The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

With the action getting under way in Melbourne on Monday, Stats Perform looks at the main protagonists and what the numbers tell us about another high-stakes grand slam.

Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

 

So who takes the title now?

Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

 

Others have more modest ambitions

Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

Barty backed in stacked women's draw

For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

 

Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

 

You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

Chelsea already knew the odds were slim. No team that has been clear by at least 10 points at the top of the Premier League after 21 matches has ever failed to lift the trophy.

The Blues travelled to leaders Manchester City on Saturday exactly 10 adrift and desperate to improve on their showing against Pep Guardiola's men from earlier in the season.

But a familiar foe once again brought their downfall as City sealed a 1-0 win that further increases their lead at the summit and probably has them over the horizon in the title race – at least as far as Chelsea are concerned.

Thomas Tuchel spoke with great clarity and assuredness as he addressed the media on Friday, accepting Chelsea were far too negative in their 1-0 defeat to City at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.

We say "defeat", but in reality it was as close to a 1-0 battering as they come. City tallied three times as many shots as Chelsea (15 to five), and it was a similar story in terms of touches in the opposition's box (34 to 11).

But there was little sign of a major improvement here. Tuchel flailed and flapped like a headless chicken on the touchline, his instructions ultimately powerless against a City side that smothered Chelsea with a high press that just seemed to suffocate them more as the game went on.

Initially, as much as anything, Chelsea just looked confused. Their bravery in playing out from the back was to be commended in some instances, but that mentality seemed to be completely at odds with almost everything else they did.

They would get into the midfield but then launch long balls out wide or to Christian Pulisic in the hole rather than for Romelu Lukaku to run onto. The moves would go nowhere.

 

There was no period of sustained pressure from Chelsea at all in the first half – in fact, they got to the interval without registering a single shot, the first time that's happened in a league game under Tuchel.

Lukaku, bar one early instance where he rolled John Stones before mucking up the final pass, cut a frustrated figure up top. While Chelsea's play in the build-up largely seemed unlikely to get the best out of him, his team-mates might have expected more attempts to run in behind the City defence.

The second half was just a few minutes old when such a situation did present itself, with Lukaku able to do what he's best at: running on to throughballs rather than acting as a target man.

Ederson produced a fine save to block Lukaku's effort, but it was the clearest evidence yet of how Chelsea were likely to hurt City – not that it was necessarily a sign of things to come for the visitors.

 

If anything, it served as a jolt for City, a reminder that, as good as they are, they weren't going to be able to sleepwalk to a win here.

City allowed Chelsea more of the ball, but Guardiola's men upped the intensity significantly with their pressing – the Blues started to find passing through the midfield rather trickier.

Eight of the nine times City won possession in the final third (Chelsea only did so once in the whole game) came in the second half, which was not only evidence of how they were able to impressively dig deep physically, but also highlighted how a team can take the game to an opponent even without the ball.

Of course, City relied on a moment of pure inspiration, which was somewhat predictably delivered by Kevin De Bruyne, who strode away from N'Golo Kante and saw his gorgeous curling effort find the bottom-right corner from 25 yards.

 

It was his fifth Premier League goal against Chelsea, making his old club his favourite opposition in that regard, and a figure bettered by no other former Blue in the competition.

In the context of the match, it also highlighted the differing fortunes of players with comparable pasts: both De Bruyne and Lukaku joined Chelsea as youngsters and ultimately failed to make an impression.

The midfielder now regularly lights up the Premier League, but his international colleague is back at Stamford Bridge and struggling again, albeit for different reasons.

But the fact of the matter is, Lukaku was brought back to turn Chelsea into title contenders – that now looks impossible thanks to another familiar face.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three Australian Open titles and lifted the trophy nine times in all, which means he arrived in Melbourne as a hot favourite to triumph again.

Yet even before the chaos of the last 10 days, this looked a tough Australian Open for Djokovic, given the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have recently taken his scalp in major hard-court matches.

There was no doubt he was a worthy favourite, but Djokovic's dominance of the first half of last season was followed by a series of painful defeats, weakening his standing at the top of the game.

When the men's singles draw was made on Thursday, only two former champions featured: Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the 2009 winner.

Here, Stats Perform assesses the contenders to follow Djokovic onto the Melbourne Park throne.

NEXT NUMBER ONE? DANIIL MEDVEDEV

Last year's runner-up, given a sound pasting by Djokovic in a final that came nowhere close to matching expectations, has come a long way since that crushing blow. Russian Medvedev was the only man to beat Djokovic in a grand slam last year, doing so at the final hurdle of the final major, without dropping a set in the US Open title match. That denied Djokovic a calendar year sweep of the majors, which would have been the first time the feat had been achieved by a man since Rod Laver's 1969 complete set.

He also took the first set off Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, only to lose the match. What is clear is that Medvedev is amassing experiences against Djokovic: some good and some bad, but all surely massively helpful. He lost in their first three encounters but has won four of the seven since.

Progress like this is what repeat champions are made of. Medvedev has a 9-9 win-loss record when dropping the first set of matches over the past year, which shows he is not easily beaten. Only Djokovic (14-6) has a better record in that respect.

Medvedev has a 54-9 record on hardcourts over the past 12 months, has gone mightily close to hitting number one in the rankings, and might see a lot of that top step in the months and years to come. On the 52-week rolling list, he holds a 16-8 win-loss record against top-10 opponents, which is second only to Djokovic (22-5).

Should Medvedev pull off a second consecutive grand slam win, it would make him just the third Russian man to win two or more grand slam singles titles, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov (French Open 1996 and Australian Open 1999) and Marat Safin (US Open 2000 and Australian Open 2005).

The last player other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back majors was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000).

 

OVERDUE SLAM INCOMING? ALEXANDER ZVEREV

The Olympic champion and ATP Finals winner is just lacking a grand slam title to confirm to the wider sporting world his status as one of the rising generation's preeminent performers. Zverev beat Djokovic in semi-finals en route to both of those big 2021 titles, and although he also lost three times to the 20-time major winner over the season, he took four sets off the man from Belgrade in those defeats.

Zverev is improving season on season, and if he avoids injuries or other tribulations in 2022 then he surely stands a strong chance of picking up that first slam before the year is out. He won six titles in all in 2021, more than any other singles player on the ATP Tour, and holds a 43-10 win-loss record on hardcourts on the 52-week rolling list.

When the draw was made, he and Djokovic were set on another semi-final collision course, and that prospect looked tantalising. Until recently so far apart, the gap has closed considerably, Zverev tallying victories that will have surely troubled the world number one.

NOT READY TO BE YESTERDAY'S MAN: RAFAEL NADAL

Because why the heck not? Nadal, at the age of 35, returned from a long foot injury lay-off with a title at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month, and if his record at the Australian Open is deemed unspectacular by some, the Spaniard himself takes great pride in his achievements.

Recently, in a Melbourne news conference, he was asked why he had not reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open since his title year, and Nadal swiftly put his questioner right.

"I am very sorry to tell you – I don't want to – but I have been in the final of 2012, '14, '17, '19," he said. "I got injured a couple of times here in my tennis career, so of course it's been a great tournament for me, and of course I had a lot of challenges in terms of injuries in this event. Sorry to correct you."

Polite as ever, but pointed. Nadal knows he has been successful in Australia and would surely not have returned this year if he felt there was no chance of another run to the final. He rightly takes issue with those who forget his feats. Remember, he, like Djokovic and Federer, sits on 20 grand slams.

Nadal reached the quarter-finals last year and lost from two sets up against Stefanos Tsitsipas, so he will want to banish that memory. There is little evidence of hard-court form beyond his win in a mediocre field last week in Melbourne, but he is Rafael Nadal and he wins tennis tournaments. At least one every year since 2004. A 6-8 record against rival top-10 players over the past 52 weeks is no great shakes, but you count out Nadal at your peril.

 

NEXTGEN OR NEXT NEW CHAMP? JANNIK SINNER

Tennis is such a generation game just now. The Big Three (Big Four, if you include Andy Murray) are in the twilight years of their careers, coming under long-awaited threat from the mid-twenties likes of Medvedev, Zverev, Dominic Thiem (absent from Australia), Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini.

Sinner is to the forefront of the pack of the next big group coming through (see also: Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti). At 20, the Italian is entering a big year in the context of his career. By the time Djokovic turned 20, he was sixth in the world, Federer was 14th on the day he left his teenage years behind, and Nadal was second. Progress comes at different rates.

Sinner was 15th in the rankings on his last birthday, in August, but has since dipped his toes into the top 10 and currently stands 11th. He won four ATP Tour titles in 2021, finished the year with a 49-22 record, and can reasonably be expected to kick on. The Italian has yet to majorly show up at the grand slams, with a Roland Garros quarter-final in 2020 his best run yet.

Expect that to change soon enough. Sinner is only 6-9 against top-10 players on the 52-week list, but he warmed up for the challenge that lies ahead in Melbourne with three straight-sets singles victories at the ATP Cup. His 42-14 record on hardcourts over the last year suggests the Australian Open should suit him as well as any slam.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in for just a smattering of criticism during his final weeks in charge of Manchester United. The fact that his team had apparently forgotten how to play professional football matches was quite the talking point.

But few things put quite so many noses out of joint as his comments about Marcus Rashford some weeks before his departure.

In October, as Rashford prepared to make his first appearance since shoulder surgery two months earlier, Solskjaer suggested the forward needed to "maybe prioritise his football" after 18 months of dominating headlines for philanthropy rather than finishing.

Later, Solskjaer was forced to clarify his remarks as some felt he was criticising Rashford for tallying up free school meals instead of goals. That felt unfair given Solskjaer was generally speaking in glowing terms, but if there was a hint of brutal honesty there, it's only grown more pertinent.

Rashford is an estimable young man, one who has forced a government into two U-turns over providing for disadvantaged children, who was awarded an MBE for his charity work at the age of just 24. He is also an elite footballer who has produced far too many uninspiring performances in the past year, whose form only seems to be getting worse, who has only played a full game on two occasions all season and who caused astonishment in the Stretford End when he gave up chasing a loose ball in the penalty area in the FA Cup win over Aston Villa.

For United interim manager Ralf Rangnick, Rashford is potentially one of his greatest assets. Right now, his form – and his mood – represent one of his biggest problems.

Rash-flow problems

Rashford started 2021 in promising fashion, with six goals and five assists in 20 starts in all competitions beginning with one of each in an FA Cup win over Liverpool at Old Trafford. Soon came a seven-game run in which United went into pragmatic mode, keeping clean sheets in all but one match but scoring only four times. Rashford then netted in consecutive games and looked to be firing again.

He would only score another four goals for United all year.

Some important context is needed. Rashford went through some personal upheaval last year that would have been hard simply to shrug off. He also spent much of 2021 playing through injury: ankle and shoulder problems were a big hindrance when he was on the pitch, and the latter required an operation following Euro 2020, a tournament to which even he admitted he probably shouldn't have gone. He did go, of course: he played 83 minutes, all as a substitute, failed to score and missed a penalty in the final shoot-out. He did not then appear in 2021-22 until October 16; he marked his return with a goal, but it came in a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City that spelled the beginning of the end for his manager. This was hardly the smoothest of years.

Part of the reason Rashford played through pain for so long was he embraced being Solskjaer's Mr Reliable. He played 135 games under the Norwegian, more than any other United player. In that time, he also scored the most goals – 55, 11 more than Bruno Fernandes – and provided 22 assists, a tally behind just Fernandes (33) and Paul Pogba (23). In the nearly three years Solskjaer was in charge, both as caretaker and permanent boss, only seven Premier League players scored more goals than Rashford in all competitions.

Like many managers, Solskjaer had his favourites. It gave his team a consistent structure and meant that, when things were going well, good habits and good spirits could permeate the side. But when it started to go wrong, when players kept their places even as their form took a nosedive, the scrutiny and pressure to improve grew exponentially. This took its toll in real time: Harry Maguire went from England rock to a running joke; Fernandes looked more forlorn with every flail of his arms. And Rashford, as former United star Rio Ferdinand pointed out, has looked like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, running himself further into the ground with every insipid display.

From April 9 until the end of 2021, Rashford scored four goals in 23 games in all competitions. Among Premier League players, he had a worse strike rate than Burnley's Jay Rodriguez (five goals in 23 games) and Leicester defender Jonny Evans (four in 21). Former Red Devil Danny Welbeck scored the same number in just 14 Brighton and Hove Albion appearances.

Over the same time frame, Rashford managed three assists, as many as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Joshua King, and one less than Conor Gallagher. That left him on seven direct goal involvements, while midfielders John McGinn and Declan Rice managed eight. Rashford created 19 goalscoring chances, marginally more than Leicester's close-season signing Patson Daka (18) and Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rudiger (17). Rashford (45) had only two more shots than Rudiger over that time, with just 14 on target, the same number as Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold.

On average, Rashford was involved in 0.41 goals per 90 minutes; among United players with at least two goals in that time, only three come off worse. One is July signing Jadon Sancho, a 21-year-old trying to adapt to a new club, new systems and new expectations. The others are Fred and Scott McTominay.

Running for Ralf

Just after his appointment, Rashford spoke positively about Rangnick's attention to detail.

"He's done a good job because prior to him coming in he spent a lot of time analysing the team and analysing individuals and he knows what our strengths are," he said to Sky Sports.

"We've got a lot more together, we've obviously been working on pressing and we'll still improve on that, but the main thing is just doing everything together as a team, whether we are attacking or defending."

For his part, Rangnick doesn't appear outwardly worried about Rashford's form, even though he was at a loss to explain it. Speaking after the win over Villa, he said: "Of course it would be good, for example, for Marcus if he could score a goal but as long as he's trying, as long as he's training well, I don't see that much of a problem."

"Trying" doesn't seem to be an issue. Rangnick, we know, is a stickler for hard running and high pressing, and only Cristiano Ronaldo (93) has made more sprints than Rashford (85) in the Premier League since the German was appointed in late November (including the 3-2 win over Arsenal, when Michael Carrick was still in caretaker charge of the side). Similarly, only McTominay (82) has contested more duels than Rashford (53), and nobody has attempted more dribbles (22). 

Going back to the start of last year, Rashford has recorded 500 sprints in the Premier League, the fourth-most among United players at a rate of about one every four and a half minutes. The only United attackers to play at least 10 times with better rates are Sancho (4.35) and Dan James (3.11), now at Leeds United. Ronaldo, if you're interested – and let's face it, you are – averages roughly one sprint every five and three-quarter minutes, which is more frequent than Fernandes, who is closer to one every six minutes.

On and off the pitch, you can't fault Rashford's endeavour. The story of the past year hasn't been one of attitude, but aptitude. Rashford runs, but not always at the right moments; he dribbles, but in the wrong areas; he finds an opening, and he makes the wrong choice.

Rash converters

You don't need to look too closely to see that Rashford's output is below par this season, but the deeper you dig, the starker that reality becomes.

His career average for minutes per goal is 207; this season, it's 282. His dribble success rate is 38.6, down from 42.5 on average. His shooting accuracy is 53.3, down from 57 on average. His crossing accuracy has more than halved from 15.8 to 7.1.

Across all competitions since January 1 last year, Rashford has attempted 207 take-ons, way more than any other United player (Mason Greenwood is next on 170), 178 of which have been in the opposition's half. His 21 drives into the box are at least 10 more than anyone else at United, he is joint-top for take-ons with a shot (seven, with Greenwood) and top for take-ons with a chance created (four). He is also United's attacking player with the most progressive carries in which he has moved with the ball 10 metres or more towards the opponents' goal (158). However much the Villa incident suggested otherwise, there's no obvious lack of effort.

Yet there is a verifiable, worrying lack of efficacy in these attempts to make things happen. Looking at the Premier League alone, only five players since last January 1 have attempted more take-ons in the opposition half than Rashford (128); the man top of that list, Adama Traore (184), is the only player with more drives into the box (26 to Rashford's 16). But the Wolves winger, so often derided for end product, has 11 take-ons with a shot and 14 take-ons with a chance created, 14 more than Rashford when you combine the two.

Over the same period, Mohamed Salah (41) had the most carries to end in a shot, with Greenwood second alongside Harry Kane with 38. There are 25 players who had more than Rashford (18). When it comes to a carry ending in a chance created, Traore is top of the table with 36; Rashford, with 10, is below 49 other players.

It reflects a recurring concern: that when Rashford runs at defenders with the ball, it's less a calculated attacking move and more one of hope, or desperation. It's a symptom of both Solskjaer's system, which relied on the spontaneity of the individual, and of Rashford's own conviction that any problem is just waiting for him to solve it. He tries to play like a man who has earned the famous United number 10, a superstar performer in a squad bursting with talent. In reality, the shirt looks heavier with every passing minute.

In some ways, Rashford is emblematic of United's wider problems. He desperately needs not only a morale boost, but a tactical one: he needs hardline instructions, and to play in a system in which he feels confident as well as competent. Ironically, he is one of the few for whom the Solskjaer-Rangnick transition should be simplest since both Ole's 4-2-3-1 and Ralf's 4-2-2-2 offer the kind of wide left attacking role Rashford likes best.

Whatever the root cause of his malaise, he will be desperate for things to change, and change quickly. Perhaps they will. Perhaps he'll light up Villa Park on Saturday, kick-start his return to form and United's road to redemption.

After all, U-turns are a Marcus Rashford speciality.

Manchester City and Chelsea were both in the market for a striker ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Although Chelsea sealed Romelu Lukaku's return – for a club-record fee reported to be £97.5million – City were unable to break Tottenham's resolve and sign Harry Kane.

For a brief time towards the end of August, it seemed Cristiano Ronaldo would be heading to the Etihad Stadium. Yet City again came away empty-handed – Ronaldo, like Lukaku, returning to a former club as he joined rivals Manchester United.

Indeed, City were once linked with Lukaku, with the forward himself claiming he had turned down an approach in 2020. But Pep Guardiola's team have, so far, cast aside any doubts that a lack of an out-and-out striker would cost them dearly.

City looked set to be in a three-way title race earlier in the season, alongside Chelsea and Liverpool. Heading into their second top-flight match of 2022, they are 10 points clear of the Blues and 11 clear of the Reds.

City turned in a statement performance in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in September and, while rumours swirl of impending approaches for Erling Haaland or Dusan Vlahovic, two of Europe's brightest striking prospects, it will be Guardiola's 4-3-3, false nine system that Thomas Tuchel must look to counter on Saturday.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the respective attacks have stacked up this season.

Rom's return

It would be fair to say Lukaku's return to Stamford Bridge has not yet matched what was expected. Having led Inter to their first Serie A title in 11 years, Lukaku re-signed for Chelsea to much fanfare and, undoubtedly, as one of the most fearsome finishers in European football.

Lukaku's second Chelsea debut could hardly have gone better as he opened the scoring against Arsenal after just 15 minutes, putting his strength, pace and positioning prowess on full display.

Yet he has so far failed to hit his stride. His five league goals from 13 appearances ranks him behind Mason Mount and Jorginho (both six) in Chelsea's squad, albeit the latter has netted all of his from the penalty spot.

Lukaku's goal return has come from a total of 22 shots, the fifth-most in Chelsea's squad, at an average of 2.3 per 90 minutes played. However, his rate of scoring every 166 minutes in the league puts him top of Chelsea's squad in that metric.

But that has been another issue with his comeback. Lukaku has featured for just 828 minutes in the league, starting only eight times, with 12 team-mates accumulating more game time.

An injury sustained in a Champions League win over Malmo in October kept him out of action for several weeks and he subsequently contracted COVID-19.

Then, late in December after he scored in successive matches against Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion, Sky Italia released an interview, conducted several weeks previously, in which Lukaku questioned Tuchel's tactics and suggested he could leave Chelsea.

Tuchel reacted strongly, dropping the forward for a pivotal clash with Liverpool on January 2, which finished 2-2. Lukaku apologised and returned to Chelsea's side for the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

One of Lukaku's complaints was about how Tuchel has used him so far. 

Last season, playing typically in a 3-5-2 system at Inter, Lukaku averaged three shots, 1.5 attempts on target, 7.3 touches in the opposition box and 1.6 chances created per 90 minutes, across 36 Serie A appearances. But those figures have so far dropped to 2.4 shots, 0.9 attempts on target, 6.4 touches in the opponent's box and 1.5 chances created this term, with the forward deployed as a target man to combine with Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and the rest of Chelsea's attack.

It is a role that does not seem to suit Lukaku best, though Tuchel has made it clear who the boss is.

False nines and a flying full-back

Chelsea and City have played 21 league games this season, but Guardiola's team have netted six goals more. They average one every 36 minutes, compared to Chelsea's 43, and have out-shot the Blues 391 to 320.

This is all without a recognised number nine but, as proved by their charge to a third league title in four seasons in 2020-21, City have cracked the code of having any player but a centre-forward lead their line.

Whether it is Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gundogan, the magnificent Bernardo Silva or, occasionally, the man who wears nine, Gabriel Jesus, City have a wealth of stellar options to slot into that role.

Sterling and Silva, who has been in sensational form all season, lead the way with seven goals each. It is a testament to Guardiola's man management that the duo, who might have left the club in 2021, are in such rich form.

Riyad Mahrez – the only City attacker with a consistent position – has netted six. De Bruyne and Foden have added five apiece.

City share their goals around for fun, while three players (Sterling, Silva and Jesus) have had over 100 touches in the opposition box, with Grealish on 99. No Chelsea player has managed more than 76 (Mount). 

De Bruyne's 36 chances created is more than any other player in City or Chelsea's squads, while the Belgian is level with Foden and Gundogan for big chances created (six), with Mount the only Blues player able to match them.

Allowing whichever front five plays for City to flourish is Rodri, who has taken the mantle from Fernandinho at the base of midfield, and creative support comes from the superb Joao Cancelo.

He has provided four league assists from 22 chances created, which ranks him sixth in the competition for defenders, with his four big chances tied for fourth, behind Trent Alexander-Arnold (11), Andrew Robertson and Reece James (five), who is a big injury miss for Chelsea.

It is not just Cancelo's passing and crossing that supports City's attack, however, with the full-back registering fourth in the league, behind three club-mates, for total carries (380) and sixth for carry distance (3,867 metres). Thiago Silva is the sole Chelsea player to have a place in the top 10 for either statistic.

Finely balanced

While City seemingly have the edge heading into Saturday's contest, Tuchel found a way to thwart Guardiola's system last season.

City countered this with their aggressive approach at Stamford Bridge but only four months previously, Guardiola's men fell short in their first Champions League final – Havertz scoring the winner in a match that perhaps forced City to make their move for Kane.

Tuchel won all three of his encounters with City in 2020-21, though those matches are the only times he has beaten Guardiola, who won three of their five Bundesliga meetings.

Chelsea went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and came out with a point earlier this month, though if Chelsea are to rope City back in, they need their investment in Lukaku to pay off.

Should City's death by a thousand cuts prevail, Chelsea's title challenge might well and truly have bitten the dust.

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

Mikel Arteta was unable to provide excuses on Sunday, after Arsenal crashed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.

"We are out of the competition and we have to apologise."

Arsenal have won the FA Cup a record 14 times, with their last triumph coming in Arteta's first half-season in charge. But while they will lament being on the end of a giant-killing, they have the chance to bounce back from only their second third-round exit in the past 26 seasons when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Thursday in the first leg of a semi-final in England's other major domestic cup competition.

Initially, the Anfield fixture of this EFL Cup tie was due to be played second but Liverpool's coronavirus crisis, which Jurgen Klopp revealed was ultimately down to several false-positives within the squad, led to the postponement of the first leg at Emirates Stadium, originally set to be played on January 6.

The Gunners lost 4-0 at the home of the Reds in November's Premier League meeting, as Arteta's men were dealt a harsh dose of reality after a 10-match unbeaten run across all competitions.

A further 10 games have passed since then, with Arsenal losing four and winning six.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang having been stripped of the captaincy and ostracised before travelling away for the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta has once again turned mostly to youth as he looks to continue to grow a new "culture" at Arsenal, who sit fourth in the league.

Claiming some measure of revenge at Anfield could just prove Arteta's plan is the solution for long-term success, and four players seem crucial to that blueprint.

Super-sub Smith Rowe

Aubameyang's omission for a breach of club rules brought unnecessary noise in December, though results were not immediately impacted. With the 32-year-old not playing since December 6, Alexandre Lacazette has stepped in to spearhead Arsenal's attack, but behind him Arteta has an abundance of talent to choose from.

Emile Smith Rowe started the season brilliantly, though has only started one league game since November. That has not stopped the 21-year-old from being effective, however, with three of his eight league goals this season coming from the bench in recent wins over West Ham, Leeds United and Norwich City.

Smith Rowe has only played 63 league minutes since featuring for 70 in the December 2 loss to Manchester United, meaning he averages a goal every 21 minutes in that period. 

Asked about Smith Rowe's game time before the defeat to Forest, which the midfielder missed altogether, Arteta explained he had been carrying an injury, one which also means he is a doubt for Thursday's clash.

"The only reason that changed the dynamic was that [injury], and obviously now there are others who are doing well and have been performing well. That changed the situation, but I am very happy with him," Arteta told reporters, before adding that competition for places can only be positive.

"This is why we need that, we raise the level. Each player raises the level of the player next to him, and this is how you evolve as a team, how you create a culture around the team."

Few could say Smith Rowe isn't embracing that "culture", with his recent hot streak off the bench reflecting a commendable attitude.

 

Martin the maestro

One of the "others" Arteta was referring to will surely be Martin Odegaard, who signed permanently from Real Madrid following a bright loan spell last season. Given the Norway international burst onto the scene at the age of 15 in 2014, becoming the youngest footballer ever to play in his homeland's top tier, it would be easy to forget he has only just turned 23.

Only Bukayo Saka (38) has created more chances than Odegaard (34) in Arsenal's squad in all competitions this season, with the midfielder topping that metric per 90 minutes when it comes to players to have featured over two times, producing 2.1 opportunities on average.

His eight direct goal contributions ranks him fifth in the squad while his shot conversion rate of 18.2 is good for a midfielder. Indeed, only the outstanding Smith Rowe, who has converted 32.1 per cent (nine goals) of his 28 attempts can boast better among Arsenal's midfield contingent.

Yet with Smith Rowe's recent spell as an impact player, Odegaard has started behind the striker in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, his eye for a pass and knack of finding space on the edge of the area a key facet to some slick attacking play.

That playmaking ability was on show in the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich on Boxing Day, with Odegaard providing the assists for Arsenal's opening two goals and a key role in their final strike.

While Odegaard (33) has had fewer touches in the opposition box than left-back Nuno Tavares (35) and completed just 10 dribbles compared to Smith Rowe's 23 and the team-leading Saka's 27, no Arsenal player has attempted more passes in the opposition half than Odegaard (523), with 80.9 per cent (423) proving successful.

Odegaard's ability to keep Arsenal in possession with neat and incisive passing has been crucial for the Gunners. Indeed, only centre-backs Ben White (933) and Gabriel Magalhaes (822) have found a team-mate on more occasions than the playmaker (703).

 

Wing wizards

Flanking Odegaard (or Smith Rowe), Saka and Gabriel Martinelli both head to Anfield in superb form. While Saka scored the opener in the 2-1 defeat to City on New Year's Day, Martinelli has directly contributed to six goals from 18 appearances.

Martinelli's devastating turn of pace was on show in a 4-1 rout of Leeds United last month, though the Brazilian flyer missed a golden chance to put Arsenal back in front in their defeat to City, slicing wide of an open goal – if we're being generous, perhaps he was put off by the referee. Still, he should have scored.

Nevertheless, his four goals have come from an xG value of 4.2, putting him just about on par based on the quality of chances he has been provided with, though that is in contrast to Saka.

The England winger's tally of seven goals is second only to Smith Rowe (nine), yet they have come from 4.6 xG, suggesting the 20-year-old is finishing chances the average player wouldn't ordinarily be expected to convert.

For example, his swept effort low into the corner against City was only the seventh-best chance of the game, while a wonderful solo strike at Norwich (his second goal of the game) registered an xG of just 0.03 – essentially, this translates to a three per cent likelihood of scoring.

 

Saka also leads the way for big chances created (defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score) with eight, three more than any of his club-mates, and only Nicolas Pepe has provided more assists (five to four).

Not only is Saka already a proven creator of opportunities, but he is now putting them away with unerring accuracy.

Arsenal were dealt a harsh lesson on their last visit to Anfield, but with a second leg at home to look forward to and with Liverpool missing key duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Thursday could see Arteta's counter-attacking youngsters thrive, with a north London derby against Tottenham up after that.

Even if it again proves a step too far, there's no doubt the future is bright.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for Rob Gronkowski back in April 2020, it was tough to picture the future Hall of Fame tight end having a substantial impact.

After all, Gronkowski had appeared to have spent his last reserves in Super Bowl LIII when he hauled his clearly ailing body downfield and made a diving grab for a 29-yard fourth-quarter reception that set up the New England Patriots' only touchdown of their 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

It was a catch that at the time served as a spectacular last ember of an incredible career, but the Bucs put stock in Tom Brady's belief that Gronkowski's fire to deliver at the highest level still burned brightly, and they have been emphatically vindicated.

He caught seven touchdowns in the 2020 regular season, but he once again saved his best for the grandest stage with a dominant two-touchdown performance in the Bucs' Super Bowl LV rout of the Chiefs.

And, with Tampa Bay shorn of most of their depth at the wide receiver position, there will be an even greater emphasis on Gronkowski to rise to the occasion as the Bucs attempt to defend their title.

His numbers from a surprisingly efficient 2021 suggest he is more than up to the task.

Running out of receiving weapons

Last year, opposing defenses weren't able to consistently dedicate special attention to Gronkowski, such was the wealth of options at Brady's disposal.

They went into the previous campaign's postseason with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown at receiver as well as having Gronkowski at tight end.

Evans remains and remains an extremely gifted number one receiver who perhaps does not get the credit he deserves for his hugely impressive consistency.

In Week 18, Evans surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the eighth successive year, an NFL record for the longest streak to start a career.

He leads all wideouts (min. 100 targets) in burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted. Evans has won 75.2 per cent of those matchups this season, while he is also first among receivers who meet that threshold with a big play rate of 43.1 per cent.

However, Brown's departure from the team leaves the Bucs without a receiver tied third for burn yards per route (4.0) among receivers with at least 50 targets.

Godwin is on the shelf with torn ligaments in his knee, robbing Tampa of another top pass-catcher who on the list of wideouts with triple-digit targets trails only Evans, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs with his burn rate of 70.4.

Their absences place Gronkowski's ability to produce elite play at tight end into sharper focus and his efforts at the age of 32 should give great encouragement to Tampa.

Gatecrashing the elite

Gronkowski was long since seen as the gold standard at the tight end position. A mismatch as a receiver and a tremendous blocker, peak Gronk is the blueprint for modern-day NFL tight ends.

But when he re-entered the league after a retirement that lasted only one season, a new order of top tight ends had been established.

George Kittle and Travis Kelce are regarded as the best of the best at tight end, with Darren Waller a tick below that duo. This season, Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert have taken leaps to threaten to join the elite.

Yet in several metrics, it is Gronkowski who stands above that group at the top of the pile.

Gronkowski's burn rate of 72.1 per cent trails only Goedert and Kelce among tight ends with at least 25 targets. However, he is first in burn yards per target (13.00), burn yards per route (3.5) and big play rate (45.7 per cent).

Simply put, no tight end in the NFL has done a better job at creating separation and turning his targets into explosive plays than Gronkowski, whose rapport with Brady shows no sign of dissipating.

Indeed, when he targeted Gronkowski in the regular season, Brady had a passer rating of 113.6. To put that into context, the best overall passer rating this season was Aaron Rodgers' 111.9.

When Brady needed a big play in his final Super Bowl with the Patriots, he turned to Gronkowski, and it was their combination that was arguably the most crucial offensive aspect of the defeat of the Chiefs last year.

With Brown gone and Godwin out, the cupboard is not as well-stocked for the Bucs heading into this postseason, meaning if Brady is to claim ring number eight, he will again need to turn to the man whose renaissance in Tampa is arguably as impressive as his own ceaseless brilliance.

Twelve months ago, Dani Alves was in training with Sao Paulo in between a disappointing draw with Athletico Paranaense and 1-0 home defeat in the San-Sao derby to Santos.

At the same time, Vinicius was in the midst of a Real Madrid goal drought that began in late October and didn't end until March 1.

Now, they are preparing to face each other in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, with Alves astonishingly back at Barca and – perhaps even more surprising – Vinicius probably one of the two best players in LaLiga.

It's fair to say that, at this point last year, there were growing concerns Vinicius simply wasn't going to be the player many had hoped or predicted.

While he was still only 20, he didn't seem to have developed a great deal since joining from Flamengo in 2018. If anything, he looked as though he was in reverse, and rumours were beginning to swirl regarding his future.

 

It was a little like when Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu in Star Wars doubts the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker is 'the One' to destroy the Sith.

Yet, Vinicius (SPOILER ALERT) succeeded where Anakin failed, the Brazilian managing to get himself back on the right path. In terms of decisiveness, he looks unrecognisable now, so ruthless that you'd suggest he was more machine than man – just without the helmet and Darth Vader's asthmatic problems.

First and foremost, Vinicius' haul of 12 goals is already three times his previous best in a single LaLiga season, and he's still got almost half a campaign left.

Undoubtedly Carlo Ancelotti's trust will be playing a part. Zinedine Zidane never quite gave the impression he had absolute faith in Vinicius, but the Italian has been unwavering in that regard practically ever since he got the job for a second time.

But Vinicius deserves the most credit.

He's showing much more maturity in his game. He's gone from being the most frustrating player on the pitch to very often being the most decisive.

His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is up to 0.49 from 0.3, which suggests he's generally getting into better positions than before – but perhaps even more importantly, though connected to that, is the fact he's averaging 0.67 goals over the same period.

Last season that figure was just 0.14, roughly half his xG, evidence that his decision-making and composure were at a pretty low level.

Vinicius is creating chances more frequently as well (1.9 per 90 mins, up from 1.5), but his biggest improvement is definitely in his decisions in front of goal.

 

Of course, outperforming xG can be a sign of good fortune, so some might suggest his form isn't sustainable – we won't know whether that's the case for a while yet.

But even when you disregard that, the improvement he's shown is massive. He's gone from wasting chances he shouldn't, to scoring chances he shouldn't.

His first goal in the recent 4-1 win over Valencia was an interesting exhibition of his new-found striker's instinct. Not only did he continue his run after offloading to Karim Benzema, he then made his own luck when bundling the ball through a crowd before nonchalantly passing into the bottom corner.

While maybe not an astounding goal in isolation, it's difficult to imagine that passage going the same way last season. Confidence breeds confidence, and he looks almost unstoppable.

With that in mind, the man he'll come up against on Wednesday will presumably be getting himself pumped up for a real challenge.

Of course, Alves has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore the hat. If we go back to the bad Star Wars analogies, Alves is Obi-Wan Kenobi. You thought he was gone for good but returns when you need him most.

 

This will of course be his first Clasico since returning to the club in November, answering Barca's call when all they could afford were free signings.

As much as anything, Wednesday's game should provide Xavi with understanding as to what the 38-year-old's ceiling is.

It's unlikely he'll be fazed about the prospect of tussling with Vinicius, though he'll be aware of the standard his compatriot is now playing at.

If Vinicius can be kept quiet, Barca's chances of success will increase exponentially, and it's by no means outlandish to suggest this game could be a turning point in their season, as Xavi noted in his pre-match news conference.

With a recent bank loan allowing them to sign Ferran Torres and president Joan Laporta declaring Barca are "back", all of a sudden the outlook isn't so gloomy, particularly now they're through the worst (they hope) of an injury and coronavirus outbreak crisis.

Xavi's brought through several talented young players already, and then there were injured 'wonderkids' Ansu Fati and Pedri waiting in the wings. They look set for important roles over the rest of the season and beyond – you might even suggest there's plenty of cause for optimism at Camp Nou.

The Supercopa offers a chance to really consolidate the growing positivity, and success in the Clasico might indicate Barca are genuinely back.

We may only be a week into 2022, but the first major international football tournament of the year is on the horizon, with the Africa Cup of Nations kicking off on Sunday.

It's been a long time coming as well – it was initially due to take place in June and July 2021 but was brought forward to January 2021 due to concerns about the weather. It then had to be pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, fans and teams have had to put up with the usual posturing from those at certain clubs regarding the inconvenience of relinquishing players in the middle of the season, but despite that there remains a healthy selection of big names.

In fact, given the standard the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi usually play at, some might even argue this is one of the highest-quality groups of players to feature at a single AFCON.

But the beauty of every international tournament is that there's more to them than the big names – there are plenty of promising younger players looking to impress for a global audience.

Kamaldeen Sulemana, 19, winger – Ghana

Hold on to your seats! Kamaldeen is sure to ramp up the excitement at AFCON, such is his rather chaotic approach to attacking – and acrobatic celebration. The teenage winger is immensely tricky and agile, with his 246 take-on attempts in the 2020-21 Danish Superliga nearly twice as many as anyone else – to put that into context, only Lionel Messi managed more (261) in the top five leagues. He's carried that into Ligue 1 following his move to Rennes, with his average of one shot involvements from a ball carry every 43 minutes being the second best in Ligue 1 (min. 900 minutes played) after Kylian Mbappe – that's obviously pretty good.

 

Ibrahim Sangare, 24, defensive midfielder – Ivory Coast

While good performances at AFCON alone may not be enough for players to convince big clubs they're worth a punt on, showing promise might just get a few more eyes on them. Sangare is definitely one of those who could put himself 'in the shop window'. The PSV midfielder has a lot about him, particularly when it comes to defending. In this season's Eredivisie, only three players (at least 500 minutes played) have averaged more than his 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes, while he ranks fifth for interceptions frequency (2.5) and third for middle-third recoveries (5.7). He's also technically proficient and happy on the ball, with only three players attempting more passes (81.1) on a per-90-minute basis than him.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, attacking midfielder – Tunisia

A former France youth international, Mejbri may have only declared for Tunisia in 2021 but this will already be his second international tournament. The Manchester United midfielder started all six of Tunisia's games as they reached the final of the Arab Cup in December, eventually losing to Algeria in the final. Hannibal may not feature quite as prominently in a full-strength squad, but the midfielder possesses the kind of off-the-cuff abilities that endear him to fans – if not opponents. He is known to be targeted for fouls when playing for United's second team, such is his natural talent.

Ilaix Moriba, 18, central midfielder – Guinea

2021-22 hasn't quite gone as Moriba presumably thought it would. He left Barcelona after failing to agree a new contract, despite having broken into the first-team setup at Camp Nou. The midfielder had shown exceptional promise, particularly on the ball – he averaged 3.2 dribbles per 90 minutes, a total bettered by only four team-mates, and boasted a success rate of 89.3 per cent, with only Miralem Pjanic bettering him. The €16million signing has played just twice in the Bundesliga since the move to Leipzig and will surely be relishing some competitive action.

Edmond Tapsoba, 22, centre-back – Burkina Faso

If Burkina Faso go on to have a good tournament, Tapsoba will almost certainly have had something to do with it. The centre-back is an extremely elegant player for someone roughly the size of a small building and whose name sounds like a hipster bar, and at club level he performs a vital function in getting Leverkusen on the front foot, with his 13.5 progressive ball carries in the Bundesliga this term second only to Alphonso Davies. If he can translate that to the international stage, Burkina Faso will have a real weapon in the middle – even if he doesn't, he'll still give them aerial threat at set-pieces.

 

Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, 17, forward – Ghana

The case of Issahaku is a rather intriguing one. Transfer rumours in 2021 suggested Liverpool had signed him for £1.5million, but that soon turned out to be false. He remains in his native Ghana, but the exciting attacker has seemingly done enough to earn a shot at international level despite being just 17 – he's the second-youngest player at the tournament. But he's used to that sort of situation. After all, before he'd even turned 17 in March he was named Player of the Tournament at the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations. While that Liverpool move never materialised, he's got himself another opportunity to shine.

It's possible that no manager in European football has had a greater transformational effect on a club this century than Diego Simeone has had at Atletico Madrid.

Of course, it's impossible to actually prove/disprove that, but when you consider his eight trophy successes is almost a quarter of all the major silverware the club have ever won, most counterarguments would dissipate.

Yet 2021-22 has been far from smooth, and they could head into Sunday's trip to Villarreal 17 points behind pacesetters Real Madrid, assuming Los Blancos beat Valencia 24 hours earlier.

Part of Atletico's problem is they seem to have lost the defensive solidity that's been a cornerstone of Simeone's tactical plan in his decade at the club.

Sunday's match will be the first since the 10-year anniversary of his bow as Atletico coach on January 7, 2012, providing the opportunity to look at how much of a challenge this season is proving to be.

11 away games, no clean sheet

Nothing is more indicative of Atletico's current malaise than their struggles to shut teams out – they're not getting battered, but we're so used to seeing them boast the shrewdest defence in LaLiga.

That's simply not the case this season.

Their 22 goals conceded is bettered by seven teams and isn't far off being twice as many as Sevilla (13), LaLiga's strongest defence this term.

Atletico's issues have been particularly prominent on the road. They've not secured an away clean sheet in LaLiga in any of their previous 11 such games, which is their worst run since December 2010 (17 matches).

No team has more away clean sheets across the top five leagues than Atletico (85) since Simeone's first match, but Manchester City (82) are closing in, fast.

Missing home comforts

The away struggles alluded to before also translates to defeats, with Atletico losing each of the three most recent matches on their travels.

It's worth remembering that two of those came to Madrid and Sevilla, first and second in the table, but typically Simeone's Atletico are solid enough that such sequences don't occur, regardless of the opposition.

In fact, prior to this run, Atletico had not conceded two or more goals in three successive away league games since January/February 2014.

If they lose to Villarreal, it will be their first streak of four consecutive defeats on the road since December 2011, the month Simeone was appointed.

Yellow Submarine on the rise

It wasn't so long ago that Unai Emery appeared to be in danger of being sacked, then he held talks with Newcastle United but ultimately rejected them.

Some might even suggest that his show of loyalty then bought him a little more time at the Ceramica.

As it turns out, Villarreal staying their hand seems to have worked out well. While they may only be as high as eighth, fourth-placed Atletico are just four points ahead of them.

Their recent run has been crucial to that as well, having won each of their past four league games, the most successive LaLiga victories they've managed under Emery.

The end is Unai?

Atletico can perhaps take confidence from the fact Emery has a dreadful record against Simeone.

He has never beaten the Argentinian in 15 matches across all competitions, the most games Emery has managed against another coach without a win in his entire career.

On the flip side, every record or streak is there to be broken – this particular one surely cannot go on forever, and this is one of the more beatable Atletico teams Emery has faced.

He will hope the end of that particular run is nigh.

Philippe Coutinho and Steven Gerrard are back in tandem, nine years after they first began to forge an alliance at Liverpool.

Gerrard referred to Coutinho as a friend this week, but he is also set to be his boss at Aston Villa after the Brazilian agreed to join from Barcelona.

The theory is that if anyone can get a tune out of Coutinho, it should be his former Liverpool captain, given the strong relationship they had on the pitch, which has endured in the years since.

Barcelona hoped Coutinho would be a leader in their orchestra, but instead his displays often struck a bum note, and the Blaugrana are happy to have offloaded one of the most expensive signings in their history.

Exactly how much they have ended up paying Liverpool for Coutinho is unclear, given the various clauses that were in the January 2018 deal, but he cost the Catalans giants well over £100million, and the return on that investment was far from what was expected.

In LaLiga, he played 76 times, starting 51 games, and managed 17 goals and nine assists. Overall, he had 26 goals and 13 assists in 106 games.

Gerrard will be hoping the 29-year-old Coutinho can sprinkle some magic at Villa, having already shown his qualities in the Premier League.

After a slow start at Liverpool, his performances came on leaps and bounds; across his final two and a half seasons with the Reds, Coutinho managed 38 goals and 24 assists in 99 matches.

In this World Cup year, Coutinho will want to be playing regularly. Such a prospect was off the table at Barcelona, where planning for the long-term future is the order of the day, along with hacking down the wage bill.

Coutinho made an encouraging start at Barcelona, and across all competitions he managed 10 goals and six assists in just 22 games across his first half-season with the Blaugrana.

In 2018-19, he played 54 times and finished with 11 goals and five assists, with his productivity already in decline. From an average of 0.97 goal involvements (goals and assists) per 90 minutes in that honeymoon period after first arriving from Liverpool, his contribution shrank to 0.43 involvements per 90 in his first full season.

In an all-conquering Bayern side, that bounced back up to 0.84 goal involvements per 90 minutes in the 2019-20 campaign, but Coutinho could not crack on at that pace once back at Camp Nou.

Last term, as he made just fitful contributions, his involvements averaged out at 0.57 per 90, and this season's rate was just 0.3 as his inevitable exit approached.

In his final half-season at Anfield, the former Inter winger was contributing 1.2 goal involvements per game as his Reds form peaked.

Across his Reds career, Coutinho scored 19 Premier League goals from outside the penalty area, Opta said. Only Gerrard has scored more for the club from outside the box (33).

Since returning to Barcelona from Bayern, Barcelona have tended to do better when Coutinho has played no part in games.

When he has been involved, either as a starter or substitute, they have won just nine of 24 LaLiga games for a 37.5 per cent success rate, averaging 1.4 points and 1.5 goals.

But without him they have won 23 of 33 (69.7 per cent) in LaLiga, losing only three times, averaging 2.3 points and 2.4 goals per game.

It is little wonder he has played just 26 per cent of minutes across all competitions for Barcelona this season. Injuries have blighted his Barcelona career, and if this is the end, with a loan potentially leading to a sale, then all parties will be happy to move on.

Villa are signing a special player, one that Gerrard still likes to tag as a "magician", but also a footballer who perhaps needs a reminder of those old tricks in his repertoire.

If Gerrard can bring back that spark, that trickery with end results, Villa will be all the better for it.

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