Patrick Bamford scored a late equaliser to salvage a point for Leeds United against his former club Burnley on Sunday, having gone through a proper tussle at Turf Moor.

Burnley – accused of "wrestling" last week by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp – were full-blooded once again as they fell just short of securing a first Premier League win of the season.

"It's always tough coming here because, you don’t want to be disrespectful, but you know what you're going to get when you play against Burnley and they do make it difficult," Bamford, who had an ongoing skirmish with centre-back James Tarkowski, told Sky Sports.

"I was a little bit annoyed at [James] Tarkowski because it was just that tussle on the floor when he tried to do some weird jiu-jitsu thing on me. I don't know what he's doing!"

A Premier League landmark was also reached at Turf Moor, while Arsenal might just have a different kind of fight on their hands after suffering a third successive defeat.

Here are some of the more curious Opta facts from the latest round of games.


Turf Moor tussle sees Premier League milestone

The new initiative for referees to be somewhat more lenient seems to be paying dividends, although Wolves fans will argue otherwise after their late defeat to Manchester United.

Before what unfolded at Molineux, however, Leeds were also on the receiving end of some rather tough treatment at Turf Moor, with the game seeing seven bookings.

There was a Premier League landmark set in the Lancashire sunshine too, as Chris Wood opened the scoring.

Eric Cantona (100), Alan Shearer (4,000), Dennis Bergkamp (7,000) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (25,000) are some of the names to have previously hit the milestone goals in the competition's history, and now New Zealand forward Wood has cemented his name into the record books.

It was not exactly one to remember, Wood just managing to get a toe onto Matthew Lowton's low shot, with the ball rolling off Illan Meslier's shins and trickling over the line for the competition's 30,000th goal. 

Strangely enough, it was just a third assist for Lowton in his last 84 Premier League matches, but all three have set up goals for Wood, who scored for the first time against former club Leeds for Burnley.

Yet Burnley could not hold on, with the Clarets now on a 12-game winless run at Turf Moor in the league, their longest such streak.

Mikel's misery compounded as Arsenal's lack of fight is shown up once more

It has been a humbling start to the season for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, who is sure to be under plenty of pressure heading into a fixture with Norwich City – one of the other two teams without a point so far – after the international break.

Arsenal ended the weekend at the bottom of the top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 25 in 1974, having suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the champions – Manchester City's third successive 5-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium.

The Gunners are only the second team in Premier League history to lose their first three matches in a season and have a goal difference of -9, after Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2003-04, who went on to finish bottom of the table, while Tottenham's win on Sunday means Spurs top the table and Arsenal sit bottom for the first time in top-flight history.

Arsenal's cause was hardly helped by Granit Xhaka's sending off in the first half on Saturday – the 10th time the Gunners have had a player dismissed in the league under Arteta. In fact, since the Spaniard took over in December 2019, that is four more than any other club.

Xhaka has picked up two of those dismissals, with David Luiz leading the way on three. In those fixtures where they have had a player sent off, Arsenal have failed to win a single one, collecting just five points in total and losing the last three league matches in which they were reduced to 10 men.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Jesus has not lost any of the 43 Premier League games he has scored in, a record bettered only by James Milner (54) and Darius Vassell (46).

A long shot for Son as Lage matches De Boer

Son Heung-min's free-kick handed Spurs a 1-0 win over Watford. It did not look intentional, but the South Korean forward's delivery nevertheless curled into the far corner.

Three of Son's last four goals for Tottenham in all competitions have come from outside the box, as many as his previous 43 for the club, while Sunday's effort was his first Spurs goal from a direct free-kick.

Sunday's headline fixture saw Manchester United – buoyed by the impending return of Cristiano Ronaldo – defeat Wolves thanks to Mason Greenwood's late winner.

Referee Mike Dean chose not to award what looked to be a clear foul from Paul Pogba in the build-up, as Greenwood became only the second teenager in Premier League history to score in each of his side's first three games of a season, after Robbie Fowler for Liverpool in 1994-95.

It was a tight game, with Wolves creating plenty without converting the chances, and new boss Bruno Lage is the first manager to lose his first three Premier League games without his side scoring a goal since Crystal Palace's Frank de Boer in August 2017.

Known for his creativity and goalscoring, United playmaker Bruno Fernandes often cut a frustrated figure, and he was booked for dissent. He has now been cautioned for questioning the referee in each of his last two games – in fact, the Portugal midfielder is responsible for a third of the six yellow cards handed out for dissent so far this season.

Crack open the bubbly. In France's City of Kings, at the heart of the Champagne region, Lionel Messi made his Paris Saint-Germain entrance as footballing royalty arrived in the 'farmers' league'.

There's a new king in town and although we saw only half an hour of Messi at Reims' Stade Auguste-Delaune, you could hardly take your eye off the man.

Incongruous in the blue of PSG as he was, this is Messi's lot now, the future he has chosen since his Barcelona career ended in a flood of tears.

Ligue 1 gets a rough rap but Messi's arrival instantly makes it box office, and those beholding this spectacle were given a peak into what we should expect.

There was a word in the ear from Mauricio Pochettino and then a hug for Neymar, as Messi replaced the world's most expensive footballer midway through the second half, moments after Kylian Mbappe scored his and PSG's second goal of what turned out to be a 2-0 win.

There was to be no Messi goal, as much as it appeared many inside the stadium were willing there to be one, particularly the pogoing PSG ultras.

His entrance and then his first touch, a simple 10-yard pass deep inside his own half, were cheered loudly, and it was not long before Messi was collecting the ball and charging forward, driving at pace through midfield and darting towards the penalty area.

Such a familiar sight, and here Messi had the luxury of being able to offload to Mbappe on the right. Mbappe, the player Real Madrid desperately want and might yet get before transfer window closes.

Then came notice from the union of Ligue 1 hardmen that Messi would not have it easy in France.

As Mbappe collected the pass, Messi was given the no-nonsense treatment twice by backtracking Reims players as he sought the return ball, Marshall Munetsi practically grabbing the six-time Ballon d'Or winner around the collar in a fruitless effort to halt his progress.

Mbappe could not quite pick the pass, with Messi surrounded, but it was a moment where you wondered what a rich harvest of goals that combination might produce, and whether we might see its potential come to fruition this season.

 

Munetsi hacked down Messi again later as the game reached stoppage time. Naturally, Messi has seen it all before. It was handshakes all round at the end.

It might be a different shirt, but this was the same old Messi. There was the thrill of one of those delicious give-and-go movements, and referee Francois Letexier played six minutes of stoppage time too. Why not see a little more?

Deep beneath the streets of Reims lie 200 kilometres of cellars and tunnels housing the finest bottles of bubbles, produced in these parts and maturing underground before being dispatched worldwide.

It pays to be patient, the subterranean conditions bringing the best out of the local delicacy before it reaches its fullest flavour. Bring a bottle out too soon and the product will fall short of the exacting standards 

Messi's 65 minutes on the bench allowed him to size up the pace of the French game at close quarters, and then he was ripe to be released. The cork is out of the bottle now though, and the thrill of Messi at provincial stadiums such as this is one fans will drink in for as long as this stop-off lasts.

He was fouled three times in all, a joint team high alongside Neymar, had 26 touches, and made 95.2 per cent of his passes (20 of 21). He won four of his five duels – those within the laws of the game – and no doubt delighted Pochettino and his Qatari paymasters.

PSG brought their imported grandes marques to a city that exports its homegrown fizzy finery, where the cathedral has witnessed 31 coronations, and they won with goals from a young player they might be dispatching to foreign climes within a matter of hours in return for a king's ransom.

Perhaps Mbappe might just fancy a full season of this, though. Will his partnership with Messi really be a one-night stand?

As jarring as watching this all unfold must have felt in Barcelona, as bitter an aftertaste as it must have left, all it lacked for the Parisians was the crowning glory of a Messi goal, and they will soon be flowing.

Novak Djokovic is a strong favourite to become only the third man to complete a calendar Grand Slam and make history at the US Open.

Djokovic has won all three majors this year and can complete a 2021 clean sweep at Flushing Meadows.

The irrepressible world number one would also go beyond Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – both absent due to injury – with 21 grand slam singles titles if he triumphs in New York.

There will be no elusive record-equalling 24th major singles crown for Serena Williams, who has not recovered from the hamstring injury she suffered at Wimbledon.

With Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka the leading contenders to take the women's singles title, Stats Perform use Opta data to preview the final grand slam of the year.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES FOR DOMINANT DJOKOVIC

Djokovic was thrown out of the US Open last year after accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball.

The 34-year-old arrived in New York in far better spirits than when he left last September, having taken on all comers this year.

Djokovic missed out on a Golden Slam when he failed to win Olympic gold in Tokyo, but he could join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to win all four majors in the same year.

Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (970) and Steffi Graf (1988) are the only women to achieve the incredible feat.

 

BARTY TO GO BACK-TO-BACK?

Barty became the first Australian woman to win a Wimbledon singles title for 41 years in July.

Not since Williams in 2012 has a player claimed back-to-back women's singles major crowns in the same year, but Barty could take some stopping.

She could become the ninth woman in the Open Era to win Wimbledon and the US Open in the same season. 

Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams can boast that achievement.

OSAKA BACK TO DEFEND TITLE

Japanese sensation Osaka won her third grand slam title at Flushing Meadows last September and went on to add a fourth at the Australian Open this year.

Osaka returns to grand slam action for the first time since withdrawing from the French Open, citing struggles with her mental health.

The world number three could be the first woman to win consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows since Serena Williams claimed three in a row from 2012 to 2014.

Osaka is the only woman to win at least one major title over the past four seasons, winning the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, as well as the US Open in 2018 and last year.

 

ZVEREV BIDS TO BANISH PAINFUL MEMORIES

Alexander Zverev was beaten by Dominic Thiem in his maiden grand slam final in New York last year after the German had been two sets up.

He will not have to face Thiem this time around as the defending champion is sidelined due to injury.

Zverev was the only player to serve 100 or more aces during the tournament last year, firing down 131 but also racking up more double faults (64) than anyone else.

The world number four won his fourth title of the year in Cincinnati last week but Djokovic is undoubtedly the man to beat at Flushing Meadows.

Novak Djokovic has history in his sights as he begins his US Open quest; after three grand slam titles in 2021, a fourth beckons at Flushing Meadows.

Rod Laver was the last man to achieve a sweep of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open singles in the same year, all the way back in 1969.

Steffi Graf won all four on the women's side in 1988, and it seemed a knock-in that Serena Williams would do likewise in 2015 when she headed to the US Open with three majors already bagged.

But winning any title at that level is never easy, and Williams famously came unstuck when she faced Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals.

Djokovic will be mindful that what seems an inevitability to the outside world remains very much still only a possibility. After his US Open tribulations last year, and a recent jolt at the Olympics, he will know anything can happen.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Djokovic's situation at Flushing Meadows carries most of the hallmarks of Serena's own position as she headed into the tournament six years ago.

 

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SLAMS

It was not always this way, but Djokovic has reached the point in his career when he can choose targets, decide which records he wants to break, and throw everything at those goals.

At the start of the year in Australia, he savoured triumphing at Melbourne Park for a ninth time and pointed to how Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Williams and Margaret Court had achieved so much.

"They've made history already," Djokovic said. "They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I'm trying to build that and develop that myself in a very unique, authentic way that is suitable to me.

"Whether I think about winning more slams and breaking records, of course. Of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies."

It had very clear echoes of Williams in 2015, also in Australia, setting out her own ambitions for the year and specifically targeting the French Open and Wimbledon.

"Those are the two I really have my eye on, because I would like to do better at those. And I know I can do better," she said.

Williams set her heart and mind on that twin challenge and won both.

"I definitely am not going to play as much this year, and I'm just going to go for everything when I do play," said Williams.

 


BUILDING UP

When Williams reached New York in August 2015, she had delivered a 48-2 win-loss record for the season, landing each of the majors alongside the Miami Open and the Western and Southern Open. Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Belinda Bencic in Toronto had been the only two players to get the better of the 33-year-old Williams.

Djokovic has a 38-5 record for the year, albeit it has the feel of a more dominant year for the 34-year-old Serbian. Two of those losses came at the Olympics, in a semi-final and bronze medal match, and the other three came in his first three events on clay, losing to Dan Evans in Monte Carlo, Aslan Karatsev in Belgrade and Nadal in Rome.

When it mattered on clay, though, Djokovic majorly turned up in Paris, gutsily beating Lorenzo Musetti from two sets down in the fourth round, ending Nadal's streak of four Roland Garros titles by sinking the Spaniard in the semi-finals, and then leaving Stefanos Tsitsipas devastated in the final, with another fightback after dropping the first two sets.

Wimbledon followed, and Djokovic by then was openly targeting a Golden Slam – each major and the Olympic title.

Much like with Williams and her loss to Bencic in the Toronto semi-finals six years ago, however, Djokovic showed he was fallible as history beckoned. From a set up, he lost to Alexander Zverev at Tokyo 2020, a blow that was compounded by missing out on bronze when Pablo Carreno Busta sprang another shock.

 


HISTORY CAN BE A FIERCE OPPONENT

Williams and Djokovic have won non-calendar Grand Slams before, winning four in succession spanning two seasons.

Williams first achieved that from the French Open in 2002 to the Australian Open in 2003, and in 2015 she was aiming for five slams in a row at the US Open, having begun her dominant streak at her home grand slam the previous year.

She won the first set of the semi-final against Vinci, the world number 43, but was then second best to the Italian, with Williams saying her conqueror "played literally out of her mind".

But the disappointment was stark, underlined by Williams' terse response to the question of how disappointed she felt by the result.

"I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me," she said. "If you have any other questions, I'm open for that."

The four-in-a-row feat has only been performed once by Djokovic, from Wimbledon in 2015 to the French Open in 2016. Had he not been disqualified during the US Open last year for carelessly hitting a ball that struck a line judge, he would most likely currently be on a four-slam streak.

Those who win the first three slams of the year often do complete the set, but there are four instances of singles players falling one short by failing in the year's last major.

Before Williams, the most recent case was Martina Navratilova in 1984, when the imperious left-hander headed to the Australian Open – then played at the end of the year rather than the start – in pursuit of the Grand Slam. She lost to Helena Sukova in the semi-finals, and said: "If I'd have won, I'd have done it all. If I lost I had to start from scratch. Both are hard to cope with."

Navratilova had won 74 consecutive matches until that loss and ended the season with a 78-2 record.

In the men's game, Jack Crawford (1933) and Lew Hoad (1956) also fell short, both losing in finals of the US National Championships, the tournament that became the US Open. Don Budge (1938) and Laver (1962 and 1969) are the only men to have won a calendar Grand Slam in singles.

The weight of expectation is immense for Djokovic as he pursues what would be his crowning glory, not only sealing the Grand Slam but reaching 21 majors, one ahead of Nadal and Federer and into the outright lead in the men's game. The prospect cannot be ignored, and it will be a heavy burden to carry over the coming fortnight.

As Djokovic said on Friday: "I would be lying if I said that’s not something that I’m thinking about or that my attention is not going that way.

"I’m very motivated to play my best tennis. But I have to hit one ball at a time, as they say, try to be in the moment, have a guiding star in a way, a dream to win a slam here."

A common perception in 2020-21 was that Liverpool's struggles at home were partly down to playing in an empty Anfield, with their raucous support not there to get the Reds over the line.

How important that actually was is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to quantify, though Liverpool did endure a club-record run of six successive league defeats last term.

But Anfield was full on Saturday and rocking for their first 'big' match of the season with Chelsea on Merseyside, and once again Liverpool looked a shadow of the inventive side that won the 2019-20 Premier League season so impressively.

They were even given the boost of seeing Reece James sent off, yet Jurgen Klopp's side failed to make the most of that advantage in their 1-1 draw.

So much of the build-up centred around arguably the most anticipated duel since Anakin Skywalker v Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Romelu Lukaku – fresh from bullying Arsenal last week – went up against Virgil van Dijk.

Of course, the Dutchman missed most of last season with a knee injury and endured a pretty tough second match back last time out against Burnley.

His 41.7 per cent success in aerial duels was way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the start of 2018-19, highlighting just how "intense" – as Klopp put it – Burnley were.

While few would've expected a similarly direct approach from Chelsea, Lukaku's second Blues debut last week really increased the anticipation for his contest with Van Dijk.

Lukaku was certainly involved in a gruelling opening 45 minutes, his first proper duel with Van Dijk coming in the 18th minute as he rather easily shrugged the defender off out on the right before seeing a cross dealt with.

The Belgian was brutal with his desire to get into the danger zone last week and he showed similarly impressive movement just before the half-hour mark – but first N'Golo Kante failed to spot his run and then Kai Havertz did as well when a first-time pass would've set Lukaku through on goal.

Havertz had just given Chelsea the lead with a header Lukaku would've been proud of, otherwise he would likely have got an earful from his team-mate.

Lukaku's excellence then should've made it 2-0 10 minutes before the break, as he brilliantly rolled Joel Matip and fed Mason Mount, only for the England star to shoot wide of the bottom-left corner.

Van Dijk's anticipation when predicting Lukaku would try to let the ball run past him in the 43rd minute drew the biggest cheer of the day from Liverpool fans up to that point, and just a few moments later the game was turned on its head, rendering their personal duel almost irrelevant.

James handled on the line and, after a VAR check, was shown a red card. While the dismissal may have seemed harsh, it was ultimately inevitable with the wing-back denying a goalscoring opportunity, and Mohamed Salah converted the penalty.

The incident forced Thomas Tuchel into a significant re-think.

When Chelsea came out for the second half, their setup had changed dramatically. Having looked effective in the first half with a low defensive block, a very high front three occupying Liverpool's backline and an energetic midfield ensuring the gap wasn't too much of an issue, after the break their forwards simply couldn't continue in the same vein.

That, therefore, took away a key component of Tuchel's system. The 8.9 opposition passes allowed outside of Chelsea's own defensive third before a defensive action (PPDA) was second only to Leeds United (8.2) in this fledgling season before Saturday, indicating a high level of pressing.

Unable to maintain this with 10 men, Van Dijk and Matip were far more relaxed.

This translated to 77.1 per cent possession for the Reds in the 15 minutes that followed half-time, yet for their dominance of the ball, Liverpool's opportunities were hardly clear-cut.

Before a late onslaught in the final six minutes, only one of Liverpool's 10 second-half shots had an xG (expected goals) value over 0.1 – that was a Sadio Mane effort in the 56th minute, it's 0.105 xG value essentially equating to a scoring likelihood of just over 10 per cent. Not exactly nailed-on.

In the end, Liverpool's predictability in attack gave Chelsea the upper hand. The Reds constantly looked to the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson playing five and four key passes respectively.

Salah (three) was the only other Liverpool player to play more than one, and again he was most prominent out wide rather than inside.

Chelsea, with their packed defence, rarely looked particularly worried and were ultimately good value for the point.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Liverpool to make a "statement" against a likely title contender, but Klopp's men lacked the imagination to overpower Chelsea's resilience.

Football fandom's unofficial laws dictate you must feel a sense of optimism however unrealistic they may be.

But surely even Arsenal supporters were just hoping to keep the score down at the Etihad Stadium before kick-off?

After all, history provided very little cause for positivity given they'd lost their previous six games against whichever team were the Premier League's defending champions and been defeated in each of their past eight top-flight meetings with City.

And, true to form, it happened again.

This 5-0 embarrassment made it nine successive losses to City, a new Arsenal record for the most consecutive defeats to the same opposition in league competition.

While Arsenal and Mikel Arteta relieved the pressure slightly in midweek with their 6-0 thrashing of West Brom in the League Cup, in reality that will carry little importance within the wider narrative of the Gunners' hapless start to the campaign.

Of course, they have had a tricky beginning to 2021-22 with injuries and coronavirus cases, plus Chelsea and now City in their first three matches… though they also lost to promoted Brentford on matchday one, so it's not all just down to facing deeper or better squads.

Against City, much that went wrong initially was more to do with Arsenal being quintessentially Arsenal than City being excellent.

The hosts were in front after just seven minutes, Ilkay Gundogan nodding home after Calum Chambers misjudged the flight of Gabriel Jesus' cross, while Bernd Leno seemed to do his best to get out of the way.

Gundogan and Bernardo Silva in particular were causing Arsenal significant issues with their forays between the lines, City's fluidity and flexibility going forward leaving the Gunners' backline panicking on a regular basis.

City's control in those early stages just seemed to startle Arteta's men – whether by design or not is unclear – into a state of hyper-defensiveness and that too backfired as they fell 2-0 down after just 12 minutes.

Arsenal simply refused to press City after a short free-kick. Bernardo had the freedom to play a cross into the box from deep, and although it wasn't even particularly good, Cedric Soares' feeble attempt to clear just nudged the ball through to Ferran Torres for an easy finish.

At that point, the only thing preventing this from being 'peak Arsenal', as the kids would say, was a red card for Granit Xha…

With half-time approaching, the Swiss midfielder went flying in on Joao Cancelo with both feet off the ground. He may have got the ball and the contact on the City man seemed minimal, but it was dangerous, reckless and a blatant red card.

Of course, he's become accustomed to those, with his four red cards since the start of 2016-17 a joint high in the Premier League.

Eight minutes later, City had their third through Jesus after great work by Jack Grealish and there will surely have been a few Arsenal fans fearing the worst on what was the 10th anniversary of their worst Premier League defeat – that's right, the 8-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Ultimately – and this may or may not be a consolation to Arteta – it didn't get quite that bad as City only added two more goals through Rodri and Torres in the second half, but in fairness to Arsene Wenger, at least his team scored two of their own 10 years ago.

At the Etihad on Saturday, just getting a shot away would have been considered an achievement for the Gunners, as they only managed one in the entire match. That sixth-minute Bukayo Saka effort's xG value of 0.11 was higher than their xG-per-shot average of 0.06 going into the weekend, though no team in the division had a poorer record before Saturday.

On top of that, striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn't have a single touch in the opposition's box during a game he started for only the fourth time in his Premier League career – three of which have been against City – and the first time since October 2019.

Sure, Arsenal were a man light against a very good City, but it would still be expected to see a little more fight. Instead, they looked resigned to a hammering.

Questions of Arsenal's mentality have been rife throughout Arteta's time in charge, particularly relating to their discipline, and this performance was just another in a long series of no-shows.

Heading into Saturday, so much of the talk surrounding this match wasn't even focused on the fixture, rather City's inability to bring in a new striker – or, more specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Arsenal's meek performance stole the show. Just as the Premier League table now shows for at least a few hours, this was top versus bottom in every sense, and from Arteta's perspective there's no more damning conclusion to be made than that.

It seems Manchester United are not only masters of the late turnaround on the pitch, but off it, too.

Just as it looked like Cristiano Ronaldo was bound for Manchester City on a private jet out of Turin, United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hinted that the doors of Old Trafford were open to his old team-mate. Within hours, the 'race' to sign him was over: Ronaldo was becoming a Red Devil again.

It's a transfer that did not even look possible 24 hours earlier and one that makes Alexis Sanchez's dramatic decision to join United over City three years ago look positively dull by comparison.

And talking of Sanchez: a sensational transfer this may be, but is it the right one? Two Stats Perform writers go head to head to settle the debate...


'Still one of the best around' 

By Patric Ridge

For much of the last two decades, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have tussled for dominance. 

Ronaldo's first Ballon d'Or - the first of five - was won in 2008, when he was still at United. The remaining four followed across his spell at Real Madrid.

While the endless debate over which superstar shines brightest rolls on, well, endlessly, there can be no doubting that Ronaldo, even at 36, is still one of the best around.

Rather than slowing down, Ronaldo has refined his game, from flying winger to penalty box poacher.

In 2020-21, only four players across Europe's top five leagues scored more goals than Ronaldo's haul of 36. No prizes for guessing those names, either. 

Of his tally, 33 came from inside the area, with seven from his head, nine with his left foot and the remainder of his total coming with that wicked right.

Given United's creative qualities, Ronaldo will not be short of service. His international team-mate Bruno Fernandes created 12 goals last season and is sure to be licking his lips. Paul Pogba has already crafted five goals this term - a Premier League first this early in a campaign.

United have the money. A midfielder may still be required but goals win games and Ronaldo scores them. Regularly.

With Edinson Cavani providing another experienced option, the pressure can also be lifted off the likes of Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and, when he returns from injury, Marcus Rashford, who will surely be relishing the chance to learn from one of the game's greats. A fully fit and raring Anthony Martial, meanwhile, would add another string to Solskjaer's bow.

In 2016, United brought a 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Old Trafford. While injury derailed the latter stages of his campaign, it is surely no coincidence that the club last won a trophy back in the 2016-17 season.

Solskjaer has so far fallen short in that regard. Ronaldo should get them across the line. Plus, getting one over on the noisy neighbours will never be judged as a bad thing.

'This could be an error for all concerned'

By Joe Wright

When rumours emerged Ronaldo could return to Spain, he responded on Instagram to say: "My story at Real Madrid has been written." Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti added: "Cristiano is a Real Madrid legend and he has all my love and respect. I have never considered signing him. We look forward."

Mutual respect and admiration, but no sentiment. Ronaldo and Madrid's glorious history will remain just that: history. Nostalgia has little place in the aspirations of the elite.

That is the attitude Manchester United should have had.

Ronaldo last played for the Red Devils 12 years ago, when he was a roving wide forward, not a 36-year-old poacher. He was signed by Juventus three years ago with a view to being the missing piece to their Champions League hopes, and they never got beyond the last eight. There is little reason United should think he alone can drag them any closer to the biggest domestic or European titles.

For the player, too, it's a strange move. If he really was motivated to leave Juve by a desire for one more crack at the Champions League and a sixth Ballon d'Or, is United the best place to achieve those goals? They have been to two Champions League quarter-finals in 10 years, and their last player to win the game's top individual prize was Ronaldo himself back in 2008.

Solskjaer proclaimed his admiration for his old team-mate in the hours before the deal with Juve was confirmed, but this is not a signing in keeping with Solskjaer's ideals. The pursuit of expensive stars such as Sanchez or Angel Di Maria from past regimes was replaced by a search for younger, hungrier talent, and it's generally paid dividends. The club has laboured long, hard and to no little expense to turn their transfer policy to a sensible, long-term approach. If signing Cavani was a step away from that, this is a giant leap.

If reports are to be believed, Ronaldo was dragged back to Old Trafford via the heartstrings, with ex-players like Rio Ferdinand and even former boss Alex Ferguson urging him to snub City. It may sound cynical, but signings should be considered through detailed analysis and forward planning, not rose-tinted spectacles and impassioned phone calls.

And anyway, United really don't need another forward. Solskjaer spent weeks convincing Cavani to stay for another year, and now the Uruguayan has likely lost his starting spot. The manager said he does not want to sell Martial or Jesse Lingard to make space, either. Rashford is out injured until October, but United also have new signing Sancho, Daniel James and Greenwood, along with academy striker Anthony Elanga and expensive teenager Amad Diallo. Solskjaer might have preferred remaining funds to be focused on getting a defensive central midfielder, while a two-year deal for Ronaldo might also ruin their chances of signing Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland next year – and those chances were good, given the 21-year-old's relationship with Solskjaer.

Ronaldo and United wrote a marvellous story together. The sequel could be an error for all concerned.

Arsenal have made their worst start to a league season in their 118-year history in England's top four tiers with back-to-back defeats without scoring against Brentford and Chelsea.

The Gunners find themselves in the relegation zone after more than one match for the first time since August 1992 and the pressure is growing on manager Mikel Arteta to turn things around.

Arteta is no stranger to slow starts, having been signed by Arsenal on deadline day in 2011 with the club struggling near the bottom of the division with one point from three games.

The catalyst for that signing, plus the arrivals of Yossi Benayoun, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos and Park Chu-young, was a humiliating 8-2 loss against Manchester United that reduced the Gunners to the butt of all jokes on social media – "I'd 8-2 be an Arsenal fan," as the saying goes.

It remains one of the most extraordinary results in Premier League history, one that legendary boss Arsene Wenger later described as one of his lowest moments in management.

Exactly a decade on from that heavy loss at Old Trafford, Stats Perform takes a closer at the numbers behind the scoreline.

 

GOALS GALORE... BUT JUST SHORT OF RECORD

The 10 goals scored in the match is the joint-second most ever netted in a single Premier League game, with Portsmouth 7-4 Reading in September 2007 leading the way.

The win remains United's biggest against one of their 'big four' rivals in the Premier League era and is one of four occasions they have scored eight or more in the competition.

It is one of only two occasions Arsenal have conceded eight or more goals in a league game in their history, the other being an 8-0 loss to Loughborough in 1896.

The Gunners have since suffered another six-goal loss in the top flight, going down 6-0 to Chelsea in March 2014 in what was Wenger's milestone 1,000th game in charge.

WENGER'S YOUNG GUNS BRUSHED ASIDE

Wenger fielded a young side at Old Trafford that day, using seven players aged 21 or younger – something Arsenal have not repeated since in a Premier League match.

Those seven players were Armand Traore, Henri Lansbury, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Only on two occasions have the Gunners ever fielded more players aged 21 or under in the competition, using eight against Manchester City and Portsmouth in 2008-09.

 

ROONEY AND YOUNG THE KEY ARCHITECTS

Wayne Rooney grabbed the headlines by scoring three of United's goals, with that one of eight hat-tricks he scored for the club and his final one of three at Old Trafford.

Ashley Young was on the scoresheet twice and provided three assists as well, making it one of only five occasions a player has achieved such a feat in Premier League history.

The only player to repeat that accomplishment – two goals and three assists in a single game – since Young a decade ago is Jack Grealish for Aston Villa in their 7-2 win over Liverpool in October 2020.

 

FERGIE'S GREAT ENTERTAINERS

Legendary United boss Ferguson was no stranger to seeing his side rack up goals in games, with this fixture one of 44 times the Red Devils scored five or more in a single match under the Scotsman.

Only Wenger comes close to that figure among Premier League managers, with Arsenal scoring five or more goals 41 times during his 22-year reign.

Despite only being in English football for five years, Guardiola may well overtake both those managers one day as Manchester City have plundered at least five goals in 25 games since he took charge.

Cristiano Ronaldo ripped off his shirt and celebrated as though he had netted the winner in a World Cup final, rather than a stoppage-time clincher at Udinese that was disallowed moments later.

That was his farewell moment at Juventus, the performative Portuguese signing off with a magical thumping header that counted for nothing and a yellow card for showing the world that torso once again.

Manchester City awaited him, so it seemed, but incredibly Ronaldo is heading back to the red half of the city, back to Manchester United, providing wages and fitness prove no obstacle. Terms for the transfer have been agreed with Juve.

United have swooped for Ronaldo twice now, as an 18-year-old and at the grand age of 36. Derby day on the first weekend in November is now a red-letter day.

Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid at the end of the 2008-09 season, just weeks before Carlos Tevez swapped red for blue, pointing to a swing in the balance of power in English football.

Twelve years later and he is back in the north west, United pinching him from under the noses of City to lead their attack and the pursuit of Premier League glory.

 

But none of this makes sense...

Ronaldo looked a banker for a City switch before United and Jorge Mendes, the player's agent, held discussions. The Manchester Evening News reported Ronaldo's former United boss and mentor Alex Ferguson spoke to the one-time Old Trafford boy wonder, and that involvement looks to have been a moment that helped sway the now veteran striker from blue to red. Perhaps Rio Ferdinand's phone call also helped.

Pep Guardiola was expected to be cautious about the prospects of Ronaldo joining his City squad when he held a lunchtime news conference, but only out of sensible circumspection. Rather than playing a straight bat, however, he was highly pessimistic, and that was an alert that something had changed dramatically.

The BBC soon reported City had ended their interest in Ronaldo, who had instead begun talks with United, and the hints that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dropped in United's earlier news conference grew in resonance. At shortly before 17:00 BST, confirmation arrived from United of an agreement with Juve. All this within hours of Ronaldo saying his goodbyes at Juve's training ground in the morning.

Why do United need him? They seem well stocked for strikers

Ronaldo is unmistakably in the diminishing returns stage of his career, much like Edinson Cavani whom he joins in the Old Trafford ranks. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are at the opposite end, striving to become United greats, and Anthony Martial, who should be nearing his peak years, is desperate for a run of games.

Into this battle for places walks one of the two greatest players of the past 20 years – some would say of all-time – and Solskjaer will discover his former team-mate Ronaldo still has a huge appetite for the game. His goal celebration antics at Udinese were easy to mock in light of the VAR outcome, but they showed his passion burns bright.

The data tells us Ronaldo is a fading force, but by most standards he remains a formidable footballer. He scored a decidedly healthy 36 goals for Juventus across all competitions last season, at one every 104.19 minutes. The minutes-per-goal ratio was a slight improvement on his first two campaigns with Juve, but in eight of his nine years at Real Madrid he scored at a rate better than one every 90 minutes.

He is also contributing far less in other areas of the pitch than during his prime years. Ronaldo won just six tackles last season, and only three in the league. Only five strikers with five goals or more in Serie A last season won fewer. In his 60-goal third season at Madrid, Ronaldo won 33 tackles.

Ronaldo also made 73 crosses in open play across all competitions, and 64 came in the league, the fifth-highest total of any five-goal-plus Serie A striker, but that number is far from what the former Sporting CP was producing at his career's peak. In his final season at United (2008-09) he put in 197 open-play crosses, and he topped 100 in each of his first three seasons at Madrid (2009-10 to 2011-12).

He continues to produce excellent figures, but he no longer vastly exceeds his expected goals (xG) totals and has instead almost exactly matched them in each season while at Juventus (2018-19: 28 goals from 28.3 xG; 2019-20: 37 goals from 35.84 xG; 2020-21: 36 goals from 35.34 xG).

At his best with Madrid, Ronaldo hit 55 goals in the 2012-13 season from an xG of 29.49, indicating he was far exceeding expected performance levels based on the quality of his chances.

He remains a tremendous penalty box predator and it would be surprising if he fails to hit 20 goals in the Premier League, but Ronaldo's contribution outside the 18-yard box has fallen away.

His style looked an awkward fit for City, who have sought flexibility from their front players, often favouring a 'false nine' system. Ronaldo has evolved from thrilling winger in his teens to feared targetman, and United's style is far more fitting to his game, so that aspect of the transfer makes sense.

United presumably also very much wanted him so that City couldn't have him.

What it means for United

Ronaldo gave United six years of his young career before being granted his wish to leave in June 2009, making a then world record £80million switch to Madrid.

He departed after a season where United won the Premier League and City finished 10th, with Ferguson's team also lifting the EFL Cup, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and finishing runners-up to Barcelona in the Champions League.

Much has changed in English football, but Ronaldo is not blind to that. This represents a chance to end his career bathed in glory again in Manchester, with the Old Trafford crowd ready to worship him once more.

City won the Premier League by 12 points last season and they began this campaign as favourites to notch up another title. Signing Ronaldo would not only have hurt United deeply, but it would possibly have made this year's title race a procession.

Consider it game on now.

It was May 10, 2009, when Ronaldo last appeared in a United-City clash, scoring a deflected free-kick before being rested after 58 minutes by Ferguson as the Red Devils scored a 2-0 Old Trafford victory.

Ronaldo left the field in frustration, wanting to play for longer, but days earlier he had been the prime architect of the famous 3-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals, and Ferguson wanted to save his star asset for the tests ahead, particularly the European final against Guardiola's Barcelona.

Now the long-retired Ferguson's influence tells once more. He persuaded Ronaldo to take his United career into extra time during his first stint at the club, and now the man Jose Mourinho describes as Solskjaer's 'big boss' has struck again.


Messi v Ronaldo: The reunion's off!

The great rivalry between the standout players of their generation looked set to be rekindled in the Champions League group stage, with Ronaldo's City taking on Messi's PSG. Scrub that now though. Any such clash will have to wait for the knock-out rounds, with United having Villarreal, Atalanta and Young Boys to negotiate in their pool.

This announcement tells us United are craving Champions League success again. They have won the competition three times, while Ronaldo has done so on five occasions, once with United and four times at Madrid. In three years at Juventus, he could not drag the Old Lady of Italian football to European glory, however, a disappointment given that had been ostensibly why he was signed.

United's owners, the Glazer family, will expect the investment in Ronaldo to pay off handsomely, given his commercial appeal and United's global reach. And the  Glazers even stand to earn a little rare kudos from supporters who are bound to get misty-eyed at this deal.

Signing a five-time Ballon d'Or winner will be interpreted as taking a short-cut to glory. It is a gamble too though.

Two Scudetti in three years at Juventus was one fewer than Ronaldo may have expected to take away from Turin, given Juventus were on a seven-in-a-row streak when he joined, and the coach who delivered the second of those titles, Maurizio Sarri, recently spoke of the challenges involved in accounting for the Portuguese's imposing presence.

Sarri told Sportitalia in July: "The management of Ronaldo is not easy, he is a multinational that has personal interests to match those of the team. It is certainly a difficult situation to manage."

But Sarri ventured that there were "many positive aspects because at the end of the year Ronaldo brings important results".

The ego has landed, back in Manchester, back in red. It's one-nil to Solskjaer and his big boss in the season's first battle of Manchester, and the rest of the campaign should be a thrill ride.

Cristiano Ronaldo is heading back to Old Trafford.

Going into Friday, it seemed as though Manchester City would be signing one of United's all-time greats.

On Friday morning, the deal appeared to be edging closer – Ronaldo was pictured leaving Juventus' training ground before coach Massimiliano Allegri confirmed the 36-year-old was departing the club altogether.

Yet in the time it took for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola to complete their pre-match news conferences, the deal had turned on its head.

By early afternoon in the United Kingdom, City had pulled out to leave United as clear front-runners and, just before 17:00 BST, Ronaldo's sensational return to Old Trafford had been confirmed.

United reached an agreement with Juve for the attacker, who scored 81 goals in 98 Serie A matches after joining from Real Madrid in 2018, nine years after his first spell in the Premier League ended.

The €23million (£19.7m) deal is subject to the completion of personal terms, a medical and the acquisition of a visa, but none of those are expected to cause issues.

So, with Ronaldo set to be back in the fold, Stats Perform assesses how United are likely to line up.

4-2-3-1: David de Gea; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba; Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford; Cristiano Ronaldo.

GK: David de Gea

While he's probably no longer regarded among the world's very best goalkeepers, De Gea still edges out Dean Henderson for a place in this team at the moment, though he is sure to be pushed hard once the England international returns from injury. De Gea played 26 times in the league last season and conceded 32 goals from an expected goals against (xGA) value of 28.1, meaning he was culpable for the concession of nearly four goals over the course of the campaign. Henderson, on the other hand, outperformed his xGA figure of 13.8 by only conceding 12 goals in the 13 appearances he made, giving him a 'goals prevented' record of 1.8 – this suggests he was the more dependable of the two goalkeepers, and his save percentage of 76.5 was significantly better than De Gea's (65.2) as well.

RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Wan-Bissaka made 34 league appearances last term. Of all defenders in the top flight, only Leeds United's Luke Ayling (61) registered more successful tackles than the former Crystal Palace full-back (54), though his success rate of 61.4 per cent was better than the former's (56.5 per cent). Wan-Bissaka also improved his contributions to United's attack with six goal involvements, a figure bettered by only six defenders, while just four kept more than the 13 clean sheets he recorded.

CB: Raphael Varane

Ronaldo will be joining up with one of his former Madrid team-mates, with World Cup-winner Varane having previously arrived to bolster United's defence. Out of LaLiga defenders to contest 20 or more aerial battles last term, Varane led the way with a 76 per cent success rate, which vastly improves on Victor Lindelof's 59.4 per cent aerial success rate from last season.

CB: Harry Maguire

Alongside Varane, Maguire adds leadership and Premier League experience. The England man won 63.8 per cent of his duels last season, while his aerial prowess should help United dominate in both boxes. His ability with the ball often gets overlooked, and expect to see plenty of long diagonals from left to right, where Jadon Sancho or Mason Greenwood will no doubt be waiting.

LB: Luke Shaw

Shaw does have Alex Telles as quality competition but there is no doubting the 26-year-old's place in this XI. Of Premier League defenders, only Trent Alexander-Arnold (77) created more chances than Shaw (72) last term, while the left-back created an average of 2.4 opportunities per 90 minutes, the most in the league among defenders.

CM: Scott McTominay

Ronaldo's signing does mean one thing; Solskjaer has to be bold with his team selections. With so much attacking quality at his disposal, the Norwegian must, outside of the biggest games, dispense with a midfield duo of McTominay and Fred, and it is the Scotland international – who is currently out injured – who should get the nod.

CM: Paul Pogba

A long-standing issue with Solskjaer's preferred 4-2-3-1 is whether or not it gets the best out of Pogba, who starred for France at Euro 2020 in a midfield three. That has not been much of an issue so far this season as he's been filling in brilliantly on the left in Marcus Rashford's absence, with Pogba already registering five assists, becoming the first player in Premier League history to manage that tally across the opening two games of a campaign.

RW: Jadon Sancho

If Ronaldo is one for the here and now, then Sancho is a player for United's future, though the ex-Borussia Dortmund flyer is of course a star in his own right. He seems likely to alternate with Greenwood for a role on the right. He scored 38 goals and provided 45 assists in 104 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund; since his debut in October 2017, only Thomas Muller (91) and Robert Lewandowski (137) managed more direct goal involvements prior to the start of 2021-22.

AM: Bruno Fernandes

Ronaldo will not be the only Portugal star on show at Old Trafford. Solskjaer's team has been built around Fernandes, who created a league-high 95 shooting chances last season, assisting 12 goals and scoring a further 18. His hat-trick against Leeds on the opening day of 2021-22 also has him joint-top of the scoring charts after two games.

LW: Marcus Rashford

Rashford is currently recovering from surgery on a shoulder injury that plagued his 2020-21 campaign, with Pogba, Anthony Martial, Sancho, Greenwood and Daniel James – if he stays put – likely to battle it out for a place on the left in the meantime. Ronaldo, of course, can also play from the left, though it seems he will be much better utilised as the focal point in United's attack.

ST: Cristiano Ronaldo

United have Edinson Cavani, but there can surely be no doubt who will start in the majority of matches. Ronaldo is a bona fide superstar who has – alongside Lionel Messi – sustained his success at the highest level for almost 20 years. Ronaldo is the only United player to score 30+ goals in a season in Premier League history (31 in 2007-08), and while that record may seem out of reach, his arrival could have transformed the Red Devils into genuine title contenders.

Cristiano Ronaldo ripped off his shirt and celebrated as though he had netted the winner in a World Cup final, rather than a stoppage-time clincher at Udinese that was disallowed moments later.

That was his farewell moment at Juventus, the performative Portuguese signing off with a magical thumping header that counted for nothing and a yellow card for showing the world that torso once again.

Manchester City awaited him, so it seemed, but incredibly Ronaldo is heading back to the red half of the city, back to Manchester United, providing wages and fitness prove no obstacle. Terms for the transfer have been agreed with Juve.

United have swooped for Ronaldo twice now, as an 18-year-old and at the grand age of 36. Derby day on the first weekend in November is now a red-letter day.

Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid at the end of the 2008-09 season, just weeks before Carlos Tevez swapped red for blue, pointing to a swing in the balance of power in English football.

Twelve years later and he is back in the north west, United pinching him from under the noses of City to lead their attack and the pursuit of Premier League glory.

 

But none of this makes sense...

Ronaldo looked a banker for a City switch before United and Jorge Mendes, the player's agent, held discussions. The Manchester Evening News reported Ronaldo's former United boss and mentor Alex Ferguson spoke to the one-time Old Trafford boy wonder, and that involvement looks to have been a moment that helped sway the now veteran striker from blue to red. Perhaps Rio Ferdinand's phone call also helped.

Pep Guardiola was expected to be cautious about the prospects of Ronaldo joining his City squad when he held a lunchtime news conference, but only out of sensible circumspection. Rather than playing a straight bat, however, he was highly pessimistic, and that was an alert that something had changed dramatically.

The BBC soon reported City had ended their interest in Ronaldo, who had instead begun talks with United, and the hints that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dropped in United's earlier news conference grew in resonance. At shortly before 17:00 BST, confirmation arrived from United of an agreement with Juve. All this within hours of Ronaldo saying his goodbyes at Juve's training ground in the morning.

Why do United need him? They seem well stocked for strikers

Ronaldo is unmistakably in the diminishing returns stage of his career, much like Edinson Cavani whom he joins in the Old Trafford ranks. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are at the opposite end, striving to become United greats, and Anthony Martial, who should be nearing his peak years, is desperate for a run of games.

Into this battle for places walks one of the two greatest players of the past 20 years – some would say of all-time – and Solskjaer will discover his former team-mate Ronaldo still has a huge appetite for the game. His goal celebration antics at Udinese were easy to mock in light of the VAR outcome, but they showed his passion burns bright.

The data tells us Ronaldo is a fading force, but by most standards he remains a formidable footballer. He scored a decidedly healthy 36 goals for Juventus across all competitions last season, at one every 104.19 minutes. The minutes-per-goal ratio was a slight improvement on his first two campaigns with Juve, but in eight of his nine years at Real Madrid he scored at a rate better than one every 90 minutes.

He is also contributing far less in other areas of the pitch than during his prime years. Ronaldo won just six tackles last season, and only three in the league. Only five strikers with five goals or more in Serie A last season won fewer. In his 60-goal third season at Madrid, Ronaldo won 33 tackles.

Ronaldo also made 73 crosses in open play across all competitions, and 64 came in the league, the fifth-highest total of any five-goal-plus Serie A striker, but that number is far from what the former Sporting CP was producing at his career's peak. In his final season at United (2008-09) he put in 197 open-play crosses, and he topped 100 in each of his first three seasons at Madrid (2009-10 to 2011-12).

He continues to produce excellent figures, but he no longer vastly exceeds his expected goals (xG) totals and has instead almost exactly matched them in each season while at Juventus (2018-19: 28 goals from 28.3 xG; 2019-20: 37 goals from 35.84 xG; 2020-21: 36 goals from 35.34 xG).

At his best with Madrid, Ronaldo hit 55 goals in the 2012-13 season from an xG of 29.49, indicating he was far exceeding expected performance levels based on the quality of his chances.

He remains a tremendous penalty box predator and it would be surprising if he fails to hit 20 goals in the Premier League, but Ronaldo's contribution outside the 18-yard box has fallen away.

His style looked an awkward fit for City, who have sought flexibility from their front players, often favouring a 'false nine' system. Ronaldo has evolved from thrilling winger in his teens to feared targetman, and United's style is far more fitting to his game, so that aspect of the transfer makes sense.

United presumably also very much wanted him so that City couldn't have him.

What it means for United

Ronaldo gave United six years of his young career before being granted his wish to leave in June 2009, making a then world record £80million switch to Madrid.

He departed after a season where United won the Premier League and City finished 10th, with Ferguson's team also lifting the EFL Cup, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and finishing runners-up to Barcelona in the Champions League.

Much has changed in English football, but Ronaldo is not blind to that. This represents a chance to end his career bathed in glory again in Manchester, with the Old Trafford crowd ready to worship him once more.

City won the Premier League by 12 points last season and they began this campaign as favourites to notch up another title. Signing Ronaldo would not only have hurt United deeply, but it would possibly have made this year's title race a procession.

Consider it game on now.

It was May 10, 2009, when Ronaldo last appeared in a United-City clash, scoring a deflected free-kick before being rested after 58 minutes by Ferguson as the Red Devils scored a 2-0 Old Trafford victory.

Ronaldo left the field in frustration, wanting to play for longer, but days earlier he had been the prime architect of the famous 3-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals, and Ferguson wanted to save his star asset for the tests ahead, particularly the European final against Guardiola's Barcelona.

Now the long-retired Ferguson's influence tells once more. He persuaded Ronaldo to take his United career into extra time during his first stint at the club, and now the man Jose Mourinho describes as Solskjaer's 'big boss' has struck again.


Messi v Ronaldo: The reunion's off!

The great rivalry between the standout players of their generation looked set to be rekindled in the Champions League group stage, with Ronaldo's City taking on Messi's PSG. Scrub that now though. Any such clash will have to wait for the knock-out rounds, with United having Villarreal, Atalanta and Young Boys to negotiate in their pool.

This announcement tells us United are craving Champions League success again. They have won the competition three times, while Ronaldo has done so on five occasions, once with United and four times at Madrid. In three years at Juventus, he could not drag the Old Lady of Italian football to European glory, however, a disappointment given that had been ostensibly why he was signed.

United's owners, the Glazer family, will expect the investment in Ronaldo to pay off handsomely, given his commercial appeal and United's global reach. And the  Glazers even stand to earn a little rare kudos from supporters who are bound to get misty-eyed at this deal.

Signing a five-time Ballon d'Or winner will be interpreted as taking a short-cut to glory. It is a gamble too though.

Two Scudetti in three years at Juventus was one fewer than Ronaldo may have expected to take away from Turin, given Juventus were on a seven-in-a-row streak when he joined, and the coach who delivered the second of those titles, Maurizio Sarri, recently spoke of the challenges involved in accounting for the Portuguese's imposing presence.

Sarri told Sportitalia in July: "The management of Ronaldo is not easy, he is a multinational that has personal interests to match those of the team. It is certainly a difficult situation to manage."

But Sarri ventured that there were "many positive aspects because at the end of the year Ronaldo brings important results".

The ego has landed, back in Manchester, back in red. It's one-nil to Solskjaer and his big boss in the season's first battle of Manchester, and the rest of the campaign should be a thrill ride.

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to be playing back at Old Trafford again in 2021-22 after Manchester United confirmed they have reached an agreement with Juventus for the transfer of the Portugal great.

While personal terms, a medical and visa are still to be sorted out for Ronaldo, it would take something remarkable to stop him from joining now after a deal reportedly worth up to €23million (£19.7m) was agreed with Juve on Friday.

For a short while it looked as though Ronaldo – who had asked to leave the Bianconeri – was heading to Manchester City after they missed out on the signing of Harry Kane.

But apparent interventions from Ronaldo's former United manager Alex Ferguson and old team-mate Rio Ferdinand may have swung the race in the Red Devils' favour.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed to open the door to Ronaldo during his news conference on Friday, and just a few hours later United confirmed a deal had been struck with Juventus.

Following confirmation of the deal, Stats Perform takes a look at greats who went back to their spiritual home, starting with the Portugal captain…

Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United

Ronaldo spent six years at Old Trafford during his last spell, arriving as a lanky teenager who probably averaged four stepovers per minute before leaving as a Ballon d'Or winner and an ice-cold finisher. His then-world record move to Real Madrid had been a long time coming and he spent nine years at the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming the club's all-time top scorer as he continued his transition from winger to out-and-out 'number nine'. There he won four Champions League titles before moving on to Juve, for whom he plundered 81 goals in 98 Serie A matches and picked up two Scudetti. But now he is all set for a return to England – whether he can match the standards he set last time remains to be seen, with his 31-goal haul of 2007-08 only bettered once in a 38-match season, though United fans will be convinced he can fire them to a first league title since Ferguson left.

 

Arjen Robben – Groningen

Robben's first retirement lasted just a single season, having announced last year he would be returning to his boyhood club Groningen for the 2020-21 campaign. Robben, now 37, initially brought an illustrious playing career to an end in July 2019 shortly after his 10-year spell with Bayern Munich finished. Although at the time he was linked with a potential return to the team that gave him his professional debut, Robben – who suffered with numerous injury problems throughout his career – opted to retire. He then caused something of a shock as he finally went back to the place where it all began, but once again injuries blighted his availability, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances in 2020-21. Club director Mark-Jan Fledderus wanted him to stay on for another year, but when Robben said at the end of the season that he was going to have a long think about his future, the writing was seemingly on the wall. Another U-turn appears unlikely.

Juan Roman Riquelme – Argentinos Juniors

Perhaps more synonymous with Boca Juniors, where he made his professional debut and also spent most of his final years, Riquelme also had a strong affinity with Argentinos Juniors. He came through the club's academy in the early-to-mid 1990s, before then finishing his immense career at Estadio Diego Maradona in 2014, having also played for Barcelona, Villarreal and Argentina. Although the iconic attacking midfielder appeared close to joining Paraguay's Cerro Porteno the following year, the move never materialised.

Dirk Kuyt – Quick Boys

Kuyt briefly came out of retirement three years ago to help Quick Boys, with whom he spent 13 years as a youth. Playing in the Derde Divisie Saturday league, Kuyt was already working as assistant at the time, but made himself available for selection during a striker shortage and he made three appearances. The former Netherlands and Liverpool forward had retired the year before following a second spell with Feyenoord, where he had made his initial breakthrough in the mid-2000s, his form at the time earning a move to Anfield.

Rafael Marquez – Atlas

One of Mexico's greatest players, Marquez's longevity at such a high level was nothing short of incredible, as he accumulated 147 international caps. After breaking into the Atlas team as a teenager having come through their academy, the elegant centre-back enjoyed a sparkling career in Europe, winning 14 titles across spells with Monaco and Barcelona. Time with New York Red Bulls, Leon and Hellas Verona followed, before a final two-year stint back at the Jalisco ended in 2018. Although plagued by off-field allegations towards the end of his career, Marquez went on to become the club's sporting president, before standing down last in 2019 to focus on other areas of the sport. He was expected to be taking up a youth coaching role at Barca this season, but the deal ultimately fell through.

Henrik Larsson – Hogaborgs

While the Swedish club most may associate with Larsson is Helsingborgs, he actually made the breakthrough at a smaller side – Hogaborgs. It was here where he trained from the age of six, before eventually becoming a regular in the senior side and earning a move away. A trophy laden career followed, taking him to Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. Although he retired in 2009, he returned to the pitch for Raa in the Swedish third tier three years later, before then finding himself back in the team at Hogaborgs in 2013, helping out due to an injury crisis despite him only previously being registered to a casual team for 'seniors'. This gave him the chance to play alongside his son, Jordan.

Carlos Tevez – Boca Juniors

The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's successful and complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham was by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Man Utd and City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca," was Maradona's assessment upon 'El Apache's' return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021 and it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

Gianluigi Buffon – Parma

Buffon likes a comeback. Having returned for a second spell at Juventus in 2019, the goalkeeping great departed the club for a second time at the end of 2020-21. The Italy legend suggested he had not finished playing yet and Parma quickly emerged as a potential destination despite their recent relegation to Serie B. After a few weeks of contemplation, it was confirmed that Buffon was heading back to the club where he made his name. Now 43, the iconic stopper is wearing Gialloblu for the first time in 20 years, and he is set to remain with them until he turns 45, given he signed a two-year contract. What happens after that is anyone's guess but calling it a day with his first club could be a satisfyingly romantic conclusion to a remarkable career – that or he ends up at Juve again!

He is back where he belongs.
He is back home. #SupermanReturns @gianluigibuffon @Kyle_J_Krause @ParmaCalcio_en pic.twitter.com/bh2FO6P8YX

— Parma Calcio 1913 (@1913parmacalcio) June 17, 2021

Virgil van Dijk versus Romelu Lukaku reminds us of the irresistible force paradox: the immovable object in Liverpool's defence meeting the unstoppable might of Chelsea's centre forward.

It makes Saturday's clash at Anfield an unmissable prospect for fans of conflict between tall men from the Low Lands.

Van Dijk was sorely missed as he sat out almost all of Liverpool's title defence season last term, when a series of shattering injury blows to the Reds backline left Jurgen Klopp severely hamstrung.

The Dutch powerhouse has recovered from knee surgery and is back at the heart of manager Klopp's defence, striving for full match fitness, while Lukaku has returned to the Premier League after two years at Inter.

Their much-anticipated tussle this weekend could tell us a lot about the Premier League title prospects of Liverpool and Chelsea this term.


Is Van Dijk physically ready?

Lukaku seized on weakness in the Arsenal defence last weekend to get off the goalscoring mark in his Chelsea career, a decade on from making his debut in a short-lived first spell at Stamford Bridge.

He hit the crossbar with a header too, as the Gunners failed to contain his threat, the Belgian's intelligent movement and physical prowess proving more than Arsenal could contain. He had eight goal attempts, a single-match total that has only been beaten six times in the two years and two weeks between his move to Inter and his Premier League comeback.

It adds up to trouble for Liverpool if Van Dijk is short of his best, and if facing Burnley last week in his second Premier League game was a gauge of where he is at, then there might be questions to ask.

Van Dijk was involved in 12 aerial duels and won just five of those, or 41.7 per cent. That is way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, his first full campaign at Liverpool, Van Dijk winning 393 of 529 such battles in the air.

His passing accuracy of 80.77 per cent was also significantly below par, with Van Dijk only ever having dipped below that 11 times in the league since joining Liverpool in the January 2018 transfer window. Curiously it had happened twice previously against Burnley, perhaps pointing to a certain discomfort when facing the Clarets.


How has United misfit become a hotshot?

Lukaku scored 16 Premier League goals for Manchester United in 2017-18 from an expected goals (xG) tally of 13.43, and 12 from an xG of 10.67 in the following season. He then took his trade to Italy and netted 23 times in Serie A from an xG of 18.85 in 2019-20 before striking 24 times (xG 23.75) in Inter's Scudetto-winning 2020-21 campaign.

His shot conversion rate has climbed incrementally from 18.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 25 per cent last season, and he is a player whose confidence is soaring.

A big chance conversion rate of 39.29 per cent across all competitions in his final season at United was Lukaku's worst since the 2012-13 campaign (37.5 per cent). By improving to 46.51 per cent and then 51.02 per cent in his two years at Inter he was not tucking away those big chances – defined by Opta as situations 'where a player should reasonably be expected to score' – at an outlandish rate, but those are healthy enough numbers.

To take the example of his final season at Everton, the 2016-17 campaign, Lukaku had a big chance conversion rate of 73.08 per cent. That is his capability, which few can hope to match.

Lukaku certainly believes he has returned to England an improved player, and his 11 assists in Serie A last season reflect well in that aspect. In 2018-19 at United, he had no assists, although in the previous campaign he managed seven.


Dribble trouble for Van Dijk?

Lukaku has found his dribbling boots again too, and that has to be bad news for Premier League defences. In his three dazzling seasons at Everton, Lukaku chalked up 105, 87 and 104 attempted dribbles while on Premier League duty, but his totals fell away to 63 and then 41 while at United. Stymied either by the role he was being asked to play, or by his waning spirits, an important part of Lukaku's game went AWOL.

He attempted just 45 dribbles in his first Serie A campaign too, but that shot up to 103 in 2020-21, and the sight of an eager Lukaku with the ball at his feet is a worry for any defender, even one Van Dijk's pedigree.

Famously, Van Dijk is rarely dribbled past by opponents. Since his Liverpool debut in January 2018, he has only been beaten in such a way eight times in the Premier League, the fewest of all defenders with at least 50 games behind them over that time.


Still the full package?

"The package of Virgil van Dijk is really helpful," said Klopp after Liverpool battled to their 2-0 win over Burnley.

Unmistakably true, and the centre-back belongs to the calibre of player that can raise their game to another level when presented with a major challenge. It is why Liverpool spent £75million to bring him in from Southampton. When many thought they were paying over the odds, Liverpool were certain he would take them up a level, and duly he has.

The character and presence of the 2019 Ballon d'Or runner-up can influence those around him, even when the data suggests he is performing, act for act, below his peak levels.

There is no doubt Van Dijk will relish the challenge presented by Lukaku, despite having played on a losing team against Chelsea's new number nine before, notably when United edged Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford in March 2018, as Marcus Rashford's double made the difference.

Saturday's tussle is one between elite-tier Premier League stars, and immovable versus unstoppable is an absurdity that adds up to stalemate.

That may be how Lukaku versus Van Dijk plays out, the match won or lost elsewhere while they scrap out their own spectacular sideshow, two colossi on whom so much will depend over the next nine months.

This weekend is the final round of Premier League action before the international break – who wouldn't want to go into the pause top of their fantasy football league?

Well, hopefully that's where Stats Perform's Opta-powered Fantasy Picks can come in handy and give you the edge over your mates.

You've all presumably already got Bruno Fernandes and Mohamed Salah, so don't expect any more oh-so-obvious tips.

Without any further ado, here are the picks that could hand you the advantage ahead of matchday three of the 2021-22 season…

 

EMILIANO MARTINEZ (Aston Villa v Brentford)

Argentina goalkeeper Martinez was one of the buys of the season in 2020-21 and has established himself as one of the Premier League's best in that time.

Since the start of last term, his tally of 16 clean sheets has been bettered by only Ederson and Edouard Mendy. Those equate to 40 per cent of his Premier League appearances for Villa, a club record among goalkeepers to make at least 10 starts for them.

While Saturday's opponents Brentford enjoyed a strong start against Arsenal, it is fair to say Villa will be more confident of keeping promoted opposition at bay than certain other opponents.

MATT RITCHIE (Newcastle United v Southampton)

Admittedly, picking a Newcastle defender any weekend could be something of a risk given only Leeds United (seven) and Norwich City (eight) have conceded more goals than the Magpies (six)

But Ritchie has enjoyed a bright start to the season as a creative source for Steve Bruce's men, creating nine goalscoring opportunities – only Trent Alexander-Arnold can better that.

While Ritchie may have been a midfielder in past years, he's classed as a defender this time around, and his early-season craftiness could lead to some assist points, which are always something of a bonus among backline options.

JAMES TARKOWSKI (Burnley v Leeds United)

Maximising points from your defenders can be key in fantasy football, particularly considering they're among the least likely to score, but one way to potentially give yourself the edge in that respect is, of course, by picking centre-backs who carry a threat at the other end.

Tarkowski has had more touches in the opposition's box (73) than any other centre-back since the start of last season, while his 4.2 expected goals is the highest xG over the same period among all defenders.

Granted, the fact he's only scored twice from those chances suggests a degree of wastefulness, but who's to say he won't improve in that regard this season? He got one against Brighton and Hove Albion, after all.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Watford)

Spurs have enjoyed an encouraging start to the season under Nuno Espirito Santo in spite of Harry Kane's situation. Now he is seemingly staying put, a return to the starting XI may be on the cards, and that could play into Son's hands.

The two are known for their strong relationship on the pitch, and Son boasts a fine record against Sunday's visitors Watford, having scored five times against them – that makes the Hornets his second favourite Premier League opposition after Southampton (nine goals).

Son has looked sharp without being spectacular so far this term. Perhaps this weekend is when he really finds his groove...

RAPHINHA (Burnley v Leeds United )

Raphinha has been a revelation at Leeds since joining from Rennes last year, with his form over the past 12 months recently seeing him called up to the Brazil squad for the first time.

He poses something of a double threat in terms of goals and assists, though it is the latter where his strengths lie. Only Bruno Fernandes (7.7) and Alexander-Arnold (7.6) have a better expected assists record than Raphinha (6.9) since he made his first start in November 2020.

However, no one can better his nine assists, which is level with Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne, and he'll fancy his chances of doing some damage at Burnley this weekend.

MICHAIL ANTONIO (West Ham v Crystal Palace)

After being used as something of a utility man for years, Antonio has seemingly nailed down a spot in West Ham's attack and it's paying dividends.

In his past nine Premier League outings, he's been involved in 10 goals (six scored, four assisted) and the forward has started 2021-22 in irresistible form.

He has already got three goals and two assists this term, with his brace against Leicester City last time out seeing him surpass Paolo Di Canio (47) as West Ham's record goalscorer in the Premier League and leaving him one away from 50.

Given his form, Antonio could be a good bet for the captain selection this weekend.

RICHARLISON (Brighton and Hove Albion v Everton )

He may frustrate on occasion, but few would try to downplay the impact Richarlison has had on Everton since joining from Watford in 2018 and he looks set for a big 2021-22.

No one has as many goal involvements as him (42 – 34 goals, eight assists) during his time at the club and he was a real livewire last time out against Leeds, with his five shots and three key passes the most among Everton players.

Brighton have impressed early on this season, but Richarlison has the ability and confidence to be a real problem.

Liverpool fans enjoyed their return to Anfield for Saturday's 2-0 win over Burnley, and Jurgen Klopp's subsequent comments ensured the focus remained on the Reds.

Discussing Burnley's approach, Klopp said: "Watch wrestling if you like that kind of thing."

Indeed, the Clarets' physicality is "too dangerous", according to the Liverpool manager.

Some of the most intriguing Opta facts from the Premier League weekend emerged from that feisty encounter, while there were predictable developments as Manchester United visited Southampton...

No reds against Reds despite 'wrestling' claims

The clash at Anfield was not quite WWE, but there was also limited football on display. The ball was in play for just 49 minutes and 47 seconds.

That was the second-shortest such length of time for a Liverpool league game under Klopp, longer only than the 48 minutes and 46 seconds against Watford in 2015.

The Hornets won that game 3-0, so it can be an effective stifling tactic, but it did not work on this occasion as Liverpool scored in either half through Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane.

Klopp's men have now won seven consecutive Premier League games while scoring in both halves in each of them. Liverpool's own run of 11 victories with goals before and after half-time in 2014 was the last longer streak.

Burnley are on their own impressive run, though – one at odds with Klopp's frustrations.

Sean Dyche's side are now 95 Premier League matches without a red card since Robbie Brady's late dismissal against Huddersfield Town in January 2019, surpassing the previous competition record that saw Ipswich Town go 94 games without having a player sent off prior to December 1994.

Home comforts at last for City star Laporte

In Manchester City's 5-0 demolition of Norwich City, Aymeric Laporte scored his ninth goal for the club but first at the Etihad Stadium.

Laporte had turned out at City's home stadium 44 times previously without hitting the net, with each of his eight prior strikes coming at different grounds.

The Spain centre-back had goals at the AMEX, Emirates Stadium, Goodison Park, Groupama Stadium, Metalist Stadium, Molineux, Wembley and Vicarage Road before finally celebrating in front of the Etihad supporters.

Another Villa pen makes for Premier League first

Danny Ings' outrageous overhead kick lit up a tight affair between Aston Villa and Newcastle United, but it was a controversial second from the penalty spot that put the game beyond the Magpies.

Ings had scored from 12 yards on his debut against Watford – his volley against Newcastle making him the fourth Villa player to net in each of their first two Premier League games for the club – and so was expected to step up again when Jamaal Lascelles was adjudged to have handled.

Instead, Anwar El Ghazi grabbed Villa's second, maintaining his perfect penalty record in the competition with six from six.

Ings was overlooked despite missing just one of his nine attempts, meaning Villa became the first side in Premier League history to have two different players score spot-kicks in the first two games of a season.

There had been previous examples of two team-mates converting penalties in the same game – Fulham's Louis Saha and Steve Marlet on the opening day in 2002-03, and Southampton pair Dusan Tadic and Charlie Austin on matchday two in 2017-18 – but never in different matches at the start of a campaign.

Dom spot on at Leeds as Gray makes amends

There was a personal penalty first at Elland Road, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin kickstarted Everton's 2-2 draw with Leeds United. It was the England striker's 55th Toffees goal but his first from the spot.

Demarai Gray had Everton in front for a second time in the second half with his maiden strike for the club. Having netted in a 2-0 Leicester City win in 2017, he became the 34th player to score for and against Everton in the Premier League.

That puts Everton fourth in that regard, behind West Ham (46), Aston Villa (42) and Liverpool (39). Villa's Ings and Liverpool's Mane are both included.

Saints brush off Fred the Red's helping hand

It is a fixture best known for a famous grey-clad Manchester United loss, but Southampton's slip-up against a Red Devils side unmistakably dressed in blue and yellow went entirely to script.

Saints led through a Fred own goal, the fourth time United have netted for Southampton in the competition. Only against Newcastle (five) have United scored more own goals.

But Mason Greenwood's equaliser ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are now unbeaten in a record-equalling 27 away league fixtures.

For Southampton, this was nowhere near as bad as last season's clash when they collapsed from 2-0 up to lose 3-2 – or, of course, the 9-0 Old Trafford humiliation – but it was still painfully familiar. They have now dropped 42 points from winning positions against United in the Premier League, fewer only than Tottenham's 45 against Arsenal.

Since the start of last season, Saints top the charts for squandering leads, giving up 28 points – three ahead of second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.

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