In the final weeks of his ultimately ill-fated Manchester United tenure, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took to tweaking his system, switching to a back three against better teams in a bid to bolster a shaky defence.

Michael Carrick would be best advised not to follow suit when he takes United to Chelsea on Sunday.

Five Premier League opponents have lined up against Chelsea this season with three centre-backs – a system popularised in England by former coach Antonio Conte which the European champions have again made their own under Thomas Tuchel.

In those five meetings, in which inferior sides have sought to match up with Tuchel's men, Chelsea have won on each occasion, scoring 17 and conceding none.

Their rare slip-ups – 1-1 draws with Liverpool and Burnley, along with a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City – have come when Chelsea have been challenged by something different.

None of the Blues' rivals can name the same combination of quality, composure, experience and athleticism in a defensive trio. Meanwhile, N'Golo Kante, ably supported by Jorginho and – before injury – Mateo Kovacic, mans the midfield with enough energy to make up for any deficit in numbers.

But the real stars of this Chelsea side, especially with forwards Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner kept on the sidelines, have been the wing-backs.

Trumping Trent

It feels a little like the year of the full-back in the Premier League. Mohamed Salah is attempting to combat that, making their lives a misery, but Trent Alexander-Arnold is excelling again behind him at Liverpool while Joao Cancelo has seemingly assumed many of Kevin De Bruyne's creative responsibilities for Manchester City.

Among nominal defenders in the top flight, those two rank first and second for direct shot involvements: 54 for Alexander-Arnold (20 shots, 34 chances created) and 39 for Cancelo (27 shots, 12 chances created). However, when it comes to direct goal involvements, neither can match Reece James' eight (four goals, four assists).

James is third behind that pair for shot involvements (29 – 12 shots, 17 chances created), among four Chelsea defenders in the top nine; Antonio Rudiger, one of the others, is the only centre-back in that group.

Indeed, Chelsea also account for four of the six Premier League defenders to have scored multiple goals this term, including the only two to net three or more: James and Ben Chilwell, attacking from either flank.

England team-mates James and Chilwell are considered Chelsea's regular starting options out wide but have only actually started four league games together this season – the past four games. That number is not now set to increase any time soon either, after the left-back was injured against Juventus in midweek.

"It worries me because [Chilwell] was in such a fantastic moment – like Reece on the other side," Tuchel said. "They were in the best shape they could possibly be, so strong and so confident and with such a lot of quality."

Yet the loss of Chilwell may not necessarily be felt quite as keenly as his coach might fear; Marcos Alonso, who has matched his team-mate's 23 shot involvements in 2021-22, has twice been the Premier League's top-scoring defender (six in 2016-17, seven in 2017-18). Against United, he is a like-for-like replacement in this system.

Attack, attack, attack

Alonso was among the chief beneficiaries when Conte moved away from a back four in 2016, just as Tuchel's preference for a three last season saw the Spain international feature in 734 minutes from his appointment onwards, having been restricted to 225 minutes under Frank Lampard.

But the key difference between this team and Conte's is in what is expected of those wing-backs, who this season at least have been Chelsea's chief attacking threats, rather than merely complementing players like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa or Cesc Fabregas.

For this reason, James and Chilwell have been stationed high up the pitch, making the most of the platform afforded to them by players like Kante, Jorginho or defensive organiser Thiago Silva.

Among defenders to play 500 minutes or more this season, only Jamaal Lascelles (6.0 per cent) – a set-piece threat in a Newcastle United team who see little of the ball – has taken a greater share of his touches in the opposition box than Chilwell (5.9 per cent) and James (5.6 per cent).

Chilwell ranks second again with 41.3 per cent of his passes ending in the final third, while James (39.5 per cent) is sixth in that regard. Burnley's Matthew Lowton, the man who pips Chilwell, also leads the way for the rate of passes that are played long, showing a little less precision than the attack-minded Chelsea pair.

And this adventurous approach puts James third among all players (minimum 500 minutes), behind only Jack Grealish (7.99) and Salah (7.67), for involvements in shot-ending open play sequences per 90 minutes (7.06), with Chilwell (6.50) 11th and Alonso (6.04) 19th. James is third again for goal-ending open play sequences per 90, his 1.31 trailing Salah (1.83) and Alexander-Arnold (1.34).

Best in the world?

Comparisons between James and Alexander-Arnold are bound to provoke debate, as Tuchel said this week: "I see no reason now why we should get carried away and think about things like: is [James] the best in the world, the best in England or the best in Europe? These things do not help us."

James is "far from finished in his development", the Chelsea coach added.

But his achievements this season, keeping company with Salah and Alexander-Arnold, are particularly impressive given the absence of a forward team-mate of the quality of Liverpool's number 11. Lukaku is supposed to be Chelsea's headline act, but he has not been the only big name to sit out with injury.

Of Chelsea's 30 goals, 13 have been scored by defenders and just six – or 20.0 per cent – by strikers. Only the two clubs at the centre of the season's most dissatisfactory striker transfer saga – Tottenham (9.1 per cent) and City (16.0 per cent) – have had smaller portions of their goals provided by the men paid to score them.

Chelsea have instead shared the burden around, with a league-high 15 different scorers and 18 different players contributing either a goal or an assist, but James, while still patrolling one side of the pitch in a team who have conceded just four times, has shouldered more responsibility than most.

In the four games while Lukaku was missing, no Chelsea player scored more goals (three), laid on more assists (two) or created more chances (12) than James. Over the same period, no player in the Premier League was involved in more shot-ending open play sequences (31), with Chilwell joint-second (28).

Chilwell's momentum has been halted in cruel fashion, but could James end the season, as he is now, as Chelsea's leading scorer?

"Honestly, the way he is playing right now and the way he strikes the ball, I wouldn't be surprised," team-mate Christian Pulisic said after a spectacular Champions League goal against Juve.

Lukaku's return perhaps makes that unlikely, although there is not a huge wealth of evidence for how James might be impacted by his imminent reversion, presumably, to more of a supporting role. His three starts alongside the club's record signing to this point were at best a mixed bag; James scored one and created the other for Lukaku at Arsenal, was sent off at Liverpool and then lost to City, a game in which Chelsea failed to aim a shot on target.

The 21-year-old has gone from strength to strength since then, making it very difficult indeed to imagine a world in which he does not continue to thrive regardless – as its best right-back or otherwise.

Chelsea host Manchester United in the headline game of the weekend in the Premier League, with Sunday's showdown at Stamford Bridge a lip-smacking occasion.

Will United put the misery of their five defeats in seven domestic league games behind them and start afresh after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's sacking, or will it be the same old story for the Red Devils?

The threat comes from all quarters with Chelsea: Reece James and Antonio Rudiger may be as likely, if not more so, to score than Timo Werner, for example.

Leeds are boosted by the return from injury of Raphinha as they head to Brighton, while Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang face opponents against whom they have outstanding past records.

The pursuit of fantasy points is on, and here are suggestions for possible picks ahead of the weekend, powered by Opta data.

REECE JAMES (Chelsea v Manchester United)

Will Manchester United's Champions League victory at Villarreal be a spur for them to find a way back to winning ways in the Premier League? Not if Reece James can help it.

Chelsea's exciting right wing-back was sufficiently impressive last term to make England's Euro 2020 squad, but he has gone to another level this time around, and a midweek goal against Juventus just confirmed his progression.

In the Premier League, James has been directly involved in eight goals this season, three more than in his previous 56 appearances in the competition across the last two seasons (5 - one goal, four assists). His total of involvements is higher than any other defender in the league in 2021-22, and United will be wary of that danger. Whether they can stop it remains to be seen.

ANTONIO RUDIGER (Chelsea v Manchester United)

Another Chelsea defender who provides value as an all-rounder, Rudiger provides Premier League fantasy points possibilities at both ends of the pitch.

Among Premier League defenders, only his Blues club-mates James (4) and Ben Chilwell (3) have scored more goals in the competition this season, while only Manchester City's Joao Cancelo (8) has registered more clean sheets than the German (7).

With Harry Maguire suspended and Raphael Varane injured, United seem likely to be susceptible to crosses from set-pieces, which is where Rudiger could come into his own.

RAPHINHA (Brighton and Hove Albion v Leeds United)

Leeds are hovering just above the bottom three, heading into the weekend, so to have Raphinha available will be a major boost to Marcelo Bielsa.

After missing the defeat at Tottenham last time out, the Brazil international is expected to be involved at Brighton this weekend as Leeds target a third win of the campaign.

They missed his creative influence in north London, with Leeds having won 45 per cent of their Premier League games in which Raphinha has featured (18/40) since his debut for the club in October 2020, They have won none of their six matches when he has been absent (D2 L4) and have averaged a measly 0.5 goals per game.

His 20 goal involvements in the league over the same period (11 goals, 9 assists) is second only at Leeds to Patrick Bamford (23 - 15 goals, 8 assists).

RAHEEM STERLING (Manchester City v West Ham)

Has Raheem Sterling played himself into form for City? Three goals in his last three appearances across all competitions suggests that is the case for a player who struggled in the early weeks of the season, in the wake of his exploits at Euro 2020 with England.

Now, assuming he keeps his place in Pep Guardiola's starting line-up, Sterling gets to face one of his very favourite opponents when West Ham visit the Etihad Stadium.

Sterling has been involved in 11 goals in his last eight Premier League games against the Hammers (6 goals, 5 assists), hitting a hat-trick when the teams met in London on the opening day of the 2019-20 season.

EMMANUEL DENNIS (Leicester City v Watford)

It was Emmanuel Dennis who inflicted the final blow to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, completing the rout as Watford whipped Manchester United 4-1 last Saturday.

The Nigerian appears to have been an outstanding acquisition from Club Brugge and Leicester will be wary of his menacing form ahead of a King Power Stadium tussle.

Dennis has scored four goals and assisted five more in just 11 Premier League appearances for Watford. Should he score in Sunday's game, he would become only the sixth player in Premier League history to reach both five goals and assists in 12 or fewer games, after Eric Cantona (11 games), Jurgen Klinsmann (12), Arjen Robben (11), Andrey Arshavin (10) and Bruno Fernandes (9).

JOSE SA (Norwich City v Wolves)

The handover of the Wolves goalkeeper job from Rui Patricio to fellow Portuguese Jose Sa has been seamless, and the new man between the sticks has been highly effective already in the Premier League.

Only Chelsea's Edouard Mendy (3.71) has prevented more goals in the PL this season than Sa (2.18). That is based on Opta's expected goals on target (xGOT) metric, which assesses the quality of shots. On that basis, Sa would have been expected to concede 14.18 goals, but he has picked the ball out of the net just 12 times.

His 38 saves from 50 shots faced gives him a healthy 76 per cent success rate, beaten only by Mendy (88.57 per cent) and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsdale (78.95) so far this season. Norwich will do well to find a way past one of the most in-form glovesmen in the top flight.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Arsenal v Newcastle United)

Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not scored or had an assist in his last three Premier League games, creating just one chance in 270 minutes.

But if there is any team he is going to score against, Newcastle would be close to the top of the list, and not merely because Eddie Howe's team are bottom of the table.

The former Borussia Dortmund striker has been involved in nine goals in his eight appearances for Arsenal against Newcastle in all competitions (6 goals, 3 assists), scoring in each of his last five games against the Magpies.

Trevoh Chalobah marked his first Champions League start with a goal as Chelsea stormed into the round of 16 with an emphatic 4-0 win over Juventus.

The holders only needed to a point to qualify and they outclassed Juve at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to replace them at the top of Group H with one game to play.

Chalobah controversially opened the scoring after Antonio Rudiger appeared to have handled in the penalty area and the Premier League leaders were a class apart in the second half, with goals from the outstanding Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi putting them in command.

Thomas Tuchel's side were in cruise control as they made it 10 games without defeat and Timo Werner rounded off a ruthless win when he added a fourth with the last kick of the game, although they lost Ben Chilwell to a knee injury after N'Golo Kante was also forced off. 

Chelsea started like a side brimming with confidence and the dangerous James forced a save from Wojciech Szczesny with a free-kick from a tight angle.

Chalobah opened the scoring in contentious fashion 25 minutes in, firing in on the half-volley with his right foot from eight yards out after it seemed the ball had struck Rudiger's arm when Hakim Ziyech whipped in a corner.

Thiago Silva showed great awareness to race back and keep the Blues in front with a desperate last-ditch clearance to deny former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata, who had dinked the ball over the advancing Edouard Mendy.

Kante was withdrawn eight minutes before the break, Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing him, but they continued to dominate following the interval and took complete control with two goals in the space of three minutes.

James controlled the ball on his chest before beating Szczesny with a rasping right-foot drive after Leonardo Bonucci headed Chilwell's cross into his path.

Hudson-Odoi then applied the finish with his left foot from close range, with Loftus-Cheek having shown great footwork before setting the winger up.

Szczesny thwarted Ziyech with a fine reflex save, but James was involved again as fit-again substitute Werner put the icing on the cake when he finished from close range as Juve lost their perfect Champions League record this season.

Thomas Tuchel says he will not celebrate Chelsea's Premier League title rivals slipping up, despite his side opening up a three-point gap at the top of the table.

The Blues moved three further clear at the summit on a day when Liverpool were held 2-2 by Brighton and Hove Albion and Manchester City lost 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace.

Without injured strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, Chelsea lacked a cutting edge in the final third before wing-back Reece James opened the scoring after 65 minutes.

James added a second and Jorginho rounded off the scoring for the leaders in a 16-minute goal glut at St James' Park as Chelsea made it six wins in a row in all competitions.

But rather than revel in Chelsea's three-point lead on Liverpool and five-point advantage over reigning champions City, Tuchel intends to just focus on his own side's performance.

"It's not a moment where we celebrate results on the other pitches," he said. "It's too early and we want to focus on ourselves.

"What goes around comes around. There is a long way to go and if you think I'm even happier now, this is not true.

"We need to keep our feet on the ground. I am happy with the team effort today, but we don't celebrate other teams' results. 

"You can lose in this league any match at any minute. So we focus on us and keep going. Let's see where it goes, but it's a long way."

James did what Chelsea's star-studded attack could not by finding a way past the Newcastle defence, the defender taking his tally of goals to four for the season.

The England international also has three assists, with his seven direct goal involvements more than any other Chelsea player this campaign.

Tuchel is pleased with the work of his wing-backs, with Ben Chilwell operating down the other flank, but feels his attacking players also deserve credit for their part in the goals.

"Reece is allowed to come inside, that's not a problem," Tuchel said when asked about the role of his wing-backs. 

"All the spaces we want to attack from, we have all the players in the spaces we want to be dangerous. 

"So if there is a winger waiting wide, the wing-back is allowed to attack the half space.

"I think every team does this in this system. We need the wing-backs to arrive in our box to increase the chance of scoring and create goal chances. 

"The first goal, it was brilliant dribbling from Callum on the left side. 

"Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] arrived, Kai [Havertz] was in the box, and this is what it takes in the end to have a rebound and a chance for a goal. Reece took it brilliantly.

"It's a complex game and I don't think Reece can score if Callum does do the dribbling and Chilly opens the space.

"We have Kai attacking space and then Ruben. This is why sometimes our strikers are sacrificing space. We don't need exercise shooting with Reece – he shoots like a horse."

Newcastle are winless after 10 league games for the third time in their history, having previously done so in 1989-90 and 2018-19.

Graeme Jones, who was in interim charge for the second game while the club seeks a permanent successor to Steve Bruce, was disappointed with the way his side collapsed.

"For 65 minutes we were right in the game," he told BBC Sport. "We had a little spell of momentum just before their first goal and generally I was really pleased. 

"You have to remember that we are up against the Champions League winners and the current Premier League leaders. 

"We were competitive in the game with the way we went about it. It was working up to that point. Once the first goal went in that is when the disappointment came from. 

"The manner of the reaction. Three goals in 16 minutes was disappointing because the game was never that wide open."

Reece James' second-half double stretched Chelsea's advantage at the top of the Premier League as he fired the leaders to a 3-0 win at Newcastle United.

The Blues, without the injured duo of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, initially lacked cutting edge in the final third as Kai Havertz took a central role up front.

Their main threat against a Newcastle team content to sit back and play on the counter was Hakim Ziyech, who saw a goal disallowed for offside and hit the post.

However, James eventually found a way through, lashing a superb left-footed drive into the top-left corner in the 65th minute before taking advantage of lackadaisical defending from Newcastle, who then conceded a late penalty to enable Jorginho to apply gloss to the scoreline. 

Chelsea moved three points clear at the summit after Liverpool were held to a 2-2 draw by Brighton and Hove Albion while Manchester City lost 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace.

Ziyech bent beyond Karl Darlow in the 28th minute only to see the offside flag correctly raised against him and then blazed over from close range after Callum Wilson was dubiously ruled to have fouled Andreas Christensen.

The former Ajax star hit the post when a long-range strike deflected off Jamal Lascelles, but Newcastle's resistance was broken in style by James.

His second was less aesthetically pleasing, James slicing beyond a stricken Darlow after Ruben Loftus-Cheek's effort was blocked with Newcastle's defence all over the place.

Darlow's bemusing foul on Havertz allowed Jorginho to coolly convert from 12 yards and help Chelsea solidify their position at the summit in emphatic fashion.

Chelsea needed a penalty shoot-out for the second round running as they progressed into the EFL Cup quarter-finals with a 4-3 win over Southampton after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Reece James scored the winning spot-kick against Aston Villa in round three, and it was the wing-back who netted the decider again on Tuesday.

Once more without the injured strike duo of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, Chelsea went ahead through Kai Havertz, but Che Adams hit back early in the second half.

Kepa Arrizabalaga and Fraser Forster both then saved a penalty each in the shoot-out, yet it was ultimately Will Smallbone's miss that proved costly as the five-time winners progressed.

Chelsea had set the tone when Ross Barkley delivered a teasing corner from which Saul Niguez forced Forster into a fine stop in the sixth minute.

Havertz twice went close before he punctured Southampton's resolve on the cusp of half-time when a defensive lapse allowed the Germany international to head home Hakim Ziyech's corner.

That lead lasted only two minutes into the second half, however.

Malang Sarr's error was pounced upon by Kyle Walker-Peters, whose strike squirmed beyond Kepa and into the path of Adams for a tap-in.

Where Kepa failed at one end, Forster succeeded at the other, preventing Havertz from immediately restoring Chelsea's lead.

Both goalkeepers had to be at their best in stoppage time to force penalties, Kepa saving from Lyanco and Mohammed Salisu before Forster kept out Sarr's effort.

Then, Kepa tipped Theo Walcott's spot-kick onto the post before Forster denied Mason Mount to cancel out Chelsea's advantage, only for Smallbone to blaze his penalty over, leaving James to coolly settle matters again.

England have called up Ben Chilwell to replace the injured Reece James, while Tammy Abraham features as a late inclusion for October's internationals.

Gareth Southgate named a 23-man squad on Thursday for World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Hungary but has announced two changes to his group.

James, who suffered an ankle injury in Chelsea's 1-0 loss to Manchester City last month, is ruled out through injury and club colleague Chilwell takes his place.

The left-back was encouraged to prove his worth to both Southgate and Thomas Tuchel at club level after initially being left out, and he duly did so as he scored in a 3-1 defeat of Southampton on Saturday.

In that contest, Chilwell attempted four shots and made a game-high three key passes, subsequently earning a call-up at the expense of his team-mate, who was somewhat of a surprise inclusion in the first place.

Former Chelsea striker Abraham has also been included as a late call-up, with Southgate opting to extend his squad to 24 players due to the Roma forward's current form.

Abraham – who had not been selected since November 2020 – has six caps to his name and will have been disappointed with his initial omission, given the injuries to Patrick Bamford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Marcus Rashford.

Abraham has scored twice and assisted as many in seven Serie A appearances for Jose Mourinho's men and he will now act as a likely deputy to Harry Kane, who has scored nine times in 13 internationals in 2021 for England.

Thomas Tuchel does not expect Reece James to link up with the England squad next week, joking the defender will only be able to play water polo as he is still training in the swimming pool on his return from injury.

James was included in Gareth Southgate's 23-man squad on Thursday for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Andorra and Hungary, despite sustaining an ankle injury in the first half of the Blues' 1-0 defeat to Manchester City last week.

The 21-year-old subsequently sat out the Blues' 1-0 loss to Juventus in the Champions League in midweek and will play no part in Saturday's Premier League clash with Southampton.

Southgate called up James in the hope of using him in one of England's October fixtures, but Tuchel does not believe that will be possible.

"I was a bit surprised. I understand he was selected for the [England] football team but this will not happen," Tuchel said at a pre-match news conference on Friday. "My last information is he will not go. It can only be a misunderstanding.

"When I saw it, I thought maybe Reece goes with the water polo team for England as right now he trains only in the pool."

Southgate also called up fellow injured Chelsea player Mason Mount, who has sat out the Blues' last two matches, though Tuchel is more optimistic about the midfielder's chances of playing during international break.

"Mason is in the squad [to face Southampton], Mason is back. It was not a long injury, it was a minor injury. Obviously, a given he is nominated and he's happy to be and will give everything to do his best for the England squad."

While James and Mount were called up for England duty, Ben Chilwell was overlooked by Southgate due to a lack of playing time for Chelsea this season.

The former Leicester City player made just his third appearance of the campaign as a half-time substitute against Juventus and has yet to play a single minute in the league.

"It would have been nice for him to be selected," Tuchel said. "He has his own story. But I can understand and I'm sure that he knows he has to earn it. 

"He hasn't had had many minutes. Once he plays more for us he will have the chance to get selected [for England] again."

Chelsea welcome Southampton to Stamford Bridge seeking their first win over the Saints in four attempts in the league, with this their longest winless run in this fixture since between October 1990 and December 1993 (seven games).

Tuchel's men have lost back-to-back games in all competitions, having previously gone eight without defeat to begin the campaign, but the German coach is not reading too much into the quickfire losses to heavyweights City and Juve.

"We have not trained a lot. We used the days off instead for recovery," Tuchel said. "It's been business as usual. We always demand the very best no matter if we lose or win. 

"We hate to lose. We came back strong after losing two matches last season. We need to respect the quality of our opponents. 

"We missed a little step from 90 per cent to 100 per cent but we don't need to question ourselves deeply. We played two extremes. Now we play another high pressing team. 

"Losses don't feel good. Man City made us underperform. Now it gets tougher to play away games. We will not be the last team to lose against Juve."

Romelu Lukaku has scored nine times in 12 Premier League games against Southampton – only against West Ham has he scored as many – but he enters Saturday's clash without a goal in his last four matches for Chelsea.

The Belgium international has managed just two shots on target across those four fixtures but Tuchel feels it is down to other players in the Chelsea team to step up and help out the prolific striker. 

Tuchel said: "I think that football right now is about connection. I think he has this with Mount and [Mateo] Kovacic. Everyone else lacks it a little bit.

"We need to learn and adapt and create. There will always be matches like this against Juve where there is no place to go."

The Premier League table already looks to be taking shape, with a thrilling title race potentially in store.

Two of the favourites meet early on Saturday, as Chelsea welcome Manchester City to Stamford Bridge.

At the same time, Manchester United – joint-top alongside the Blues and Liverpool – host Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

With the season really kicking into gear, so are the title races in fantasy leagues. So, to avoid getting left behind, take heed of our Opta-powered picks for matchday six...

 

DAVID DE GEA (Manchester United v Aston Villa)

Despite their EFL Cup defeat to West Ham on Wednesday, United remain unbeaten in the league and moved onto 13 points thanks to some late drama last Sunday, also in a match against David Moyes' Hammers.

Jesse Lingard came off the bench to score against the club for whom he starred on loan last term, but West Ham were awarded a last-gasp penalty and a chance to rescue a draw. However, substitute Mark Noble, with his first touch, saw his penalty saved by David de Gea.

It ended a run of 40 penalties without a save from De Gea, who has now this season prevented more goals (2.5) than any other keeper in the Premier League, according to expected goals on target data.

SHANE DUFFY (Crystal Palace v Brighton and Hove Albion)

Has Graham Potter's luck at Brighton and Hove Albion finally changed? His team have impressed over the past few seasons, yet a clinical edge was often missing. Now, though, the Seagulls have won four of their five games and sit pretty on 12 points.

A key figure in their strong start has been Shane Duffy. The centre-back's career looked to be petering out after a poor loan spell at Celtic last season, but he has come back strong this term.

No Premier League defender has had more shots (10) or scored more goals (one) than Duffy so far this season, while only Man City have faced fewer shots on target than Brighton in 2021-22.

REECE JAMES (Chelsea v Manchester City)

Reece James is of course an expensive option for fantasy players, though it is an investment worth making, given his ability going forward and the fact he plays for one of the competition's strongest teams.

Despite only playing 158 minutes so far in the league, James has been directly involved in three goals, more than any other defender.

He has scored once and provided two assists, averaging a goal involvement every 53 minutes.

BRUNO FERNANDES (Manchester United v Aston Villa)

Given the hype around Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford, it would be understandable if many fantasy players had elected to sacrifice his compatriot Bruno Fernandes in order to free up funds for the former Real Madrid and Juventus superstar.

But Fernandes is still one of the most reliable players in the league when it comes to accumulating fantasy points, and he would have had an assist in the win over West Ham had Ronaldo's initial effort gone in before he netted the rebound.

Fernandes has scored in all three of his Premier League appearances against Villa, with all three of his goals coming from the penalty spot. Only one player has scored more goals against an opponent with 100 per cent of them being penalties in the competition – Troy Deeney against United (four). No player has more goal involvements (49) than Fernandes since he made his debut in February 2020.

DEMARAI GRAY (Everton v Norwich City)

Rafael Benitez's unbeaten start at Everton came to an end at Aston Villa last week, before the Toffees then crashed out of the EFL Cup in midweek, with James Rodriguez's departure to Qatar completing a difficult few days.

Benitez, a contentious pick as Everton manager, could do with a win on Saturday against Norwich City, who are on a 15-match losing streak in the Premier League.

With Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison likely to miss the game through injury, Everton need Demarai Gray to carry on his fine form. He has scored three goals so far this season from just three attempts on target. Only in 2018-19 has the winger scored more goals in a single top-flight season (four).

RAUL JIMENEZ (Southampton v Wolves)

After winning at Watford to finally get their first points on the board, Wolves went down 2-0 at home to 10-man Brentford last time out.

Wolves have played some exciting football under new boss Bruno Lage, but they need to start converting their chances, and Raul Jimenez coming back into form would be key to doing just that.

Although he has yet to score or assist in the Premier League this season, Jimenez has been directly involved in 29 shots (14 shots, 15 chances created). Only Mohamed Salah (37) and Sadio Mane (31) have been involved in more. The Mexican has created the most chances without an assist and taken the joint-most shots without a goal, so surely his luck will change soon. 

JAMIE VARDY (Leicester City v Burnley)

It has not been a flying start to the season for FA Cup holders Leicester City, who have had some inconsistent results and performances to match.

They lost to Brighton last week, going down 2-1, with Jamie Vardy scoring his 150th goal in all competitions for the Foxes.

Vardy has been directly involved in six goals in his past six Premier League games (five goals, one assist), with these involvements accounting for 86 per cent of Leicester's total goals in that run (six of seven).

Reece James was the hero as Chelsea overcame Aston Villa 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the third round of the EFL Cup at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. 

Ben Chilwell missed a chance to secure the win during the shoot-out after Ashley Young hit the bar and Kepa Arrizabalaga kept out Marvelous Nakamba, but James made no mistake to send Chelsea through. 

Villa were the better team for much of the first half but Timo Werner put Chelsea in front in the 54th minute with his first goal for the club this season and only his fifth of 2021. 

Cameron Archer – who scored a hat-trick against Barrow in the second round – guided in a stunning header to equalise 10 minutes later, only for Chelsea to show more composure at the spot and advance.

Chelsea and England defender Reece James has revealed he had his Champions League winners' medal and Euro 2020 runners-up medal stolen during a burglary at his home.

The break-in happened while the 21-year-old was playing for the Blues in Tuesday's 1-0 Champions League win over Zenit.

James played a full part in Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Manchester City in last season's final and was used once for England in their run to the European Championship final, where they lost to Italy.

He took to social media on Thursday to appeal for help finding the culprits, who took a safe that also contained his Super Cup winners' medal.

"These medals were won representing Chelsea and England – honours that can never be taken away from me whether or not I have the physical medals to prove it," James posted alongside four CCTV clips of the incident.

"Nevertheless, I am appealing to all my Chelsea and England fans to help identify and turn in these low life individuals who will never be able to rest easy as the evidence is mounting against them.

"The police, my advisers and Chelsea FC (and many others) are all behind me as we have firm leads on who the perpetrators are. We are closing in on them. 

"Luckily, no one was present during the break in but I want to let all of you know I am safe and well. 

"I really do appreciate having the platform to tell you all about my misfortune and I hope together we can catch these individuals and deliver justice where it is due."

Academy product James has featured regularly for Chelsea over the past two seasons and has already made four appearances this campaign under Thomas Tuchel.

Thomas Tuchel accepts referee Anthony Taylor's decision to send off Reece James in Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Liverpool, but says it spoiled the rest of the contest at Anfield.

Chelsea were a goal to the good in Saturday's tussle between the two Premier League title hopefuls through a Kai Havertz header when the game exploded in controversy.

Taylor was prompted by VAR to look at the pitchside monitor after Sadio Mane's shot cannoned off James' leg on the goal-line and hit the wing-back's hand.

A penalty was awarded and subsequently converted by Mohamed Salah in first-half stoppage time, though Chelsea's players reacted furiously to the red card that was also issued to James.

Tuchel's side held on for the whole of the second half with 10 men, but the German coach felt the game suffered as a result of the dismissal.

"The red card – not even I'm sure any more if it's the rules or not the rules," he told BBC's Match of the Day. 

"You have to accept the decision, but maybe would have changed his mind with moving pictures. In the end it maybe would have stayed the same. 

"I don't like early red cards in general because it spoiled the game. In the end it was a tough and hard fight. We showed great resilience and deserved the point."

Liverpool had 14 shots in the second half, six of those being kept out by Edouard Mendy – the most saves he has made in a single game for Chelsea since joining last September.

Chelsea also had some promising moments on the counter, with Mateo Kovacic testing Alisson late on, but Tuchel was more than happy to come away from Anfield with a point given the circumstances.

"We decided to stay in a back five," he said. "We wanted to stay active and make it hard to create chances for Liverpool. The first 10 minutes of the second half seemed endless. 

"The last five minutes I was actually praying we take what we deserved. It was a hard and a tough one, but a very strong second half defensively."

James, who had earlier assisted Havertz's sublime headed opener, became the first Chelsea player to be sent off away to Liverpool in the league since Frank Lampard in 2009.

At 21 years and 263 days, he is the youngest Blues player to be dismissed in the top flight since John Obi Mikel, aged 20 years and 154 days, versus Manchester United in 2007.

While Tuchel accepted the referee's decision to reach into his pocket, Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta took a different view.

"It was harsh," Azpilicueta, who is now just the fourth Chelsea player to reach 300 Premier League appearances after John Terry (492), Frank Lampard (429) and Petr Cech (333), told BBC Sport.

"I feel sorry for Reece. The referee got advice from VAR to give it. He went to the screen to watch one replay.

"We got the double punishment, red card and a penalty – and two yellow cards in the aftermath. 

"We were angry, but you have to calm down and find a way to fight together as a team. I think the team fought and maybe we had the best two chances in the second half."

Chelsea remain level on points and goal difference with Liverpool after three games and return to action with a home match against Aston Villa after the international break.

Romelu Lukaku scored on his second debut for Chelsea to help the Blues to a 2-0 victory over London rivals Arsenal in Sunday's Premier League clash.

The Belgium international rejoined Chelsea for a club-record fee earlier this month and took just 15 minutes to open his account from close range at Emirates Stadium.

Reece James set up that goal and doubled his side's lead before half-time as Thomas Tuchel's men, who also hit the crossbar through a Lukaku header, eased to a second successive win without conceding to begin the campaign.

Arsenal's only real opportunity was squandered by Rob Holding on the hour mark as Mikel Arteta's side remain pointless and goalless after their first two games.

Arsenal had won their last three games against Chelsea in all competitions and started this latest meeting on top, but it was the Blues who took the lead in north London.

Lukaku held up the ball, played in James in behind Kieran Tierney down the right and converted from inside the six-yard box once teed up by his team-mate.

James went from creator to scorer 20 minutes later when again left in plenty of space down the right to thump a shot past Bernd Leno at the end of a flowing move.

Wing-back James was involved in a big incident shortly before half-time when tripping Bukayo Saka, but VAR agreed with referee Paul Tierney's decision not to award a penalty.

Arsenal looked a little more lively early in the second half as Edouard Mendy kept out a deflected Saka drive and Holding sent a free header wide from six yards.

However, it was Chelsea who went closest to adding to the scoring through a Lukaku header from seven yards that Leno did brilliantly to turn against the crossbar.

Kylian Mbappe understandably has a long list of admirers as speculation swirls over his Paris Saint-Germain future.

The 22-year-old's contract with PSG is due to expire in 2022 and Mbappe has previously hinted at his desire for a move.

He has been heavily linked with Real Madrid but one of the biggest clubs in England reportedly have their eye on the France international.

 

TOP STORY - LIVERPOOL'S AUDACIOUS MBAPPE ENQUIRY

Liverpool have entered the race to sign PSG forward Kylian Mbappe, claims Marca.

Marca reports that the Reds have enquired with PSG about Mbappe's availability.

The audacious move comes as Liverpool plan for a long-term future with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

 

ROUND-UP

- Rennes' 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga is on the radar of Manchester United, claims The Mail. Camavinga has already caught the eye of several top clubs.

- Manchester City are circling for Chelsea defender Reece James, with The Athletic reporting he is on their "wish list".

- Tottenham are homing in on a move for Bologna's Japanese defender Takehiro Tomiyasu, according to The Sun. It is understood the deal is worth £15million (€17.5m).

- With Jadon Sancho set to leave Borussia Dortmund for Manchester United, the German club are targeting PSV Eindhoven's Donyell Malen, claims The Mirror.

- Sport claims that AC Milan are close to agreeing a loan deal with Barcelona's Junior Firpo.

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