In what should have been the opening week of Wimbledon, Stats Perform News revisits an interview with analyst Craig O'Shannessy.

 

"By the end of that match, Rafa's mind was scrambled eggs."

Craig O'Shannessy was part of Dustin Brown's coaching team when the German qualifier sensationally eliminated two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal at the All England Club in 2015.

Through numbers, patterns and data, Australian pioneer O'Shannessy orchestrated the gameplan to send Nadal packing in the second round almost five years ago.

"After the match, I described that as organised chaos," O'Shannessy told Stats Perform News prior to the Australian Open in January. "A lot of times with Dustin it's pure chaos. Sometimes he wins with it, sometimes he loses. What gelled was we organised his chaos so that people didn't know him, would've looked at that thinking all hell is breaking loose. Whereas I'm watching the match going 'he is running the patterns that we talked about perfectly'.

"It's about taking away what Rafa wanted to do. It's about attacking him early on the point, it's about attacking him wide of the forehand, going after returns simply because you know where the serve is going, about drop shots and bringing him in. It's just about messing with his mind and making it very unclear."

O'Shannessy – recognised as a world leader in teaching and analysis – has continued to transform the sport. He teamed up with Novak Djokovic as his chief strategist in 2017 and helped the Serb rise back to the top with four grand slams in three years.

Now working with 2019 US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini, Jan-Lennard Struff, Alexei Popyrin and Tennis Canada, O'Shannessy crunches the numbers for his players.

Struff – with mastermind O'Shannessy in his box – threatened to derail Djokovic's quest for a record-extending eighth Australian Open title before the defending champion fought hard to survive in the opening round in Melbourne, where he eventually hoisted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup aloft.

"Every single match the player receives a pre-match report that has text, specific details about what the players like to do, I'll put in a bunch of numbers, tables and graphs particularly on serve patterns and rally length, then video," he said. "You just keep hammering away and supporting the winning strategy in as many different ways as you can."

At the forefront of analytics in tennis, how further can data go?

"Still a long away. We're only scratching the surface," O'Shannessy said. "There's a lot of numbers and data that we see but still don't know exactly what it means. The next five years will be incredibly important and we'll know way more than we do now. We're just at the start of the journey."

On data and patterns, O'Shannessy added: "For example, when you're returning, you can't cover everything. Players that try to cover everything, basically end up covering nothing. You look at it by the point score, if a player is at 30-30, they really need the point. If they're at 40-15, they don't necessarily need the point.

"So the players will have the tendency to gravitate to certain locations when they need that point and if you're sitting there waiting for it, all of a sudden the advantage of that point gets completely turned around. Instead of the returner being unbalanced, the server is off balance because the return is coming back harder and faster. They're on defence instead of offence.

"Early in my coaching career, I naturally put a big emphasis on the opponent, the idea being you're going to play 50 matches in a year and you may only play two or three where you think you've played incredible. The other 47 it's going to be your B or C game that triumphs, so the more you can understand it's not about you playing phenomenal tennis, it's about making them play bad. That mentality takes the pressure off and delivers it to the other side of the court."

Then there is artificial intelligence. Stats Perform harnesses the true power of sports data by leveraging advancements in AI to generate the industry's richest insights, though it is relatively untapped in tennis.

"AI is able to crunch some very big data and make sense of it," O'Shannessy added. "The ability to do forecasting through there about percentages and situations. I'm already looking at the best way to incorporate AI and the end result to basically help players win more matches."

World number 34 Struff also shared his thoughts on AI and numbers in an interview with Stats Perform News in April.

"Yes of course," Struff said when asked if AI will become more important in tennis. "I don't know exactly what the other players are doing on that area. You are always trying to hide these things. Nobody wants to talk about what he is doing, how his fitness training looks like and such things.

"Everybody is trying to hide himself, so the opponents don't see if certain things are working out or not. This is to prevent the other guys from copying certain things and actually catching up. But this is definitely going to come."

Bayern Munich ran out 4-2 winners in the DFB-Pokal final to complete their domestic double and hand an unfitting potential farewell to Bayer Leverkusen star Kai Havertz.

Leverkusen managing director Rudi Voller declared Havertz to be the finest player in his club's history during the build-up to the showpiece, while also noting there is an agreement with the 21-year-old that he can leave this coming close season if certain conditions are met.

Chelsea and Real Madrid have been listed among a host of clubs purportedly interested in Havertz, who endured a mixed outing at the Olympiastadion.

Playing as the most advanced forward for Peter Bosz's side during the first half, he looked on as David Alaba and Serge Gnabry established a commanding Bayern lead.

Dropping into an attacking midfield role after the break, Havertz was far more influential and concluded the match by scoring a stoppage-time penalty.

However, Robert Lewandowski's brace meant more silverware for Bayern and the type of success Havertz might be chasing in different colours come September.

Here, we take a blow-by-blow look at his performance.

4th minute – Received the ball on the halfway line but an attempted pass to release Nadiem Amiri was cut out in midfield. Havertz completed 67.7 per cent of his passes on the night.

7th minute – Sized up Alaba on the right but was easily dispossessed. He would lose possession on 20 occasions – more than any other Leverkusen player.

15th minute – After an earlier tetchy altercation with Alaba, Havertz prevented fellow Germany international Joshua Kimmich from taking a quick free-kick. A shove and a talking to from referee Tobias Welz followed.

20th minute – A cute lay-off to Julian Baumgartlinger ended with Wendell in a promising position on the left but the full-back's cross was blocked.

21st minute – The latest instalment in Havertz's personal battle with Kimmich did not go well as the Bayern man muscled him away from the ball to launch an attack, where Thomas Muller almost made it 2-0.

24th minute – Charles Aranguiz's lofted pass looking for Leverkusen's star man ran through to Manuel Neuer. Within a minute, Gnabry thrashed beyond Lukas Hradecky to double Bayern's lead.

27th minute – Havertz's frustration was clear as he again tangled with Kimmich in futile fashion, giving away a free-kick with a slide tackle of the agricultural variety.

33rd minute – Got in front of Alaba for a lovely takedown on halfway but his turning left-footed throughball was intercepted.

42nd minute – The offside flag meant it would not have counted in any case, but Amiri delaying his cross, Havertz falling over and then regaining his footing before the ball failed to reach him summed up a half to forget. Amiri made way for Kevin Volland at the interval.

60th minute – Havertz fashioned a little room on the right-hand side of the area, only to be snuffed out by Alphonso Davies and Alaba. Volland's earlier air shot in the area and Hradecky's howling error for Lewandowski's first meant it mattered little.

63rd minute – Operating increasingly from the right with Volland leading the line, Havertz got the run on the quicksilver Davies and delivered a teasing low cross that Alaba was forced to clear behind with Leon Bailey poised. From the resulting corner, Bender powered home.

66th minute – Came deep to drive a move from midfield. A searching cross from the right by Moussa Diaby narrowly evaded Volland and Havertz.

68th minute – Bailey's raking pass found Havertz on the right and he almost picked out his team-mate with a return cross.

71st minute – Bayern were now struggling to contain Havertz, who collected the ball menacingly 30 yards from goal. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, Volland was not equal to the pass he slid through.

75th minute – Again showing his influence in from central midfield, Havertz set Bailey on another menacing dribble, with the winger's shot deflected behind. The cutting edge Lewandowski showed in completing the scoring was sorely lacking from Leverkusen's period of mid-half ascendancy.

94th minute – In perhaps his last act in a Leverkusen shirt, Havertz thundered a consolation penalty into the top-left corner after VAR spotted a handball by Davies.

Gianluigi Buffon broke Paolo Maldini's record for Serie A appearances in Saturday's Turin derby, playing for the 648th time in Italy's top flight.

Buffon, 41, was an Italy team-mate of former Milan defender Maldini, who retired in 2009 at the age of 40.

The iconic goalkeeper broke in the Parma first team as a teenager before joining Juve in 2001 in a £32.6million deal, making him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at the time.

It proved to be money well invested as he spent 17 years in a first spell with the Turin giants, staying at the club following relegation amid Italian football's Calciopoli scandal and helping Juventus reel off seven successive Scudetti before leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in 2018.

After a year in France, Buffon returned to Juventus last July, competing with Wojciech Szczesny for the starting role in Maurizio Sarri's team since then.

Below, we have used Opta data to highlight the remarkable longevity of Buffon's career.

17 – Buffon made his Serie A debut for Parma on November 19, 1995 at the age of 17 years and 295 days. It was a 0-0 draw against Milan.

648 – Since then, Buffon has gone on to rack up 648 appearances in Italy's top flight, including Saturday's clash with Torino that has seen him break Maldini's record.

42 – Buffon is the third-oldest player to feature in Serie A during the three-points era, behind only Marco Ballotta (44 years, 38 days) and Francesco Antonelli (42 years, 235 days).

23 – This is Buffon's 23rd season in professional football. Having signed a new contract, he will play a 24th campaign in 2020-21.

247 – Giorgio Chiellini signed a new contract at the same time as Buffon. The centre-back is the player Buffon has most regularly played with in Serie A, 247 times.

480 – No one has played more Serie A games for Juventus, with Buffon's 480 two more than Alessandro del Piero's haul.

9 – Buffon has won nine Serie A titles, more than any other player. He could yet add a 10th later this month.

285 – The veteran had kept 285 clean sheets in 647 Serie A matches prior to the Turin derby, which is a record.

If it was a night that carried the now familiar whiff of fireworks for Liverpool, it was one that reeked of total humiliation for Manchester City.

Even after dazzling showings from their goalscorers Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden in an irresistible 4-0 win, the gap is 20 points. The analysis of where a Premier League title defence helmed by the most celebrated coach of a generation went so far awry should be unsparing.

But, as Pep Guardiola has pointed out frequently since the Premier League title was ceded to Merseyside, City still have plenty to play for this season. The EFL Cup can still be joined in the trophy cabinet by the FA Cup and the Champions League.

They started tentatively – their trademark passing from the back dangerously pedestrian against the most ravenous press in world football, even allowing for the prospect of a week's liquid refreshment drawing some of its bite.

Ederson made a double save from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino before the former skipped inside Eric Garcia to hit the post.

At that point, Guardiola's mind might have flashed back to a match that was both stinging for him as a proud Catalan and hugely significant in his own career.

After Barcelona surrendered LaLiga to Real Madrid in 2007-08, Frank Rijkaard's side performed a guard of honour for their bitter rivals – albeit at a braying Santiago Bernabeu as opposed to a deserted Etihad Stadium – and were soundly beaten 4-1.

It was an abject embarrassment that rubber-stamped the end of Rijkaard's tenure and Guardiola's elevation from the B team.

His rise has continued more or less unchecked ever since, except for encounters with Jurgen Klopp teams.

A win here does little to remove the stains of an inadequate title defence, but another league loss to follow the error-strewn reverse at Chelsea that gift-wrapped the trophy Liverpool craved beyond all others could have done significant damage.

A creaky defence, all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero crocked, Leroy Sane in Munich never to return. As Salah led blue shirts a merry dance during the opening exchanges, it was easy to see more Mancunian misery unfolding.

But De Bruyne was having absolutely none of that. The Premier League's outstanding player was about to take apart the Premier League's outstanding team.

Even as his team-mates struggled to find their footing early on, two glorious passes released Gabriel Jesus, only for the Brazil forward to mistime his runs.

Guardiola's heart will have been in his mouth when his midfield talisman trod on the ball and landed in a twisted heap for a rare unsuccessful assault on the Liverpool backline.

Hopes of FA Cup and Champions League glory can be launched into the sky with whatever assortment of corner shop explosives you like if City don't have De Bruyne fully fit.

It feels like a trick of the mind that the Belgium playmaker was confined to the margins by two medial knee ligament injuries last term, as City edged Liverpool in that titanic title tussle. He is the heart and soul of a team that has shown too little of those qualities as a collective at times in 2019-20.

The supporting cast sparkled here, though, with Sterling enjoying an overdue night of revelry against his former employers.

According to most versions of events, Joe Gomez handled a rampaging Sterling far more effectively in the St George's Park canteen last November than he did here.

The Liverpool centre-back grappled to foul his international team-mate and De Bruyne slotted the opener from the penalty spot. Gomez could not stop Sterling doubling the advantage and was substituted at half-time.

By that point, De Bruyne had pinged a one-two into the path of Foden for an ebullient finish. There was no let-up early in the second period – Jesus drove at the Liverpool defence and shot too close to Alisson, Sterling saw an effort deflected wide after a run of his own and Virgil van Dijk intervened in the goalmouth to deny Foden.

There was undoubted catharsis in all of this for City, as De Bruyne worked through his full repertoire. Another pass of geometric precision had the insatiable Sterling looking for number four, which arrived as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his fine scoring run in this fixture in the wrong net.

A headed attempt by De Bruyne to make it five was more Ballon p'Or than Ballon d'Or, but his unrelenting brilliance was the source of relief and pride for City and Guardiola. In the wider context this result can mean little more.

Nevertheless, they have a base camp for the next instalment of a domestic rivalry that has enthralled for three years. "Next season starts today," a defiant Sterling told Sky Sports afterwards.

In Europe, they could be punting for the big prize next month with a two-season ban confirmed. De Bruyne operating in that last chance saloon is a terrifying prospect for anyone.

Liverpool will take to the field at Manchester City on Thursday as Premier League champions.

The Reds' 30-year wait to reign supreme in England's top flight came to an end when City were beaten by Chelsea last week.

Becoming champions with seven matches to spare underlines the dominant nature of a campaign masterminded by the brilliant Jurgen Klopp.

As such, a host of Liverpool players are expected to be in the running for the end-of-season awards.

But which of Klopp's heroes has been the most important to the cause? Here, our writers pick out who has been the star turn and state their case.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD – Dom Farrell

The majestic front three and the defensive solidity acquired through the astute big-money purchases of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are the twin pillars of this Liverpool triumph, but Trent Alexander-Arnold gives them their x-factor. Shut down Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino if you can, but then find yourself terrorised by a lavishly talented youngster who might yet redefine what the modern full-back looks like.

Lethal from both open play and dead ball situations, the 21-year-old has been the Reds' main creative force this term and it's not even particularly close. Andy Robertson is second to Alexander-Arnold's 12 assists with eight, while the right-back's 78 chances created dwarf the next best return – 49 from Salah.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Ryan Benson

Van Dijk has been the one ever-present for Liverpool this season, starting every single Premier League match. The Dutchman leads the way for clean sheets in the division with 14.

Throughout the campaign he has been the ultimate assuring presence at the back, from his exceptional reading of the game, dominant physicality and fine technical ability. While Salah, Mane and Firmino may be responsible for most of the goals, they would also be significantly worse off without Van Dijk, whose impact at Anfield continues to amaze.

JORDAN HENDERSON – Rob Lancaster

If Van Dijk is the Rolls Royce at the back and the forward trio are sports cars capable of going from 0-60mph in a hurry, Jordan Henderson is the equivalent to a five-door family hatchback. Flashy? No. Supremely reliable? Absolutely. 

Under Klopp, the Reds' win percentage is almost 13 per cent higher (68.8 per cent compared to 56) when Henderson plays. Their only league defeat so far this season, away to Watford, came without the skipper in the line-up.

The midfielder has contributed in attack, providing five assists and grabbing three goals in 2019-20, but that's not his major purpose. Henderson knows his role and plays it to perfection, serving as the manager's on-field lieutenant as he passes and presses relentlessly to help break opposition teams down. Having lifted the Champions League last season, now he has captained Liverpool to domestic glory too.

SADIO MANE – Joe Wright

It's often said the mark of champions is to win not just when playing well, but when victory seems beyond you. Sometimes – if not often – Liverpool have been up against it and in need of a saviour. More often than not, that saviour has been Sadio Mane. 

Mane has been Liverpool's most impressive attacking player all season, his all-round game now honed to a frighteningly high level that has produced 15 goals and seven assists. Those goals have been undeniably crucial, yielding 18 points in 2019-20, a tally nobody in the Premier League can better. If ever Liverpool looked likely to falter, Mane's goals kept them on course.

MOHAMED SALAH – Liam Blackburn

Salah's prolific debut season following his arrival from Roma – he scored 44 goals in all competitions in 2017-18 – raised the bar ridiculously high. Even in the previous campaign, no one scored more in the Premier League than the Egyptian's 22 and he is once again Liverpool's leading marksman in 2019-20.  

His total of 21 goals in all competitions sees him average one every 146 minutes, while no one in the Premier League has scored more than Salah's seven match-winners.

However, Salah is about more than just goals. He has created 49 chances and provided seven assists. Liverpool's struggles to break down a stubborn Everton defence when the 28-year-old remained on the bench throughout their first game after the lockdown only underlined his importance.

Having finally ended their wait for a breakthrough Premier League title, Liverpool will face the team they dethroned as champions, Manchester City, on Thursday.

Jurgen Klopp's men led the way as early as August and never relinquished their grasp on first place.

Unlike in the near misses in 2008-09, 2013-14 and 2018-19, the Reds would not be caught, with Manchester City and the rest of the Premier League trailing in their wake as they secured top-flight silverware for the first time since 1990.

They will receive a guard of honour at the Etihad Stadium, with City's 2-1 loss at Chelsea last week clinching the championship.e

However, there were a number of key results along the way. We take a look.
 

Norwich City 3-2 Manchester City - September 14

Pep Guardiola's side blinked first in the title race. Although City had already dropped points at home to Tottenham before visiting Norwich, it appeared the defending champions would again match Liverpool stride for stride. But one of the upsets of the season sent shockwaves through the division in matchweek five.

City lost Aymeric Laporte to a knee ligament injury the previous weekend, and John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi endured a miserable evening as Kenny McLean, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki scored at Carrow Road. Liverpool had earlier come from behind to beat Newcastle United, establishing a strong early advantage.

Sheffield United 0-1 Liverpool - September 28

Liverpool did eventually drop points for the first time against Manchester United in October, but their winning start continued to that point despite a serious test against newly promoted Sheffield United.

The Blades have been a surprise package this season and were perhaps good value for a point against Klopp's men, only for an uncharacteristic error by goalkeeper Dean Henderson - on loan from rivals United - to gift Georginio Wijnaldum a precious 70th-minute winner.

Aston Villa 1-2 Liverpool - November 2

It is often said that the best teams win even when they do not play well, and the victory at Sheffield United was far from unique in that sense. Indeed, at Villa Park, Liverpool were heading for defeat until the 87th minute.

However, Andy Robertson stole in for a late equaliser, and then Sadio Mane incredibly clinched victory in the fourth minute of stoppage time. It was the second such comeback from the Reds in two weeks, having previously rallied against Tottenham at Anfield in a crucial stretch that included a dramatic win over Leicester City and their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

Liverpool 3-1 Manchester City - November 10

And eight days on from the win at Villa, Liverpool increased their lead at the top of the table to eight points with victory over City, who were left a further point back in fourth. With the Reds' failure to beat Guardiola's side home or away in 2018-19 proving costly, this success represented a huge boost.

The match was not without its controversies, however, as City fumed at an apparent Trent Alexander-Arnold handball in the build-up to Fabinho's opener. The right-back looked to be guilty of the same offence again late in the game, with no penalty given, as Mohamed Salah and Mane also netted in a mammoth triumph.

Liverpool 2-0 Watford - December 14

Along with the run of fixtures leading into that City game, December represented a key spell for Liverpool as their title bid was disrupted by the Club World Cup. Watford would be the side to finally beat the Reds in February and, in the final match before the FIFA tournament, they gave it a good go at Anfield, too.

Nigel Pearson's first game in charge of the Hornets saw Liverpool troubled throughout, and not until Salah struck his second in the 90th minute were the points made safe.

Leicester City 0-4 Liverpool - December 26

Liverpool won the Club World Cup in Qatar, but it was like they had never been away when their league campaign resumed on Boxing Day. Leicester were second when the teams met but were blown away on their own patch.

Roberto Firmino opened the scoring before the break and then netted again, along with James Milner and Alexander-Arnold, in a ruthless eight-minute second-half spell. City lost at Wolves the following day - their second defeat of December - and the title race already looked to have been run.

Tottenham 2-0 Manchester City - February 2

Liverpool were relentless over the festive period, and their rivals' struggles meant Klopp's side could even afford a slow restart following the February mid-season break. Any slim City hopes of a spectacular pursuit of the Anfield club were surely already over in defeat at Tottenham prior to the weekend off.

Ilkay Gundogan missed a penalty, Oleksandr Zinchenko was sent off, and Steven Bergwijn and Son Heung-min netted. Bernardo Silva subsequently moaned City "gave up a bit too soon" in the title race. When Guardiola's men went down 2-0 again at Manchester United a month later, Liverpool were on the brink.

Manchester City were merely reigning Premier League champions from around the turn of the year. Any meaningful title defence ended a long time ago.

After amassing an astounding 198 points over the course of consecutive championship-winning campaigns, Pep Guardiola's men were unable to summon an adequate response in the face of Liverpool's relentless onslaught.

City's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week completed the formalities, meaning Guardiola's plans over how to wrest back control should already be well underway.

Ahead of Liverpool's trip to City on Thursday, we look at the areas where he and the Etihad Stadium's brain trust should be focusing their attention.

 

ADDRESS OBVIOUS GAPS IN THE SQUAD

Guardiola's suggestion at the end of last week that he might not seek a like-for-like replacement for Leroy Sane if the Germany winger completes his long-mooted switch to Bayern Munich understandably caused consternation among City fans. Vincent Kompany's influence and aura were irreplaceable when he called time on his career in Manchester in May 2019, but a new centre-back would certainly have come in handy.

The cruciate knee ligament injury that decimated Aymeric Laporte's campaign left Fernandinho simultaneously learning a new position and standing in as City's most reliable option in central defence, as Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones laboured. A high-quality partner for Laporte must be the number one transfer market priority.

A natural left-winger is also needed. Sane has been another long-term injury victim this term and, without that option, City's attacks have sometimes become narrow and predictable. On the subject of cruciate knee ligament injuries, Benjamin Mendy looks to have put a nightmarish two years behind him, although he endured a game to forget against Chelsea. It would be foolish to count on the France international's fitness holding for long and links to England left-back Ben Chilwell are understandable.

RECHARGE AND REPLENISH STAR MEN

The three positions above are likely to be the limit of City's ambitions in an uncertain market, with the depth of coronavirus' impact upon football finances yet to be fully realised. Whether or not the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport overturns or reduces their two-season Champions League ban must also be factored into any plans.

The good thing for Guardiola is the fact that plenty of room for improvement lies within. Aside from the imperious Kevin De Bruyne and the ever-prolific Sergio Aguero, it is hard to identify a senior City player who can be wholly satisfied with their efforts this term. Ederson's three errors leading to a goal are second only to Newcastle United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (five) in the division, while Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have at times appeared burned out following the exertions of a triumphant 2018-19.

UNLEASH PHIL FODEN

David Silva's departure at the end of this season was expected to usher in Phil Foden to blossom as the master's apprentice. This has been muddied slightly by the England Under-21 star's best performances coming in a wide attacking role, most notably his man-of-the-match outing in the EFL Cup final and his two-goal showing in the recent 5-0 demolition of Burnley. He was badly missed at Chelsea.

Guardiola loves players who are adept in a number of roles and Foden has thrived regardless of what his brief is on any given stage. The academy product has long looked a player at home in this City team; he now seems like one who could significantly elevate it. It is time to let him fly.

REMAIN BANNED FROM THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

From having to scale down more ambitious transfer targets to tackling some awkward conversations with star players over their immediate futures, the seismic blow of City's exclusion from the Champions League holding firm should not be underplayed. However, if we are looking at this purely in terms of their chances of winning a third Premier League title in four seasons, a coach of Guardiola's calibre getting free midweeks to hone his side to his version of perfection is something of which Liverpool and others would be right to be wary.

DON'T ACTUALLY CHANGE TOO MUCH

Under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, City compiled deplorably meek title defences. The clear daylight between themselves and Liverpool this time around makes it tempting to lump their 2019-20 efforts in with those other failures. But there is an important wider context. The Manchester United and Chelsea sides that unseated Mancini and Pellegrini were not a patch on Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool machine. This City had won six of the previous seven domestic honours on offer and could conceivably finish 2019-20 with the FA Cup and that elusive Champions League nestled alongside the EFL Cup in the trophy cabinet.

Also, it is not a slight on the Reds' brilliance to note most things that could have fallen in their favour this season have. That is inevitable. City sealed their 100-point season with a last-minute winner at Southampton, having beaten Saints, Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield Town in similar fashion before the turn of the year. Mind-boggling deeds require a certain level of fortune.

Heading into their game at Chelsea, City were still ahead of Liverpool by five points with a game in hand in Opta's Expected Goals league table (Yes, yes… when's the parade?!?!). Liverpool's brutally clinical efforts are to be admired, but the underlying numbers suggest such a gulf will not become the norm.

Premier League champions Liverpool will emerge at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday to a guard of honour from previous title-holders Manchester City.

It will be the latest episode in the captivating rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

We run the rule over two men whose tactical approaches and high levels of achievement have – and it does not feel too grandiose to suggest this – changed football in the 21st century, as well as one another.

THE BUNDESLIGA YEARS

Guardiola's arrival to take the reins of a treble-winning Bayern for 2013-14 came shortly after their rivalry with Klopp's Dortmund reached its peak.

Arjen Robben's 89th-minute winner saw Bayern down BVB 2-1 in the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley – a game played out against a backdrop of Dortmund's star playmaker Mario Gotze agreeing terms to move to Bavaria.

In hindsight, Klopp's gegenpressing machine – winners of back-to-back Bundesliga crowns in 2010-11 and 2011-12 – were coming off the top of their curve, having finished 25 points behind a relentless Bayern domestically that season.

The decline continued over the next two seasons. Dortmund were remarkably in relegation trouble halfway through 2014-15, before a post-Christmas recovery preceded Klopp's emotional farewell.

Nevertheless, there was still time for telling blows to be landed. Guardiola's first competitive game in charge saw Bayern beaten 4-2 in the 2013 DFL-Supercup at a delirious Signal Iduna Park.

Stung by that loss, Guardiola sprung a notable surprise in the first league encounter between the sides that November, where he broke Dortmund's rabid press by playing Javi Martinez as an attacking midfielder and repeatedly targeting the rangy Spain international with long balls.

The high priest of tiki-taka (a label Guardiola famously loathes) had presided over "more long balls than in the last three years combined" from a Bayern team, according to Klopp, who bristled after Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller added to Gotze's inevitable second-half opener in a 3-0 win.

A depleted Munich were similarly reactive when they won the DFB-Pokal final 2-0 in extra-time, even if flooding midfield numbers was a more recognisably Guardiola tactic.

Diverting from his dizzying 4-3-3 of swirling triangles has remained something the Catalan tactician has frequently done across his meetings with Klopp, and not always with the success he enjoyed in Germany.

HOLLOW VICTORIES AND THE PHONEY WAR

Klopp ended his homeland head-to-head against Guardiola with three victories, making it back-to-back Supercup triumphs in 2014, having claimed a 3-0 Bundesliga result at Allianz Arena earlier that year – the authority of which was dimmed by the fact Bayern had already cantered to the title.

Guardiola had four victories to his name, with one draw ultimately falling in Dortmund's favour as Bayern failed with all four of their penalty attempts in a 2015 DFB-Pokal semi-final shoot-out.

However, Klopp was denied a glorious farewell as his team lost in the final to Wolfsburg and the fact Robert Lewandowski had followed Gotze to Munich by this point underlined a deck stacked against him.

Liverpool came calling for Klopp in October 2015 and he helmed helter-skelter runs to the EFL Cup and Europa League finals. Manchester City and Sevilla prevailed respectively.

That was Manuel Pellegrini's final honour as City boss as he made way for Guardiola, who collected a third successive Bundesliga title in 2015-16. Thomas Tuchel's Dortmund finished closer in terms of position and points (second, 10 behind) than Klopp's version had managed when in direct competition.

With the stage presumably set for renewed hostilities between Guardiola and incoming Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho, the similarly newly installed Antonio Conte did not read the script as Chelsea romped to 2016-17 Premier League glory.

Klopp got the better of his head-to-heads with City as a Georginio Wijnaldum goal sealed a 1-0 New Year's Eve win at Anfield before Sergio Aguero rescued a point for the hosts in the return game.

Guardiola laid it on thick after that 1-1 draw, declaring it to be "one of the most special days of my life".

"He is Spanish. They are a little bit more emotional than the Germans," Klopp chuckled in response.

TON-UP BUT NOT INVINCIBLE AND THE ROAD TO KIEV

Liverpool beat City three times in 2017-18, when most other teams could barely lay a glove on Guardiola's record-breaking side.

But the game where City prevailed, an unusual 5-0 thrashing at the Etihad Stadium where Liverpool subsided meekly after Sadio Mane's red card for clattering Ederson with a high boot, arguably had the biggest influence on the campaign.

When that game was 11 v 11, Guardiola's back three was horribly exposed. Aguero's opener arrived against the run of play, with an unusually wasteful Mohamed Salah having tormented Nicolas Otamendi.

City never used 3-5-2 in the league again that season, reverting to a swashbuckling 4-3-3 that churned out 19 consecutive wins and made the second half of the schedule a virtual procession.

Liverpool halted their designs on invincibility however, claiming a raucous 4-3 Anfield win in January. Klopp hailed "pressing from another planet" by his front three as Roberto Firmino, Mane and Salah were all on target in a euphoric nine-minute spell after half-time.

Guardiola had again seen a swift avalanche of goals bring the roof in during a big match and his tweak to a 4-4-2 diamond, eyeing avenues around those Liverpool pressing lanes, backfired in that season's Champions League quarter-final.

A 3-0 first-leg loss at Anfield, with all the goals arriving during the first half, left City with a mountain to climb and a death-or-glory approach in the return fixture – deploying a formation probably best described as 3-CHARGE!!! – eventually ran out of steam in a 2-1 loss.

But it was Liverpool who came up short in the Kiev final on Loris Karius' nightmare outing against Real Madrid, while City sauntered to a 100-point haul as dominant Premier League champions. Sitting 25 points back in fourth, the Reds had a considerable gap to bridge.

CHASING PERFECTION

Despite that deficit, their efforts in going blow-for-blow with City over 90-minute periods left the impression Liverpool were the best placed of the pretenders to overthrow the champions.

Both teams reconvened on Merseyside undefeated in October 2018 and remained that way as the free-flowing nature of recent meetings gave way to a cagey 0-0 draw.

Reprising the theme of those early Klassiker meetings, Guardiola took his foot off the throttle as City played at a controlled tempo – an approach that would have ended the club's Anfield hoodoo but for Riyad Mahrez's ballooned late penalty.

Fire and brimstone returned the following January, though, with a wobbling City recovering their poise and avoiding a 10-point deficit at the top. Aguero and Leroy Sane were on target either side of Firmino in a bravura display, where Aymeric Laporte took on the unfamiliar role of left-back to stifle Salah.

That was Liverpool's only loss of the season as they finished on 97 points, agonisingly one shy of City. However, their subsequent Champions League final win over Tottenham improbably propelled them further along.

Just as Guardiola has tempered some of his more cavalier tendencies when faced with Klopp, the challenge of an unrelenting City also forced the Liverpool boss into subtle and decisive tweaks.

In bringing in Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, he spent big for what many see as the finest goalkeeper and centre-back on the planet. Their very presence means risk can be reduced.

Heavy metal football has given way to a steady pulsing beat that never wavers. In the city of Merseybeat, Klopp has gone electro.

Amid their steamrollering of the opposition this season, Liverpool have 19 wins by a solitary goal in all competitions. They are frighteningly and ruthlessly clinical. A profligate City trail in their wake, although Guardiola has used this relative freedom from pressure to thumb intriguingly through his tactical playbook in 2020.

Both men have inspired the other to reach beyond their comfort zones and the result is the two best teams in world football. With Klopp contracted to Liverpool until 2024 and Guardiola talking up an extended stay, the thought occurs that they are each other's motivation for sticking around. There is nowhere better to measure their greatness than against one another.

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

 

Bukayo Saka's emergence at Arsenal had been greeted with a certain amount of trepidation in recent months.

There was no doubting his ability – the young left-winger had impressed with his dribbling, direct style of play and deliveries from the flank.

If anything it was his quality that had some worried, as his contract was due to expire in 2021. Arsenal being Arsenal, many were perhaps justifiably concerned the situation would ultimately lead to Saka's departure.

But on Wednesday the Gunners confirmed the 18-year-old – who made his Premier League debut when he was 17 – had signed a new long-term contract.

Following last-week's quadruple-whammy of underwhelming contract news relating to David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Dani Ceballos and Cedric Soares, this was a somewhat rare moment of unanimous positivity among Arsenal supporters.

And he's one of their own.

"The dream student"

Having spent much of his childhood in Arsenal's Hale End academy, there was always something special about Saka – not that he'd laud it over anyone. Talented but humble, confident yet reserved.

"I was lucky enough to see him from Year 7 all the way through, and I'm an Arsenal fan so it's even better," Saka's former Greenford High School PE teacher Mark Harvey explains to Stats Perform News. "He was a role model student, never any behavioural issues or anything like that, unbelievably polite, respectful and a leader among his friends but he very quietly went about it, he wasn't loud or anything like that, quite reserved. He was a dream student, to be honest."

Being identified as a particularly special footballer can, unsurprisingly, have its benefits from a social perspective at school. Popularity can lead to arrogance, which in turn might result in carelessness or complacency.

But Saka managed to prevent such traits from taking root, and the cockiness many might have expected of him simply wasn't there.

"He always had a silent strength to him and that was evident on the pitch and reflected in his personality around the school," Harvey continued. "He made everything look simple from a very young age. As a teacher or coach, it's what you want, and most young kids want the ball at their feet and to try every trick under the sun, and especially nowadays. But he never took the mick out of anyone – he was respectful on and off the pitch."

"The moment we realised…"

Much of Saka's later years at school forced him to juggle educational and football commitments. One week he would be attending as normal, the next he would be in Brazil or Spain in action for Arsenal.

Despite the upheaval, he still managed to excel in both respects, but from a sporting perspective Harvey recalls one specific moment the teenager's talents really dawned on him.

"The moment we realised he was special was during a Year 9 game," he remembered. "I wasn't the football coach at the time, it was another PE teacher, but he asked Bukayo to basically just use his weaker foot for the whole game, so he was using his right foot the whole game and you could still see from a distance that this kid was miles better than anyone else on the playing field.

"And not because he was a show-off – he was never a showboater, that's the one thing I always try to get across to people. He never showed off. Bukayo wasn't like that."

But did he always look destined to be an Arsenal regular by the time he was 18? Not quite.

"There were a couple of games we went to where he was playing, before he got anywhere near the standard he's at now, but was obviously playing for Arsenal, and I don't think he ever stood out then," Harvey adds.

"I think I've seen huge progress in his game in the last 18 months. I don't know what it is, but I played to quite a high standard in basketball and you'd always talk about person's peripheral vision, how they see the court, and I imagine that's very similar for a footballer. Because of what's happened at Arsenal he's had to play so many different positions, and that's allowed him to see the pitch as a bigger picture, so now he can see it from different angles. I think he just reads the game better."

A key provider

As you walk into Greenford High's main reception, a reminder of Saka's association with the school is immediately obvious – a signed Arsenal shirt and photo of the 18-year-old takes pride of place on the school's 'celebration board'.

With his current trajectory, the school's pride will only increase – after all, statistics prove he's already a key player for the Gunners, with his 33 appearances just three shy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this season.

While he wasn't required in Wednesday's 4-0 win over Norwich, he remains Arsenal's third-most productive player in all competitions this term with three goals and 11 assists.

Indeed, he's the first teenager to surpass 10 assists in a single season for Arsenal since Cesc Fabregas in 2006-07.

Mason Greenwood (16) is the only current teenager to have had a hand in more goals across all competitions this term – though he's not had to play at left-back for much of the campaign.

Senior honours for England are surely just around the corner for Saka, with Trent Alexander-Arnold (14) the only Englishman in the Premier League to have registered more assists than him.

The decision-makers at Arsenal in recent years have rarely attracted praise – but they've at least avoided another major farce by securing Saka's future.

Everything suggests the talented winger will have his own 'celebration board' at Greenford High before long.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's achievement of scoring 50 goals in 77 Premier League games for Arsenal makes him the sixth fastest player in the competition's history to hit the half-century milestone.

That Aubameyang arrived at 50 goals in fewer league matches than the likes of Sergio Aguero and Thierry Henry tells you just how prolific the Gabon international has been since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018.

Aubameyang's landmark goal, which arrived for Arsenal against Norwich City on Wednesday, is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has not been playing in a particularly successful team during his time at Emirates Stadium, with the Gunners finishing sixth in his first season, fifth in his second, and starting the day in 10th as they faced the Canaries.

The five players to have reached 50 Premier League goals in fewer matches than Aubameyang all did so in teams challenging at the top end of the table, and all with very distinct goal-scoring styles.
 

Andy Cole – 65 games

After scoring 12 goals when Newcastle United were promoted as Division One champions in 1992-93, Andy Cole plundered 34 in 40 top flight games to help Kevin Keegan's side finish third in the table the following season.

A real six-yard box striker who could also finish from distance and beat defenders for pace, he netted another nine Premier League goals for the Magpies before joining Manchester United, where he took his top-flight tally to 50 before the end of the 1994-95 season.

Alan Shearer – 66 games

Alan Shearer reached 50 Premier League goals during Blackburn Rovers' title-winning campaign in 1994-95, having netted 47 goals in 62 games in the two seasons prior.

Shearer's matchless eye for goal and thunderously powerful shot helped him to 34 goals in 42 matches as Rovers became champions, and he passed the 100 mark just a year later.

Ruud van Nistelrooy – 68 games

Ruud van Nistelrooy cost Manchester United £19million when he joined the club from PSV ahead of the 2001-02 season and he quickly set about repaying their faith in him.

The Netherlands international netted 23 Premier League goals in 32 games in his first season, followed by a further 25 in 34 games in 2002-03.

He then passed 50 in the 2003-04 season on his way to scoring 20 goals in 32 matches as United were beaten to the title by Arsenal.

Fernando Torres – 72

More similar to Aubameyang in terms of playing style than any of the players listed above, Fernando Torres scored his 50th Premier League goal during his third season as a Liverpool player.

It was a season that would end with Torres becoming a World Cup winner with Spain, but it was not a happy one for the Reds, who finished seventh in the table despite Torres' 18 goals in 22 games, and the striker left the club to join Chelsea part way through the following campaign.

Mohamed Salah – 72

Mohamed Salah scored his 50th Premier League goal during a 4-3 victory over Crystal Palace in April 2019, becoming the second-fastest player to reach the milestone in terms of minutes played.

Only Shearer, who netted a half-century in 5,337 minutes for Blackburn, reached the landmark in a shorter on-pitch timespan than free-scoring Reds forward Salah, who did so in 5,374 minutes of play following his £34m transfer from Roma.

At long last, the 2020 Formula One season will finally begin this week.

The action will begin with the Austrian Grand Prix behind closed doors at the Red Bull Ring, with the Steiermark Grand Prix being held at the same track the following weekend.

Silverstone will also stage two races this year, with Hungary, Spain, Belgium and Italy the only other confirmed events as things stand.

The season had been due to get underway with the Australian Grand Prix in March, but it was cancelled after a member of the McLaren garage tested positive for COVID-19.

A lot of things have changed since then, so we have recapped the biggest stories during the four-month coronavirus hiatus.

 

Vettel decision sparks driver changes

Ferrari announced that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel would not remain with the team beyond the end of this season.

The German has yet to find another seat in F1, with Carlos Sainz to replace him at Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo leaving Renault for McLaren.

Toto Wolff confirmed Mercedes are monitoring Vettel's situation, though Valtteri Bottas claims he was told by the Silver Arrows there is nothing to the story.

Renault are yet to disclose who will take Ricciardo's place in 2021, with a shock return for two-time champion Fernando Alonso mooted.

Regulation changes pushed back to 2022

The pandemic forced a number of teams to furlough staff or reduce the size of their workforce, while F1 brought its mandatory mid-season shutdown period forward and extended it.

Together with the reduction in income from the lack of racing, sweeping changes to the technical regulations that were expected to challenge Mercedes' dominance of the series have been pushed back.

Teams will now contest the 2021 season in the same cars as this year, with the new rules instead coming into effect from 2022.

Budget cap implemented and reduced

In a bid to level the playing field in F1, for the first time a cost cap will come into effect from the 2021 season. This will limit the amount teams can spend on their cars to $145million.

The cap had initially been set at $175m but was lowered to avoid the possibility of some constructors spending up to that limit while others found themselves incapable of doing so due to the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.

In 2022 the cap will be reduced to $140m, before dropping to $135m the following year and remaining there. This was done to make it easier for the bigger teams to adjust the size and scale of their operations.

Mercedes manoeuvring

A key member of Mercedes' six-year domination of F1 has left the team.

Managing director Andy Cowell, who had direct responsibility for the F1 power unit, helped establish Mercedes at the pinnacle of the sport in his 16 years with the team, but Hywel Thomas took over from him on July 1.

Mercedes team principal Wolff bought a stake in Aston Martin, which is controlled by Racing Point owner Lawrence Stroll.

Wolff insisted a personal investment "has nothing to do with Formula One", despite the fact Racing Point will be rebranded as Aston Martin on the 2021 grid.

A push for diversity

Six-time champion Lewis Hamilton criticised the Formula One community for its silence in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May, which sparked anti-racism protests around the globe.

The 35-year-old Briton subsequently partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create The Hamilton Commission, looking at how more young people from black backgrounds can be brought into motorsport or be employed elsewhere in the field of engineering. F1 has also set up a new task force to increase diversity and inclusion in the sport.

Mercedes signalled their commitment to fighting racism and discrimination by unveiling an all-black livery in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, switching from their traditional Silver Arrows design.

Hamilton and Bottas will race in black overalls, while 'End Racism' will feature on the halo of both cars and the F1 initiative #WeRaceAsOne will appear on the mirrors.

Lionel Messi's cheeky, chipped penalty against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday took him to 700 career goals for club and country.

The Barcelona and Argentina star has been the scourge of defenders in Spain and across the globe since making his debut professional debut at 17 and his career has now yielded another incredible landmark.

In the process, the forward has collected 34 club trophies and a record six Ballons d'Or, but international honours have eluded him since he won gold at the 2008 Olympics.

To celebrate Messi's latest century, we take a look at 10 of his very best and most important goals.

 

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already had one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete stopper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for a club.

 

Getafe (H): April 18, 2007

In the 12 years since he first got on the scoresheet, only one of Messi's strikes was ever going to top this list: his Diego Maradona-esque solo goal against Getafe. Messi picked up the ball in his own half and danced around two players before turning on the pace, beating two more defenders and going around the goalkeeper, capping it with a right-footed finish.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, Messi's strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in this goal, which began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling the ball into the far corner - leaving Pep Guardiola speechless.

 

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

This was the height of one of the fiercest Clasico rivalries in decades, as Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid waged war on Guardiola's Barca. They met four times in three competitions in less than a month, including in the Champions League semi-finals, when Messi faced pretty brutal treatment as Madrid tried to shackle him. He scored twice in a 2-0 first-leg win at the Santiago Bernabeu but it is the first goal people remember: the tension of the match, the bitterness of the rivalry, the ducking, weaving slalom through the defence and the composed finish past Casillas, all from the most nonchalant Sergio Busquets assist you will ever see.

 

Iran (N): June 21, 2014

Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Messi had only scored one goal in eight appearances. Seemingly determined to step up for Argentina, he netted in his side's opening match before going on to score one of the goals of the tournament in the second against Iran. With the score at 0-0 heading into stoppage time, Messi took control of the ball and bent a powerful strike past the despairing arms of Alireza Haghighi to break Iranian hearts.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Having already opened the scoring three minutes earlier to give Barca a 1-0 advantage over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Messi doubled his tally with a sumptuous effort. Ivan Rakitic's pass sent Messi on his way, before the little maestro's trickery put Jerome Boateng on his backside and allowed the Argentine to casually lift the ball over the onrushing Manuel Neuer.

 

Athletic Bilbao (N): May 30, 2015

The second part of a treble-winning season for Barca came in the form of the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. With 20 minutes gone and the score deadlocked, Messi set off on a marauding run down the right wing and soon found himself trapped amongst three defenders. Naturally, Messi was able to float past the trio as if they weren't there, before cutting into the box and beating Iago Herrerin at his near post.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in the 92nd minute gave Jordi Alba the chance to square it to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

 

Ecuador (A): October 11, 2017

Romario Ibarra's first-minute goal in the last match of CONMEBOL qualification left football fans across the globe staring at the prospect of the unthinkable – a World Cup without Messi. Enter the man himself, who dragged Argentina out of a bumbling stupor to single-handedly tear Ecuador apart with a sensational hat-trick. The shift of pace and stunning, dipping finish into the top corner to claim the matchball was the best of the bunch and a grateful bench spilled on to the field to mob their hero.

 

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Messi has never won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year, although he has twice come second, most recently for this effort against Real Betis in a 4-1 win last season. He sent the ball left to Ivan Rakitic and hurried to the edge of the box for the return ball, then - having shaped for a powerful strike towards the near post - chipped a sublime effort into the far corner beyond the despairing Pau Lopez. The goal completed his hat-trick and earned an ovation from the home fans but was not enough to beat Debrecen's Daniel Zsori to the Puskas prize.

After weeks of speculation, Barcelona have agreed a deal to sign Miralem Pjanic from Juventus, with the sale of Arthur in the other direction having also been sanctioned.

It has been one of the more head-scratching transfer stories to have emerged in recent times, given at the age of 30 Pjanic has seven years on Brazil midfielder Arthur – a star whose talent is still burgeoning.

Barca will fork out an initial €60million to Juve, who have in turn agreed to stump up €72million for Arthur's services.

There is a general consensus that Juve have the better part of the agreement, due mainly to Pjanic's age.

The deal is sure to impact several of Barcelona's midfield too. We take a look at what the arrival of Pjanic may mean for the Blaugrana's current options.


IVAN RAKITIC

Croatia international Rakitic has been a mainstay of Barca's midfield since joining from Sevilla in 2014, winning four LaLiga titles, as many Copas del Rey and the Champions League during a trophy-laden stint. But Rakitic has not always been universally loved by the Camp Nou faithful, perhaps his only crime being he is simply not club legends Xavi or Andres Iniesta, and has at times been subjected to jeers from the crowd. With his contract up in 2021 there have been plenty of rumours Barca could cash in and Atletico Madrid have been strongly linked with his signature. The player himself said this month he is not heading for the exit door, but this rumour is unlikely to go away anytime soon.


SERGIO BUSQUETS

Busquets is heading for the sort of legendary status the aforementioned Xavi and Iniesta achieved at Camp Nou. Since breaking into the first team from the club's legendary La Masia academy 12 years ago, there has been no player in world football more consistently brilliant in the defensive pivot role and his influence on Barcelona for over a decade can never be understated. But the World Cup winner turns 32 next month and Father Time does not slow down even for the world's best. Such is Busquets' enduring quality, he likely has a couple more years left at the elite level, yet Barca will need to start contemplating life after this club great. Pjanic may have been brought in to help bridge the gap between generations.


RIQUI PUIG

Widely considered as a player to carry Barca into the next generation, Puig has made six LaLiga appearances this term – the only start among those outings only came in last weekend's 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo. With doubts over the long-term futures of Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, it looked as though a breakthrough to becoming a more regular and influential part of the first team was on the cards for the 20-year-old. But the arrival of Pjanic may mean that particular path is blocked once again for one of Barca's greatest hopes. With fellow academy graduate Carles Alena having departed for Real Betis on loan in search of regular football in January, and the possibility that move gets made permanent, Barca will need to assuage any concerns over a lack of minutes or risk their talented youngster getting itchy feet.


ARTURO VIDAL

The arrival of Vidal from Bayern Munich on a three-year deal in August 2018 was met with a similar lack of fanfare to Pjanic's. The fact the Chile midfielder was 31 when he moved to Camp Nou only adds to the similarities. Much like Rakitic, Vidal's future at Barca has been the subject of regular debate, with a return to Serie A – where he formerly represented Juventus – to link up with Antonio Conte at Inter frequently mooted. Vidal recently said he is happy to stay at Barcelona so long as he feels important. He turned 33 last month, though, and the arrival of Pjanic may complicate his desire to be utilised in the trophy-defining matches. With Vidal there is very much a watch-this-space feel.


FRENKIE DE JONG

to agreeing his big-money move to Barcelona from Ajax last year, at least if the newspapers are to believed. De Jong has made 27 LaLiga appearances, including 24 starts, in a debut campaign that has shown flashes of brilliance but never truly ignited. Lofty expectations and ruthlessness are common at a club the stature of Barca, Arthur himself can pay testament to that, and more will be expected of De Jong moving forward. Still, he remains just 23 and Barca will surely build around De Jong for the next decade – perhaps flanked by Pjanic for a decent chunk of that time.

Barcelona and Juventus have hammered out the details of agreements that will see Miralem Pjanic line up alongside Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann next season, with Arthur poised to begin the next chapter of his fledgling career in Turin.

The part exchange deal involving these two stylish, deep-lying midfielders – Arthur's switch to Juve was valued at an initial €72million, with Pjanic costing Barca €60m – prompted plenty of raised eyebrows.

Pjanic has been a consistent performer since joining Juventus from Roma in 2016, while only last season Arthur was been spoken of as a potential heir to Xavi.

In order to try to make sense of why each club gave the green light for their players to trade places, we have enlisted a little help from Opta.

MIRALEM THE MAINSTAY

Much has been made of the age difference between the two players, especially given the near parity in transfer fees.

Pjanic is seven years older than Arthur, 23, but having those extra miles in his legs has not affected his output when it comes to time on the field.

Each man made 44 appearances in all competitions last term, but Pjanic's 3,277 minutes on the pitch dwarfed Arthur's 2,476.

That, in part, was as a result of the Brazil international establishing himself during a breakthrough campaign, but form and fitness issues have restricted him to 28 games and 1,541 minutes this time around. Pjanic is on 36 appearances and 2,903 minutes as Juve chase down another Scudetto.

GOALS AND ASSISTS

One area where there has been a notable uptick for Arthur this season is in front of goal. The former Gremio star has scored four times, having failed to find the net at all in 2018-19. He also has four assists, up from two.

Pjanic is far more noted for his creative qualities but only has two assists this term, down from eight in the previous campaign – perhaps indicative of him being slightly shackled within Maurizio Sarri's system.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina playmaker has seven goals across the past two seasons, although his numbers in both metrics owe a debt to his prowess from dead-ball situations. How many free-kicks Messi will let him take at Camp Nou feels like a legitimate question to ask.

PASS MASTERS

These are two players who cherish the ball and do not make a habit of letting it fall into opposition control. In their most recent seasons, neither dips below a pass completion percentage of 90.

Arthur completed 91.7 per cent of his passes in opposition territory last term – a figure he has maintained with 91.1 this time around.

Pjanic dips slightly to 88 per cent in the attacking half, figures that probably reflect his more ambitious and expansive style, along with the fact he lost possession 455 times in 2018-19 compared to 225 for Arthur.

DOING THE DIRTY WORK

In their positions at the base of the midfield, there is a burden on Arthur and Pjanic to destroy as well as create.

The Brazilian won 146 duels compared to 127 by his Bosnian counterpart last season and he is only two behind this term despite a significant disparity in playing time.

Pjanic is out in front when it comes to interceptions, winning 50 to Arthur's six this season and 53-19 in 2018-19, while the older man's recovery stats (256 and 213) are also comfortably more plentiful than his Juventus replacement (179 and 101).

Wimbledon should have been getting under way on Monday and the queue would have been building all weekend long, a tented village of flag-waving, gin-swigging tennis diehards doing whatever it takes to land a prized ticket.

The practice courts would have been bustling, news conferences with the world's elite players running all day Saturday and into Sunday, and the first bumper delivery of fresh strawberries would have arrived fresh from the fields of Kent.

Elite athletes and their entourages would have been milling around the grounds, before at 10.30am on Monday morning the paying spectators would have been released from their holding bay, many racing straight to the grass bank that is officially named Aorangi Terrace but better known as Henman Hill.

And at 11.30am, the first players would have been walking on court, the championships getting under way. To be there at such a time is a delicious thrill, the waiting over, the grounds teeming, the first points being played, and the anticipation escalating as to what might unfold over the next fortnight.

Yet this year Wimbledon was all quiet across the weekend; thousands did not queue for tickets; the line painters, the stewards, and the ball boys and ball girls stayed at home; and a whole lot more strawberry jam is being produced in England this year than last.

The 2020 championships were cancelled on April 1, the only reasonable decision available to the All England Club amid the coronavirus pandemic, but organisers are already preparing for next year's return.

And from the plot lines that are already emerging, it is clear we can expect a classic Wimbledon.

A farewell to great champions?

There is the very real prospect of tennis losing a huddle of its biggest stars practically all at once, with anyone that was considering bowing out this year surely now giving the glad eye to 2021.

Roger Federer will be just weeks short of his 40th birthday by next year's Wimbledon, and the same applies to Serena Williams, whose sister Venus will already be 41.

Andy Murray will be a relatively young 34 but his body has taken a battering, the Scot desperate to play more grand slams but also realistic enough to know there may not be many left for him. He longs for another Wimbledon, maybe just one more.

Between them, that quartet have won 22 Wimbledon singles titles, and all four could choose the 2021 tournament as their opportunity to bid farewell to the All England Club.

It's going to be an emotional tournament in any case, if we are back to normal, but if there are goodbyes to be said too, the championships promise to be one packed with indelible memories, and so many tears.

The magic numbers

Serena Williams has lost each of the past two Wimbledon women's finals and has been stuck on 23 grand slams since winning the 2017 Australian Open, agonisingly one short of Margaret Court's record.

Could Wimbledon be where Williams matches or even passes Court's total? The American remains the player to beat at Wimbledon, and her hunger for grand slam success has not remotely diminished over time.

There can be little doubt she is playing not purely for the love of it, but because of the thrill of the chase, and Williams might wind up disappointed at the end of her career, still marooned one adrift.

But what a story it would be if Williams were to win another Wimbledon, the last of her thirties. Don't put anything past her.

And the race to finish as the all-time leader on the men's side keeps rolling, a devil of a duty to predict who will come out on top between Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Another Wimbledon win for any of them could take on momentous significance in that respect.

A new men's Centre Court king, at last?

The last player to win the Wimbledon's men's singles, besides the 'Big Four' of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, was Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.

And while the era of those four great players dominating in SW19 has been one to treasure, seeing a new champion crowned would be rather special.

There have been nine winners of the women's singles over the same period of time, multiple champions among them but also terrific one-off stories such as Marion Bartoli's triumph, the 17-year-old Maria Sharapova's big breakthrough, Amelie Mauresmo's great achievement, and the unbridled joy of Simona Halep last year.

Certainly there is so much to admire about the quartet that have ruled the men's singles, but a little novelty feels overdue.

Those queueing up to form a new dominant group need to push themselves forward, rather than play a waiting game.

Gauff gunning for major breakthrough

Gauff gunning for major breakthrough

What a revelation Coco Gauff became last year, defeating her great hero Venus Williams and reaching the fourth round, where it took eventual champion Halep to halt the 15-year-old's run.

She dramatically followed up by reaching the third round of the US Open and then round four of the Australian Open at the start of this year.

Between those two grand slams, Gauff also landed her first WTA title, in Linz, Austria, where she became the youngest winner on tour for 15 years.

The American teenager is the real deal, that much is clear, and she has a bright future.

Gauff demonstrated wisdom beyond her years off the court in early June with a terrific, powerful address at a Black Lives Matter rally in her Florida home town of Delray Beach.

May she return many times to Wimbledon.

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