The game is won in the trenches. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menace in the middle

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

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

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

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

Living on the edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass-blocking bullies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior excellence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising to the challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Chicago Bulls – Zach LaVine

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

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

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

Miami Heat – Tyler Herro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HEAD-TO-HEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The target

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

The arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Return of the king(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new kid on the block

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDERSON (Manchester City v Wolves)

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

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

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

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Wolves)

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

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

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

REECE JAMES (Chelsea v Leeds United)

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

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

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

MARCUS RASHFORD (Norwich City v Manchester United)

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

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

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

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

MASON MOUNT (Chelsea v Leeds United)

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

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

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

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Wolves)

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

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

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

JOSHUA KING (Brentford v Watford)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Get back... injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippe Cout-Iniesta?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bavarian adventure

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

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

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

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

One last shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who will be hoping for a rare opportunity?

Dean Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

Donny Van de Beek

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

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

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

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

Jesse Lingard

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

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

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

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

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

Rangnick would do well to recognise that.

Amad Diallo

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

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

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

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

Teden Mengi

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

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

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

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

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

Barcelona head to Bayern Munich on the final matchday desperately needing a positive result to secure their spot in the Champions League knockout stages.

Benfica, who face Dynamo Kiev in Group E's other clash, hold the head-to-head edge over Xavi's new side as Barca travel to Germany knowing they likely need a win to make it through to the next round.

Manchester United and Chelsea are already through their respective groups, while Juventus host Malmo with the Bianconeri's place in the last-16 sealed before the final matchday as well.

As Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo edge towards more records, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data heading into the games taking place on Wednesday.

Bayern Munich v Barcelona: Blaugrana face thankless task to qualify

Bayern have won their last three Champions League meetings with Barca, which is already the longest run against the Blaugrana in European history by any side.

Julian Nagelsmann's team, who have averaged five goals per home game in this season's competition, have cruised through to the next round, while Barca could fall to their second-worst performance in terms of points if they fail to avoid defeat.

The visitors will have to deal with Lewandowski, who is the top scorer in the group stage with nine goals and the Poland forward could become the only player in history to net 10-plus times in the group stage on multiple occasions. Ronaldo (11 in 2015-16) and Lionel Messi (10 in 2016-17) are the only other players to have achieved this once.

Zenit v Chelsea: Blues edge towards more defensive milestones

Chelsea could become just the second English team, after Manchester United in 2003-04 and 2010-11 to win four consecutive games in the competition while keeping a clean sheet on each occasion.

Indeed, with a clean sheet the Blues and Thomas Tuchel could become the fastest team and manager combination to reach 10 shutouts in the competition, having already recorded nine in just 12 games since the German's appointment.

The defending champions have also had 14 different scorers, excluding own goals, the most of any team in the Champions League since Tuchel's Blues bow in Europe.

Manchester United v Young Boys: Ronaldo looks to repeat history

Ronaldo has scored in all five of his Champions League appearances since returning to United (six goals), while Bruno Fernandes boasts the most assists in the competition so far this term (five).

Portugal captain Ronaldo will be looking to repeat the feat of scoring in all six group stage games in a single campaign, having previously done so for Real Madrid in 2017-18 – the only previous instance of this in the competition’s history.

Worryingly for Young Boys, who never kept a clean sheet in 11 attempts in the competition, the Swiss side have lost their last six away games between 1986 and 2021, last tasting European Cup/Champions League victory in August 1960.

Juventus v Malmo: Bianconeri aim to match record home dominance

Juve have won each of their last five Champions League home matches, only registering more consecutive such victories in a run of six between December 2016 and 2017.

While the Bianconeri did suffer their heaviest defeat in the history of the competition against Chelsea, Juve have a perfect record against Malmo in their opening three games – only Barca have ever won their opening four games against a specific opponent in the competitions.

Meanwhile, Malmo have only managed one win in their last eight against Italian opponents in the European Cup/Champions League, with their lone triumph against Inter in September 1989.

 

Other fixtures:

Atalanta v Villarreal:

21 - There have been 21 goals scored in Atalanta’s five games against Spanish opponents in the Champions League (11 goals for, 10 against), at an average of 4.2 per game. Only one of these five games have seen a team manage to keep a clean sheet, with Real Madrid doing so in a 1-0 victory back in February.

1 - Villarreal have won just one of their eight visits to Italian opponents in major European competition (D3 L4), though it came in their most recent such outing, defeating Roma 1-0 in the Europa League in 2016-17.

Benfica v Dynamo Kiev:

4 - Since losing their first ever meeting with Dynamo Kiev in European competition (0-1 in November 1991), Benfica are unbeaten in four games against the Ukrainian side (W3 D1), with all four coming in the European Cup/Champions League.

60 – Dynamo Kiev have lost 60 per cent of their away matches in the competition, only Olympiakos (75) and Galatasaray (71) have lost a larger percentage out of teams to have played at least 50 such games.

Red Bull Salzburg v Sevilla:

5 – Red Bull Salzburg are winless in their last five fixtures against Spanish opposition in the Champions League and have only won one of their last 11 meetings against such sides.

3 – Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic has managed three goal involvements in his side's five goals in the competition, despite only starting two games – only for Barca in 2015-16 did he record more (four).

Wolfsburg v Lille:

5 - Wolfsburg have gone unbeaten in their last five games against French opponents in European competition (W2 D3) after previously going eight games without recording a victory against French teams across all competitions (D3 L5).

8 – Lille have claimed eight points from their opening five games and could equal, or improve on, their best ever return in a group stage in the competition - nine points in 2006-07, where they qualified with a second-place finish.

Milan host Liverpool knowing they need a win to keep their Champions League hopes alive in one of the headline fixtures on Tuesday.

Real Madrid and Inter meet in a battle for top spot in Group D, with both already qualified as the Italian side travel to Spain with a woeful recent record.

Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are already through in Group A as well, with Lionel Messi aiming to follow in the footsteps of George Weah and Neymar at home to Club Brugge.

Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data behind the next set of matches.

Milan v Liverpool: Reds eye English record

Milan are searching for their first win against an English side in Europe since February 2012, while the Rossoneri have recorded victory in just one of their past nine home games in the Champions League group stage.

In contrast, Liverpool have triumphed in all five of their opening games this season as they look to become the first English side to win all six of their group-stage matches in a single campaign.

The Reds are also aiming to record victories in six consecutive games in the European Cup/Champions League for the first time in their history, with Alisson on the hunt for three consecutive clean sheets in the continental competition for his first time.

Paris Saint-Germain v Club Brugge: Mbappe and Messi await leaky defence

Club Brugge were defeated by five goals in their last clash against RB Leipzig, the third consecutive group game in which they conceded at least four times.

No team has ever gone four straight games letting in at least four, but the Belgians will have to negotiate with Messi, who could become just the third player – after Weah in 1994 and Neymar in 2017 – to score in his first three consecutive home games for PSG in the competition.

The visitors will also have to contend with Kylian Mbappe, the France international managing five goal involvements in three matches against Brugge – his joint-most against a single opponent in the competition, along with Red Star and Istanbul Basaksehir.

RB Leipzig v Manchester City: Guardiola's men out to defend German record

City are unbeaten in their previous 14 games against German opposition, including a six-game undefeated streak on the road, in a run that stretches back to November 2014 in the Champions League.

The reigning Premier League champions have won their past nine such fixtures, scoring 28 goals and conceding just nine in return, while Leipzig are winless in their most recent three meetings with English sides.

If Leipzig fail to defeat Pep Guardiola's side, it will be the first time they have not registered a single home win during the group stages in Europe.

Real Madrid v Inter: Los Blancos looking for goalscoring milestone 

Inter have claimed just one win in their past 11 meetings with Spanish opposition in European competition and their last away win against such sides came all the way back in October 2004.

The Serie A outfit have not beaten Madrid in Europe since March 1967 as Carlo Ancelotti's side look to score their 1,000th goal in the European Cup/Champions League in just their 455th game.

Karim Benzema could be central to Madrid hitting that milestone if he is passed fit, the forward already with five group-stage goals to his name this term as he sits two behind Raul in the club charts in the competition (66).

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Sporting CP:

16 - Ajax have scored 16 goals in their five games in the Champions League this season, with only Bayern Munich (19) and Manchester City (17) finding the net more.

15 - The previous three meetings between Ajax and Sporting have seen a total of 15 goals scored, at an average of five goals per game. Indeed, neither side has managed to keep a clean sheet in any of their three clashes to date.

Borussia Dortmund v Besiktas:

60 - Jude Bellingham has had a direct hand in 60 per cent of Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League goals this season (one scored, two assisted), with the last Englishman to enjoy more than three goal involvements during the group stages of a season before the age of 19 being Jack Wilshere in 2010-11 for Arsenal (one scored, three assisted).

5 - Besiktas remain the only Champions League side in 2021-22 to lose all five of their matches and are looking to avoid being the first team since AEK Athens in 2018-19 to lose each of their six group games.

Porto v Atletico Madrid:

5 - Porto will be aiming to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League for a fifth time in their past five tournament appearances (2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21). The last time they failed to do so was in 2015-16 under Julen Lopetegui.

786 - Luis Suarez's only goal in 11 appearances for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League was a penalty against Milan in September, giving him a minutes-per-goal ratio of 786. At previous club Barcelona, the Uruguay striker scored 25 goals in 55 appearances, with a minutes-per-goal ratio of 192.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Sheriff: 

1 - Shakhtar Donetsk have only won one of their past 11 home games in the Champions League (D5 L5), while they have failed to score in seven of the games in this run, including both in 2021-22 (D1 L1).

25 – Sheriff's 2-0 victory over Shakhtar in this season's tournament came despite the Moldovan side having just 25 per cent possession – since 2003-04, only Atletico (23) versus Barcelona in April 2016 have won a Champions League game by multiple goals with a lower possession percentage.

The San Francisco 49ers were hoping to write a new chapter in their rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks.

It ended up being the same old story.

Riding a three-game winning streak that had propelled them into the thick of the NFC playoff race, the Niners were expected to prevail against a 3-8 Seahawks team at their lowest ebb.

Instead, a mistake-strewn display allowed Seattle to launch what could prove the last stand of the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks keeping the Niners out of the endzone at the end of a last-ditch 95-yard drive to preserve a 30-23 win, their 14th in 16 games against the 49ers since the beginning of the 2014 season.

San Francisco could not have done more to help Seattle as the Niners missed a chance to move to 7-5 and cement their grip on a playoff berth.

It was another frustrating day in an up-and-down campaign for a team that two seasons ago was the unquestioned elite of the NFC and, while the defeat was the product of a multitude of failures, the 49ers' rollercoaster 2021 is emblematic of a quarterback akin to a thrill ride many are eager to escape from.

Talent across the board

Examine the 49ers' roster and you will find top-level talent in almost every area.

George Kittle's monstrous performance in Seattle was yet another illustration of the playmaking capability at their disposal.

Racking up 189 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, Kittle produced a big play on five of his 12 targets against the Seahawks, thriving as the focal point of the Niners' offense with Deebo Samuel out with a groin injury.

It is Samuel who was the catalyst of that three-game winning run, the 2019 second-round pick compiling an Offensive Player of the Year resume with his exploits as both a wide receiver and a running back.

With two rushing touchdowns in Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings, Samuel became the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to score on the ground in three straight games. He is tied for the league lead with 14.9 scrimmage yards per touch and has 10 total touchdowns to his name.

The first Niners wideout to surpass 1,000 receiving yards since 2014, Samuel leads all players at his position with 9.5 yards after catch per reception. Kittle is sixth among tight ends with 222 yards after catch, a tally padded by his incredible 48-yard catch and run for his second touchdown on Sunday.

Between that duo and the resurgent Brandon Aiyuk, whose big-play rate of 39.7 per cent is ninth among wideouts with at least 25 targets, the 49ers possess three significant passing-game threats whose versatility is a constant problem for defenses.

In addition to Samuel's exploits as a runner, the Niners' rushing attack also features arguably the top rookie running back in the league in Elijah Mitchell, whose 84.3 yards per game on the ground are the most among first-year tailbacks.

That ground game is aided significantly by the play of the man most consider the league's elite left tackle in 2021. Trent Williams headed into Week 13 with a run-block win rate of 84.91 per cent and a pass-block win rate of 89.32 per cent that are both a long way above the respective league averages of 73.16 per cent and 78.60 per cent for the tackle position.

On the other side of the trenches, defensive end Nick Bosa is third in the league in sacks with 12 and tied for the NFL lead with 16 tackles for loss, serving as the undoubted star of a defense that held Seattle to 4.8 yards per play and forced three turnovers despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

Even without Samuel, the 49ers objectively had enough talent at their disposal to prevail and improve to 7-5, especially with a strong effort from the defense. Their failure to stretch the winning run to four games was not down to the injury to Samuel, but an infuriating lack of execution that has been a recurring problem in 2021.

Turnovers, penalties a continuing plague

While sections of the box score reflect the dominance the Niners enjoyed for long periods against Seattle, it is easy to identify the areas where it went wrong.

They committed three turnovers, were called for 10 penalties and went three for 10 on third down, losing the time of possession battle against a team that ranks last in that category.

It was a frustratingly familiar tale for the Niners, who lost to Seattle in Week 4 in strikingly similar fashion and have frequently been plagued by turnovers and penalties this season.

The Niners are 23rd in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus 4, while they have given up the fourth-most penalty yardage per game in the NFL (65.25).

Miscues on defense and on their special teams, which gave up a fake punt touchdown and lost a fumble as Travis Benjamin dropped the opening kickoff of the second half, contributed to the Niners continually gifting free plays and extra possessions to the Seahawks.

Yet, beyond the obvious poor discipline in other areas, the 49ers' latest Seattle horror show was an encapsulation of the pitfalls of trusting your offense to a quarterback as volatile as Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo's limitations again laid bare

The Niners' winning streak had quieted most of the questions surrounding when Kyle Shanahan would bench Garoppolo for rookie third overall pick Trey Lance, San Francisco's starter having largely played well across each of those victories.

And Garoppolo was, for the most part, accurate against the Seahawks. He delivered a well-thrown ball on 90 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Derek Carr and Gardner Minshew for Week 13.

However, two of the Niners' three turnovers came as a result of brutal interceptions from Garoppolo. San Francisco's defense prevented the first, on which Garoppolo failed to spot the underneath coverage of Bobby Wagner and threw the ball right to the Seattle linebacker, from resulting in points.

They could not do the same following the second, however, Garoppolo inexplicably trying to force a ball to Kittle despite double coverage when he had Trent Sherfield open on a corner route, with that pick followed by the ultimately decisive touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

Intercepted eight times in 2021, Garoppolo has thrown a pickable pass on 14 of his 300 attempts, that ratio of 4.67 per cent inferior to the league average of 3.78 per cent.

With a passer rating of 83.2 on passes of 21 air yards or more that is 23rd among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of that distance, the book on Garoppolo remains the same. At his best, he can execute Kyle Shanahan's offense to a high level, but he consistently limits its potential by struggling to push the ball downfield, committing mind-boggling interceptions and failing to create outside the pocket.

Exacerbating the frustration around Garoppolo's consistent inconsistency is that Lance, an athletic dual-threat quarterback and a more gifted downfield thrower, would theoretically remove those two limiting factors with which his more experienced team-mate continues to shackle the offense.

The 49ers are not short of their problems elsewhere on the roster. The right side of the offensive line is a major issue and the lack of depth at cornerback has been frequently exposed.

Yet those concerns are exacerbated when a team has a quarterback who cannot create for himself when the pocket breaks down and who regularly puts the defense under pressure with ill-advised throws that are all too often a part of his repertoire.

Though the penalties and mistakes from his team-mates have been too common to simply label Sunday's performance in Seattle as an aberration, the more common thread in losses for the 49ers this season has concerned Garoppolo and the limitations to his game that have long since been apparent.

With the stars they have on both sides of the ball, the 49ers should be much more than a 6-6 team scrapping for a Wild Card and coming up short against the worst Seahawks team of the Carroll-Wilson era. The likelihood is San Francisco will make the playoffs but, for them to have hope of and making any noise in the postseason, it would require a switch to a quarterback with the potential to be much more than Garoppolo.

Chelsea slipped from first to third in the Premier League over the weekend after a costly defeat at West Ham, which included a bizarre late winner for the hosts.

Divock Origi was told to "Be Divock" by Jurgen Klopp, so duly went and scored a 94th minute winner for Liverpool at Wolves, while Ralf Rangnick achieved something his fellow German didn't in his first game as interim boss at Manchester United.

Antonio Conte and Steven Gerrard also continued their positive starts to respective gigs at Tottenham and Aston Villa in a sentence that feels like it's straight from your favourite football management simulation game rather than real life.

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

 

Chelsea Hammered

Did he mean it? Arthur Masuaku says no but your West Ham supporting mates say yes.

Masuaku's kick of the ball in the 87th minute at the London Stadium flew past Edouard Mendy to inflict Chelsea's second league defeat of the season, toppling them from the summit of the Premier League.

It was the Frenchman's first Premier League goal in his 96th appearance for the Hammers, from his 29th attempt at goal, if you can even call it that.

The 3-2 defeat was Chelsea's first in the Premier League after leading at half-time since December 2018 against Wolves under Maurizio Sarri – they had been unbeaten in 48 league games when ahead at half-time before Saturday (W40 D8).

It is no time to panic for Blues fans, though. The future looks bright with all their talented young players, accompanied by Brazil's answer to Steve Buscemi with a skateboard over his shoulder.

Aged 37 years and 73 days, Thiago Silva became the oldest player to score for Chelsea in the Premier League, breaking Didier Drogba's record from April 2015 against Leicester City (37 years, 49 days).

The Late Late Show with Divock Origi

You could say there was an air of inevitability about it as Divock Origi arrived on the Molineux pitch in the 68th minute on Saturday.

The Belgian is a man who arguably deserves a statue more than a starting place at Anfield, having scored just once in the league prior to this game since the last day of the 2019-20 season, but who has famously bagged late goals just when his team has needed them.

His dramatic strike in the closing seconds of this game was Liverpool’s 39th winner scored in 90+ minutes in the Premier League, at least 13 more than any other side. It was also his 10th as a substitute in the Premier League for the Reds, with no player having netted more from the bench for the club in the competition.

It felt harsh on Wolves, though they had hardly done much to bother their opponents at the other end of the pitch, having just three shots in this game, their fewest in a Premier League match since March 2019 (two vs Chelsea).

One particularly sore loser will have been skipper Conor Coady. Although a former Liverpool player, he will have been hoping his heroic goal-line block of Diogo Jota's effort, with an xG of 0.604, would have at least secured a point for his team, particularly as the ball hit him square in the Divocks.

 

King Ralf

There had not been such anticipation about the future of Manchester United since that bloke Ole was at the wheel. Remember him?

United's interim gaffer Ralf Rangnick became the sixth German to manage in the Premier League as he stood in the Old Trafford dugout to see his new team beat Crystal Palace, and he was the first to win his debut game in charge in the competition (Felix Magath, Klopp, Jan Siewert, Daniel Farke and Thomas Tuchel all failing to do so before him).

Following the 1-0 success, six of the last seven managers (including caretakers) have won their first game in charge of the Red Devils in all competitions, with Louis van Gaal being the only exception (he suffered a 2-1 loss against Swansea City at Old Trafford in August 2014).

United also kept their first clean sheet at home in all competitions since April against Granada in the Europa League, having conceded in 15 consecutive home matches prior to Sunday.

Fred's impressive winner was his second goal of the season in 12 Premier League matches, as many as he scored in 76 appearances in his first three seasons in the competition beforehand.

More capital chaos for Canaries

After their 3-0 defeat at Tottenham, Norwich City have now lost 12 of their past 13 Premier League games in London (W1), conceding 29 goals and scoring just three.

Antonio Conte became the third Spurs manager to win his first three Premier League home games, after Ryan Mason and Harry Redknapp, but will be hoping that Kane will start to find the net again soon, with the England captain having only scored once in 13 league games this season.

Norwich manager Dean Smith felt his team were hard done by, and perhaps he had a point when you consider how close the xG of the contest ended, with Norwich's 1.33 only just behind Spurs' 1.52. It was little surprise that Conte's men were more deadly in their finishing though, particularly with Son Heung-min about.

The South Korea forward has been directly involved in 50 per cent of Tottenham’s league goals this season (six goals, two assists), with only Teemu Pukki (63 per cent) and Emmanuel Dennis (55 per cent) being involved in a higher share of their side's tally.

Son both scored and assisted in a single Premier League game for the 19th time. Since 2015-16, only Mohamed Salah (22) has done so more often in the competition.

 

Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, seems management isn't hard

Doing a stellar job at Rangers is one thing, but Steven Gerrard's management capability was really going to come under the microscope when he moved south to the Premier League.

It is still early days of course, but so far, the former Liverpool and England midfielder must be wondering what all the fuss was about as he saw his Aston Villa side win again with a 2-1 victory against Leicester City and his former boss Brendan Rodgers.

Having only won three of their first 11 Premier League games of the season under Dean Smith (D1 L7), Villa have since won three of their first four under Gerrard, with the only failure coming in the narrow 2-1 defeat at home to champions Manchester City.

Gerrard emphasised on his arrival that he wanted to improve the defence, but Ezri Konsa must have thought he meant at the other end as he bagged a brace on Sunday. In his 216th professional appearance in all competitions, Konsa scored twice in a game for the first time. In doing so, he was the first defender to score a brace for Aston Villa in a Premier League match since Ciaran Clark against Arsenal in November 2010.

Leicester, meanwhile, are now the first side to both score and concede a goal in 15 consecutive away games in England's top flight since Burnley from April 1961 to March 1962 (16 in a row).

Australia will be expected to ensure normal service is resumed in the heat of an Ashes battle at the Gabba when they start a new era on Wednesday.

The Tim Paine sexting scandal presented Pat Cummins with the opportunity to become the first fast bowler to captain the Australia Test side.

Cummins was appointed less than a fortnight before his side start their defence of the urn against fierce rivals England, with Steve Smith his assistant as Paine takes an indefinite mental health break from cricket. 

The paceman has long since been talked of as a potential successor to Paine and gets his chance earlier than expected.

Cummins was already on a high from playing his part in Australia's maiden T20 World Cup triumph in Dubai last month and should thrive on the extra responsibility of being skipper.

Australia have not played a Test since they were consigned to a 2-1 home defeat to India in January and although England have had plenty of action in the longest format this year, poor weather in Brisbane has badly hampered their preparations.

Stats Perform picks out some of the storylines, sprinkled with some Opta data, from an Australia perspective before one of the great sporting rivalries gets under way again.

 

Cummins to get Australia going?

Cummins has led Australia's pace attack on many occasions and was the pick of the bowlers in a 2-2 Ashes series draw in England two years ago, taking 29 wickets at average of 19.62.

Since the start of 2018, no bowler has claimed more scalps in the longest format than the 28-year-old's 128 - which have come at 19.9 apiece.

Cummins, the number one Test bowler in the world, will no doubt be licking his lips at the prospect of ripping into what has been a fragile England batting line-up.

Josh Hazlewood will also pose a huge threat and Mitchell Starc will be out to silence critics such as Shane Warne, while Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser show Australia's strength in depth in the pace ranks.

 

Gabba no longer a fortress?

Australia had not lost a Test at the Gabba for 33 years until India's famous victory in January.

Joe Root fanned the flames last month by stating the hostile Brisbane venue is no longer such a "stronghold" for Australia.

It has most certainly not been a happy hunting ground for England, who have only won four of 21 Tests at the stage for the curtain-raiser for the series. The tourists' last Test win at the Gabba came in November 1986.

England have not won a Test in Australia since January 2011, losing nine and drawing one of their previous 10 contests, and they will be braced for a barrage of pace when they start their quest to regain the urn this week.

 

England must find an answer to Smith and Labuschagne 

The England bowlers had seen more than enough of Smith by the end of the 2019 series.

He racked up 774 runs at an average of 110.57 from seven innings, reaching three figures on three occasions and scoring a sublime 211 at Old Trafford.

The former skipper broke his own record for number of runs in a Test series in the 21st century. Only the great Don Bradman (19) and Jack Hobbs (12) have more Ashes centuries than Smith's 11.

Marnus Labuschagne was also outstanding in England two years ago, averaging 50.42. He has been a revelation at number three and will have a big role to play.

 

Australia in safe hands with Carey?

Alex Carey will take the gloves and make his Test debut at the Gabba in the absence of Paine.

Carey has plenty of experience at the age of 30 and has 83 international white-ball experiences under his belt.

He comes into his Test bow on the back of making a timely century for South Australia against Queensland in the Sheffield Shield and has a chance to cement his spot in the side.

After a grand total of one day without Premier League football, the action returned on Saturday and there was a change at the top of the Premier League.

That's right, Chelsea slipped up again and handed the initiative to Manchester City and Liverpool, both of whom were victorious later in the day.

There was also a change at the bottom as Newcastle United left the foot of the table – at least until Sunday – meaning there are three sides all on 10 points in the relegation places.

Without any further ado, let's look at the best of the day's action with a pick of Opta's post-match facts…

West Ham 3-2 Chelsea: Blues dealt Hammer blow

Chelsea are off the Premier League summit as a result of their defeat at London rivals West Ham, who continue to confound doubters under David Moyes.

They found themselves behind at the break but came on stronger in the second half, becoming the first team to beat Chelsea after the Blues had been leading at half-time since Wolves in December 2018 – that was a run of 48 games unbeaten when ahead at the halfway mark of a game.

Further to that, it was only the third time in Thomas Tuchel's 53 games in charge that Chelsea have conceded more than one goal in a game.

One of West Ham's goalscorers surely felt confident – after all, Manuel Lanzini's goal was his 11th in London derbies, or 48 per cent of his Premier League total (23), the highest ratio of any player in the competition's history with at least 20 goals scored.

There was also a first to celebrate. Arthur Masuaku opened his West Ham account in his 96th match, with the left-back's momentous goal also proving to be the winner.

The win moved West Ham to within six points of their visitors, with the Hammers fourth.

Watford 1-3 Manchester City: Hornets are cannon fodder

Even if Pep Guardiola's City did not arrive in fine form, few would have given Watford a chance here – and the match went just as most were expecting.

Watford's record against City was woeful at best already – now they've conceded 41 goals in 13 meetings with them in the Premier League, the most they have let in against any single side in the competition.

Similarly, the 3.2 goals per game they concede on average in this fixture is the most by one side against another among all Premier League fixtures played at least 10 times.

That one-sided nature also reflects on Guardiola, who has won all 10 of his managerial games against Watford in all competitions by an aggregate score of 42-4, his best 100 per cent winning record over any side.

City are now unbeaten across their past 19 meetings with Watford (W17 D2, all competitions), netting 62 goals in this run – they've only ever had a longer unbeaten run once before against a specific team (22 games against Norwich from 1965-1981).

Wolves 0-1 Liverpool: Origi comes up trumps as Reds steal it at the death… again

It wasn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but Liverpool got the job done to move above Chelsea and stay just a point behind new leaders City.

Only just, though.

Divock Origi spared Jurgen Klopp's blushes with a stoppage-time winner, the Belgian continuing his habit of being a decisive and useful option off the bench.

That was his 10th goal as a substitute in the Premier League for the Reds, a club record.

Liverpool have now scored the winning goal after the 90th minute on 39 occasions in the Premier League, at least 13 more than any other team.

There was also good news for Mohamed Salah – he didn't score, but his assist for Origi's winner ensured he's been involved in a goal in each of his last 13 top-flight appearances, a record only Jamie Vardy (15) has ever surpassed.

Newcastle United 1-0 Burnley: Howe's about that?

At long last, every team in this season's Premier League now has at least a one in the wins column – Newcastle defeated Burnley at St James' Park to finally get off the mark.

Newcastle had not won any of their previous 15 matches in all competitions, losing seven and drawing the other eight.

Additionally, it was only their second clean sheet of the season, the other also coincidentally coming against Burnley in the EFL Cup back in August.

Of course it was also Eddie Howe's first win since being appointed by the club, with Callum Wilson – who also played under the manager at Bournemouth – delivering the goods.

It was Wilson's 43rd Premier League goal for Howe, a record only Joshua King (48) has bettered for him.

While it remains to be see if Howe is able to keep Newcastle up, there's no doubt he's got them playing on the front foot more, as they are averaging 15 shots (five on target) each game compared to 11 (three) prior to his arrival in 2021-22.

Southampton 1-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Saints give it up

Just when Southampton thought they had the points in the bag, Brighton pulled it back.

Brighton were down to 10 men, having had Leandro Trossard taken off injured after using all their substitutes, but Neal Maupay struck deep into stoppage time to seal a draw.

That was Brighton's fourth (of eight) away Premier League goal to have been scored in the 89th minute or later this term, and the third netted by Maupay.

Brighton remain winless in 10 league games, their longest top-flight run since 1983, but they celebrated it like a win – for Southampton, it felt like a defeat.

Saints have now dropped 71 points from winning positions in the league under Ralph Hasenhuttl, 15 more than any other team since his December 2018 appointment.

When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed contract back in 2018, they believed they were landing a quarterback who put them over the top and could help them deliver a first Super Bowl title.

What they actually acquired, however, was perhaps the league's ultimate enigma at quarterback.

Nobody could look at Cousins' raw numbers and deem him a bad quarterback. Yet throughout his career both with the Vikings and beforehand in Washington, he is a player who has continued to confound, most notably with an apparent inability to deliver in 'clutch' situations with the game on the line.

Cousins' time as a pro was arguably encapsulated by his showing in Week 12. In the most important game of a season in which he has the best touchdown to interception ratio in the NFL, Cousins came up dismally small, a series of poor throws and a turnover dooming the Vikings to defeat against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Vikings are not without their problems in other areas. However, with the weapons around Cousins, theirs is an infrastructure seemingly conducive to quarterback success.

In terms of his statistics, Cousins has largely succeeded in 2021. Yet baffling performances like the one that dropped the Vikings to 5-6 last week only serve to give rise to the debate around Cousins and whether he is holding his team back.

Cousins' San Francisco slump

Already over 3,000 yards passing with six games still to play, with 23 touchdowns and a career-low three interceptions to his name, statistically the 2021 campaign ranks among Cousins' finest seasons.

Delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 80.8 per cent of his pass attempts, above the league average of 78.4, and throwing a pickable pass on 10 out of his 385 attempts, Stats Perform's advanced metrics also reflect well on Cousins.

But it is that apparent season-long consistency that makes displays like his showing against San Francisco all the more bemusing.

Cousins has done an excellent job of taking care of the football this season, yet his third interception of the year came in the third quarter against the Niners as he somehow failed to spot linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair crowding his throwing lane on an attempted pass to Adam Thielen. As far as failures to correctly read the field go, that was as bad as it gets.

That interception set the Niners up to take a 28-14 lead, a gap the Vikings were unable to bridge in large part because of inaccurate throws by Cousins.

He led the Vikings on a touchdown drive on the next series only to then miss a wide-open Justin Jefferson on a two-point conversion try with a low throw.

Jefferson was the target on a fourth-down throw in the fourth quarter that sailed well over his head, that play coming after Minnesota burned a timeout due to Cousins lining up behind the right guard instead of the center.

Cousins is not the first quarterback to accidentally line up in the wrong spot in the heat of the moment, but such a gaffe gives the impression of a signal-caller ill-equipped to deliver when the pressure is at its highest.

And, given the performance of the surrounding weapons, it is no wonder Jefferson was left throwing his arms up in disbelief at some of Cousins' misses.

Stacked supporting cast

Any thought of Jefferson taking a step back after a historic 2020 season that saw him break the rookie record for receiving yards has been put to bed.

Jefferson is on pace to surpass his tally of 1,400 yards from last year and, among wide receivers with at least 25 targets, he ranks seventh in burn percentage, which measures the rate at which a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, while he is 11th with a big play rate of 39 per cent.

Thielen, who had a pair of touchdowns against San Francisco, has also excelled at creating big plays, doing so on 34.6 per cent of his targets.

With K.J. Osborn emerging as a legitimate third receiving option and Tyler Conklin enjoying a career year at tight end, Cousins possesses one of the best groups of pass-catchers in the NFL and is supported by a run game that has produced 37 runs of 10 yards or more, the 12th-most in the league.

The potential absence of Dalvin Cook with a shoulder injury may reduce the assistance Cousins gets from the ground attack, but he is certainly in no position to complain about a stacked supporting cast, though he may be frustrated by a lack of help from other areas.

The Vikings' fatal flaw

Cousins' sack numbers have drastically improved this season. After taking 39 sacks last year, he has suffered only 15 across 11 games in 2021, pointing to an improvement on the offensive line.

Yet a deeper assessment at the O-Line's performance suggests there may be a hint of fortune about the Vikings' success in preventing sacks.

Indeed, Cousins has attempted 136 passes under pressure, second only to Matt Ryan (145), while the Vikings rank a lowly 28th in pass protection win rate.

More often than not, the Vikings are losing the battle in the trenches, and that is the case on the defensive side of the ball, too.

Continually bullied off the ball by the 49ers' superb rushing attack, the Vikings gave up 208 yards on the ground at an average of 5.3 yards per attempt.

Though San Francisco's run game has dominated several teams this season, the Vikings' inability to stop them was in keeping with a theme of their season.

They rank 26th in opponent yards per play allowed with 5.87 and are giving up 4.83 yards per rush, the most in the NFL. In Stats Perform's rush yards under expected allowed, the Vikings are also 26th.

Minnesota's severe underperformance in containing opposing run games has a two-pronged effect. It has contributed to a defensive effort that has the Vikings giving up 25.1 points per game - with only eight teams conceding more - and allowed opponents to control the clock as the 49ers did last Sunday.

Cousins' inability to make the key throws and that dismal interception undoubtedly played a critical role in Minnesota coming up short in Week 12, but the massive disadvantage in time of possession that resulted from San Francisco's run game dominance, along with a fumble from Cook as he suffered his injury, limited opportunities for the passing game to turn things around.

That a quarterback of Cousins' experience and undoubted talents continues to throw in these sporadic head-scratching showings is a legitimate problem for the Vikings. However, they are too infrequent for him to be considered as holding Minnesota back.

The reality is that, between the amount of points they are giving up and Minnesota's ineffectiveness against the run, the Vikings - for all their strengths on offense - aren't in a position to survive Cousins' off days.

The Los Angeles Chargers approached the 2021 season viewed by most as much more likely to make the leap and become contenders in the AFC than the Cincinnati Bengals.

But as the Chargers and the Bengals prepare to do battle in a matchup that will be critical to deciding the final AFC playoff picture, Cincinnati are the team in a better position to mount a deep postseason run.

The Bengals sent a message in Week 12 with a 41-10 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers that moved Cincinnati to 7-4, giving them their first sweep of that AFC North rival since 2009 and ensuring they ended the weekend only a game behind the AFC's current number one seed the Baltimore Ravens.

Los Angeles go into Week 13 only a game out of their division lead, but with a 6-5 record and coming off a disheartening road loss to the Denver Broncos.

Last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert threw the ball 44 times against Denver, his second-highest mark of the season having attempted 47 passes versus the Washington Football Team in Week 1.

Yet the depth of those passes should encourage a Bengals defense that has greatly improved in 2021.

Herbert averaged only 7.11 air yards per attempt last week, per Stats Perform data, below the league average for Week 12 of 7.93.

External frustration is mounting at the apparent shackling of Herbert by his own offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the explosive plays that defined his superb rookie season significantly reduced this term.

Herbert was tied seventh in the NFL last season with 32 pass plays or 25 yards or more in 15 games. Through 11 games this season, he has just 16.

While the Bengals are in the top half in the NFL by yards per game allowed, ranking 13th with 348.2, they have proven susceptible to the big play.

The Bengals have given up 47 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the seventh-most in the league, and it would surely be a great relief to their defense to see the Chargers stick with a conservative passing game and miss a chance to take advantage of a weakness for Cincinnati.

After Joe Mixon gashed the Steelers for a career-high 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the Bengals likely won't hesitate to use the ground game to capitalise on a clear defensive deficiency for the Chargers.

The Chargers have given up the most rush yards (1,598) in the NFL in 2021 while their rush average allowed of 4.69 yards per carry is the league's fourth-worst.

Should the Bengals enjoy similar success on Sunday, that will take a great amount of pressure off 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow as he bids to pick apart a defense that is not living up to Chargers head coach Brandon Staley's reputation.

Herbert looked to have surpassed Burrow as the premier quarterback from the 2020 draft class and most would argue he is still the cream of that particular crop.

Yet if the Chargers cannot minimise their struggles on run defense and find a way to open up the passing game against a Bengals defense evidently vulnerable to explosive plays, Burrow could take a significant step towards starting his playoff career before Herbert. 

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