Forecasting which players will break out in a given NFL season is a difficult exercise.

New stars can come from anywhere. Highly drafted rookies can swiftly justify their selection, while others who have endured a less linear path to the highest level often emerge from the wilderness to become well-known names.

But, for those players who have already had the benefit of experience in the league, Stats Perform can look at the data to judge who is in a spot to potentially make the jump to stardom.

Such ascents are regularly a product of situation. Here we look at three offensive players and three defenders who find themselves in spots conducive to a possible breakout year in 2022.

Jalen Hurts - Philadelphia Eagles

Hurts making the leap in his third season in the league is largely contingent on how his skill set is utilised by the Eagles.

Playing behind an excellent offensive line that ranked fifth in pass-block win rate last season and with a host of playmakers now including A.J. Brown, Hurts looks set up for success in 2022.

But for that success to be realised, the Eagles must tailor their offense to what he does well. In 2021, where Hurts clearly excelled was in the play-action game. Hurts produced a well-thrown ball on 80.4 per cent of play-action pass attempts, averaging 16.78 air yards on those throws.

Though they averaged 9.2 yards per play when they ran play-action, the Eagles did so on only 13.07% of their passing plays. By contrast, they ran straight dropback pass plays on 39.21% of snaps but averaged just 7.35 yards per play. Philadelphia went to the quick game on 21.57% of snaps with an average of 5.31 yards per play.

Having acquired Brown, who thrived playing in a heavy play-action offense with the Tennessee Titans, the Eagles must lean more into the play-action looks to give Hurts the best chance of improving on a quietly efficient 2022.

It would not be a seismic shift in their offensive approach, but with the talent level on their roster, it is one that could propel the Eagles to a deep playoff run and allow Hurts to end questions about his legitimacy as the long-term starter.

Brandon Aiyuk - San Francisco 49ers

Drafted from the star-studded receiver class of 2020, Aiyuk has not produced at the same level of Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins.

That is partly a product of the many mouths there are to feed in the San Francisco offense and partly a result of him falling out of favour with head coach Kyle Shanahan early last season.

However, Aiyuk worked his way back to being a focal point of the Niners offense down the stretch in 2021, producing a string of key plays during their surge into the postseason.

Aiyuk produced a big play on 40.8% of his 98 targets last season – fourth among wide receivers with at least 50 targets in 2021. Delivering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 65.3% of his targets, his 16 receptions of 20 yards or more were tied for 12th in the NFL.

His numbers in that regard appear likely to improve as the 49ers transition from Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance at quarterback. Only one quarterback with a minimum of 50 attempts last season – Drew Lock (10.20) – averaged more air yards per attempt than Lance (10.10). Garoppolo’s 7.38 per attempt was below the league average of 7.99.

Aiyuk is an excellent route runner who brings yards-after-the-catch upside and has already shown signs of building a rapport with Lance, catching four passes for 94 yards in the 2021 third overall pick’s second start against the Houston Texans. 

If that rapport is furthered with a quarterback who should greatly improve the downfield threat posed by the San Francisco passing attack, 2022 could be the season in which Aiyuk establishes himself as another gem from a receiver class that has already emphatically lived up to its billing.

David Njoku - Cleveland Browns

The Browns have been waiting for an Njoku breakout since drafting him in the first round in 2017, and they are seemingly banking on it coming in the near future.

Cleveland signed Njoku to a four-year, $56.75 million extension this offseason having initially placed the franchise tag on the former Miami Hurricanes tight end. Those moves were made despite Njoku having a career-high in receiving yards of 639, which was in 2018.

Njoku has struggled with injuries – never starting more than 14 games in a season – but there’s evidence to suggest this will be the year he puts it all together. Last season, Njoku had a mediocre burn rate of 57.7%, but Rob Gronkowski (12.87) and Dallas Goedert (12.39) were the only tight ends with at least 25 targets to average more burn yards per target.

He was tied for 10th in burn yards per route (2.3) and 14th in big play rate (29.9%) and, assuming he stays healthy, will likely be the number two target behind Amari Cooper for the Browns in 2022.

The Browns' offense has recently been built around the running ability of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but Deshaun Watson (if and when he is allowed to play) offers the passing game a significantly higher ceiling.

With the Browns’ wide receiver options beyond Cooper lacking in experience, Njoku stands to benefit greatly from that additional upside through an increased target share and the efficiency numbers from 2021 paint the picture of a player who will take advantage of his extra opportunities.

Christian Barmore - New England Patriots

New England suffered a self-inflicted talent drain in the secondary, but the impact of the loss of J.C. Jackson and Co. may be minimised if the Patriots can get more from the defensive front.

The Patriots were seventh in pass-rush win rate last year, so it is fair to question how much more of a jump they can make in that regard. But Barmore is the one who may fuel such a leap.

New England's second-round pick from 2021 had just 1.5 sacks last season. However, he ranked eighth among defensive tackles with at least 100 one-on-one pass rush matchups with a stunt-adjusted win rate of 38.34%.

He achieved a top-10 finish in that metric despite being double-team blocked 127 times. Only seven defenders were double teamed more often. 

Converting those pass-rush wins into sacks will be the aim in 2022 and, if he continues to dominate his matchups in his second year and the Patriots get the consistency from edge rushers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche to reduce the number of double teams, Barmore's production should see a significant improvement.

Pete Werner - New Orleans Saints

Off-ball linebackers might not move the needle like they once did, but Werner is set to step into a starting role alongside Demario Davis on a Saints defense that is still expected to be among the best in the NFL.

Werner allowed a burn on 13 of his 27 targets in coverage, and his ratio of 48.1% was above the league average for linebackers with at least 25 targets (50.8).

His burn yards per target allowed average of 8.08 yards was 18th for the players at his position to meet that threshold. Werner allowed a big play on 17.4% of his targets, also putting him comfortably on the right side of the ledger for that metric (the average was 19.8%).

On top of that, his run disruption rate of 12.1% was eighth for all linebackers with a minimum of 50 run defense snaps.

In a hugely encouraging rookie year, Werner proved he is ready to step up to the starting role.

Playing on a defense stacked with talent on the front and in the secondary, he is in a situation to make a massive impact for a unit that may have to carry the load if the Saints are to return to the playoffs in 2022.

Rashad Fenton - Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs suffered an underrated loss in free agency as cornerback Charvarius Ward departed for San Francisco. Ward allowed a burn on just 39.8% of targets in 2021 – the fourth-best rate among corners with at least 50 targets.

His departure will likely see Fenton and L'Jarius Sneed start at corner this season, though the Chiefs did add Trent McDuffie to their secondary in the draft.

The numbers indicate Fenton will rise to the challenge. He was second in burn yards per target (7.71) and third in burn yards per snap (1.22) allowed last year (min. 50 targets).

He gave up a big play on just 15.2% of targets – the third-best ratio in the league for the position. Fenton's consistency in producing tight coverage should fuel optimism he can ensure Ward's exit is not one that will cause the secondary to struggle.

Fenton has only two interceptions and 18 pass breakups to his name in three seasons. Another year of stingy coverage combined with more on-ball production for a Chiefs team likely to go deep into January again would raise the profile of an under-the-radar but very talented corner.

When England came off the pitch at the Amex Stadium against Norway nine days ago, they had just wiped the floor with their Group A opponents, dispatching them 8-0.

Suffice to say the return to Brighton to face Spain in the last eight was a more difficult encounter for Sarina Wiegman's side, but they showed true grit and determination to advance to the semi-finals at the Women’s European Championships.

Spain had been the last team to stop England from winning, with their 0-0 draw in February being the final result before the Lionesses went on a nine-game winning streak (now 10). They were also the only side that England had failed to score against in their first 17 games under Wiegman.

However, a hard-working performance from the hosts saw them come from behind to secure a 2-1 extra-time victory, eliminating one of the other pre-tournament favourites.

Prior to the game, La Roja boss Jorge Vilda appeared to be playing mind games, aiming to put pressure on his opponents.

"If I imagine Spain playing a quarter-final against England, in a home Euros they had organised, a Spain team playing in a big Spanish stadium, I imagine this would weigh on us. I think this could take away more than it gives," he said at his pre-match news conference.

He appeared to be correct as England struggled to find anything like the fluency they enjoyed in recent games for much of normal time, whether it was nerves or a well-executed Spain gameplan.

It was a tentative start on the English south coast, clear immediately that Spain would be a tougher proposition than Norway. They had lost only one game (v Germany in the group stage) in their previous 26 international matches (W21 D4), so were always going to be a hard nut for England to crack.

Mariona Caldentey was causing problems for Lucy Bronze down the Spain left and had the first shot on target after 16 mins as the visitors started to impose their possession game, giving England a problem they were yet to face in the tournament so far.

Olga Carmona was tasked with keeping tournament top scorer Beth Mead quiet and achieved just that as the England star was unable to exert any authority on the game.

Despite being largely on the back foot, the hosts thought they had taken the lead in the 37th minute when a free-kick was headed down into the path of Ellen White, who fired home, only for an offside flag to correctly go up, with White denied the chance to equal Wayne Rooney's England record of 53 goals.

Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas was an obvious miss for Vilda's side. The Barcelona captain finished as the Champions League's top goalscorer with 11 goals last season and ended her domestic campaign with 18.

Spain's most capped player (100), who also won the FIFA Best Women's Player award in 2021, will miss the next 10-12 months with an ACL injury, and would have likely been a key factor in this one as La Roja dominated the ball for large spells but struggled to find their way through Wiegman's team.

England, who were 6-0 up at half-time when they played Norway, managed just the one shot in the opening 45 minutes here, and that did not arrive until the 40th minute, with Spain having six.

The Lionesses started the second half brightly, though, noticeably pressing higher up the pitch and with more fervour.

However, it was half-time Spain substitute, Athenea del Castillo, who produced a bit of magic to open the scoring, jinking inside Rachel Daly from the right before cutting back to Esther Gonzalez, who turned and finished well past Mary Earps in the 54th minute.

Wiegman responded by making her own substitutions, surprisingly removing Mead and White for Alessia Russo and Chloe Kelly.

It almost made a difference straight away as Russo flicked a ball on for Lauren Hemp, who was brought down in the penalty area, but referee Stephanie Frappart waved away the claims much to the annoyance of the vocal home fans.

It appeared England had given all they had, until another substitute made the difference as Ella Toone ran onto a Russo knockdown to prod the ball past Sandra Panos and equalise with six minutes remaining.

That forced extra-time and momentum swung in England's favour as Georgia Stanway went on a run through the middle before unleashing a ferocious strike past Panos from 25 yards to send the home fans into raptures.

Stanway's effort was the 100th goal England have scored under Wiegman in just her 18th game in charge, and the 11th from outside the penalty area.

It was now Spain who looked like they had run out of ideas, and despite a couple of minor scares, England held on to seal their place in the final four and show they may not always need to dominate games to get the job done.

A great roar went up from the 28,994 in attendance in Brighton, enough to frighten the local seagulls, as England celebrated a hard-fought victory.

If the thrashing of Norway had shown what England were capable of when at full flow, this win displayed another weapon in the arsenal that the hosts will likely have to call on again if they are to go all the way.

"England have won the World Cup – by the barest of margins. By the barest of all margins. Absolute ecstasy for England. Agony, agony for New Zealand!"

Those were the words from commentator Ian Smith that stick long in the memory from the dramatic 2019 World Cup final, England winning the 50-over competition after a culmination of four years of planning.

But Smith's dramatic exclamation, the spectacle, and the complete chaos at Lord's would not have been possible without Christchurch-born Ben Stokes.

England were reeling at 86-4 chasing 242 in tricky conditions against an unrelenting New Zealand attack, before Stokes – aided by a fortuitous dive – struck an unbeaten 84 to take the final to a Super Over.

Not satisfied with his fifth half-century of the tournament, and arguably the greatest white-ball innings of all time, Stokes added eight runs in the subsequent Super Over as England were crowned world champions on the bizarre boundary countback ruling.

The all-rounder's crowning moment in white-ball cricket came just three years after conceding four consecutive sixes in the last over of the T20 World Cup final as Carlos Braithwaite powered West Indies to victory.

That response typified the gritty character of Stokes, whose decision on Monday came to prolong his Test captaincy and career with England.

Here, Stats Perform looks back at the data underpinning a remarkable ODI career, which came to an end after Stokes' last outing against South Africa at home ground Durham on Tuesday.

Australian dominance

Stokes will further haunt Australian cricket after his Headingley heroics, though he laid the platform for years of torment in ODI cricket.

The 31-year-old posted his maiden ODI fifty against Australia in Perth in 2014 and recorded his best career figures in the format against England's fierce rivals, taking 5-61 in 2013 at Southampton.

He also managed his highest score in 50-over internationals against Australia, finishing unbeaten on 102 in the Champions Trophy in 2017 at Edgbaston in a one-sided victory for England.

Despite playing his most ODIs against India (20), Stokes accumulated his most runs against a single country when playing Australia (652 in 17 matches).

While enjoying various clashes with Australia, Stokes' ODI career ended with somewhat of a whimper, managing just 48 runs in three innings against India before scoring only five in his final match at Durham.

Though failing to deliver in the closing stages of a glittering 50-over international career that spanned 11 years, Stokes retired having scored 2,924 runs at an average of 38.98.

That included three centuries, 21 fifties and just six ducks, having bludgeoned 238 fours and 88 maximums. His strike rate of 95.26 is the sixth-highest among England batters to have played over 50 innings.

With the ball, Stokes bowled 518.2 overs – 3,110 deliveries – and claimed 74 dismissals at an average of 42.39, going at just over a run-a-ball six runs per over throughout his career.

The complete cricketer

"No way! No, no way! You cannot do that, Ben Stokes," Nasser Hussain exclaimed on Sky Sports as Stokes produced a remarkable leap and one-handed catch over his head to dismiss Andile Phehlukwayo in England's World Cup opening 104-run win over South Africa in 2019.

Stokes will take rightful plaudits for his batting and bowling achievements, but credit must also be granted for his fielding ability – a star in all three facets of the game.

Only seven players have taken more catches for England in ODI cricket than the 49 of Stokes.

He is also part of an exclusive club of players to take three catches in a single ODI innings for England, with Chris Woakes (four against Pakistan in 2019) the only player to take more in one match.

Employed in the hot zones where the ball is expected to go, whether that be deep-midwicket, long-on or extra cover, Jos Buttler's side will sorely miss Stokes' athleticism and gun fielding.

Leaving a Lord's legacy

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The inevitability of Stokes' Lord's heroics was undeniable, though none could expect victory to come about in the fashion it did.

He scored five fifties and averaged 66.4 across 10 innings in the World Cup that ended with the defining innings of a game viewed by many as the greatest of all time.

Yet without a contentious umpiring decision in a moment of carnage and a Trent Boult overstep on the boundary, Stokes would never had the opportunity to be the hero for England.

Stokes, requiring nine off three to win the final, produced a despairing dive and saw his outstretched bat deflect the ball to the boundary for four overthrows and six runs in total – a clear umpiring mistake.

But with two needed off the final ball, Stokes opted to nudge a full toss into the leg side, appreciating a one would keep England in the game as opposed to taking the risk of being caught, such was his calculated thinking amid the chaos in Lord's sun.

More heroics were to follow in the Super Over, smashing eight off just three balls to take England to 15 before Buttler and Jason Roy's run-out of Martin Guptill sealed a memorable triumph.

Fittingly, Stokes finished with five fours and two sixes in his match-defining 84 off 98 deliveries, the most times a player found the rope in the final that was decided by boundary countback.

If his ODI legacy is defined by one game, it should be the one in which he held his nerve while chaos ensued all around him.

England tackle Spain in a heavyweight quarter-final as the knockout stages of Euro 2022 get under way on Wednesday, with records already tumbling and data quirks around every corner.

The tournament has just passed its halfway stage in terms of the total number of games, with 16 of 31 having been played, and already more spectators have seen the finals in England than have attended any previous Women's Euros.

UEFA said 369,314 tickets were sold for group-stage games, with the soaring popularity of the women's game meaning the tournament attendance record of 240,055, set in the Netherlands five years ago, has been obliterated.

Sarina Wiegman's free-scoring England Lionesses have played an instrumental part in the tournament's success to date, with the host nation rallying around a team who scored a record 14 goals in the group stage, with Beth Mead's personal haul of five goals so far also a new all-time best for the group round.

Now the knockout stages await and the stakes are raised. Stats Perform, assisted by data from Opta, has looked at the tournament so far, plus each last-eight game, to see where the title might be won and lost.


The story so far

England have been the deadliest finishers, scoring 14 goals with a conversion rate of 24.6 per cent. Sweden sit next on that list, putting away 23.5 per cent of chances to net eight goals, five of which came in their final group game against Portugal.

France have scored all eight of their goals in the first half of their games, while England have hit nine before the interval and added five afterwards. The Netherlands have only scored twice prior to half-time in their games but have netted six second-half strikes, the most of all teams.

Switzerland exited after losing in painfully familiar fashion, with a second-half capitulation in going down 4-1 to the Dutch. The Swiss kept three first-half clean sheets in Group C but were pushovers after the interval, conceding eight times. In sharp contrast, all three of the goals Spain have shipped have come in the opening 45 minutes.

Spain have played the most passes overall, excluding crosses. Their total of 2,052 passes has come with an 86.0 per cent accuracy rate, while England have attempted the second highest number of passes (1,674) with a competition-leading 86.5 per cent precision.

The Spanish national team are famed for their possession-based, attractive football, teasing their way through defences with clever passes. Yet four of Spain's five goals have been headers, compared to three of 14 for England.

Mead sits top of the goal involvements list with seven (five goals, two assists), which puts her comfortably ahead of England team-mate Fran Kirby and Sweden's Kosovare Asllani, both of whom have scored once and set up three goals for a total of four involvements each.

Spain have the top five on the list of players with the most passes in the opposition half, led by defender Mapi Leon who has played 176 passes with a success rate of 90.3 per cent. For passes into the final third, Leon's accuracy dips to 83 per cent.


Best is still to come...

QUARTER-FINAL 1: Spain v England – July 20, Brighton

England have a record of played two, won two in previous Women's Euros quarter-finals, beating Finland 3-2 in 2009 and then edging France 1-0 five years ago in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Spain have lost both of their previous games at this stage, going down 3-1 to Norway in 2013 and suffering a penalty shoot-out defeat to Austria in 2017, following a goalless draw.

Four of England's starters from the 2017 win over France have played in every game so far at these finals: Lucy Bronze, Mille Bright, Kirby and Ellen White.

England have never lost on home soil against Spain (P7 W4 D3), with the teams battling out a 0-0 draw when they last met in February. However, Spain have beaten England three times before when taking all 15 previous encounters into account, losing six and drawing six.

Including a 20-0 win over Latvia last November, England have scored 98 goals in their 17 games under head coach Sarina Wiegman, scoring an average of 5.8 goals per game and only conceding three times.

Mead's haul of five goals so far matches Jodie Taylor's Lionesses record haul from the last Euros, which won her the Golden Boot. Spain have scored five goals in total during this tournament, with five different scorers.

QF2: Germany v Austria – July 21, Brentford

Germany are one of two teams, along with England, who have yet to concede a goal. That does not bode well for Austria, who are making their second appearance at this stage after beating Norway in the last round of group games.

The Austrians will start as big underdogs against the eight-time champions (winners once as West Germany, seven times as Germany), with Germany having won 15 of their most recent 16 games when going beyond the group stages. That had been a 15-game winning run until Denmark halted it in the 2017 quarter-finals, scoring a surprise 2-1 win.

Austria might need Barbara Dunst's luck to change if they are to stand any chance. Dunst has had 11 shots and created eight chances for Austria so far in this tournament, but she has yet to score or have an assist. She had the most direct involvements in shots (19) without scoring or assisting of all players in the group stage.

QF3: Sweden v Belgium – July 22, Leigh

Sweden are the highest-placed team on the FIFA ranking list, sitting second, behind the United States. They are quietly going about their business in England, and it would be a major surprise for them not to reach the semi-finals from this tie.

Including penalties, Sweden scored more goals from set-pieces than any other side in the group stage (5). Belgium might be concerned by that, given two of the three goals they have conceded came from dead-ball scenarios.

Of the eight quarter-finalists, Belgium scored the joint-fewest goals (3) in the group stage, had the fewest shots (21), the fewest shots on target (11) and the lowest expected goals total (2.6). The Red Flames surely need to find more of a spark for this big game.

QF4: France v Netherlands – July 23, Rotherham

France will be playing a fourth consecutive match in Rotherham, a town which is twinned with the French city of Saint-Quentin.

This is also a fourth consecutive Women's Euros quarter-final for France, who have lost each time at this stage, including a penalty shoot-out defeat to the Netherlands in 2009. They were beaten on spot-kicks by Denmark in 2013, and then slumped 1-0 to England in 2017. France have lost star striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto to an ACL knee injury, so memories of fast-flowing football in their opening 5-1 win over Italy are becoming distant.

Defending their title this time, the Netherlands have lost Euro 2017 player of the tournament Lieke Martens to injury and star goalscorer Vivianne Miedema has been sidelined of late after a COVID-19 positive test.

Yet the Dutch have progressed on each of the two occasions they have reached the quarter-finals previously, with the win over France in 2009 followed in 2017 by a 2-0 victory over Sweden.

With the end of one transfer saga comes the start of another. 

Robert Lewandowski has secured a long-awaited move to Barcelona, fulfilling a "dream" in the process and leaving Bayern Munich in the market for a new striker to lead their line.

But just how do you go about finding a like-for-like replacement for the most prolific marksman anywhere in the world?

One suggestion is that Bayern will make do with what they have, with Sadio Mane – a wide forward rather than a striker – having already been recruited from Liverpool this window.

While that may work, there are other potential options out there for Bayern to consider ahead of their latest title defence as they aim to win the Bundesliga for an 11th time in a row.

Here, Stats Perform takes a closer look at exactly what the Bavarian giants are losing in Lewandowski, and where they could go next.


LEWY LEADS THE WAY

Labelling Lewandowski as the best striker in European football is not hyperbolic when assessing the cold hard facts. 

The Poland international is coming off the back of a campaign that saw him register 50 goals in 46 games in all competitions, which is six goals more than the next-best Karim Benzema among players from Europe's top five leagues.

 

It is not like Lewandowski's output levels were dropping, either. The 35 league goals he registered last season are second only to the record-breaking 41 netted in the 2020-21 campaign across his 12 seasons in the German top flight with Borussia Dortmund and then Bayern.

Indeed, he has finished as the league's top scorer in each of the past five seasons, scoring 161 goals across that period, with no other player managing such a long streak in the competition's history. 


BEST OF THE REST

Put simply, Bayern surely cannot match those numbers with one player alone. If it is a pure goalscorer the German champions are after to fill the void, the aforementioned Benzema would be their best bet, the Real Madrid striker having scored 44 goals in 46 games last time out.

Persuading Madrid to let go of their focal point in attack would be nigh-on impossible, of course, likewise with Kylian Mbappe – Europe's third most prolific player in the 2021-22 season (39 goals in 46 games) – at Paris Saint-Germain.

Next on that particular list is RB Leipzig's highly-rated talent Cristopher Nkunku, who scored 35 goals in 52 matches last season and also chipped in with 16 assists. When purely weighing up goal involvements, Nkunku was only five short of Lewandowski last season, in a team with far less quality.

 

Indeed, Nkunku's 35 strikes last season came from an expected goals (xG) value of 28.23, meaning that he found the net 6.77 times more than he should have judging by the quality of the chances. Only Benzema (9.9) can better than across Europe's top five leagues.

Nkunku is not strictly a number nine, though, and his arrival – even if Bayern could tempt Leipzig into selling – would mean Julian Nagelsmann having to adapt his system in the final third of the field.


FORGET KANE... GO FOR KALAJDZIC

The likes of Timo Werner, Patrick Schick and Harry Kane are other names to have been touted as possible replacements for Lewandowski. Kane in particular would suit Bayern's system, and Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn admitted last week it would be a "dream" signing – while at the same time completely dismissing a move for wantaway Manchester United forward Cristiano Ronaldo.

With another couple of years to run on Kane's contract, however, and Tottenham demanding a nine-figure sum from Manchester City this time last year, the Bavarians would have to spend big to bring in the England international.

For a club that has only once spent in excess of €40m on an attacking player – Leroy Sane from Manchester City two years ago – and having already splashed the cash to bring in Mane from Liverpool, that seems unlikely to happen.

 

There is more than goals alone to judging just how good a striker is, of course, and some players are certainly more attainable than others. Look no further than Sasa Kalajdzic, who boasts a number of qualities suited to Nagelsmann, not least his presence in the box.

At six foot and seven inches, Kalajdzic is one of the tallest players around and knows how to put that to good use, with exactly half of his 22 Bundesliga goals coming via his head.

Despite playing just 22 top-flight matches since his Stuttgart debut at the end of the 2019-20 season, those 11 headed goals are bettered only by Andre Silva (12) and – him again – Lewandowski (13), who have played 45 and 83 games in that period respectively.

Kalajdzic may have missed most of last season through injury, but six goals in 15 games for a side involved in a relegation scrap suggests he is a player with plenty of potential and, just as importantly, likely to be gettable, as Stuttgart director Sven Mislintat recently admitted given the 25-year-old is out of contract next year.

 

MANE AND GNABRY TO STEP UP?

Away from the dream options and outside picks to take over from Lewandowski, Kahn himself said last week that in Mane his side already have a ready-made replacement.

Position wise that is not technically true, of course, but there is no doubt that Mane's goals return across his six seasons with Liverpool was mightily impressive.

With 120 goals in all competitions for Liverpool, he averaged a goal every 189 minutes – exactly one every two matches. Mane also assisted 37 goals, meaning he was directly involved in a goal every 137 minutes. 

In the Premier League, only Kane (134), former team-mate Mohamed Salah (118) and Leicester City's Jamie Vardy (104) scored more goals than Mane (90) over the course of his Liverpool career.

 

Unlike with Liverpool's front three, Bayern have been used to having one focal point up top in Lewandowski.

Serge Gnabry, who recently signed a contract extension at the Allianz Arena, can also play through the middle if called upon, and has done so to good effect for the Germany national side.

If reports from the German media are to be believed, that is the route Nagelsmann will have to go down for the 2022-23 season until a big-name number nine can be recruited further down the line.

Whether it will work will be intriguing to see, with the only certainty in all this being that Bayern can no longer turn to go-to man Lewandowski in their time of need.

For years, there has been talk of the NFL entering an era of 'positionless' football and, looking back on the 2021 season, there is a case to be made that it's finally here.

With the league dominated by dual-threat quarterbacks and defenses increasingly reliant on secondary defenders who can move around the field, the phrase 'the more you can do' has never more definitively applied to the NFL – at least not since the bygone era of the two-way player.

Indeed, players who can excel in several positions and fulfil a multitude of different roles are more valuable than ever, with three of the teams that made last season's final four dependent on players who are among the league's most versatile.

Using advanced data, Stats Perform can break down the league's multi-faceted stars and look at some of the more versatile players who have flown somewhat under the radar.

The NFC West Unicorns

Aaron Donald - Los Angeles Rams

We would be remiss to mention the most versatile players in the league and not start it with Donald.

Donald is the NFL's pre-eminent defensive player and the most remarkable aspect of his dominance is that he maintains it irrespective of where he lines up on the defensive line.

His pressure rate of 28.1 per cent last year led all interior defensive linemen and it only dipped to 27.7 per cent when he moved out to the edge, though he did so for just 94 pass-rush snaps in 2021 compared to 448 from his defensive tackle position.

And 108 of his 127 pressures on the inside involved him beating a pass protector. That was the case for 23 of his 26 edge pressures, which illustrates his ability to confound offensive linemen regardless of whether he's working within tight confines or from wide-open space.

Jalen Ramsey - Los Angeles Rams

Donald is the engine of the Los Angeles defense, but a unit that has leaned on its top-end talent would not have remained among the league's elite if not for the presence of arguably the NFL's top secondary defender.

Ramsey still played the vast majority of his snaps as an outside corner in 2021, playing 784 in that position. However, as the 'star' player on the Los Angeles defense, Ramsey spends most of his time locked on an opponent's top receiver, which frequently means playing in the slot.

Indeed, Ramsey played 366 snaps in the slot and was outstanding when lined up there. Targeted 31 times from the slot, Ramsey allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins a matchup on a play in which they're targeted, 38.7 per cent of the time. The league average for slot corners with at least 50 coverage snaps was 50.7 per cent.

Ramsey posted the ninth-lowest burn yards per target average (5.84) and was the seventh-best slot by big play rate. He gave up a big play on just 6.5 per cent of targets.

His numbers as an outside corner were less impressive. Ramsey gave up a burn 48 per cent of the time and surrendered 10.32 burn yards per target. However, his big-play rate allowed of 19.4 per cent was still better than the average of 26.1 per cent (min. 50 snaps) and amounted to him giving up 15 big plays on 75 targets across 398 coverage snaps.

In other words, Ramsey allowed a big play on under four per cent of his coverage snaps as an outside corner. The 'lockdown defender' tag applies to Ramsey wherever he is on the field.

Deebo Samuel - San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have dug in their heels and refused to indulge Samuel's trade request, with their determination to hold on to the wide receiver unsurprising given his outsized value to San Francisco's offense.

Samuel is to the 49ers' offense what Donald is to the Rams' defense. Last season, he was the reason it worked and the reason the Niners came agonisingly close to completing three wins over the Rams and claiming the NFC championship.

In a career year for Samuel, he racked up 1,405 receiving yards, leading the league with 18.2 yards per reception while his 10.1 yards after catch average was also the best among wideouts.

Yet it was the way in which the Niners utilised his ability in the open field to turn him into a de-facto running back in the second half of last season that weaponized the San Francisco offense.

When lined up in the backfield as a running back, Samuel averaged 6.58 yards per rush last season. He recorded 4.11 yards before contact per attempt, 2.67 yards after contact and averaged 4.77 yards per attempt on carries in which there was a run disruption by a defender. 

No running back could match his yards per carry average or top his performance on rushes disrupted by a defender. Rashaad Penny of the Seattle Seahawks and Dontrell Hilliard of the Tennessee Titans were the only players with over 50 carries at running back to average over 4.0 yards before contact per rush. Kareem Hunt (2.84) of the Cleveland Browns was the only player to average more yards after contact per attempt than Samuel.

With the option to hand the ball off to Samuel or flare him out and get him the ball on screens, lining Deebo up in the backfield allowed the Niners to limit Donald's impact for long periods and lessen Ramsey's effectiveness when he played the 'star' role by forcing him to follow Samuel into the box.

The duplicity Samuel brings in his hybrid receiver-running back role is critical to head coach Kyle Shanahan winning the play-calling chess match. Despite his trade demands, it's why the Niners will ensure he remains on their board.

Cooper Kupp - Los Angeles Rams

While Kupp may not do the damage Samuel does out of the backfield, it is impossible to leave the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year off this list.

Kupp was the only receiver in the NFL last season to finish in the top five in burn yards per route as an outside receiver (fourth, 3.9) and from the slot (third, 4.0).

On top of that, he was fifth in big-play rate among outside receivers with at least 50 targets, registering an explosive on 39.7 per cent of targets. Only two wideouts, Christian Kirk (36.7) of the Arizona Cardinals and Cedrick Wilson (36.5) of the Dallas Cowboys produced a higher rate of big plays from the slot than Kupp's 36.4 per cent.

Lined up for 24 snaps as a running back, Kupp was also utilised as a safety net for Matthew Stafford out of the backfield on occasion. His proficiency in contributing to pass protection by blocking defenders before getting out into his route perfectly encapsulated just how well-rounded of a player he has become.

Queens on the Chessboard

Cordarrelle Patterson - Atlanta Falcons

Patterson was overdrafted by the Minnesota Vikings back in 2013, but he carved out a hybrid role last season in the Atlanta offense in which he, like Samuel, spent time in the backfield and lined up as a receiver.

Designated as a running back, Patterson averaged 4.07 yards per carry, racking up 2.0 yards after contact per attempt and 3.06 yards per attempt on rushes in which there was a disruption by a defender.

Among running backs who registered 100 carries and were targeted 50 times, Patterson's 22.6 per cent big-play rate on passing targets was the highest in the NFL. Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints was second at 21.3.

With the Falcons transitioning to a new era at quarterback as Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder compete for the job, Patterson's ability to create yards after contact as a runner and explosive plays on routes out of the backfield will again be extremely valuable in 2022.

Between Patterson, Kyle Pitts and first-round pick Drake London, the Falcons have a trio of malleable playmakers who can ensure the offense is still explosive as they move away from the Matt Ryan era.

Travis Kelce - Kansas City Chiefs

In terms of value to his team, Kelce rivals Samuel with the multiple roles he plays for the Chiefs and the importance of him excelling from several spots will likely increase in 2022 following the Chiefs' trade of Tyreek Hill.

One of the league's most effective 'power slots' who uses his size and route running to his advantage when lined up as a de-facto slot receiver, Kelce played 333 snaps in that position in 2021.

He played 184 as an outside receiver and 136 from his traditional in-line tight end spot in an encapsulation of the evolution of a position that has grown ever more multi-faceted.

Kelce's burn rate from all three spots was over 70 per cent. He won his matchup with a defender on 79.1 per cent of targets as an in-line tight end. That ratio dipped to 76.3 per cent as an outside receiver and 74.4 per cent from the slot.

The majority of his big plays, however, came when he lined up outside. Kelce produced a big play on 34.8 per cent of his targets as an outside receiver and 32.3 per cent from the slot. He was not as explosive as an in-line tight end, a spot from where he delivered a big play 25.8 per cent of the time.

Though the numbers at each alignment may differ, they all paint the same picture: a playmaker who gets open regardless of where he is on the field. Combined with his underrated blocking, Kelce's remarkable versatility makes him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL.

Elgton Jenkins - Green Bay Packers

Jenkins has played every position in the trenches apart from right guard during his three seasons in the NFL, and in that time he has established himself as one of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL and an integral part of the Packers' attack.

Last season, Jenkins played the entirety of his snaps at left tackle before injury curtailed his campaign after eight games. He allowed only 11 pressures on 163 pass protection snaps, with his pressure rate of 6.7 per cent superior to the average of 9.2 per cent among left tackles.

Prior to that in 2020, Jenkins played most of his snaps at left guard, but also filled in at center and made cameos at both tackle spots. His pressure rate of 4.7 per cent was fifth among left guards that year. At center, he gave up a pressure on just 2.1 per cent of snaps – the third-best rate among players at the position.

Essentially, Jenkins is a rare breed of offensive lineman who can hold up in pass protection at every position on the offensive front. He appears set to slot in at right tackle for 2022, but Jenkins will likely be the first person the Packers call upon if they have an injury at another spot up front.

Ambidextrous Defenders

Micah Parsons - Dallas Cowboys

Parsons claimed NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 thanks to an exceptional first-year campaign that saw him make an unexpectedly outsized impact as a pass rusher.

On 220 pass-rush snaps, Parsons generated 69 pressures for a pressure rate of 31.4 per cent that was tops among linebackers with at least 50 pass rushes.

Parsons spent 153 of those snaps on the edge but also proved extremely effective in coverage. Allowing a burn on 41.9 per cent of targets last season, Parsons gave up only 6.86 yards per target – the fourth-fewest among linebackers targeted at least 25 times.

Also second for his position with a run disruption rate of 16.4 per cent, Parsons swiftly proved his ability to influence every facet of the game and his multiplicity will make him somebody opposing play-callers will constantly have to think about when game planning for the Cowboys.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - Cleveland Browns

Though Parsons was the standout defensive rookie in the league last season, he was not the best first-year linebacker in coverage. That distinction went to Owusu-Koramoah, who slid to the second round of the 2021 draft and went on to lead all linebackers with 5.83 burn yards per target allowed and give up a big-play rate of 4.5 per cent that was also the best for the position.

Owusu-Koramoah played most of his snaps (414) at inside linebacker but also spent time at outside linebacker, on the edge and in the slot on top of a handful of snaps at outside corner.

He did not pass rush often, logging just 27 snaps in that regard, but gained nine pressures for a pressure rate of 33.0 per cent. Against the run, he registered a disruption rate of 15.3 per cent.

Owusu-Koramoah is a player the Browns can trust to hold up in man and zone coverage and has the flexibility to operate in almost every position in the back seven. He can play the run extremely well and has produced encouraging flashes as a pass rusher to suggest he can grow in that area.

Any success the Browns enjoy on defense in 2022 will likely in part be a product of Owusu-Koramoah's malleability.

Chuck Clark - Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens added Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams to their safety room this offseason but have, to this point, kept hold of Clark.

On the surface, that may be something of a surprise. However, a deeper dive into the numbers illustrates the value he has to Baltimore's defense.

Though Clark operated at free safety for 526 snaps in 2021, he also played 108 at strong safety, 97 in the slot, 81 on the edge and over 100 at linebacker.

He defended double-digit targets from free safety, strong safety and in the slot. Only at free safety did he allow more 10 burn yards per target.

His average of 8.01 burn yards allowed per target when lined up as a deep safety was 12th in the NFL. In the slot, he gave up 9.25 per target – better than the average of 9.53 for slots with at least 50 snaps.

With Williams set to slide in at free safety, Hamilton and Clark will have the freedom to roam around the field in three-safety looks and their proficiency in playing the slot should offer the Ravens more answers in defending tight ends and the bigger wideouts that are spending an increasing amount of time on the inside.

Under the Radar Rovers

Kamren Curl - Washington Commanders

Sticking at the safety position and with teams that play their football in Maryland, Curl has quietly emerged as a stud who can fulfil a variety of roles in the defensive backfield.

Last season, Curl played 342 snaps as a free safety, 211 in the slot, 90 as a strong safety, 56 as an inside linebacker, 53 as an outside linebacker and 45 as an outside corner. To say the Commanders have confidence in him all over the field is putting it mildly.

Lined up as a deep safety, Curl allowed 6.02 burn yards per target – the best ratio in the NFL. He allowed a big play on 14.8 per cent of targets, which was the fourth-best rate among deep safeties.

In the slot, he surrendered only 6.15 burn yards per target and a big play on two of his 21 targets. Though Curl was not asked to do as much in coverage when he played closer to the line of scrimmage, he influenced the game with his play against the run. His run disruption rate of 10.0 per cent from the inside linebacker spot was equal to that of Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Defensive centrepieces are rarely found in the seventh round, but the Commanders have clearly unearthed one who has the multiplicity to rival defenders of a much higher profile.

Elijah Moore - New York Jets

If former 49ers defensive coordinator and now Jets head coach Robert Saleh is hoping to develop his version of Deebo Samuel, then Moore may be his best candidate.

Moore thrived playing as both an outside receiver and in the slot in his rookie season after being picked in the second round last year. He was tied for 16th in burn yards per route (3.0) among receivers with at least 50 targets. Moore also finished 16th in that group in big-play rate, delivering a burn or a burn for a touchdown on 35.7 per cent of targets.

Though the explosive plays (25.7 per cent) dropped off when he was in the slot, Moore excelled at maximizing his separation as an inside receiver, finishing tied for 10th (min. 25 slot targets) with 3.1 burn yards per route.

Moore carried the ball only five times as a rookie, but he averaged over 10 yards per attempt, with one of those attempts going for a touchdown. Though it is an extremely small sample size, that's the kind of efficiency to suggest he should be given increased opportunities on designed touches out of the backfield in his second season.

Asking Moore to replicate Samuel would be ambitious. However, if he can succeed in a more varied role while continuing to produce from several receiver spots, it would be a substantial boost to Zach Wilson's hopes of a second-year leap.

Robert Lewandowski's time at Bayern Munich has come to an end.

Barcelona have struck a deal in principle with the Bundesliga champions to sign the star forward, who expressed his desire to leave Munich at the end of last season.

Lewandowski scored 50 goals across all competitions in the 2021-22 campaign, continuing his remarkable form across his eight-year spell in Bavaria.

Before his move to Bayern in 2014, Lewandowski was brilliant for Borussia Dortmund, and he leaves Germany as one of the Bundesliga's greatest performers, having scored 344 goals and contributing 57 assists.

Here are the 33-year-old's best figures and records from his stint in Germany's top tier.
 

Bossing the Bundesliga

312 - Lewandowski has scored 312 Bundesliga goals, the second most scored by any player in the history of the competition behind the great Gerd Muller's tally of 365.

128 - Of those 312 goals, 128 have come on the road, which is the most by any Bundesliga player.

 

7 - Lewandowski finished as the Bundesliga's top scorer in seven different seasons, equalling the record set by Bayern legend Muller.

41 - He also broke Muller's long-standing record of scoring 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season when he netted 41 in the 2020-21 campaign.

5 - The Poland forward has finished as the league's top scorer in the last five seasons, with no other player managing such a long streak in the competition's history.
 

A king in Europe

86 - Lewandowski has scored 86 Champions League goals, with only Cristiano Ronaldo (140) and Lionel Messi (125) having scored more, while his tally is matched by Real Madrid star Karim Benzema.

106 -Yet no other player has needed fewer Champions League appearances to reach 86 goals (Lewandowski 106, Messi 107, Ronaldo 121, Benzema 141).

 

23 - In the 2021-22 season, Lewandowski scored three goals within the first 23 minutes against RB Salzburg in the last 16. That is the quickest hat-trick in Champions League history.

5 - Lewandowski has scored three or more goals in a Champions League game on five occasions, with only Ronaldo and Messi (both eight) doing so more times.

1 - He is the only player to score four goals in a Champions League semi-final tie, having done so for Dortmund against Madrid in 2013.

Erik ten Hag is edging closer to getting his man, or so it seems.

While Tyrell Malacia signed last week and deals for Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez seem close to going through, it is clear that Manchester United's priority transfer target has been Frenkie de Jong.

A star of Ten Hag's Ajax team, De Jong was tipped to help take Barcelona's midfield into the post-Xavi and Andres Iniesta era when he switched Amsterdam for Catalonia in 2019.

Yet, three years on, United have reportedly agreed a fee in the region of £63million (€75m) with Barcelona for the Netherlands international, with a further £8.5m (€10m) in add-ons also possible.

There is one small matter that needs to be resolved, though: De Jong needs convincing to make the switch from Barcelona to Manchester.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta told reporters on July 2 that De Jong had indicated he wished to stay at the club, but then suggested that if the Dutchman were to get his wish, he would have to take a wage cut.

That Laporta believes he would have to negotiate a salary decrease with a player who signed a lucrative contract only three years ago illustrates where Barca have gone wrong, and just why it is hard to fairly judge De Jong's time at Camp Nou, in which he has worked under four coaches – Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman and Xavi.

The latter was keen to keep hold of the midfielder, but with Barca having signed Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen on free transfers and agreed a deal with Leeds United for Raphinha – not to mention handing Ousmane Dembele a new deal – a big sale is apparently required.

While there is still potential for this deal to fall through, should De Jong stick to his guns, it does seem increasingly likely he will be lining up at Old Trafford next season. So, just what will he bring that United need?

Has he lived up to the hype?

De Jong came into a Barca team that had slumped to a humbling Champions League semi-final defeat to Liverpool and were reeling from that implosion.

Valverde's team let a 3-0 aggregate lead slip in that tie, and truly the coach never recovered. Yet Barca splashed out an initial €75m to add stardust to their midfield and back the coach.

On paper, De Jong is the ideal Barca player, the embodiment of total football; an elegant runner, skilful in possession and a brilliant passer, while he is versatile enough to play in any midfield role or even in the centre of defence.

Over the course of his three seasons at Camp Nou, only Sergio Busquets (144) has made more appearances than his 140, so fitting De Jong into the side has not been an issue, while his creativity has certainly come to the fore, with his 149 chances created ranking behind just Lionel Messi (233) and Jordi Alba (207).

Last season, he created 40 chances in 32 LaLiga games.

 

He ranks fifth for assists (15) in the last three seasons, though it should be noted that both Messi and Antoine Griezmann, who are ahead of him in that metric, left the club in 2021.

De Jong's 10,158 touches puts him third at Barca for the same period, with his 645 duels won likewise third, with only Messi (800) and Busquets (814) winning more.

Under Ten Hag, De Jong might well be employed as a deep-lying playmaker as he was often utilised for Ajax. At Barca, Busquets has remained the midfield metronome, topping the charts for passes attempted (10,799) and completed (9,676), though De Jong does boast a better accuracy than the Blaugrana stalwart (91.8 to 89.6).

But for all his quality, De Jong has been unable to transform Barca's midfield, with Pedri and Gavi the new kids on the block. It is that duo that have seemingly grasped the initiative more, with Busquets still trusted by his former team-mate Xavi.

A clear improvement...

De Jong might not have been able to become the superstar many forecast at Barca, but at 25, he has plenty in the tank and, in truth, strolls into United's midfield.

It has been an area of weakness for several seasons, despite the huge investment in Paul Pogba, Fred and Bruno Fernandes.

While Fernandes has, of course, proved a huge success in England, Pogba only managed flashes of brilliance across his six-year second spell at Old Trafford and has now left on a free, while neither Fred nor Scott McTominay seem natural fits for Ten Hag's possession-based, fluid system.

De Jong fits that bill with aplomb and is a huge step-up on what United have in that area.

With Eriksen's impending arrival set to supplement Fernandes as a creator, De Jong could take up the mantle as United's midfield general from a deeper position, whether playing in front of the defence in a 4-3-3, or as part of a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 shape, as was employed in this week's 4-0 friendly win over Liverpool.

 

Last season alone, De Jong completed more passes – 2,160 – than any United midfielder, with only Fernandes (1,849) getting close. He also proved consistently available, playing 47 times, 20 more than Pogba, who he is effectively replacing.

Perhaps surprisingly, only Fred (372) and Fernandes (841), of United midfielders, lost possession more times, excluding hoofs, than De Jong (359) last term.

However, De Jong is adept at winning the ball back, having made 226 recoveries, and the fact he did lose possession so much appears to be largely due to him attempting so many more passes than his United counterparts.

De Jong's dribbling ability adds another dimension to United's attack, with his prowess at carrying the ball upfield a useful tool while in transition. His dribble success rate of 77.4 per cent is better than any of United's regular midfielders from last season, bar Matic, who only attempted 27 dribbles. Opta data shows De Jong made 279 progressive ball carries in LaLiga last season. In comparison, Fred managed 91 in the Premier League, with McTominay mustering 182 and Pogba tallying 125.

 

It is no surprise, then, that Ten Hag sees De Jong as a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Getting this deal done and over the line would be a statement of intent, and should provide an ideal platform for United to be shaped in their new manager's image.

Even if doubts remain further up the field, with uncertainty surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo's future, United's midfield has been in need of a major revamp – De Jong provides just that.

Transfers between the Premier League's so-called 'big six' have become something of a rarity in recent years, but the trend has re-emerged with Raheem Sterling's switch to Chelsea.

The Blues confirmed on Wednesday that Sterling has moved to Stamford Bridge on a five-year contract, with Manchester City accepting a reported £45million offer for the England international.

He made at least 46 appearances in each of his seven seasons at City, yet it was claimed Pep Guardiola was unable to provide assurances over his playing time next term.

That, apparently, is what led to Sterling seeking an exit, and Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea appear a fine fit stylistically.

With that in mind, it's a deal that will perplex many, given how important Sterling has been for City over the course of his stay in Manchester.

On top of that, City appear to be strengthening a team who would regard themselves direct rivals of the Premier League champions.

Sterling hasn't depreciated this significantly since Brexit, with City taking a sizeable risk wilfully offloading such a player.

A transformed talent

It would be fair to suggest Sterling has been a little inconsistent over the past two years, with his respective goals hauls of 14 and 17 across all competitions a bit of a drop-off.

Yet both of those are respectable figures and only serve to highlight just how good Sterling – very much approaching his peak at 27 years old – can be in the right context.

After modest returns in his first two years at the club, Sterling hit 20-plus goals in three successive campaigns, including 31 in 52 games in the 2019-20 season.

 

With Chelsea allowing Romelu Lukaku to return to Inter and the underwhelming Timo Werner seemingly available for transfer, the Blues are crying out for a dependable source of goals. Sterling could be that player.

While Guardiola's management style may be what's made Sterling look for pastures new, it was also the Catalan's coaching that helped transform Sterling into the player he is now.

As mentioned, Sterling was nowhere near as decisive at Liverpool or in his first two years at City as he has been over the past five years. Of course, part of that can be explained simply by development and progression. After all, he was 20 when he left the Reds.

 

But Guardiola's coaching, and how he has utilised Sterling, shouldn't be glossed over. Since he became City coach in 2016, Sterling has scored 27 Premier League goals from inside the six-yard box, which is five more than anyone else (Harry Kane, 22).

He knows how to be in the right place at the right time, and that requires supreme intelligence.

No one-trick pony

The fact Sterling's been able to make himself such a goalmouth threat despite not being regarded as an out-and-out striker is impressive, and it speaks to his well-roundedness as an attacker.

Under Guardiola, he's essentially averaged a goal every other game (one every 179 minutes) in the Premier League, with his haul of 85 bettered by only five players since the start of the 2016-17 season.

 

But his creativity shouldn't be ignored. Over the same period, he has laid on 296 chances for team-mates. That sees him ranked 10th overall in the Premier League.

Additionally, only three players have a better expected assists (xA) record than Sterling (34) since August 2017 (when Opta started collecting the data), and two of those are regular set-piece takers.

Sterling's strengths don't begin and end there, though. 

He's quick, strong despite his size, a leader and clearly very experienced. On his last Premier League appearance for City, he was aged 27 years and 165 days – only four players have had more Premier League goal involvements at that age than Sterling.

 

Just 11 players in Premier League history have reached 200 goal involvements, and he's already only 35 off that. In fact, he's potentially just one very good season from reaching the milestone.

Of course, it shouldn't be just blindly accepted that Sterling will be an incredible signing for Chelsea. They've had their fair share of expensive flops over the years, with Lukaku the most recent – few expected him to have such a minimal impact.

But Sterling's tremendous arsenal of attributes may give him greater scope to be influential. Maybe he won't create as much, but he could still be a primary goal threat, and he also appears to be a good fit for the kind of high-tempo football Tuchel likes to play. 

The over-riding feeling is that Sterling's sale suggests a degree of underappreciation for him, particularly given City aren't selling him for anything more than they paid seven years ago.

Chelsea, on the other hand, appear to be getting a bargain.

The Open Championship boasts a history practically unmatched in the sporting world, with the famous St Andrews primed to host the 150th edition of golf's oldest major this week.

As the world's best players prepare to tee it up at the home of golf, all in the field will be hoping to write their names into the pages of this storied event.

Ahead of what promises to be a thrilling week of action on the east coast of Scotland, Stats Perform has delved into the history books to bring you the most intriguing facts and figures surrounding the most historic of golf's majors.

HARD LUCK JACK AND HAPPY HARRY

Nobody boasts more Open triumphs than the six claimed by the legendary Harry Vardon, who first prevailed in 1896 and last lifted the Claret Jug in 1914.

But for every winner there are those who nurse the heartbreak of narrowly missing out, and nobody became more familiar with that feeling than Jack Nicklaus.

With 18 major wins to his name, including three at The Open, it might be a stretch to summon too much sympathy for Nicklaus, but he had to make do with finishing second or in a tie for second on no fewer than seven occasions. 

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED...

When Collin Morikawa won at Royal St George's last year, he became the 10th player to taste success on debut.

That tells you that most players have to be patient when it comes to laying hands on the famous silverware, and for some that wait never ends.

But there are those for whom persistence has paid off handsomely – namely Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson, who both finally triumphed at the 19th time of asking.

 

WIRE-TO-WIRE WINS ARE RARE

Only seven players have enjoyed wire-to-wire victories at a 72-hole Open, whereby they have held the outright lead at the end of all four rounds.

Rory McIlroy was the most recent example, achieving the feat at Royal Liverpool in 2014.

The last player to manage it at St Andrews was a certain Tiger Woods in 2005 – the second of his three Open wins as he retained his title the following year.

START FAST, FINISH STRONG

In 2010, St Andrews was the stage for the lowest opening round by an eventual winner as Louis Oosthuizen flew out of the traps with a 65.

Jordan Spieth equalled that with his first-round effort at Royal Birkdale in 2017, which was the year after Henrik Stenson had showed the importance of finishing with a flourish when his closing 63 saw off the challenge of Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.

It also helps if your middle two rounds are solid, but very few players manage to put together four consistent sets of 18. Indeed, Woods is the only player to card four sub-70 rounds at St Andrews, doing so en route to his 2005 victory.

DON'T THROW IT AWAY NOW!

There is arguably no other sport that tests the psychological limits of its protagonists more than golf, which has seen more than its fair share of mental meltdowns.

Many will be familiar with the nightmare story of Jean Van de Velde's Open collapse in 1999 when he below a five-stroke lead after 54 holes – his hopes left to drown in Carnoustie's Barry Burn.

But that is not the biggest lead surrendered at The Open, with that dubious honour still belonging to Abe Mitchell, who led by six after two rounds in 1920 but ended up four adrift of champion George Duncan.

Everything has led to this.

That is the slogan for this year's Open Championship, with golf's oldest major celebrating its 150th edition this week.

Delayed a year by the COVID-19 outbreak, which forced the postponement of the 2020 tournament at Royal St George's – the first time since 1945 that the Open had not been played – this proud old competition will bring up its landmark at St Andrews, the home of golf.

Even against the backdrop of the LIV Golf furore, nothing can detract from the grandeur of an Open Championship at this famous links course.

The Saudi-backed breakaway tour has of course been a recurring topic here on Scotland's east coast this week, but the truly enlivening subject – the one which has prompted the most passionate discussion – has been the Open itself; its history, its prestige, its status as an iconic event that transcends the sport itself.

And that sense of occasion is heightened by The Open's homecoming to the handsome Old Course – the oldest in the world – which clings to the Fife Coast still now, 470 years after being established there.

It may be considered good form for players to speak kindly of any host venue, but none has ever drawn such glowing praise as this storied links, which is staging The Open for the 30th time – more than any other venue on the rotation. 

 

Those who have had the honour of playing here many times before and those who are set to embrace the St Andrews experience for the first time are united in their excitement for what is in store.

Reigning champion Collin Morikawa, whose maiden Open appearance ended in glory down in Kent last year, experienced the golfing equivalent of love at first sight when he pitched up at the Fife track.

"I love it. I can see why guys love it. I can see how special this week can be. I can see how the course can play a million different ways, depending on the weather," he breathlessly declared.

Rory McIlroy, deprived by injury of defending his title when the tournament was last played here in 2015, described winning The Open at St Andrews as "the holy grail" of golf, and all the ingredients are there for another memorable edition this time around.

The course has been basking in sunshine all week and attendees will continue to enjoy fine weather for the remainder of it, while the course set-up in general means a star-studded field will fancy their chances of carding some low-scoring rounds.

Monday's Celebration of Champions event, which saw the likes of McIlroy and Jordan Spieth entertain sizeable crowds alongside all-time greats such as Gary Player and Tom Watson, also welcomed Tiger Woods back to the course where he lifted the Claret Jug in 2000 and 2005.

His presence always adds another level of intrigue, ensuring grandstands are full and even casual observers have a familiar name to lure them in to the spectacle of it all. The man himself said "this does feel like it's the biggest Open Championship we've ever had".

Woods is one legendary name to adorn the pages of The Open's illustrious history book, and whoever lifts the Claret Jug at the 150th championship at St Andrews will join the 15-time major winner in achieving a kind of sporting immortality.

Everything has indeed led to this.

Value in the transfer market is always hard to gauge, but that feels especially true in the Premier League in this window.

Sadio Mane has left Liverpool for £35million, and Raheem Sterling is on his way out of Manchester City for £45m. Meanwhile, Southampton have reportedly asked for £75m for midfielder James Ward-Prowse.

That comparison is perhaps not fair on Ward-Prowse – Saints' most important figure – but it illustrates how erratic these fees can be.

It is slightly tricky then to establish who might be the most valuable Premier League player, yet why not have a go?

Inspired by Bill Simmons' NBA trade value list for The Ringer, ranking the 64 most valuable basketball stars, Stats Perform has put together an equivalent Premier League top 20.

Of course, there are key differences between how the markets work in the NBA and the Premier League, so a brief explainer is required before complaints come from fans of one or two clubs...

This is not a ranking of the 20 best Premier League players but rather the 20 most valuable – or 20 most difficult to sign.

The following factors have all been considered: how important these players are to their clubs, how replaceable they are, how proven they are, how likely they are to be sold now or in the near future, and how much they would cost if they were to move, influenced by ages and contract situations.

So, let's dive in...

1. Trent Alexander-Arnold – Liverpool

Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool's chief creator from right-back, unique in his passing ability and set-piece quality. The Reds will have an extremely tough time when they come to replace the England man; fortunately, that will not be any time soon, with the Anfield favourite a local boy, a Liverpool fan and under contract until 2025.

2. Phil Foden – Manchester City

Although perhaps still not quite the main man at Etihad Stadium, Foden is City's answer to Alexander-Arnold. Having waited so long to bring an elite talent through their academy, the champions will be in no rush to sell him – especially as Pep Guardiola is such a big fan.

3. Erling Haaland – Manchester City

If Alexander-Arnold and Foden are completely unattainable for rival clubs, there remains a possibility Haaland's stay at City could last only a few seasons, as Real Madrid and Barcelona are likely to again be interested soon enough. But City could command a huge fee for one of the most sought-after strikers in European football.

4. Kevin De Bruyne – Manchester City

It is perhaps no surprise City feature so prominently in this list, although there is a balance to consider. Their financial might means there is little motive to move on a star name, but they are also well placed to sign a replacement. Even at 31, there is nobody who could feasibly replace De Bruyne.

5. Virgil van Dijk – Liverpool

Replacing Van Dijk is a similarly tough ask. Liverpool are not afraid to cash in if it benefits the team, but it is difficult to imagine how losing their highly influential centre-back – undoubtedly the best in the Premier League – could ever be beneficial.

6. Mohamed Salah – Liverpool

Having seen Mane depart, Salah likely would not even have featured on this list had he not agreed a new contract. Now, though, both he and Liverpool are committed to one another for three more years. In the immediate future, Salah remains the Reds' leading man in attack.

7. Bruno Fernandes – Manchester United

It says a lot for the state of the United squad that Fernandes is the only Red Devil to be included. Cristiano Ronaldo is old, on a short-term contract and wants to leave, while Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford endured tough seasons. Fernandes ultimately did, too, but his quality is proven, and he will hope for an improved campaign under Erik ten Hag.

8. Son Heung-min – Tottenham

Spurs have a little more security now with Champions League football assured, surely able to keep Son happy – not that the outstanding forward ever appears too downcast. Son is now 30 but shows little sign of slowing after the best goalscoring season of his career.

9. Harry Kane – Tottenham

Son is just ahead of his strike partner on account of Kane pushing for a move last year. That was an unsuccessful bid, though, and City moved on with Haaland. Kane could perhaps be a candidate to replace Ronaldo, but again Tottenham have Champions League football while United do not.

10. Ederson – Manchester City

A move away from the division's elite attacking stars: Ederson simply could not be better suited for City's style of play, an outstanding goalkeeper with the passing range to fit into their midfield. A rival club surely would not even try to prise Ederson away.

11. Alisson – Liverpool

Liverpool do not rely on Alisson's ability with his feet in quite the same fashion, but there is very little between he and Ederson. Still just 29, the Brazil number one will keep his place between the posts at Anfield for the foreseeable future.

12. Reece James – Chelsea

The first Chelsea player on the list is James, who matches Alexander-Arnold for talent but might be seen as a more attainable transfer target for now. With the Blues still in the early stages of their new ownership, it is tough to tell exactly where they fit into the Premier League's hierarchy.

13. Mason Mount – Chelsea

As above, Chelsea would not have wanted to sell Mount under the previous regime and likely will stand firm again, but keeping players of his ilk relies on the club remaining as successful as they have been over the past 20 years.

14. Bukayo Saka – Arsenal

This Arsenal team is packed with young, hungry, talented players, few of whom their fans would like to see depart. But the Gunners have also long since been positioned as sellers to the elite clubs. Saka, the best of the bunch, could attract attention soon enough.

15. Bruno Guimaraes – Newcastle United

As with Chelsea, there is an element of the unknown around Newcastle. With big money and big ambitions, they could eventually join City in having the wealth and status to keep just about any player. Guimaraes – outstanding after talking up a Champions League title bid while still in the relegation zone – looks to be in for the long haul.

16. Declan Rice – West Ham

Rice might have more suitors than Guimaraes right now, but he might also be a more straightforward buy. Although David Moyes suggested £150m would be "the minimum" required to recruit Rice, a player of his talents will want to play in the Champions League – and the Hammers look to have missed their chance.

17. Darwin Nunez – Liverpool

Nunez could jump into the top three in a year's time, yet he still has only two seasons with Benfica on his CV and so will have to continue to prove his class in one of Europe's big five leagues before being ranked alongside Haaland.

18. Kai Havertz – Chelsea

Chelsea are already again having to rebuild the rest of their front line this year, so the future of Havertz appears secure. Despite netting the winning goal in the Champions League final a year ago, it feels like there is still more to come from the forward.

19. Ruben Dias – Manchester City

Besides those listed above, so many of City's outstanding players would be relatively easy to replace given their transfer budget and the pull of working with Guardiola. But the club have consistently lost leaders in recent seasons, so Dias is a key man for the coming years.

20. Cristian Romero – Tottenham

As long as Spurs are trying to keep Antonio Conte happy – and their business so far in this window suggests that is the case – Romero is unlikely to be going anywhere. The centre-back was superb after arriving at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in January.

All eyes in the golfing world will be trained on St Andrews this week as The Open returns for its 150th championship.

The final major of a year of fracture for the sport will bring the biggest names together once more, but who is best placed to take home the Claret Jug?

Five Stats Perform writers have their say ahead of the tournament...

LIV AND LET LIVE? OOSTHUIZEN IS A ST ANDREWS MASTER – Pete Hanson

Is it time to live and let live (or rather LIV and let live)? The proverb is defined as being able to "tolerate the opinions and behaviour of others so that they will similarly tolerate your own", but in the instance of the LIV defectors it is increasingly difficult to accept the decision for jumping ship as anything other than a nauseating money grab. That being said, looking at this through a purely sporting lens, LIV players who have qualified for The Open are allowed to play this weekend and Louis Oosthuizen knows a thing or two about St Andrews. The South African romped to a seven-shot win at the home of golf in 2010 and only lost in a three-man play-off to Zach Johnson at the same venue five years later. He was also leading through three rounds at Royal St George's a year ago before a final round one over coupled with a Collin Morikawa masterclass saw him end up tied for third.

RORY WINNING POPULARITY CONTESTS AND NOW SEEKS ST ANDREWS SUCCESS – Ben Spratt

If the LIV breakaway has made villains of a number of star names, Rory McIlroy is the PGA Tour's hero. With news of each defector, McIlroy has stood firm in his opposition to the Saudi-backed series – all the while stringing together a superb run of form, finishing in the top 20 in each of his past seven entries and the top 10 in each of the first three majors of the year. Rory is a very real contender this week, and there could hardly be a more popular winner. He has unfinished business at St Andrews, too, having tied for third in 2010 and then missed the 2015 event – where he would have been the defending champion – through injury.

RED-HOT SCHAUFFELE IS THE MAN TO BEAT – Russell Greaves

Fresh from his victory at the Scottish Open – where other putative Open contenders floundered – Xander Schauffele is certainly one to watch. Last week's victory at the Renaissance Club, which came despite a two-over-par opening round, came hot on the heels of his triumph at the Travelers Championship, sending the Tokyo 2020 gold medallist to St Andrews as a man in form. The American has also been in the mix at golf's oldest major before, finishing tied second at Carnoustie in 2018, where a final-round 74 ended his hopes of a maiden major. That search will continue this week for the 28-year-old, with the Claret Jug firmly in his sights. 

MORE MORIKAWA MAGIC INCOMING? – Patric Ridge

Morikawa enjoyed a sensational 2021, triumphing at Royal St George's to claim his second major title aged just 24 and becoming the first player to win on his Open debut since 2003. Yet 2022 has so far failed to yield the same success for the defending champion. He went into the weekend with the lead at last month's U.S. Open, only for a wobble on the Saturday to prove costly. After recovering with a fourth-round 65 to finish tied for fifth, Morikawa said he had learned to "just go play golf", although that approach did not serve him particularly well at the Scottish Open, where he failed to make the cut. If he manages to find the composure that deserted him during that dismal third round in Boston, however, then the world number eight cannot be overlooked as a serious contender once again.

CANTLAY CAN COME GOOD ON THE MAJOR STAGE – John Skilbeck

As the rumour mill links him with an LIV Golf switch, Patrick Cantlay is keeping his focus on the course. The American had a win alongside Schauffele in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in April and has achieved four top-fives and two top-15 finishes in his past seven events, including a tie for fourth at the Scottish Open. The elephant in the room is that Cantlay has mostly flunked the majors this year, tying for 39th at The Masters, missing the cut at the US PGA Championship and trailing home in a share of 14th at the U.S. Open. However, the 30-year-old is not fourth in the world rankings for nothing; his time is surely coming. Florida-based Cantlay ranks in the top five for birdie (or better) percentage on the PGA Tour when finding the fairway off the tee this year but is outside the top 70 when driving into the rough, so accuracy from the tee will likely determine his fate.

If some felt England had been underwhelming in their opening game win against Austria, it would be fair to say that in their second clash, the Lionesses roared.

Their 8-0 demolition of Norway at the Amex Stadium on Monday did more than just extend the longest unbeaten run in their history. It made a statement that England are ready to challenge for the Women's Euros on their own turf.

When they went seven ahead, England became the first team in European Championship history – women or men – to score so many in a single game.

Sarina Wiegman has made an immediate impact with the Lionesses since taking charge in September, with the Dutch coach having now won 14 and drawn two of her first 16 outings, scoring a remarkable 93 goals while conceding only three.

There had been some big wins already in the tournament that seemed ominous for the rest, with Spain and Germany hitting four in their opening matches while France became the first team to ever score five goals in the first half of a game at the Women's Euros when they trounced Italy 5-1 on Sunday.

England beat that record a day later, with a ruthless display seeing them lead 6-0 at the break.

An early penalty from Georgia Stanway after Ellen White had been felled got them going, and from there it seemed like every attack ended up in the Norway net.

Lauren Hemp made it two from close range despite being initially judged offside, before a brace each from Beth Mead and White gave the crowd in Brighton quite a first half to witness.

This was the first Women's Euros encounter between England and Norway, and it was one Gresshoppene boss Martin Sjogren will want to forget in a hurry.

The visitors stemmed the flow of goals in the second half, although their opponents seemed to use the opportunity to rest their legs.

Wiegman did just that as she took off White, Rachel Daly and the impressive Fran Kirby, who registered two assists, before the hour.

England had another on 65 minutes, though, as Alessia Russo, who replaced White, headed home a Lucy Bronze cross.

Mead completed her hat-trick with nine minutes remaining, tapping home after Guro Pettersen had spilled a Kiera Walsh strike from just outside the box.

Mead, who netted the only goal of the game against Austria, has now been directly involved in 29 goals for England under Wiegman (18 goals, 11 assists), with Hemp nine behind after her goal and assist took her to 20 involvements (eight goals, 12 assists).

The crowd of 28,847 were in their element, with no hostility, no jibes, just support for their team, and the familiar tune of 'Three Lions' having more than one vociferous airing.

It would be too simple to put this down to an energised showing because they were in front of their own fans, though. England played some outstanding football and earned their goal bonanza.

They look like a completely different side under Wiegman and dismantled a team only three places below them in the FIFA rankings, having 25 shots in all, hitting the target with an impressive 15.

Norway, ranked 11th in the world, looked like a deer caught in the headlights at times, but the pace and accuracy of the passing and movement was on point from their tormentors throughout.

The Lionesses are through to the quarter-finals already as group winners and can afford to rest plenty in their final Group A game against Northern Ireland before returning to Brighton on July 20 for the last-eight clash, likely to be against Germany or Spain.

England went into the tournament as one of the favourites, despite not having won it before. Their improvement under Wiegman coupled with home advantage means they are fancied by many.

Of course, we have been here before with England. Flattering to deceive, raising hopes only to have them extinguished. We all know that England expects, often in vain.

It is too early to say this feels different, but ripping apart a relatively strong opponent in such fashion has to impress even the most stubborn doubter.

Their fans certainly believe, anyway.

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