2.

63 - Erling Haaland has averaged a goal every 63 minutes in home games for Dortmund in the Champions League. His seven goals at Signal Iduna Park is the most of any player at a single stadium in the competition since he joined the club.

'It's too early to talk about the MVP!', you might think when the NFL's most prestigious individual award is brought up in discussion in September.  

On the surface, that is reasonable logic three weeks into an extended 17-week season. There are many twists and turns to come that will ultimately decide the identity of this year's Most Valuable Player.  

Yet the reality is that talk of who is most deserving of the game's top solo prize plays a critical role in forming the narrative of a season.  

Conversation over which quarterback – sorry, Aaron Donald – is most deserving of the award at certain points of the campaign and what impressive performance does for a player's hopes consistently captures attention and creates heated debate, regardless of whether we think such talk is premature.  

By the end of last year, Aaron Rodgers had rendered any suggestion of alternative candidates pointless with a stunning 2020 season for the Green Bay Packers.  

While Rodgers did his prospects of retaining the award no harm by making 37 seconds seem like an eternity in the Packers' last-gasp win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the opening stages of the season suggest he will have intense competition.  

And perhaps his biggest threat plays his home games several hours south of Levi's Stadium, where Rodgers unsurprisingly was the leading man in the theatre the Packers and Niners produced in primetime.  

Indeed, long before Mason Crosby was sending a 51-yard field goal into the Northern California night to settle a fierce NFC battle, Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers took a similarly dramatic AFC contest off the leg of their kicker, with Brandon Staley's faith in Herbert and the passing game rewarded with a win that alters the complexion of the playoff race.  

Herbert's four-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, the second time in the game he hooked up with the former Clemson star, sealed a 30-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that solidified the Chargers' status as a threat to the two-time defending AFC champions, who dropped to a losing record for the first time since 2015.  

It was just reward for a display in which Herbert furthered his MVP credentials, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year outshining Patrick Mahomes on a day where the man most regard as the game's most talented and most explosive quarterback made history. 

Herbert joins exclusive club

By throwing for 260 passing yards, Mahomes took his career tally to 15,092, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 15,000 in 50 games or fewer, doing so in his 49th appearance. 

Herbert is not quite on the same pace, averaging 294 passing yards a game through the 18 he has played so far in his still embryonic career. Last year's sixth overall pick is on track to reach 15,000 in 51 games. 

But he outshone the 2018 MVP in Week 3, finishing with 281 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions while Mahomes threw for three scores but with two picks, including one with the game tied that set the Chargers up to go for the game-winning score. 

His performance saw Herbert become the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to record five games with at least three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his first two seasons. 

Herbert joins Lamar Jackson (six), Dan Marino (six), Mahomes (five) and Dak Prescott (five) on that list. Three of the other four members of that exclusive club have all won the MVP. 

Fourth in passing yards with 956 but 17th in yards per attempt (7.59), tied-10th in touchdowns (six) and 18th in passer rating (97.9), the raw numbers do not fully support the argument that Herbert is a candidate to join Jackson, Marino and Mahomes this season. 

However, an understanding of why Herbert deserves to be firmly in the mix through three games requires a deeper look at his statistics and an examination of the high-level throws he is making look ridiculously routine.

Unerring accuracy

Herbert finished Week 3 with a well-thrown ball percentage of 91.7. Only one quarterback, Kirk Cousins (91.9), to attempt more than one pass was superior in that regard going into Monday Night Football. 

He did much of his best work when under pressure too, delivering a perfectly thrown jump pass to Keenan Allen for Los Angeles' opening touchdown with defensive tackle Khalen Saunders in his face, and putting a pass down the right sideline to where only Williams could get it, the duo connecting for the first of two fourth-quarter scores despite Chris Jones screaming off the edge. 

More exquisite placement came on the decisive drive, Herbert finding Williams on a lofted back-shoulder throw to put the Chargers close, a pass he delivered with his weight falling away from it. He then hit the same receiver for the game-winner. 

Those plays will be the ones most remember from Herbert's contribution to an engrossing encounter that ended with a failed Hail Mary from Mahomes, the Chargers having inexplicably left him with over half a minute to produce a reply. 

Yet just as impressive from Herbert were the plays that came up short, including a second-quarter missile from his own 45-yard line - one he uncorked after escaping pressure and rolling left - which was broken up in the endzone to prevent Jalen Guyton hauling in a spectacular touchdown, but that incompletion served as yet more evidence of Herbert's near-boundless ceiling. 

The first three games of the year have seen Herbert consistently demonstrate that upside. His well-throw percentage of 84.4 is fifth in the NFL to attempt multiple passes, with Kyler Murray (84.5) the only player to have averaged seven or more air yards standing above him on the list. 

While Murray provides a greater running threat than Herbert, the Chargers' signal-caller has done a superior job of taking care of the ball. He has thrown an interceptable ball on 2.46 per cent of passes, compared to 4.12 per cent for Murray. 

Though Murray has one more win than Herbert this season, he does not yet have the signature moment the former Oregon man produced at Arrowhead. 

Kyler playing catch up

With already 1,005 passing yards to his name to go with seven touchdowns and a further three scores on the ground, Murray is building a strong case of his own for MVP. 

Yet wins over the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars are unlikely to move the needle to the extent that Herbert's victory over Mahomes should. 

Murray's MVP stock could receive a bump when the Cardinals face fellow unbeaten division rivals the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. However, for now, he is playing catch-up to Herbert in terms of a potential season-defining win that permeates the consciousness of the wider NFL public. 

Anybody who has taken even a passing interest in a Chargers franchise known in recent years for letting opportunities slip through their grasp should recognise Herbert will have a plethora of hurdles to overcome before he can claim to be an MVP frontrunner. 

But across the first three games, he has the production, at least in terms of overall yardage, and has showcased the accuracy to stand as the top challenger to succeed Rodgers at this extremely early juncture. 

Herbert enters Week 4 in a position of which few quarterbacks have experience, having gone blow for blow with Mahomes and come out on top. 

If he maintains the level that saw him achieve that feat, Herbert will have an excellent shot of replicating Mahomes and Jackson in winning the MVP in his second season.

Manchester City made something of a statement in their 1-0 win over potential title challengers Chelsea on Saturday, whereas Manchester United seemed to take another step back as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign stuttered again.

But Solskjaer is certainly not the only top-flight manager feeling the heat – Nuno Espirito Santo's honeymoon period as Tottenham boss is well and truly over, with the Portuguese now among the favourites to be the first Premier League boss sacked this season following a 3-1 defeat in the north London derby.

Without any further ado, here are some of the more curious facts and stats from across the Premier League this past weekend…

City defence putting the 'guard' in Guardiola

It may not have been the thrill ride neutrals were likely hoping for, but City's 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge was another impressive indicator of just how good Pep Guardiola's team is as a unit.

Of course, they won the Premier League only a few months ago, so saying City are "good" probably won't cut it for analysis – but what is really making people sit up and take note at the moment is how their unity and cohesion is translating into defensive solidity.

City have conceded just one goal in their six Premier League games this term, the fewest they've ever shipped at this stage of any league campaign.

Let's not forget that Chelsea had been widely praised for their own start to 2021-22, yet on Saturday they were prevented from having a single shot on target in a home league game since November 2012, which coincidentally was also against City.

But even more impressive from City's perspective was the fact Chelsea's expected goals (xG) value was just 0.2, the worst they've recorded in a home Premier League game since Opta records began in 2008-09.

While Chelsea fans will understandably be frustrated, it would seem their struggles on Saturday were more down to City being in a groove defensively.

They've only faced six shots on target this season, a record no Premier League has bettered over the first six matches in a campaign since at least 2003-04. If they keep this up, the title will surely be staying at the Etihad Stadium.

Fernandes' penalty miss not Man Utd's big issue

It was another day to forget for United on Saturday as they lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.

They were presented with a great opportunity to equalise in second-half stoppage time, but Bruno Fernandes sent his penalty over the crossbar.

Much of the focus afterwards was on Fernandes and his miss, though it would be unfair to pin the blame on him – after all, of the 23 spot-kicks he has taken since his United debut, he's only failed to convert two.

In the same time period, Cristiano Ronaldo – seemingly Fernandes' main penalty rival now – has taken 22 and missed four. This is not a problem that United need to dwell on much.

Instead, they'd be wise to look into their glaring tactical inefficiencies, with Solskjaer's team sorely lacking identity, cohesion and a defined playing style. Too often they are bailed out by moments of individual brilliance, which is an unsustainable approach to solely rely on in a title challenge.

Against Villa, those instances of individual excellence never arrived, despite United mustering 28 shots. That was the most efforts attempted by United without scoring in a home league game since October 2016 (38 shots in 0-0 draw with Burnley).

They have now conceded in each of their past eight league games at Old Trafford, their worst such run in 49 years, and lost three successive home matches (all competitions) for the first time since 1962.

Norwich set new benchmark for worst start

With every match that passes, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to become ever dimmer for Norwich City.

A 2-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday leaves Norwich pointless and with a -14 goal difference after six matches – that makes their start to the season the worst after six matches in Premier League history.

Only twice before had a Premier League side begun a campaign without a single point from six games, the last of which was Frank de Boer's infamous Crystal Palace team in 2017-18 – the Dutchman was sacked after the fourth match in that sequence.

Norwich have at least been a little more patient than Palace, with Daniel Farke's record of overseeing two promotions seemingly ensuring he retains some good will at the club, even if he now has the highest loss percentage (75 per cent, 33/44) of any manager to take charge of at least 20 games in the Premier League.

Most would already consider Norwich to be doomed for relegation, though perhaps there is some reason for optimism.

There have only been nine teams to start a top-flight season (prior to 2021-22) with six or more successive losses, but four of them – including Palace – have avoided relegation.

Vardy joins exclusive club

Jamie Vardy ended up having a peculiar day when Leicester City drew 2-2 with Burnley on Saturday, the former England striker scoring three of the four goals.

It was his own goal that gave Burnley an early lead, while he also got both Leicester equalisers, including one late in the day.

That was his first own goal ever in 360 appearances for Leicester, while he became the first player to net at both ends for the club in a single Premier League game.

It's happened to some of the best, though. He joins an illustrious list containing 11 others who have scored at least 100 goals but also put past their own goalkeeper, with Harry Kane, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney among them.

On top of that, Vardy is now only one of five players in Premier League history to score at least twice at the right end and an own goal in the same game after John Barnes (Liverpool v Spurs 1995), Niall Quinn (Sunderland v Charlton Athletic 2001), Rooney (Man Utd v Stoke City 2012) and Tammy Abraham (Chelsea v Wolves 2019).

But he is still doing more than his fair share at the other end, his brace in this game taking him to eight goal involvements in his past seven league games, which is 89 per cent (8/9) of Leicester's goals in that time.

Bad omens stacking up for Nuno

After three wins from his first three Premier League games in charge, everything was looking rather rosy for Tottenham boss Nuno.

Three matches and three defeats later, some will doubt whether he'll still be in charge this time next month, let alone this time next season.

Sunday's north London derby was his 10th in charge of Spurs and the 3-1 loss made him the first manager to lose as many as four of his first 10 matches at the helm of the club since Glenn Hoddle in 2001.

Hoddle was also the last Spurs boss to conceded at least three goals in three consecutive league games in September 2003, and he was sacked after that run.

Nuno will probably make it to the next match but the last team to begin a season with three wins and then lost the next three (Everton, 1993-94) finish as low down as 17th.

His future arguably rests on getting something out of Kane, who's failed to score in five straight league games for the first time since August 2016, but things aren't looking great given Spurs' 35 open-play shots is the second fewest in the division and their expected goals (xG) total is just 3.2, only higher than three teams.

While a lack of quality chances might usually be masked by Kane's excellence, he's not bailing them out any longer – if that continues, it's difficult to see Nuno keeping his job for the long term.

Lewis Hamilton broke new ground with his 100th Formula One victory at Sunday's Russian Grand Prix.

The defending champion already had the most victories in F1 history, having surpassed Michael Schumacher's 91 last season.

And Hamilton became the first driver to reach three figures as he emerged victorious in a dramatic race in Sochi, where Lando Norris spun off the track in the rain.

The Mercedes superstar badly needed this triumph, having fallen behind Max Verstappen again following the mid-season break.

Another championship this year would take Hamilton past Schumacher outright in another regard as an eight-time F1 king.

The records continue to pile up, with Stats Perform examining the numbers that make up Hamilton's latest stunning achievement.

 

CLEAR OF THE CROWD

Schumacher's 91 wins represented a daunting total until Hamilton came on the scene, with Alain Prost's 51 second on the list at the time of the Briton's breakthrough triumph in Canada in 2007.

Now Hamilton is on top and seems set to stay there for a long, long time.

Sebastian Vettel is his closest rival among active drivers, but the Aston Martin man – winless since Singapore in 2019 – is way back on 53 victories.

Hamilton also owns the record for the most wins with a single team, with 79 of his century secured in a Mercedes.

One benchmark that appears out of Hamilton's reach is Juan Manuel Fangio's remarkable winning percentage, with 24 victories from 51 grands prix giving the five-time champion a success rate of 47.1 per cent.

Among drivers with three or more wins, Hamilton's 35.5 per cent – 100 from 281 – is third, also behind Alberto Ascari (40.6 per cent).

PROFITING FROM POLE

Of course, the win was Hamilton's second F1 century, having clinched his 100th pole at this year's Spanish GP – a tally he improved with another in Hungary at the start of last month.

Of those 101, 59 have brought victories. Schumacher's 40 wins from pole put him a distant second on that particular list.

That means Schumacher is well clear still in terms of successes from further back on the grid, accounting for 51 of his wins but only 41 of Hamilton's.

After Sunday, Hamilton now has three victories from fourth, plus 27 from second, seven from third, one from fifth and two from sixth. Only in Germany in 2018, having qualified in 14th, has the 36-year-old won from behind the front three rows.

 

HEROICS AT HOME... AND IN HUNGARY

Hamilton passed up the opportunity to reach three figures at the Hungarian GP, where victory would have made him the first man to register nine wins at a single event.

He also has eight British GP triumphs, while Schumacher had the same number at the French GP.

Of course, the eight Silverstone successes mean Hamilton has the most home wins in F1 history. Prost previously held the record with six victories in his native France.

Seven British GP celebrations in the hybrid era are also unsurpassed.

The Silver Arrows great has come out on top at 28 different events and 29 different circuits – two more highs, ahead of Schumacher (22 and 23).

SUSTAINED EXCELLENCE

Having signed a two-year contract extension in early July, it appears inevitable that Hamilton will move clear of Schumacher by another measure in 2022.

The pair are currently tied with victories in 15 different F1 seasons, both achieving the feat in successive campaigns.

With five successes this year through 15 rounds, Hamilton faces a huge ask to match his 11-win mark from the past three years.

The former McLaren man has never had more than 11 in a single campaign, also finishing with that tally in 2014.

That followed his worst year in terms of wins, with just a single victory in 2013. Only in 2017 (nine) has Hamilton since dipped below double-figures until 2021.

Manchester City showed exactly why they are the reigning champions as they overcame previously unbeaten Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.  

As for neighbours Manchester United, they suffered a damaging 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, who were good value for the victory, while Liverpool were held to a 3-3 draw by Brentford, despite another record-breaking goal from Mohamed Salah. 

Elsewhere, Michail Antonio's fine start to the season continued as his late goal helped West Ham overcome Leeds United. 

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at the key statistics from Saturday's most notable fixtures. 

Chelsea 0-1 Manchester City: Jesus seals record-breaking victory for Guardiola

City bounced back from last weekend's surprise 0-0 draw with Southampton by ending Chelsea's unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign. 

Gabriel Jesus scored the only goal of the game, the Brazilian becoming the fifth player to score 20 or more match-winning goals for the club in the Premier League, after Sergio Aguero (48), Raheem Sterling (23), Yaya Toure (22) and David Silva (20). 

It was Jesus' 52nd Premier League goal, with City never losing a game in the competition in which he has scored in (P44 W42 D2) – extending the record for most games scored in without ever losing for a single side. 

The victory also allowed Pep Guardiola to set a new club record for most wins by a manager, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss moving past Les McDowall with a 221st victory. 

Chelsea, meanwhile, have lost their last two home Premier League games against the defending champions (also 0-2 vs Liverpool last season), after going unbeaten in each of the previous 13 such matches (W7 D6). 

Manchester United 0-1 Aston Villa: Hause secures memorable win at Old Trafford

Manchester United suffered their first defeat of the Premier League season as Aston Villa sealed a first top-flight win over the Red Devils since December 2009. 

Kortney Hause grabbed the decisive goal in the 88th minute, the latest winner scored by an away team at Old Trafford in the Premier League since Patrick van Aanholt secured victory for Crystal Palace in the 93rd minute in August 2019. 

That goal meant United have now conceded in each of their past eight league games at Old Trafford, their longest top-flight run without a clean sheet on home soil since February 1972 (also eight games). 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side did have the chance to seal a point in stoppage time, but Bruno Fernandes blazed his spot-kick over the crossbar. That was only the Portugal international's second penalty miss in his 23 attempts for the club, the other coming against Newcastle United in the Premier League in October 2020. 

Brentford 3-3 Liverpool: Reds held by brilliant Bees

Premier League newcomers Brentford secured a memorable point against Jurgen Klopp's men in a pulsating match. 

The result marked the first time Liverpool had conceded three goals in a top-flight away game against a newly promoted side since January 2016 against Norwich City (a 5-4 win), while Brentford scored three goals in a top-flight game for the first time since January 1947 (4-1 against Wolves). 

Salah scored his 100th Premier League goal for the Reds, reaching that figure in 151 games – fewer than any other player in Liverpool's history. 

Indeed, only Alan Shearer for Blackburn (124 games), Harry Kane for Tottenham (138) and Sergio Aguero for Man City (147) have reached a century of Premier League goals for a single club in fewer appearances than Salah. 

Brentford have enjoyed an impressive start in the top tier, though. Their eight Premier League goals have been scored by seven different players – excluding own goals, only Chelsea (10) and Manchester City (nine) have had more different scorers in the competition this term. 

Leeds United 1-2 West Ham: Hosts suffer late Antonio hammer blow

David Moyes' side left it late to wrap up back-to-back wins at Elland Road for the first time in their history. 

Raphinha had put the hosts ahead early on with his fifth Premier League goal from outside the penalty area, the joint-most of any player since he made his debut in the competition in October 2020, tied with Son Heung-min. 

A Junior Firpo own goal pulled the Hammers level, before Antonio sealed all three points in the 90th minute. 

That goal meant Antonio became just the third player to score a 90th-minute winner against Leeds at Elland Road in the Premier League, after Nolberto Solano for Newcastle in December 2001 and Scott Parker for Charlton in December 2002. 

The San Francisco 49ers are among the ranks of the seven teams to start the season unbeaten, with victories – albeit expected ones – over the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles underlining their status as playoff contenders.

Though there is satisfaction regarding their start, outside of the 49ers' facility questions about when the Niners should bench starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in favour of Trey Lance are starting to increase.

That there is an external desire for the Niners to turn to Lance is no surprise given San Francisco traded three first-round picks to move up from 12 to three in this year's draft to earn the right to select him as their quarterback of the future.

Lance also offers a dual-threat skill set beyond that of Garoppolo, who had 11 rushes against the Eagles but did his most impactful work on the ground on quarterback sneaks, including one for a touchdown.

Garoppolo's display in the win over Philadelphia is a reason for the growing calls for Lance. After an offensive explosion against the Lions, the Niners averaged only 4.5 yards per play in their 17-11 success at Lincoln Financial Field.

That kind of offensive production will not put San Francisco in the Super Bowl mix and, with the Niners about to take on a difficult section of their schedule, it does beg the question: when should head coach Kyle Shanahan hand the keys over to their inexperienced but high upside rookie?

Unleashing Lance the runner

Though he threw the 49ers' first touchdown of the season with his first career pass against the Lions, Lance's true potential has yet to be seen at the NFL level.

In terms of the extra diversity he should provide the Niners as a running threat, that appears likely to change in Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers in a primetime clash that starts an imposing three-game stretch that will also see them face two divisional foes in the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals.

Lance's combination of size and speed enabled him to average 6.5 yards per carry in his lone full season as a starter for North Dakota State in 2019, putting him fifth among all quarterbacks at the FBS and FCS levels. His touchdown tally of 14 was tied-fifth.

With the 49ers in the midst of an injury crisis at running back that may see only one player at the position, Trey Sermon, who started the season on the roster feature against the Packers, the window is very much open for San Francisco to utilise Lance's gifts on the ground versus an opponent allowing 4.81 yards per rush, seventh-most in the NFL, through the first two games.

Green Bay gave up 46 yards on four carries to Lions quarterback Jared Goff in their win on Monday. Goff is nowhere close to being in the same realm as Lance as an athlete, and it is tough to envision Shanahan watching that game film and not wanting to unleash his rookie on the Packers' defense.

Even with San Francisco lacking healthy bodies at running back, the 49ers' rushing attack could be spectacular against Green Bay with Lance infused into it. However, after an up and down start to the year from Garoppolo, fans may want to see what the man picked to be the long-term face of the franchise can do through the air as well.

Garoppolo's mixed bag

Garoppolo was superb in Week 1, gashing the Lions to the tune of 314 passing yards and a touchdown, averaging 12.56 yards per attempt.

He added a league-high 5.495 yards per attempt in expected passing situations versus Detroit, according to Stats Perform data; however, in a low-scoring struggle against the Eagles, Garoppolo came back down to earth.

Indeed, he finished with just 189 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.3 yards per pass attempt. His rate of yards added in expected passing situations dropped to 0.358, 20th among quarterbacks to have featured in Week 2.

Still, those two contrasting performances averaged out to leave Garoppolo sixth in that metric prior to the start of Week 3 on Thursday.

Additionally, Garoppolo is delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball 82.7 per cent of the time, the 10th-best ratio among quarterbacks with at least 10 passing attempts.

Yet for all the good Garoppolo has done so far in 2021, it was tough not to leave Week 2 with the feeling that the Niners' passing game is being limited by keeping Lance on the sideline.

Downfield doubts

Grinding out games against an imposing defensive front for a narrow victory is satisfactory early in the season; however, a lack of explosiveness that was all too evident for the Niners in Philadelphia will not be acceptable in duels with opposing offenses that can move the ball against DeMeco Ryans' defense, which held the Eagles to just 177 net yards passing.

While Garoppolo's well-thrown percentage in Week 2 was an impressive 86.7 per cent, he averaged a league-low 3.47 air yards per attempt, with San Francisco's gameplan built around getting the ball out quickly to keep the Eagles' pass rush from making an impact.

It worked as Garoppolo was pressured only nine times and did not suffer a single sack. Despite stellar protection from his offensive line and a gameplan where he was rarely required to push the ball down the field, Garoppolo still threw a pair of pickable passes.

The task of making short throws accurate is not a difficult one by the lofty standards to which NFL players are held. Garoppolo succeeded in that task and led the 49ers on two decisive long touchdown drives of 97 and 92 yards that helped clinch victory.

But he still risked turning the ball over in the process and, when asked to complete more difficult throws, was unable to rise to the challenge.

Garoppolo sailed a far-hash deep out throw over the head of Mohamed Sanu, was almost intercepted on a throw too high for Brandon Aiyuk running a post delivered with pressure from Josh Sweat, sent another deep out wide of an open Trent Sherfield from a clean pocket and went close to being picked by Darius Slay on a far-hash ball thrown behind Deebo Samuel.

To Garoppolo's credit, he demonstrated mobility he is not regarded for to evade pressure and avoid negative plays and produced a perfect ball on the Niners' first touchdown drive, hitting Samuel in stride on a throw between two linebackers and setting San Francisco up inside the red zone after the defense had just delivered a goal-line stand to deny Philadelphia in a turning point in the game.

Though he can complete such passes with impressive accuracy and regularly excels doing what is asked of him, consistency on the higher-difficulty attempts has continually eluded Garoppolo and, in an NFC where Aaron Rodgers' Packers, Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Matthew Stafford-led Los Angeles Rams are all contenders, the Niners realistically need a quarterback who can frequently hit on explosive plays with his arm.

Lance is raw and might not have handled the situation in Philadelphia with the same composure as Garoppolo, but he is a quarterback for whom the big-time throws come naturally and one who likely would have connected on those string of misses from San Francisco's starter.

With the Packers and the Seahawks each allowing over six yards per pass play, the next two weeks present an ideal opportunity for Garoppolo to prove himself as a consistent downfield passer.

A potential reluctance to throw Lance in against a division rival like Seattle means Garoppolo should get at least the next two games, yet if he cannot take advantage of those opportunities, Shanahan may be forced to turn to the heir apparent at quarterback to ensure a playoff-calibre roster stays near the top of both a loaded NFC West division and an ultra-competitive conference.

Even in a raucous road environment, an Arizona defense that gave up 7.3 yards per pass play to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 would appear to be a close to perfect opponent against whom to give Lance his first start.

Could Week 5 see a matchup of two of the most exciting dual-threat prospects to enter the NFL in recent years? The answer may rest on the performance of the oft-criticised arm of Garoppolo in two crucial in-conference showdowns.

"I am not a magician," said Carlo Ancelotti. "Just a coach who has to give players the confidence they need to express their qualities."

The Real Madrid boss was talking about arguably the standout player from Los Blancos' strong start to the season – and, brilliant as he continues to be, it's not Karim Benzema.

When Ancelotti spoke before Madrid's 2-1 win at Valencia, Vinicius Junior was on a run of four goals in as many games in LaLiga. That tally reached five in five after he fired in a late equaliser at Mestalla – as many goals as he had scored in 59 previous league matches.

For attacking players, nothing builds belief like the support of a coach and regularly sticking the ball in the net. Vinicius has both of those things going for him right now, and it's yielding the best form of his Madrid career.

 

NEW-MAR

Signed amid much fanfare from Flamengo three years ago, it has taken Vinicius time to fully find his feet in the Spanish capital. Patience is notoriously thin on the ground where Madrid are concerned, but fans have been more willing than usual to play the long game with the Brazil international, who has already played 88 times in Spain's top flight, a tally bettered by just six compatriots in the club's history.

Given Marca ran a headline this week asking whether Vinicius' form in 2021-22 meant Madrid had found "the new Neymar" – a player they once wanted to bring back to Spain, no less – it would appear the wait has been worth it.

Along with five goals, Vinicius has provided two assists and created 10 chances this term, all of them from open play. Only Eden Hazard (12) and Karim Benzema (14) have created more among Madrid's squad. Indeed, among players aged 21 and under, only Erling Haaland (seven goals, three assists) has been directly involved in more goals in 2021-22 in Europe's top five leagues.

 

After the first six matches of 2020-21, Vinicius had two goals and zero assists, with three chances created for team-mates. Granted, he had spent 52 fewer minutes on the pitch in those six games than he has this season, but he has undeniably made better use of the time given to him of late.

In the first six games of 2021-22, Vinicius' 17 shots have come amid a 2.64 expected goals (xG) total, but they account for 4.36 expected goals on target (xGOT), giving some indication as to the high quality of his attempts. (The xG metric assesses the quality of chances, and xGOT looks at the player's actual effort at goal.)

By contrast, at the same stage of last season, he had xG of 2.58 but xGOT of just 1.49 from 13 shots.

KYLIAN (IN THE NAME OF)

A strong indicator of Vinicius' form, his willingness to stand up in matches and why those Neymar comparisons are a little closer to the mark than they once were, is the upturn in his impact when running with the ball.

 

After six games in LaLiga last term, he had completed only five of 17 attempted take-ons. That success rate of 29.4 per cent was the lowest of any Madrid player to complete at least one dribble.

This season, that success rate has jumped to 47.6 per cent, Vinicius having completed 20 of 42 attempted take-ons. These are identical figures to one Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain – another Madrid transfer target.

Not only that, but 42 attempted take-ons is the most by any player in LaLiga in 2021-22, while Vinicius also ranks highest for take-ons in the box (eight) and those ending with a shot (four), and joint-highest for drives into the penalty area (also four).

 

HEARTBEAT

Vinicius is also averaging 62 touches of the ball per 90 minutes, an increase from 57 at this stage of the season in 2020-21. It follows that he is more heavily involved in the action at the top end of the pitch: he has had 36 involvements in shot-ending sequences in LaLiga, a figure bettered only by Real Betis' Nabil Fekir (38) and Madrid's own Benzema (51). On average, his tally has jumped from just over three per game in 2020-21 to more than seven in 2021-22. And, of those sequences this season, 10 have ended in a goal – only Benzema (14) can do better.

This is a player embracing responsibility, demanding the ball, and dazzling when he gets it: in short, he's showing all the best qualities of Neymar, Mbappe or anyone else Madrid may wish to buy, and offering fans everything they hoped for when he first arrived for €46million in 2018.

Perhaps competition is bringing the best out of Vinicius: with Gareth Bale back at the Santiago Bernabeu (although presently injured), Eden Hazard showing more encouraging signs and Marco Asensio fully fit again, there is no shortage of options for the Benzema support act. Or maybe Ancelotti really does have the magic touch to keep Vinicius in vibrant form for a whole season, beyond the fleeting glimpses displayed under Zinedine Zidane.

Whatever the reason, Vinicius has never looked so dangerous in a Madrid shirt. Worryingly for his opponents, there could be plenty more to come.

December 2, 2018. In the 56th minute of Unai Emery's first north London derby in charge of Arsenal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang curled a sensational first-time finish beyond Hugo Lloris to level the scores at 2-2.

Aubameyang's strike – his second goal of the game after a first-half penalty to open the scoring – sent the home faithful into raptures at Emirates Stadium, and the Gabon forward went on to tee up Lucas Torreira to score Arsenal's final goal in a 4-2 victory.

Having arrived from Borussia Dortmund in January of that year, Aubameyang scored 22 Premier League goals in 2018-19, sharing the league's Golden Boot award with Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

It was a tally he matched the following season, trailing the competition's top scorer Jamie Vardy by one, but after prolonged contract negotiations finally resulted in Aubameyang signing a new three-year contract last September, his form has hit a wall.

His league total dropped to just 10 goals last season, as Aubameyang netted just three times prior to the turn of the year.

Despite featuring in each of Arsenal's league games so far this season, Aubameyang only has one goal, which came in the 1-0 win over Norwich City earlier this month. He had six attempts in that match, getting just two on target.

At 32, it seems Aubameyang's prime is now behind him, though could Sunday's north London derby with Tottenham be the catalyst to spark his form and really get Arsenal's season up and running?

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses if there is a way back to the top for Aubameyang, or is the end of the road approaching?

 

Shoot on sight not always the right call

Aubameyang's second goal in that derby in December 2018 was a moment of magic, as he caught Lloris out with a sensational first-time strike from outside the box.

However, the shoot-on-sight policy is not seeming to be an effective fix for Aubameyang's fading form.

Aubameyang has at least scored this season and has mustered nine attempts in the league, but those efforts have had an average worth of 0.14 xG (expected goals) – the lowest mark of his Arsenal career.

Given the one successful strike – against Norwich – was a goal-line finish worth 0.96 xG on its own, the second-best chance of the entire Premier League season by that metric, it is easy to paint a picture of otherwise ambitious shooting habits from Aubameyang. His remaining eight shots have had a combined xG of 0.39 – or 0.05 per shot – signifying they came from chances where a player is highly unlikely to score.

At odds with struggling Spurs talisman Harry Kane, who has had just four attempts so far this season and has recorded just 7.5 per cent of his touches in the opposition box, Aubameyang is taking a career-high 17.1 per cent of his touches in the opposing area, yet the Tottenham number 10 has matched his three shots on target so far.

The Laca factor

Arsenal have been blessed in recent seasons, with two – on their day – top-quality goalscorers to call on in the form of Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Though at times, that may well have resulted in both players having to compromise.

The latter has made only one league appearance so far this term, replacing Aubameyang in the second half of Arsenal's 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City last month, and there has at times been an issue with fitting both strikers into the team.

Aubameyang has often been deployed wide to accommodate Lacazette, who in turn has at times played deeper or had to settle for a place on the bench in order to fit his fellow striker into a central berth.

Since Aubameyang arrived at the club, he and Lacazette have played in 92 of the same games, with the Gunners recording 40 wins, 20 draws and 32 defeats.

That win rate of 43.5 per cent is significantly less than the 55 per cent success record from matches where one of the strikers did not play (22 wins from 40 such games).

It would suggest the way forward for Arsenal now is to stick with one or the other. Lacazette outscored Aubameyang in the league last season, though as the Gunners skipper the latter is seemingly ahead in the pecking order.

Arteta not helping?

Both Emery and successor Mikel Arteta wanted to develop a style that focused on playing out from the back, though given pace is Aubameyang's main asset, it would seem a direct approach may well be the optimal way to get the best out of the attacker.

Arguably Arteta's best games as Arsenal boss came in the 2019-20 FA Cup semi-final and final, with Aubameyang scoring a double in both matches to help the Gunners claim the trophy.

Aubameyang's pace was crucial, with his second goal in the 2-0 semi-final win over City coming at the culmination of a run from the left, the forward latching onto Kieran Tierney's ball before finishing under Ederson.

A similar trend followed in the final – Aubameyang winning a penalty by isolating Cesar Azpilicueta in that left channel, and he converted from 12 yards to restore parity before finishing deftly for a second-half winner.

It seemed Arteta was utilising this tactic more in his first half-season in charge. In a campaign shared between Emery and Arteta, Aubameyang had seven shots from fast breaks in the Premier League, though he only scored one. He had five such attempts the previous season, though only managed three across 2020-21.

Aubameyang also saw his touches in the opposition box drop off significantly last term, from 152 in 2019-20 to 125, while he had 149 in Emery's only full season in charge.

The amount of shots Aubameyang is taking has also dropped from season to season, from 94 under Emery, to 93 the following campaign, to just 57 last term.

While he outperformed his expected goals value (14.75) by some way in 2019-20, suggesting he finished some difficult chances, an xG of 10.22 last season seemingly reflects where Aubameyang is at.

However, a 7.81 xG on target (xGOT) score, which rates the level of his shooting rather than the quality of the chances, hints the former Saint-Etienne man's finishes were not the best, and may suggest some poor goalkeeping contributed to his league total. Compare this to 2019-20, when Aubameyang's xGOT outperformed his xG value, and it points to a striker on the wane, who is perhaps not being helped by slower build-up play.

Sunday's match could be crucial for Arteta, whose team have finally picked up victories after heading into the international break at the bottom of the table. For Aubameyang, it is a chance to prove he still belongs among the league's elite strikers.

The time for talking is almost done as the coronavirus-delayed 43rd Ryder Cup gets under way at Whistling Straits on Friday.

Europe head into the much-anticipated showdown with the United States as defending champions after winning 17.5 - 10.5 at Le Golf National in 2018.

This year's edition in Wisconsin promises to be as competitive as ever, with USA hoping their team of rookies can prevail against their more experienced European opponents.

Here, Stats Perform picks out the best of the facts and figures ahead of the first tee off.

 

EUROPE'S RECENT DOMINANCE

– This year's Ryder Cup is the 43rd edition, with nearly half of those (21) having pitted Europe against USA. Due to the tournament being delayed by a year by the coronavirus pandemic, this is the first Ryder Cup to be held in an odd year since 1999.

Europe have the upper hand with 11 victories since 1979, compared to eight for USA. There was a tie in 1989, which saw Europe regain the cup having won the previous edition two years earlier.

Europe have won nine of the last 12 Ryder Cups, including half of the last eight played on US soil.

– Six of the last eight Ryder Cups have seen a final score gap of at least five points. The gap was never more than three points in each of the previous eight editions (1987 to 2002).

– This year's Ryder Cup is the first to be played in Wisconsin, making it the 19th US state to host the tournament, with only California, Massachusetts and Ohio having played host on more than one occasion.

– Since 1979, only four of the 20 Ryder Cups have seen a team overturn a deficit going into the singles (1993, 1995, 1999 and 2012).

– USA have won 12 of the 20 singles sessions against Europe since 1979 (60 per cent). However, since 2002, Europe have the upper hand in the Sunday format, winning it six times in nine attempts.

Only two of the 42 Ryder Cups have ended in a tie: 1969 (16-16) and 1989 (14-14).

WESTWOOD LEADS THE WAY FOR EXPERIENCED EUROPE

– With a combined total of 156 matches played at the Ryder Cup, this is the most experienced European team since the 1995 edition (196 matches). Three players are making their debut for Europe: Bernd Wiesberger, Viktor Hovland and Shane Lowry, half as many as the US team (six).

– Fifty per cent of the European team are made up of English players (six out of 12). Since the introduction of Team Europe in 1979, that ties the highest number of English players after 2016.

– In Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm, Spain have a playing representative at the Ryder Cup for the 21st consecutive edition. In fact, other than England, they are the only nation to have had at least one player at every Ryder Cup edition since the introduction of Team Europe in 1979.

– Rahm – world number one and Europe's most recent major winner (US Open 2021) – is playing in his second Ryder Cup. He won only one of his three matches in 2018, but that was the singles match against Tiger Woods, only the American's second ever loss in the singles format after 1997.

Garcia is the highest points scorer in the history of the Ryder Cup (25.5 points out of a possible 41). The Spaniard is taking part in his 10th Ryder Cup – that's every edition since 1999 except 2010. It is also only the third time he has been a captain's pick after 2002 and 2018.

– Rory McIlroy is making his sixth consecutive Ryder Cup appearance (all since 2010), the longest current run among European players. He has played every single session at the tournament since his debut in 2010.

– Viktor Hovland is the youngest player at this year's Ryder Cup – he will be aged 24 years and six days on the opening day of the tournament. He is also the first Norwegian to play in the tournament.

– This is Lee Westwood's 11th Ryder Cup, joining Nick Faldo as the European player with the most appearances in the biennial tournament. If he plays at least four matches, he will overtake Phil Mickelson for the most in the tournament's history. Westwood is also the oldest player at this year's tournament.

HISTORY ON USA'S SIDE

– USA have six Ryder Cup rookies at this year's tournament, the most since 2008. In fact, they have won both previous editions against Europe where at least 50 per cent of their team was made up of newcomers: 1979 (eight rookies) and 2008 (six rookies).

– Eight of the 12 American players at this year's Ryder Cup are aged under 30, which is twice as many as the European team (four out of 12).

– Collin Morikawa is the youngest US player at this year's Ryder Cup – he will be aged 24 years, seven months and 18 days on the opening day of the tournament.

– Tony Finau's first Top 10 at a major came in the 2015 US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He won two of his three matches in his only previous Ryder Cup appearance in 2018, setting the second-best points ratio (66.7 per cent) in the US team after Justin Thomas (80 per cent, four points out of a possible five).

– This is Brooks Koepka's third – and consecutive – Ryder Cup appearance. He won three of his four matches the last time it was held in the United States (2016).

– This is Jordan Spieth's fourth consecutive Ryder Cup appearance. He has collected eight points from a possible 11 in fourballs/foursomes, a 73 per cent scoring rate. Only Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have a better ratio among US players in the team format.

– At 37, Dustin Johnson is the oldest member of this year's US Ryder Cup team. This is his fifth appearance in the showpiece event, winning only one of his previous four (2016). He is the US player with the most matches played in the history of the tournament without a single half point (W7 L9).

– Bryson DeChambeau lost all three of his matches in his only previous Ryder Cup appearance in 2018. He was the only US player to remain scoreless alongside Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, whom he both partnered in 5 and 4 losses.

Is it Week 3 already? The advent of a 17th game means the regular season will stretch further into January, but the NFL campaign always seems to fly by at breakneck speed.

In the world of fantasy football, plenty of managers may be seeing things spiral out of control in a hurry after an 0-2 start.

Or maybe you're on the other end of things, with at least one win on the board and feeling satisfied that your draft-day decisions were the right ones.

Either way, it's important to remember that fantasy is a weekly game, and success hinges on the selection calls made each weekend.

Stats Perform is here to try to help you make the correct calls. Here's this week's look at four players and a defense in strong spots to produce matchup-winning fantasy scores.

Quarterback: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs

Herbert was frustrated in Week 2 as the Chargers let opportunities go begging in their defeat to the Dallas Cowboys, with two interceptions undermining an otherwise impressive display that saw him throw for 338 yards and a touchdown.

However, Herbert should be enticed by a matchup with a Chiefs defense that has produced turnovers but has proved extremely hospitable to opposing offenses.

Indeed, the Chiefs are allowing a league-worst 7.56 yards per play through two games. Only the Detroit Lions (9.44) are allowing more yards per pass play than the Chiefs (9.37).

Going against a porous defense and with Patrick Mahomes a near-certainty to deliver points on the other side, Herbert has a clear opportunity to record his third successive 300-yard game to start the season and put up a massive fantasy performance in a potential shootout.

Running Back: Ty'Son Williams, Baltimore Ravens @ Detroit Lions

Despite seeing their running back depth decimated by injuries, the Ravens saw their backfield get going in a huge way in their stunning Week 2 win over the Chiefs.

Baltimore gashed Kansas City for 251 yards on the ground at an average of 6.1 yards per carry. The complexity that quarterback Lamar Jackson's running threat brings to their rushing attack played a significant role, but the Ravens will have been extremely encouraged by Williams' performance.

Williams averaged 5.9 yards per carry as he put up 77 yards on 13 carries, and he now gets the opportunity to go against a Lions defense that has been relatively stout against the run but has given up a league-high nine offensive touchdowns.

For fantasy managers light at running back, Williams could be an intriguing option.

Wide Receiver: D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers @ Houston Texans

On the surface, there is not much intrigue in Thursday's primetime clash between the Panthers and Texans.

However, with Sam Darnold showing signs of improvement in Carolina following his departure from the New York Jets, potential fantasy matchup winners can be found among their passing game options.

Aside from Christian McCaffrey, Moore is the top threat on the Panthers' offense. He had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown last week against a New Orleans Saints defense that is superior to that of the Texans, which allowed Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to complete 90 per cent of his passes in Week 2.

Targeted 19 times across his first two games, if Moore gets a double-digit share as he did versus New Orleans, he will be set up perfectly to deliver another productive performance.

Tight End: T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions vs. Baltimore Ravens

While the Lions may be in a rebuilding year, Hockenson is constructing an excellent case for him to be considered among the NFL's premier players at the tight end position.

He has 163 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games and now gets to face a Ravens defense giving up the most fantasy points per game in the league to opposing tight ends.

Shredded for 109 yards and a touchdown by Travis Kelce in Week 2 and for 105 yards and a score by Darren Waller in Week 1, the odds of the Ravens preventing Hockenson from producing a similar statline appear slim.

Defense: Arizona Cardinals @ Jacksonville Jaguars

Backing a defense to excel after a game in which that unit gave up 26 points in a 34-33 shootout win may seem foolhardy.

While the Cardinals' defense is certainly vulnerable, as the Minnesota Vikings proved last week, Arizona could hardly ask for a better matchup in which to bounce back on that side of the ball.

Rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence is tied for the league lead in interceptions having tossed five already this season. His air yards per attempt average of 10.49 is second among quarterbacks with at least 10 passes, but he is delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball just 66.3 per cent of the time.

That combination of aggressiveness and inaccuracy is a recipe for a bounce-back performance from the Arizona defense.

After three long years, the wait for another Ryder Cup ends this week as the United States and Europe take to the fairways and greens of Whistling Straits. 

Europe are the holders but the USA start as favourites for many observers, with home advantage and a formidable-looking team. 

There will be shocks along the way and there will be some expected stars of the show who end up taking a back seat as unlikely heroes emerge. 

Captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington will have their own ideas of who might be best placed to make a telling impression. 

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players who could make a huge impact across the weekend in Wisconsin. 

UNITED STATES: Super Spieth ready to show his teeth

Jordan Spieth has been a resurgent force this year, finishing second at the Open Championship and in a tie for third at the Masters, while at the other two majors he finished a respectable 19th and 30th. 

The American also ended a four-year wait for a victory on the PGA Tour with a sweet win in his home state at the Texas Open in April and is primed to cap a fine year with a strong Ryder Cup. 

Spieth has mentioned in the build-up that he loves the course set-up at Whistling Straits, which he feels provides scoring opportunities on almost every hole. 

The 28-year-old also referenced his previous Ryder Cup success. He has collected eight points from a possible 11 in fourballs/foursomes, a 73 per cent scoring rate. Only Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have a better ratio among USA players in the team format. 

UNITED STATES: Nice guy Finau just the man for Stricker's superstars

American teams in the past have been accused of…well…not exactly getting along. Having the ultimate good guy in the team is sure to boost morale and Tony Finau certainly fits that mould. 

But make no mistake, Finau is a guy with real pedigree – even if sometimes he hasn't quite been able to convert that into wins (his triumph at the Northern Trust last month was only his second PGA Tour title and first in five years). 

On his Ryder Cup debut, he was one of few bright notes for Team USA, with Finau winning two of his three matches – including a singles win over the otherwise unflappable Tommy Fleetwood, setting the second-best points ratio (66.7 per cent) in the American team after Justin Thomas (80 per cent, four points out of a possible five). 

Moreover, at the 2015 US PGA Championship, Finau finished 10th having shot four sub-par rounds at Whistling Straits. Finau is the sort of character who can really flourish at a Ryder Cup, particularly with home support behind him. 

 

EUROPE: Europe eye trophy Rahm raid

Jon Rahm is the man for the big occasion. He is the only player to have secured a top-10 finish at all four majors this year, while he is also Europe's most recent victor at one of the leading events, having won the U.S. Open. 

The world number one's Ryder Cup debut did not go entirely to plan in 2018, as he won only one of his three matches, but that triumph was in a singles match-up with Tiger Woods – only Tiger's second loss in the format. 

Now established at the forefront of the sport, Rahm will expect to be the man to lead Europe to glory with an improved all-round showing, justifying his status as the bookmakers' favourite to be the leading points scorer at Whistling Straits. 

EUROPE: Viktor sounds like a winner

Belgium's Thomas Pieters was the top points scorer five years ago at Hazeltine, scoring four points but ending on the losing side. With Norway's Viktor Hovland relishing his debut on the team, could there be another surprise leader on the points board? 

Hovland played college golf for Oklahoma State and has been a familiar figure on the PGA Tour, so playing in America is second nature. He was low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2019, won the U.S. Amateur, and has come of age since, jumping to a career-high world ranking of number 10 in August. 

Eight top-10 finishes and just one missed cut since the turn of the year show what he brings, and that level of consistent play is bound to appeal to captain Harrington. 

"I'd like to think I have some fans out there that maybe won't necessarily boo against us," Hovland said this week. "But if they do end up doing that, that's what they're going to do. We're still going to play golf, and if they do end up doing that, that means we're doing something good." 

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