Here we go again. The Premier League race begins once more, despite some players barely having the chance to unpack their suitcases after short-lived pre-season breaks.

Last time out, Manchester City turned a potentially intriguing title battle into a procession. They had plenty of tests along the way, just mostly of the PCR variety as the teams pushed on amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, fans will be in grounds to watch from the start this time around, while some familiar faces have returned. Romelu Lukaku is back. Patrick Vieira – a three-time Premier League winner in his playing days – and Rafa Benitez, a former red now aligned to the Blues, are on the touchline. Norwich City and Watford, meanwhile, have negotiated the Championship to secure a quick reunion.

Still, there is always a freshness to every campaign, aided by summer signings and, this time, the presence of a newcomer.

Brentford provide a new, exciting chapter to the Premier League story, though it is perhaps expecting too much to hope for riveting plot twists when it comes to the likely contenders to be crowned champions.

THE THOROUGHBREDS READY TO RUN AGAIN

When Manchester rivals City and United drew 0-0 in an instantly forgettable derby in December 2020, one that left those who had watched on wondering what else they should have done with their time instead, Pep Guardiola's side were sitting outside the top seven in the table. It was actually an upturn in their position – they had languished down in 11th during the previous month.

By the time they hosted their neighbours in the return fixture in March 2021, however, City had won 21 in a row in all competitions and held a double-digit lead at the head of the league. The stunning run did come to an end that day, but it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.

The rich have got richer in pursuit of a third title in four years, in terms of talent at least. Spending £100million to get Jack Grealish has add further creativity, as if they really needed it. The squad could still be bolstered by Harry Kane, too. If the Tottenham striker moves north, the deck will be stacked even more in City's favour.

Yet there are reasons for the others who finished in the top four to be optimistic. Chelsea denied Guardiola in the Champions League final, giving a silver-lined finish to the promising early form under Thomas Tuchel. They have strengthened in attack, Lukaku back at the Bridge to sort out some unfinished business. A glaring gap in the squad (sorry, Timo Werner) has been filled.

Adding goals will be a key factor for the Blues, as they managed only 38 in all competitions following the appointment of the German coach. To put that number into context, United and City managed 58 and 70 across the same period. Even Tottenham topped them with 49.

OLE JOCKEYS FOR SILVERWARE

United finished second but will hope Jadon Sancho can lift them even higher, albeit the arrival of Raphael Varane could be even more crucial, considering the Red Devils conceded 28 goals at home last season – their most in a single campaign since 1962-63. Tighten up and it could well be their year, but they do not want to continue the habit of giving opposing teams head-starts again in games.

Those two marquee signings, which came in the transfer window following unrest among the fanbase aimed at the club's ownership, have rightly raised expectations. Now, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a need to secure something tangible, a piece of silverware to show he can clear the final hurdle.

The caretaker appointed to lift the gloom after Jose Mourinho is just three Premier League games short of a century in charge – if United triumph in all of them on the way to that Solskjaer milestone, the Norwegian will have the same winning percentage at the magical 100 mark as Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp.

As for Klopp and Liverpool, there is a degree of uncertainty. The outstanding winners in 2019-20 required a fast finish – the Reds' run of five consecutive league wins in May was more than they managed in 12 games in February, March and April combined – just to squeeze into the top four. They began to rebuild fortress Anfield, knocked down during a record-breaking losing run.

Injuries did decimate the squad during a tepid title defence, but Virgil van Dijk is now fit again and, just in case, Ibrahima Konate has come in to provide added depth at the heart of the defence. If Sadio Mane can rediscover his scoring form and ease the burden on Mohamed Salah, the ingredients are all there to mount a sustained challenge again.

THE FADING FORCES DESPERATE TO FIND FORM

In times of cutbacks, have the 'Big Six' been reduced to a 'Big Four'? Arsenal and Tottenham still retained enough pulling power to be included as part of the failed European Super League plan, but neither have ended up above Leicester City in the final league table in the past two years.

The Foxes came up short in their Champions League quest again, though the frustration at a second successive fifth-place finish was eased somewhat by lifting the FA Cup. The underappreciated Brendan Rodgers has never lacked belief, and Leicester have backed their boss in the transfer market with the signings of Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumare.

Spurs' transfer business is now being carried out by new managing director Fabio Paratici, while Nuno Espirito Santo was eventually selected to take over as head coach, despite at one stage appearing to be off the lengthy list of candidates. Both are carrying out their duties amid uncertainty over Kane, the competition's disgruntled Golden Boot winner determined to get a move.

Tottenham will be the Premier League's first participants in the Europa Conference League, which could either offer welcome relief from league issues or be a midweek nuisance. Come on, though, who doesn't want to go to Latvia in winter? Arsenal may well wish they had such concerns - they will not be playing in any European competition for the first time in 26 years.

Ben White has come in at great expense as the Gunners have put a focus on getting younger. Really, they just need to get better. To that extent, getting more out of Thomas Partey, not to mention Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who managed just the 10 league goals in 29 games, would help.

Mikel Arteta has much work to do to make sure the gap to the head of the field does not grow wider.

THE OUTSIDERS HOPING TO EMERGE

West Ham finished above the north London duo last time thanks in no small part to the impact made by Jesse Lingard during his loan spell.

The attacking midfielder scored nine goals and four assists in 16 games to propel himself back into England contention, even it remains to be seen if it was enough to rekindle his Manchester United career.

Without Lingard, David Moyes will have to conjure up more magic from within his squad as they also tackle the added workload of playing in the Europa League. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola is unlikely to have the same kind of impact during his temporary stint from Paris Saint-Germain, leaving cravings for 'J-Lingz'.

Leeds United will hope to build on a positive first year back in the top flight, steered diligently by the boss on a bucket, Marcelo Bielsa, while Aston Villa have wisely elected not to replace the talismanic Grealish with just one player, instead bringing in several to try and fill the void.

There is still time for teams to strengthen, particularly as the leading clubs look to cut away some of the unnecessary fat in their bloated squad lists. Lingard demonstrated what a difference the right signing can make to a team.

However, another underdog story to match the wonderful tale of Claudio Ranieri's Leicester appears impossible. Instead, after two consecutive seasons with runaway champions, it would just be nice if the 2021-22 Premier League Stakes at least provided a little more drama by the time we enter into the closing stages.

The Premier League is back! 

Arsenal travel to newly promoted Brentford in the opening game of the 2021-22 campaign on Friday.

Champions Manchester City face Tottenham – and possibly top transfer target Harry Kane – on Sunday, with Liverpool in action against returning Norwich City on Saturday, after Manchester United have hosted Leeds United.

So, ahead of the new season, why not give this Opta-powered quiz a go? You can find the answers at the bottom of the page...

1. Arsenal begin against Brentford – it is the fourth time the Gunners have been involved in the opening game of a Premier League campaign, winning the other three in 2008-09, 2017-18 and 2020-21, but who did they play against in those matches? 

2. Over the last 10 Premier League matches of 2020-21, Leeds claimed 23 points, winning seven games and drawing twice. Can you name the only  club to collect more points across the same time span?

3. Liverpool are unbeaten in their five Premier League openers under Jurgen Klopp, but how many goals have the Reds scored across these matches?

4. Aston Villa begin life without Jack Grealish with a trip to Watford. Emiliano Buendia will wear the number 10 shirt, but how many goals did he assist for Norwich in the Championship last season?

5. Sunday's meeting between Spurs and City brings up Nuno Espirito Santo's first competitive game as Tottenham boss. Who was the club's last manager to lose his opening fixture in charge?

 

Answers:

1. West Brom, Leicester City, Fulham
2. Liverpool (26)
3. 19 
4. 16
5. Andre Villas-Boas 

Liverpool are the side that will provide reigning Premier League champions Manchester City with their sternest title test this season.

That is according to Mark Bosnich, who told Stats Perform he also expects Chelsea and his former club Manchester United to be in the running for top spot.

City won their third title in four seasons last time out, and a fifth in 10 years, as they finished 12 points clear of closest challengers United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have strengthened with the signing of Jadon Sancho and imminent arrival of Raphael Varane for reported combined fees of £115million.

City spent £100m to make Jack Grealish the most expensive player in British history, meanwhile, and Chelsea have re-signed Romelu Lukaku for just less.

That makes the £36m Liverpool paid to sign Ibrahima Konate seem modest by comparison, yet Bosnich believes the 2019-20 champions are capable of ousting City this term.

"The real dark horse, if you can really say that, is Liverpool," Bosnich told Stats Perform. "They've won it before, very recently. 

"And I really do think that the injury to Virgil van Dijk hurt them last season far more than anyone realised at the time.

"I think that out of three contenders, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, they are probably the best placed to really mount a serious challenge."

City, who still want to add Harry Kane to their ranks, won the title with three games to spare last season and have bolstered their attack with Grealish, offsetting the departure of club-record scorer Sergio Aguero and defender Eric Garcia, who were both used sparingly last season.

But while Bosnich considers Pep Guardiola's side as favourites before a ball is kicked, the former Australia international expects them to prioritise the Champions League after finishing as runners-up to Chelsea in 2020-21.

"For me and for a lot of people, understandably so after signing Grealish, they will definitely start as favourites, but I'm not so sure they'll win it," Bosnich said. "There's no doubt in their qualities – we saw what they achieved last season. 

"That was a phenomenal run. But if you think back, I think it was about up to about around November, they had a bit of a poor run and they changed things around and they went on a 15 or 16-game unbeaten spree. 

"But their main focus, and understandably so, is the Champions League. Guardiola hasn't won it since 2011 and City have never won it before.

"I think you have to say that it's their graduation of truly, from a football perspective, being in the big club of clubs.

"I really think the focus would go on that, and I'm not so sure that they will win it. They'll definitely start favourites, but I'm not sure that they will win it."

Bosnich's former United team-mate Solskjaer has yet to win any silverware in his two and a half seasons in charge of the club, losing four cup semi-finals in that time and falling just short in last season's Europa League final.

After finishing third and second in the last two campaigns, Bosnich feels it is time for Solskjaer to end United's nine-season wait for top-flight silverware or else he may be out of a job.

"Solskjaer, although I'll admit I'm biased, has for me done a really good job thus far," Bosnich said. "The only thing that's stopping me from saying 'an excellent job' is the fact that he hasn't won a trophy. 

"The Villarreal Europa League final, obviously losing on penalties was disappointing. But they now have Sancho and I think Raphael Varane will prove to be one of the signings of the season.

"People who have watched LaLiga over time, or France, will realise what an absolutely outstanding asset he is. 

"And I really do think that it gives Solskjaer so many options as well, because they could play three at the back with [Victor] Lindelof and [Harry] Maguire if they wanted to. He could go right-back if they really wanted him to. 

"I'd dearly love to see them sign one more like Harry Kane, but I don't think that will happen this summer. I still think that they've got to win the title in my opinion, for Ole's sake, within the next two seasons."

As for Chelsea's title prospects after winning the Champions League last season and the Super Cup this week, Bosnich cannot see Thomas Tuchel's men quite bridging the gap in the league just yet.

"Tuchel came in and did an absolutely outstanding job last season. But 19 points is too much for them to catch up," Bosnich said. "But they still probably have a better chance of doing it than a lot of teams. 

"With the signing of Lukaku, I think that's really important for them. He's an outstanding player, simple as that. I don't care what anyone says. And I've always held that close – he's an outstanding player. 

"I don't think they’ll be able to make up the 19-point gap, but I don't think they'll be far off."

The new Premier League season has not even begun yet and we're already enjoying some enthralling narratives.

Beyond the mundane matter of who might win the league, who will beat the drop and how thick the VAR lines will be, there are some tantalising stories we'll be following closely in the coming weeks.

Below, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the big talking points...

 

Blue Benitez

Predicting football is often a fool's game – especially in an era when Lionel Messi no longer plays for Barcelona – but Rafael Benitez at Everton? Who saw that coming?

The Spaniard is back in the Premier League, two years after walking away from Newcastle United, having been tempted by the same project that won over Carlo Ancelotti before the lure of a Real Madrid return became too great.

Benitez was a fans' favourite at Newcastle, arguably as much as he was at Liverpool, where he reached two Champions League finals including the unforgettable triumph in Istanbul. His connection to the red half of Merseyside meant his decision to head to Goodison Park raised the eyebrows of some and the blood pressure of others. In fact, only one man has ever managed both clubs: William Edward Barclay, Everton's first boss in 1888 and Liverpool's manager from 1892. We'll forgive you if you don't remember.

The scrutiny on Benitez, who has recorded 11 wins against Everton in his coaching career, will be severe. He has the credentials, but if he cannot quickly prove he is the man to realise the dreams of owner Farhad Moshiri and challenge the 'big six', the pressure could become pretty uncomfortable.

 

Virgil return lifts Reds

For a while, it seemed everything would be okay. In the first 11 games after Virgil van Dijk was injured against Everton last October, Liverpool conceded just six goals and kept as many clean sheets. Perhaps the loss of the Netherlands colossus would not be quite so damaging.

Of course, as injuries in defence piled up and confidence in their title chances waned, Liverpool's season ended up being one of major disappointment even though a strong final few weeks saw them snatch a Champions League spot.

Van Dijk's impact cannot really be disputed: since his move to Anfield in January 2018, Liverpool have won 75.8 per cent of matches with the centre-back in the side and only 54.3 per cent without him. They average 2.4 points per game with him (compared with 1.9 without), and even score more goals on average (2.3 compared with 1.8) when he's playing. No wonder fans began to count down the days to his return.

On Saturday, we can finally expect to watch Van Dijk in competitive action again, with Jurgen Klopp confirming he is fit to start the season. He could even begin his partnership with new signing Ibrahima Konate against Norwich City at Carrow Road. How Liverpool's campaign progresses over the opening few weeks, and how Van Dijk's return goes, might just tell us whether another title tilt is on the cards.

 

Rom-ember us?

Two of the biggest transfers in this pre-season have seen stars returning to England: Jadon Sancho, who finally got his Manchester United move for £72.9million a year after Borussia Dortmund had demanded a sizeably bigger sum; and Romelu Lukaku, who is heading to Chelsea for roughly £93m.

Sancho left Manchester City for the Bundesliga as a teenager and promptly became one of Europe's standout attacking players, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 137 appearances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a player to get fans on their feet, and he's almost certainly found it: Sancho completed 48 multi take-ons (beating more than one player with a dribble) in the Bundesliga, at least 14 more than any other player in his time in Germany.

For Lukaku, it's a case of unfinished business at Chelsea, the club he left back in 2014. The standout performer for Inter last season, with 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, he propelled his side to their first Serie A title since 2010 before taking up the chance to return to Stamford Bridge, where a consistent goalscorer could be decisive to their Premier League title hopes.

Sancho and Lukaku initially struggled to convince managers to give them a shot as youngsters in the Premier League. They return as elite players determined to prove a point. Given the costs involved, the pressure will be on both to perform – and quickly.

 

Did Jack hammer Harry's City hopes?

Manchester City are not exactly frugal in the transfer market, but rarely will they willingly pay over the odds for an individual. That's what made their willingness to spend £100million on Jack Grealish, a player with 12 senior international caps and zero Champions League experience, a touch surprising.

This is not to suggest Grealish is not a good player, of course. This is a man who was involved in a remarkable 376 open-play attacking sequences over the past two seasons for Aston Villa, a team who finished 17th and 11th in those campaigns. It's just notable that Pep Guardiola felt it was warranted to smash City's transfer record by nearly £40m to sign yet another midfielder, especially given what's going on – or not going on – with Harry Kane.

Kane was expected to be City's marquee signing in this window but, as of now, his future is unclear. He is finally due to return to Tottenham training this week but whether he is involved against City in their opening game is harder to know. And if City were willing to spend nine figures on Grealish, you can expect Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to demand top dollar for last term's golden boot winner, who has three years left on his contract.

Will City stump up the cash? Will Kane try his best to force Spurs' hand? Will he be staying in north London for at least a few months more, his form undimmed, the goals flowing as normal? It will be fascinating to watch.

 

Marcelo Bielsa says his Leeds United future "has been resolved" ahead of Saturday's opening Premier League match against Manchester United.

The 66-year-old has spent the past three years at Elland Road and guided Leeds to a ninth-placed finish in the top flight last season after earning promotion the previous campaign.

Bielsa signed a one-year contract extension on the eve of the 2020-21 campaign and now looks set to stay on for a further 12 months.

Speaking at a news conference ahead of this weekend's trip to Old Trafford, Bielsa said: "The contract situation is one that is already resolved. The subject is resolved."

Pressed on how long the contract will run, Bielsa, through a translator, replied: "One year is habitual."

Leeds spent big last year ahead of their first season back in the Premier League and have brought in Junior Firpo and Kristoffer Klaesson during the current window, while also turning Jack Harrison's loan move from Manchester City into a permanent deal.

Bielsa is grateful for the support shown in him by the Yorkshire club, who have also made improvements to their training ground and Elland Road.

"From my point of view this is an extraordinary club," he said. "It's not often you have a club that designates so much volume of investment to the improvement of the training facilities.

"Leeds have made a significant contribution economically to provide the tools for a manager to prepare to be the ideal ones."

Bielsa also confirmed defender Diego Llorente will miss the Premier League opener with the Red Devils as Leeds look to end a poor run at Old Trafford.

The Whites are winless in their last 16 away league meetings with Manchester United since February 1981, including a heavy 6-2 loss in this corresponding fixture last season.

Bielsa's side ended last season with four successive Premier League wins, a run in which only Arsenal and Liverpool (both five) could better at the end of the campaign.

They last won five consecutive Premier League games in March and April 2001, with a run of six.

The Premier League is back. Yes, already.

After the packed schedule of 2020-21, the delayed Euro 2020, Copa America and Tokyo Olympics and a pre-season still impacted by travel restrictions, the new season in England's top flight will, hopefully, be a bit more like normal.

With fans set to return to grounds across the country, the anticipation for this opening weekend has been greater than many others – and, we assume, that same excitement extends to fantasy football.

To that end, Stats Perform's Fantasy Picks series has returned to point you in the right direction for those all-important choices. Whether you're squad-filling, striker-selecting or triple-captaining, these suggested selections - all backed by Opta data - should hopefully get you off to a flyer.

 

ROBERT SANCHEZ (Burnley v Brighton and Hove Albion)

Robert Sanchez was one of the more surprising names in Luis Enrique's Spain squad for Euro 2020. Given his form this year, perhaps he shouldn't have been such a shock.

The only goalkeepers to keep more Premier League clean sheets since the start of January are Ederson (12) and Edouard Mendy (10), with Sanchez's nine helping Brighton to secure survival.

They start their campaign away to Burnley, where they have lost only once in their past seven league visits. Indeed, the Clarets are on a 10-game winless run at Turf Moor.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Norwich City v Liverpool)

Having declared himself fully fit and feeling confident, 2021-22 could be the season where we see Trent Alexander-Arnold back to his scintillating best.

That said, even his more difficult campaign last term had impressive elements. Since the turn of this year, his expected assists figure of 5.37 is the highest of any defender and second only to Bruno Fernandes (5.62) in the whole competition.

Liverpool average 2.8 goals per game against Norwich City in the Premier League and it's safe to back this man to provide the chances again at Carrow Road, particularly with Virgil van Dijk set to return to offer an extra set-piece threat.

JAMES TARKOWSKI (Burnley v Brighton and Hove Albion)

James Tarkowski has long been admired as a stopper at the heart of the Burnley defence, but he is a greater threat going forward than six league goals in six seasons would suggest.

Last season, the 28-year-old had the most touches in the opposition box (66) and the highest expected goals tally (3.37) of any centre-back in the Premier League.

Goals in this fixture are rare – just 1.5 per game on average – so gambling on a clean sheet and a set-piece winner from Tarkowski could be worthwhile.

 

MOHAMED SALAH (Norwich City v Liverpool)

In the past four seasons, Liverpool's opening Premier League goal of the season has been scored by Mohamed Salah. He got three in their win over Leeds United a year ago.

No player has ever scored on the opening day for five consecutive Premier League seasons but, given Salah's record, you would not bet against him.

It's worth adding that Liverpool have won seven away games in a row against Norwich in the top flight.

MASON GREENWOOD (Manchester United v Leeds United)

With Marcus Rashford recovering from shoulder surgery and Jadon Sancho still adjusting to new surroundings, it's highly likely Mason Greenwood will start on Saturday.

After scoring just once in 23 games, Greenwood ended last season with six goals in eight league appearances to take his tally to 19.

Manchester United scored six when Leeds United visited last season, and it's been 30 years since the Yorkshire club last won a league game at Old Trafford.

JAMIE VARDY (Leicester City v Wolves)

Along with Salah, Jamie Vardy is the only current Premier League player to score six goals in six opening matches of the season. He's a striker who hits the ground running, and running hard.

Leicester City are also enjoying a run of one defeat in 24 home league games against Wolves - and that was back in May 2007 in the Championship.

Wolves have gone eight seasons without losing their opening league match, but they have a new man in charge in Bruno Lage, and five of the previous seven managers whose first Premier League game came against Leicester were defeated.

 

CALLUM WILSON (Newcastle United v West Ham United)

Losing Callum Wilson to injury last term was a major reason behind Newcastle United's struggles, and it was his double in that shock 4-2 win away to Leicester that effectively secured their survival in May.

The Magpies begin 2021-22 against one of Wilson's favourite opponents. He has scored eight goals in 10 Premier League games against West Ham, more than he has against any other side in the competition.

The striker got his opening top-flight goals for both Bournemouth and Newcastle against the Hammers.

Chelsea have been in the market for a new striker and are closing in on their man.

The European champions had been linked with Borussia Dortmund's prolific Norway international Erling Haaland.

But have turned their attention to Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, with two bids reportedly rejected last week.

 

TOP STORY - LUKAKU TO COMPLETE CHELSEA MOVE

Lukaku will finalise his £97.5m (€115m) move from Inter to Chelsea after linking up with the Blues, reports Sky Sports.

The report claims the Belgium international flew into London on Wednesday evening, after a stop in Monte Carlo.

Lukaku had already undergone the first part of his medical and agreed in principle to the deal, with the paperwork being sorted with lawyers before he inks the five-year deal worth £200,000 (€236,000) per week.

 

ROUND-UP

- As the dominoes fall, Edin Dzeko is set to join Inter from Roma with a contract agreed until June 2023 according to Fabrizio Romano.

- Sky Sports reports that Real Madrid are monitoring Chelsea's Germany defender Antonio Rudiger . Madrid lost centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane this off-season.

- Roma head coach Jose Mourinho will speak with Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham on Thursday to try to convince him to join the Eternal City club. According to The Mirror. Chelsea and Roma have agreed terms on a £34m (€40m) deal.

- Sky in Italy claims Inter have tabled a €12m bid for PSV Eindhoven right-back Denzel Dumfries, although the Dutch club reportedly want €14m for the Netherlands international.

- Inter are also interested in Napoli skipper Lorenzo Insigne, according to Sky in Italy. The Serie A champions are trying to see if they can sign the Italy international, whose contract expires next year, for €25m.

- Arsenal are in advanced talks with Sheffield United to sign goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, according to Football London.

- Sunsport reports Manchester United are finally expected to unveil Varane as a new signing from Real Madrid on Thursday.

The new Premier League season is on the horizon and there are plenty of exciting new signings to keep an eye on.

Jack Grealish has moved within the league for a record £100million fee, while a familiar face in Romelu Lukaku is set to return to England's top flight.

Premier League fans can also look forward to watching plenty of new stars, though.

Stats Perform picks out four exciting additions...
 

Jadon Sancho

An England international who has never played in English football, Sancho will garner plenty of attention at Manchester United this season – and rightly so.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Sancho has the joint-most goal involvements among English players in Europe's top five leagues, his 78 matched by Three Lions captain Harry Kane.

Those involvements arrived once every 87 minutes on average and included 41 assists, trailing only Thomas Muller (48) and Lionel Messi (43) in that regard.

Sancho left Borussia Dortmund on a high with May's DFB-Pokal final triumph, but the 2019-20 campaign was arguably his best.

The winger had 17 goals and 16 assists in the league; over the past 10 seasons, only Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez have also tallied at least 15 goals and 15 assists in the same season.

And Sancho now joins a United side who last term already had six players with 10 or more goal involvements in all competitions (Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba).

Patson Daka

Leicester City have now firmly established themselves as one of the leading clubs in the Premier League, but Jamie Vardy's advancing years had provided a worry on the horizon. The Foxes great has been a key man for so long.

But there were signs of Leicester moving on from their reliance on Vardy last season as Kelechi Iheanacho scored 12 times in the Premier League.

Now, the arrival of Daka could really put Vardy's place under pressure.

The Zambia forward scored 27 goals in 28 league games for Salzburg in 2020-21, adding four assists for a remarkable goal involvement every 63 minutes. By comparison, Vardy delivered every 119 minutes and Iheanacho every 104 minutes.

Despite playing fewer minutes, Daka (101) attempted significantly more shots than Vardy (82) and scored with a greater share of them, too (26.7 per cent versus 18.3 per cent).

Still just 22, Daka looks a great fit for the veteran Vardy's role, taking a comparable 19 per cent of his touches last season in the penalty area (23 per cent for Vardy).

Cristian Romero

The Kane transfer saga is providing an unhelpful distraction, but Tottenham are making moves, bringing in Bryan Gil and Pierluigi Gollini alongside Romero.

The centre-back should be suited to the Premier League, having established himself as one of the most aggressive, physically dominant defenders in Serie A.

Romero ranked ninth among all Serie A players for aerial duel success last season (68 per cent), putting him ahead of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Matthijs de Ligt.

This was particularly impressive as only 15 players contested more aerial duels per 90 than Romero (5.9).

The Argentina international – who has joined from Atalanta on an initial loan – is an impressive defender on the ground, too, making 3.4 interceptions per 90 to rank second in the division.

He should bolster a Spurs defence now without Toby Alderweireld.

Raphael Varane

There are no shortage of centre-back signings in the Premier League. Ibrahima Konate has arrived at Liverpool but faces a fight to be first choice. The same is not true of Varane.

United hope the World Cup winner can team up with Harry Maguire to make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side genuine title contenders.

Like Romero, Varane is dominant in the air, leading LaLiga defenders with his 76 per cent success rate in aerial duels last season.

That is an area of need for United, too, as only Leeds United (15) conceded more goals from set-pieces last season excluding penalties than the Red Devils (14).

United conceded a league-high 32 per cent of their goals against in this fashion.

And Varane will also look to set Sancho and Co on their way, having initiated 22 open play sequences that ended with a shot in 2020-21 – behind only Clement Lenglet (24) among LaLiga centre-backs.

Manchester United forward Anthony Martial is confident he will rediscover his best form this season after an injury troubled 2020-21 campaign.

Martial missed the end of the previous season and then failed to make France's Euro 2020 squad due to a knee injury sustained in March.

The 25-year-old – signed from Monaco in 2015 – scored seven goals from 36 appearances in all competitions last season, helping United to 21 wins.

Martial's goal tally was the fewest he has managed in a season since joining United, while a figure of 29 chances created also represents his lowest creative output during his Old Trafford career to date.

He made 27 starts in total and attempted 66 shots, with a conversion rate of 10.61 per cent, lower than fellow forwards Edinson Cavani (28.33 per cent from 60 attempts), Marcus Rashford (17.07 from 123) and Mason Greenwood (12 from 100).

With United bolstering their attacking ranks with the arrival of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, Martial has been linked with a move away from the club, Serie A champions Inter – who appear to be on the verge of selling Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea – rumoured as a potential destination.

However, reports have also suggested United have no intention of selling Martial, who is intent to make up for lost time.

"I am feeling a lot better after five long months," Martial, who made his first appearance of pre-season in Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of Everton, told United's official website.

"Getting back together with the team and training with them again, I really feel a great improvement. I am going to need a few more weeks to reach my top fitness levels, and I'm really happy just now to have made my return to training.

"To be honest, I was really happy to start [against Everton] after those long months without playing, it was tremendous to get back out there, especially with the fans and the win, brilliant.

"With the season I had last year, and the niggling injuries I had which prevented me from being at 100 per cent, I've since put in my best prep work, so as to be sure of coming back in the best form I can, and I hope I can get to my full fitness level as quickly as possible now, to set me up for a great season this time around.

"I hope to avoid injury, of course, and to be really ready and in top shape fitness-wise, to be able to have a great season, and win some trophies."

United kick-off their Premier League campaign at home against Leeds United on Saturday.

Inter Milan have their eye on a Premier League forward. 

With Romelu Lukaku heading back to England, the Nerazzurri are eyeing Anthony Martial.

However, Manchester United do not appear willing to let him go.

 

TOP STORY - UNITED WANT TO KEEP MARTIAL

Inter Milan want Anthony Martial to bolster their attack, according to multiple reports, but it does not sound like he is available. 

The Mail claims United are prepared to reject a £50million offer for the 25-year-old, who is still easing his way back in after injuring his knee in March.

Martial is under contract until 2024, with an option for an additional year at Old Trafford, so there is no urgency for United to move him on. 

 

ROUND-UP

- Meanwhile, Edin Dzeko's move from Roma to Inter is "imminent" according to Fabrizio Romano, with the 35-year-old set to sign through to 2023. 

- United and Arsenal have interest in Bayern Munich midfielder Corentin Tolisso, according to a Bild report, with Juventus and West Ham also rumoured to be possibilities for the Fran. 

- Bild also says Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton are eyeing Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria

- Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga is on United's radar but FootMercato reports Paris Saint-Germain could swoop for the 18-year-old despite a need to balance the books following Lionel Messi's addition.

- Leicester City and Sevilla could be set to bid for Schalke defender Ozan Kabak, according to Calciomercato.

- Veteran goalkeeper Sergio Romero is set to join Granada on a free transfer, as per Romano. 

- Everton are considering a move for 24-year-old Antwerp right-back Aurelio Buta, the Sun reports, saying the Belgian club want £3m. 

Marcus Rashford revealed he is "a little sore" but "feeling good" after undergoing shoulder surgery that will see him miss the start of the 2021-22 season.

Manchester United confirmed Rashford would have to undergo an operation to resolve a longstanding issue with his left shoulder, having played through the pain for much of the previous campaign.

The England international – who was part of Gareth Southgate's squad for Euro 2020 – had the procedure last Friday. While his club have not made it clear how long he will be out, reports have suggested it could be a 12-week recovery process.

However, Rashford appeared in good spirits on Tuesday as he provided a fitness update on Twitter.

"Thank you for all the well wishes. I had my surgery on Friday morning and everything went very well," he wrote to accompany a picture of him relaxing in a chair with his feet up.

"A little sore but other than that I'm feeling good. Hope you're all having a great day!"

United open their Premier League campaign with a home game against Leeds United on Saturday.

Rashford scored 11 goals in the competition last term, helping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad finish second to Manchester City. He also scored twice as the Red Devils made the Europa League final, albeit they missed out on securing the trophy when losing to Villarreal on penalties.

There was also shoot-out disappointment for the 23-year-old with his country in Euro 2020 too, Rashford one of three England players to miss in the Wembley final defeat to Italy.

Since Solskjaer's first match in charge in December 2018, Victor Lindelof (10,289 minutes) is the only player to feature more regularly for the Red Devils than Rashford (9,671 minutes) across all competitions.

Still, United are not short of attacking options in his absence. Rashford's international colleague Jadon Sancho has arrived in the close-season, with the former Borussia Dortmund forward undergoing his first training session with the United squad on Monday.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is a free agent after his time with Barcelona officially ended.

The Argentina international has been heavily linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Messi is yet to declare his intentions and unlikely to confirm his next move until later this week at the earliest.

TOP STORY - MAN UTD CONSIDERS LAST-MINUTE MESSI MOVE

Manchester United have entered the race for free agent Messi and are considering a late offer to pip PSG, claims the Daily Star.

Messi's exit from Barcelona was confirmed over the weekend, although the 34-year-old refused to declare his next destination amid strong links with PSG.

The report claims United are considering an opportunistic bid, with competition still swirling for Messi's signature and his PSG move unlikely to be progressed until later this week.

However, Ole is reporting that Messi will be in Paris on Tuesday, with the PSG deal almost done.

 

ROUND-UP

- AS claims that Messi's imminent move to Paris Saint-Germain could signal a transfer swoop from Real Madrid for Kylian Mbappe. PSG and Mbappe appear to have been drifting apart in recent times, with the France international opting not to extend his contract due to expire in 2022.

- Messi's imminent move means PSG have ended their interest in signing Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba,  according to Le Parisien. The France international's agent Mino Raiola had opened talks with PSG about a switch and Pogba was keen on the move but no offer was made.

- Chelsea and Roma have agreed to Tammy Abraham's transfer terms with the move subject to the player's approval, reports Gianluca Di Marzio. This is part of a cascade of moves as Chelsea are set to land Romelu Lukaku from the Nerazzurri, with Roma striker Edin Dzeko headed to Inter.

- Lyon have submitted a bid for Liverpool's Swiss attacker Xherdan Shaqiri, claims L'Equipe. Shaqiri was largely a bit-part player at Liverpool last season.

- Liverpool are also looking to add to their squad as they eye a move for young Belgian talent Jeremy Doku from Rennes, according to Voetbal 24.

On August 9, 2016, Manchester United completed a deal that was expected to transform them back into title regulars.

Paul Pogba – who had left United in 2012 – arrived in an £89.3million (€105m) deal from Juventus, a then-world record transfer fee.

Five years on, Pogba seems to be at something of a crossroads in not just his United career, but as a player altogether.

Like in 2016, Pogba heads into the 2021-22 season on the back of an impressive European Championship with France.

Unlike in 2016, Les Bleus failed to go deep in the competition, dropping out in the last 16 stage to Switzerland.

That game in June perhaps provided the perfect summary of Pogba the player. A global superstar in his own right, the 28-year-old has perhaps never hit the heights his talent suggested, or at least not on a consistent basis.

An exquisite long-range strike put France 3-1 up against Switzerland, yet it was Pogba who dawdled on the ball and was robbed of possession as Les Bleus contributed to their own downfall in Bucharest.

But just how has Pogba fared in the five years since he arrived back at Old Trafford, and what could come next?

 

HIS UNITED RECORD

Pogba has made 199 appearances in all competitions for United in his second spell at the club, with Marcus Rashford (252), David de Gea (216) and Anthony Martial (208) playing more games in that time.

Indeed, only De Gea and Rashford have played more minutes than Pogba's 15,708. While he has struggled at times with niggling injuries, he has more often than not been consistently available throughout his time at Old Trafford, with De Gea and Rashford the two players to start more games than the former Juve star (174).

Pogba has played 134 times in the Premier League since 2016, helping United to 73 victories –  a win percentage of 54.5 per cent.

He has missed 56 league games, with United's win percentage dropping down to 50 per cent in those matches, underlying that he is perhaps more crucial than some of his critics would suggest.

It has to be said, however, that Bruno Fernandes' arrival in 2020 did see Pogba take a back seat.

The Portugal playmaker has already netted more goals (40) in all competitions than Pogba (38), in 119 fewer appearances, though 21 of Fernandes' goals have come from the penalty spot.

Rashford, with 39, is the only United player to record more assists than Pogba, who has teed up as many as he has scored, while the Frenchman's 301 chances created is a team-high, 66 clear of second-placed Rashford.

Pogba ranks in the top three for dribbles attempted (624), with 393 of these being successful, displaying his ability to carry the ball through the thirds, and his total of 11,723 passes is way clear of Nemanja Matic in second (9,849).

 

PARIS FOR PAUL?

With just 12 months left on his contract, talks of a move away for the Frenchman at the end of his deal continue – Paris Saint-Germain his most likely destination, given their reported interest last year.

PSG already have a wealth of midfield options, though, including former team-mate Ander Herrera, Euro 2020 winner Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes.

Pogba completed 1595 passes last term, yet the PSG trio, along with Idrissa Gueye, averaged out at 2126 successful attempts – perhaps aided by their domination on the ball in Ligue 1.

Despite this, only Paredes (322) completed more passes in the final third than the United midfielder's 282, suggesting a different dimension Pogba could bring to Mauricio Pochettino's midfield.

Pogba also won 255 duels, recovering possession 242 times when doing his defensive duties for Solskjaer. Idrissa Gueye, PSG's best performer in this area, only managed 201 successful duels and 208 recoveries in two games more.

However, Verratti, who featured in 11 fewer games than Pogba, was victorious in 233 duels and made 174 recoveries  – could the pair form Pochettino's pivot next season?

While Pochettino now also has Georginio Wijnaldum, who made 262 recoveries albeit in six more games for Liverpool last year, to call upon, Pogba would add undoubted quality to the French giants in every midfield aspect.

Lionel Messi has officially left Barcelona following Sunday's press conference and farewell.

Paris Saint-Germain have been widely linked with a move for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

The Argentina international admitted that a move to PSG was a possibility but said nothing was confirmed.

TOP STORY - MONDAY PSG MEDICAL FOR MESSI

Messi is scheduled to have a medical with PSG on Monday before he completes his free transfer move from Barcelona, according to L'Equipe.

The Argentina international bid farewell to Barcelona on Sunday and the Parisians appear the frontrunners to sign him.

The report says PSG and Messi have almost agreed to all the final details of the contract, with ESPN claiming he will be unveiled at a special ceremony at the Eiffel Tower this week.

 

ROUND-UP

- Inter are targeting Anthony Martial as they look to replace Romelu Lukaku, who is expected to join Chelsea, reports The Sun. Manchester United are believed to be ready to sell him for £50million. Inter want Martial initially on a season-long loan.

- Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Jose Mourinho's Roma are plotting a move to sign French striker Alexandre Lacazette from Arsenal. The stumbling block may be that Lacazette wants to play Champions League football, which Roma cannot offer this season.

- Arsenal are lining up a move for Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic if they cannot land Tammy Abraham from Chelsea, reports Gianluca Di Marzio. The Serbian scored 21 league goals for Fiorentina last term.

- Arsenal and Newcastle have agreed to a fee of £25m for English midfielder Joe Willock, claims Sky Sports. Willock spent the second half of last season on loan with the Magpies.

- The Sun claims that Southampton are trying to lure Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back to the club on loan from Liverpool.

 

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer trimmed his squad ahead of Raphael Varane's arrival by shipping out Axel Tuanzebe on loan to Aston Villa on Sunday.

The announcement of Tuanzebe's switch for a season-long stay at Villa comes as United prepare to finalise the signing of France centre-back Varane from Real Madrid.

The Varane deal looked set to push Tuanzebe further towards the fringes of the Red Devils squad, and the 23-year-old will have more obvious first-team prospects at Villa Park, where he has spent two previous loan stints.

Tuanzebe's spells at Villa came in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, before he looked to establish himself in the United first-team squad under Solskjaer.

Although Tuanzebe has left Old Trafford for now, he has signed a one-year extension to his United contract that had been due to expire at the end of the new season.

It means he has committed until the end of June 2023, with United having an option for a further 12 months, and Solskjaer will hope a full season of action with Villa sees the versatile defender fulfil the potential he has shown.

Villa said in a statement: "Aston Villa is delighted to announce the loan signing of Axel Tuanzebe from Manchester United. The defender returns to Villa Park on a season-long arrangement.

"Tuanzebe was a key member of the squad that helped Villa clinch promotion back to the Premier League in 2019."

The English defender started four Premier League games for United last season and played just 402 minutes in the top flight

United, in announcing the deal, said: "Having endured a difficult campaign last time out due to a couple of injuries, the highly rated centre-back will use this loan as a vital opportunity to assert himself and make an impression."

The signing of Varane is expected to go through in the coming days, with Solskjaer recently telling United's club website "paperwork" matters were holding up its completion.

Last season's Premier League runners-up begin the 2021-22 campaign with a home clash against Leeds United on Saturday, August 14.

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