Cristiano Ronaldo will pull on the Manchester United shirt for the first time in over 12 years on Saturday, with the five-time Ballon d'Or winner all set for his second Red Devils debut.

Ronaldo secured his return to United at the end of the most recent transfer window, with the deal reportedly set to cost an initial £12.9million (€15m).

But it's fair to say the player United have re-signed is rather different to the one they sold for a then world-record fee.

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

Saturday's visit of Newcastle United will provide Ronaldo with the opportunity to make his return, and ahead of that match, Stats Perform has used Opta data to look at how the formerly flamboyant trickster has altered his game since his Old Trafford departure in 2009.

Positional sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wing wizard to penalty box king

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

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

By 2008-09, Ronaldo's attempted dribbles per 90 were down at a relatively modest 4.73, completing 1.92. By the end of his last year at Juve, Ronaldo was down to 3.07 dribbles per 90, though his success rate of 61.7 per cent ranks as the highest in his career. He has not lost the ability to dribble, but rather picks his moments to do so.

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

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

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

The 2014-15 season was undoubtedly Ronaldo's zenith. Turning 30 halfway through the campaign, he was at his best in front of goal and creatively. His 21 assists were a career high, as were the 97 chances created.

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

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

Ronaldo averaged 50.6 touches per 90 in 2020-21, with 6.8 in the penalty area. In only four seasons, all at Madrid, did the Portugal captain touch the ball less on average, though his figure of penalty box touches ranks as the fourth-highest across his career.

Heads up

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

Ronaldo's leap – his ability to almost hang in the air at great height, while generating unbelievable power – is something few players have come close to emulating. It might as well be trademarked, at this stage.

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

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

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

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

Freddie Woodman could be excused for having nightmares on Friday night as Cristiano Ronaldo prepares for his second Manchester United debut against Newcastle United.

The 24-year-old goalkeeper has the unenviable task of attempting to stop one of the greatest players of all time – the newly crowned leading scorer in men's internationals – in front of a jubilant United home crowd.

It is a challenge that has proved beyond many of the world's best number ones, including former Newcastle stalwart Shay Given.

The last time Ronaldo faced Newcastle at Old Trafford, in January 2008, he scored three and United hit six...

RONALDO GOAL GLUT

This was a landmark game in a landmark 2007-08 season for Ronaldo, still less than a year on from his first Champions League strike and only now establishing himself as a prolific goalscorer.

The winger had an outstanding 19 goals in 24 games ahead of the visit of Nigel Pearson's Newcastle – days out from Kevin Keegan's second managerial stint at St James' Park – but was still waiting on a first career hat-trick.

Ronaldo was without a league goal against Newcastle, too, and that trend continued until half-time.

But the Magpies knew only too well how quickly he could take the game away from them; in the 2004-05 FA Cup semi-final, Ronaldo was booked for diving in the opening stages, then provided sublime assists for Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes before adding a clinching fourth himself in United's 4-1 win.

Sure enough, a second-half onslaught was led by Ronaldo, whose free-kick crept past Given for the 49th-minute opener.

Carlos Tevez made it two following an awful clearance from Given – actually one of Newcastle's better performers, with seven saves – and then sent Ronaldo through for his second.

Rio Ferdinand grabbed the fourth, but all eyes were on Ronaldo again as he chopped past Jose Enrique and fired in a deflected effort to complete the treble.

"This is a very special day for me," he said afterwards. "It makes me feel very proud to score a hat-trick for this great club."

Ronaldo followed in the footsteps of Andy Cole, Van Nistelrooy and Scholes in scoring a Premier League hat-trick against Newcastle for United, a record number for one club against another that remains unsurpassed (matched by Arsenal v Leicester City, Liverpool v Arsenal and Tottenham v Southampton).

A controversial Tevez finish, which prompted Alan Smith's red card, had completed the scoring and made this a day of firsts, with no previous examples – and only one since, Hull City versus Fulham in 2013 – of a Premier League game goalless at half-time ending 6-0. It also equalled United's 1968 record win against Newcastle.

THE FIRST OF MANY

The hat-trick was not just a first for Ronaldo but also a last – at least until now. He did not score another treble in his initial United stint, although a trip to Tyneside a month later brought two goals and an assist.

Ronaldo will expect to improve that haul on his return, though. There were 44 hat-tricks in his nine years at Real Madrid and a further three in three seasons for Juventus.

His 48 since the Newcastle game leads players in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions, just ahead of great rival Lionel Messi's 46.

In fact, until now, Ronaldo's final season at United was the last campaign in which he did not net a hat-trick. That is a streak he will be keen to preserve – perhaps as soon as in this friendly first fixture...

MORE MAGPIES MISERY?

Ronaldo is yet to lose to Newcastle in all competitions, with his 11 such outings coming in the middle of a 19-game unbeaten stretch for United in this fixture – their best ever sequence.

Newcastle won four times against post-Ronaldo United, however, while the hosts' long undefeated run at Old Trafford – spanning all 23 home meetings under Alex Ferguson – was ended during David Moyes' tenure.

But the Magpies, now led by former United captain Steve Bruce, should again make for accommodating party guests.

Woodman has shipped eight goals already this season, becoming the 13th keeper to concede at least two in his first three Premier League starts, although little blame can be laid at his door – the one-time Under-20 World Cup winner has actually prevented 0.11 goals, according to expected goals on target data.

The Newcastle man has matched Declan Rudd's miserable record in facing a penalty in each of his first three Premier League outings, beaten on the rebound against West Ham on the one occasion he was able to add to the four spot-kick saves he tallied in the Championship with Swansea City across two loan spells.

Only three Premier League teams have given away penalties in four or more matches in succession, but Newcastle's haphazard defending suggests Ronaldo may well get an opportunity from 12 yards on Saturday.

Regular taker Bruno Fernandes' only miss in 22 attempts for United was against Newcastle, while nobody has dispatched as many penalties as Ronaldo (84 – 31 clear of second-placed Messi) in Europe's top five leagues since he left England.

On his big day, who could possibly deny the 36-year-old that sort of opportunity?

Domestic football returns this week after the international break, and with it being the first set of matches since the transfer deadline passed, there are some new faces to consider.

Though one of them will be very familiar to everyone – Cristiano Ronaldo is back at Manchester United and an interesting option for fantasy teams.

Newcastle United are the visitors at Old Trafford in what many may be predicting to be a one-sided encounter, though Ronaldo's by no means the only threat to Steve Bruce's men.

Stats Perform has picked out seven players potentially in action over the weekend who could be worth signing up to give your fantasy team a boost.

HUGO LLORIS (Crystal Palace v Tottenham )

Spurs have enjoyed a solid start to their new era under Nuno Espirito Santo, winning all three league games to make themselves early leaders.

They've also not conceded a single goal, with Hugo Lloris the only goalkeeper in the division to already have three clean sheets.

Up next is a trip to Crystal Palace, and while you can never guarantee anything in football, Patrick Vieira's men have struggled during the early weeks of 2021-22. Lloris is surely a strong shout for a clean sheet.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Leeds United v Liverpool )

The international break saw Alexander-Arnold become a hot topic of conversation again as his England career continues to stall – this time his performance in midfield attracting criticism.

Nevertheless, at club level there's little question that he'll return to his usual right-back berth, where he has excelled so far this term.

Leeds should offer the Reds stern opposition, but their style of play means Liverpool could be afforded a lot of space – if anyone can exploit that, it's Alexander-Arnold, given he has created five more chances (15) than any other player in the league and his six successful open-play crosses is a joint-high.

REECE JAMES ( Chelsea v Aston Villa)

If you're the type of fantasy football manager who loads their team with full-backs in the hope of the goal involvement/clean sheet double-threat, then you've probably already got James in your team.

But if you haven't, you may want to consider it.

The Chelsea wing-back is already on three goal involvements (one goal, two assists), the most among defenders and anyone in Thomas Tuchel's squad, and is part of a team that wouldn't expect to concede regularly.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN (Leicester City v Manchester City )

Leicester City have often been seen as a bit of a bogey team for Manchester City, so perhaps this is a bit of a wildcard choice.

However, Gundogan's enjoyed a stellar 2021 to date. His 12 Premier League goals is second only to Harry Kane (14) and has become an influential player in City's attacks over the past year.

He's probably not in the conversation to be anyone's captain, but his goals haul makes him a strong contender to at least get in your XI.

BRUNO FERNANDES ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Man Utd have averaged 2.9 goals per game over their previous 14 Premier League home matches, and with Newcastle taking just 10 points from the past 15 away games, the omens look good for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men.

With that in mind, the man usually behind many of United's goals is Fernandes, who is just two goal involvements from reaching 50 – only three players will have hit that mark quicker than him if he gets a couple against Newcastle.

Similarly, since the start of 2020-21, Fernandes' 10.3 expected assists (xA) is the highest in the Premier League and his 12 actual assists haul is level with Kevin De Bruyne as the most among midfielders.

IVAN TONEY ( Brentford v Brighton and Hove Albion)

He was the man who propelled Brentford into the Premier League with his goals, so when Toney got off the mark in the Premier League last out time out against Aston Villa, many will curiously wait to see if the floodgates now open.

That took him to 56 league goals (excluding play-offs) since the start of 2019-20, more than anyone else in the top four tiers of English football.

Granted, those came in lower divisions, but others before him have adapted to the Premier League – why can't Toney be the next Jamie Vardy?

CRISTIANO RONALDO ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Solskjaer's already said Ronaldo hasn't return to United to sit on the bench, so there's every chance the Portugal captain could make his second debut as a starter against Newcastle.

If he does, he will complete a formidable frontline for the Red Devils, regardless of who he's joined by, and given the mauling they handed out to Leeds United on matchday one, they certainly have big wins in their locker.

It's also worth noting that Ronaldo scored his very first club hat-trick against Newcastle back in 2008 – he couldn't do it again, could he? Either way, Ronaldo as captain this weekend looks a smart choice.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

The NFL is back and, for so many across the globe, that means it's time to examine the matchup data and prepare fantasy rosters for Week 1.

Unless you've left it remarkably late, fantasy drafts are in the rear-view mirror and it's time to set the best line-up to deliver an opening-week win.

But which players are ideally positioned to help fantasy managers start the year with a victory?

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players and a defense poised to deliver big fantasy points.

Quarterback – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans

The pressure is firmly on Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray to deliver in year three of their partnership after they collapsed from 6-3 to miss the playoffs.

But if the Cardinals make a disappointing start to 2021, it is more likely to be because of their defense than Murray, who can do great damage against a Tennessee defense vulnerable to the ground game and to what the Arizona quarterback can do with his legs.

Tennessee gave up the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. The Titans' 6.84 yards per pass play allowed was the 11th-worst rate in the NFL, while they were tied for the 10th-most rushing touchdowns conceded with 18.

Murray, who had 31 passing plays of 25 yards or more, ninth-most in the league, and averaged the second-most yards per carry (6.15) last season, is ideally equipped to take advantage of those vulnerabilities and put together a substantially productive fantasy day.

Running Back – James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

Robinson's stock looked to have been dealt a major blow when the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round having selected his former Clemson team-mate Trevor Lawrence first overall.

But a season-ending foot injury to Etienne ruled him out for the year, meaning Robinson will get the bulk of the carries in the Jacksonville backfield.

He is coming off a tremendous rookie year that saw him rack up 1,070 rushing yards while averaging 2.34 yards after contact per attempt, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.

And he has the perfect matchup to carry that momentum into the new season, facing a Texans team in disarray amid the Deshaun Watson saga that gave up a league-worst 5.2 yards per rush last season.

If you have Robinson, start him.

Wide Receiver – Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions

Week 1 often delivers some weirdness but, on paper, the Niners could not have asked for a better matchup than the rebuilding Lions.

The Lions gave up 7.85 yards per pass play, the most in the NFL last season, and their young secondary is one San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan should have little trouble exploiting.

Jeff Okudah, the Lions' first-round pick from 2020 and starting cornerback, gave up a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – on 68.2 per cent of his targets. He conceded 15.28 burn yards per target, the third-most in the NFL.

As the 49ers' top wideout, Aiyuk will be frequently matched up with Okudah and, after producing a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets – the third-most among rookie wideouts with at least 50 targets – in his first season, this extremely gifted route-runner has a clear opportunity to make a hot start to a potential breakout year.

Tight End – Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons

It's difficult to get too excited about the Eagles offense, given it averaged 224 net passing yards per game since Jalen Hurts took over as the starting quarterback in Week 14 last year, 21st in the NFL.

But the two players who averaged the most targets per game for the Eagles in that time were their tight ends, Zach Ertz and Goedert. Ertz averaged 5.8 targets and Goedert 5.7 while playing a game fewer.

Goedert is the younger and more explosive of that pair and should command a higher share of the targets going forward. Facing a Falcons team that gave up 7.18 yards per pass play last year and conceded the third-most fantasy points per game to tight ends, Goedert's role in the offense is a recipe for him opening the season in stunning fashion.

Defense – Los Angeles Rams vs. Chicago Bears

Justin Fields will not be starting for the Bears against the Rams, and the first-round rookie might consider himself fortunate given the discrepancy between the talent on the Rams' defensive front and the Bears' offensive line.

The Chicago O-Line is 30th in Stats Perform's rankings, which is a poor position to be in at any point of the season but is especially troubling ahead of a matchup with a Los Angeles team that tallied 50 sacks for negative yardage in 2020.

Chicago allowed 23.8 per cent of points on giveaways last season and, with their O-Line facing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who beat a pass protector on 94 of his 103 pressures last term, the Bears appear poised to concede more points in that manner and reward fantasy players who invested in the Rams' defense.

The same two teams have not faced each other in consecutive Super Bowls since 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys ended the 1993 season by repeating as champions with a second straight rout of the Buffalo Bills, for whom the loss marked their fourth consecutive defeat on the grandest stage.

But the stars may be aligning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs to end that wait and face off again in Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in February.

Tampa Bay crushed Kansas City in Super Bowl LV, becoming the first team to win the Lombardi Trophy at their home stadium with a 31-9 triumph.

And it is tough to look at the respective rosters following strong offseasons from both without feeling they should each be in position to renew acquaintances at SoFi Stadium.

The Buccaneers did an excellent job of keeping their title-winning core together, while the Chiefs attacked the glaring weakness that saw their hopes of defending the championship last season go up in flames.

Using its advanced data, Stats Perform analyses why these two powerhouses appear poised to emulate the feat of the Cowboys and Bills.

Bucs keep the band together

Faced with the complex challenge of retaining a host of free agents who made significant contributions to their Super Bowl triumph while dealing with a salary cap shrinking due to the impact of the pandemic and a season played largely without fans, the Buccaneers made good on head coach Bruce Arians' post-championship pledge to keep the heart of the roster intact.

There were, of course, some departures, but the pivotal cogs that helped propel the Bucs to a second title in franchise history were all tied down for 2021 and, in most cases, beyond.

Perhaps the most important move the Bucs made was to re-sign edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who had 13 of Tampa Bay's 31 pressures of Patrick Mahomes in February to a four-year, $72million contract that is the joint-11th most expensive edge rusher contract in the league by average annual salary. 

The fact Barrett agreed to take a discount to stay with Tampa is reflective of the excellent situation the Bucs are in, and several of his team-mates were similarly eager to re-sign with a team superbly positioned to contend for more titles.

 

Veteran linebacker Lavonte David received long-overdue recognition in 2020 after years of stellar play and also received a two-year, $25m deal from the Bucs to keep him next to Devin White in the middle of the defense.

David allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, on 36.8 per cent of his targets. His 6.42 burn yards per target conceded was fourth best among all linebackers while White's pressure rate of 37.3 was the best for linebackers with at least 50 pass rush attempts.

They have a claim for being the top linebacking duo in football when it comes to affecting the pass game and the Bucs' front seven looks to have all the ingredients to give quarterbacks nightmares in 2021. Tampa retained the services of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and added a first-round pass rusher in Joe Tryon, who recorded a 19.6% pressure rate off the edge in his last season for Washington in 2019, with 30 of his 35 total pressures seeing him beat a pass protector.

However, the Chiefs have made a series of impressive moves with the aim of ensuring Tampa Bay cannot disrupt their aerial attack to the same extent should they meet again.

Protecting Patrick

The defining image of Kansas City's 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV was that of Mahomes running for his life in the face of near relentless pressure from Tampa Bay.

Mahomes was playing behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. Right tackle Mike Remmers was forced to play at left tackle and guard Andrew Wylie had to take his place across the formation.

Kansas City's offense was unable to function at anything close to peak performance as a result, and the Chiefs' offseason appeared designed entirely to prevent such a scenario coming to pass again.

Joe Thuney was signed as a free agent to lock down the left guard position having served as one of most dependable players in football during his career with the New England Patriots. Thuney's pressure rate (4%) in 2020 was fifth among all guards and he will have Orlando Brown Jr. on his outside shoulder after the Chiefs traded their 2021 first-rounder among multiple picks to acquire him from the Baltimore Ravens to be their new left tackle.

Brown, who is switching from right to left tackle and gave up a pressure rate of 9% in 2020, may have some work to do as a pass blocker but Kansas City should expect him to help their run game. Only David Bakhtiari (3%) allowed run disruptions at a lower rate than Brown (3.6%) last year.

In addition to fortifying the left side, the Chiefs ensured they will have depth across the line. They used one of their two second-round picks on Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, whose pressure rate (1.6%) was joint-third best among Power 5 centers with a minimum of 50 pass protection snaps. He is set to start ahead of versatile free agent addition Austin Blythe and another rookie, sixth-round pick Trey Smith, is in line to get the starting right guard job ahead of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

 

Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season to aid the fight against coronavirus in his native Canada, should prove an extremely valuable reserve having been credited with allowing just two adjusted sacks on 354 pass protection snaps in 2019.

The big question mark is at right tackle, where Lucas Niang seems primed to start. He did not play in his rookie year after opting out and is, therefore, likely to be the player opposing pass rushes target. The Chiefs will hope he can reprise his form of his senior year at TCU, when he was not credited with an adjusted sack allowed on 123 pass protection snaps.

Kansas City defeated the Buccaneers in Week 12 of the 2020 season with the 27-24 score flattering Tampa Bay. Conventional wisdom says that with better protection, Mahomes and the Chiefs' explosive offense would have the advantage. But, after an offseason in which the Bucs solidified the strength of their team and Chiefs attacked a deficiency, is that actually the case?

Who has the edge?

There is statistical evidence to backup the argument that, if the Chiefs have genuinely fixed their pass protection, then they deserve to be Super Bowl favourites.

When he is not overwhelmed by pressure, Mahomes can be an extremely dangerous quarterback to blitz due to his ability to improvise and turn seemingly negative plays into explosive ones.

From a clean pocket, he can be little short of a nightmare to defend. In the Chiefs' title-winning 2019 season, when he was not pressured Mahomes delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 84 per cent of the time, the fifth-best rate in the NFL. His pickable pass percentage of 1.81 was third.

Those numbers dipped in 2020, but his 81.6% well-thrown was still above average and his 2.39% pickable pass rate was 12th. With his 2019 following a stunning 2018 in which he was named league MVP, the likelihood is that last season was the anomaly.

Even if Mahomes does return to the remarkably high standards of his first two years as a starter, there's plenty to suggest the Chiefs still might not be able to outgun a Buccaneers offense that coalesced at the perfect time in the previous campaign.

In the final four games following the regular-season loss to the Chiefs and their bye, the Bucs ran the table going 4-0 and led the league with 357.3 net passing yards per game. Brady threw 14 touchdowns and just one interception.

 

That tailed off to 256 net yards per game, third among teams to play multiple playoff games, in the postseason as the standard of opposition improved, but the reality is his decision to leave New England for Tampa Bay rejuvenated Brady as a downfield passer.

Only Deshaun Watson (69) and Mahomes (67) had more completions of 20 yards or more than the 63 produced by Brady, who ranked fourth in air yards per attempt (9.50) among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes but was able to protect the ball while going deep more often, his pickable pass percentage of 2.20 second behind Alex Smith.

He will again have the benefit of arguably the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL in his 22nd season. The Bucs franchise tagged Chris Godwin to keep him around while also re-signing Antonio Brown, and Brady will surely be confident of furthering his rapport with the former, who registered a burn on 72.6 per cent of targets last year, tied-seventh among receivers with at least 50 targets.

With Brady seemingly gaining new life midway through his fifth decade and turning the Tampa offense into a juggernaut late last season and Mahomes set to enjoy what should be a much higher standard of protection, the stage is set for a potential shootout should these teams book a rematch in five months' time.

The Chiefs have almost always been able to rely on outscoring their opponents. Yet, in a possible aerial duel with Brady and the Bucs, it is their defense, which ranked 18th with 6.42 yards per pass play allowed last season, that looks the most vulnerable.

Mercedes confirmed the worst-kept secret in Formula One this week as they announced George Russell will drive for the Silver Arrows.

Russell will take the seat of Valtteri Bottas, who is set to join Alfa Romeo after failing to mount a drivers' championship challenge during his time with Mercedes.

A product of the Mercedes junior driver programme, Russell earned his spot with Mercedes through a series of impressive performances for Williams, while he was also praised for his display filling in for future team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year.

But how do Russell and his predecessor compare? Stats Perform looks at the numbers from their respective careers to assess whether Russell can be an upgrade.

Bottas too often the bridesmaid

Bottas has sprayed the post-race champagne plenty of times already this season. He has claimed seven podiums in 2021 but has not been on the top step. Indeed, with six third-place finishes and one second-place, Bottas has collected the most podiums without winning in the campaign so far.

That is reflective of Bottas' career with Mercedes. Unlike the man he succeeded, Nico Rosberg, Bottas has never truly been a threat to Hamilton despite the dominance the team has enjoyed.

The Finn has finished second 29 times in his career, more than any other driver who has failed to win the championship. Only Rubens Barrichello can match him. Since 2017 when he joined Mercedes from Williams, Bottas' total of 45 second and third-places finishes is more than any other driver.

And when he reflects on his Mercedes tenure, Bottas will in part have to look back on a number of missed opportunities. Rene Arnoux (11.1%, 2 of 18) and Nelson Piquet (20.8%, 5 of 24) are the only drivers to in F1 history to claim a lower percentage of victories from pole position than Bottas (29.4%), who has qualified fastest 17 times but gone on to win the race on just five occasions.

 

George growing in stature

While it can be argued Bottas has struggled to get the best out of what has been, for the most part, the clear top car on the grid, Russell has this year taken a Williams car that pales in comparison to what the team produced during their glory years beyond expectations.

Though his second-place at the Belgium Grand Prix was secured in part because the weather meant only two laps could be completed behind the safety car, his reward for a brilliant qualifying performance made him the first Williams driver to claim second since Lance Stroll in 2017.

Russell has elevated Williams from backmarkers to regular residents in the midfield, reaching Q2 of qualifying in 12 of 13 attempts in 2021. He had reached that stage nine times in his previous 37 qualifying appearances.

Even when the Williams car was the worst in the field in 2019, Russell still had the edge over Robert Kubica in qualifying. He qualified ahead of his team-mate in all 21 grands prix, becoming the first rookie driver to achieve that feat.

Bottas had the edge at the Sakhir Grand Prix when Hamilton was absent, beating Russell to pole, but the Brit was only denied victory as a puncture handed the win to Sergio Perez.

If he can avoid such misfortune going forward, Russell's track record with Williams this year indicates he could provide Hamilton with stiff competition in qualifying and on raceday.

With every NFL season, new stars emerge, thrusting themselves to the forefront of the consciousness with breakout campaigns that put them firmly in the conversation as one of the best players at their position.

Often such years come as a significant surprise, as was the case in 2020 when Justin Jefferson broke the record for receiving yards by a rookie, topping 1,400 having only posted 70 through his opening two games.

But frequently it is possible to project breakout seasons before they happen by looking at the numbers from previous years and the situation a player finds himself in heading into the campaign.

Using its advanced metrics, Stats Perform looks at five players poised to emerge with stellar performances in the 2021 season.

Joe Burrow – Cincinnati Bengals

The fate of the Bengals' season, and perhaps that of head coach Zac Taylor, rests predominantly on how Burrow fares on his return to regular-season action after a serious knee ligament injury curtailed his rookie year.

Burrow, the first overall pick in 2020, being back at his best is far from a guarantee. However, the former LSU star has seemingly grown in confidence in the preseason after some initial struggles in training camp and demonstrated enough in his 10 games last campaign to suggest he can justify his draft status and lift the Bengals from the AFC North cellar.

The primary issue facing Burrow is the lack of talent on the offensive line protecting him, which is a lowly 28th in the NFL per Stats Perform's rankings, with Cincinnati bemusing many by selecting wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase instead of tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in this year's draft.

Yet Burrow does an excellent job of moving in the pocket and finding lanes out of it to escape pressure. He reads the field well and delivers his throws with consistently accurate placement. Burrow ranked sixth in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown percentage of 80.6.

That number dipped to 69.8 when under pressure, but still gave him the best mark of any quarterback in the AFC North, reflecting his poise when the pocket breaks down.

With Chase joining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in an impressive wide receiver room, Burrow has the weapons to make a huge leap in year two providing he stays healthy and the offensive line can produce even a slight improvement.

Damien Harris – New England Patriots

While the New England offense disappointed for the most part last year, their running game was efficient, and Harris played a significant role.

He averaged five yards a carry in recording 691 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. Those latter two numbers may be slightly underwhelming, yet Harris was one of the premier backs in the league when it came to getting to the second level of the defense in a hurry.

A patient back who reads his blocks intelligently, Harris' decisiveness and burst when he identified the running lane to hit allowed him to average 3.11 yards before contact by a defender per attempt, putting him 10th in the NFL.

His rate of 2.05 yards after contact was less impressive but still above the average of 1.91, while Harris was 11th in the NFL with 3.15 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption by a defender.

The Patriots possess the third-best run-blocking line in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's rankings, and – though Cam Newton's exit may make their ground game less diverse – Harris could reap the benefits of facing lighter boxes if Mac Jones' impressive preseason translates into the regular season and gives New England's passing attack a much-needed jump.

Brandon Aiyuk – San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers' second first-round pick of 2020 was in a difficult situation as he dealt with sub-par quarterback play between the struggles of the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo and backup Nick Mullens before they finished the season with C.J. Beathard.

However, the former Arizona State receiver still excelled in defeating coverage with his route-running ability and showed his potential with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. He added a further two scores on the ground.

His big-play percentage of 33.1 was third among rookies with at least 50 targets behind Gabriel Davis and Tee Higgins. Davis has Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders as competition for targets with the Buffalo Bills while Higgins will have to share the receiving workload with Chase and Boyd.

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel will command a significant number of targets for San Francisco but Aiyuk holds an undisputed position at the top of the wide receiver depth chart, meaning he will likely see enough passes thrown his way in 2021 for him to outperform both Davis and Higgins.

With Garoppolo healthy and Trey Lance lurking as a high-upside successor, Aiyuk is in a much better spot in 2021 to surpass 1,000 yards and establish himself as one of the league's brightest young stars at the receiver position.

Marcus Davenport – New Orleans Saints

Davenport has yet to justify the trade up the Saints struck to draft him in 2018 despite flashes of the brilliance that convinced New Orleans to make such a dramatic move up the board.

His influence was limited by a series of injury issues in 2020 but Davenport still registered a pressure rate of 21.3 per cent that was 11th among edge rushers. His run disruption rate of 15.7 per cent was 12th.

The Saints did spend a first-round pick on an edge rusher in Payton Turner, whose stock rose dramatically late in the process. However, with Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last year, having departed for a lucrative payday with the Bengals, Davenport is in line for a clear uptick on the 374 defensive snaps he played in 2020.

At his best, Davenport is an explosive pass rusher blessed with tremendous power who can drive blockers back with the bull rush but also bend around the edge and flatten to the quarterback with excellent closing speed.

The Saints have not seen his best often enough, yet if he can stay healthy, Davenport can play a crucial role for the New Orleans defense as part of a front that has enough talent to ensure he will regularly have the benefit of one-on-one matchups to help him significantly pad his career total of 12 sacks.

Darious Williams – Los Angeles Rams

There is a strong argument that Williams has already enjoyed his breakout campaign, having racked up 14 passes deflected and four interceptions for the Rams last year.

Despite his superb 2020, Williams is not a player talked about as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. Should he back up last season's efforts with a similarly productive 2021 for a Rams team many expect to contend for the Super Bowl following Matthew Stafford's arrival, that may change.

Williams excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback to break on the football and make plays at the catch point, with his ball skills reflected by his gaudy press breakup and interception numbers.

Only K'Waun Williams of the San Francisco 49ers allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, at a lower rate than Williams, who did so on 30.3 per cent of balls thrown in his direction.

Williams' big-play percentage allowed of 16 was the 12th-best among all cornerbacks and, though his on-ball production may be a product of playing across from Jalen Ramsey, the fact he so frequently stood up to the test when challenged by opposing passing games indicates he is a player who can continue his ascent in his fourth year.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stefon Diggs 

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

Calvin Ridley 

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

Justin Jefferson 

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

Davante Adams 

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

Tyreek Hill 

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

DeAndre Hopkins 

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

DK Metcalf 

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

Best of the rest 

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

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

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

The year of the tight end? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dobbins' dynamic rookie year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Edwards step up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson looks to take flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Manchester United v Portsmouth: January 30, 2008

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

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

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

Porto v Manchester United: April 15, 2009

He had absolutely no right to score this one.

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

 

Almeria v Real Madrid: April 15, 2010

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

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

 

Sevilla v Real Madrid: December 17, 2011

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

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

 

Real Madrid v Valencia: May 4, 2014

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

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

 

Real Madrid v Espanyol: January 31, 2016

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

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

 

Hungary v Portugal: June 22, 2016

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

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

 

Juventus v Real Madrid: April 3, 2018

Arguably the finest goal Ronaldo has produced.

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

Portugal v Spain: June 15, 2018

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

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

 

Juventus v Manchester United: November 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hakan Calhanoglu: Inter to Milan (free transfer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Lionel Messi: Free agent to Paris Saint-Germain

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

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

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

 

Romelu Lukaku: Inter to Chelsea (£97.5m)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

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

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

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

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

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

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Otavio (Portugal)

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

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

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

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

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

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GRIEZMANN AT HIS PEAK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PAST HIS BEST?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BACK WHERE HE BELONGS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United is complete.

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

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

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

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

Positional sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wing wizard to penalty box king

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heads up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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