It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

Randle raises the level

Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

 

On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

"That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

Julius just too important?

Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

 

Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

Big spenders or big savers

As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

A rare watching brief

The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

Verdict: Evolution

Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's working relationship with the club he loves is set to carry on until at least 2024 after he signed an extension with Manchester United.

The deal, a pre-season boost as United prepare for a new campaign, came with a glowing endorsement from outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who talked up the "foundations in place for long-term success on the pitch" in the official statement released by the club.

There are obvious reasons to be so optimistic, too, considering the Red Devils finished runners-up to Manchester City in the Premier League and also reached the Europa League final.

However, as has become a worrying trend of late, they still came up short in the quest for silverware. Solskjaer's new deal, plus the signing of Jadon Sancho, shows a high degree of faith in the current regime, but also shortens the list of excuses if the near-misses continue.

Partnerships in football can sour swiftly if things do not pan out as hoped – the previous manager to occupy the home dugout at Old Trafford knows that only too well...

A sign of better times after life under Mourinho

Solskjaer has a win rate of 52.6 per cent in the Premier League since taking charge. His average of 1.86 points per game sits him third on the United list since the competition's inception, behind an undoubted club legend and a former boss who knows an extension is not always a guarantee of sticking around.

Jose Mourinho triumphed in exactly 50 of his 93 league games in charge. In contrast to the man who replaced him, the Portuguese had early success with United as well, winning the EFL Cup and the Europa League in his first season.

Those seemingly solid foundations subsided quickly, though. He was handed an extension in January 2018 yet was gone inside a year, dismissed amid dissatisfaction with not just results on the pitch but also the style of play. A defeat to Liverpool at Anfield proved to be the final straw.

Mourinho fell seven games short of his Premier League century with the Red Devils, caught out by his entrenched views on how the team should be set up as he seemingly failed to grasp the club's traditions.

Solskjaer now has his hundred within sight, a number that seemed highly improbable when he flew in from Molde to answer United's SOS (Save Our Season) call. The trip to Wolves on August 29, United's third outing in 2021-22, following on from games against Leeds United and Southampton, will see him reach three figures in the Premier League. 

In doing so, he will become the first manager to make it to the milestone with United since Alex Ferguson. Matching his league success rate of 65.2 per cent may appear a tall order, but the team have been trending in the right direction after mixed times under the stewardship of more illustrious names.

United's 73 league goals they scored last term were the highest tallied in the post-Ferguson era, while 12 away wins in the top flight were also the most since the Scot stepped aside. All they need to do now is work out a way to get over the hump, whether that be at home or abroad.

Finding the balance in the quest for success

Upon his arrival in December 2018, Solskjaer cited the "very talented squad" at his disposal. That group which struggled for points in the dying embers of Mourinho's reign went unbeaten in his first 12 league games, a run that helped the caretaker stick around in the job for a while longer.

A Champions League away win over Paris Saint-Germain provided further ammunition to suggest the Norwegian should be retained on a permanent basis (he would receive a three-year deal). Marcus Rashford scored the winner from the penalty spot on that famous night in the French capital, one of his 52 goals under Solskjaer.

No player has managed more than the England international, who also tops the list for appearances (128). Mason Greenwood – another product of the academy system that remains so highly valued by both club officials and supporters – has 29 goals in 105 appearances.

There have been hugely successful signings, too, with Bruno Fernandes (40 goals in just 80 games) the pick of the bunch. Edinson Cavani, who scored 17 times in the 2020-21 season, proved an astute bit of business as well, a free transfer that paid off spectacularly as a much-needed focal point in the forward line.

Rashford, Greenwood, Fernandes and Cavani demonstrate the "good balance" within the squad that Solskjaer mentioned in the announcement of his new contract. Sancho joining from Borussia Dortmund only adds even greater depth to the attacking options, having returned to Manchester – albeit the other side of the divide – after dazzling during his time in the Bundesliga.

A centre-back, quite possibly Raphael Varane, would help bolster the back-line that gave up 44 league goals in the previous season, but Solskjaer has plenty to work with already.

He spoke both prior to the end of the league season and also in the aftermath of losing on penalties to Villarreal in the Europa League showpiece about the need to strengthen the squad, calling for two or three high-profile signings.

Sancho is certainly one of those, while Varane would tick that box as well, so it seems the much-maligned owners board are set to grant him his wish.

United have shown faith in Solskjaer throughout and now he needs to repay them in the only way possible – by winning trophies.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's working relationship with the club he loves is set to carry on until at least 2024 after he signed an extension with Manchester United.

The deal, a pre-season boost as United prepare for a new campaign, came with a glowing endorsement from outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who talked up the "foundations in place for long-term success on the pitch" in the official statement released by the club.

There are obvious reasons to be so optimistic, too, considering the Red Devils finished runners-up to Manchester City in the Premier League and also reached the Europa League final.

However, as has become a worrying trend of late, they still came up short in the quest for silverware. Solskjaer's new deal, plus the signing of Jadon Sancho, shows a high degree of faith in the current regime, but also shortens the list of excuses if the near-misses continue.

Partnerships in football can sour swiftly if things do not pan out as hoped – the previous manager to occupy the home dugout at Old Trafford knows that only too well...

A sign of better times after life under Mourinho

Solskjaer has a win rate of 52.6 per cent in the Premier League since taking charge. His average of 1.86 points per game sits him third on the United list since the competition's inception, behind an undoubted club legend and a former boss who knows an extension is not always a guarantee of sticking around.

Jose Mourinho triumphed in exactly 50 of his 93 league games in charge. In contrast to the man who replaced him, the Portuguese had early success with United as well, winning the EFL Cup and the Europa League in his first season.

Those seemingly solid foundations subsided quickly, though. He was handed an extension in January 2018 yet was gone inside a year, dismissed amid dissatisfaction with not just results on the pitch but also the style of play. A defeat to Liverpool at Anfield proved to be the final straw.

Mourinho fell seven games short of his Premier League century with the Red Devils, caught out by his entrenched views on how the team should be set up as he seemingly failed to grasp the club's traditions.

Solskjaer now has his hundred within sight, a number that seemed highly improbable when he flew in from Molde to answer United's SOS (Save Our Season) call. The trip to Wolves on August 29, United's third outing in 2021-22, following on from games against Leeds United and Southampton, will see him reach three figures in the Premier League. 

In doing so, he will become the first manager to make it to the milestone with United since Alex Ferguson. Matching his league success rate of 65.2 per cent may appear a tall order, but the team have been trending in the right direction after mixed times under the stewardship of more illustrious names.

United's 73 league goals they scored last term were the highest tallied in the post-Ferguson era, while 12 away wins in the top flight were also the most since the Scot stepped aside. All they need to do now is work out a way to get over the hump, whether that be at home or abroad.

Finding the balance in the quest for success

Upon his arrival in December 2018, Solskjaer cited the "very talented squad" at his disposal. That group which struggled for points in the dying embers of Mourinho's reign went unbeaten in his first 12 league games, a run that helped the caretaker stick around in the job for a while longer.

A Champions League away win over Paris Saint-Germain provided further ammunition to suggest the Norwegian should be retained on a permanent basis (he would receive a three-year deal). Marcus Rashford scored the winner from the penalty spot on that famous night in the French capital, one of his 52 goals under Solskjaer.

No player has managed more than the England international, who also tops the list for appearances (128). Mason Greenwood – another product of the academy system that remains so highly valued by both club officials and supporters – has 29 goals in 105 appearances.

There have been hugely successful signings, too, with Bruno Fernandes (40 goals in just 80 games) the pick of the bunch. Edinson Cavani, who scored 17 times in the 2020-21 season, proved an astute bit of business as well, a free transfer that paid off spectacularly as a much-needed focal point in the forward line.

Rashford, Greenwood, Fernandes and Cavani demonstrate the "good balance" within the squad that Solskjaer mentioned in the announcement of his new contract. Sancho joining from Borussia Dortmund only adds even greater depth to the attacking options, having returned to Manchester – albeit the other side of the divide – after dazzling during his time in the Bundesliga.

A centre-back, quite possibly Raphael Varane, would help bolster the back-line that gave up 44 league goals in the previous season, but Solskjaer has plenty to work with already.

He spoke both prior to the end of the league season and also in the aftermath of losing on penalties to Villarreal in the Europa League showpiece about the need to strengthen the squad, calling for two or three high-profile signings.

Sancho is certainly one of those, while Varane would tick that box as well, so it seems the much-maligned owners board are set to grant him his wish.

United have shown faith in Solskjaer throughout and now he needs to repay them in the only way possible – by winning trophies.

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

The men's road cycling race is a standout event as dreams will turn into a reality a year later than athletes might have hoped for at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday.

After Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Friday, Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar will be striving to light up the opening day of competition.

Pogacar goes for gold less than a week after the Slovenian sensation retained his Tour title in Paris and it will be an incredible achievement if he is on top of the podium again.

There will also be archery, judo, shooting, taekwondo and weightlifting titles up for grabs on the first day of the Games 12 months after they were due to be contested.

Stats Perform pick out what to look out for on Saturday.

 

POGACAR FACES ANOTHER HUGE STAMINA TEST

Pogacar dominated the Tour de France and is the favourite to follow that up with Olympic gold in what promises to be a thrilling road race.

His compatriot Primoz Roglic is another strong contender for gold, while Canada's Michael Woods and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde will start the race with high hopes of securing a medal.

Belgian duo Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert are also expected to be in the mix.

The 234-kilometre course starts at Musashinonomori Park and finishes at the Fuji International Speedway and features five big ascents, including one on Mount Fuji.

 

HIGH HOPES FOR JAPANESE JUDOKAS

There will be no spectators to provide support, but that is not expected to stop Japanese judokas from setting the standard once again.

The host nation has 39 gold, 19 silver and 26 bronze medals in judo, making it the only sport the country tops the all-time Olympic medal table in.

Naoki Ogata, technical operations manager with the International Judo Federation, is setting the bar high with his expectations on home soil.

"No doubt, we want a gold medal in all weight categories," said Ogata.

 

DJOKOVIC IN HUNT FOR GOLDEN SLAM

Novak Djokovic has already won three of the four majors this year and an Olympic title would leave him heading to the US Open knowing victory would complete the Golden Slam.

The world number one from Serbia plays Hugo Dellien of Bolivia when the men's singles starts on Saturday, while Poland's Iga Swiatek is among the standout players in action in the women's singles - which she begins against Mona Barthel.

There is also women's and men's doubles action on Saturday. 

The pick of the other events to be getting under way will be artistic gymnastics, badminton, swimming, boxing, hockey and rowing.

If an Olympics takes place but no one is allowed to watch it, does it actually take place?

Okay, perhaps not the best philosophical opener – especially given billions around the world will be tuning into Tokyo 2020 on their televisions, and approximately 1,000 dignitaries and delegates were in attendance for Friday's opening ceremony in Tokyo.

But the fact remains these Games, postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, are the Olympics that many did not want.

A Games like no other this may be, but certainly not for any celebratory reasons. There has been little clamour or fanfare in Japan for an event many in the country fear could act as a COVID-19 superspreader with athletes, coaches, officials and media flocking to the capital in their droves.

Right now, the usually blindingly bright streets of Tokyo should be flocked with international fans exploring this beautiful city, finding their bearings and preparing for the grandest sporting show on earth.

Of course, the reality could scarcely be different. Domestic spectators are not allowed into Tokyo venues let alone those wishing to travel from around the globe, while athletes are protected in bubbles, shipped from venue to venue to try and limit infections in a city still under a state of emergency imposed on July 12.

Yet, here we are. Faster, higher, stronger and now – thanks to an addition to the Olympics' well-known slogan – together. The Games have, belatedly, begun.

And with them is a feeling the world is on tenterhooks. It feels especially crucial that the next fortnight run without major incident, to unite, to inspire and to bring much-needed hope amid a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic.

Reminders of what we've all been through were constant throughout an opening ceremony that mixed poignancy with a memorable demonstration of Japanese culture.

A beautiful sequence early in proceedings showcased a runner on the treadmill and a rower on the machine, depicting the way athletes had to train in solitary conditions during the height of lockdowns, adapting like everyone else to the restrictions imposed on all our lives – while the movement of dancers represented the advancements in technology enabling us all to stay connected.

There was an emotional moment of silence and a period of reflection for the hardship and loss experienced for over a year and a half, not to mention the fact that representatives of each of the over 200 nations and IOC Refugee Olympic Team were all wearing facemasks.

But there was a message of hope too, and a belief these Games can offer an example of how to move forward and unite a world divided by COVID-19.

IOC president Thomas Bach was as defiant as ever as he preached a message of solidarity during his address.

"We are standing in solidarity to make the Olympic Games happen, and to enable all of you dear athletes, and from all sports to take part in the Olympic games," he said. 

"This solidarity fuels our ambitions to make the world a better place through sport. Only through solidarity can we be here tonight. Without solidarity there is no peace.

"This feeling of togetherness this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel, the pandemic forced us apart, to keep our distance from each other, to stay away even from our loved ones. This separation made this tunnel so dark."

How we all so desperately want that last message to be true. How we all truly buy into Tokyo 2020's key concepts of moving forward, united by emotion, and for a more diverse future.

And it was easy to get caught up in the belief this can be achieved. Not least because – even in lieu of the usual roar that would meet their arrival – of the obvious joy for the hordes of athletes as they made their way across Tokyo's Olympic Stadium ready to fulfil a delayed dream, ready finally to perform in front of the world for a golden prize after years of gruelling graft and sacrifices in a quest to perform at the pinnacle of sport.

There was kabuki dancing, immense choreography, sparkling fireworks and glorious illuminations lit up by 1,824 drones. Many even braved the stifling heat and humidity to try and sneak a look inside the stadium in perhaps a sign that the stance towards the Games has softened.

But amid the hope came a stark reality. Reports that protestors could be heard chanting angrily from those inside the stadium offered a blunt reminder that there is significant opposition to these Games taking place.

Bach's dream of unity and solidarity is one we can all share. But make no mistake, this is a Games like no other and Tokyo 2020 must deliver on its promise.

Jadon Sancho's long-awaited move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United has finally been completed.

The 21-year-old England international arrives at Old Trafford having scored 50 goals and provided 57 assists in 137 appearances across all competitions for the Bundesliga side. 

He became the first Englishman to reach at least 10 assists for three straight seasons in Europe's top-five leagues since former United star David Beckham, who achieved the feat between 1997-98 and 2000-01.

The €85million (£72.9million) fee makes him the fourth most expensive signing in the Red Devils' history.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how the rest of the top five fared at Old Trafford.


Paul Pogba - £94.5m from Juventus, August 2016

Four years after letting him leave Old Trafford on a free transfer United paid Juventus a then world-record fee to bring the France international back to the club. 

There have been moments of brilliance during his second stint, but he remains a source of much frustration for United fans, who believe he should deliver the kind of displays he does when playing for his country more often at club level. 

His cause has also not been helped by the continued public utterances from his agent, Mino Raiola, that he wants to leave the club, with Real Madrid considered a likely destination. 

Pogba – who enjoyed a fine Euro 2020 for France before they were knocked out in the last 16 by Switzerland – is now into the final 12 months of his contract at United and could well start the 2021-22 season elsewhere if a club comes in with an attractive offer. 

Harry Maguire - £78.3m from Leicester City, July 2019

Maguire became the most expensive defender of all time when United paid £78.3m to Leicester City for his services. 

He has been a robust, if unspectacular, presence at the heart of the Red Devils’ backline since then, playing in 71 consecutive league games following his move until an ankle injury against Aston Villa on May 9 ended his 2020-21 campaign early. 

Despite missing the last four games of the season, Maguire ranked second in the Premier League for aerial challenges won (135), fifth for duels won (203) and sixth and seventh respectively for interceptions (60) and recoveries (199).

He was one of England's stars during their stunning Euro 2020 run and will surely arrive back at Old Trafford ahead of the 2021-22 campaign with a spring in his step.

Romelu Lukaku - £76.23m from Everton, July 2017

The Belgium international was the first-choice striker for the best part of 18 months under Jose Mourinho after United stole in ahead of Chelsea to sign him from Everton.

He scored 27 goals in all competitions in his first campaign, but the Portuguese coach's successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer preferred the more mobile and agile Marcus Rashford to lead the line.

Lukaku still managed to make an impact during his second season, scoring twice in United's famous Champions League turnaround away to Paris Saint-Germain in March, but his tally in all competitions was down to 15. 

He completed a move to Italian giants Inter in 2019 and played a significant role in their 2020-21 title win.

Angel Di Maria - £67.5m from Real Madrid, August 2014

After four hugely successful years at Los Blancos, Di Maria was expected to light up the Premier League. 

A glorious chip against Leicester City early in the season suggested he would do just that, but things fell away dramatically for the Argentina international after that.

He left for Paris Saint-Germain after one disappointing season in which he found the back of the net just four times across all competitions.

Novak Djokovic has leapt from one bubble into another as he attempts to become the first man in tennis history to win all four grand slams and Olympic gold in the same year.

The only men to have won each of the singles majors across their careers, plus Olympic gold, are Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, and now Djokovic aims to move to the brink of winning all five in his remarkable 2021 season.

Fresh from dominating at Wimbledon, and with the Australian and French Open titles already in the bag, Djokovic heads into the Tokyo Games as a red-hot favourite, seeking to set himself up to complete a historic campaign at the US Open.

Naomi Osaka will enter the Games with almost as much expectation behind her too, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion eyeing glory for hosts Japan.

But tennis has thrown up a host of shock results in its short Olympic history. Here, Stats Perform looks at the sport's place in the Games.

 

WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT, AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all opted out of the Olympics.

Williams made her mind up prior to suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon, although she is already a member of the career Golden Slam club.

Federer reached his decision after revealing he also suffered a physical setback at the All England Club, and Nadal elected to take a two-month break after relinquishing his French Open title.

Don't expect to see them again at the Olympics, given Williams and Federer will be pushing 43 by Paris 2024, and Nadal will be 38. Federer won a doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, but his singles peak was the silver medal he earned in 2012, Andy Murray crushing Swiss hopes in the final at Wimbledon.

Dominic Thiem, Bianca Andreescu, Nick Kyrgios, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Denis Shapovalov are among other confirmed absentees, with fitness issues a factor for some, less so for others.

The COVID-19 crisis is a mitigating factor in why so many stars are staying away, and directly responsible in the case of some players, such as Britain's Johanna Konta and Dan Evans, who both tested positive recently.

But tennis was only fully restored to the Olympic programme in 1988, after being dropped post 1924, and if players are seen to be favouring the grand slams over the Games, that is not such a great look for the sport.

At a time when the International Olympic Committee has shown it is willing to shake up the sports on its programme, tennis could perhaps do with a headline-making Tokyo 2020.

Murray, the two-time defending men's champion, will target an improbable hat-trick. A hat-trick for the injury-hit former world number one would be a sensation, and Osaka landing gold in the women's tournament would surely be one of the great moments of the Games.

 

DJOKOVIC FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GRAF

When Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini in the women's singles final at Seoul, it completed what we know now as the calendar 'Golden Slam'. She had already won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, and the feat of the then 19-year-old West German has yet to be repeated.

Now Djokovic is three-fifths of the way to a similar clean sweep of the majors and the Olympics, with the US Open getting under way on August 30 in New York.

He teetered on not going to Tokyo, and perhaps he is to some extent endangering his chances at Flushing Meadows by spending more time travelling and enduring bubble life, while others rest up.

But Djokovic is a fiercely proud Serbian and could not resist a great chance of winning gold for his country. He landed bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing but in 2012 he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze-medal match, and a cruel draw at Rio four years later saw him assigned Del Potro in the first round.

Top seed Djokovic bowed out in two tie-breaks to the powerful Argentinian, describing the outcome as "one of the toughest losses in my career".

There is no danger of a hat-trick of defeats to Del Potro, which may help Djokovic. Del Potro has been battling for two years to get back to fitness, undergoing four rounds of right knee surgery in a bid to get back on tour.

 

RAISING THE BAR AT THE OLYMPICS

How the Olympic village functions in Tokyo will be distinctly different to at previous Games, given the pandemic restrictions in place that could be a real buzzkill.

But in the past there have been countless cases of athletes becoming inspired by their surroundings and going on to perform above their usual level.

It can be a party village, and it can also be an eyebrow-raising experience as global superstars rub shoulders with competitors who might struggle for recognition in their home towns. More than anything, the shared team experience, fighting for a collective cause, can make a middling athlete believe they can be great.

Monica Puig was a massive tennis outsider in 2016 but the then world number 34 won the women's singles, stunning Angelique Kerber in the final after beating Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza en route. That gave Puerto Rico their first ever Olympic gold medal.

In 1992, a tournament that featured the likes of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker finished with a staggering final match-up of Marc Rosset versus Jordi Arrese, who in his home city of Barcelona was edged out 8-6 in the fifth set by the Swiss world number 43. Nobody would have predicted that head to head for gold.

Similarly, at Athens 2004, Nicolas Massu beat Mardy Fish in the gold medal match of a tournament that featured Federer, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Tim Henman.

In the 1996 Atlanta Games, Lindsay Davenport, who had just turned 20, took inspiration from being the daughter of an Olympian, with dad Wink having played volleyball for the United States at Mexico City in 1968.

Davenport was beginning to make an impact on the WTA Tour but was only the ninth seed at the Olympics, yet she swept through the rounds before sinking Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 7-6 (10-8) 6-2 in the final.

"It's like one of those things I look back on and I'm like, 'Was that me?'," Davenport told The Tennis Podcast last year.

"It doesn't seem like it was real. I'd made the transition to the pro tour pretty well, but I liked hanging out between eight and 16 in the rankings. I was very insecure, unsure of what could I do. I liked doing well but I wasn't sure I wanted to do too well because it seemed really overwhelming to be one of those top players.

"Here I go at 20 years old to Atlanta for two or three weeks, in a setting that seemed so comfortable. Look at all these athletes, you have all different shapes and sizes, you have players that are really working hard but have so much in common and you get to hang out with them, breakfast, lunch, dinner in the village."

Davenport was a future world number one and three-time grand slam singles champion, but at this point in her career being an American at an Olympics in the United States was just a thrill.

"You're sharing this with your team-mates who are some of my best friends in Mary Joe Fernandez, Monica Seles. It was the best time ever," she said.

"By the time the tournament actually started we were like, 'Yeah, I'll go play my match and then we'll go back to the village and we'll hang out', and everything went so fast in those few weeks.

"And there I was left standing, winning at the end because I was so incredibly happy and excited with everything that was going on. I kind of forgot what was my job.

"When it became a reality of even just making the team in '96, it was so huge also for my family with having a second generation Olympian."

There were raucous celebrations in Milwaukee on Wednesday as the Bucks ended a 50-year NBA title drought.

The Bucks clinched their first championship since 1971 with a 105-98 Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

While there was ecstasy for the Bucks, it was agony for the Suns, who let a 2-0 Finals lead and the chance to win the title for the first time slip through their fingers.

They were undone by arguably the premier player in the NBA, with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo reaching what now stands as the zenith of his career to date with a Finals performance that ranks among the best of all time.

Antetokounmpo rose to the occasion in the most emphatic fashion and a closer examination of his dominance in the Finals is the only place to start in Stats Perform's look at who thrived on the grandest stage and who shrunk under the spotlight in the final edition of Heat Check for the 2020-21 season.

WHO GOT HOT

Giannis Antetokounmpo -  Bucks

Though the depth the Bucks have assembled helped them survive Antetokounmpo's knee injury and get past the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the performance of the Greek Freak that was always going to determine the destination of the title.

And when it mattered most, Antetokounmpo - fittingly for a man of his tremendous stature - reached heights few can match in putting together a Finals display for the ages.

In the first three rounds of the postseason, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.2 points per game, a slight improvement on his 28.1 ppg in the regular season despite the injury that forced him to miss the final two games of the Hawks series.

He upped the ante substantially in the Finals, though, racking up 35.17 points per game in a series he capped with a stunning 50-point effort to seal a historic crown for Milwaukee.

In ending Milwaukee's half-century wait, Antetokounmpo wrote his name into several pages of the record books.

Registering 14 rebounds and five blocks in Game 6, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Finals game.

He joined LeBron James (2015) as the second player to average at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a Finals series and followed in the footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal (2000) by recording three games with 40 plus points and 10 plus rebounds in a Finals series.

Antetokounmpo finished the Finals with a field goal percentage (61.8), surpassing O'Neal for the best shooting performance ever from the field in a Finals series.

When the pressure was at its highest, no player was hotter than Antetokounmpo.

 

Pat Connaughton - Bucks

For all the heroics of Antetokounmpo, the Finals was not a one-man show.

Indeed, Antetokounmpo received his fair share of help. The Bucks scored 528 points with his key supporting actors, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, on the court together.

But beyond that pair there were a number of lesser heralded performances, not least from shooting guard Connaughton.

He upped his points per game average from 6.06 in the first three rounds to 9.17 in the Finals. Connaughton also improved in rebounds per game (5.83) having posted 3.88 in the opening three series and made a significant impact from beyond the arc.

Connaughton averaged 2.5 made threes per game in the Finals and trailed only Jae Crowder and Middleton (both 2.67) in that regard.

If he can maintain that level of performance next season, Connaughton will again be a key role player as the Bucks try to defend their crown.

Chris Paul - Suns

Though he was heartbreakingly denied the first NBA title of a Hall of Fame career, Paul can look back on his performance in the postseason and in the Finals with pride.

Only Antetokounmpo improved his points per game average from the opening three rounds of the postseason by a greater margin in the Finals.

Paul put up 18.07 per game as the Suns saw off the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers.

That average leaped to 21.83 in the Finals, while he also made strides as a deep shooter by converting two threes per game, up from 1.21 in the first three rounds.

Paul may look to the fact he had a negative plus-minus in each of the Suns' four losses as evidence of him not performing to a high enough standard.

Yet the reality is nobody did more to help the Suns' cause, but Antetokounmpo ensured his efforts were in vain.

WHO WENT COLD...

Cameron Payne - Suns

One of the stars of the Suns' surge in the NBA bubble last season, Payne has proven an astute acquisition by Phoenix.

He had a significant impact on their success in the playoffs this term, averaging 10.06 points per game across the first three rounds and putting up 29 and nine assists in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers.

But his influence waned in the Finals, which saw him average 7.33 points per game.

Only twice did Payne register double figures in the Finals, in which he scored 44 points in over 93 minutes on the court, finishing with a plus-minus of -21.

Having played a sizeable role off the bench in the Suns getting to the Finals, Payne was arguably more of a hindrance when it came to the season-ending showpiece.

Devin Booker - Suns

Booker was outstanding throughout the postseason for the Suns but he dropped off in two aspects of his game in the Finals.

The Suns were beaten consistently on the boards by the Bucks, who averaged 46.3 rebounds per game to Phoenix's 39.

And part of that disparity was Booker's decline on the glass.

He had put up 6.44 rebounds per game in the first three rounds but saw that tally dip to 3.5 in the Finals.

Additionally, Booker faded as a force beyond the arc, making 1.83 threes per game in the Finals, down from 2.06 in the rest of the playoffs.

Booker has established himself as a bonafide star, but he may spend the offseason examining how he can avoid that kind of decline should he get another shot in the Finals.

 

P.J. Tucker - Bucks

He is unlikely to care given the Bucks emerged victorious, but Tucker's numbers from the Finals do not make for pretty reading.

His rebounds per game average tailed off from 5.18 in the rest of the playoffs to 3.83 in the Finals, while he scored only 24 points in nearly 188 minutes of play.

Tucker had two games where he did not score a point, the second of those coming in Game 6.

However, his plus-minus in the decisive encounter was +13, with Tucker serving as proof that raw numbers are not always the best measure of a player's performance.

While the future of Harry Kane looks set to be the dominant talking point among Tottenham fans for the remainder of the transfer window, there does at least appear to be positive news for Spurs on the horizon regarding a potential incoming.

Granted, it's probably not going to be the kind of deal that immediately has Kane thinking, 'Hang on, this is all the proof I need that I can win trophies here'. But ambition is certainly at the root of the latest developments.

According to Sky Italia, Spurs are close to the signing of Bryan Gil for £21.6million (€25m) plus Erik Lamela. Should it go through, it's arguably one of those rare deals that actually looks like good business for all involved.

For sure, if you consider Lamela to be worth somewhere between £15-20m, it's obviously a lot of money for a player barely out of his teens, particularly when you consider the transfer could reportedly involve an extra £4.3m and a percentage of any future transfer.

But Bryan is arguably among the top three under-21 players in Spain with Ansu Fati and Pedri, and like them has already been capped by Spain. Although there's no guarantee of success, the potential is there.

Bryan Giggs?

It was in Bryan's third Segunda B game for Sevilla's second team, Sevilla Atletico, that he truly announced himself in September 2018. Although he switched between the two flanks, he was at his liveliest on the left and his abilities caused chaos for the opposition, San Fernando.

Even at the age of 17, he was clearly a cut above everyone else on the pitch, his direct yet mazy runs conjuring up images of a young Ryan Giggs as he looked to weave his through the crowds in his way.

He got the first goal, an emphatic finish from the centre of the box, drew the foul that saw a San Fernando player sent off, and then brilliantly beat his full-back before darting along the byline and cutting the ball back to set up what proved to be a 90th-minute winner.

While that game saw Bryan grab the attentions of a few more Sevilla fans, those who had worked with him before were already well-accustomed to his ability.

Sevilla have a link-up with a local school, and their football team CD Altair has seen numerous players come through their side en route to Los Nervionenses' first team. Jose Campana, Antonio Luna, Sergio Rico, Carlos Fernandez and many others have made that journey, while Carlos Alvarez – their next potential homegrown superstar – featured for the first team in a recent friendly at the age of 17.

The technical secretary of Altair, Miguel Mora Lopez, considers Bryan to be one of the two standouts.

"Altair has had a good relationship with Sevilla for many years now," Mora told Stats Perform.

"Throughout our history there are countless professional players who have passed through our ranks in their early years, but it's true that Bryan or Carlos [Alvarez] are the most outstanding so far.

"We always thought that Bryan would succeed in professional football. He was with us only one season when he was 14 years old, but we liked his game. He was creative and very incisive in attack."

 

Talented but incompatible

January 2019 saw Bryan make his first appearance in LaLiga for Sevilla, and he went on to make 10 more before the season was up, becoming the first player born this century to get an assist in the top five European leagues. Everything pointed towards him potentially becoming a regular in 2019-20.

While the appointment of Julen Lopetegui has generally been extremely fruitful for Sevilla as a whole – a Europa League crown and back-to-back top-four finishes – it's difficult to not now see that as the beginning of the end for Bryan at his boyhood club.

Spurs fans might be inclined to see this as a red flag. 'If Lopetegui doesn't rate him then why are we signing Bryan?' It seemingly comes down to the style of player that he is.

Bryan is above all quite an old-fashioned winger. Though he is adept at coming inside even from the left – and a future as a number 10 certainly isn't outside the realms of possibility given his technical ability – a lot of his game is about running at his man, beating him and getting a cross into the box.

 

For example, his tally of 122 open-play crosses was the fifth-highest in LaLiga last term. He's certainly persistent, and in theory this should be perfect for the system Lopetegui likes to operate, with a big and physical centre-forward to get on the end of deliveries. After all, Youssef En-Nesyri came third behind Ante Budimir (seven) and Karim Benzema (six) for among the most headed goals in 2020-21.

But in reality, Lopetegui prefers to use inverted wingers while overlapping full-backs provide more of the 'traditional' wing play. Lucas Ocampos, Suso, Alejandro Gomez, Rony Lopes and Oussama Idrissi are all wingers signed since Lopetegui took over – all like to cut in from the flank and on to their stronger foot.

Bryan played just two league games in 2019-20 prior to joining Leganes on loan for the second half of the season and was then allowed to join Eibar for 2020-21. It proved to be a stroke of genius in some ways.

Although Eibar suffered relegation, Jose Luis Mendilibar's 4-4-2 setup helped bring out the best in Bryan. Their high-pressing system showcased his tenacity and work rate, while their two-man attack meant wing play was essential without a bona fide number 10.

He quickly blossomed into a key player.

Bryan the brave

Spurs fans looking to learn more about Bryan may see his goals (four) and assists (three) output in LaLiga as perhaps a little underwhelming, though that doesn't really give the clearest picture of his effectiveness.

 

For starters, we have to remember Bryan was playing in a team that finished bottom of LaLiga, with Getafe (28) the only team to score fewer goals than them (29).

It's fair to say that was more about those finishing the chances as opposed to Bryan's creativity. His 0.18 xA (expected assists) per 90 minutewas bettered by only five wingers/wide midfielders (minimum 1,500 minutes played) last term, while it was a fair bit higher than his 0.12 actual assists each game.

Similarly, among the same group of players, Bryan ranked fourth for the most open-play key passes per 90 minutes (1.4), which again makes him something of an outlier considering Eibar's relegation.

It's also worth pointing out relegation battles aren't generally the situations managers tend to chuck teenagers into without any consideration of their mentality and qualities – but Mora's assessment brings further credence to the idea that Bryan's just a bit different.

"He wasn't shy at all," Mora added. "Yes, he was a skilled player who moved the ball well and made very precise crosses, but he also added bravery on the field. He never avoided a 'melee' with any opponent."

That bravery can manifest itself in several ways. One of them is tenacity – his average of 12.7 duels per game is impressive for a wide player. Most of those who rank higher than him (minimum 1,000 mins played) are central strikers. For further context, Lionel Messi recorded 14.9 in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, Bryan won the ball back in the final third 1.2 times every match, a figure only two players could beat in 2020-21 (min. 1,000 mins).

And the other area where his courageous streak comes into play is with regards to dribbling, probably his biggest asset. Alberto Perea (6.1) and Ousmane Dembele (5.5) were the two individuals to attempt more take-ons per game than Bryan (5.2), while over the course of the season, he set up 16 chances following a ball carry. Among those considered by Opta to have played predominantly as a winger/wide midfielder in 2020-21, Bryan's 16 ranked only behind Goncalo Guedes (17) and Dembele (23).

 

System adaptation may be required

There's little doubt Bryan has a lot to offer, and although his rather scrawny stature might lead to concerns over his physical suitability, he's demonstrably a player who isn't shy or withdrawn.

But stylistically it will be intriguing to see how he settles into the team should the deal go through. At Eibar last season he played in a side that was almost characterised by its high press, their 363 high turnovers being more than any other side in LaLiga. By contrast, Spurs recorded just 228 while new coach Nuno Espirito Santo's Wolves managed just 205 – both were among the bottom three in that metric.

 

But Spurs' 68 direct attacks were 28 more than Eibar, and Bryan's pace, ability on the ball and eagerness to get in a cross could potentially suit that rather well, while Nuno tended to play with two genuine wingers at Wolves.

Of course, the deal does represent something of a gamble, but is there really such thing as a 'Premier League guarantee'? We've seen countless players do well at one Premier League club before tanking at the next. Alexis Sanchez, anyone?

The important thing here is that Bryan's undoubtedly an exceptional talent and his skillset – at least in theory – seems to lend itself quite well to the fast and furious Premier League.

The last winger to make his way from Sevilla to the Premier League was Jesus Navas. For all his critics, he didn't do too badly, and Bryan already appears rather more equipped.

While most Olympic sports are about elite athletes reaching the pinnacle, few are more effective in pointing us towards the superstars of tomorrow than boxing.

That is not to say Olympic gold in the ring cannot be a crowning career achievement in its own right, but making a national squad for the Games can often precede a glittering career in the professional ranks.

Ukrainian middleweight Oleksandr Khyzhniak, Russian heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov, Cuban light-welterweight Andy Cruz and British featherweight Peter McGrail are among those hoping to take the first step on the road to becoming household names.

Here, we look at some of the men and women they will be looking to emulate.

 

Muhammad Ali

Still known as Cassius Clay, 'The Greatest' first showcased his dazzling skills to the world as an 18-year-old at the Rome Games in 1960, carving out an elegant path to gold in the light-heavyweight division. Poland's 1956 bronze medallist and reigning European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski presented some problems with his southpaw style in the final but Ali would not be denied.

Sugar Ray Leonard

Future rivals Joe Frazier and George Foreman followed in Ali's footsteps with heavyweight gold in 1964 and 1968 respectively, but by the time that celebrated heavyweight era was winding down the United States had another golden generation of talent to get excited about in the form of their 1976 Olympic squad. The cream of the crop was a light-welterweight Leonard, who dazzled on his way to gold – not dropping a single round and then putting Cuban knockout artist Carlos Aldama on the canvas and forcing a standing eight-count in a stunning final victory.

Lennox Lewis

In a fitting precursor to his professional career, Lewis found Olympics glory was something worth waiting for. Representing Canada, he lost to American Tyrell Biggs at the 1984 games before returning four years later to stop Riddick Bowe in the Seoul 88 super-heavyweight final. Lewis avenged the Biggs loss early in his pro-career and a maiden reign as WBC champion came when Bowe refused a mandatory defence against the Briton. Career-defining wins over Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson to stand tall among his peers remained the best part of a decade away.

Oscar de la Hoya

De la Hoya captured the hearts of a nation with his mega-watt smile, making good on his mother's dying wish that he would become Olympic champion. The all-action Mexican-American with a devastating left-hook saw off Germany's Marco Rudolph in the lightweight final at Barcelona 92. The 'Golden Boy' moniker that would dominate the sport in the ring and – more significantly – in a commercial sense for a chunk of the modern era was born and De La Hoya went on to win professional world titles in six weight classes.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.

For those hopefuls who leave Tokyo without gold, there are plenty of examples of elite fighters who went on to incredible success without Olympic glory. None more so than all-time great Mayweather, who had to settle for bronze at Atlanta 96 after a controversial points loss to Serafim Todorov. After 50 professional fights and 26 unblemished world title contests across five weight divisions, the unheralded Bulgarian Todorov – who had a brief 6-1 pro career – remains the last man to beat Mayweather in a boxing ring.

Andre Ward

Another US stylist who went his entire professional career without ever tasting defeat, Ward actually managed to go one better than Mayweather before dominating at super-middleweight and light-heavyweight. At the Athens 2004 Games, the Californian outpointed Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus to claim light-heavyweight gold.

Vasyl Lomachenko

Ukrainian master Lomachenko boxed for a world title in his second professional fight and quickly became one of boxing's leading pound-for-pound stars. That unprecedented progress through the paid ranks makes a little more sense when you consider his utterly absurd amateur record of 396 wins and one defeat. It wasn't really as if anyone in either the featherweight division at Beijing 2008 or at lightweight during London 2012 stood too much of a chance as Lomachenko swept to consecutive golds.

Anthony Joshua

Packed crowds roaring Joshua on to glory are a long-established theme of his two reigns as unified heavyweight champion. Joshua first felt the thrilling weight of a nation behind him when he snuck past reigning Olympic champion and two-time super-heavyweight champion Italian Roberto Cammarelle on countback at the ExCel Arena on the closing weekend of London 2012, having trailed by three points going into the final round.

Katie Taylor

The only fight on the same level as Joshua's gold medal bout – and arguably a level above – in terms of noise at London 2012 was Taylor's opening clash against Great Britain's Natasha Jonas, a rivalry they reprised in the pro ranks earlier this year. Both times, Taylor in all her whirring majesty was successful and the Irish icon secured lightweight gold in the English capital. She was a five-time world champion in the amateurs and, even though she could not go back-to-back in Rio, she then turned over and set about redefining women's boxing all over again as a two-weight world champion.

Claressa Shields

Taylor has indisputably blazed a trail for female boxers and it is one the classy and cocky Shields has ebulliently followed. Victories over Russia's Nadezda Torlopova at London 2012 and Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands at Rio 2016 gave the American back-to-back middleweight golds. She became an undisputed middleweight champion in the pros with a unanimous decision win over the great Christina Hammer in April 2019, before dropping down to do likewise at super-welterweight versus Marie Eve Dicaire earlier this year.

When we look ahead to the Olympics, we usually think about track & field sports, swimming, cycling, maybe even wrestling and boxing.

Given it dominates so much of the sporting agenda for the rest of the year, football may not be among those sports we initially associate with the Olympics, but it has offered numerous stars the opportunity to show their talents to a global audience and to potentially take home a coveted medal.

Of course, the Olympic football tournament is geared more towards lesser-established players, given the age-restriction rules in place.

While teams are usually allowed no more than three players over the age of 23, that age limit has been increased to 24 so not to penalise those around the cut-off who may well have missed out as a result of the 12-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Superstars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi may be missing, but there are still plenty of familiar faces. Barcelona's Pedri will be involved after starring for Spain at Euro 2020; Brazil great Dani Alves is joined by Arsenal and Everton forwards Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison; and dynamic Milan midfielder Franck Kessie will be the Ivory Coast's go-to man.

But there are plenty of other relatively unheralded talents ready to make you sit up and take note. Below, Stats Perform takes a look at 10 of them.

Facundo Medina, 22, centre-back – Argentina

It's fair to say Lens defender Medina has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence. The French side brought him in from Club Atletico Talleres just last July and he's already being mentioned as a potential target for clubs like Manchester United.

While he may not be the most physically imposing central defender, he's a good technician, which is demonstrated by his ease on the ball – only three Ligue 1 centre-backs (more than 1,000 minutes played) embarked on more ball carries per 90 minutes (20) than Medina, while his average of 56 successful passes per game was more than any of his team-mates.

Bryan Gil, 20, winger – Spain

La Roja's squad is packed with familiar names – as many as six were at Euro 2020, and that doesn't include the likes of Marco Asensio, Carlos Soler and Dani Ceballos. But of the players with less global recognition, old-fashioned left-winger Bryan is arguably the most exciting.

He just completed a very encouraging loan spell away from Sevilla with Eibar, where his direct and brave style of play was frequently on display, with only Lionel Messi, Javi Galan and Yannick Carrasco attempting more dribbles than him (132). In January he became only the second player born this century to score a LaLiga brace, and he won his first senior Spain caps this year.

 

Diego Lainez, 21, winger – Mexico

It feels like Lainez has been tipped for a big future for a long time now – after all, he first burst on to the scene with Club America four years ago. Two-and-a-half years into his time in LaLiga with Real Betis, he's yet to really establish himself with only 13 of his 48 league appearances coming as a starter. He's still not scored a goal.

But there's no doubting he's a talent. In 2020-21, he attempted a dribble every 17 minutes, which was a record among Betis players and ahead of even Nabil Fekir (21 mins). Lainez is an entertainer and clearly gifted, but perhaps lacking consistency in his end product. Who knows, as one of the more talented players in the Mexico squad, being seen as a go-to player may aid his quest for maturity.

Teji Savanier, 29, central midfielder – France

Savanier is the odd one out in this list, given he's the only one who actually counts towards an over-age quota, though it could be argued that it's to players like him that playing at the Olympics may matter the most. Savanier's never even played for France's youth teams, let alone the senior side, and he only made his top-flight bow as recently as 2018, but he's one of those central midfielders that's a joy to watch with his wonderful ability on the ball.

He has completed 58.4 per cent of his 279 dribbles in Ligue 1 since July 2018, which is bettered by only three players (more than 150 attempts) in the same period. For greater context, Neymar's completion rate in that time is 52.5 per cent. Savanier should also provide France with a threat at set-pieces, as only Benjamin Bourigeaud created more chances (40) from such situations than the Montpellier star (37) in 2020-21.

 

Thiago Almada, 20, attacking midfielder – Argentina

La Albiceleste's squad boasts numerous talented young attacking players – Ezequiel Barco, Pedro de la Vega, Ezequiel Ponce, but Almada's arguably rated highest of the lot.

A diminutive attacking midfielder from Carlos Tevez's old neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Fuerte Apache, Almada is skilful, explosive and creative. Among players born this century, Almada boasts the best chances created per game frequency (two) in the Copa Libertadores (at least two games played) this season, as well as being the youngest player to have netted at least twice in the competition in 2021.

Claudinho, 24, forward – Brazil

All roads point to Europe for Claudinho, who looks poised to be the first major export of Red Bull Bragantino, the energy drink giant's Brazilian club. While no move has been confirmed yet, it seems only a matter of time before RB Leipzig look to bring him over to Germany.

 

After all, he was the joint-top scorer in the 2020 Brasileirao (18 goals), with his finishing abilities highlighted by the fact a league-high seven of those were scored from outside the box. Claudinho also created 25 more chances than anyone else in the division, and scooped both the Young Player of the Year and MVP awards.

 

Nathanael Mbuku, 19, winger – France

He may not necessarily be a starter for Les Bleus, given they've plenty of attacking talent in the squad, but at the very least left-winger Mbuku could be an interesting option from the bench. Reims are reported to already value him at €15million, and he has previous when it comes to excelling in national team colours – he netted five goals in six games as France finished third at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Mbuku enjoyed a smattering of Ligue 1 appearances that season, though it was in 2020-21 that he truly established himself, making 28 starts – that was tied with Eduardo Camavinga for the most by a player born in 2002 or after. He caught the eye with his ability to beat a man, completing a highly respectable 58.1 per cent of his 74 dribbles last term, a completion rate bettered by only 10 players who attempted at least 70.

Felix Uduokhai, 23, centre-back – Germany

Wolfsburg plucked Uduokhai from 1860 Munich in 2017 with much expected of him. He fell well out of favour in his second season before moving on loan to Augsburg, who triggered their purchase option on him last year. Since moving to Bavaria, he's hardly looked back.

He earned his first senior call-up to the Germany team in November and now there is chatter that some of the Bundesliga's biggest clubs are circling for him again. Whoever gets Uduokhai will land an imposing centre-back whose 102 aerial wins was the fourth-highest in the league last term, while only Amos Pieper (160) bettered his 157 clearances.

 

Brenno, 22, goalkeeper – Brazil

For years, goalkeeper was considered the only position where Brazil struggled to develop world-class players, though Alisson and Ederson have firmly disproved that notion and Brenno could be another to keep an eye on.

In the 2021 Brasileirao, Brenno is averaging the fourth-most amount of saves per 90 minutes (3.5) among those to have played at least four times, and is reportedly interesting Portuguese clubs. A solid showing in Japan might see a potential transfer sped up.

Amad Diallo, 19, winger – Ivory Coast

Manchester United fans will be eager to get a good look at Amad during the Olympics, given they only got glimpses of him in 2020-21 after joining from Atalanta. Amid those eight appearances, he certainly showed flashes of his exciting ability and silky footwork, but they will hope to see some performances of a little more substance.

As much as anything, it could be an opportunity for Amad to earn himself a loan move or prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he's worth keeping around. Jadon Sancho's arrival will likely further impact his exposure to first-team football, but impressing in Japan might encourage his manager to use him as a regular back up to the England international, with Mason Greenwood moved into a central position.

The United States are always favourites at the Olympic Games – and rightly so. In 18 entries to the men's basketball event, Team USA have collected 18 medals, 15 of them gold.

But those three defeats serve as a warning for Gregg Popovich's side.

And any remaining complacency heading to Tokyo 2020 – in pursuit of a fourth straight title – should have been shifted by their initial pre-tournament exhibitions.

The United States lost to Nigeria last Saturday and then to Australia two days later, their third and fourth defeats in exhibitions since first fielding NBA players with the formation of the 'Dream Team' in 1992.

"It was better," as Popovich said, in Tuesday's win over Argentina – "bit by bit, every day, I hope," the coach added – but the pressure is still on, as consistent results must follow when the real action begins.

 

TOUGH START FOR TEAM USA SUPERSTARS

Of course, Team USA have never failed to advance from the preliminary round and that spotless record is highly unlikely to change this year. A kind draw has thrown up only one true test, but it comes first up: against France.

Indeed, Les Bleus dealt the United States their humiliating quarter-final exit at the FIBA Basketball World Cup two years ago.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – put up a game-high 16 rebounds in that France victory and his size is a real problem for familiar opponents.

Gobert led the league with 2.7 blocks and 10.1 defensive rebounds per game in 2020-21, snaring 33.5 per cent of defensive boards while on the floor for the third-best mark in the NBA.

Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green might be versatile but, as the two preferred American options at the five, finding joy in the middle seems unlikely, while Team USA might also struggle to stop 7ft 1in Gobert on defense. His 67.5 per cent shooting was another benchmark.

However, the talent elsewhere in the Team USA lineup should ensure they have enough to win most matchups.

Kevin Durant shot 52.3 per cent from the midrange and 45.0 per cent from beyond the arc in the regular season; only two players made more threes than Damian Lillard (275), who then broke Klay Thompson's record with 12 makes from deep in a single playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

The opener could either see Durant and Co lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament or provide other contenders with a blueprint for beating the United States.

 

BOOMERS BANG UP FOR MEDAL PURSUIT

Australia are far from the biggest team at the Games, but they have already shown the joy that can be found in the paint against Team USA, scoring 44 points from inside the key in their exhibition win.

The Boomers' effective, well-executed gameplan was all the more impressive given the unsettled nature of their team.

They have changed coach three times since the World Cup, and star name Ben Simmons is absent – working to "develop that skill package and improve in a couple of areas", Brian Goorjian said, after averaging an awful 9.9 points per game in the playoff series defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.

But Philadelphia 76ers team-mate Matisse Thybulle is still on hand to provide defensive energy, having led the NBA in steal percentage (3.9), while Patty Mills remains more reliable at international level than for Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.

Four times beaten in the bronze medal game, Australia will expect to finally secure some hardware, yet Group B also contains a dark horse in the form of Nigeria, who followed up their own victory against the United States by dominating Argentina.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent had 21 points against the country of his birth, a total he has only once topped in his NBA career to date.

Nigeria have chemistry, talent and, in Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, coaching experience. They have also played so far like they have a point to prove.

 

DONCIC DRAWN INTO GROUP OF DEATH

Second and third pool games against Iran and the Czech Republic respectively should see that there is no jeopardy for the United States early on, but Group C shows how tough this tournament can be.

There will be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final between Spain and Argentina, while hosts Japan will hope to make some noise. Then there is Slovenia, led of course by Luka Doncic.

One of the most exciting young talents in the world, Doncic has already shown himself capable of dragging a team to against-the-odds victories single-handedly.

The 22-year-old, whose 36.0 per cent usage rate led the NBA this year, was unsurprisingly named the MVP at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas just three weeks after forcing the Los Angeles Clippers to go to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Doncic has averaged 33.5 points across his 13 career postseason games – all of which have come against the Clippers. No player in NBA history has played 13 playoff games or more and averaged more, with Michael Jordan second on 33.4.

But Doncic has lost both of those series to date and is now faced with some hugely experienced players at this level. Argentina's Luis Scola and Spain's Pau Gasol – who moved to Barcelona specifically to prepare for the Games – are both in their 40s.

Should Doncic guide his country into the knockout stage, though, Team USA would undoubtedly be wary of taking on the two-time All-NBA First Team selection.

It wouldn't be an NFL offseason without some contract controversies.

Though the two most recent collective bargaining agreements have made it more difficult for players to hold out, several teams are still approaching the start of training camp needing to resolve issues surrounding players unhappy with the terms of their current deal.

Aaron Rodgers' continued self-enforced exile has cast a shadow over the offseason, but his staring contest with the Green Bay Packers is not tied to his level of remuneration.

For four big-name defenders who skipped mandatory minicamp – though Jamal Adams was permitted to do so due to personal reasons – it is indeed about the money.

New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said recently to ESPN: "I just want what I'm worth, however that plays out. Every player should be paid what they're worth. That's just how it is."

But what is the worth of Gilmore and the three other high-profile defensive players? And should the teams in question make the effort to sign them to more lucrative deals?

Stats Perform looked at the advanced metrics surrounding each player to assess the best course of action for their respective franchises.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots

Gilmore's demand to be paid what he is worth may strike some as bemusing from a player who carries the highest salary cap hit among cornerbacks ($16.27million) and missed five games in a down year.

However, his wish is more likely related to his base salary rather than his overall cap number. Gilmore is due $7m in base salary in 2021, half of what Byron Jones of the Miami Dolphins, whose $14m base salary is the most among corners, is scheduled to receive next season.

Though 2020 was a disappointing year for Gilmore and the entire Patriots defense, he has a strong case for narrowing that gap to Jones.

While he only managed one interception and three pass breakups, Gilmore still had the edge over Jones in several metrics.

His adjusted open percentage, which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position, was 24.18 compared to 26.16 for Jones.

 

Though both spent time playing as inside corners, both Gilmore and Jones are primarily outside defenders and there was a contrast between the two when they lined up at that spot in 2020. Gilmore allowed a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable – on 50 per cent of his targets, compared to 60.4 for Jones.

Gilmore was also superior in terms of burn yards per target (10.08 to Jones' 14.08), while his burn yards per snap average of 1.36 was 12th among corners with at least 200 pass coverage snaps on the outside. Jones struggled by comparison, allowing 1.92 burn yards per snap.

The Patriots used a lot of their salary cap space on a free-agency splurge they hope will get them back in contention. However, given Gilmore's past level of performance – since signing with New England in 2017, he has racked up 52 pass breakups, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and 11 interceptions – they might well be wise to find a way to negotiate a contract with an increased base salary for a player whose unadjusted open percentage of 46.6 was fourth among outside corners in his last full season in 2019.

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Like Gilmore, Howard may also be comparing his contract to that of Dolphins team-mate Jones, whom Miami made the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year $82.5m deal in March 2020.

Howard still has four years left on a deal paying him over $15m a year, but the All-Pro will have his eyes on a contract closer to Jones' average annual value of $16.5m.

Such compensation would unquestionably be deserved given Howard led the league in interceptions for the second time in three seasons in 2020 by picking off 10 passes.

His adjusted open percentage of 25.19 was almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones, and he had a significant edge in burn yards per target, though Howard was not exactly impressive in that category, giving up an average of 11.12 while playing on the outside.

 

Yet that number is likely more reflective of how often the Dolphins left Howard in single coverage. Indeed, Howard's average depth of target of 14.5 yards speaks to the frequency with which he was given the task of staying in tight coverage with a receiver downfield.

The Dolphins aren't flush with cap room – Miami sit just over $5.5m under the 2021 cap – but, in a year where the team will be expected to make a year-three leap under head coach Brian Flores, identifying a method by which to keep Howard happy is the smart move.

With a league-leading 18 interceptions in the past three seasons, Howard is a playmaker the Dolphins need on the field and motivated if they are to challenge in the AFC.

Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks

Having long since angled for a lucrative extension even before his blockbuster trade to the Seahawks last offseason, Adams is finally in line for his payday at some point this year.

Still playing on his rookie contract and due to earn close to $10m in 2021, Adams will have designs on becoming one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL.

Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos is the safety with the top contract, his average annual salary coming in at over $15m, but a better comparison for Adams may be division rival Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals ($14.75m).

Baker and Adams each spend a significant amount of time in the box and down near the line of scrimmage and the latter's reprsentatives will base much of their argument in negotiations around him leading the Seahawks in sacks with 9.5 last year.

 

Yet they may struggle to make a compelling case when the discussion turns to his skills in pass coverage.

Adams finished the 2020 season with an adjusted open percentage of 24.94, comfortably below that of Baker, who set the fourth-best mark among all NFL defenders with 16.38 per cent.

Such a disparity would on the surface appear to make it tough to justify Seattle giving Adams a deal akin to that of Baker.

Yet after surrendering two first-round picks to prise Adams from the Jets, the Seahawks have locked themselves into a situation where they have no choice but to pay him. Though he has proven himself a playmaker near the line of scrimmage, his performance in coverage should lead Seattle to try to ink Adams to a deal with eye-catching headline numbers but a team-friendly structure.

Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

Due to earn $15.5m in base salary and carry a $20.8m cap hit in the final year of his contract in 2021, Jones' desire to receive the compensation he believes he is due before his deal expires is likely motivated by the Cardinals' decision to sign J.J. Watt to a two-year, $28m deal this offseason.

Watt remains an ominous presence on the defensive line, but – now 32, with a checkered injury history, and having posted nine sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons – his signing is a gamble by the Cardinals, and Jones may be wondering why they did not instead invest in keeping him around.

Jones has been the picture of consistency for the Cardinals, posting double-digit sacks in each of his first four seasons with Arizona before a torn bicep cut his 2020 campaign short after five ineffective games.

The Cardinals' reticence to pay the 31-year-old now is understandable given that recent injury, but Jones will feel he has already proven himself dependable heading into 2021 and is more deserving of a new deal than several of his fellow edge rushers who have already received paydays this offseason.

 

In his last full season in 2019, only one edge rusher, Cameron Jordan (70), had more pressures where he beat a pass protector than the 69 Jones produced.

Watt had 51 such pressures in 2020, Shaquil Barrett received a $17m-a-year contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after producing 53, while Leonard Floyd was paid $16m a year by the Los Angeles Rams after beating a man on 39 pressures.

Those deals complicate matters for the Cardinals, who might have to choose between paying a player they may not trust to stay healthy and potentially shipping out the most productive pass rusher in their recent history.

The obvious solution is a new deal laden with playing-time incentives that reward Jones for staying healthy. If that cannot be done, then the Cardinals could possibly soften the blow of losing him by getting a clutch of 2022 draft picks to help them restock their defense in return via trade.

Arjen Robben's playing days are officially over (again), with the Bayern Munich and Netherlands great confirming on Thursday that he is hanging up his boots.

Of course, this is not the first time Robben has made such a decision – he initially retired in 2019 after a decade with Bayern before returning to his first club Groningen.

Although the fairy-tale conclusion he may have hoped for never quite materialised, ending his career where it all began has seen his playing days come full circle.

In honour of Robben's retirement, Stats Perform takes a look at greats who have gone back to their spiritual home in the twilight stages, starting with an overview of the king of inverted wingers…

Arjen Robben - Groningen

Robben's first retirement lasted just a single season, having announced last year he would be returning to his boyhood club Groningen for the 2020-21 campaign. Robben, now 37, initially brought an illustrious playing career to an end in July 2019 shortly after his 10-year spell with Bayern finished. Although at the time he was linked with a potential return to the team that gave him his professional debut, Robben – who suffered with numerous injury problems throughout his career – opted to retire. He then caused something of a shock as he finally went back to the place where it all began, but once again injuries blighted his availability, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances. Club director Mark-Jan Fledderus wanted him to stay on for another year, but when Robben said at the end of the season that he was going to have a long think about his future, the writing was seemingly on the wall. Another U-turn appears unlikely.

Juan Roman Riquelme - Argentinos Juniors

Perhaps more synonymous with Boca Juniors, where he made his professional debut and also spent most of his final years, Riquelme also had a strong affinity with Argentinos Juniors. He came through the club's academy in the early-to-mid 1990s, before then finishing his immense career at Estadio Diego Maradona in 2014, having also played for Barcelona, Villarreal and Argentina. Although the iconic attacking midfielder appeared close to joining Paraguay's Cerro Porteno the following year, the move never materialised.

Dirk Kuyt - Quick Boys

Kuyt briefly came out of retirement three years ago to help Quick Boys, with whom he spent 13 years as a youth. Playing in the Derde Divisie Saturday league, Kuyt was already working as assistant at the time, but made himself available for selection during a striker shortage and he made three appearances. The former Netherlands and Liverpool forward had retired the year before following a second spell with Feyenoord, where he had made his initial breakthrough in the mid-2000s, his form at the time earning a move to Anfield.

Rafael Marquez - Atlas

One of Mexico's greatest players, Marquez's longevity at such a high level was nothing short of incredible, as he accumulated 147 international caps. After breaking into the Atlas team as a teenager having come through their academy, the elegant centre-back enjoyed a sparkling career in Europe, winning 14 titles across spells with Monaco and Barcelona. Time with New York Red Bulls, Leon and Hellas Verona followed, before a final two-year stint back at the Jalisco ended in 2018. Although plagued by off-field allegations towards the end of his career, Marquez went on to become the club's sporting president, before standing down last in 2019 to focus on other areas of the sport. He is expected to be taking up a youth coaching role at Barca next season.

Juan Pablo Angel - Atletico Nacional

Angel perhaps never quite lived up to the expectations he set during his early days as part of River Plate's so-called 'Fantastic Four' with Javier Saviola, Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar, having joined from Colombia's Nacional. Nevertheless, he became a fan favourite at Aston Villa in the Premier League, before spending six years in MLS with New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA. In 2013 he returned to Nacional for two seasons, having left them in 1997. He called it quits in late 2014, just a few days after losing to his former club River in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. "I am ending my career with a final between the two clubs I love the most," he said.

Henrik Larsson - Hogaborgs

While the Swedish club most may associate with Larsson is Helsingborgs, he actually made the breakthrough at a smaller side – Hogaborgs. It was here where he trained from the age of six, before eventually becoming a regular in the senior side and earning a move to Helsingborgs. A trophy-laden career followed, taking him to Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. Although he retired in 2009, he returned to the pitch for Raa in the Swedish third tier three years later, before then finding himself back in the team at Hogaborgs in 2013, helping out due to an injury crisis despite him only previously being registered to a casual team for 'seniors'. This gave him the chance to play alongside his son, Jordan.

Carlos Tevez - Boca Juniors

The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's successful and complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham was by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Manchester United and Manchester City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca" was Maradona's assessment upon 'El Apache's' return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021, though it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

Gianluigi Buffon - Parma

Okay, he is not technically retired yet, so perhaps Buffon does not strictly qualify here. However, after departing Juventus for the second time at the end of 2020-21, the Italy great suggested he had not finished playing just yet. Parma quickly emerged as a potential destination despite their recent relegation to Serie B, and after a few weeks of contemplation, it was confirmed that Buffon was heading back to the club. Now 43, the iconic goalkeeper will wear the Gialloblu for the first time in 20 years, and he is set to remain with them until he turns 45, given he signed a two-year contract. What happens after that is anyone's guess but calling it a day with his first club could be a satisfyingly romantic conclusion.

He is back where he belongs.
He is back home. #SupermanReturns @gianluigibuffon @Kyle_J_Krause @ParmaCalcio_en pic.twitter.com/bh2FO6P8YX

— Parma Calcio 1913 (@1913parmacalcio) June 17, 2021

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