Wherever you stand on football's GOAT debate, you can't deny the legacy of Diego Maradona.

Some would place him behind Lionel Messi as Argentina's greatest ever footballer, and short of Pele in the sport's pantheon of the mighty; others would say Maradona eclipses them all. It's a debate that has raged for decades, and one that is not likely to be settled for some time.

But nobody can argue that Maradona – who died a year ago to the day at the age of 60 – produced a string of performances to rival anything the World Cup has ever witnessed in Mexico in 1986.

From the group stage to the final with West Germany, via the 'Goal of the Century' and a brazen moment of cheating, Maradona was so far above his contemporaries that the sheer idea of anyone else winning the Golden Ball was laughable.

Argentina beat South Korea, drew with Italy and defeated Bulgaria in their group, then saw off Uruguay, England and Belgium in the knockouts before a 3-2 final defeat of West Germany. 

As Opta data shows, Maradona was the beating heart of the Albiceleste's second World Cup triumph.

TAKE MY BREATH AWAY

Gary Lineker was the only player to score more goals (six) at the 1986 World Cup than Maradona (five). That's about the only category where he did not come out on top.

He added five assists to those five goals in his seven appearances, giving him the most goal involvements (10) of any player, ahead of the USSR's Igor Belanov (eight), and Lineker, Careca and Preben Elkjaer Larsen (six).

It stands to reason that Maradona also created more goalscoring chances (27) than any other player. Next on the list was France's Alain Giresse (24), then Klaus Allofs (23), Michel Platini (19) and Careca (17).

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Everyone, most famously West Germany, tried to man-mark Maradona out of the equation. None succeeded.

He completed 53 dribbles across the tournament, a tally that puts the rest of the competition to shame. The next highest number was recorded by USSR's Ivan Yaremchuk, who managed 16.

Of course, that kind of dazzling play will always attract a more prosaic approach from the opposition. Maradona was fouled 53 times, more than double the number of anyone else (Enzo Francescoli was next on 27 fouls won).

EDGE OF HEAVEN

Maradona's all-round impact on proceedings could only come from a player given freedom to drop deeper and seize the ball from lesser men. It's incredible, then, that he managed 44 touches in the opposition box, eight more than the next-highest on the list, Brazil's Careca. Lineker, winner of the Golden Boot, had 31 such touches.

Lineker and England have, of course, never forgotten Maradona's impact on their 2-1 quarter-final defeat in Mexico City. It was the scene of his greatest goal – a mazy, miraculous waltz through the heart of the opposition that ended with the bamboozling of goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and his crowning moment of infamy, when 'The Hand of God' punched Argentina into the lead.

Perhaps that wasn't such a one-off, though. Since 1966, no player has committed as many handballs at the World Cup as Maradona (seven) – and they're just the ones the referees spotted.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola will be looking to seal top spot in Group A of the Champions League on Wednesday with a win against Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium, having lost the reverse fixture 2-0 in the French capital in September.

Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid will also be seeking revenge as they visit Sheriff after the Moldovan outfit famously won 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu on matchday two.

After losing their first league game of the season at the weekend, Milan must find the first win of their European campaign if they are to keep their hopes of qualification alive when they travel to Atletico Madrid.

Stats Perform picks out the key Opta facts ahead of Wednesday's Champions League action.

 

Manchester City v Paris Saint-Germain: Messi aims to smite Guardiola again

Despite failing to find the net in Paris, only Bayern Munich (17) have scored more goals than Manchester City (15) in the Champions League this season. The Citizens are averaging 3.4 expected goals per game in the competition this term; since the start of 2013-14, this is the highest per-game average by a team in the group stage in a single Champions League campaign. 

PSG are winless in their past three away games in the Champions League (D2 L1), and could go without an away victory in the group stage of the competition in a single season for the first time since 2004-05. 

Lionel Messi, who fired home a brilliant second in the reverse game, has scored seven goals in seven Champions League appearances against City, the second-most by a player against an English club in the competition after his own haul of nine goals in six appearances against Arsenal.

7 - Lionel Messi has scored more UEFA Champions League goals against Man City (7) than any other player, while his seven goals against sides managed by Pep Guardiola (two vs Bayern Munich, five against Man City with him as manager) are also the most of any player. Haunting. pic.twitter.com/wPAYIZTx2R

— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 28, 2021

 

Sheriff v Real Madrid: Can Benzema keep up his form?

Real Madrid have won both of their away games in the Champions League this season without conceding a goal (1-0 v Inter and 5-0 v Shakhtar Donetsk), while they last managed this in three consecutive away games in the competition between October 2014 and February 2015, during Carlo Ancelotti’s first spell in charge of the club.

After their famous win in Spain this season, Sheriff could become just the fourth team to win their first two meetings with Madrid in European competition, after Liverpool (1981, 2009), Galatasaray (2000, 2001) and Benfica (1962, 1965).

One rather big obstacle to stop that from happening is Karim Benzema, who has scored in each of his previous three Champions League appearances (four goals), and will be looking to do so in four in succession for the first time since 2016-17. His brace against Shakhtar last time out took him to 100 direct goal involvements in the Champions League (75 goals and 25 assists). 

 

Atletico Madrid v Milan: Must-win for the Rossoneri

Stefano Pioli's side need a win to keep their slim hopes of qualification for the knockout stages alive, having amassed just one point from their four games, but the numbers do not bode well for the Rossoneri. Atletico Madrid have a 100 per cent record against Milan in European competition, winning all three of their meetings, which have all been in the Champions League – 1-0 away and 4-1 at home in 2013-14, and 2-1 away from home this season. 

Joao Felix has been directly involved in four of Atletico's previous five goals at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League, scoring three times himself and providing an assist for Antoine Griezmann against Liverpool in October.

Milan have only won one of their past 16 games against Spanish opponents in the Champions League (D6 L9), beating Barcelona 2-0 at home in the round of 16 in 2012-13. Indeed, they are winless in their previous six such games (D1 L5), suffering defeats in each of the most recent four. 

 

Liverpool v Porto: Salah still a threat despite no jeopardy for Reds

Liverpool may have already sewn up top spot in Group B, but they will want to keep up their impressive record against Porto. The Reds are unbeaten in their nine meetings in European competition (W6 D3), with five of those games coming during Jurgen Klopp's reign (W4 D1). 

Since the start of 2017-18 – Mohamed Salah's first season as a Liverpool player – the Egypt star has scored 30 goals in 47 Champions League appearances. Only four of these have been penalties, with Robert Lewandowski (33) being the only player to have netted more non-penalty goals in the competition than Salah (26) during this period.

Porto defender Pepe could make his 100th career start in the Champions League in this game. In doing so, he would become just the second Portuguese player in the history of the competition to start a century of games, after Cristiano Ronaldo.


Other fixtures:

Besiktas v Ajax

5 – Besiktas have lost all five of their meetings with Ajax across all European competitions – only against Dynamo Kyiv (six) have they suffered more defeats.

4 – Ajax are one of only four teams with a 100 per cent record through the opening four matchdays of the 2021-22 Champions League. The Amsterdam side will be looking to become only the second Dutch team to win their opening five games of a European Cup/Champions League campaign, after Feyenoord in 1971-72.

Inter v Shakhtar Donetsk

0 – The previous three meetings between Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League have finished goalless, with all three coming since the start of last season. There have been 66 shots recorded in these previous three games (43 by Inter and 23 by Shakhtar), without a goal being scored.

2 – Shakhtar Donetsk have only lost two of their past six away games against Italian sides in the Champions League (W2 D2), going unbeaten in the most recent two – 2-1 versus Atalanta in October 2019 and 0-0 v Inter in December 2020.

Club Brugge v Leipzig

1 – Club Brugge have only won one of their past 15 home games in the Champions League (D6 L8), with that lone victory coming against Zenit in December 2020 (3-0). This was the only game in this run in which the Belgian side managed to score more than one goal, netting just 10 across the 15 games in total.

0 – RB Leipzig are winless in their past six Champions League games, suffering five defeats in this run (D1). The Bundesliga outfit have also conceded more goals in the competition in 2021 than any other team, shipping 17 in six games this calendar year.

Sporting CP v Borussia Dortmund

– Only Salah (3.01), Lewandowski (4.77) and Sebastien Haller (5.51) have accumulated a higher xG tally (excluding penalties) in this season's Champions League than Sporting's Paulinho (2.96), who has scored with three of his six shots on target to date.

– Without Erling Haaland, who is already ruled out of this contest through injury, Dortmund have managed just five goals in four Champions League matches (1.25 on average), compared to 20 in 12 with him in the side (1.7) since his debut for the club in February 2020.

Manchester United start life without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a huge Champions League showdown at Villarreal, while Chelsea and Juventus face a blockbuster battle.

A 4-1 Premier League hammering at Watford was the final straw for the United board as Solskjaer was sacked on Sunday.

Michael Carrick has stepped in to take charge on an interim basis and must rally the troops for the clash between the top two in Group F at Estadio de la Ceramica.

Juventus are already assured of a place in the round of 16 and Chelsea will join them in qualifying from Group H if they avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge.

Barcelona take on Benfica in their first Champions League match with Xavi as boss knowing a win will see them through. 

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data for the fixtures on Tuesday.

 

Villarreal v Manchester United: Red Devils in troubled waters ahead of Yellow Submarine showdown

Villarreal have failed to beat United in five Champions League matches, drawing four and losing one.

The LaLiga side did get the better of the Red Devils in the Europa League final last season on penalties, though, and may never have a better opportunity to consign them to a defeat in Europe's premier club competition.

Carrick takes charge for the first time following Solskjaer's departure and will need United to tighten up at the back as they look to end a four-match winless away run in the Champions League. The wounded Premier League side have not kept a clean sheet in the competition this season.

Chelsea v Juventus: Bianconeri plotting another Italian job on holders

Juventus could win the group if they halt Chelsea's nine-match unbeaten run, as they lead the holders by three points.

The Premier League leaders have not lost since they went down 1-0 to Juve in September and they are overdue a victory against Italian opponents.

Chelsea have not come out on top in their past four meetings against Italian teams and Juve could become the first side to record three consecutive wins over the London club in the Champions League.

 

Barcelona v Benfica: Pressure on for Xavi's Champions League bow 

Xavi celebrated a derby victory over Espanyol in his first game as Barcelona boss on Saturday and another win over Benfica will secure qualification from Group E.

Third-placed Benfica beat Barca 3-0 in September and will attempt to become only the third side to do the double over the Catalan club in the group stage, Dynamo Kiev in 1997-98 and Bayern Munich in 1998-99 being the others to achieve that feat.

Barca are two points ahead of Benfica following back-to-back 1-0 wins over Dynamo and are looking to keep clean sheets for three consecutive Champions League games for the first time since May 2019.

 

Sevilla v Wolfsburg: Los Nervionenses nearing last chance saloon

Sevilla dropped points when they were held to a 2-2 draw by Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga on Saturday, and they can ill afford to slip up when they face Wolfsburg.

Bottom of Group G and without a win from four matches, they have not been victorious in their past seven meetings with German sides, losing four and drawing three.

Third-placed Wolfsburg have not been a Spanish team away from home in Europe, losing to Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid either side of a draw with Villarreal.

 

Other fixtures:

Dynamo Kiev v Bayern Munich

17 – Bayern have scored 17 goals in their four Champions League matches this season, the joint most by any team after four matches in a season alongside Paris Saint Germain's tally in 2017-18. Already through to the round of 16, the Group E leaders have also had the most shots (84) and shots on target (34) of any side this campaign. 

9 – Dynamo have failed to score in any Champions League matches this season, attempting just nine shots on target – three fewer than Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski has managed in 2021-22 (12).

Lille v Salzburg

43 – Following their 2-1 victory away at Sevilla, Lille will be aiming to record back-to-back wins in the Champions League for the very first time. This will be their 43rd game in the competition.

2 –  Salzburg have only won two of their previous 12 away games in major European competition (excluding qualifiers), drawing twice and losing eight times. These 12 games have seen a total of 46 goals scored (19 for, 27 against), at an average of 3.8 per game.

Malmo v Zenit

– Zenit have only won one of their past 11 games in the Champions League (D1 L9). That solitary victory and clean sheet in this run of games came in their last meeting with Malmo (4-0 in September). 

8 – If Malmo fail to score in this game, they will equal the record for most consecutive games without finding the back of the net in the European Cup/Champions League (currently on 7). The previous instances of a team going eight games in a row without scoring are Dinamo Zagreb (2016), Deportivo La Coruna (2004) and Avenir Beggen (1986).

Young Boys v Atalanta

3 – Since winning three consecutive away Champions League games without conceding a goal between October and December 2020, Atalanta have failed to win each of their past three away games in the competition (D1 L2), conceding eight goals in the process.

4 – Young Boys won their opening group game against United but have since suffered three consecutive defeats in the competition. Bottom of Group F, If they lose this game, they will have suffered four defeats in a row in major European tournaments for the first time.

Just over a month ago, no team appeared better placed to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI than the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo laid their AFC Championship Game demons to rest with a blowout win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, their offseason focus on stacking talent on the defensive line seeming to pay dividends in a 38-20 success that saw Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense held in check while Josh Allen produced a performance that seemed to solidify him as an MVP frontrunner.

Yet the winds of change blow swiftly across the NFL, especially in a season where parity reigns supreme, and six weeks on from Buffalo's victory in Kansas City, the Bills look a long way from Super Bowl contenders.

Indeed, while the Chiefs – though still far from consistent on offense – look to have got their house in order and are firmly in contention for the top seed in the AFC, the Bills no longer own top spot in their division after being run over in their own building by Jonathan Taylor and the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts marched to a 41-15 rout at Orchard Park, running back Taylor scoring five touchdowns and looking a more likely MVP contender than Buffalo's dual-threat quarterback.

While Taylor's astounding success will of course be concerning to the Bills, their season-long performance on defense has generally been impressive.

Derrick Henry also enjoyed a dominant outing running the ball against Buffalo in the Bills' Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans. However, for the most part, Buffalo's is a defense that has typically prevented opponents from performing efficiently through the air or on the ground, the Bills allowing the fewest yards per play in the NFL.

The bigger problems for Buffalo concern an offense that has stalled in recent weeks and the performance of a quarterback whose step back from his stunning 2020 is more worrying than first thought.

Buffalo's damaging offensive downturn

The Bills remain a top-10 offense by yards per play, in which they rank sixth with 5.95, yet a deeper look at their form over the past four games should only further doubt over whether this team can make the playoffs.

Indeed, since their shootout loss to the Titans, in which Buffalo would have prevailed if not for a botched quarterback sneak on a potential game-winning drive, the Bills have passed for 300 yards just once in four games, and that performance came against a New York Jets defense last in the league by yards per play allowed.

The Bills have committed nine turnovers across that span, four coming against the Colts after they gave the ball away twice in the win over the Jets and three times in an embarrassing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars where they managed only six points.

That fourth-down failure in Tennessee right now looks to be an inflection point, both for the Bills and Allen, who has struggled for the accuracy that astounded so many last season.

Allen a long way from MVP calibre 

Were it not for Aaron Rodgers' incredible 2020, Allen might have been named the MVP last year.

He was a distant second to Rodgers in the voting, receiving four votes to 44 for the Green Bay Packers star. Mahomes (2) was the only other player to receive a vote.

Allen earned those votes with a campaign he finished with 4,544 yards passing, 37 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions. He also ran for eight scores and caught another.

While he is tied fifth in the NFL with 21 passing touchdowns, Allen has already thrown eight interceptions, with his completion percentage declining from 69.2 in 2020 to 65.7 this season.

That is a reflection of his drop-off in accuracy. Last year, Allen delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 80.5 per cent of attempts, seventh in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes.

In 2021, his well-thrown percentage of 77.8 is below the average of 78.8 for quarterbacks who meet that same threshold.

No quarterback with three-figure pass attempts has thrown more interceptable passes than Allen, whose tally of 19 gives him a pickable pass percentage of 5.21 that trails only Mike White (6.87), Zach Wilson (6.86) and Davis Mills (6.06).

Only five quarterbacks have had more attempts under duress than Allen (110) and his pickable pass rate balloons to 8.47 per cent when pressured. Justin Fields (9.43) is the sole signal-caller with at least 50 passes under pressure to fare worse.

With a well-thrown percentage of 70.6 and four pickable passes against the Colts, he is trending in the wrong direction.

Yet he is not solely to blame, with his struggles partially a symptom of playing behind an offensive line that has struggled with injuries. However, protection issues aside, the numbers suggest there are gameplan adjustments available to the Bills that can make Allen's life easier.

Putting the boot in

The Colts finished with 264 yards on the ground compared to 91 for Buffalo, the Bills running the ball only 13 times.

That disparity is a reflection of the game script, with the Colts jumping out to a 24-7 lead in the first half they never looked like relinquishing.

But, in more conventional game situations, the Bills may be well served by leaning more on a run game that has been surprisingly efficient. 

The Bills are sixth in the NFL in yards per rush (4.70) but are running the ball just 32.8 per cent of the time. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have not lived up to expectations but, with the former averaging 3.34 yards per carry on rushes where this a run disruption by a defender, there is an argument for putting more faith in a ground game in which Allen can easily be incorporated.

That threat of the run and Allen's ability with his legs could also feature more heavily as part of the passing attack. The Bills average 9.85 yards per play on play-action throws (the league average is 9.28) but use it on only 13.56 per cent of pass attempts. That is slightly the league average of 12.9 but, given the success they have had when utilising a play-fake, there is room for it to become a more prominent part of the offense.

Similarly, the Bills use a boot-action on 3.68 per cent of pass attempts, below the NFL average of 5.9, yet, on the small sample size of 11 such passes, Allen is delivering a well-thrown ball 81.8 per cent of the time when they use it.

On a short week in the wake of a chastening defeat, the Bills now face a potentially season-defining game on Thanksgiving with a New Orleans Saints team that will themselves be desperate to bounce back from a humbling at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, the turnaround giving them little time to implement significant changes to the offensive approach.

However, facing an aggressive Saints defense that was gashed on the ground by a dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in Week 11, the Bills' best hope of getting back on track may be to show more belief in their highly drafted running backs and lean on the athletic upside that convinced them to make Allen the face of the franchise.

Premier League football was back with a bang this weekend following the international break.

It left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feeling especially frustrated as he paid the price for another defeat, while Mikel Arteta's Arsenal were brought back to reality by Liverpool.

That win for the Reds further highlighted their excellent record in meetings with other members of the 'big six', while Rodri once again showcased his effectiveness from distance.

Below, Stats Perform looks at some of the weekend's quirkier Opta facts.

Salah's collector's item

Another weekend, another devastating performance from Mohamed Salah.

After a quiet start, the Egyptian once again proved to be extremely effective against Arsenal, even if he was only able to score once.

Salah's goal was something of a collector's item as it was with his right foot, which in itself brought to light just how much he relies on being so good with his left.

Of his 108 Premier League goals, 87 have been with his strongest foot – that equates to 80.6 per cent, which is the greatest proportion of strikes netted with the left foot among the 31 players with at least 100 goals.

Interestingly, his Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane is also in the top six (26.5 per cent) despite being predominantly right-footed.

Solskjaer has no defence

A 4-1 defeat at Watford brought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's time as Manchester United manager to an end, and he could have few complaints about that.

While the Norwegian's work at United has largely been well received, as he leaves the club and squad in much better shape than when he took over from Jose Mourinho, it's fair to say the writing had been on the wall.

United have been especially poor defensively this season, not just in the Premier League, averaging 1.7 concessions every match across all competitions.

Remarkably, relegation-threatened Newcastle United (2.08) and Norwich City (2.14) have a worse record in that regard among Premier League clubs.

Whoever his interim replacement is will surely look at sorting United's ailing defence out as soon as possible.

Liverpool's big-six domination

For much of the Premier League era, Manchester United were the team to beat, and while they obviously wouldn't win every game, they seemed to rise to the biggest occasions.

But since Alex Ferguson's departure in 2013, it's Liverpool who have arguably become the best at dealing traversing contests with the other so-called 'big six'.

Liverpool's defeat of Arsenal took them to 142 points from such matches since the start of 2013-14, putting them ahead of Manchester City by a point – though the Reds have played one game less.

Granted, City boast the most victories (42 to Liverpool's 39), Liverpool have suffered eight fewer defeats.

Chelsea's 124 points is the third-most, while Man Utd are on 110 points, having lost to both City and Liverpool comprehensively in the past month.

Arsenal and Tottenham are a fair way adrift with 86 and 85 points respectively.

Acts of Rodri

Manchester City haven't been doing too badly without a recognised striker this season, with Pep Guardiola boasting plenty of midfielders who can find the net.

Defensive midfielder Rodri might not be one of those whom you'd associate with goalscoring, but he's making long-range piledrivers something of a habit.

His latest, in the defeat of Everton, was a blistering 25-yard drive.

That was his fourth goal from outside the box for City, with only Kevin De Bruyne (seven) and Riyad Mahrez managing more since Rodri joined in 2019.

Rodri's four is 57.1 per cent of his overall Premier League haul, which is the highest proportion in the City squad during that same period.

Gareth Southgate has signed a new contract with England until after Euro 2024, at which point he will have been in charge for almost eight years.

While it remains to be seen what state the Three Lions are in at that point, it is fair to say their current trajectory suggests a positive outcome.

Shortly after finding himself moved into the top job back in 2016, Southgate surmised he had inherited "a mess" – yet, in the following five years England have come within touching distance of ending that long wait for silverware.

The drought has not been ended, and so Southgate's job is far from finished, but he has got at least another two opportunities.

And on the evidence of the progress he has made, there is much reason for hope.

September 2016

Sam Allardyce's reign as England manager lasted just 67 days, with the Three Lions playing one match in that period before he resigned in disgrace after being covertly filmed by a British newspaper while making a slew of controversial statements, which included talk of breaching FA rules.

Southgate, in charge of the Under-21s at the time, stepped into the breach in late September to assume a temporary role, leading England to a 2-0 win over Malta in his first game.

November 2016

England's form during Southgate's 'caretaking' was decent, if not spectacular, but the FA clearly saw enough promise in how he conducted himself and dealt with the players. He was appointed on a full-time basis on November 30.

In a real show of faith, Southgate was handed a four-year contract – and to be fair to all parties, there has arguably been nothing but progress since.

December 2017

The Three Lions qualified for the 2018 World Cup in convincing fashion, dropping just four points in their 10 matches as they finished eight points clear of second-placed Slovakia.

Southgate then received a massive vote of confidence in December when, shortly after being drawn alongside Belgium, Tunisia and Panama in Russia, then-FA chief executive Martin Glenn insisted the former Middlesbrough man would remain in charge regardless of how England fared at the World Cup.

July 2018

Although England finished behind Belgium, they cruised through their World Cup group. Colombia pushed them all the way in a gruelling, physical last-16 tie, but the Three Lions progressed via their first ever penalty shoot-out victory at the tournament.

They then saw off Sweden in the quarter-finals as Southgate became the first England manager since Bobby Robson in 1990 to reach a World Cup semi-final.

Hopes of ending a long wait for success that stretched back to 1966 were ended by Croatia, but at least Southgate had England fans dreaming again.

June 2019

The inaugural Nations League presented another opportunity for England to claim only a second ever international title at senior level – they finished top of their group and qualified for the Finals in Portugal.

A 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands ended their run, though their penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland at least secured them their first third-placed finish in a tournament since Euro 1968.

November 2019

Euro 2020 qualification was confirmed with an emphatic 7-0 win over Montenegro in England's 1,000th match, and optimism was swirling all around the Three Lions ahead of a tournament that presented the opportunity of potentially playing most of their matches at Wembley.

2020 was all set to be a big year for Southgate and England…

September-November 2020

Well, that did not quite work out... The coronavirus pandemic put Euro 2020 on hold for 12 months, meaning England were not in action again until September in the second edition of the Nations League.

This time, progression to the finals did not materialise as defeats to Denmark and Belgium proved costly.

June-July 2021

Euro 2020 finally arrived… in 2021… but it was still called Euro 2020. Semantics aside, there was much to cheer about for England as they reached a first major international final since 1966.

That run was built on the foundation of a solid defence that let in just one goal en route to the final – in fact, Jordan Pickford became the first goalkeeper in European Championship history to keep five clean sheets across the first five matches.

England's home comforts at Wembley almost certainly played a part, though ultimately Italy prevailed in a penalty shoot-out in the final following a 1-1 draw after extra time. Nevertheless, it was another positive step for Southgate's Three Lions.

November 2021

During the Euros, Southgate received another vote of confidence from FA higher-ups that he was going to have his contract renewed regardless of how well they did after the group stage, so Monday's announcement was hardly a surprise.

But the confirmation was at least held off until England had secured their place at Qatar 2022, with their World Cup qualification campaign culminating in back-to-back thrashings of Albania and San Marino.

But having reached the semi-final and final of their past two major tournaments, expectations will be sky-high for England in Qatar – it would be fair to say, anything short of a semi-final spot will be deemed a disappointment.

That in itself is testament to the work Southgate has done during an immensely positive five-year tenure.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's near three-year reign as Manchester United manager was officially brought to an end on Sunday.

The Red Devils parted company with the Norwegian, who was appointed on an initial caretaker basis in December 2018, on the back of Saturday's 4-1 loss to Watford.

United's fifth defeat in seven Premier League matches leaves them with 17 points from 12 games – their second-lowest tally at this stage behind the 16 accrued in 2018-19, also under Solskjaer.

As United begin the search for a fifth permanent boss since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Solskjaer's trophyless tenure.

 

SECOND ONLY TO FERGIE

Solskjaer was given the United job on a permanent basis following an impressive three-month spell as interim boss, which started with a thumping 5-1 win over former side Cardiff City.

That was the first of 109 Premier League games for Solskjaer, meaning only legendary figure Ferguson (810) has taken charge of more matches in the competition than the Scandinavian.

For comparison, predecessor Jose Mourinho managed 93 Premier League games during his time at United, while Louis van Gaal and David Moyes were at the helm for 76 and 34 games respectively.

In all competitions, the Watford humbling was Solskjaer's 168th match – 24 games more than next-best Mourinho was given – with the iconic striker departing with a win rate of 54.2 per cent.

That is a better return than Moyes (52.9 per cent) and Van Gaal (52.4 per cent) managed, but below Mourinho's 58.3 per cent.

SOLSKJAER'S FLAT SEMI RECORD

Despite being given more time than each of the four permanent bosses before him, Solskjaer was the only post-Ferguson manager at Old Trafford to fail to win a trophy of any sort, with even Moyes walking away with a Community Shield.

Solskjaer reached five semi-finals but won just one of them, seeing off Roma in last season's Europa League before falling to a penalty shoot-out loss at the hands of Villarreal in the final.

United also reached the last four of the EFL Cup last season, where they lost to Manchester City, while the 2019-20 campaign saw them fall one step short of the final in the Europa League (defeated by Sevilla), FA Cup (defeated by Chelsea) and the EFL Cup (defeated by Man City).

 

BEST OF THE REST

Solskjaer did at least improve United's league position year-on-year after finishing sixth in his first half-season in charge, the Red Devils ending third in 2019-20 and then as runners-up to Man City last time out, albeit with a 12-point margin on the champions.

Indeed, the 197 points garnered by United since December 22, 2018 is bettered only by Man City (244) and Liverpool (245), though the points difference only goes to highlight the true gulf between United and the Premier League's two leading clubs over the past three years.

THEATRE OF NIGHTMARES

Regardless of their lack of silverware, United had some high points under Solskjaer and recently set an English top-flight record for the number of away games without defeat.

Between February 2020 and September 2021, Solskjaer's side went 29 league games without losing on their travels, surpassing Arsenal's previous high of 27 games in a run that ended in September 2004.

In fact, two of United's longest away winning runs in all competitions came under Solskjaer's management, winning nine in a row (Dec 2018 – March 2019) and 10 in a row (June – October 2020) across two separate periods.

It has been a different story at Old Trafford, though, a ground so often considered a fortress, having lost six Premier League matches on home soil last season – only in 2013-14 (seven) have they lost more times in the competition, while the 28 home goals shipped was their most ever.

 

WOEFUL DEFENSIVE RECORD

After an inconsistent start to the 2021-22 campaign, the beginning of the end for Solskjaer was arguably the 5-0 home loss to Liverpool on October 24.

That thrashing by Jurgen Klopp's side set several unwanted records, including United's largest margin of defeat against their fierce rivals at home and the first time the Red Devils had trailed by four goals at half-time in the Premier League.

Two of the three occasions United have conceded five goals in a home Premier League game have come under Solskjaer, having also lost 6-1 to Tottenham in October 2020 and 5-0 to Liverpool in October 2020.

United quite simply could not keep out opposition teams, and the 21 goals they have conceded through 12 Premier League games this term is their joint-most alongside the 2018-19 season.

Saturday provided no shortage of talking points as the Premier League returned after the international break.

Manchester United suffered another heavy defeat, this time at the hands of Watford, and it will likely be one too humiliation too many for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

There was also a harsh dose of reality fed to Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, as they were given a bruising by Liverpool at Anfield.

But two new managers began their respective tenures with victories, as Aston Villa and Norwich City each hope to enjoy a prolonged 'new manager bounce'.

Below, Stats Perform looks through the pick of Saturday's Opta facts…

Watford 4-1 Manchester United: Writing's on the wall for Solskjaer

Another week, another humiliating defeat for United and Solskjaer – Watford were the latest side to toy with the Red Devils.

United's loss was their biggest league defeat to a promoted side since a 5-1 reverse to Manchester City in September 1989, and it took them to 20 goals conceded this season already.

Only in 2001-02 (11 games) have United conceded 20 or more after fewer than in 2021-22 (13 games), while this is the first time Watford have ever beaten them in successive home league games.

United were still in with a shout at 2-1 until Harry Maguire's first red card in 121 appearances for the club, but it all fell apart thereafter.

It looks set to be the result that costs Solskjaer his job.



Leicester City 0-3 Chelsea: Foxes intimidated by pacesetters again

Most would have expected Chelsea to get a proper examination of their title credentials here – who knows, maybe this was a real statement.

Either way, Thomas Tuchel's men saw off Leicester City with great authority, or so it seemed.

In reality, Leicester actually have a dreadful record against teams starting the day top of the table. Granted, the side at the summit is usually fairly handy, otherwise they wouldn't be setting the pace, but Leicester's run is particularly poor.

They are now winless in 17 league games against the team that started the day top of the table, conceding 40 goals at a rate of 2.35 per game.

In the process of winning here, Chelsea moved level with Tottenham and Manchester City with the most away wins (five) at the King Power Stadium in the top tier.

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal: Gunners come crashing back to reality as Reds continue domination

Although Arsenal came into the weekend in good form, having not lost any of their previous 10 matches in all competitions, there was more than a hint of predictability about their Anfield defeat and the manner of it.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals against Arsenal (37) than any top-flight side has against another opponent since October 2015, which in itself is a fairly damning indictment of the Gunners' fall from grace.

Mohamed Salah got Liverpool's third goal of the game, which was also their 100th against Arsenal in the Premier League, a haul they can only better in meetings with Newcastle United (105).

It was the fifth time this season Arsenal have failed to score in a league game, with only Norwich and Watford (both seven) having a worse record.

The Gunners aren't "back" yet.

Aston Villa 2-0 Brighton and Hove Albion: Gerrard off to winning start

Steven Gerrard began his tenure as Villa boss in positive fashion, seeing off Graham Potter's Brighton.

It was a largely unspectacular bow for Gerrard but Villa eventually got the job done with two goals late on, making the Liverpool legend only the club's third permanent manager to begin with a win in the Premier League.

Ollie Watkins was the man to get the first goal of the Gerrard era, taking his tally to a club-high 17 strikes since the start of last season in the top flight.

There was also a first assist of the season for Ashley Young, who set up a Villa goal for the first time in 10 years and 189 days.

Norwich City 2-1 Southampton: Smith lifts Canaries off the foot the table

The man who made room for Gerrard at Villa, Dean Smith, also began the latest chapter of his career with a victory.

Norwich initially trailed to Che Adams' goal, but they turned things around as the Canaries came from behind to win a Premier League game for the first time in five-and-a-half years, or 36 matches.

But if they were going to end that run against anyone, the Saints would have been a good bet – since Ralph Hasenhuttl took charge in December 2018, they have dropped more points from winning positions than any other team in the Premier League (67).

Grant Hanley got Norwich's winner, his first Premier League goal in nine years and 324 days since netting for Blackburn Rovers against Manchester United in December 2011.

A 5-0 demolition by Manchester City at the end of August had Mikel Arteta hanging on to his job by a thread.

Everything pointed towards the Spaniard being one of the first – if not the first – Premier League managers to lose their job this season, with there being precious little sign of improvement from last season.

A run of 10 matches without a defeat followed, including a 3-1 win over rivals Tottenham and Arteta also won the Manager of the Month award for September. They even went into Saturday's trip to Anfield knowing a win would put them above Jurgen Klopp's men.

Whether they were caught believing the hype is up for debate, but what isn't is the fact they were utterly outclassed eventually by Liverpool, who dealt out a 4-0 defeat that put Arsenal firmly back in their place.

As you would've expected, Liverpool were the controlling force, though for the most part Arsenal looked content with how the match was progressing during the first half-hour – after all, their average of 46.8 per cent possession is their lowest seasonal record since Opta began collecting such data (2003-04), so they're used to having less of the ball.

That's not to say Liverpool didn't threaten, though. Aaron Ramsdale had to be alert to keep a Thiago Alcantara volley at bay and he then managed to tip Sadio Mane's follow-up effort around the post as the pair scrapped for the ball on the ground during an otherwise tame opening.

A flashpoint on the sidelines in the 33rd minute finally brought a little spice to proceedings, however, as Arteta and Klopp clashed following a collision between Mane and Takehiro Tomiyasu.

That seemed to increase the volume inside Anfield and it translated to greater intensity on the pitch, with Ramsdale producing fine saves to deny Mohamed Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a two-minute period soon after as the England goalkeeper continued to show the kind of decisiveness that has drawn him considerable praise in recent times.

But he was soon made to look culpable as Liverpool went in front, Mane heading in Trent Alexander-Arnold's free-kick with Ramsdale failing to keep it out despite the ball bouncing under him in a fairly central position relative to the posts.

Arsenal initially showed some invention at the start of the second period, with Emile Smith Rowe slipping a lovely pass in behind Virgil van Dijk for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, only for the Dutchman to make a fine last-ditch tackle to end the danger.

That was not a sign of things to come, however, as the Gunners fell right into Liverpool's trap with their insistence to play out from the back. 

Arsenal's possession share increased from 35.1 per cent in the first half to 55 per cent between the second-half resumption and the hour mark, and that brought Liverpool's biggest strength into play.

Klopp's men went into the weekend with a league-leading 122 high turnovers (when the ball is won within 40 metres of the opposition's goal) and it was during the early stages of the second half that they found their groove in this regard.

Alexander-Arnold even touched on it in his post-match interview with Sky Sports, saying: "The first 15, 20 minutes of the second half was probably as good as we've pressed this season. They continued to play out from the back and we were all over them. They were just seeing red blurs all over the place, and that's what we want."

The Reds' pressing was relentless in the Arsenal half and that forced the visitors into numerous mistakes – Albert Sambi Lokonga, Gabriel Magalhaes and Nuno Tavares were all guilty of being caught in possession inside their defensive third, with the latter seeing his error punished.

Tavares' loose pass just outside his own box was pounced on by Diogo Jota, and the Portugal star showed immense composure to casually saunter past Ramsdale and convert into an empty net.

For all the praise that's come Arsenal's way in recent times, Liverpool were providing a timely reminder that they remain some way behind the Premier League's best – and it still got worse for them.

Ramsdale produced another excellent stop to deny Jota a second, but it was only a matter of time until Liverpool got a third as they continuously broke into the spaces vacated by Arsenal.

Salah got a deserved goal as he nudged over the line after Mane raced beyond the Gunners' backline and crossed, with both then playing a major role as they made it 4-0.

Mane chased another ball over the Arsenal defence, this time courtesy of Jordan Henderson. He held the ball up, found Salah and he slipped Alexander-Arnold in to smash across goal for Takumi Minamino to bury with his first touch since coming on.

What was billed as Arsenal's first opportunity to show how much better they are since getting battered by City turned into another brutal mauling.

There's much to be optimistic about for Arsenal, given the young talent they have in their squad, but Liverpool brought them crashing back to reality here.

The NFL is a passing league. If a team has a quarterback who can elevate those around him and an offensive line that can protect him, chances are they will be well-positioned to contend for the playoffs.

Though the elite quarterbacks in the league can fit the ball into tight windows on a consistent basis, the odds of success on that side of the ball are much higher when those signal-callers are paired with receivers who can defeat man coverage and get into open space.

Excelling at finding the soft spot in zone coverage is also important, while the top play-callers in the NFL frequently engineer space for their receivers.

Yet receivers who can win one-on-one are a tremendous help to quarterbacks, especially those who can defeat the blitz regularly with their ability to efficiently read the field and find the open man.

While determining the 'best' receiver in the NFL is a subjective process that can hinge on an affinity for certain styles of play, success in beating defenders in coverage can be quantified.

Stats Perform has done so with its open percentage metric, which tracks how often a receiver gets open when they're matched up against man coverage and have enough time to run a route. Plays that break down before a matchup with a defender can take place or scramble drills where a receiver uncovers after running his initial route are discounted.

So who are the best and worst in that regard? Here we look at the top performers, some surprise names uncovering more often than perhaps expected and those who rarely separate from defenders.

THE ELITE

A year in which Cooper Kupp leads the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards has seen him established as arguably the premier route runner in the NFL.

That is reflected by his open percentage of 57.75, which is the highest of any player with more than 10 coverage matchups.

Getting open on 41 of his 71 matchups, Kupp has consistently excelled at creating separation. His burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender when he's targeted, of 65.2 is above the average of 60.3 for wideouts (min. 10 targets), while he is fourth in the NFL in burn yards per route (4.2).

Joining Kupp near the top of the tree is Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. Proving his record-breaking rookie year was no fluke, Jefferson has faced 108 coverage matchups and got open on 55 of them, good for an open percentage of 50.93. 

Eleventh among receivers with a burn percentage of 73.4 and averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, there has been no sign of a sophomore slump from Jefferson, whose combination of separation ability and prowess at the catch point has turned him into one of the most dependable and dynamic receivers in the league.

Keenan Allen (53.16) is Kupp's closest challenger, the Los Angeles Chargers veteran underlining his status as one of the NFL's most underappreciated receivers by getting open at a rate that may only heighten frustrations around his team's underperforming offense.

Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill (47.78) boasts an elite open percentage that belies his underwhelming big play rate of 28.0 per cent, with Stefon Diggs' (47.62) success at getting open dispelling the notion of a drop-off from last year's receiving leader. Davante Adams (45.65) is unsurprisingly also among the league's best, yet he is accompanied by some eyebrow-raising names.

SURPRISE STUDS

It has been tough to watch an uninspired Pittsburgh Steelers offense this season and think anyone is getting open.

Almost every passing play the Steelers run seems to end in a contested catch, yet a wideout who thrives in those situations is also winning the vast majority of his coverage matchups.

Indeed, second-year wideout Chase Claypool ranks behind only Kupp and Allen in open percentage, uncovering from a defender on 35 of his 68 matchups (51.47). 

However, a burn yards per route rate of 2.5, just above the average of 2.3, and his struggles in the burn yards per target metric (10.30) indicate that, while Claypool is separating from coverage, he is not putting significant distance between himself and defenders. He will likely need to continue relying on his superiority at the catch point.

As with the Steelers, you won't find too many people who draw a sense of excitement watching a Teddy Bridgewater-led Denver Broncos offense.

There is no doubting the talent on Denver's attack. With Jerry Jeudy hurt and Noah Fant so far failing to take the second-year leap many expected, Courtland Sutton has shone brightest and is on course for a 1,000-yard season, though Tim Patrick's impact has been comparable.

Save for Kendall Hinton (47.83 on 23 matchups), it is the relatively unheralded Patrick who has proven Denver's best at separating, his open percentage of 44.44 from 90 matchups level with Dallas Cowboys star Amari Cooper.

A below-average burn yards per route of 2.0 speaks to a paucity of substantial separation, but Patrick is using the distance he is able to put between himself and defenders to create explosive plays, his big-play rate of 36.7 per cent comfortably above the average of 29.2.

Again leading tight ends in receiving yards (747), most would expect Travis Kelce of the Chiefs to top the list at that position for open percentage. Instead, it is a former AFC West standout in ex-Charger Hunter Henry.

Scoring seven touchdowns in as many games prior to being kept out of the endzone in Thursday's win over the Atlanta Falcons, Henry possesses an open percentage of 48.15. However, he has not been double-teamed this season.

Darren Waller has a double-team percentage of 17.2 and has still managed to get open 46.75 per cent of the time. The attention the Las Vegas Raiders star draws and his ability to succeed despite it illustrate his position as one of the league's biggest matchup nightmares and arguably the gold standard at tight end.

NO ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE

The Packers' offense has stuttered by its own high standards in recent weeks, with their underwhelming numbers not just a product of Jordan Love's struggles against the Chiefs.

Since Week 6, the Packers are averaging 213.2 net passing yards per game – 20th in the NFL. For the season, they are 16th in yards per pass play (6.46).

That mediocrity can, in part, be attributed to a lack of receiving depth beyond Adams, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling's issues getting open encapsulate that problem.

Valdes-Scantling is supposed to be the Packers' deep threat who can stretch defenses with his ability to separate vertically.

Open on only five of his 38 coverage matchups – a percentage of 13.16 – Valdes-Scantling is not fulfilling his role. The Packers will likely need to be more explosive in the playoffs if they are to go all the way, meaning Valdes-Scantling must up his game.

Bryan Edwards is in a similar situation in Las Vegas. Scarcely utilised last season, Edwards has seen a bump in targets in 2021, the Raiders often going to him downfield. 

Edwards' average depth of target is 17.2 yards, but he has found deep separation hard to come by, uncovering on 17 of his 111 matchups (15.32 per cent). Yet with a gaudy burn yards per target average of 15.01 and a big-play rate of 50.7 per cent that is third among receivers (min. 10 targets), Edwards is a player who takes full advantage of the little separation he gets when Derek Carr looks his way.

Edwards' former South Carolina team-mate San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel is performing at the highest level of his young career. Samuel is second behind Kupp with 979 receiving yards and already has seven total touchdowns this season.

However, Samuel ranks near the bottom of the league in open percentage (15.07), with the difference between that number and his overall production a reflection of how he is used by San Francisco.

His average depth of target is 8.6 yards, below the NFL average for receivers of 11.0, speaking to the Niners' reliance on him on screens and short passes that are an extension of the run game.

Third in burn yards per route and leading all wide receivers with an average of 9.6 yards after catch per reception, Samuel takes advantage of those short targets with his speed, elusiveness and power, while he can win at the catch point downfield even without separation. The 49ers often get Samuel in space in the backfield but, for one of the league's most unique players, separation is not always a requirement.

It had long felt inevitable that Xavi would return to Barcelona at some stage and the time has finally come.

The former midfielder will take charge of his first match in Saturday's derby clash with Espanyol after replacing Ronald Koeman during the international break, having embraced both a financial and sporting crisis at Camp Nou that sees the team ninth in LaLiga and more than €1.2billion in debt.

Given his pedigree as a player for the club, where he won 25 major trophies, and the fact he delivered three cups and a Qatar Stars League title during his time in charge of Al Sadd, you would be forgiven for thinking Xavi could have chosen to bide his time and wait for a more opportune moment to take the job.

Yet here we are, with another of Europe's grandest sides appointing a club legend. It's a move that often resonates well with a disillusioned fan base, but recent history tells us a star playing career often counts for little when it comes to life in the dugout at the elite end of football.

There are a fair few examples of ex-players heading back to their old clubs in the past few years – and to different levels of success...

Mikel Arteta (Arsenal): Jury's out

When Arsenal lost their first three league games of the season without scoring a goal, it looked like the Arteta experiment might have run its course.

Now on a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions, buoyed by a derby defeat of Tottenham and a manager of the month award for September, it's beginning to look as though the former captain might just have got things on track at Emirates Stadium.

Winning the FA Cup last year was also a big feather in Arteta's cap, but there's still a sense that the next bad result is just around the corner. After all, he lost 20 of his first 60 league games in charge; it took Arsene Wenger 116 matches to reach that number.

Ronald Koeman (Barcelona): Failure

There is no question Koeman stepped into the breach at Barca at a terrible time, with an institutional crisis ongoing and the team having lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in Quique Setien's final game in charge. He was chosen for his estimable record as a player at the club, and he did at least deliver Copa del Rey success last term.

Yet as soon as new president Joan Laporta admitted before this season that he was basically only keeping Koeman because there wasn't another option, the writing was on the wall.

Uninspiring football and a troubling run of results that culminated in a first loss to Rayo Vallecano since 2002 forced Laporta into action – he sacked Koeman on the flight home, if reports are to be believed. In the end, his contribution as a player offered little protection.

 

Niko Kovac (Bayern Munich): Short-term success

Kovac took over from Jupp Heynckes before the start of the 2018-19 season, becoming only the fourth former Bayern Munich player to become head coach (after Soren Lerby, Franz Beckenbauer and Jurgen Klinsmann).

Trophies were not a problem: Kovac won the DFL-Supercup 5-0 against old club Eintracht Frankfurt in his first match in charge, and the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal followed. Nobody at Bayern had ever won the double as both player and coach before.

It all turned a bit sour in 2019-20, though. Bayern won just five of their opening 10 league games and were thrashed 5-1 by Frankfurt in November, at which point Kovac and the club agreed the time was right to part ways.

Frank Lampard (Chelsea): Failure

Chelsea's record goalscorer only had one season of experience at Championship side Derby County before being entrusted with the big job at Stamford Bridge.

Losing 4-0 to Manchester United in his first game wasn't exactly a strong start, but Lampard did guide the Blues to fourth in the Premier League and an FA Cup final, all while navigating the difficulties of a transfer ban.

However, after a squad investment of close to £250million before 2020-21, Chelsea's progress stalled and a run of two wins in eight league games saw Lampard replaced by Thomas Tuchel. His points-per-game average of 1.67 was the fourth lowest of any permanent Chelsea manager in the Premier League era.

Andrea Pirlo (Juventus): Failure

Compared with Pirlo, Lampard was a seasoned veteran in managerial terms. Juventus handed the top job to their former star midfielder when his only coaching experience was nine days of looking after the Under-23s.

Pirlo's swaggering style as a player did not translate itself to the dugout: Juve lacked cohesion and creativity and were embarrassed when 10-man Porto knocked them out of the last 16 of the Champions League, a result that did more damage to Pirlo's position than any other.

The former Italy man delivered Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia success, and managed to drag Juve back to a fourth-placed finish on the final day of the season, but Inter had already marched to the title by then. In the end, Pirlo lasted less than a year.

 

Mauricio Pochettino (Paris Saint-Germain): Slow progress

Pochettino is a little different to the others on our list given his coaching experience covered Espanyol, Southampton and a memorable five years at Tottenham before he went to PSG, the club where he spent two seasons as a player.

The 49-year-old has won renown for getting his teams to play high-tempo, exciting football, but this has yet to be consistently evident in Ligue 1 even if results are mostly going his way.

Ten wins from 12 games have them comfortably top of Ligue 1, while wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig stand them in good stead in the Champions League, but it feels like PSG are too often being rescued from mediocre performances by a moment of inspiration from a star player – and that's rarely been the Pochettino way.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United): Who knows?

Manchester United have become one of the most singularly baffling football teams in the world under Solskjaer, the man who won six Premier League titles as a player and scored arguably their most famous goal: the winner in the 1999 Champions League final that secured the treble.

Hired as an interim coach in December 2018 to repair the damage of Jose Mourinho's final months, Solskjaer rebuilt United's morale through sheer goodwill and a heady dose of nostalgia, both of which have kept him in the job ever since.

They finished second in the Premier League last term but lost the Europa League final, and seem to have gone backwards in 2021-22, with that 5-0 hammering by Liverpool almost sounding the death knell for Solskjaer. However, the talents at his disposal – not least Cristiano Ronaldo – seem to do just enough to keep Ole at the wheel on a weekly basis.

 

Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid): Resounding success... but walked away (twice)

Many of these clubs hoped to discover the next Pep Guardiola: the famous ex-player who could turn his first senior coaching job into something not just successful, but era-defining, unforgettable. Zidane at Real Madrid is the closest we have seen.

After spells as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and coach of the Castilla, Zidane replaced the unpopular Rafael Benitez in January 2016 and led them to Champions League glory. He did the same for the next two seasons as Madrid became the first side in the tournament's modern era to win successive trophies.

Zidane also won two LaLiga titles: in 2016-17, in which he oversaw a club-record 40 games unbeaten in all competitions, and in 2019-20, when he had returned to club after walking away in May 2018. He left again at the end of 2020-21, the only season in which he did not win a trophy.

 

International football is officially over for another year. *Pauses for cheers or jeers*

With the November international break done with, we turn our attention back to domestic football, with a hectic period set to begin in the Premier League.

More fantasy points will be available over the next seven weeks or so than at any other period in the season, such is the jammed nature of the schedule, and there's no better time to get ahead of the curve.

Stats Perform has delved into the Opta data to pick out seven picks for this week, hopefully giving you the edge...

EDOUARD MENDY (Leicester City v Chelsea)

Leicester City may represent a tricky opponent for any team, particularly given their good options going forward, but if anyone can keep them at bay, it's Mendy.

Not only has the Senegal international conceded the joint-fewest goals (four, excluding own goals, minimum of three appearances) in the Premier League, he also leads the way with 3.4 goals prevented, according to expected goals on target data.

In terms of form goalkeepers this season, Aaron Ramsdale runs him close, but Mendy is the outstanding candidate.

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Everton)

City's versatile Portuguese full-back enjoyed an exceptional 2020-21, but he seems to have stepped things up even further this term.

In 17 games in 2021-22 across all competitions, Cancelo has already reached seven goal involvements (two goals, five assists), just one fewer than his haul of eight in 43 outings last term.

He has been hugely influential at City, while it would also hardly be a surprise if they keep a clean sheet against an out-of-sorts Everton.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Liverpool v Arsenal)

Liverpool's right-back became something of a scapegoat – fairly or not, that's a discussion for another day – in 2020-21. It is safe to say his critics are rather quieter at the moment.

Only Bruno Fernandes (37) can better Alexander-Arnold's 30 chances created in the Premier League this term, while no defender has more than his four assists.

A resurgent Arsenal could cause Liverpool issues, so a clean sheet is no guarantee, but there is no defender more likely to nab you an assist or two.

CONOR GALLAGHER (Burnley v Crystal Palace)

On-loan Chelsea youngster Gallagher has been a revelation for Palace this season, with his all-action style proving a great addition to Patrick Vieira's team.

He has also provided plenty of quality in the final third, having a hand in a team-high six goals (four goals, two assists).

Gallagher has already beaten his combined tally (two goals, two assists) from 2020-21 when he was on loan at West Brom, and he won his first England cap against San Marino earlier this week.

BRUNO FERNANDES (Watford v Manchester United)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men have seemingly hobbled from 'crisis' to 'crisis' this season, and while Fernandes arguably has not been as impressive as last season, he is still essential to the Red Devils.

He leads the way with the most chances created (37) in the league this term, and that fits into his wider excellence ever since joining United, a period that has seen him supply the most assists (22) and craft the most goal-scoring opportunities (162) of anyone in the competition.

Additionally, only Mohamed Salah (55) has been involved in more goals than Fernandes (52) in the same period. Regardless of perceptions of his form, the Portugal star is a must-have, particularly given United will fancy their chances of bouncing back at Vicarage Road.

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Everton)

While he may not be playing in the striker role many might have expected before the season started, instead featuring largely as a right-sided winger, Jesus has made a strong start to 2021-22.

With the South American World Cup qualifiers not extended to a triple-header this month, Jesus is also less of a selection risk than he was after the international breaks in September and October.

But above all, he loves playing Everton. In eight Premier League games against them, Jesus has scored eight times, or roughly one every 69 minutes, and he will be aiming to give the Toffees plenty to chew on yet again this weekend.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Leeds United)

Among the players Antonio Conte will be hoping to get more out of after a slow start to the season, Son is surely near the top of the list.

Since the start of last season, no player has outperformed their expected goals (xG) tally by a greater margin than the South Korean (8.2), with 21 goals from 12.8 xG.

Obviously that can suggest a degree of unsustainable fortune on Son's part, but we all know he is an exceptional player capable of the extraordinary. Leeds are a side who let other teams play, and that might be just what the doctor ordered for Son and Spurs.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Music echoes through State Farm Arena and the crowd cheers as Trae Young dribbles the ball up the court for the Atlanta Hawks.

Like so many possessions in the NBA, the action begins with a team-mate – in this case, John Collins or Clint Capela – screening the on-ball defender, the man guarding Young.

Young is a good three-point shooter, so his defender must go over the screen. Young has seen this kind of defence countless times before and immediately dashes towards the hoop on the opposite side of the screener of his defender.

This leaves Young’s man mostly behind him, sprinting to get back into a better guarding position. Feeling his advantage, Young stops suddenly – or even pounces backward a bit – creating contact with his defender and launching a shot while flailing his limbs to exaggerate the contact.

Only, this season, NBA officials aren’t blowing the whistle.

The league placed an emphasis this offseason on reducing “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” that are employed specifically used to draw fouls, commonly known as foul-baiting.

While drawing fouls has always been a skill in basketball, the NBA felt that certain players were warping their movements in unnatural ways to get to the free-throw line and making the game less enjoyable to watch for most fans.

The changes have been dramatic league-wide, with teams averaging 19.6 free throw attempts per game, on pace to be the lowest in league history. Each team is committing just 18.8 fouls per game, on pace to be an all-time low.

And while free throw attempts have been down in the last decade due to the three-point shooting boom, an NBA game this season averages 4.4 fewer free throw attempts than one last season.

Young, fairly or not, has become the poster child for foul-baiting and has struggled to adjust early in the 2021-22 season. In an October 30 press conference, Young said he thinks the rule changes have gone too far.

“I don’t want to get fined too much, but this is frustrating,” Young said after a loss.

“When guys are driving straight and getting knocked off balance, it’s still a foul. There are a lot of things that they took out that were necessary – veering back and jumping into guys – that’s different. There’s certain things I agree with in the rule changes and there are things that are still fouls.

“Guys are going to get hurt, especially a little guy like me who is going up against bigger and stronger defenders.”

This season, Young is getting to the line 3.1 fewer times per game, on average, compared to last season. The fourth-year guard has kept his scoring average steady, though, by shooting career highs from the field and from three-point range.

Other stars have fared not quite as well.

Among qualified players, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazer has seen his opportunities at the line drop the most in the NBA, a reduction of 3.8 attempts per game. Lillard has struggled in general this season, with his scoring average down more than eight points and with career-low shooting efficiency.

The Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal has lost 3.7 free throw attempts from last season, the second most in the league, and has also seen his scoring drop eight points per game.

Only five of the league’s 30 teams have increased the number of free throw attempts per game over last season, led by the Chicago Bulls, who appear to be thriving under current rules with a new roster.

The Bulls are shooting an average of 2.5 more free throws per game than last season, thanks largely to the red-hot start of DeMar DeRozan, whose 7.9 free throw attempts per game are his highest since 2016-17 (8.7).

The Bulls as a whole rank eighth in the league in scoring defence this season, allowing 103.3 points per game after giving up 111.6 per game last season.

Largest improvement in points per game allowed Rank Team 2020-21 2021-22 Diff 1 Washington Wizards 118.5 103.0 -15.5 2 Denver Nuggets 110.1 98.9 -11.2 3 Golden State Warriors 112.7 101.6 -11.1 4 Cleveland Cavaliers 112.3 101.6 -10.7 5 Minnesota Timberwolves 117.7 107.4 -10.3 6 Brooklyn Nets 114.1 104.1 -10.0 7 Oklahoma City Thunder 115.6 105.9 -9.7 8 Indiana Pacers 115.3 106.8 -8.5 9 Chicago Bulls 111.6 103.3 -8.3 10 Sacramento Kings 117.4 110.5 -6.9

Teams are scoring 5.3 fewer points per game compared to 2020-21, and some of the league’s more defensive-minded players are finally feeling like they have a fair chance.

When asked about the officiating changes, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green couldn’t help but express his elation.

"Can I say how satisfying it is to watch the game without all those terrible calls? Guys cheating the game and grabbing guys and getting the foul," said the six-time All-Defensive Team honoree and 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year.

"I've been really enjoying watching basketball this year. I kind of had stopped watching the NBA a bit because it was just too flailing and flopping and guys cheating the game and getting free throws. So I think that's been great."

Former center and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, who built a 14-season NBA career as a defensive enforcer, has been among the media personalities who are most supportive of a more physical league.

“I love the rule change. I think it’s great for basketball. Now the older generation doesn’t have a reason to call us soft – the league is getting back to that point,” Perkins said on ESPN’s NBA Today.

“I’m a huge fan of Trae Young, but some of the calls are just not fouls, and he’s just going to have to fight through.”

Some players may already be adjusting to a different style of basketball, including infamous flailer James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets. Through his first 12 games of the season, Harden was averaging just 18.2 points and attempting 4.7 free throws per game.

Over his last four games, however, Harden is scoring a more typical 26.5 points per game and getting to the line an average of 10.8 times.

As the league starts to adjust, some in NBA circles are sceptical that scoring numbers will remain suppressed.

Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins has commented that the league’s dip in scoring could be attributed to players “trying to find rhythm and chemistry” and added that over the course of 82 games, the scoring totals “will definitely change league-wide.”

While players may adjust, the NBA appears adamant about keeping the emphasis in place as-is. In fact, teams are averaging even fewer free throw attempts in November than they did in October.

One unintended consequence of the change could be less willingness to drive into traffic, leading to more three-point attempts. While teams are launching an all-time high 35.7 attempts from deep per game, that trend has long been established, with the league breaking the record for three-point attempts per game in 10 straight seasons.

Whether it’s with deep shooting or another tactic, offences are sure to counter with new ways to find good shots.

"The league is an efficient market and is going to make adjustments," said Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. "As offences boom, you figure out new ways to defend. It's a constant ping-pong game between both ends of the floor."

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