Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Lionel Messi has Le Classique on his mind, not El Clasico. Cristiano Ronaldo faces the daunting challenge of trying to out-match Mohamed Salah, arguably the best forward in the world at this moment.

This Sunday is one of those remarkable days in European football, with Messi and PSG heading to Marseille for a Velodrome battle, while Ronaldo and Manchester United tackle Liverpool.

Sunday also sees Barcelona and Real Madrid clash at Camp Nou, in LaLiga's first Clasico since Messi followed Ronaldo by bidding Spain farewell.

It is one of those quietly momentous moments in sport. The recent US Open tennis tournament happened without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and now a Clasico in Spain's post Messi and Ronaldo era is upon us.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looked at the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on world football's biggest club game.

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

For the duration of Ronaldo's nine-year stint with Madrid, neither he nor Messi missed a Clasico in LaLiga. Both started 17 games and appeared as a substitute once each.

And the raw facts tell us Messi had far more to celebrate in the league series, with Barcelona winning 10 times and Madrid notching just four victories, with four games drawn, an aggregate scoreline of 39-23 going in the Blaugrana's favour.

Madrid had an average of 14.1 shots per game to 13.0 by Barcelona, but the capital side could not make that slight advantage count in the overall reckoning.

Taking all competitions into account, Madrid's overall Clasico record in the Ronaldo era perked up slightly (W10 D8 L14). They had two Copa del Rey final wins over Barcelona in this time, with Jose Mourinho's side snatching a 1-0 win thanks to Ronaldo's extra-time header in 2011. Ronaldo was then absent through injury for the 2014 final, Madrid winning 2-1 after a late golazo from Gareth Bale.

A Champions League semi-final success for Barcelona in 2011, however, was a sweet knockout blow, delivered after a swift double jab from Messi, his double in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu being the telling contribution. Messi's goals that night, from a personal expected goals (xG) total of 0.8, were a blow from which Ronaldo and Madrid could not recover in the second leg at Camp Nou. Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final, Messi scoring the second goal and being named man of the match.

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

Messi hit an all-time record of 474 goals in LaLiga and Ronaldo grabbed a sensational 311 in nine seasons, but who saved their best finishing form for El Clasico?

The data tells us Messi wins this one, with both players deadlier away from home during their head-to-head rivalry.

Ronaldo hit six goals in nine LaLiga games at Camp Nou, but he only managed three at the Bernabeu against Barca, and they were all penalties. In Madrid's home league tussles with Barcelona, Ronaldo's shot conversion rate was just 6.4 per cent, but it would have been 0.0 per cent without those spot-kicks. The 6.4 per cent conversion rate ranked, of all the fixtures in which he scored in LaLiga, as Ronaldo's fourth worst.

Messi, during that same 2009-18 period, grabbed nine goals in nine league games at the Santiago Bernabeu, four of them penalties, and also scored three in nine home games against Madrid, a free-kick and two from open play. His shot conversion rate of 11.1 per cent at home was balanced out nicely by a sharp-shooting 27.3 per cent away to Los Blancos.

Six assists from Messi to just one from Ronaldo in the nine-season rivalry further underlined the Argentine forward's upper hand in these games.

Across his entire Barcelona career, which spanned 17 years at first-team level, Messi scored 18 LaLiga goals in Clasico battles.

 

What more can we learn from the Leo v CR7 LaLiga years?

Madrid targeted Messi, or at least the numbers suggest they tried to stop him through fair means or foul, albeit with limited success.

He was fouled 30 times at Camp Nou and 26 times at the Bernabeu during Clasico league games. No LaLiga opponent fouled Messi more than that combined total of 56 during the nine-year spell of the Ronaldo rivalry (Atletico Madrid - 47, Espanyol - 46).

Madrid conceded an average of 18.2 fouls per Clasico during that era, and won 12.6, and such margins can be significant.

Barcelona had a string of pass masters in their ranks, with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets bossing the midfield for much of this vaunted period, and in the LaLiga Clasico games their precision was noticeable.

Passing accuracy of 84.2 per cent in the opposition half during games against Madrid during the Ronaldo years showed where they excelled, and Madrid's 74 per cent mark in this category showed they were often losing possession.

Giving the ball away to any team can spell trouble, and being inaccurate with more than a quarter of passes in the Barcelona half pointed to problems. Only against Rayo Vallecano (71.7 per cent) did Madrid have worse accuracy in that area of the field while Ronaldo was at the club, and that hardly mattered as they won all 10 of their LaLiga games against the side from nearby Vallecas.

Ronaldo's 73.6 per cent passing accuracy against Barcelona was his third worst against any LaLiga opponent, while Messi soared above him with 83.7 per cent, his sixth highest against all league opposition for the seasons from 2009-10 to 2017-18.

The fact he pulled off such consistency while targeting high-tariff manoeuvres in enemy territory further served to underline Messi's dominance of perhaps the greatest LaLiga Clasico head-to-head of them all.

 

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips as Europe's elite try to get their hands on the Borussia Dortmund and Norway sensation.

Haaland is already on the cusp of half a century of Bundesliga goals, having scored 49 in 49 league appearances since swapping Salzburg for Dortmund in January 2020.

It is a remarkable return – the 21-year-old has 70 goals in 69 games for the German club overall, only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (89 goals in 74 games) has a better return among players from Europe's top-five leagues.

Haaland has always been a goalscorer.

Born in Leeds in 2000, where his father Alf-Inge played for Leeds United in the Premier League at the time, Erling relocated to Bryne by the age of three – the hometown of his parents in Norway.

It is there where Erling Haaland took his first steps in football.

Alf Ingve Berntsen spent more than eight years coaching Haaland, including several matches for Byrne's first team in 2016 following the sudden departure of Gaute Larsen.

"He was the best from the first day. Scoring a lot, smiling a lot, training a lot," Berntsen told Stats Perform as he recalled Haaland's time at Byrne, where the pair worked together between the ages of eight to 16.

 

Haaland was part of a group of 40 talented youngsters coached by Berntsen at Bryne.

But Haaland – even playing with older kids – always stood out in a city with a population of just over 12,200 people on the southern shores of the lake Froylandsvatnet.

"A player of that level, you can spot the class from the first day… the first day you spot something special like Erling, one way or another. You can see it from the beginning," Berntsen said.

"In Norway we have a few big clubs who have academies and select best ones from a region. But most of the clubs, they have a big grassroots path. Our club is like that – part of is like a top club but a big part is grassroots. Often we try to hold them together.

"Erling was one of 40 players who trained together, in fact until they were 15. That was the first year we separated them. Erling was one year younger than the others because he was too good for his age group. He was 14. Twenty of them wanted to train four times a week and 20 wanted to train twice a week. Even then we kept them together. In that group, Erling was quite a normal guy. Funny and a desire to train and win. He was the best from the first day. Scoring a lot, smiling a lot, training a lot. He was quite similar to how he is today."

"He was quite average size but because he trained with older boys, he lacked a bit in his height. He wasn't small in size but he was skinny, very skinny," Berntsen said. "He had his growth spurt when he was 14-15. Until then, he was normal height. From 14 he started to grow very quick. He kept growing until we went to Molde. When you stop growing, it's time to develop your muscles. It's not always wise to do much building your muscles when you're growing. We knew this would happen because his family, his older brother, he is fast and strong, we knew when he was 11-12 that we had to wait some years, this was something special in the making."

After a brief period with Byrne's senior team, Haaland was lured to Molde in 2017 and after 20 goals in 50 appearances overall, the Norwegian was eventually lured to Salzburg two years later.

Haaland dazzled with Austrian giants Salzburg, scoring an absurd 29 goals in only 27 games across all competitions – he joined Alessandro del Piero, Sergei Rebrov, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lewandowski as the only players to score in the first five matches of a Champions League group stage, while becoming the first teenager to achieve the feat.

He also scored nine times for Norway's Under-20 team in a 12-0 rout of Honduras at the 2019 U20 World Cup. Haaland did not see out a season at Salzburg, prised to Dortmund in January last year and he has not looked back.

In this season's Bundesliga, Haaland surpassed his expected goal (xG)-value by 2.9 (nine goals, 6.1 xG) – only Bayer Leverkusen sensation Florian Wirtz eclipsed his value (3.0), per Opta.

Since Haaland joined Dortmund, he exceeded his xG-value (38.7) in the Bundesliga by 10.3. It is the highest value of a player in Europe's top-five leagues in this time.

"He is very similar to now to when he was 11-12. He scores a lot. In that group, if there were 40 players, many of them were of good quality. Ten of the players with Erling, nine other players played in the region team. Four of them later came into the Under-18 national team. Erling had to conquer each training session, to win. He didn't have it always easy," Berntsen said.

"The personality and quality you see is quite similar. When he played with two defenders, they played for Norway U18 - they are strong and powerful. If he had to score in the training session, he had to be smart in his movement. Quite early he developed the smartness, the tactical ability. The whole of the group trained much outside the main session - in the indoor hall, hour after hour having fun. He gained very good technical skills.

"His mental skills were strong early. He was always more willing to win. The technical and mental part were very good. He lacked a bit physically. We knew to wait some years and this might explode. The personality, desire and passion is just what it was earlier."

 

"When he moved up to us, because of the quality of the group, he didn't have to be too high on his self because it wasn't too easy," Berntsen continued on Haaland's attitude and character. "We didn't know if we were going to lose or win in training.

"This is a small place where 12,000 live. everyone knows each other. He had to develop with no media around. It was a good place for him. No big attention. He had to train and develop without any disturbance because if you are in a big city and club, you can have a lot of attention and it isn't so easy. But here he could train with his friends and develop steady. His father had played in the Premier League, so in this area everyone knew who he was."

Since Haaland's arrival in Dortmund, he has scored 13 Bundesliga goals after carries – in Europe's top-five leagues, it is only bettered by six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi (15).

In the 2021-22 league campaign, Haaland is one of four players who has been involved on 10 open-play sequences which ended in a goal – together with Hoffenheim's Andrej Kramaric, Bayern veteran Thomas Muller and Wirtz.

While Berntsen predicted a great career, not even he could have envisaged the speed of Haaland's rise to the top amid links with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

"I didn't see that at this age that he would become top scorer in the Champions League like he did or score in each match at this level. But we're not surprised that he is doing well," Berntsen said.

"When he got the first possibility to play in the regions team, he was picked then the national team, you can play from 15, and he was picked and scored. He always kept scoring at a new level. At a time when he lacked a bit physically. We knew he would become strong and fast. Of course we didn't see that level at that early age. But many of us, we were quite sure he was going to have a good international career, from 12 years old."

He added: "When you're 21, the body isn't fully grown yet. It can develop in all aspects of the game but it's not too easy now because the level he is on is high already. But when you're trying on a daily basis, you train to get better. If you do that, you'll have a small percentage of growth.

"He is one of the new rising stars that can do a lot of different - high pressure, low pressure, he can run, smart in the box, quite good in offence and defence. The next generation of players will have that variety - not just one type on top. He can be a front man or in counter-attacks. That might be common in the future. You have quite good variants in quality. There are still things for him to develop."

Prior to matchday-three fixtures in the Champions League, only Lewandowski had scored more goals and a higher xG-value across all competitions in the top-five leagues this season than Haaland.

Dating back to his switch from Salzburg in 2020, Haaland eclipsed his xG-value in his Champions league performances by 4.1 – the highest value of a player in the Champions League in this time prior to the club's 4-0 rout at the hands of Ajax.

While only Lewandowski has been involved in more Champions League open-play sequences that ended in a goal than Haaland since the latter's transfer to Germany (before Dortmund and Bayern's fixtures this week).

When asked where Haaland – who has a return of 12 goals in 15 international appearances for Norway – would be best suited if he were to leave Dortmund, Berntsen replied: "There's not so many possibilities now. There may be a few clubs who can afford him. It's not for everyone.

"Erling and his family, they've done a brilliant job to select the next level. If he stays in Dortmund, if he was to end his career there, still he had a brilliant career because he's a funny guy from a little town. 

"Erling is down to earth. If you have a job and have big defenders knocking you down, you have to make a statement and prove yourself. He is a loveable guy and we are proud of him. Humble. If you asked me a year ago, I'd say maybe Spain or England but Spain or France now."

Andres Iniesta arrived at Vissel Kobe amid plenty of fanfare in May 2018.

One of the most successful players in Barcelona's history, having won LaLiga nine times and four Champions League crowns among his haul of 35 trophies, Iniesta was brought to Vissel to deliver silverware.

Up until his arrival three years ago, Vissel had never won a trophy but during the Spain great's time in Kobe, the ambitious Rakuten-backed outfit have won the Emperor's Cup (2019) and Japanese Super Cup (2020).

Vissel also qualified for the AFC Champions League for the first time in their 55-year history in 2020, reaching the semi-finals.

Iniesta and Vissel are on track to feature in the Champions League again – Atsuhiro Miura's men are third in the J1 League this season and on course for their best finish in the top flight, three points clear of Nagoya Grampus in the race for the final qualification spot ahead of Sunday's showdown – as they seek to become kings of Asia.

"The team have been saying we want to become the number one team in Asia so the first big goal is to win the Asian Champions League," Vissel defender Leo Osaki told Stats Perform about the project in Japan.

"Of course we have to win the J1 League, we can't just be focused on the Champions League. But the biggest goal right now is to win the Champions League. We just have to finish third and hope we can play for the Champions League next season."

 

When Iniesta swapped Camp Nou to join captain Lukas Podolski at Kobe Wing Stadium, it brought more eyes onto the club and attracted a host of stars the following year.

Spain's all-time leading scorer David Villa, former Arsenal and Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen and Sergi Samper all followed Iniesta to Kobe.

Vissel's investment in Iniesta paid off in 2019 after conquering Kashima Antlers for their first ever piece of silverware before overcoming 2019 J1 League champions Yokohama F.Marinos on penalties in the Japanese Super Cup in 2020.

Since his debut, Iniesta has showed no signs of slowing down, with the 37-year-old maestro boasting 175 completed dribbles (second in the J1 League) and a 64 per cent success rate (third among at least 100 attempts) to go with 164 created chances (fifth) in 81 league appearances.

In total, captain Iniesta has scored 17 goals and supplied 17 assists to spearhead Vissel's cause under the ownership of Rakuten, who continue to dream big after buying the team from the Crimson Group in 2014.

"He didn't come here to finish his career. He came to win and you can see it in the training and locker room," Osaki said, with Vissel's 2021 squad including Vermaelen, Bojan Krkic and Samper. "I think bringing him into the team opened the path for other world-class players to come in and it attracted a lot of people to watch the J1 League and Vissel Kobe. In that point of view, it gave the team a positive reaction.

"For him playing with us, since the first day he came, there was a positive reaction. Watching him from behind, it's a dream come true because most of us were just watching him on TV.

"Playing wise, he demands a lot from everybody, not just players next to him but behind him, goalkeeper and strikers. In our bad times, he tries to talk to players and motivate them so the team doesn't fall apart.

"Winning that title changed everything in a good way," Osaki added. "Since it was the first title in the club's history, that boosted the confidence for everyone. Also the expectations got higher. Winning those two titles changed a lot."

"I think we haven't accomplished anything, so the job isn't finished. We have to play in the Champions League and become the number one team in Asia. We've made progress in terms of getting two titles. The team had never won any titles, so that was big progress," the 30-year-old said.

"Playing in the Champions League gave us experience and confidence, which has helped us this season. In the Champions League, we didn't end up winning but I think that experience gave us confidence and that's why we are in this position now."

 

Since Iniesta's arrival, Vissel have ranked third in the J1 League in possession (57.2 per cent), passing accuracy (85.5 per cent) and shooting accuracy (47.3 per cent), while they have outperformed their expected goals (xG) value of 171.4 by scoring 183 goals – the fourth most in that span.

"Bringing in Andres and all those world-class players always gives a positive reaction to the team but at the same time, fans are like 'you have these players, so you have to win'. But football isn't that easy," he added.

"Of course we have quality players and we play with 11 players, but it's a team sport. It takes time. Fans can't wait, they want results instantly. We struggled in the beginning and we were focused on possession and everything but now we are probably 50 per cent counter-attack and 50 per cent possession - and we started getting results."

He added: "I think sometimes we focus on the project too much in the past. Of course, we want to play out from the back, press the ball and dominate the game but sometimes we focus on that too much. At times we had 60-70 per cent possession but we couldn't get results or win. We're still working on that actually, playing out of the back. We kind of added a different kind of style, just go forward at times.

"Now, we're focused more on the result. At times we play good and at times we don't, but still focusing on the result is keeping us in this position now."

From trailblazer Luc Longley and his trophy-laden time alongside Michael Jordan in Chicago, to Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova and Ben Simmons. There has been a healthy contingent of Australian stars gracing the NBA.

Josh Giddey joined the growing list of Australians in the league when the 19-year-old was taken with the sixth pick in the 2021 NBA Draft at Brooklyn's Barclays Center in July.

After reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with the third pick of the 2020 Draft, a player from the NBL had their name called early for the second consecutive year.

Giddey emerged as a lottery pick and was taken swiftly by the rebuilding Thunder – who missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2014-15 – following his exploits for the Adelaide 36ers.

The teenage playmaker caught the eye of NBA executives in a season which saw him crowned the NBL's Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 7.6 assists per game, while averaging 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 28 appearances.

In four preseason games for the Thunder, Giddey averaged 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.

Regarded as the best Australian prospect since three-time All-Star Simmons was drafted first by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016, former 36ers head coach Conner Henry hailed the Melbourne-born point guard when he spoke to Stats Perform prior to July's draft.

"It's really been a rewarding experience for me as a coach," Henry said. "It's the first time I've had the opportunity to coach an elite talent at such a young age.

"I didn't really know what I exactly had coming in. I had seen Josh on film and in the Chicago camp a year earlier, when he was just a young, fairly tall, skinny kid who didn't play all that well. Carried himself confidently. You could see he played at a pace and made others around him better, but it wasn't like he stood out.

"Then you fast forward five-and-a-half/six months, he walks in and is two inches taller, 15kg heavier and he has really started to grow into his body. Then I knew I had something pretty special.

"It became pretty evident after a month and a half that he was going to be able to play - and play at a high level against grown men. As we went down that path with him, we were able to keep throwing more and more systems at him. He was very open to listening, to understanding what we're trying to put in play.

"Having played the position before, I was able to talk to him about angles. 'Do you see this window of an opportunity here when you turn a corner', 'how do you read the floor initially when you rebound the ball and pushing out on the break', these little things. I think he was well ahead of me already when I brought those things up. Really rewarding to see his growth and confidence grow daily."

Since 2012, Giddey's assists per game figure is only second to Cairns Taipans point guard Scott Machado – who averaged 7.6 in 2019-20.

 

"Every player when they reach a certain level of recognition or professional ranks, they're always the best of the best as they keep going in advancing on their path. Josh wasn't satisfied. He was always pushing forward and trying to get better, always trying to connect with his team-mates and that's his greatest strength because he makes everyone around him better," Henry said as the Thunder prepare to open their season against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

"His offensive game will continue to grow; he will be able to score more and he is going to become a very good three-point shooter eventually - the mechanics are sound. The release off the hand has improved, he is under the ball more, the rotation has improved and it will only get better.

"At the end of the day, his true strength is his size, his feel for the game and ability to find his team-mates."

While Giddey only shot 43 per cent from the field, the teenager – who was surprisingly overlooked for Australia's Olympic Games squad – frequently demonstrated his playmaking ability, athleticism and high basketball IQ under Henry's guidance in Adelaide.

Henry – a former assistant with the Orlando Magic, having played for the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings in the NBA – likened Giddey to fellow Australian and sharp-shooter Joe Ingles.

Ingles has become an integral part of the Utah Jazz franchise since his arrival in 2014, ranking fifth in three-point percentage (45.1 – a career high) last season. Giddey and the Thunder play the Jazz in their season opener on Wednesday.

"He'll get to a point where he will have to play harder as he matures physically," Henry said of Giddey. "He won't be able to take periodic breaks in the game and that can be managed minutes wise of course. He will have to be switched on at both ends, even more so than he was with us.

"Even at 18, he was very good but there were moments when at both ends of the floor where either we had to teach or correct him on things. He'll be fine, he will be surrounded by fantastic coaches who will push him. He likes to be pushed as a player. He will have to improve on the defensive end. I think he will become a good defender.

"I look at some of the Aussies in the league right now, Ingles isn't this elite athlete that is running up and down, high flying and dunking on people. Josh is that similar kind of Ingles body type. Plays at a good, sound speed, has good strength, uses his length wisely on both ends of the floor and Josh will get better and better in that part of the game in how to adjust and play both offensively and defensively."

Henry added: "Josh has been used to be playing in FIBA rules. Now he will be playing in NBA rules. With the defensive rules in place with the NBA, you can't pack the paint like you can in FIBA, where you can really load up. That, coupled with the ability of the offensive players to have more freedom of movement, where in FIBA it's quite physical.

"In the NBL, freedom of movement can be impeded quite a bit with a hand check, body check or hold. Josh is going to have even more success in the pick-and-roll game at the NBA level. He had very good success with us.

"I think his height, ability to see the floor and ability to make team-mates better, in the NBA rules, are only going to compliment his game and help him grow."

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

If you want a true renaissance team, one that epitomises a city, look no further than Venezia.

From bankruptcy and the lower echelons of Italian football to a global fashion icon, the small side from the iconic city of Venice are the club on so many lips, attracting worldwide interest.

A football team on the water, literally, Venezia are setting trends with their must-have kits as they enjoy life back in Serie A for the first time in almost two decades, but it has not been an easy road for I Leoni Alati – the Winged Lions–, who resided in the depths of Serie D just five years ago.

Founded in 1907 and with their most significant achievement to date being victory in the 1940-41 Coppa Italia, Venezia were relegated from Serie B in 2005 and went bankrupt.

Businessman owner Maurizio Zamparini had left for Palermo in 2002, taking with him 12 players in a move dubbed locally as the "furto di Pergini" – the "theft of Pergine".

Venezia were re-founded twice – at the end of the 2008-09 and 2014-15 seasons – having been declared insolvent on both occasions. It led to the 2015 arrival of a group of American investors, and while they have been in the ascendency at Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo ever since, Venezia have soared to new heights under president Duncan Niederauer.

A former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer arrived in early 2020 and it coincided with Venezia going from Serie B battlers to Serie A newcomers after a breathtaking and dramatic play-off in May of this year, which led to the Venetian version of a street party – fans jumping into the canals and players celebrating on gondolas.

 In an interview with Stats Perform, Niederauer – whose Venezia have five points from seven rounds to start the 2021-22 campaign – said: "When we took over in early 2020, I think step one was just to survive in Serie B to be perfectly honest. The team was struggling in the second division. Then last season, from the outset, I thought we would be very, very competitive. I thought we built a very good team. I don't think the experts agreed with me, but we declared early in the season last year that I thought we could compete for a spot in the play-offs. The team backed that up and was really in the play-off discussion all season.

"Somewhat unexpectedly to just about everybody, we got through the play-off battles. One of the things we hoped to accomplish was to get to Serie A in two-three years. We're kind of a couple of years ahead of schedule. The good news is you're ahead of schedule. The other news when you're in Serie A for the first time in two decades, you probably don't have the infrastructure that you need, you don't have the organisational construct that you need and that was certainly true for us. While it's been very exciting to be in the first division, we've had a lot of work to do to try to get ourselves prepared as a team and organisation to be in the first division. That's where a lot of the focus was spent on in the summer. We had to upgrade the stadium, we had to add to the organisation and re-think the roster to be competitive in Serie A while respecting our approach and budget."

Venezia captured the attention of millions with their last-gasp play-off win over Cittadella – Paolo Zanetti's men were down a man and trailing 1-0 after 36 minutes, and appeared destined for another season in the second tier.

But, with virtually the last kick of the game, Riccardo Bocalon's strike three minutes into stoppage time salvaged a 1-1 draw and a 2-1 aggregate win to send Venezia back to Serie A for the first time since 2001-02.

It sparked wild scenes on the pitch as Niederauer celebrated promotion with Venezia. While the team exceeded expectations externally, their president always believed.

"We have a really different philosophy with this team. Our culture is very much one of a family. I was discouraged by many others from getting close to the players," Niederauer said. "I was told if you get close to the players, it will cloud your judgement and it won't work. I fundamentally disagree with that in any business I've ever run. If you take care of your people, they can do great things, right?

"I remember saying to the players early in the season, 'Just to be clear, I work for you, you don't work for me. You tell me what you need to be successful, I just want to clear all the clutter so you can play.' They really took it to heart and they knew they could count on me. I think what you saw was a group of guys, who throughout the season, believed more and more in themselves. It culminated in that evening in late May... the players on the field, I said, 'Guys, that was unbelievable'. They said, 'Pres, not really, that's what family does'. We didn't want the story to be about Pasquale Mazzocchi's red card but about our promotion to Serie A... I thought that was a pretty strong culture which benefited a lot.

"To be there in person. It's a weekend, my wife and I, we will never forget. It's our favourite city in the world. We were there together the night of the match. I held it together surprisingly well until I saw her on the field and then I burst into tears because I think I was just so proud of them for what they did. If you watch the celebration, it's not a group of people who sort of like each other, sort of know each other, it's a family celebrating a shared success. Lots of tears and joy. If I had a do-over, I don't think I'd jump in the canal again, but at the moment, the players were doing it and seemed like the right thing to do. We had been in it together, so how could I not do it? It was a surreal experience. The celebration over the weekend... I said to my wife, when we don't remember each other's names, we will remember floating down the canal during that parade because it's like no other celebration in the world. It's a long emotional answer, but it was a really, really special evening."

Having stepped into the precarious world of Italian football, Niederauer added: "People ask me, what other sporting ventures are you going to do in Europe and the answer is none. Our second home is in Italy. My wife and I spend a lot of time in Italy. Venice has been our favourite city for a long time.

"When the opportunity came up to do this and do something special for these kids and this city, I don't think we would've done this anywhere else to be honest. I wasn't on the hunt for a football team to run from the United States. I just thought all the stars aligned and it seemed like an opportunity to do something really, really special. The pay-off was watching these young men perform above everyone's expectations except ours. I said to them at the start of the season, 'Guys, you're really, really good. Don't let anyone tell you you're not good. You're a good team and if you play for each other like family plays for each other, you can do spectacular things this year.' That's what happened, it's not any more complicated than that."

Fast forward to this season and Venezia are riding an unprecedented wave. During the 2020-21 campaign, their popular Nike jerseys – both home and away – were a hot commodity, despite the team being a relative minnow.

But at a time when the jersey industry is booming, and fashion and football more entwined than ever, Venezia have hit record heights since switching to Italian manufacturer Kappa. All three jerseys – now collectors' items – were swiftly sold out.

While a strategic plan to turn heads on and off the pitch, it's something not even Niederauer could have anticipated following the collaboration with a brand closely tied to Italian football.

"If you're in the city like Venice which is at the centre of art, fashion and history, I think it's incumbent on us to do our best to have the club aligned with the virtues of the city and the strengths of the city," Niederauer said as he discussed the global branding and fashion-forward identity ahead of Monday's clash with Fiorentina.

"Step number two which was a little less obvious, I like and respect Nike a lot. The current CEO is someone I've known for a long time. In fairness to Nike, we weren't big enough as a small second division club in Italy that had not been particularly well run previously. I don't blame them for not spending a lot of time with us. If I'm honest, I probably would've made the same decision if I were Nike. It seemed like it was time for us to find a partner that was closer to home who we could really collaborate with and almost co-author the designs.

"I thought this year was a really, really important year to make a statement. We left it to the design team and the design team collaborated with Kappa. It was a little bit rushed, but you see the results of what they produced... we're about to drop the fourth jersey in a couple of weeks here. All three we have released are all in the top 20 globally. That was purposeful. I don't know if we will hit all the right tones again every year, but for this year, I thought it was really important we take some risks and go over the top to design something special. Kudos to the design teams. I had basically nothing to do with it except turn them loose. What I like about the third and fourth jerseys, both were down in collaboration with foundations which support sustainability in Venice. We think part of our purpose as a club is we have to be part of the community and part of the city. Venice is obviously beautiful but not without its challenges with climate change. Proceeds from the third and fourth jersey go towards those organisations. We've tried to position ourselves as a global brand. It's early, early days but the jerseys are helping us do that. Now it will come down to can we perform in Serie A and stick around for a while?"

A few years ahead of schedule, now is when Niederauer's ambitious plan of turning Venezia into a viable business clicks into gear, with the former Goldman Sachs banker leaning on his financial background as the club learn from past mistakes.

"Our philosophy is you do your best to leave every situation better than when you found it. That's already been accomplished. I think our next objective is to build a sustainable club that, I don't think is competing for Champions League in the next few years, but at least is a club that you come into every season not solely focused on salvation," he said, with Venezia since signing former Manchester United and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero as the club benefit from the picturesque city as a recruiting tool.

"You come into the season where you're expected to be a mid-table team. A mid-table team in Serie A given our investment approach and how we identify players, we have a long way to go to be as great as Atalanta have become at this. But if you built the foundation in the youth academy that we're doing and on your first team, and if you can get to that point where you're mid-table pretty predictable, I think we can run quite a profitable and sustainable franchise. We wouldn't look beyond that yet. We would have another decision to make. It would be arrogant to start thinking of those things before we prove ourselves. The next three years is about proving that the model works, proving we can stay in Serie A, proving that we can be a mid-table team and then hopefully start to reap all the seeds we planted in the youth academies, which were grossly underinvested."

The plan for Venezia goes beyond the first team, with the increased infrastructure leading to the establishment of their first ever women's team on top of a revamped stadium and facilities – a new headquarters set to open next September – as Niederauer bets on the future.

Niederauer – whose Venezia could draw three consecutive Serie A games for the first time since April 1962 – added: "You have to be conscious about the past because if you don't look back a bit to understand what you can learn from history, you're making a big mistake. Our approach was really simple and I think we were fortunate in the pandemic because as a Serie B team who weren't really drawing a lot of fans and didn't have a global brand, the revenue that ticket sales and merchandise were accounting for before we really organised and set ourselves on a better path, was small enough that it didn't poke a big hole in our boat last year. Our salaries were well under control – I think we had the 13th or 14th highest payroll in Serie B. We are pretty thoughtful about it. Our approach this season hasn't changed too much. We obviously want to be competitive and would like to stay, so you're willing to spend a bit of money to do that. I would bet you that our payroll is the lowest in the league. I would bet you our coach is not only the youngest coach but probably one of the lowest paid, but we think he is one of the best and that's why he has a four-year contract. We believe in him and are willing to bet on him. The players deserve continuity. We're not the type that would change coaches if the team isn't performing. That's on us more than it's on him – we are the ones that assembled the roster. It's up to Zanetti to do the best he can with it.

"We didn't overspend. We stuck to our strategy – we find young talented players. We did spend a little money acquiring some of them? Yes. My background would suggest that if you buy undervalued assets in the long run, as long as you take a long view, your returns will be just fine. That's what we convey in every decision. These are long-term investments. We didn't panic when we lost the first two games of the season. When you have a strategy, you don't divert from it and you don't let your emotions get the best of you. I don't find it that complicated. We have a challenge ahead of us. Serie A is a great league but I think we've built a really good roster. We're improving with every match. I like our chances of surviving and then the sky is the limit after that."

 

"Last year, at the start of the season, in Italian football everyone talks about salvation," he continued, with Venezia boasting the youngest player in Serie A this season with at least one goal and one assist – 19-year-old American sensation Gianluca Busio. "I said, 'Guys, I know I'm going to sound a lot like Ted Lasso here, I apologise, but we're not going to talk about salvation'. And they're like, 'Pres, what do you mean? We all talk about salvation.' I said, 'I'm going to stand up and say you're a play-off team, I believe that you are. I believe you will be in the conversation for promotion this year. So if that's our goal, why would we talk about salvation? We're not going to talk about salvation, I don't want you talking about it in your interviews and I won't in my interviews other than to dismiss it.' They were completely confused.

"At the beginning of this season, I said, 'I'm not a hypocrite, but this year we talk about salvation. This year it would not be realistic not to talk about salvation. So this year it's OK to talk about salvation.' But last year, we did not say a word about it on purpose because I thought our ambition should not just be about to survive but to win. I think they got it. It's a little bit unorthodox for Italy, but I think we have a few people starting to mimic what we're doing.

"There's a lot of people betting on this project and I like our chances, if we can stick to the long-term view and not waver from it, I really like what we're building here."

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Kai at Leverkusen, it is a sign to stand up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continue to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – it is the best ratio of minutes per goal involvement of all players in Europe's top-five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?

Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.

But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.

Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.

At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.

But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.

But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.

 

Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.

It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.

Young Lions setting the example

Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.

The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.

But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).

 

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.

The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.

While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.

Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.

Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.

Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.

 

Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).

His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.

While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.

Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.

But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.

Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.

He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.

 

Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.

Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.

Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.

While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.

After 15 years without success on the international stage, Italy could win a second title in three months this week as the 2021 Nations League concludes.

That may come as a surprise to some – after all, given how recent Euro 2020 was and the fact the Nations League Finals are taking place amid a busy World Cup qualification period, it wouldn't be unsurprising if most people had completely forgotten about UEFA's secondary competition.

But here we are, it's Finals week and hosts Italy have themselves a wonderful opportunity to clinch another trophy, with Portugal winning the inaugural competition – also in front of home crowds – two years ago.

France and Belgium will contest the second semi-final, with Italy going up against Spain first on Wednesday in a repeat of their Euro 2020 last-four clash, which Roberto Mancini's men won on penalties.

Italy head into the tournament amid a world-record 37-match unbeaten run, last month's draw with Switzerland and the subsequent 5-0 win over Lithuania taking them clear of Brazil and La Roja.

Of course, the Spain team that had previously equalled Brazil's world record back in 2009 were in the throes of their most successful period ever, and Italy will hope that's a sign of things to come for them.

 

Spain's semi-final hurdle

That legendary Spain side saw their 35-match unbeaten streak – a run that included Euro 2008 success – ended in 2009 by the United States.

While the Confederations Cup was never really seen as a hugely important title, hence FIFA pulling the plug on it in 2019, the USA's 2-0 win in the semi-finals 12 years ago was a fairly big deal.

Jozy Altidore's opener was the first goal Spain had conceded in 451 minutes of play and only their third concession in 17 matches, and it was added to by Clint Dempsey.

On the 10th anniversary, Spanish publication AS referred to it as "one of the biggest upsets in football history". A little hyperbolic? Sure, but it certainly was a shock.

For starters, it remains Spain's sole defeat in five meetings with the USA, while it's still their only loss to a CONCACAF nation in 23 matches.

But perhaps the key fact from Spain's perspective was coach Vicente del Bosque's assertion of it only being a "little step backward" stood the test of time – a little over a year later, Spain were World champions for the first time and then they followed that up with Euro 2012 success.

 

That made them the first team since the foundation of the World Cup in 1930 to win three successive major international titles.

It was an iconic side that was routinely filled with players who'll always be remembered as all-time greats for La Roja.

The foundation of their ascension to greatness lay in that unbeaten run, and Italy will a similar status awaits them, regardless of how long they stay undefeated for.

Star quality

Many took for granted just how many remarkable players that Spain squad contained – it's unlikely they'll ever produce the same collective greatness in such a small period.

Xavi was the metronome and, as such, a key component. He played in all but two of the 35 matches in that unbeaten run, with Sergio Ramos (31), David Villa and Iker Casillas (both 29) next on the list.

But when it came to goalscoring, one man above all was the crucial cog: Villa.

A lethal striker for Valencia, Barcelona and – to a slightly lesser extent – Atletico Madrid at the peak of his powers, Villa scored 23 goals during La Roja's famous run, almost three times as many as anyone else. Fernando Torres was next with eight.

 

Luis Enrique's current team could do with a player of Villa's skillset, given the dearth of quality available to him in that position. After all, his squad for this week has no recognised centre-forward in it, with Ferran Torres arguably the closest to fitting the bill.

Cesc Fabregas was the man supplying the best service for Spain's goals in that period, with his 12 assists the most impressive return, while Xavi and Andres Iniesta had seven apiece.

Spain's incredible run compromised of 32 wins and just three draws, while they scored 73 times and conceded only 11.

A team, no superstars

Of course, Italy's world-record effort has already proven successful, with the 37-match run including their Euro 2020 triumph.

And in certain ways, it has actually been more fruitful than Spain's, with the Azzurri scoring 93 goals and letting in just 12, though nine of those matches were drawn.

While Spain spent 174 minutes trailing, Italy have had even less time behind in matches, just 109 minutes, and 65 of those were in one match – the Euro 2020 final against England.

Italy have been much less reliant on a single goalscoring outlet as well, which is perhaps explained by the theory they are less a collection of superstars but instead a tremendous team unit.

Ciro Immobile is their top scorer over the past 37 matches, his haul of eight insignificant compared to Villa's 23, whereas Lorenzo Insigne has been their most reliable source of creativity with seven assists.

But 10 players have scored at least four times for Italy, compared to only five in that Spain team.

Roberto Mancini's comfort with rotating and being able to adapt to different groups of players has really shone through.

 

While the Spain side of Luis Aragones and then Del Bosque had 11 players feature 24 or more times, only five Italians have played that often in Mancini's run, while the most he has used any single starting XI is twice – Spain's most-used line-up was put out four times.

But the important thing most people remember when looking back at that Spain squad is not any specific unbeaten run in itself, but the wider context and history that streak was a part of.

Similarly with Italy, the vast majority of people in 10 or 15 years arguably won't give much thought to their world-record unbeaten run because winning Euro 2020 is a bigger deal.

But Mancini and Italy will surely be hoping that was just the start of a period of domination, one that Spain's unbeaten streak seemingly foretold.

 

While Nations League success isn't going to elevate them to iconic status, it does provide another opportunity to continue building on a winning mentality ahead of next year's World Cup, and the fact they are unbeaten in 61 competitive matches on home soil since 1999 is a good omen.

Succeed in Qatar and then we can start to talk about Italy's legacy.

After another busy off-season at Bayer Leverkusen, many would have tipped a slow start with a new face in the dugout.

With Peter Bosz relieved of his duties, Simon Rolfes and Leverkusen turned to Gerardo Seoane on the back of three consecutive Swiss Super League titles at the helm of Young Boys.

Star winger Leon Bailey also headlined the departures at BayArena, a year on from Kai Havertz's big-money move to Chelsea. Factor in major international tournaments prior to the 2021-22 campaign – Euro 2020, the Copa America and the Olympic Games – and it made for a challenging pre-season.

But Leverkusen have hit the ground running in the Bundesliga – a 4-0 rout of Borussia Monchengladbach and wins over Augsburg (4-1), Stuttgart (3-1) and Mainz (1-0) helping Die Werkself to second place through six games, three points behind leaders and champions Bayern Munich.

Leverkusen sporting director Rolfes told Stats Perform: "We're happy with the start of the season because it was a difficult summer for us but also the other teams who have a lot of international players. This summer with the Copa America, Euros, Olympic Games... there were a lot of players from us involved. A player from us won the Copa America and Olympics, so only the Euros we missed.

"That's why the pre-season was really difficult. The players step in, week by week, and I think one week before the start of the season, we had our final squad together. The transfer market due to coronavirus was also very different and late. That's why I'm very happy. We had good opponents."

"We were not happy with the last season," said Rolfes, whose Leverkusen finished sixth in 2020-21 while losing in the DFB-Pokal last 16 and Europa League round of 32. "A very good start but the end was difficult. We reached international competition okay, but we are ambitious and want more this season. You can imagine the Champions League is a big goal but also the DFB-Pokal and Europa League to go further.

"What's very important for our club is development. One thing is performance and also the result at the end of the season, but development is very important. Develop the players, make them better. Then we have the chance to also perform today in the best way. We have a lot of young players – we want to develop them to their best level. That's also good for the performance today."

 

Seoane's 13 points after six Bundesliga matches represent the best record of any Leverkusen head coach since Sami Hyypia (15) in 2013. For the North Rhine-Westphalia outfit, it is their best start to a top-flight season since 2019-20 (also 13), while they have only scored more goals after six matches in 2008-09 (18) than in the current campaign (16).

Leverkusen have exceeded their expected goals (xG) tally by almost eight goals this Bundesliga campaign – 7.7 (16 goals at 8.3 xG), a league best.

"One important point is football knowledge," Rolfes replied when asked what attracted Leverkusen to 42-year-old Swiss coach Seoane. "Also the leadership, that's very interesting. The leadership of the group as a head coach is very important. If you're in training, the assistant coaches can do things. If you don't feel so comfortable or don't have so many qualities, you can find the right team.

"The leadership as a head coach, you must have. That's a big strength, besides the football knowledge he has. He speaks six different languages – very good for an international squad to speak with the players in their language. That helps a lot to get the right connection to take them on their way and development."

Under Seoane, Leverkusen play a more patient brand of football, allowing their opposition more time on the ball in the Bundesliga rather than consistently pressing high up the field.

Through the first six games last season, Leverkusen allowed 11.1 passes per defensive action, compared to 12.2 with Seoane in charge, as Leverkusen look to instead create counter-attacks from deeper positions – their averaging starting distance at 38.6 metres from their own goal, compared to 42.2m previously. Their 17 direct attacks this term dwarf last year's six at the same stage.

Leverkusen recorded 8.7 high turnovers per match through six rounds last season, compared to 5.3 this time around, but they have scored four goals from such situations already in the Bundesliga – at least twice as many as any other side and more than any other team in Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22. They actually had fewer goals (three) from high turnovers after six games last time out, proving more ruthless this term.

Still, Leverkusen's philosophy remains the same, despite a new coach and altered approach, and it will continue to be the case with Seoane and beyond under Rolfes.

"We choose players, signing as a club," Rolfes said as he discussed the need to adopt a clear vision, instead of changing philosophy with every coach. "We sign the players for a specific style to get the most out of the squad, the player and to develop them in the best way. If you play in the totally other direction than you want to develop the players, you will not succeed. That's important to have a clear vision as a club. How you want to play and then choose the right coach in the best case.

"Every head coach of a pro team has their specific style. That's not the problem, but the main direction has to be clear. That's my task at the end to choose the right coach for the main direction. And then, the individual approach or quality of the coach, it's important you get something fresh in the club, team. The main direction is important and the club has to define the vision."

Leverkusen are one of Germany's biggest clubs, but not since the 1993 DFB-Pokal have they celebrated silverware.

They have come close on numerous occasions in the Bundesliga – runners-up in 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2010-11 – while they also reached the 2001-02 Champions League final, succumbing to Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane's iconic volley in Glasgow. There were Pokal final appearances in 2001-02, 2008-09 and 2019-20, too.

But an exciting and entertaining Leverkusen, even in the post-Havertz era, are on the right track amid Bayern's domestic and European dominance.

And that is thanks to teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

The 18-year-old prodigy has continued to shine, filling the huge void left by countryman Havertz, amid rave reviews from across Europe.

Wirtz, who was prised from boyhood club Cologne last year, is the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 10 goals.

Leverkusen's Wirtz has already been directly involved in eight Bundesliga goals (four goals, four assists) in 292 minutes across the first six matchdays in 2021-22. Only Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland has had more direct goal involvements this term than the teenager.

Since Opta's detailed data collection began in 2004-05, only Patrick Helmes in 2008-09 and Stefan Kiessling in 2013-14 had previously registered as many direct goal involvements for Leverkusen after the first six matches to a Bundesliga season

Setting the standard across Europe, the new face of Leverkusen averages 37 minutes per goal involvement, which ranks best among players in the top five leagues (minimum 100 minutes played), ahead of Madrid superstar Karim Benzema (41 minutes). The 34-year-old Frenchman is the only one of those players to have exceeded his xG by a larger margin (4.8) than Wirtz (3.2) this season.

Already capped three times at international level, Wirtz has scored in four straight games, including Leverkusen's Europa League win against Ferencvaros on matchday one.

 

As Wirtz soars to new heights, Leverkusen are reaping the rewards of a unified philosophy and their faith in the midfielder.

"I think it's a real good example of how the club is working and how the club is thinking," Rolfes, who made almost 400 appearances for Leverkusen between 2005 and 2015, said. "The situation with Kai and Florian. Florian was here or came in the winter [of 2020] and made eight appearances after the lockdown with the first team. Then at the end of the [2019-20] season, Kai went to Chelsea.

"For sure, we got a lot of money for Kai, but we decided to focus on Florian Wirtz for the number 10 position. We don't sign any player as a replacement for Kai. For sure, we had some money to spend on an experienced player in the number 10 position, but we didn't do that. We said okay, the young guy will be the future and has the potential to replace or play very good in that position. We have him already in the club, so we trust him and try to develop him. That's why we sign players in other positions, where we needed improvement.

"That was a big sign for the player and for the chance you have as a young player in Leverkusen. If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club."

Wirtz's exploits have not gone unnoticed, however, with Bayern reportedly trying to sign the Germany international, while the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have also been linked.

But Leverkusen have no plans to sell as Rolfes – who first watched Wirtz as a 13-year-old – added: "He has a long contract until 2026. We do not have to sell players early. We want to develop him, develop our team and club with him.

"So, there are rumours, okay. You cannot avoid that, but it's not our goal to sell him. The players at one time or point in their career make the next step to world-class level, that's okay for us, but not too early. He is a really young player. That was also with Kai – he was also extraordinary and some years with us and then maybe there's the next step. But not too early.

In February, Leverkusen extended their partnership with Stats Perform for the use of Edge Analysis – the most sophisticated football match preparation tool available.

Powered by tracking and event data, Edge Analysis applies unique AI models to unlock objective, dynamic and predictive insights to enhance pre and post-match analysis processes, delivering unique performance insights on all upcoming opponents. The platform uses over 100 AI-driven KPIs to deliver eight unique patented AI models, delivering objective insights within seconds, all linked to video.

"Data/sport technology is very important for us because I think there's huge potential in the future," Rolfes said of the deal. "Data will be better and better because the cameras/GPS tracking provides more precise data.

"We have now not only data in the computer and no one has the time to analyse it, we have the tools with AI, and find the right KPIs for you. That's very important for the match preparation and for the scouting process to be fast, really precise. That's why we invest in that topic here. That's through partnership and investing in our staff to get knowledge, to develop because, at the moment, we are only at the beginning. That's why you have to invest, to be a pioneer or leader in that topic."

After three long years, the wait for another Ryder Cup ends this week as the United States and Europe take to the fairways and greens of Whistling Straits. 

Europe are the holders but the USA start as favourites for many observers, with home advantage and a formidable-looking team. 

There will be shocks along the way and there will be some expected stars of the show who end up taking a back seat as unlikely heroes emerge. 

Captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington will have their own ideas of who might be best placed to make a telling impression. 

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players who could make a huge impact across the weekend in Wisconsin. 

UNITED STATES: Super Spieth ready to show his teeth

Jordan Spieth has been a resurgent force this year, finishing second at the Open Championship and in a tie for third at the Masters, while at the other two majors he finished a respectable 19th and 30th. 

The American also ended a four-year wait for a victory on the PGA Tour with a sweet win in his home state at the Texas Open in April and is primed to cap a fine year with a strong Ryder Cup. 

Spieth has mentioned in the build-up that he loves the course set-up at Whistling Straits, which he feels provides scoring opportunities on almost every hole. 

The 28-year-old also referenced his previous Ryder Cup success. He has collected eight points from a possible 11 in fourballs/foursomes, a 73 per cent scoring rate. Only Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have a better ratio among USA players in the team format. 

UNITED STATES: Nice guy Finau just the man for Stricker's superstars

American teams in the past have been accused of…well…not exactly getting along. Having the ultimate good guy in the team is sure to boost morale and Tony Finau certainly fits that mould. 

But make no mistake, Finau is a guy with real pedigree – even if sometimes he hasn't quite been able to convert that into wins (his triumph at the Northern Trust last month was only his second PGA Tour title and first in five years). 

On his Ryder Cup debut, he was one of few bright notes for Team USA, with Finau winning two of his three matches – including a singles win over the otherwise unflappable Tommy Fleetwood, setting the second-best points ratio (66.7 per cent) in the American team after Justin Thomas (80 per cent, four points out of a possible five). 

Moreover, at the 2015 US PGA Championship, Finau finished 10th having shot four sub-par rounds at Whistling Straits. Finau is the sort of character who can really flourish at a Ryder Cup, particularly with home support behind him. 

 

EUROPE: Europe eye trophy Rahm raid

Jon Rahm is the man for the big occasion. He is the only player to have secured a top-10 finish at all four majors this year, while he is also Europe's most recent victor at one of the leading events, having won the U.S. Open. 

The world number one's Ryder Cup debut did not go entirely to plan in 2018, as he won only one of his three matches, but that triumph was in a singles match-up with Tiger Woods – only Tiger's second loss in the format. 

Now established at the forefront of the sport, Rahm will expect to be the man to lead Europe to glory with an improved all-round showing, justifying his status as the bookmakers' favourite to be the leading points scorer at Whistling Straits. 

EUROPE: Viktor sounds like a winner

Belgium's Thomas Pieters was the top points scorer five years ago at Hazeltine, scoring four points but ending on the losing side. With Norway's Viktor Hovland relishing his debut on the team, could there be another surprise leader on the points board? 

Hovland played college golf for Oklahoma State and has been a familiar figure on the PGA Tour, so playing in America is second nature. He was low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2019, won the U.S. Amateur, and has come of age since, jumping to a career-high world ranking of number 10 in August. 

Eight top-10 finishes and just one missed cut since the turn of the year show what he brings, and that level of consistent play is bound to appeal to captain Harrington. 

"I'd like to think I have some fans out there that maybe won't necessarily boo against us," Hovland said this week. "But if they do end up doing that, that's what they're going to do. We're still going to play golf, and if they do end up doing that, that means we're doing something good." 

For so long, Juventus dominated Serie A and Milan. 

Juve won nine successive Scudetti before being dethroned by Inter last season. Gianluigi Buffon was involved in eight of them. 

But it's a period of change in Turin, where Wojciech Szczesny is well and truly under the microscope after an error-riddled start to the 2021-22 season. 

As Juve struggle defensively, form could hardly be more contrasting heading into Sunday's blockbuster showdown in the northwest of Italy. 

Milan have continued to be a solid defensive outfit, winning their opening three league fixtures, and the resurgent Rossoneri could strike an early dagger to the heart of the Old Lady.

 

Woeful Woj as Allegri tries to avoid unwanted record 

"I think Juventus will regret not signing Donnarumma for a long time." 

That was Mino Raiola – the agent of Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma – speaking to Rai Sport on Friday. Based on what has transpired so far, he is right. 

The star Italy goalkeeper had been tipped to swap Milan for Juve in the off-season before moving to the French capital on a free transfer. Juve must be shaking their heads after watching Szczesny's torrid start to the season under Massimiliano Allegri. 

Allegri has had his hands full since returning to Allianz Stadium after two seasons away, replacing Andrea Pirlo. The title-winning boss is trying to navigate the exit of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. If the departure of the almost-irreplaceable Ronaldo was not hard enough, Szczesny has made life even more difficult. 

The former Arsenal keeper has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, his two howlers against Udinese and Napoli the catalyst for Juve's winless start to the campaign. 

The Bianconeri could go without a victory in their first four Serie A seasonal matches for the fourth time in their history, after 1961-62, 1955-56 and 1942-43. In those campaigns, Juve did not go on to win the title. They have never lost three of the first four Serie A games in a season. 

They have conceded five goals in three matches and are yet to keep a clean sheet domestically, shipping goals in each of their past 17 league games – only twice have Juve conceded in more consecutive Serie A fixtures (19 in 2010 and 21 in 1955). That 17-game run is the worst of its kind across the top-five European leagues since March. 

 

Szczesny's numbers do not make for pretty reading.

Since 2018-19, the Poland international has conceded 90 goals in 90 Serie A appearances with expected goals against (xGA) of 99.88, suggesting he should have let in nearly 10 goals more. For some comparison, Buffon's xGA-goals conceded difference – goals he prevented, in other words –was 2.62 from 17 matches, so Szczesny holds his own there.

The numbers do not get much better, though. A maligned figure from his days at Arsenal, Szczesny has shipped 99 goals in 107 Serie A games for Juve. Since 1994-95, his average of 0.93 goals conceded is worse than ex-Juve goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar (0.70 from 46 goals conceded in 66 games), Buffon (0.76 from 373 conceded in 489 matches), Michelangelo Rampulla (0.85 from 33 conceded in 39 fixtures) and Angelo Peruzzi (0.85 from 120 conceded in 141 appearances).

Szczesny – with a save percentage of 72 and an average of 2.49 stops per 90 minutes – has committed three errors leading to goals during his time with Juve in Serie A. Since 2004-05, only Buffon managed more (13), albeit in 391 games.

This season, Szczesny's expected goals against is 5.86 through three matches. Milan counterpart Mike Maignan's figure stands at 2.33.

When Milan refused to meet Donnarumma's demands, they wasted little time turning to Maignan, who had just led Lille to a shock Ligue 1 title after upstaging PSG.

Maignan has been a steady presence in Milan with a joint-league-high two clean sheets, while the France international tops the list in save percentage (90), well ahead of Szczesny (66.67).

 

Kjaer spearheading Milan back to summit

While Juve duo Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt lick their wounds, Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori continue to flex their muscles at San Siro.

In the era of three points per win, Milan have won each of their first four Serie A seasonal games only twice: in 1995-96 under Fabio Capello and last season with Stefano Pioli at the helm. The Rossoneri won the title in 1996, while they finished second to Inter in 2020-21.

High-flying Milan are on the cusp of matching that feat thanks to the help of Kjaer and Tomori and perhaps even more than that as the resurgent powerhouse dream of a first Scudetto since 2011.

Kjaer and Tomori have formed an unlikely but rock-solid partnership at the heart of Milan's defence. Pioli's side have only conceded one goal to start the Serie A season. Since last May, Milan have the most clean sheets in the big five European leagues (seven in eight matches).

The pair's form has left captain Alessio Romagnoli sidelined and considering his future – not something you would have anticipated when Kjaer arrived following a brief spell at Atalanta, initially on loan in 2020.

Kjaer has come into his own in Milan, establishing himself as a key member on and off the pitch under Pioli, tallying 178 clearances in the league since January 2020 – a number only behind Torino's Bremer (219), Omar Colley of Sampdoria (214), Fiorentina star Nikola Milenkovic (205), ex-Viola centre-back German Pezzella (191) and Lazio's Francesco Acerbi (190) among defenders.

 

The 32-year-old Denmark international has also provided security in the air, with his 93 headed clearances the fourth most among defenders since January 2020, after Milenkovic (122), Bremer (119) and Colley (103).

"It happens a lot with defenders that they kind of find their own style later on. That has happened with Simon," former Denmark international Jesper Olsen told Stats Perform.

"You're playing at a top team and expected to do really well. We know your last game played doesn't count anymore, it's the next one. He just seems very settled."

Tomori, who completed a permanent switch from Champions League holders Chelsea in July after impressing on loan, scored the last time these two teams met – a 3-0 victory in Turin in May.

Milan have won two of their most recent three Serie A matches against Juventus, as many as in their previous 17 (D1 L14).

Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez had the biggest moments of their careers – their lives, surely – coming up in a matter of moments, but both of the teenage sensations seemed calm and collected as they fulfilled some final media duties prior to heading out onto court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"I can't wait to get stuck in," said Raducanu, the first qualifier in history to reach a grand slam final. "I think we're just going to go out there and have fun," said Fernandez, vanquisher of US Open champions past over the course of the last two weeks.

Those questions were preceded by a commemoration of an event that occurred in New York 20 years ago to the day, the players waiting in the tunnel as tributes were paid to the lives lost on September 11, 2001, when the towers fell and the world changed.

Neither Fernandez nor Raducanu were born. Indeed, the latter does not turn 19 until November, and her opponent celebrated her 19th on Monday, a day before beating Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals.

Whether down to youthful exuberance, or the fearlessness that inexperience can bring, both players – who last met in the second round of the juniors at Wimbledon in 2018 – lived up to their promises in the pre-match interviews, to the benefit of an audience that can only have been glued to whatever screen they watched on, not to mention the 23,000-strong crowd in attendance at Flushing Meadows.

It was a final that could have gone either way, yet ultimately in the moments it really mattered most, it was Raducanu who came out on top, a 6-4 6-3 victory sealing one of the most unlikely successes of all time.

The tone was set immediately in the first women's slam final between two unseeded players. Raducanu applying pressure and breaking serve to edge ahead.

But Fernandez has had to battle back against the odds throughout her incredible run, beating defending champion Naomi Osaka, former world number one Angelique Kerber and current number two Aryna Sabalenka. The scores were level two games later.

Raducanu had not dropped a set throughout her run, but at 30-0 down in the fifth game, it appeared to be swinging in Fernandez's favour. Four straight points from the Briton ensured that was not the case.

Special tennis was on show. Quality, control and poise worthy of players way beyond their years. After an hour, something had to give, and it was Raducanu who, at the fourth time of asking, broke serve to seal the set.

What did Fernandez have left? Was this the beginning of the end for the youngest player to beat more than one top-five opponent at the same slam since Serena Williams saw off Monica Seles, Lindsay Devenport and Martina Hingis in 1999?

Yet Raducanu found herself 2-1 and a break down three games into set two.

Fernandez could not capitalise and Raducanu returned from an 82 mile-an-hour serve to get back on the front foot. An exquisite forehand winner saw her break for 4-2.

Raducanu's Wimbledon came to an end in tears at the fourth-round stage. When she moved to within a game of grand slam immortality, there was hardly a flicker of emotion.

Fernandez said she was out to have fun, though, and a smile was back on her face as two championship points went begging for Raducanu, who then skidded across the baseline, cutting open her knee in the process.

A medical time out was required and Fernandez's joy turned to frustration. It might have been crucial, Raducanu saving two break points before an outstanding ace secured her place in history.

Ten matches, no sets dropped – Williams was the last player, in 2014, to win the US Open without dropping a set. Raducanu is also now the first woman to win a title so early in her slam career, in just her second major appearance. 

Nine years and one day since Andy Murray won his first major on the same court, a new British hero emerged.

Virginia Wade, the last British woman to reach the Flushing Meadows final in the Open Era and the 1968 champion, watched on as the iconic Billie Jean King handed the trophy over to a superstar in the making.

Big names were absent from Flushing Meadows this year, but Raducanu and Fernandez served up a final, and a result, for the ages.

Kylian Mbappe remained at Paris Saint-Germain beyond the end of the transfer window, but his long-term future may not lie in the French capital.

The World Cup winner is a free agent at the end of the season and is reportedly ready to move.

Real Madrid, who bid for Mbappe at the start of this campaign, appear his most likely destination, but far less predictable is his potential replacement at PSG.

The Ligue 1 giants have months to plan their next move, so Stats Perform breaks down the possible options to fill Mbappe's big boots.

 

ERLING HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund remained firm in their stance of keeping hold of Haaland in the most recent transfer window, despite some heavyweight clubs reportedly showing an interest as deadline day approached. That interest will only increase in 2022 as the Norwegian has a widely reported €75million release clause that comes into effect at the end of the season. 

Landing Haaland would mean PSG replacing one of the world's best young goal-getters with another player of equivalent standing, the 21-year-old having scored 63 goals in 64 games since his Dortmund debut in January 2020, compared to 54 in 66 matches for Mbappe in all competitions.

HARRY KANE

Following Manchester City's failed pursuit of his signature, Kane announced towards the end of the transfer window he was staying put at Tottenham. City's loss – assuming they are not prepared to go back in for the England captain, as Pep Guardiola recently hinted at – could be PSG's gain.

A reunion with his former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino in Paris would appear to make a lot of sense, if PSG could stump up the huge fee that Tottenham would still insist upon next year. Having finished as Premier League top scorer in three separate campaigns – one of only three players to do so along with Thierry Henry (four times) and Alan Shearer – he will feel he deserves his move to an elite club that can challenge for major honours.

 

LAUTARO MARTINEZ

Lionel Messi and Pochettino will know all about the qualities of their fellow Argentinian, who has shone brighter by the season for Inter over the past three years. At the age of 24 and having been linked with the likes of Barcelona, Tottenham and Man City, Martinez is reportedly on the brink of signing a new deal with the reigning Serie A champions, which could make PSG's life a lot more difficult when it comes to any negotiations.

Whether he is quite of the level to take the place of Mbappe is debatable, and this year should prove telling, with Martinez facing a greater onus to score heavily after Romelu Lukaku's departure from Inter. He has one goal in one appearance this term, a goal-per-game return he will be looking to maintain over the course of 2021-22.

ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI

While the likes of Messi, Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann all changed clubs during the transfer window, Lewandowski stayed put at Bayern Munich despite suggestions he was seeking a new challenge elsewhere. With Bayern under no pressure to sell, and the prolific striker having two seasons to run on his contract, a move away this year never seemed a realistic prospect.

But it will be a different matter in nine months' time and PSG could do a lot worse than go all out for the Poland international, even if he is now 33 years of age. Having last term scored 41 times in the Bundesliga – breaking Gerd Muller's single-season record – Lewandowski has maintained his lofty standards in the opening weeks of the new campaign with 10 goals in his first six matches for club and country, going a long way to strengthening his argument of being the best out-and-out striker around.

MOHAMED SALAH

Salah is in an identical position to Lewandowski insofar as the Egypt forward will be about to enter the final 12 months of his contract come the end of the campaign. After previously flirting with LaLiga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, PSG have their work cut out persuading Salah to make the move to Ligue 1 instead.

Should they manage that, though, they will have one of Europe's top attacking talents from the past four years. Indeed, since joining Liverpool from Roma ahead of the 2017-18 season, the 29-year-old's tally of 97 goals has been bettered by only four players in Europe's top five leagues: Ciro Immobile (104), Ronaldo (107), Messi (125) and Lewandowski (131).

 

DUSAN VLAHOVIC

The 21-year-old Serbian came of age in Serie A in the 2020-21 campaign, scoring 21 of Fiorentina's 47 goals to finish fourth in the league's scoring charts and earn the division's Under-23 MVP award.

While not quite in the same category as some of the others on this list, Vlahovic may well be the hottest property around come next June as he already has three goals in three appearances for his club in all competitions this term. 

RICHARLISON

Neymar's Brazil strike partner is another who has been touted for a move to Paris since Madrid launched their Mbappe offensive last month. Everton made clear that they were not interested in selling Richarlison in August, but that may change should PSG be prepared to spend big once again.

Now into his fourth season at Goodison Park, Richarlison has yet to score more than 15 Premier League goals in a campaign for the Toffees, but at the age of 24, he has gained huge experience and was a key member of Brazil's recent Olympic gold medal-winning squad in Tokyo. 

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