For Real Betis, the past 15 years haven't been the easiest. They've been relegated from LaLiga twice and failed to secure a first return to the Champions League since 2004-05, while just a few kilometres north, their bitter rivals Sevilla have enjoyed the greatest period in their existence.

Sevilla have won six UEFA Cup/Europa League titles, a couple of Copa del Rey crowns, the European Super Cup and qualified for the Champions League eight times.

Back in January 2018, the winds of change appeared to sweep through Seville. Betis were 5-3 winners at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in an astonishing, historic match.

Sevilla hadn't lost any of their previous 29 home matches, a run that stretched back to 2016, and were unbeaten in eight editions of Spain's fiercest derby. But on the day, Quique Setien's men were as irresistible going forward as the hosts were hopeless at the back.

Betis went on to finish sixth in the table, one place above a Sevilla side that went through three coaches over the course of the season. It was their first campaign without famed sporting director Monchi and without him they struggled massively for direction.

This was arguably the most vulnerable their status among Spain's top clubs had been since returning to LaLiga in 2001-02, yet they largely managed to weather the storm and Monchi's return restored much-needed stability. Betis, on the other hand, finished 10th and 15th in the following two campaigns, the promising early work of Setien proving something of a false dawn.

But once again there is an aura about Betis, and success in Sunday's Gran Derbi would really show they mean business.

Fun but flawed

Manuel Pellegrini's reputation in some quarters may have taken a bit of a bashing after a fairly underwhelming spell at West Ham, but it was going to take something drastic for him to be written off in Spain given the miracles he worked at Villarreal earlier this century.

It's fair to say things have gone well at the Benito Villamarin for the Chilean, with their sixth-placed finish in 2020-21 ensuring a return to the Europa League and they've started 2021-22 in fine fashion as well.

In fact, their record in 2021 is especially startling. They have lost just six of 42 matches across all competitions this year – across the top five European leagues, only Inter have been defeated less often.

While this Betis may not provide quite the same thrill ride as Setien's from a few years back, they're certainly among LaLiga's greatest entertainers this season.

The personnel available to Pellegrini gives Betis the technical capability to knock the ball around well but they're arguably at their most comfortable when getting the ball forward quickly, with their 26 direct attacks second only to Real Madrid (28) this season.

This coupled with the high quality of the individuals they possess in attack makes them one of the more threatening teams going forward, with their 13.0 expected goals (xG) from open play only bettered by Madrid (15.5), Barcelona (14.7) and – fractionally – Sevilla (13.1).

 

They are also efficient pressers. While their 79 high turnovers may only be the seventh highest in LaLiga this term, their 24 shots from such situations is at least four more than anyone else – these haven't led to any goals yet, but it's a positive sign that they appear pick their moments to increase the pressure well.

 

But conversely, one of the other reasons that Betis matches are so entertaining to watch is that they're not particularly solid at the back, as Thursday's 4-0 Europa League hammering by Bayer Leverkusen showed.

Now, this can potentially be explained by their attack-first mentality, but it should be a cause for concern in the long run if they cannot fix it, especially if they do harbour hopes of finishing in the top four.

Their 11.8 expected goals against (xGA) in open play is the third-worst in LaLiga and almost double Sevilla's respective record (6.2), and that probably doesn't bode well for a derby that can be open and frantic.

The Leverkusen loss came just a few days after Betis were also particularly poor defensively against Atletico Madrid, a 3-0 defeat in which they barely laid a glove on the defending champions.

And perhaps therein lies the biggest psychological barrier of all ahead of Sevilla's visit. Under Pellegrini, Betis have won none and lost seven of their 10 matches against their neighbours, Madrid, Atletico and Barca.

A win on Sunday will move them level on 24 points with Sevilla, who head into the weekend only a point off the top, but arguably more important than anything is that defeating Julen Lopetegui's men might finally show they can rise to the challenge of the league's best teams.

Beauty and the beast

When on song, there are few players in LaLiga more thrilling to watch than Nabil Fekir. Betis fans probably pinch themselves that he's still at the Benito Villamarin – to be honest, the very fact they managed to sign him in the first place was pretty remarkable.

Ignoring the petulance that saw him sent off in Leverkusen, Fekir's made a very lively start to 2021-22, which made it even more astonishing that Pellegrini opted to rest him against Atletico. Now, he was only one booking away from a suspension that would've ruled him out of the derby, but still.

Of course, his talents are nothing new to many, but he's proving what an asset he is with his form at the moment.

His 33 chances created is the second-most in LaLiga after Iker Muniain's (39), with the Frenchman both effective in open play and set-pieces, with these opportunities amounting to 2.7 expected assists, second only to Memphis Depay (4.5).

 

In open play is when Fekir's at his most useful for Betis, though, with his exceptional close control and dribbling skills able to open up spaces and situations that others can't. He's completed 29 dribbles this term – Javi Galan (30), Yannick Carrasco (31) and Vinicius Junior (33) are the three with more.

He's also attempted the third-most shots (34) in the league, though his one-goal haul (2.1 xG) suggests he might be better off showing a little more restraint.

But while Betis are undoubtedly a side that's easy on the eye with the likes of Fekir and Sergio Canales on the pitch, they've also got someone adept at doing the dirty work.

Guido Rodriguez has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence since moving from Club America in January last year, with the Argentina international's trademark bite and tenacity quickly becoming a key element for Betis.

A tall and strong defensive midfielder, Rodriguez has great presence without the ball. Even if he doesn't necessarily win the ball back himself, his willingness to get stuck in gives Betis real steel in the middle and makes him a formidable opponent.

He may not possess the passing ability of William Carvalho, but he's a considerably greater defensive presence, with Rodriguez averaging 3.1 tackle attempts per 90 minutes since the start of last season – among players to play at least 1,000 minutes in that time, only two players have been more forceful than him.

He also ranks in the top 10 among the same players for possession won (7.7) each match. There really is more to Betis than just the craftiness of Fekir.

Sevilla lacking soul

Betis' midfield could be the key on Sunday. While it's in this area of the pitch with players like Rodriguez and Fekir that they thrive, midfield is probably Sevilla's weakest area.

While Fernando was excellent for much of last season and Joan Jordan was solid enough as a No.8 a little in front, Lopetegui muddled through the campaign without ever really figuring out what to do with that third – the most advanced – midfield position.

Ivan Rakitic was usually the one to play there, but Oscar Rodriguez, Papu Gomez and Oliver Torres were also all used there to minimal success. But while that didn't really look like much of a problem last season, there's been little to suggest Lopetegui's fixed the issue, and it's been exacerbated by Jordan going through a drip – the Spaniard has seemed less influential, with his touches dropping from 88.1 each game to 74.4.

Lopetegui has come under fire from some supporters this season for the football they've played, which has looked especially monotonous in the Champions League, but let's not forget they could feasibly go into the international break top of the table, and they do have their strengths.

They may not engage in exhilarating high pressing, with their 46 high turnovers comfortably (by 10) the lowest in the division, but with the likes of Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos, Sevilla are pretty adept at evade their opponent's attempts to press, as evidenced by the fact their 66 high turnovers against is the fourth-lowest.

 

Similarly, while their forward line may not trigger a high press, once their opponents get into midfield, they are extremely persistent. There have only been four instances of teams managing to string together 10 or more passes that lead to either a shot or touch in the box against Sevilla, the best such record in the division.

 

But in possession, this is a Sevilla side that lacks identity. While they like to dominate the ball, with their 6,011 passes this season third to Barcelona (6,899) and Madrid (6,173), they're hardly masters of 'tiki-taka'.

Their 40 sequences of 10 or more passes is the third-highest in LaLiga, but they've yet to score a goal in that manner. When they go direct, they're far more efficient, with 13 – which is below average in itself – direct attacks yielding three goals.

It could be argued that the playmaker they're missing is all that's preventing Lopetegui turning Sevilla into a truly excellent team.

Betis will hope something doesn't suddenly click this weekend as they look to overcome a significant mental barrier.

Tottenham are once again on the hunt for a new head coach following the sacking of Nuno Espirito Santo on Monday.

For many, Nuno's fate had been sealed as soon as he took the job at the end of June, as it was widely reported that Spurs had failed to land a host of other coaches before turning to the man who had done a fine job turning Wolves into Premier League mainstays.

He lasted just four months at the helm, with his pragmatic approach not appreciated by the Spurs support – but Saturday's comprehensive 3-0 home defeat by a Manchester United side in the midst of a crisis of its own was the straw that broke the camel's back.

The fans made their feelings as Nuno's decision to substitute Lucas Moura with Steven Bergwijn was widely greeted with chants of "you don't know what you're doing", and the full-time whistle was met with thunderous jeers.

Speculation on Sunday suggested chairman Daniel Levy had opened emergency talks with other decision-makers at the club, and Nuno was gone the following morning.

Now, Stats Perform looks at who might be next in at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium…

 

Antonio Conte

Former Chelsea boss Conte will likely be most Tottenham fans' ideal replacement for Nuno. For starters, he is a free agent having left Inter after winning Serie A last season – breaking Juventus' nine-year grip in the process and ending the Nerazzurri's long wait for a league title.

The first three of those nine consecutive league titles for Juventus were won by Conte himself, who took a Bianconeri side that had not won the Scudetto since their revoked success in 2005 and established an era of dominance, going undefeated in the league in his first season (2011-12) and setting the Serie A points record (102) in his third.

His achievements in Italy are coupled with experience and success in England, winning the Premier League with Chelsea in 2017 (racking up an impressive 93 points) and claiming an FA Cup the year after.

Conte does have a reputation for being a volatile coach, and this may not lend itself to a long-term relationship with Levy, but his track record is almost unparalleled in terms of coaches currently available, and let's not forget that he turned Jose Mourinho's sloppy seconds at Chelsea into a side that was often sensational.

If Spurs act fast, they could potentially get him before the pressure is cranked up on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again.

 

Zinedine Zidane

Another free agent – and a particularly glamorous option – is Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman's second stint as Real Madrid boss came to an end in May and he remains available.

Zidane won the Champions League three times in a row in his first spell as Los Blancos head coach and also claimed two LaLiga titles over his five years in the role.

The 49-year-old is the record holder for most consecutive LaLiga away wins (13) and the longest unbeaten run in Spanish football (40 games). Spurs would surely see him as a massive upgrade on Nuno, but the problem is Zidane does not appear to be easily coaxed.

When it looked as though Solskjaer was doomed last week, reports suggested Zidane wasn't interested – are Spurs able to offer a lure that United can't?

Brendan Rodgers

Less decorated than the previous two names, sure, but Rodgers has a wealth of experience in the English game and has done an admirable job in his current post as Leicester City head coach, guiding the Foxes to their first-ever FA Cup success last season as well as successive fifth-placed Premier League finishes.

He also claimed back-to-back domestic trebles in his two-and-a-half seasons with Celtic and, let's not forget, previously turned Liverpool from mere European hopefuls into title challengers – coming within two points of winning the Premier League in his second season on Merseyside.

Rodgers was tipped for the Spurs job when Mourinho left but was apparently committed to Leicester. However, recent reports have suggested he could be tempted by a new project.

He would also offer fans the kind of attractive football they crave.

Erik ten Hag

Ten Hag has impressed with Ajax, winning two Eredivisie titles and embarking on a memorable run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, knocking Madrid and Juventus out before coincidentally going out to Spurs on away goals.

Ajax have been effective but also entertaining under Ten Hag, which would undoubtedly be a big attraction for Spurs fans who have grown weary after the best part of two years watching teams managed by Mourinho and Nuno.

It remains to be seen if the Dutchman – who has also been linked with Newcastle United – would be willing to leave mid-season, but it won't be long until a major European club comes for him. Spurs would do well to get to the front of the queue while they have the chance.

 

Sergio Conceicao

This would not be the first time that Conceicao has replaced his former team-mate Nuno – he took over from him at Porto in 2017 and has been in charge ever since.

A fiery character, this Porto team is in many ways built in his image: they are aggressive, direct and robust. It is not a style that pleases everyone, as Pep Guardiola criticised Conceicao's defensive approach before and after a Champions League match last year, but he has been effective.

Under Conceicao, Porto have not finished outside of the top two in the Primeira Liga, winning two titles and finishing second to Benfica and Sporting CP.

Since Bobby Robson left Porto in 1996, only Vitor Pereira (78.3) and another former Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas (90) have boasted better win percentages in the league than Conceicao (77.4), yet the incumbent's 146 matches is 56 more than the other two combined.

Paulo Fonseca

Highly regarded football coaches are probably Portugal's second biggest export behind Port wine – Fonseca is another who has been linked with numerous Premier League clubs in recent times.

Much like Conte, Ten Hag and Rodgers, Fonseca was also apparently an option for Spurs before Nuno, with negotiations reportedly ending due to tax problems.

Who is to say if that will be an issue again, but Spurs managing director of football Fabio Paratici is said to be an admirer, with Fonseca also still available after he left Roma at the end of last season.

He is known for his attack-minded football, which again will be a tick for supporters.

When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid in 2019, it's fair to say there were plenty who doubted it would be a happy marriage.

Atletico shelled out €126million on the Portuguese talent who had taken the Primeira Liga by storm in his first season, scoring 15 times despite not even being in the Benfica first team when the campaign had begun.

But how was this technical virtuoso going to fit into an Atletico side characterised by its work rate? How would he adapt to the demanding principles implemented by Diego Simeone?

Maverick talents known more for their technical attributes than anything else had often been seen as Simeone's blind spot, hence some trepidation about whether he was the right man to nurture Joao Felix.

The Portugal international's Atletico career has been a slow-burner, but once again there are signs he is beginning to find himself.

Stuck in limbo

Joao Felix had to miss the start of this season through injury, which was obviously not ideal, particularly given how 2020-21 ultimately turned out for him after a promising start.

For a period last season, there were real signs that he was finding his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisaged, his role in the first half of 2020-21 – being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left – saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Lionel Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-the-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But he didn't manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

A potential explanation for Joao Felix's disappointing form overall for Atletico was the lack of creativity in central areas behind him. While some might suggest Marcos Llorente's 11 assists in 2020-21 disproves that idea, the former Real Madrid man over-performed his expected assists (xA) by 5.6 – a figure unmatched across LaLiga, suggesting such productivity was not sustainable – while he also did a lot of his best work towards the right.

There had undoubtedly been a major difference between how Joao Felix was used during his first two seasons at Atletico compared to his time with Benfica, where he was seen as more of a genuine striker.

He averaged 2.5 shots per game in 2018-19 with Benfica, and although there wasn't a massive drop-off in his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano (2.4), his expected goals per shot slumped from 0.15 to 0.12. While that may not sound like a lot, it shows a clear indication that the quality of his chances decreased and therefore suggests his similar shot frequency was a result of poor decision-making.

 

His xG per shot improved back up to 0.14 last term, though he was averaging just 1.26 shots each game, half as frequent as at Benfica.

The fact his average number of touches in the box fell from 4.9 per appearance in 2018-19 to 2.7 the following season and then 2.0 last term further highlighted the different role he was adapting to and went some way to explaining why he was having fewer shots.

Certain transfer window additions – especially Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha – had some fans concerned for Joao Felix, given they were likely to be in direct competition with him for places.

Some felt his future was in a more deep-lying role as part of the central midfield trio, but recently he has excelled in a similar playmaking function but further up the pitch. Suddenly it has him looking like the Joao Felix we all knew was in there somewhere.

Rising to the challenge

Following an uncharacteristic recruitment drive for technical players in the most recent transfer window, a key buzzword around Atletico was 'balance'. Preserving balance in the team was going to be a major focus for Simeone as he looked to truly maximise what is arguably the most talented squad he's had as a coach.

At the moment, it appears to be working well, and Joao Felix seems to be nicely suited to the set-up that's being deployed.

Simeone is favouring the use of a front three that is spearheaded by Suarez, with Joao Felix to the left and Griezmann towards the right.

The roles of Joao Felix and Griezmann allow them a certain flexibility. They can go down the outside, but with the use of wing-backs there's not a necessity, therefore Atletico can really overload teams in the final third when the likes of Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco are overlapping out wide.

This appears to suit Joao Felix in particular, and he has thrived in an advanced playmaker role against Real Sociedad and Levante over the past week.

 

Now, it's worth noting that Joao Felix was at fault for La Real's first goal in last weekend's 2-2 draw, but he played a similarly important role in ensuring Atletico fought back, his neat and intricate play in possession a real asset.

He was involved in 41 open-play passing sequences in that match, second only to Koke among Atletico midfielders and forwards. Given it's a metric that tends to be dominated by defenders and central midfielders, Joao Felix's high involvement here speaks to his significant influence.

He was then involved in 44 such sequences against Levante – again, Koke was the only midfielder or forward to be more influential in Atletico's build-up play than Joao Felix.

But there has been more substance to his performances than just build-up involvement – he seems to be relishing the attacking responsibility he has, and there's a certain maturity to be gleaned from that.

For example, it would have been quite easy for Joao Felix to go back inside his shell after coughing up possession in the lead-up to La Real's first goal, but he continued to demand the ball and drive at the defence.

His 22 ball carries was four more than any other midfielder or forward in that game, and there was such positivity in his movement in possession – he progressed 137.5 metres upfield with the ball, at least 45.8m more than any other non-defender on the pitch.

 

These often brought him inside as well as down the wing, from where he caused numerous problems and even set up Suarez's first goal with a gorgeous cross.

Joao Felix's output was then almost identical against Levante, with his carry progress increasing to 140.6m upfield, which was again a match-high among non-defenders, while his 21 overall carries was second only to Koke's 27 in that same group of players.

There are undoubtedly those who will remain unconvinced given he has had only one goal involvement (that assist against La Real) in five league games this season, so why are these figures important?

Well, Joao Felix's prominence in Atletico's build-up shows the influence he's beginning to exert. That, coupled with the positive nature – and frequency – of his ball carries, suggests he's finally found his niche in this team. He's injecting direction and purpose to their attacks.

Obviously, in an ideal world he will manage to add plenty of goals and assists as well in the long run, but for the moment the important thing for Joao Felix is that he finds continuity and consistency.

He looked to have been on the right path this time last year before a complicated second half to 2020-21 – hopefully for his sake this isn't another false dawn.

When it comes to reputations, once you have one, they are hard to shake.

Kevin Muscat knows that better than most, having earned a reputation as a hardman throughout his playing career in Australia and the UK, where he was the ultimate villain, but despite his combative approach, there was more to his game.

Muscat, who retired from professional football in 2011, was always comfortable with the ball at his feet, preferring to play out from the back. His teams mirror that view, as he now finds himself following in the footsteps of Aussie trailblazer Ange Postecoglou once again in Japan.

The captain of Melbourne Victory in their first A-League Men season in 2005, Muscat replaced Postecoglou as head coach at AAMI Park in 2013 after the now Celtic manager took charge of the Australian national team, having served as his assistant.

Muscat delivered two A-League championships and the FFA Cup, playing an attacking brand of football, before opting to call time on his 14-year association with Victory in 2019.

"Subconsciously, I was doing a form of coaching when I was playing. Albeit, it wasn't organising tactics or deciding the style of play, but I was driving that on the park. That's just who I was," Muscat told Stats Perform as he discussed his transition from captain to coach.

"For example, the first year at Victory, we get to the end of the season, we had [goalkeeper Eugene] Galekovic and [Michael] Theo – they used to play two games each. They weren't too happy with that. I said to them 'when we get a goal-kick, why wouldn't you drop it to me or give me the ball?', 'Oh we were told not to give you the ball because you'd play out from the back and we were to kick it forward'. Then it started, well okay, that's why I like to do.

"A lot of people spend a lot of time creating a perception of themselves instead of being themselves and let a perception be created by being themselves. I've done the latter and just been myself. I actually enjoyed passing the ball and thought I was a very good passer of the ball. I wanted to keep possession of the ball. That's how it started to form, building up my own ideas and style.

"Having an opportunity to work with Ange and try to fit in so much during the 14-15 months together. Fitting in so much knowledge. That's when it dawned on me – I knew I wanted to be a coach but then I was like, wow, this is what it takes.

"Ange took me out of comfort zone. It's not really a test because Ange is focused on winning the game and everything needs to be right, but I found myself tested and out of my comfort zone. I had spoken to Victory two or three times prior to that about when opportunities were available to take over and I didn't even entertain it.

"When Ange went to the national team, I had a conversation with him and that gave me a lot of belief in my own thoughts and coupled with how Ange goes about his style of play. I knew I was ready then. Fortunately enough, Ange was fairly influential in speaking to the club. The rest is history.

"Perception is sometimes not the reality. I'd like to think the five seasons I was coaching Victory, we played some really good football, some exciting football."

 

The 48-year-old won 87 A-League matches – the fourth most of any coach in the history of the men's competition, after Ernie Merrick, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic, with the ex-Socceroos skipper one of seven coaches in the history of the league with a win percentage of 50 per cent or greater (51).

Muscat departed Victory with his teams averaging 1.7 goals per game; among managers who have coached at least 30 matches, only current Australia boss Arnold (1.8) has seen more goals scored per game.

Once Postecoglou was lured to Glasgow by Scottish powerhouses Celtic at the start of 2021-22 after guiding F.Marinos to their first J1 League title in 15 years in 2019, the Japanese club turned to Muscat. Just like he did at Victory, albeit in different circumstances, the latter stepped into fill the void left by compatriot Postecoglou in July.

"Whatever we do, it comes down to perception and narrative," Muscat, whose playing career featured stints at Crystal Palace, Wolves and Celtic's bitter rivals Rangers, while captaining Millwall to the 2004 FA Cup final against Manchester United, said as he recalled his move to F.Marinos. "More times than not, the people holding the pen or keyboard, dictate the narrative.

"There was so much stuff that I presented from my time at Victory and the way we played because we did for many years played an attractive brand of football, in my opinion. We scored many, many goals and entertaining goals. But maybe that's not the perception in Australia because it depends on the narrative.

"I'm not one to push the narrative and agenda but ultimately the perception is, in a percentage wise, what is mostly believed. But when it came to the crunch and I had to present, I was fortunate enough to fall back on some stuff in relation to that, where perception was eliminated and it was fact and visual."

F.Marinos were crowned Japanese champions two years ago, playing a high-octane and entertaining style of football under Postecoglou, who completely transformed the club that are part of the City Football Group (CFG). His legacy lives on in Yokohama.

Muscat, though, is building on Postecoglou's work, with F.Marinos second in the table this season, behind runaway leaders Kawasaki Frontale through 33 rounds.

"It was clear and evident from those discussions and hence the way it influenced my presentation, they truly believe here at F.Marinos to continue the legacy of Ange and the legacy of the football club, which the club and fans truly believe in – the way they think the game should be played," Musctat said.

"Everyone wants to win but there's high level of belief in the process and style of football. From my perspective, that's what appealed to me.

"I was under no illusion because there'd be people, and rightly so, who'd say he took over a club that was well versed in terms of playing style and where it's at. On the flip side, it had some real challenges because normally you get a job, most times, because something isn't going well and someone has been dismissed.

"This was very unique and presented its own set of circumstances because you're actually stepping into the shoes of a great manager and someone who has done so much previously and for F.Marinos.

"Throw into the fact there was quarantine and I came out a day before seven games in August. It's been everything I expected, it's been thrilling. To be able to continue on in F.Marinos fashion and style of football but also try to improve the team. We had an unbelievable little run where we started to apply some pressure and Kawasaki have pulled away again in recent weeks. We'll keep fighting with our last breaths."

As Muscat said, it is not so straightforward taking on a role where not too much was going wrong – Postecoglou was handpicked to oversee a rebuild at Celtic, who were dethroned by Steven Gerrard's Rangers last term.

But Muscat is trying to put his own stamp on F.Marinos, who have won eight of his first 13 matches in charge with an expected goals (xG) value of 2.01 and 26.14 in total, having scored 31 times in that period.

Maintaining a high-pressing philosophy under Muscat, F.Marinos – spearheaded by forward stars Leo Ceara and reported Celtic target Daizen Maeda – have won possession in the final third on average 5.77 times per game since his arrival.

When comparing F.Marinos to the league leaders or second team over the entire 2021 campaign so far, they rank first in xG (64.81), total shots (505), shots on target (188), passing accuracy (85.8 per cent), possession (65 per cent), passes in opposition half (12,145), open crosses (581), big chance total (91) and total fast breaks (12).

"There were some challenges stepping in and following Ange because the perception is everything is set up ready to go and the reality is, it was and I'm comfortable admitting that," Muscat said. "Then it was finding a way to continue that on and improve.

"What we looked at was where we were getting a lot of passes. We were very comfortable building up and drawing teams onto us then utilising the space. Whether it was in front of a back four, five or six or behind them, if they were really aggressive in their endeavours, trying to force us to play long and we'd persist and play through that, knowing there's space the other side.

"As time started to go on, we were scoring freely, you could sense teams weren't as aggressive pressing us. We worked hard on trying to increase the amount of time in our opponents half, the amount of passes in our opponents half.

"What it did do, teams are actually sitting so deep, the consequence is not a lot of space and opportunity to get behind them. Now we're in a position where, if we do get an opportunity go get forward and use space behind, where we can do that early, we still have to take that chance. But, now it's a matter of breaking teams down when they're a lot deeper.

"We had a lot of joy with the front players and they were scoring freely. Opponents have adapted. Now we have to shift and adapt. Another thing to factor in is the time of the year – teams above the relegation zone fighting for their lives, there's a lot of self-defence, teams are going into that mode.

"That's the side of the game that interests me a lot – finding and trying to identify trends prior to them happening. Then identifying trends while they're happening and try to find solutions."

Like Postecoglou, Muscat is getting his message cross through a translator.

"There's one thing that is constant in football: you're dealing with people. Fortunately, I find myself working with a translator, Yuchi; he is a wonderful guy," the 46-time Australia international said. "He actually cares, he is invested, he wants the team to play well. He is in all the meetings, he is riding the wave just as much as me and possibly even more emotional than me.

"From that side, you miss that element of directness and the emotion of having a connection with somebody. The next best thing is to have someone like Yuchi. We do a lot of video. We all learn in different ways.

"I think the one thing this pandemic has taught us – before this I didn't have an idea what Zoom or Teams was. If you want to survive, you'll find a way like we have these past couple of years."

 

Muscat's journey to Japan came after a short spell in Belgium with top-flight outfit Sint-Truiden.

Trying to break down barriers like Postecoglou amid a stigma against Australian coaches in Europe, Muscat's AFC Pro license was not recognised initially, leading to him being named technical director. All in all, his tenure did not go according to plan following a promising start.

Despite the setback, Muscat remained steadfast in his desire to succeed outside of Australia amid interest from his homeland and beyond as he continues to build his growing coaching reputation.

"We arrived in the summer and ultimately I was the coach at the time but because of the AFC Pro License – I lasted more than the 14 games reported," he said.

"We made some progress. The reason I was there because the club and owners had a vision to change the way they were playing. We went in during the winter break, we were in Spain. All of a sudden it was flipped 180 degrees to what they were doing prior. We had immediate success in terms of results. Then you could see the rewards paying off in terms of performance.

"That season finished and the pandemic hit. We didn't recruit anywhere near, that window was the first window we had to affect the playing squad in terms of personnel. To maintain where we were and progress, we needed to bring in players.

"It was very challenging for most clubs. We struggled in the market. We lost our captain and influential attacking midfielder and another striker. The list went on. I hear this question, 'well if you haven't got the players, why do you persist in playing a certain way?' The answer is quite simple because that's what I believe in and enjoy. If we don't have the players, well we're going to make this group better.

"We started season okay. Then you could sense one or two people around you at board level and even at the club, not having the same belief as you. The reality is, the three or four games leading up to my last game, we were playing some great stuff as crazy as it sounds. I could see us making progress. I could sense that we were going to get it right, the players were strong in their beliefs and resilient in persisting.

"Unfortunately, when your first instinct is to analyse results, you're missing the path that we agreed that's why I was coming there for.

"It was an unbelievable experience for me. I could've sat comfortably in Melbourne, walked out to my coffee shop in Albert Park, read the paper every day, but I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and learn, go on a journey and learn. So far, when I've made those decisions, they've been rewarding."

Muscat added: "I was determined that I wasn't finished. There were three-four opportunities – some in Australia and some in Europe. This opportunity come up to interview. The persistence and the will and want, now I find myself here. I couldn't be happier."

Ronald Koeman has been sacked as head coach of Barcelona following a poor start to the season. 

A 1-0 loss at Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday proved too much for the Camp Nou hierarchy, who pulled the trigger on Koeman's time with the club.

The Dutchman was brought in to replace Quique Setien in August 2020 and led Barca to Copa del Rey success in his first season, although they finished third in LaLiga and suffered a Champions League last-16 exit, as well as losing the Supercopa de Espana final to Athletic Bilbao. 

The hope was that Koeman could steady the ship in the face of the various financial challenges that were affecting incomings and outgoings at Barca, but after winning just 39 of his 67 games in charge, the former Southampton, Everton and Netherlands boss was relieved of his duties.

A total of 12 draws and 16 defeats during Koeman’s 14-months at the club, with 138 goals for and 75 against, was ultimately not good enough, but was it all bad? Stats Perform takes a closer look at the numbers behind his reign.

 

Worst record post-Pep

Of all the coaches to take charge at the club since the departure of Pep Guardiola in 2012, Koeman had the lowest win percentage (58.2 per cent), with the next lowest being his predecessor Setien (64 per cent), who himself only lasted 25 games in the hot seat.

Koeman is also the only Barca boss to average fewer than two points per game in LaLiga (1.96 PPG), again comfortably behind the next worst in Setien (2.21 PPG).

There was also an undoubted, yet somewhat understandable over-reliance on Lionel Messi. The club's greatest ever player shocked the world when he left for Paris Saint Germain in the summer, but it was no shock to discover that prior to his departure, he had been holding the team up almost single-handedly.

Despite leaving in the summer, Messi has still scored almost twice as many goals as any other Barca player during Koeman’s time as boss (38), has created more chances than anyone else (117), has taken more than twice as many shots as anyone else (271) and is still joint-second in assists (12), behind only Jordi Alba (15).

This season, Barcelona have begun a LaLiga campaign without a win in their first four away games for the first time since 1991-92 – when Johan Cruyff was in charge. They have also failed to score in three consecutive league away games for the first time since February 2003.

They were unable to hit the target in the first half against Real Madrid or Rayo Vallecano, which is just the second time in the last 19 LaLiga seasons they have done so in consecutive games.

During Koeman's reign, Barca dropped 12 points from winning position in LaLiga – only Frank Rijkaard (29) and Ernesto Valverde (26) had poorer records in that regard.

3 - Barcelona are winless in their last four away trips in LaLiga (D2 L2), failing to score in the last three - they have failed to score in three league away games for the first time since since February 2003 (3). Run. pic.twitter.com/cd1Q8QWz7f

— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 27, 2021

 

Did anything go right?

Well, his team did gain 24 points from losing positions in LaLiga – only Valverde (48) and Rijkaard (43) won more.

While reliance on Messi last season was clear, Barca actually coped well on the rare occasions they were without their talismanic figure. 

In the 45 games with the Argentine in all competitions, they had a win percentage of 60 per cent (27), averaged 2.2 goals for, and 1.2 goals against per game. In the nine games without the superstar, their win percentage was 77.80 per cent (seven), with an average of 2.4 goals for and 0.7 goals against.

While his hand may have been forced, Koeman has also given plenty of chances to promising stars of Barcelona's future, in particular overseeing the emergence of Pedri.

The 18-year-old wonderkid was the fourth most used player in Koeman's tenure, playing 56 games, behind only Sergio Busquets (63), Frenkie De Jong (62) and Jordi Alba (57). The former Las Palmas midfielder has clearly benefited from such faith, now starring for both club and country.

Ansu Fati has played significantly fewer games under Koeman (16) but this is mostly due to injury, and would no doubt have featured more otherwise, while Gavi looks to be following in Pedri's footsteps after being given 11 opportunities by Koeman, already earning his first caps for Spain as a result. He is the youngest player to play for the country, and became the youngest Clasico starter since the turn of the century when he was named in the Barca XI on Sunday, for a 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid.

There have certainly been promising signs, but whoever comes in next at the Camp Nou will be hoping that the numbers will all start going in the right direction, and soon.

Manchester United's 5-0 mauling at the hands of Liverpool could prove to be the beginning of the end, or indeed the final straw, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The team have performed poorly this season, failing to win any of their last five domestic games (losing four) and requiring last-minute winners from Cristiano Ronaldo to beat Villarreal and Atalanta in the Champions League following an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Young Boys.

Sunday's embarrassing scoreline set a number of unwanted records, including United's largest margin of defeat against Liverpool at home and the first time the Red Devils had trailed by four goals at half-time in the Premier League.

Solskjaer only signed a new three-year deal with an option for an additional year in July, but disappointing results have sparked speculation about the Norwegian's future.

If Solskjaer is indeed replaced, who might take his spot and be charged with guiding United back to the top? Stats Perform takes a look at some of the favourites.

 

Antonio Conte

Conte seems, in many ways, to be an ideal appointment for United. For starters, the Italian is a free agent, having left Inter after winning Serie A last season – breaking Juventus' nine-year grip in the process and ending the Nerazzurri’s long wait for a league title.

The first three of those nine consecutive league titles for Juventus were won by Conte himself, who took a Bianconeri side that had not won the Scudetto since their revoked success in 2005 and established an era of dominance, going undefeated in the league in his first season (2011-12) and setting the Serie A points record (102) in his third.

His achievements in Italy are coupled with experience and success in England, winning the Premier League with Chelsea in 2017 (racking up an impressive 93 points) and claiming an FA Cup the year after.

Conte does have a reputation for being a volatile coach, but his track record of titles will surely be tempting for United, who have not won the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013.

However, former United defender Gary Neville does not think the ex-Italy coach is a good fit for the club, telling Sky Sports: "Conte's available but I wouldn't bring him to Manchester United. I wouldn't bring him here now. I don't think Antonio Conte is a fit for Manchester United."

Zinedine Zidane

Another free agent – and a particularly glamorous option – is Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman's second stint as Real Madrid boss came to an end in May and he remains available.

Zidane won the Champions League three times in a row in his first spell as Los Blancos head coach and also claimed two LaLiga titles over his five years in the role.

The 49-year-old is the record holder for most consecutive LaLiga away wins (13) and the longest unbeaten run in Spanish football (40 games) and United would surely see him as an upgrade on Solskjaer.

He has also previously coached Cristiano Ronaldo, to great success, and might be the perfect candidate to get United's stars working together cohesively. 

 

Brendan Rodgers

Brendan Rodgers is less decorated than the previous two names on this list, but has a wealth of experience in the English game and has done an admirable job in his current post as Leicester City head coach, guiding the Foxes to their first-ever FA Cup last season as well as successive fifth-placed Premier League finishes.

He also claimed back-to-back domestic trebles in his two-and-a-half seasons with Celtic, but his association with United's rivals Liverpool may prove to be an obstacle, having come within two points of winning the Premier League in his second season on Merseyside.

Mauricio Pochettino

Pochettino has reportedly long been admired by United, being regularly linked with a move to Old Trafford in his five-year spell in north London, having taken Tottenham to a Champions League final in that time.

However, the Argentine only joined Paris Saint-Germain in January and signed a contract extension until 2023 in July, and is coaching a team that includes Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, not to mention the rest of PSG's star-studded squad.

Never say never, but this deal would certainly be a difficult one for United to pull off given the timing.

 

Erik ten Hag

Ten Hag has impressed in his time in the Netherlands, winning two Eredivisie titles with Ajax and embarking on a memorable run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, knocking Madrid and Juventus out before falling going out on away goals to Pochettino's Spurs.

Ajax have been entertaining and effective under Ten Hag and are four points clear at the top of the league once more this season, beating title rivals PSV 5-0 on Sunday.

However, it remains to be seen if the Dutchman – who has also been linked with Newcastle United – would be willing to leave mid-season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO MESSIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Haaland has always been a goalscorer.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Young Lions setting the example

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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