You would surely have got good odds on Barcelona being the first club to splash the cash in the January transfer window, what with them reportedly not having any.

However, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confirmed at a news conference on Thursday that Ferran Torres is on the verge of leaving the Etihad Stadium for Camp Nou, with the deal worth up to a reported £55million.

It may seem curious for Barca to be spending such amounts of money given the financial issues that meant they struggled to register new players at the start of the season until they had eased the wage bill, even leading to Lionel Messi having to leave for Paris Saint-Germain.

A recent bank loan has apparently enabled the deal, and Torres appears like the kind of forward-thinking signing the club should have been making in recent years instead of some of the more ill-thought-out moves that have been made.

New Barca boss Xavi is aiming to spearhead a new era with a club that has lost its way of late, with the nadir arguably being the humbling Champions League exit at the group stage.

With all that being said, is this actually a deal that would make sense for all parties? Stats Perform takes a closer look at what appears to be the first big deal of the upcoming January transfer window.

Why Barcelona want the player

When he joined City from his hometown club Valencia in August last year, Torres was considered to be one of the more promising youngsters to come out of Spain as a pacey wide forward.

Although it was a slow start in England for the then 20-year-old, a hat-trick for Spain in the 6-0 Nations League demolition of Germany was soon followed by his first Premier League goal in a 5-0 win against Burnley, before Torres went on to score a further six in the league last season, including an impressive treble in a 4-3 win at Newcastle.

It may well be his form for the Spanish national side that caught the eye of the power brokers at Camp Nou, though, with that hat-trick against Germany contributing to the 12 goals he has bagged for La Roja, including two at the re-arranged Euro 2020 tournament against Slovakia and Croatia.

A brace in the 2-1 Nations League win against Italy in October illustrated his quality, but a foot injury has kept Torres from playing since the final defeat to France in that competition.

Meanwhile, Barca headed into the winter break in seventh place in LaLiga, just two points off the top four but a whopping 18 behind leaders Real Madrid, albeit with a game in hand.

Despite their struggles without Messi, the Blaugrana are joint-third for goals scored (29), behind only Madrid (41) and Real Betis (32).

However, only Memphis Depay (eight) has scored more than three league goals, with second top scorer Ansu Fati managing to play just five games so far.

The loss of Messi was a huge blow, but it could be argued that Barca have actually missed Luis Suarez more since the Uruguayan was inexplicably allowed to move to Atletico Madrid after the 2019-20 season.

Martin Braithwaite was never likely to replace Suarez's goals, scoring 10 in 56 appearances (22 starts) since signing from Leganes in February 2020, and Luuk de Jong has managed just one in 12 appearances (six starts) since arriving on loan from Sevilla in September, with the Dutchman appearing to be heading out the door soon in any case.

Although he started life as a wide player, Torres seems to have been permanently reinvented as a central striker, which could be exactly what Xavi is after given his best attackers in Depay, Fati and Ousmane Dembele all prefer playing out wide.

Torres has bagged 16 goals in all competitions for Manchester City, as well as 12 for his country in less than 18 months.

It might not quite be the old 'MSN' attack of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but if Xavi has Torres along with Dembele, Fati and Depay to call on, he will still boast one of the strongest looking forward lines in Spain.

Why Manchester City are happy to let the player go

It feels like a similar situation to the one that saw Leroy Sane move back to Germany with Bayern Munich last year.

Firstly, it seems clear that the move is happening because the player wants it rather than the selling club, but City will still be happy with the eventual deal should it go through.

"If he wants to leave, absolutely no disappointment," Guardiola said on Thursday.

"It's his desire. I'm happy for him. If you want to leave because you're not happy here, you believe you'll be happy in another place, you have to go. The career is short."

Torres has looked impressive for most of his short City career, but more than doubling their approximate £21million outlay on the player in less than 18 months represents a good deal in anyone's book.

He ended last season looking like he was about to become a breakout star at the Etihad, but with the arrival of Jack Grealish and return to form of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, it is difficult to see where Torres would get regular games away from the centre forward position, where he began this campaign.

City's failed efforts to sign Harry Kane in the summer suggested that Pep wanted more from his ultimate replacement for Sergio Aguero.

Torres boasts the best goals per 90 minutes record of any City player since he arrived in August 2020 (0.55), but his chances created total (29) was only marginally better than defensive midfielder Fernandinho (26), and well behind all other main attacking players.

It seems like the player is now more of a goal getter than a goal provider, but Guardiola probably feels he can still bring in a super elite player like Kane or Erling Haaland in the next couple of windows to fulfil that role, which would further leave Torres as a fringe player.

 

Why Torres wants the move

On the face of it, one can assume it is a simple desire to return to his home country. Torres joined City as a 20-year-old, and it would be no surprise, particularly given the way of the world since then, if he is feeling a tad homesick.

However, from a football perspective, it looks like a curious one. He will be leaving the champions of England, top of the league again and one of the favourites for the Champions League, to join a Barca side who now reside in the Europa League and who might struggle to even finish in the top four in LaLiga.

As well as returning to more familiar surroundings and much nicer weather, perhaps Torres is intrigued by the idea of leading the next era of Barcelona, obviously still a club with a huge history and reputation, now under the leadership of the legendary Xavi.

At City, Torres has been one of many, more than playing his part but ultimately not being someone Guardiola has relied on in the biggest games. He was an unused substitute in last season's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

Torres made 36 appearances in all competitions last term, and started the first six games of this campaign, but due to injury and simply not being selected, has not played in the Premier League since the 1-0 win at Leicester City on September 11.

The prospect of potentially becoming one of the faces of the resurrection of Barcelona will no doubt be a tempting one, even if it is certainly far easier said than done.

As with Sane and Bayern, it seems a simple case of a very talented player being wanted and needed more by the buying club than the selling one, and the deal itself does seem to leave everyone with a reason to be cheerful.

With so much going for it, this might even be one that Barcelona's accountants can stomach.

It's the most wonderful time of the year… To many that means Christmas, to some it means a packed festive football schedule!

While the relentless flow of Premier League matches at this time of year might seem like overkill for the players, it's a somewhat bizarre British tradition that shows no sign of stopping.

The swift turnaround between matchdays barely gives players a moment to catch their breath, and fantasy football managers (don't say we're not thinking about the big issues…!) have to react quickly as well if they're to make the most of the action.

But if you're one of those players who's liable to forget to make changes around this time of year because you slept through the deadline after eating too much leftover Christmas dinner, Stats Perform has some player tips that might just come in handy for each of the next two matchdays…
 

EDERSON (Manchester City v Leicester City, and Brentford v Manchester City)

Sure, Leicester may have impressed against Liverpool in midweek, but Man City have been impressively resolute at the back again this season.

Unsurprisingly, Ederson leads the way with 10 clean sheets in 2021-22, making him virtually a must-select if you're worried about potentially forgetting to change your goalkeeper between matchdays.

No on else in the division has reached double figures for clean sheets yet this term, and City will fancy their chances of getting a shutout at Brentford in their second game post-Christmas.

EMILE SMITH ROWE (Norwich City v Arsenal, and Arsenal v Wolves)

Christmas time, Emile Smith Rowe and wine…

Forgive us the bad pun, but like mistletoe, Smith Rowe is a solid choice for some festive joy, particularly given Arsenal have two very winnable matches on the horizon.

Ahead of their Boxing Day trip to Norfolk, Smith Rowe is the joint-second highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League this term with seven goals, highlighting just how much of a threat he's been in 2021-22.

Three of those have come in his last three games as well – hopefully he's the gift that keeps giving.

MARCUS RASHFORD (Newcastle United v Manchester United, and Manchester United v Burnley)

Remember Manchester United? It feels like it's been about two months since they last played, so they'll surely be raring to go when they face Newcastle at St James' Park on Monday.

Myrrhcus (sorry) Rashford will presumably be even more excited than the rest of the team, such is his record against the Magpies.

The England star has seven goal involvements in as many meetings with Newcastle (four goals, three assists), making them his favourite opposition.

Additionally, Newcastle have won just once all season, so there's every chance it won't just be the Christmas turkey getting stuffed.

HARRY KANE (Tottenham v Crystal Palace, and Southampton v Tottenham)

Spurs star Harry Kane loves Boxing Day, so much so that these days he's arguably more synonymous with Christmas than his namesake, Candy.

He'll be hopeful of stocking up again this year as he is just one behind Robbie Fowler's record of nine Boxing Day goals – it's worth saying he looked sharp against Liverpool at the weekend, so who's to say he won't sleigh Crystal Palace?

A trip to Southampton awaits after that, and Saints haven't exactly been watertight at the back recently, conceding 12 goals in their past five Premier League games.

December 23 marks the 10th anniversary of Diego Simeone's appointment as the head coach of Atletico Madrid.

The Argentine's return to his old club altered the modern history of LaLiga, as Atleti firmly established a 'big three' in Spain alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona while making waves in Europe.

While their style of play has not always courted admirers, Simeone's Atletico have won eight trophies – including two LaLiga titles and two Europa Leagues – and twice reached the Champions League final, all on a budget that has never matched that of their two biggest rivals.

In his decade in the capital, Simeone has also worked through a sizeable turnover of players, some of whom have established themselves as modern greats at the club.

Here, Stats Perform attempts to select a best XI from Cholo's time in charge...

Jan Oblak

Replacing Thibaut Courtois was no easy task, but signing Jan Oblak for €16million has proven to be an outstanding piece of business.

An invaluable part of Atletico's imperious rearguard, Oblak set a record for the fewest matches needed to record 100 clean sheets in LaLiga last July (182), helping his side to the league title – one of four trophies in his time at the club.

Oblak has won the Zamora Trophy – given to the keeper with the best goals-against-per-game ratio – in four of the past five seasons.

Juanfran

He might have developed at Real Madrid, but Juanfran became one of Atleti's most dependable and beloved players under Simeone.

A winger as a younger player, Juanfran was a strong attacking outlet as well as being reliable in defence at a time when Atleti's biggest rivals boasted Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at their peak. It was cruel that he should miss a penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out defeat to Madrid in 2016.

Although he won seven trophies before leaving for Sao Paulo in 2019, Juanfran told supporters at his farewell reception: "You singing my name was better than winning titles."

Diego Godin

Signed the year before Simeone's arrival, Godin became the rock on which Atleti's redoubtable defence was built, playing 389 games before departing at the end of 2018-19 – a record for a foreign player at the club.

A winner of eight trophies under Simeone, the Uruguay centre-back was twice included on the Ballon d'Or shortlist as he formed a formidable partnership with Miranda and later compatriot Jose Gimenez. There are some who consider Godin, who became captain, to be the greatest defender ever to play for the club.

There are suggestions he could return to the Wanda Metropolitano should he leave Cagliari in the coming weeks.

Jose Gimenez

Gimenez had to wait for his chance, linking up with Atletico for the title-winning 2013-14 season as an 18-year-old and finding Miranda blocking his path. However, the veteran soon moved on to Inter and was scarcely missed.

Gimenez, who remains at Atleti and is still only 26, had the benefit of playing alongside Godin at international level, quickly forging a strong partnership after his 2013 Uruguay debut. At international level, he may well be the man to pass his colleague's record caps haul.

Simeone's latest stalwart has already continued his fine performances at club level beyond Godin's career, named as one of four captains immediately after the older man's departure. Only hamstring injuries have slowed Gimenez to this point, but he has plenty of time left to add to his legacy.

Filipe Luis

Atletico's outstanding 2013-14 season attracted the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs – or at least one of them. Chelsea recalled Courtois and returned to sign two more title-winning stars: Filipe Luis and Diego Costa.

Both men eventually returned to Simeone's ranks, but Filipe Luis' Premier League move was particularly underwhelming. Jose Mourinho's Stamford Bridge rebuild found room for one of Europe's outstanding full-backs only as a back-up, with the Brazil international restricted to 939 league minutes – merely the 16th-most in that triumphant Chelsea side.

Atleti were only too happy to welcome Filipe Luis back the following year, installing him again as a regular in Simeone's sturdy defence.

Koke

Koke made his Atletico debut more than two years prior to Simeone's appointment and is still at the club as captain, aged only 29. He may even break Adelardo Rodriguez's club appearance record of 551 before the end of the season, now 30 short.

Under Simeone alone, Koke has turned out on 486 occasions, by far the most of any Atleti player, as he has had a big hand in the coach's various successes.

The midfielder emerged too late to contribute to Spain's international titles between 2008 and 2012 but was instead identified as Xavi's successor by the man himself. "An extraordinary footballer," according to a man who knows a thing or two about such players, Koke has consistently delivered at club level.

Gabi

A Marca column this year identified two potential successors to Simeone, two former players who are "pure Atletico Madrid". Fernando Torres is one; Gabi is the other.

Madrid-born Gabi epitomised Simeone's side with his dogged approach, having been selected as captain by the coach he played alongside in his first spell at the club.

"We weren't the best technically, but we were the best in terms of our belief," Gabi reflected of an Atleti stint that included six major honours – a description that fits both iconic player and team.

Marcos Llorente

Probably the most surprising choice in this XI, Llorente has undoubtedly proven himself an invaluable asset to Simeone since his move across the city in 2019.

Nominally a holding midfielder, the Spain international has been deployed to great effect in a more attacking role, not least in scoring twice at Anfield to knock Liverpool out of the 2019-20 Champions League.

Llorente has also filled in at full-back, that versatility earning him a starting spot on the right-hand side of Luis Enrique's line-up at Euro 2020. There are few players more accomplished at adopting different roles in Simeone's demanding set-up.

Antoine Griezmann

His 'Decision' about staying at Atletico in 2018 – and then promptly signing for Barcelona anyway a year later – upset plenty of Atletico fans, but there is little doubt about Griezmann's contribution to Simeone's success.

Griezmann has scored 140 goals and provided 148 assists for Atletico; since Simeone took charge, the next highest on the list for direct goal involvements is Koke on 137. And Griezmann was not even an Atletico player for the first two and a half years of the Cholo era.

The France international has twice come third in the Ballon d'Or standings while playing for Atleti, in 2016 and then 2018. Had it not been for a costly penalty miss in the Champions League final five years ago, he could well have got his hands on the prize.

Diego Costa

Fiery and formidable, Costa was the archetypal Simeone striker, and a player at the heart of one of the club's greatest modern seasons.

Initially a back-up to Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, and having battled a knee injury in 2011, Costa became an established player in the side in 2012-13, scoring in the Copa del Rey final win over Real Madrid.

Then, in 2013-14, he scored 27 LaLiga goals as Atleti claimed an incredible title triumph, and a further eight in nine games to propel them to the Champions League final. Simeone's attempt to rush him back from a hamstring injury for that game backfired, though: he lasted eight minutes of the match, which Atleti lost 4-1 after extra time.

Radamel Falcao

Described by Marca in 2012 as "the best signing of the 21st century", Radamel Falcao enjoyed two explosive seasons in Madrid as he cemented his reputation as the world's most feared number nine.

A club-record €40m signing in August 2011, the Colombia striker scored 36 goals in his debut season, including 12 in Atleti's victorious Europa League run – a competition he won the season before with Porto.

He started 2012-13 with consecutive hat-tricks, including against Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, ending the season with 34 goals in all competitions. He also set up Diego Costa to score as Atleti beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final.

Only three weeks remain in a fascinating 2021 NFL season that continues to prove extremely tough to call.

That unpredictability has extended to the fantasy season and has been exacerbated by a string of coronavirus outbreaks that have impacted several teams and forced changes to the Week 15 schedule.

So, with most fantasy leagues either at the semi-final or final stage, which players can be relied on in Week 16?

Stats Perform has identified four offensive players and a defense who are deserving of trust at this pivotal stage of the campaign.

Quarterback: Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers

Brady was visibly angry as he and the Buccaneers were shut out by the New Orleans Saints in primetime last week, but the odds of the Panthers doing the same appear extremely slim.

In two games against Carolina last season, Brady completed nearly 69 per cent of his passes for 558 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, averaging 7.54 yards per pass attempt.

With the Panthers limping towards the finish line, Brady looks a certainty for a bounce-back effort here, even with wide receiver Chris Godwin ruled out for the season amid a spate of injuries to the Bucs' offense.

Running Back: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns @ Green Bay Packers

The Packers are in the driver's seat for the number one seed in the NFC but, though they are one of the NFL's most well-rounded teams, a weakness in run defense has become apparent of late.

Indeed, the last two games have seen Green Bay give up 280 yards on the ground and for the season the Packers are allowing a yards per carry average of 4.53, the eighth-highest in the NFL.

Cleveland may be approaching the last-chance saloon in terms of playoff hopes, yet the Browns possess a ground game capable of exploiting the Packers' deficiencies against the run. The Browns' average of 4.9 yards per rush is the third-highest in the NFL while star running back Nick Chubb leads all players at his position with 17.4 per cent of his carries going for 10 yards or more.

Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers @ Houston Texans

A recipient of double-digit targets in six of his last seven games, the heavy workload Allen has received is a recipe for a huge day in Week 16.

The Texans are surrendering the seventh-most yards per pass play in the NFL, while the Chargers - for all their controversial fourth-down issues last week against the Kansas City Chiefs -- are 10th in yards per play through the air with Justin Herbert leading an explosive offense.

Simply put, Allen is a no-brainer start in fantasy.

Tight End: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals

Regardless of whether it is Lamar Jackson or Tyler Huntley at quarterback, Andrews is likely to be the top target for the Ravens' passing attack in a critical AFC North showdown.

Over the last two games, he has 21 receptions for 251 yards and three touchdowns, a bright spot in successive defeats for Baltimore.

Only five teams have produced more plays of 10 yards or more than the Ravens (193) and Andrews is the lead contender to be on the end of the majority they draw up against a stingy Bengals defense.

Defense: Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants

The Eagles' Christmas present comes in the form of getting to face either Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm as they look to take another step towards securing a Wild Card berth.

Philadelphia's defense has given up fewer than 300 total yards in each of their last three games. Glennon has seven interceptions in his four games this year while Fromm would be making his first career start. Whichever Giants backup the Eagles go up against, their defense is set up for another strong week.

There were celebrations in the Atlanta Falcons' draft war room back in April when the team picking before them, the San Francisco 49ers, made Trey Lance their quarterback of the future.

Atlanta's delight was not related to any unfavourable opinions on Lance. The Falcons' jubilation was because the Niners' decision allowed them to enact their plan to select tight end Kyle Pitts the fourth overall selection, turning him into the highest-drafted player at his position in NFL history.

Yet the Falcons' Week 15 performance only served to raise further questions concerning whether those celebrations were misguided as they were crushed 31-13 on the road by the surging and right now seemingly playoff-bound 49ers.

There has been plenty of discourse about the merits of San Francisco selecting Lance and then having him sit for a year behind an often-volatile veteran in Jimmy Garoppolo. 

Whether that approach pays dividends in the long term remains to be seen, yet San Francisco's dominant success in a crucial matchup in the playoff race should intensify the scrutiny on a Falcons team whose vision for the future appears conspicuous by its absence.

The Pitts problem

It was easy to see why the Falcons were so enamoured with Pitts. A monstrous athlete blessed with wide receiver speed and a near 6ft 6in and 245-pound frame, Pitts was viewed as perhaps the finest tight end prospect to enter any draft because of his ability to separate from coverage, dominate at the catch point and make things happen with the ball in his hands.

With 847 receiving yards to his name, Pitts is on course for a 1,000-yard season but has just one touchdown, the superiority he was expected to show in the red zone as yet failing to materialise.

The separation has also not been as consistent as perhaps anticipated. Pitts has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, 62.8 per cent of the time. That is above the average of 60.2 per cent but only 31st among tight ends with at least 10 targets in 2021.

Pitts is above average in terms of burn yards per target (11.3) and burn yards per route (2.8), while he is producing a big play on 34.4 per cent of his targets, putting him seventh among tight ends with at least 25 targets.

Tight end is a position where rookies typically tend to struggle, so in that context, Pitts' numbers are impressive. Still, his impact to this point can hardly be considered worthy of his draft slot.

Pitts is not to blame for failing to live up to expectations that were always likely to be too high, the former Florida Gator put in a difficult position by a franchise unsure of its direction.

Playoff contention a pipe dream

The acquisition of Pitts suggested the Falcons believed they were in a position to contend in the NFC with 2016 MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback and a talented offensive mind in Arthur Smith hired as their head coach.

But his selection was followed by a move that flew in the face of any such belief as the Falcons traded future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans.

That deal was in part motivated by the Falcons being pressed up against the salary cap limit, as well a desire from Jones for a change of scenery and his increasingly troubling injury history.

Though the trade was justifiable, it extinguished any notion of Atlanta wanting to build around Ryan and contend, and the Falcons' inconsistent and underwhelming 2021 campaign has delivered a reminder that the idea of them competing at the sharp end of the NFC was always ambitious.

Atlanta entered Week 15 still firmly in the mix for the playoffs at 6-7 but with a point differential of minus 108. After their blowout loss to the Niners, that has dropped to minus 126, the fourth-worst in the NFL.

The Falcons rank 21st in yards per play on offense and 25th in yards per play allowed on defense, with their struggles on both sides of the ball linked to sub-par play in the trenches.

Prior to the 49ers game, the Falcons ranked 28th in Stats Perform's pass protection win rate and last in pass rush win rate. Against San Francisco, they allowed 19 quarterback pressures and registered just four.

This is a bottom-half team that has been masquerading as a playoff challenger. Such a season would have been more acceptable had they used their premium pick on a quarterback in a class seen as an excellent one at the position. Having opted not to do so, the Falcons are mired in NFL no man's land.

No moving on from Matt... for now

The Falcons could theoretically get out of Ryan's contract this offseason but a dead cap charge of over $40million means they would only save a little over $8m against the salary cap.

A parting of the ways is more plausible in 2023 when the Falcons would save $28million by moving on from a quarterback who would then be entering his age-38 season.

Ryan is not the problem for the Falcons, but he is also not the answer.

He is delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 81.2 per cent of his attempts, the eighth-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes, and is doing so despite losing Jones and Calvin Ridley, who has taken a break from the game to focus on his mental health, from his supporting cast.

At the same time, Ryan is averaging 7.16 air yards per attempt, the sixth-fewest in the NFL (min. 100 attempts). Ryan may be limited by those around him, but he is also not performing at a level to elevate that group.

That mix has the Falcons in quarterback purgatory, and their path to exiting that unenviable position is not clear. The 2022 quarterback class is, at least on the surface, well short of the standard of the 2021 vintage, and Ryan – while no longer a member of the league's elite – still has the requisite talent to win enough games to ensure the Falcons will not be in a position to draft a top signal-caller in 2023.

In Pitts, the Falcons have a weapon widely viewed as a possible generational talent, but the decision to select him means they are now stuck with a quarterback not good enough to help them contend but too good for Atlanta to be able to tank to land his successor. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Falcons' short-sighted choice not to draft Ryan's heir apparent makes a route to the top hard to foresee.

After celebrating his second anniversary as Arsenal manager on Monday, Mikel Arteta can settle in for Christmas with his team in the top four of the Premier League.

A convincing 4-1 win at Leeds United on Saturday was the Gunners' third victory in a row the league, with young stars Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe all finding the net.

However, it wouldn't be Arsenal without a shadow looming over any potential optimism, and Arteta's ongoing problem of what to do with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rumbles on.

Having recently stripped the Gabon international of the club captaincy following "his latest disciplinary breach", the Arsenal boss must now decide whether he can bring Aubameyang back into the fold or must cut his losses and try to move the striker on in January.

But where did it all go wrong for the 32-year-old, broadly considered to be one of the best forwards around in recent years?

Stats Perform takes a look at the player, the numbers, and whether the north London club might actually be better off without their main marksman.

Heir apparent to Henry

It felt like a statement of intent.

After spending big money to bring Alexandre Lacazette to the club from Lyon ahead of the 2017-18 season, Arsenal decided to splash out even more to add Aubameyang at the end of the following January transfer window.

Having scored 138 goals in 209 games at Borussia Dortmund, plenty was expected of him upon arrival in the Premier League, particularly as his style of play, pace and goalscoring abilities gave more than a hint of a similarity to Gunners legend Thierry Henry.

Aubameyang even took Henry's iconic number 14 shirt, but unlike the Frenchman, he needed no settling in period as he bagged 10 goals in his first 13 league appearances for the club.

Only Mohamed Salah (13) scored more Premier League goals in that time, while of players who took at least 10 shots, only Romelu Lukaku (80.0 per cent) had a better shooting accuracy percentage than his 79.17.

Arsenal finished sixth in the league that season, 12 points off the top four and 37 points behind champions Manchester City. It would prove to be Arsene Wenger's last campaign, and if there was going to be real progress, new boss Unai Emery would need Aubameyang to have an exceptional first full season in England.

That's exactly what he got, with the former Saint-Etienne striker scoring 22 goals in 36 appearances, winning the Premier League Golden Boot jointly with Liverpool pair Salah and Sadio Mane.

What had made this all the more impressive was that Aubameyang had a better minutes per goal ratio than both, registering one on average every 124 minutes, with only City's Sergio Aguero (118 minutes per goal) performing better of those who scored at least 10 goals.

Arsenal did improve in 2018-19, finishing seven points better off and one place higher, but they were still a point shy of rivals Tottenham in that elusive top four spot.

Aubameyang was also potent in cup competitions, bagging nine more, including eight on the way to the Europa League final, but the Gunners were soundly beaten by Chelsea in Baku.

Despite the agony of missing out twice on Champions League qualification, there was little doubt by this point that Aubameyang was the talisman of the team and the player Emery would have to build around to have any hope of success.

Captain Auba

After Granit Xhaka was stripped of the captaincy following an angry confrontation with fans when coming off in the 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019, Aubameyang was appointed as his successor, following Henry's path once again as the star man expected to lead by example.

The player seemed to appreciate the significance, posting on Twitter: "Arsenal has a great history of wonderful captains like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams. It is a privilege to follow in their footsteps and I will honour the armband by doing my very best on and off the pitch."

Less than a week later, the man who gave him the armband was sacked, with Emery eventually replaced by Arteta in the Spaniard's first shot at senior management.

The extra responsibility and change of boss did not seem to slow Aubameyang down, scoring 22 league goals again, with only Jamie Vardy (23) grabbing more. However, the team's form was very much going in the wrong direction.

Arsenal did lift the FA Cup, with their captain scoring both goals against Chelsea to exact revenge for the previous season's Europa League defeat, but faltered in the league, finishing eighth on just 56 points, 10 off the top four, behind Wolves in seventh and nearly twice as close to relegated Bournemouth as they were to champions Liverpool.

Could Arteta get the best out of both player and team?

The notion that Arsenal could only succeed if Aubameyang was firing on all cylinders was beginning to be tested. He appeared to be doing all he reasonably could, but the overall form of the team did not seem to improve.

With a former player now in charge in Arteta, who had learned his trade under the guidance of Pep Guardiola while at City, would he also want to build around their goalscorer or try to change the mentality of a team that seemed to lack ideas if giving the ball to Aubameyang didn't work?

Although he had scored plenty, Aubameyang's minutes per goal average had lengthened again, going from 106 minutes in his first half-season to 124 in his first full season and 143 in the next.

The 2020-21 campaign was strange for everyone, with most games played behind closed doors. Arsenal finished eighth again but with five more points than the previous year and only six behind the top four.

While it was not immediately clear to see if the Gunners had improved much, if at all, under Arteta, what was noticeable was that even if they had been treading water, they had done so without the same output from Aubameyang.

He managed only 10 goals in 29 games and his minutes per goal reached a sluggish 234, significantly slower than Lacazette, whose 13 goals came at an average of one every 148 minutes, and even Nicolas Pepe, who scored 10 at an average of one every 161 minutes.

As this season has progressed, Arteta has appeared to be trying to move away from reliance on his now former captain, who has managed just four goals in 14 league games and has not scored since the 3-1 home win against Aston Villa in October.

After another insipid performance in the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United at the start of December, Aubameyang was left on the bench for the 2-1 loss at Everton, only coming on late in the game, notably after fringe player Eddie Nketiah had already been introduced.

He was then missing from the squad entirely for the win against Southampton before Arteta confirmed that he had stripped the player of the captaincy as well following a disciplinary dispute.

"We have made this decision that unfortunately is a really tough one," Arteta confirmed.

"If I had to choose, I wouldn't like to be sitting here talking about it, but we had to do it.

"When we have to make that decision, it's because it's the right one to defend the interests of the football club."

So, what next?

It would be harsh to make too much of a link, but Aubameyang has been missing from the Gunners' past three squads and they have won all three games, scoring nine and conceding just once.

They are also the joint-fifth-highest scorers in the league (27), despite the lack of goals from their one-time main man.

Against an admittedly depleted Leeds side at the weekend, what was particularly notable was how Arsenal went at their hosts from all angles, hitting the target 11 times in the first half, with six different players taking these shots.

Lacazette played a hard-working and selfless role up front, while promising wide forwards Martinelli and Saka showed energy and ruthlessness.

Should Aubameyang leave in January, the assumption would be that it relates to his disciplinary issues, but tactically, could a move actually be beneficial to both parties as well?

The player looks like he needs a fresh start, possibly to a team who are not as reliant on him as Arsenal have been for most of his time there, while the manager seems to have deliberately reduced his team's dependence on just one man.

Speaking on Monday, Arteta said of his anniversary: "It's been an incredible journey, and I am really happy and proud with the company that I have had on the journey.

"Now it is a new phase where we start to rebuild the team, we take a very clear direction with how we want to move forward with the club, a real connection between the team and supporters, the ownership and board and I think now it is excitement.

"[There is] excitement to keep driving this project forward, to keep working with this really young squad, but ready to compete, to get better and take the club back to where it belongs."

It has been an interesting first two years at the helm for Arteta, and it feels like whatever decision is made on the future of Aubameyang could well define the direction things take from here.

Aubameyang has occasionally donned a Spider-Man mask when celebrating in the past, but as far as his future at Emirates Stadium goes, there might be no way home.

Jurgen Klopp might consider the Christmas and New Year programme an "impossible" task for his stricken Liverpool team, but the Premier League has challenged its clubs to get games on over the coming fortnight.

These games can throw up season-shaping drama, with the packed calendar meaning the stakes are high and stress levels higher, and any manager that chooses to rotate his squad does so at his own risk.

Nobody wants to offer up gifts, despite Santa delivering three goals for Blackburn Rovers in 2007 – Roque Santa Cruz scoring twice in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City on December 27, and adding another in a 2-1 win over Derby County three days later.

Manchester City lead the way in the English top flight this season, ahead of Liverpool and Chelsea.

The 12 days of Christmas are traditionally considered to run from December 25 to January 5, and Stats Perform has looked at that period, assessing prospects for some of this year's games, along with a lesson or two from history.

You're top of the tree, but what makes you think you'll stay there?

In the first 10 seasons of the Premier League, from its launch in 1992-93, the eventual champions were only top at Christmas on three occasions – Manchester United in 1993-94, Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95 and United again in 2000-01.

Norwich City were the leaders on Christmas Day in that inaugural campaign, but Mike Walker's classy Canaries finished in third place in May as champions Manchester United and Aston Villa swept past the Canaries. Norwich had lost to United and derby rivals Ipswich Town in their two games leading up to the Christmas run, and back-to-back goalless draws with Tottenham on December 26 and Leeds United two days later further stifled their progress. The winless run ultimately extended to six matches, with the high-flying Canaries having their wings clipped just as the title began to look possible.

Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United famously led by 10 points on Christmas Day in 1995 and looked for all the world like runaway champions-in-waiting. Yet a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on December 27 was an omen of what was to come as the Magpies were barged off top spot by the Red Devils come the end of the season.

Aston Villa were top at Christmas in 1998 but fell away to finish sixth, the lowest final position by any team to have sat top of the Premier League tree on December 25. They lost 2-1 at Blackburn on Boxing Day in that year, Tim Sherwood scoring a late winner, and although Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu netted to earn a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday two days later, Villa's form was far from championship-winning from that point on.

As the Premier League has evolved and an elite crop of teams has developed, it has been a safer bet that the pace-setters by December 25 will go on to capture the trophy. In fact, over the past 10 seasons, the future champions have held top spot on that date on seven occasions, with Liverpool the only team to fall away from the summit in that time, dropping to second place in 2013-14 and 2018-19, and to third in 2020-21.

They climbed the mountain as snowflakes fell

Manchester United were fifth at Christmas in 1996-97, seven points behind leaders Liverpool, but Fergie's fledglings went on to win the league, and their results in late December were a big factor. They had beaten Sunderland 5-0 on December 21 and followed that with a 4-0 win at Nottingham Forest on December 26 (goals from David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Andy Cole), before sinking Leeds United two days later at Old Trafford thanks to an Eric Cantona penalty. A New Year's Day goalless home draw with Aston Villa followed, but United had a verve about them again and swept past Liverpool's 'Spice Boys' in the closing weeks.

Arsenal were sixth at Christmas in 1997-98 and 13 points behind United, but it was the Gunners who pulled off a startling comeback in this season. They launched an 18-game unbeaten run as they beat Leicester City 2-1 on December 26 and followed that by coming from behind for a 1-1 draw at Tottenham two days later. Arsene Wenger's team did not lose again in the league until their final two games of the campaign in May, to Liverpool and Villa, by which time the title had been secured. That remains the biggest Christmas Day deficit to be overhauled by a team that went on to be champions.

Manchester City were eighth on December 25 last year and still won the league, but Pep Guardiola's team were only eight points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand at that stage, with no team having played more than 14 games due to a delayed start to the season. City were 2-0 winners at home to Newcastle on December 26 and followed up with a 3-1 victory at Chelsea on January 3, their charge to glory gathering pace.

Merry Christmas? It's no guarantee of a happy new year

This year, there are three rounds of Premier League games spread across the 12 days of Christmas. In the past there have been as many as four, and there have been 13 occasions when teams have snaffled 10 points or more during this period.

Liverpool were the first to win all four of their games in this hectic spell, as they saw off Leicester, Manchester City, Leeds and Norwich by a combined 10-1 aggregate in 1994, only to trail home fourth in May. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea then achieved 12 days of Christmas clean sweeps in their title-winning 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.

All the other teams to rake in double-figure points hauls from their four festive period games managed 10 points from three wins and a draw.

Only one of those 10 sides went on to capture the title: Manchester United in the 2010-11 season. United also had a 10-point tally from 2004-05, and two other sides have hit that mark twice: Arsenal (1993-94 and 2004-05) and Sheffield Wednesday (1993-94 and 1994-95). Tottenham, Wimbledon, Liverpool and Manchester City are the other teams to have done so.

They delivered the goods

Manchester United have the best per-game record at this time of year, pulling in 2.19 points on average in the Premier League era. Of teams to have spent more than one season in the top flight, Arsenal are next (1.99), followed by Liverpool (1.96) and, surprisingly, Blackburn (1.88). United's legendary former manager Alex Ferguson reeled in a league-leading 135 points from 61 games during the 12-day run, with a hearty plus-74 goal difference, while his great rival at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, earned 132 points from 62 matches.

Ferguson and Jose Mourinho lead the way with an average of 2.21 points per game over the 12 days, among managers with more than 20 such games behind them.

Befitting his status as the Premier League's all-time top scorer, Alan Shearer is ahead of all the rest in the goals stakes, having hit 23 during this period, five clear of next in line Robbie Fowler.

A bad Christmas? It doesn't mean your goose is cooked

A diabolical 12 days of Christmas can be a retrievable mid-season mishap.

There have been 49 instances of teams losing all of their games over this period in a season. Among those, Everton in 1993-94 and West Brom in 2010-11 have played the most games in the 12 days – four games each for a zero-point return. The snowballing run of defeats almost proved hideously costly for Everton, who needed a famous 3-2 win over Wimbledon on the final weekend of the season to survive, but West Brom finished in the relative comfort of 11th place after their bleak midwinter, albeit following a February change of boss as Roy Hodgson replaced Roberto Di Matteo.

The bottom three from Christmas Days past have gone on to be relegated three times, with Derby County, Leicester City and Ipswich Town suffering that fate in 2001-02, Wigan Athletic, QPR and Reading sliding into the Championship after the 2012-13 campaign, and last season’s turkeys – Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United – also sinking into the second tier.

The good news for Norwich, Newcastle and Burnley – the current top three – is that clearly this rarely happens. Bottom side Norwich have history to wrestle with, given only three of 26 last-placed teams on December 25 in the 20-team era (since 1995-96) have avoided the drop.

There have been 37 instances of teams being in the Premier League relegation zone on Christmas Day but finding a way to survive.

Newcastle face Manchester United, Everton and Southampton in their festive games this year, and it may be a concern that manager Eddie Howe has a career points average of just 0.87 in games played from December 25 to January 5 (W2, D7, L6).

Burnley boss Sean Dyche can better that, taking an average of 1.12 points per game (W5, D4, L8) into assignments against Everton, Manchester United and Leeds.

Norwich will hope Dean Smith can summon his Aston Villa festive form, having achieved 1.67 per game at this time of year while in his former job (W3, D1, L2). Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Leicester await Smith's men this year.

Canaries knocked off their perch

A morsel from Norwich's Premier League past might serve as a salutary tale for mid-table clubs that feel secure about their Premier League status by now.

Norwich were seventh on Christmas Day in 1994, far from trouble, but their season imploded and they finished 20th, suffering relegation from the then 22-team league.

They had a crummy 12 days of Christmas, losing 2-0 at home to Tottenham and 1-0 at Nottingham Forest on successive days – December 26 and 27 – before undoing some of that damage with a 2-1 home win over Newcastle on New Year's Eve, only to be thumped 4-0 at Liverpool on January 2. They would not win another Premier League game until they beat Ipswich 3-0 on March 20.

Nightmares can occur after Christmas, as well as before.

The Indianapolis Colts pinned their hopes for the 2021 season on a gamble. It was an educated bet, one made in the knowledge that the last time Frank Reich and Carson Wentz were on the same roster, the results were remarkable.

Still, their decision to trade for Wentz, coming off the worst season of his career, represented a substantial risk. He was a quarterback at his lowest ebb, sacked a league-high 50 times while his 15 interceptions also led the NFL, one viewed by many as beyond repair.

Yet the Colts backed Reich, Wentz's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia in the 2017 season when the Eagles won the Super Bowl and the 2016 second overall pick played at an MVP level prior to a serious knee injury, to successfully resurrect his career, and were willing to give up a first-round pick to make that bet.

A first-rounder in next year's draft will head the Eagles way should Wentz play 75 per cent of the offensive snaps or if he plays 70 per cent of the snaps and the Colts make the playoffs.

As of Week 14, Wentz has 97.5 per cent of the snaps and the 7-6 Colts would be in the playoffs as an AFC wild card if the season ended today. Put simply, the Eagles are getting a first-round pick back for a player they were desperate to get off the books.

So with the Colts firmly in the mix for a postseason berth and the Eagles, who themselves are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the NFC, set to have three first-round picks come April, it begs the question, who is winning the Wentz trade?

A substantial turnaround

The raw numbers hint at a successful renaissance for Wentz, whose 22 passing touchdowns are the 10th-most in the NFL.

Meanwhile, he has done a much better job of taking care of the football, throwing just five interceptions. Of quarterbacks to have started double-digit games this season, only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson (4) have thrown fewer.

He has thrown 12 interceptable passes this season, according to Stats Perform data, but his pickable pass percentage of 2.99 is the sixth-best among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts.

While obvious improvements have been made in his ability to limit turnover-worthy players, the reality is that Wentz still struggles for accuracy.

Big moments proving too much

Wentz's completion percentage has improved to 63.3 from a dismal 57.4 last season. Yet that is still some way short of his 2018 zenith of 69.6, which is a clear outlier for a quarterback who has never at any other point sniffed the 70 per cent mark.

He is 25th among qualifying quarterbacks in that category, his disappointing numbers reflective of an inability to produce accurately thrown passes consistently.

Indeed, his well-thrown percentage of 76.1 is below the average of 78.4 for quarterbacks who meet that 200-throw threshold, with the Colts' success this season arguably more a product of a dominant run game than any career revival by Wentz.

The Colts lead the league in rush yards per attempt with 5.15 while registering the fifth most carries (383) in the NFL, with 15.1 per cent of those going for 10 yards or more. Only the Cleveland Browns (16.3 per cent) and the Eagles (15.3 per cent) have done a better job at creating explosive runs.

Indianapolis' prowess running the ball has minimised Wentz's shortcomings. Yet in the situations where the pressure is in his face or on his shoulders, those failings are magnified.

His well-thrown percentage dips to 66.2 when under pressure from the opposing pass rush (the average is 69.3), and when asked to deliver in tight games Wentz has been unable to rise to the challenge.

Wentz and the Colts are 1-4 in one-score games this season, with all five of his interceptions coming across three of those defeats. He also lost a fumble in losses to the Baltimore Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his three turnovers critical in a 38-31 reverse at the hands of Tampa.

The evidence in that sense points towards Wentz's improved 2021 being a product of his situation, rather than his own merits. When the team has needed him to elevate them to victory in tight games, he has fallen short. There are plenty of quarterbacks who fall into the same bracket, but they did not come at the cost of a first-round pick that could prove key to the Eagles turning things around.

Eagles have crucial flexibility

The Eagles could be deemed unfortunate in potentially having three first-round picks in a draft class that is not regarded as being anywhere near as strong at quarterback as the 2021 crop.

Yet the progress 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts, who took over for Wentz last year, has made in his second season gives them the flexibility to potentially use that capital to either build around him or parlay those selections into a blockbuster trade for another quarterback.

Hurts' numbers as a quarterback - 60.1 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions - are nowhere close to those of Wentz. Yet a 79.9 well-thrown percentage points to him having superior accuracy to that of his predecessor, while he adds significantly more as a runner.

Only Lamar Jackson (767) has more rushing yards among quarterbacks than Hurts (695), who leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns for players at the position with eight.

With a quarterback whose diverse skill set matches the direction of the modern game, the Eagles can use their premium picks to fill the holes on the roster around him to improve Hurts' situation or package him with some of that draft capital to land a quarterback who can quickly turn them into contenders again.

Indianapolis' room for manoeuvre comes in the form of close to $60million in salary cap space, yet they are in a position where they will be building around a quarterback playing well enough to deserve to be the starter in 2022 but with an obvious ceiling.

The Colts are in the better spot in the race for this year's playoffs and have the better team right now, yet the ultimate impact of the Wentz trade could be that it puts the Eagles in a position to leapfrog Indianapolis and their former franchise quarterback in the ranks of contenders.

Marcelo Bielsa was typically honest as he faced questions about his future. After all, they were inevitable after the 7-0 battering by Manchester City earlier this week.

While Leeds fans might try to convince you it was a less frustrating match than their late 3-2 defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, from the outside it looked as bleak as it gets.

"Do you think that after suffering a 7-0 defeat I can discard the instability?" Bielsa asked on Thursday. "Do you think there's a coach that can't be sacked, who is unsackable? Do you think I'm so vain that I think I can't be sacked?"

Given everything Bielsa's done for Leeds in his four years, it might be fair enough to ponder whether he was untouchable or not, but Tuesday was grim.

It was Leeds' joint-heaviest defeat ever in the Football League/Premier League and the first time Bielsa conceded seven goals in one match over his entire management career – that equates to 568 matches.

While it was only the first time Leeds have suffered back-to-back league losses this term, defeat to City was the continuation of an unequivocally bad start to the season.

Great expectations

In all competitions, Leeds have won just four matches in 90 minutes and only one of those has come since the start of November.

Things don't look much more encouraging this weekend either as they face Arsenal. A third defeat in a row could potentially leave them just two points above the bottom three at Christmas.

Injuries aren't helping their cause, with as many as seven players set to miss out this weekend and Junior Firpo is suspended. Among the absentees is Patrick Bamford, the scorer of 17 Premier League goals last season.

He's already missed a chunk of the season, featuring just six times in the Premier League, perhaps going some way to explaining some of Leeds' issues.

Their injuries, form and proximity to the bottom three are all putting extra expectation on one player.

Raphinha wasn't exactly an unknown when he joined Leeds – Rennes and Ligue 1 are hardly 'obscurity', but he's undoubtedly seen his reputation grow exponentially during his 14 months in England.

His debut season was very promising as Raphinha managed to combine the work rate demanded in a Bielsa team with on-the-ball flair and an eye for the spectacular.

Feisty, flamboyant and forceful – Leeds fans could barely believe they'd managed to retain him when the most recent transfer window shut.

Among the league's most-crucial players

It's fair to say he picked up where he left off, having already surpassed last season's goals total when his penalty against Chelsea took him to seven in 15 games.

Though, with Bamford missing, Raphinha is having to operate slightly differently due to there being the need to pick up the slack caused by absences.

Given Bamford's injury problems, it's unsurprising to see Raphinha's shot frequency has increased from 2.6 to 3.1 every 90 minutes and that's probably had a knock-on effect to his creativity.

His two chances created on a per-90-minute basis is down slightly from 2.4 – similarly, his expected assists (xA) has also decreased fractionally to 0.22 from 0.26. Of course, he probably would have been aided in this area had Leeds' best striker been available all season – rather, Raphinha's the one having to lead from the front and be a creative spark.

An increase in touches per game (59.9 to 63) suggests greater general influence, and while that's not translated to more key passes or assists, Raphinha's importance is further highlighted by his involvement Leeds' build-up play.

He's been involved in 592 open play passing sequences this term, a figure only four players designated as strikers or wingers can better. Among the same group, only eight have played a part in more sequences that ended in a shot than the Brazilian (74) and six of those represent members of the so-called 'big six'.

Raphinha's explosive talents and ball carrying skills make him a great asset when Leeds are trying to relieve pressure and get back up the pitch, but we can also see that his team-mates recognise his usefulness when they're trying to retain the ball.

There's a case to be had that, relative to their respective teams, Raphinha is among the most crucial players in the Premier League – after all, since his first start in November 2020, only five players have had a hand in more non-penalty goals than him (21).

While Arsenal may not be the force they once were, beating the Gunners would be a significant feat for Leeds when you consider their current form.

Raphinha was quiet in the mauling by City, failing to register a single shot or key pass, a performance he'll surely be eager to prove was a one-off.

And if anyone can get Leeds out of their slump by terrorising an Arsenal side often accused of lacking personality, it's Raphinha.

The carnage of the Premier League festive schedule is well and truly upon us.

Arsenal, who stripped Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of his captaincy on Tuesday, snatched West Ham's Champions League spot with a comfortable victory in Wednesday's headline clash.

Just 11 miles away in London, Crystal Palace hosted Southampton following a 3-1 defeat of Everton but they could only muster a draw against Ralph Hasenhuttl's side.

Brighton and Hove Albion succumbed to yet another defeat against Wolves in the other clash of the day, after Watford's visit to Burnley was postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Hornets' squad.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of Opta data from the top-flight action.

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham: Youth shines again for Arteta's top-four chasers

West Ham have a woeful record at Emirates Stadium and extended that poor run as they lost their 11th league match in 12 games at Arsenal's ground, trading fourth spot with Mikel Arteta's side, who were inspired by two of their young stars.

Gabriel Martinelli broke the deadlock in the second half with his seventh Premier League strike, Gabriel Jesus (16) the only Brazilian with more goals in the competition before their 21st birthday.

Vladimir Coufal then became the 15th Czech Republic player to receive his marching orders in the Premier League when he received a contentious second caution for bringing down Alexandre Lacazette, who saw his penalty saved by Lukasz Fabianski.

Lacazette's miss may have been Arsenal's third consecutive failed penalty in the league – doing so for the first time since 1992 – but substitute Emile Smith Rowe sealed the victory with the Gunners' 10th goal scored by an under-21 in the competition this season, which is more than any other side.

David Moyes, who became the fourth manager to 600 games in the Premier League, has never won at Arsenal in 18 top-flight attempts, extending the record for the most times a manager has played away against a side in the competition without winning.

Brighton and Hove Albion 0-1 Wolves: Saiss scores as Seagulls grounded once more 

Wolves headed to the South Coast without a win or a goal in four top-flight games, facing five consecutive blanks for the first time since 2003, but held on in a marathon slog against Graham Potter's timid Brighton.

Roman Saiss nodded in what proved to be the winner for Bruno Lage's side on the stroke of half-time, as Wolves scored their first top-flight goal before the interval in seven matches – dating back to when they netted twice in the first half against Everton in early November.

The Morocco international now has five league goals to his name since the start of last season – only Raul Jimenez (nine) and Ruben Neves (six) have managed more for Wolves in that period.

Wolves, though, had to wait for their win as they battled for 106 minutes and 29 seconds of action in total in the longest English top-flight game since Manchester City and Liverpool in September 2017 (108 minutes and 35 seconds).

In contrasting fortunes, struggling Brighton are still without a win in all competitions since beating Swansea in the EFL Cup in September, while the Seagulls have not tasted top-flight victory in a club record 11 games.

Crystal Palace 2-2 Southampton: Broja form continues as Ayew breaks duck

The Premier League's most fragile away defence in 2021 travelled to Selhurst Park having conceded 50 times on the road, but were unlucky to not walk away with all three points against Patrick Vieira's side.

Wilfried Zaha struck first after just 119 seconds as he fired another away goal past Ralph Hasenhuttl's team, with what was Palace's fastest Premier League goal since May, which also came against Southampton.

However, James Ward-Prowse restored parity with his 11th direct free-kick goal in the league – only David Beckham (18), Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola (both 12) have scored more in the competition.

Armando Broja deservedly nudged the visitors ahead with his fourth finish in six league starts, with Mason Greenwood (also four) the only played aged 20 or younger to have scored as many times in the competition this season.

Jordan Ayew then ensured the sides shared the spoils with his first goal in 43 Premier League games, his last coming against Leeds United in November 2020, while the Saints claimed an unwanted record as the first top-flight side to ship more than 50 away goals in a single year since West Brom in 1985 (52).

Unless your league is one in which the fantasy championship hinges on the always impossible to predict Week 18, it's time for the playoffs.

And the playoffs are the time when your stars need to shine.

The bye weeks are done and, if you've managed to avoid an injury crisis, there shouldn't be much need for scouring the waiver wire for fill-ins.

For fantasy glory, the players you drafted high need to deliver. With that in mind, Stats Perform has identified an optimum lineup for Week 15 featuring four offensive players and a defense who are in a position to propel fantasy teams to the next round of the postseason.

 

Quarterback: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills vs. Carolina Panthers

Allen was hugely impressive in defeat as the Bills' comeback effort against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell short. It was his first 300-yard passing game since Week 10 and also saw him throw for two touchdowns, while he added 109 yards and a further score on the ground.

With multiple passing touchdowns in four of his last five games, Allen has still served as a prolific quarterback even as the Bills' hopes of contending to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative have taken several dents.

Against a fast-fading Panthers team whose stout defense is being put in increasingly difficult spots by a rudderless offense, Allen, even with concerns over a foot injury, should get plenty of opportunities to continue his impressive scoring run and get the Bills back on track.

Running Back: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals @ Detroit Lions

Only Jonathan Taylor has scored more touchdowns from scrimmage than Conner, who has found the endzone 16 times in an unexpected career year.

A featured part of the running game and the passing attack, Conner will relish the chance to play an integral role in returning the Cardinals to winning ways against a Lions defense ranked 29th in the NFL by yards per play allowed.

Wide Receiver: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers @ Baltimore Ravens

Adams has 100 receiving yards in each of his last three games, bringing in a pair of touchdown receptions in two of those performances.

The man many consider to be the best receiver in football is only polishing that reputation in 2021 and now gets to go up against a severely banged-up Ravens team extremely susceptible to the big play.

Baltimore's defense has surrendered 56 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the most in the NFL. In a marquee matchup that could instead prove a mismatch if Lamar Jackson misses out, expect Aaron Rodgers and Adams to ensure they add to that tally.

Tight End: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons

Kittle is in monstrous form. His 13-catch day in the Niners' win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14 saw him finish with 151 yards and a touchdown. He became the first tight end in NFL history to record successive games with at least 150 yards and a touchdown, having racked up 181 yards and two touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks a week earlier.

As a clear focal point of the 49ers' passing game, the signs point to another huge impact for Kittle versus a Falcons defense giving up the ninth-most yards per pass play in the NFL.

Defense: Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants

The Dallas defense did the heavy lifting in the Cowboys' win over the Washington Football Team, wreaking havoc to cement their grip on first place in the NFC East.

Dallas registered five sacks, forced and recovered three fumbles, including one returned for a touchdown, and intercepted Taylor Heinicke in a dominant showing.

Such a turnover-laden display may prove an anomaly, yet, with the Giants having committed six giveaways in their last four games, the odds are in the favour of another productive day for a defense that excels at making game-changing plays.

Sergio Aguero has decided to retire.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

After consultations with specialists, the Argentina international has been told it is too much of a risk to continue playing.

Barcelona were the last club Aguero played and scored for in a storied career, but it'll be his exploits for Manchester City that will be remembered most fondly in the football world.

He left the club earlier this year after a decade in Manchester that cemented his status as one of City's greatest ever players – he made an immediate impact upon joining from Atletico Madrid in 2011, plundering 23 top-flight goals in his first season, including the dramatic stoppage-time winner against QPR on the final day of the campaign to seal their first-ever Premier League title. 

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at the legacy of Aguero's exceptional career as a matchwinner and goalscorer. 

Aguero untouchable as City's leading marksman

No City player comes close to Aguero's simply outstanding scoring record.

He left City having scored 184 times in the Premier League at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition's history.

The City player closest to that ratio (min. 20 goals) is Edin Dzeko, who scored a goal every 141.6 minutes for City in the English top flight. 

City's second-highest scorer in the Premier League is Raheem Sterling, though he is 102 goals adrift of Aguero on 82.

Behind Sterling is Yaya Toure (62), followed by David Silva (60), Carlos Tevez (58) and Dzeko (50).

Even when you extend it to all competitions throughout City's history, no one gets within 80 goals of Aguero, with his 260 well clear of Eric Brook (177).

In esteemed Premier League company

Sadly, the final season of Aguero's Premier League stint was blighted by injuries, restricting him to just 12 appearances and four goals.

Nevertheless, he departed England as an all-time great such was his consistent excellence in front of goal.

Indeed, only three players have scored more than his 184 in the competition: Alan Shearer (260), Wayne Rooney (208) and Andrew Cole (187). 

All three, however, required significantly more minutes to score each goal, with Aguero's rate (one every 108 mins) comfortably better than Shearer's 146.86, Rooney's 182.78 and Cole's 169.14. 

Thierry Henry is the only player to have gotten close to a similar standard in the Premier League, with the Frenchman netting every 122 minutes on average – Mohamed Salah might fancy his chances of rivalling Aguero, however. His 111 goals have been scored at a rate of one every 127 minutes.

One-club man… sort of

Aguero's goal frequency was just one of several areas where he stands out in front, though.

Of course, he was never able to topple Alan Shearer's overall record for Premier League goals (260), but Aguero has scored more goals than anyone else for a single club.

His final goal for City, a header in a 5-0 demolition of Everton back in May, saw him overtake Wayne Rooney's haul of 183 for one club (Manchester United).

Remarkably, Aguero needed 118 fewer matches to reach the landmark than Rooney, which is saying something.

Harry Kane (167) may yet surpass Aguero – though if he ultimately ends up being the Argentinian's 'heir' at City, that record may stand for quite a while.

A box of hat-tricks

It's arguable the Premier League has never seen a more insatiable striker.

Some might be tempted to kick back once they have one or two goals – sure, a hat-trick would be nice, but their job is already done…

That certainly wasn't the case with Aguero, who was utterly relentless.

His 12 Premier League hat-tricks is a record and will likely remain the benchmark for years given only Shearer (11) has reached double figures for trebles in the competition.

It wasn't a case of Aguero filling his boots against the same lowly opposition all the time either. He only got more than one hat-trick against two teams (two each versus Newcastle United and Chelsea).

One of those hat-tricks against Newcastle came in a remarkable five-goal haul back in October 2015, helping City to a 6-1 victory. Granted, four players had managed such a feat before, though Aguero did his damage in just 66 minutes on the pitch – the previous quartet all played for 90 minutes.

Among Europe's elite finishers

Rightly or not, Aguero was probably too much of a pure finisher to ever really be considered in the same standing as players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who generally scored and contributed more in general.

But there's little doubt the Independiente youth product was one of the finest forwards of his generation.

Since January 1, 2000, only five players – Cristiano Ronaldo (483), Lionel Messi (475), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (300), Robert Lewandowski (295) and Edinson Cavani (261) – have scored more goals in Europe's 'big five' leagues than Aguero (259) across his spells with Atleti, City and Barca.

His minutes-per-goal rate jumps slightly to one every 128 minutes when factoring in his time in LaLiga, which puts him 10th among players to have scored at least 150 goals in the major European leagues, but let's not forget that includes his days as a teenager as well as last season when he was having to battle fitness issues.

Sadly, we never got to see Aguero return to the heights he scaled during his peak at City, with injuries restricting him to only five appearances for Barcelona.

But given the circumstances surrounding his retirement, things could have been a lot worse. This farewell gives us the chance to happily reflect on what a privilege it was to watch Sergio 'Kun' Aguero.

Sergio Aguero confirmed his retirement on Wednesday to bring to an end a glittering career that shone most brightly during his time at Manchester City.

He spent a trophy-filled decade in Manchester, winning the Premier League title five times with a club that had never claimed the honour before his arrival.

And Aguero's goals, of which there were 260, played a huge part in that success.

On the day he revealed he had hung up his boots, Stats Perform takes a look back at 10 of the best goals Aguero scored for City.

Swansea City (H): August 15, 2011

A club-record signing following his reported £38million arrival from Atletico, Aguero announced himself with a stunning substitute cameo in City's opening game of the 2011-12 campaign. Having slid in at close range to double the advantage granted by Edin Dzeko's opener, he inventively set up David Silva's third before saving the best until last. Aguero collected Yaya Toure's flicked pass 30 yards from goal and arrowed a venomous, dipping long-range strike into the corner. It was love at first sight for the City faithful.

Norwich City (A): April 14, 2012

Carlos Tevez going AWOL for a significant chunk of Aguero's debut season in the Premier League meant a forward partnership that promised much was only viewed fleetingly. However, the dynamic Argentine duo belatedly linked up during the closing weeks of the campaign, never more effectively than in a 6-1 demolition of Norwich at Carrow Road. Tevez famously swung an imaginary golf club – in reference to his recently curtailed leisure time in Argentina – upon completing his hat-trick but the first of an Aguero double provided the game's outstanding moment. He latched on to a bouncing return backheel from Tevez, the pair's livewire movement having perplexed the Canaries defence, to thump into the top corner from the edge of the box.

QPR (H): May 13, 2012

An unforgettable moment replayed countless times, both era defining for the league and career defining for its central figure, it is easy to forget what a technically brilliant piece of centre-forward play Aguero's heroic intervention during the dying seconds of the season against QPR was. As the seeming formality of Premier League title glory slipped ever closer to the clutches of rivals Manchester United, the Argentine mimicked many of his country's great attackers by dropping into midfield. Taking possession from Nigel de Jong, an alert Aguero picked out Mario Balotelli with his back to goal. As with much before and after the eccentric Italian's time at the Etihad Stadium, what followed was not simple, but Balotelli managed to complete a return pass while on his backside. Aguero touched the ball into space beyond Taye Taiwo's lunging challenge, keeping his balance as the QPR defender clipped him. "I hit the ball as hard as I could and hoped for the best," Aguero recalled. Cue bedlam.

Liverpool (H): February 3, 2013

City's title defence the following season stuttered as their talisman grappled with fitness niggles but he was at his awe-inspiring best to snatch a draw against Liverpool. Five minutes after a trademark long-ranger from Steven Gerrard put the Reds 2-1 ahead, Aguero scampered after Gareth Barry's raking ball into the right channel and found visiting goalkeeper Pepe Reina hurtling off his line. The City man got there first and hooked home from an improbable angle out on the wing.

Manchester United (A): April 8, 2013

United were on the verge of regaining the title from their neighbours by the time City arrived at Old Trafford for the season's second derby, but Aguero served up a reminder of the misery his final-day exploits inflicted upon them 11 months earlier. There were parallels with that famous strike as he stole in front of Danny Welbeck to receive a pass from Toure and embarked upon a driving diagonal run towards the right-hand corner of the United six-yard box. Phil Jones launched a despairing lunge as his adversary superbly dug out a finish into the roof of the net.

Manchester United (H): September 22, 2013

Aguero set the tone for a rampant City derby display and a season of contrasting fortunes for the Manchester clubs, who were each under new management in the form of Manuel Pellegrini and David Moyes. Samir Nasri's backheel found Aleksandar Kolarov and the overlapping left-back fizzed over a fierce cross that Aguero contorted himself brilliantly to convert with a left-footed volley. He claimed a second in a 4-1 win and City would finish the campaign as champions, with United in seventh and Moyes out of a job.

Newcastle United (H): October 3, 2015

The Buenos Aires native's insatiable appetite for goals has never been more clinically demonstrated than when he put an overmatched Newcastle to the sword. City won 6-1 and Aguero scored five of them, all in the space of 20 minutes. Half-time did at least give Steve McClaren's men respite after their tormentor cancelled out Aleksandar Mitrovic's opener, but a brutal evisceration followed. Aguero's third was his best, when he applied a delicate dinked finish on the end of an irresistible passing triangle featuring Silva, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne.

Leicester City (H): February 10, 2018

Already with the match ball in the bag, Aguero had one more thunderous trick up his sleeve in the 5-1 thrashing of Leicester in 2018. Phil Foden picked out City's penalty box animal outside his natural habitat 25 yards from goal. Nevertheless, there was only one thing on Aguero's mind as he touched the ball forward and larruped a strike past Kasper Schmeichel that crashed against the underside of the bar and bounced up into the roof of the net.

Arsenal (N): February 25, 2018

City made a nervous start at Wembley before Aguero tuned into the same wavelength as Claudio Bravo. The Chile keeper floated a goal-kick in the direction of his fellow South American, who nudged a dawdling Shkodran Mustafi, bore down on goal and lifted the bouncing ball delicately over the advancing David Ospina. The first trophy of the Pep Guardiola era was scarcely in doubt after that point.

Chelsea (H): February 10, 2019

Having earlier missed an open goal from three yards out to leave Guardiola in disbelief on the touchline, Aguero almost overcompensated with the stunning quality of his strike that set him on his way to claiming the match ball. City went on to win this game 6-0, but it was Aguero's 13th-minute thunderbolt that will live longest in the memory. He held off the attentions of two Blues defenders before rifling in a 25-yarder that left Kepa Arrizabalaga with no chance.

Sergio Aguero has confirmed his retirement, at the age of 33.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

He scored just one goal for Barca – an injury time consolation in October's Clasico defeat to Real Madrid.

But it will be his time at City that will be most fondly remembered, and he undoubtedly goes down as one of the club's greatest signings.

Aguero's arrival in 2011 came three years after the Abu Dhabi United Group's stunning takeover of City drastically altered the trajectory of the club and the Premier League.

September 1, 2008 began with news of City's new ownership group – funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's lavish wealth – and ended with the club-record signing of Robinho from Real Madrid, after an unlikely deadline day tug-of-war with Manchester United for Tottenham's Dimitar Berbatov.

Stats Perform marks Aguero's retirement by looking at City's best signings of the Mansour era.

DAVID SILVA

Often regarded as City's finest ever player, the mercurial playmaker arrived from Valencia for £25million in 2010 with a newly acquired World Cup winners' medal in his pocket. Silva has been integral to every City title triumph since. Whether gilding around in Roberto Mancini's powerful line-up, dazzling as the creative inspiration under Manuel Pellegrini or lifting Pep Guardiola's current vintage to new heights, City were always been a significantly better team with Silva in the line-up.

He left for Real Sociedad following the expiration of his contract in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic robbing him of a farewell in front of fans at the Etihad Stadium.

YAYA TOURE

Derided in some quarters as an over-priced defensive midfielder when he joined from Barcelona for £24m during the same close-season as Silva, Toure proved to be so, so much more. The most dominant and complete midfield presence of the era, he became City's 'clutch' player, amassing a collection of memorable goals in Wembley showpieces and title run-ins.

The towering Ivorian was indisputably at his peak when he scored a staggering 20 Premier League goals from central midfield on the way to the title in 2013-14.

SERGIO AGUERO

Aguero scored 30 or more goals in all competitions in five separate seasons during his time at City, for whom he netted 16 hat-tricks. He is the fourth-highest scoring player in Premier League history with 184 goals in 275 games, behind Alan Shearer (260), Wayne Rooney (208) and Andrew Cole (187), making him the highest-scoring overseas player, and he also holds the Premier League record for most goals scored at one club.

The most famous of them all will always be that incredible, last-gasp, Premier League-title clinching winner against QPR in 2012. His 259th and 260th goals for City came in the form of a double from the bench in a 5-0 rout of Everton in front of 10,000 supporters at the end of the 2020-21 season. 

KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Eyebrows were raised when City broke their transfer record to bring in the reigning Bundesliga Player of the Year from Wolfsburg in August 2015 following his failed spell at Chelsea. The Belgium star soon made the £55m fee seem wholly worthwhile as a relentless work-rate, vast range of passing and rasping shot from either foot established him as one of the leading lights in England's top flight.

An assist machine he was Guardiola's standout performer as City stormed to Premier League glory in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21, while his injury in last season's Champions League final was a huge blow to the Citizens as they went down 1-0 to Chelsea.

EDERSON  

Guardiola spent heavily on defensive reinforcements as he overhauled the squad left to him by Pellegrini but nobody has been a more important recruit for the Catalan than the man stationed behind his backline. Ederson brought much-needed authority to City's defence after Claudio Bravo's haphazard first season, while his composure and skill with the ball at his feet has come to define the team's style.

Without the Brazil international, it would have been impossible for Guardiola to so fully realise his footballing vision at the Etihad Stadium, and Ederson has also proved a fantastic shot-stopper. Indeed, Saturday's win over Wolves brought up his 100th clean sheet for the club in just 212 games.

RUBEN DIAS

With Vincent Kompany having left in 2019, City struggled to replace their talismanic leader the following season. Indeed, he had scored a brilliant, crucial goal as Guardiola's team went on to edge out Liverpool in the 2018-19 title race.

However, they found the heir to Kompany's throne a year later with the £65m purchase of Ruben Dias from Benfica. The centre-back slotted straight into the side and has become the key cog in a formidable defence. He was named Footballer of the Year by the FWA after his first season with City and signed a new six-year deal in August.

A little over two minutes before the moment that will forever define his career, Manchester City hero Sergio Aguero showed sharpness in the Queens Park Rangers goalmouth that would not have been out of place at Old Trafford.

Old Trafford cricket ground that is, just down the road from City's bitter rivals and their home of the same name.

As Edin Dzeko's equaliser from David Silva's right-wing corner bounced back off the netting, Aguero pounced, snaffling it like a quicksilver short-leg fielder and darting back to the centre circle for City's final tilt at the improbable.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the striker's movement after Joey Barton brazenly tried to dead leg him – one of many surreal and key incidents that fed into a frenzied and famous race against the clock on May 13, 2012.

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The whole story is now as well-worn as any in football history.

On the cusp of a first top-flight title for 44 years, Robert Mancini's Manchester City faced relegation-threatened QPR on the final day of the season. In their previous 18 Premier League home matches that season, they had won 17 and drawn the other – the most recent of those a 1-0 win over United that tipped a titanic Mancunian tussle back towards the blue side of town.

City simply needed to match United's result at Sunderland and led 1-0 at the interval thanks to Pablo Zabaleta, only for second-half goals from Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie to turn the contest on its head.

It remained 2-1 heading into stoppage time despite QPR operating with 10 men. City youth product Barton was dismissed for tussling with Carlos Tevez and responded to Mike Dean's red card by thumping his knee into Aguero's thigh before aiming a headbutt at Vincent Kompany. Fireworks enthusiast Mario Balotelli poured some petrol on this particular bonfire by confronting the combustible Scouser as he stomped towards the tunnel.

Aside from that significant blemish, QPR's discipline was otherwise impeccable. Despite ceding 81.3 possession overall and 84.1 per cent during the second half, they only made seven fouls. Stoppages were infrequent as City thrashed and flailed with increasing desperation and diminishing artistry around the opposition penalty area.

Without Barton's meltdown, there is little chance five minutes of stoppage time - or the three minutes and 20 seconds they ultimately required - would have been signalled. It was time City desperately needed and time they could put to good use with their top scorer's fast-twitch fibres bristling.

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Barton was not the only QPR man with City connections. His team-mates Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha had also graduated through Jim Cassell's Platt Lane youth system, while Rangers boss Mark Hughes was Mancini's immediate predecessor, having been axed shortly before Christmas in 2009.

Hughes, of course, also played for United with distinction across two spells, and those loyalties struck a chord as news came through Bolton Wanderers had failed to beat Stoke City, meaning the Londoners were safe irrespective of the outcome at the Etihad Stadium.

"[City] got back on level terms and I always remember, at that point, I knew we were safe because the other result came in," he told the Coaches Voice in 2020.

"I'm thinking, 'I wouldn't mind United winning, if I'm honest'. It's 2-2 and Jay Bothroyd looked over, asking what we wanted them to do [from the restart]. The players understood the [Bolton] game was over and we'd stayed up. We just said kick it as far as you can, right in the corner and the game's over."

Hughes' recollections from that point credit City with a poise they absolutely lacked. Rarely can a team have scored twice in this space of two minutes and – save for a crucial few seconds – played so shambolically.

Bothroyd's hoof found touch and scampering Joe Hart ran out of his goal to take the throw-in. The England goalkeeper almost missed the pitch.

Gael Clichy carried the ball down the flank, only for his attempted cross to turn into a block tackle with Mackie. Samir Nasri's aimless, floated effort that followed did little more than give Clint Hill a ninth successful clearance of the afternoon.

Nasri then excelled himself by shepherding the ball out for a QPR throw-in. Just 40 seconds before that explosion of ecstasy there was fury and anguish in the stands. Aguero watched it all from roughly the QPR penalty spot. Apparently he'd seen quite enough.

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Aguero honed his lethal skills playing against bigger boys in Buenos Aires on the neighbourhood potrero – the hard gravel and mud neighbourhood pitches that football purists in Argentina bemoan are a diminishing presence.

"When you play you have to think fast. Who to take on, who not," Aguero said when recalling those days in a 2018 documentary for City's in-house television channel. "You know who is going to play dirty, who isn't.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

Reflecting further in the 2019 book 'Pep's City' by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, he further explained the proving ground that readied him for Barton and others.

"Getting kicked black and blue was all part of the game," he said. "You held on to the ball any way you could.

"Running with the ball was a whole different concept for us. I'd be up against big, tough boys and I was always the smallest. But I learned how to survive."

Aguero remembered those matches were played for the prize of a peso, which would garner one of his favourite sweet treats, an alfajor or dulce de leche.

As United's players took in full-time and three points at the Stadium of Light, and Nigel de Jong brought the ball forward in Manchester to the soundtrack of QPR celebrations – their fans aware of Bolton's fate – the stakes were somewhat higher.

Vacating his spot in a penalty area already crowded by substitutes Dzeko and Balotelli, along with a marauding Kompany, Aguero took possession from De Jong 30 yards from goal.

He faced up to a compact QPR back four, with the visitors' four midfielders all in his immediate vicinity.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

A shuffling touch to his left engineered space outside Shaun Derry, but Aguero needed help. Ideally from someone reliable, given the complete lack of any margin for error.

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Balotelli was on the pitch in a Manchester City shirt for the first time in over a month.

Mancini had not trusted his wayward protege since a brainless red card in a 1-0 Easter Sunday defeat at Arsenal left City eight points behind United with six games to play. Tevez, who had spent the bulk of the campaign AWOL playing golf in Argentina, represented a far more dependable option.

But with nowhere left to turn, he dared and prayed for Mario to be super. However briefly.

Introduced in the 76th minute, Balotelli gave the impression he had not just been banished from Premier League arenas, but football pitches altogether since his previous game.

The Italy striker managed to run through seven attempts – two on target, five blocked – during a frenzied cameo. It was probably as well Aguero found him with his back to goal, inside the D and grappling with Anton Ferdinand.

"I tried to control the ball and I had a contact from the defender and the ball went a little bit far from my foot," Balotelli told City TV five years on. "I thought in that half second there is maybe going to be a little bit of space for Sergio."

If Balotelli had stayed upright, the likelihood is QPR would have seen through their final piece of dogged tireless defending. In being forced on to his backside for the only assist of his Premier League career, he created opportunity and chaos.

Facing his own goal, Derry had to hurdle a prone Balotelli, while Wright-Phillips' route back to defend was also compromised. With his centre-back partner grounded, Hill held his position square on, while Kompany's haring towards the six-yard box dragged left-back Taye Taiwo with him.

A pocket of space opened up. A spot of turf Balotelli was able to locate from his sedentary position. As limbs flailed around him and a tight defence scattered, Aguero was thinking fast.

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Argentina's aforementioned tradition of tough, uncompromising neighbourhood football goes hand in hand with the mystique and mythology that cloaks the country's national sport.

A playing style grounded in skill and improvisation – La Nuestra, which translates as "our way" – was locked into the collective consciousness during the first half of the 20th century. The pre-eminent football magazine El Grafico, served to deepen this romantic attachment, with depictions of the pibe – literally a kid or urchin, whose rough and ready footballing technique combined street smarts and skill and was something of an archetype. Typically they would dribble in the gambeta style, a description that implies close control, cunning and deceit of opponents.

The idea that the likes of Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega, Lionel Messi and all those other squat, explosive and technically brilliant attackers from Argentina immersed themselves in the yellowed pages of El Grafico archive is far-fetched, but the style is unquestionably embedded. Think of the amount of barrelling, dribbling goals such players have produced – close control, small pauses and faints as thighs piston their way through defences.

As the walls were closing in on City's title bid, Aguero showed himself to be a proud product of this lineage. When Balotelli began his battle against gravity, he deftly checked his run behind and around Wright-Phillips to open up a path to the penalty area.

Letting the pass roll, he shaped to shoot, drawing a scampering Taiwo, who left his Kompany decoy a little too late to remain in control. Aguero did not actually touch Balotelli's return pass until his body position persuaded a rash slide tackle that he nudged beyond with the outside of his right boot.

With Taiwo suitably gambeta'd, there came one last stroke of fortune.

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"I touched it again and saw I was close to the goal, so I said 'I'll shoot'. The worst thing was that I wanted to shoot hard across goal and it went to the near post, I don't know what happened," Aguero told TyC Sports last year – the latter sentiment at least aligning him with every soul inside the Etihad Stadium that day.

"After watching it back, I realised that if I had shot across goal a defender could have blocked it. I celebrated the goal and told everybody, 'I hit it so well!'."

Goal 23 of a personal Premier League tally that now reads 184, one of 130 with Aguero's ferocious right boot, understandably left an indelible impression on the suddenly defeated Hughes.

"Of all the games I've been involved in, that noise at that moment when that goal went in is different to anything I've ever heard before or since.

"It was just unbelievable sound – different sound to a football crowd. It was a mixture of screaming and noise. It was just an unbelievable moment."

That racket has since been replayed thousands of times across the world. A goal on a tightrope that altered the course of English football, which began with gifting the opposition a 92nd-minute throw-in and ended thanks to a miscue after the main protagonist's strike partner fell over.

It is the Premier League's most famous goal – a moment as synonymous with Manchester as cotton mills and the Hacienda, and yet Argentinian to its very bones.

As Aguero bids farewell to football begins, expect to see it replayed another few thousand times.

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