The Golden State Warriors' 2020-21 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but you might not know that reading head coach Steve Kerr's most recent comments.

Golden State rode an MVP calibre season from Stephen Curry to eighth spot in the Western Conference and a place in the play-in tournament.

Yet that was where it all fell apart.

They missed out on the seventh seed as a miracle LeBron James three-pointer helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a dramatic victory, and the Warriors were then outplayed by the Memphis Grizzlies in the final play-in game to ensure they would be watching the postseason from home.

Despite that bitter end, Kerr was left extremely encouraged after seeing his team win 16 of their last 22 regular-season games despite playing a second successive season without Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson, who suffered a torn Achilles before the campaign.

"I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr told The Athletic. 

"The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He's on the court, he's running, he's feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He's just in a completely different mindset. The light's at the end of the tunnel.

"Steph and Draymond [Green] are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games. Andrew [Wiggins] had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan [Toscano-Anderson] has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

"Now we get a training camp with James [Wiseman], a whole season of development, plus [picks] seven and 14 in a deep draft."

However, Kerr's excitement for the new season being vindicated hinges on what they do with those picks and how they stack the roster to help the core of Curry, Thompson and Green contend for at least one more championship.

Use those prime draft selections and continue to develop Wiseman with a view to building sustainable long-term success, or trade the picks and young assets for another star? It's truly a case of evolution or revolution for the Warriors this offseason and, with Kerr in Japan with Team USA, he won't be in the building to influence the final call.

Curry cooks up a storm

Curry's was a season that merited more than the five first-place votes he received in the MVP race.

His points per game average of 32 was the highest of his career, topping the 30.1 ppg he produced in 2015-16 when Curry was named unanimous MVP and the Warriors broke the single-season wins record by going 73-9.

Per 100 possessions, Curry's ppg of 32.1 was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9) as he continued to embellish his resume as the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry's 5.3 three-pointers made per game was a league record, the 2020-21 season his third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He remains the only player to achieve the feat even once.

He had seven games with 40 plus points and at least 10 threes last season. No other player has registered more than three such performances in their career.

Becoming the first player to post three 50-point games in a season aged 32 or older and producing a scoring average that was the highest by a player of that age in league history, Curry is clearly showing no signs of slowing down.

Still, his usage rate of 34.8 per cent is probably not sustainable for the long term, but if the Warriors are to allow Curry more rest in 2021-22, they must solve the problem of what happens when he comes off the floor.

A damaging drop-off

The most dramatic illustration of the Warriors' struggles without Curry came back in April. With Curry and Green each on the sideline, they were thrashed 130-77 by the Toronto Raptors.

The 53-point reverse was the second-largest defeat in franchise history, though it can be argued it was a necessary low point for Golden State. The Warriors subsequently lost to the Atlanta Hawks before embarking on that 16-6 surge.

And the numbers from across the season paint a telling picture of Curry's importance to the Warriors' cause.

With him on the court, the Warriors scored 112.8 points per 100 possessions, compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor, while their effective field goal percentage dropped from 57.1 to 51.6.

The Warriors effectively lost 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry was absent. Their point differential was plus-4.3 with him on the court compared to minus-4.5 when he played the role of spectator.

 

Ensuring that disparity is not as severe in 2021-22 will be a key focus of the Warriors' offseason, yet there were still some encouraging performances from those not named Curry to build hope that Golden State can contend to go deep into the postseason again.

Andrew Wiggins set career-highs in field goal percentage (47.7) and three-point shooting (38 per cent) while Jordan Poole established himself as a productive option off the bench, shooting 42.2 per cent over those final 22 games.

Perhaps the best find of the season was Bay Area native Juan Toscano-Anderson who, having been signed to a two-way contract in December, saw that converted to a full-time deal in May.

Toscano-Anderson was seventh in effective field goal percentage (66.7) and eighth in true shooting percentage (67.6), deservedly earning a spot in the frontcourt rotation. Yet, for all the positives that emerged as the Warriors got hot late in the campaign, their ability to take a step towards vying for the title may be contingent on what they decide to do with last year's most high-profile addition.

The Wiseman conundrum

The Warriors have the capital to stack the deck in Curry's favour with the addition of either seasoned pros or promising prospects. They were one of the winners of the NBA lottery as the top-three protected pick the Minnesota Timberwolves sent them in the Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell trade became the seventh selection in this year's draft.

That gives them the flexibility to pursue a trade for more experienced help, but whether they go down that avenue depends on what the Warriors elect to do with Wiseman, whom they took second overall in 2020 despite him having only three games of collegiate experience.

And they were not granted a full season's evidence to aid their decision about the 20-year-old center as a meniscus injury brought his rookie campaign to a premature end.

There were signs that Wiseman could blossom into the athletic big man who can make a difference at both ends, with center long since a position of concern for the Warriors even at the height of their dynasty.

He posted double figures in points in 24 of his 39 games but a net rating of minus 10.1 spoke to a player who still needs time to acclimatise to the challenge of playing at the highest level.

That is no surprise given Wiseman's inexperience, and Kerr is hopeful he will make strides with the chance to get a full offseason under his belt, however, with the front office reportedly exploring trade options, will the Warriors have the patience to stick with him with potentially more immediate contributors available?

Golden State would surely have to include Wiseman in any potential blockbuster trade, with the Warriors mentioned as a potential destination for Oakland native Damian Lillard, the increasingly maligned Ben Simmons and Raptors star Pascal Siakam

Bradley Beal, whom Curry beat to the scoring title, is reportedly viewed as the Warriors' top option in a trade, but there have as yet been no signs that any deal is on the horizon.

After another year with no postseason play, Golden State's big three will want the talent around them to improve in a hurry but, if the Warriors do not identify a player whom they deem worthy of a price that includes Wiseman, they may need to be patient in awaiting the dividends a player of his obvious physical gifts can deliver.

Verdict: Evolution

The Warriors are the team to watch in the draft as reports of trade discussions continue to swirl.

Despite being flush with capital, it is appearing more and more likely that if they do send some of their resources to a rival, it will not be as part of a trade that changes the complexion of the league.

Instead, the more feasible outcome is that the Warriors do a deal to supplement the core that initially shook up the NBA in 2015 by jump-shooting their way to the title, rather than reshaping it with the addition of another star.

Myles Turner is said to have been the subject between the talks between the Warriors and the Indiana Pacers, and his arrival would give the Warriors a difference-making big on both ends of the floor.

Turner missed the final 18 games of last season with a sprained toe but still led the NBA with a block percentage of 8.8 and was seventh among centers that played a minimum of 25 games with an average of 1.5 made threes.

In the draft, the reported urging from Curry, Thompson and Green for the organisation to get players who can help them now may force the Warriors to target more experienced rookies having gone young with Wiseman last year.

Oregon guard Chris Duarte is 24 and was named to the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team last season while finishing third in the conference with a field goal percentage of 53.2.

 

Davion Mitchell turns 23 in September and led the Big 12 in three-point shooting, converting on 44.7 per cent of his efforts from beyond the arc, and James Bouknight of UConn is thought to be in the mix as a younger shot-creator who was second in the Big East in 2020-21 with 23.7 points per 40 minutes.

The Warriors' front office is seemingly facing external and internal pressure to utilise their draft capital to land a premier player who can propel them back to the top of the Western Conference and firmly open the window for Curry, Thompson and Green to polish their resumes further.

Yet a team led by a player who has spent his Hall of Fame career redefining limits with his remarkable shooting range may find their trade possibilities restricted, and Curry and Warriors fans alike might have to reconcile themselves with an offseason that only slightly improves Golden State's odds of winning now but sets them up to stay relevant once his days of carrying their hopes are in the past.

Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland? How about both? The questions are the same as Real Madrid enter each transfer window. As in 2020, though, such queries are wholly unrealistic.

Prior to last season, which began just six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid were not able to make a single first-team signing. Their most significant business was the €40million sale of Achraf Hakimi to Inter.

It is a similar story 12 months on, having failed to deliver silverware in front of an empty Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium. Free agent David Alaba is Los Blancos' sole recruit and even his arrival is offset by the departures of fellow centre-backs Sergio Ramos – at the end of his contract – and Raphael Varane – with a sale to Manchester United agreed for €50m.

Financial results earlier this month reported a loss in revenue of "close to €300m" due to the pandemic. A post-tax profit of €874,000 for 2020-21 was achieved due to "intense spending saving measures in all areas", read a statement, which added: "With regard to the economic situation, current forecasts indicate that the recovery from the pre-pandemic situation will not be immediate. In this context, the club will continue in the effort so far to contain spending."

One of the world's grandest clubs are doing things on the cheap. A change of coach was only initiated by Zinedine Zidane, whose replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, has been plucked from mid-table Everton – although Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri claimed this week he was offered the position.

Ancelotti has been here before, of course, having led Madrid to 'La Decima' in 2013-14 after a 12-year wait. How he raises the club again without this time breaking the world transfer record two months into the role is another question – one Stats Perform attempts to answer with the aid of Opta data.

Return of rapid Real?

Just as Ancelotti is returning to Madrid, so too is Gareth Bale. It was he who Madrid splashed out €100m on to inspire Ancelotti's first side to Champions League glory. Now he could be handed a starring role again.

The winger appeared to have no future under Zidane but will surely be the chief beneficiary if Ancelotti returns the team to the attacking approach he employed previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. Across his two seasons at the helm, Madrid scored 222 LaLiga goals – 22 more than across the past three campaigns combined now.

That would mean a significant shift, though. Zidane's men have not just scored fewer goals, they have moved at a slower pace. Madrid averaged 4.7 passes and 12.7 seconds per sequence in the league in 2020-21, with 662 open-play sequences of 10 passes or more. In 2013-14, with Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria leading a rapid forward line, Madrid's sequences typically lasted only 3.9 passes and 10.3 seconds, with just 475 10-plus pass sequences. Those numbers only marginally increased in Ancelotti's second season.

 

This change in style is also evidenced by Madrid's direct speed, having moved 1.93 metres upfield per second in 2013-14 but just 1.41 in an average sequence last term. Making the most of the attributes of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria, that Madrid team had 122 direct attacks but only 112 build-up attacks – figures that have altered drastically in opposite directions to 87 and 165 respectively.

The football under Ancelotti was undoubtedly exciting and appeals again. Even as he was sacked in 2015, president Florentino Perez said: "The affection that the players and the fans have for Carlo is the same as the affection I myself have for him." Implementing that system again may not be entirely straightforward, though.

Ancelotti arrived in 2013 only a year removed from the 121-goal 2011-12 LaLiga campaign – the most Madrid have ever scored in a season. The Italian gave his superstars the freedom to play but did not need to reconfigure their approach. That tallies with the rest of a glittering career to date, which has chiefly seen him credited with man-managing big names rather than introducing the sort of tactical tweaks that might almost double a team's attacking output.

If that is Ancelotti's desire, though, between Bale, Vinicius Junior and Eden Hazard, Madrid should at least still have the players to tear through teams at pace. Indeed, getting Hazard fit and firing two years and four goals into his LaLiga career will be as crucial as rehabilitating Bale. The former Chelsea forward may put the famed 'diva whisperer' to the test, but Madrid cannot afford to have a €100m man not contributing.

Age is against Ancelotti

Madrid's play without the ball has also changed in the time Ancelotti has been away, and getting them to perform in this regard as they did during his first stint will be more difficult still. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro – Madrid's long-standing midfield trio – were on board when Ancelotti left the club six years ago. Modric will be 36 in September. Class and experience are on their side, but the energy of youth is not.

With Di Maria occupying a key role in the 4-2-3-1 formation and Modric finding his feet in Spain, Madrid pressed relentlessly in 2013-14. Opponents were allowed only 9.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) amid Los Blancos' 499 pressed sequences. As a result, Madrid's attacks started 42.3 metres upfield on average, boosted by their 179 high turnovers, of which 45 led to shots and nine to goals.

Even Ancelotti could not maintain these standards the following year, as Di Maria departed for the Premier League while a thigh injury restricted Modric to 16 games. Madrid regressed in every category.

In 2021, it is not that Madrid do not press, it is that they do not do so with the same intensity. There were 430 pressed sequences last term and still an impressive 178 high turnovers, but opponents were allowed 11.3 PPDA, with Madrid unable to harry at a comparable rate. It is unlikely that statistic improves as Kroos also moves through his thirties and yet more minutes are pumped into the legs of one of modern football's great midfields. The emergence of Federico Valverde – young and versatile – helps, but Ancelotti may well face the unenviable task of dismantling a unit he helped put together.

 

Alaba alters the complexion

To this point, with a former coach returning to guide the same players, Madrid's approach appears closer to devolution than evolution or revolution. The defence at least will ensure this team has a new sheen, albeit not one that necessarily improves Ancelotti's chances of success at home or abroad.

Alaba is a fine player with vast experience, six years younger than Ramos but with 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. It is a like-for-like change that makes sense, even with Ramos' emotional ties to the Bernabeu. However, asking Alaba to also replace Varane, the outgoing captain's stalwart defensive partner, feels like a tough ask.

Rather than settle into a new club in a new country alongside a World Cup winner – "Varane, of course, I would like to play with him," Alaba said as recently as last week – Madrid's sole signing seems set to be asked to perform the role of the senior man alongside Eder Militao, who has made just 23 LaLiga starts across two seasons.

Yet Militao crucially has attributes Alaba does not, with the converted full-back far less combative than the two departed defenders. At Bayern, in the Bundesliga last season, Alaba contested only 5.0 duels per 90 minutes – fewer than Varane (5.4), Ramos (6.4) and Militao (7.9) in LaLiga. He won just 55.4 per cent of those, another low as Varane (67.9 per cent) led the way.

Militao could then be tasked with getting tight to opposition forwards, but Alaba might find it tougher to avoid being picked on in the air. He contested a meagre 1.2 aerial duels per 90, down on 2.3 for Varane, 4.3 for Ramos and 5.2 for Militao. As Varane won a league-leading 76.0 per cent of these duels and Ramos came out on top in 63.8 per cent, opponents faced a scrap against either centre-back. Alaba's 51.4 per cent success rate shows why he tends to avoid such encounters.

An area of real strength for Madrid could now become a weakness. Only Sevilla (four) conceded fewer headed goals than Madrid (five) in the league last term, while Real Betis (five goals conceded) were the sole side to be tighter from set-pieces than Zidane's outfit (six). With Ramos and Varane marshalling the area, Madrid faced the fourth-fewest headed attempts (58). They are unlikely to rank as impressively again with 5ft 11in Alaba at the heart of the defence.

Madrid are unlikely to make the most of Alaba's versatility – well stocked at left-back but now short in the middle of the back line – yet his ability on the ball, honed in different roles, should at least help to keep Ancelotti's men on the front foot. Part of a dominant Bayern team, Alaba was involved in 4.6 shot-ending sequences and 0.7 goal-ending sequences per 90, having a bigger hand in such opportunities than Ramos (3.9 and 0.4) or Varane (2.9 and 0.3).

Being able to start attacks from the back plays into the idea Madrid should be set up to again thrill supporters under Ancelotti. Whether they can combine entertainment with results, as the 2013-14 team did so successfully, might be another matter.

"Trust the Process", but for how long?

That mantra – after tanking out and starting from the bottom eight years ago – has become synonymous with the team's culture and identity since former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie started a drastic rebuild of Philadelphia's roster and psyche in 2013.

The long-term vision, in pursuit of a first NBA championship since 1983, has delivered All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, however the 76ers have not progressed beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Doc Rivers was brought in to replace Brett Brown and deliver the long-awaited title, yet the same old issues and questions remain after the top-seeded 76ers were sensationally eliminated by the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round.

While Embiid narrowly missed out on the MVP award, Philadelphia's latest failure has only amplified pressure on shot-shy Simmons amid growing speculation over his future at Wells Fargo Center following a forgettable playoff campaign.

With president of basketball operations Daryl Morey tasked with turning the contenders into champions, will he blow it all up or run it back in 2021-22

Embiid excels but there's more to come from Philly's unofficial MVP

His own harshest critic, Embiid sets the bar high, demanding the absolute best from himself and the 76ers in pursuit of a coveted championship. A cornerstone of the franchise, the 27-year-old soared to new heights in 2020-21, leading Philly to their first Eastern Conference title since 2000-01.

A knee injury proved costly in the MVP race; he finished second to Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. If he had featured in another 10-15 games, Embiid may have become the first 76ers player since Allen Iverson 20 years ago to be crowned Most Valuable Player. Accolade or not, there was no denying Embiid's impact on his team and the league last season.

Embiid's improvement was evident as he went from averaging 23.0 points per game in 2019-20 to 28.5 this time around. His +5.5 increase ranks sixth all-time among All-Star centers for largest increase in points per game from one season to the next, only behind Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain (+12.0 with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962), Jokic (+6.5 in 2021), David Robinson (+6.4 with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994), Los Angeles Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal (+5.9 with the Orlando Magic in 1994) and Patrick Ewing (+5.9 with the New York Knicks in 1990).

Embiid posted impressive numbers for field-goal percentage (51.3), three-point percentage (37.7 which increased to 39.0 in the playoffs) and free-throw percentage (85.9), as well averaging 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists (which improved to 3.4 in the postseason).

Only scoring leader Stephen Curry (32.0), Bradley Beal (31.3) and Damian Lillard (28.8) – all guards – averaged more points per game than Embiid.

 

The heart and soul of this Philly team, it is clear when Embiid steps onto the court. In 2020-21, the 76ers held a 45-17 win-loss record with their big man involved but that 72.6 winning percentage dropped to 50.0 without him as they slumped to 11-11.

Philadelphia regressed in almost every single category in Embiid's absence – points per game (115.4 to 110.2), field-goal percentage (48.6 to 46.1), three-point percentage (38.7 to 34.9), assists per game (24.3 to 22.7), blocks per game (6.3 to 6.0) and fast-break points (15.6 to 13.4). At the other end of the floor, rival teams benefited as their points per game (107.6 to 109.8), field-goal percentage (44.7 to 46.9), three-point percentage (36.7), rebounds per game (42.8 to 43.3) and points in the paint (45.4 to 47.9) all rose.

His exploits earned a fourth All-Star selection, with Embiid now eligible to sign a four-year, supermax extension after being selected to the All-NBA Second Team. While there has long been question marks over his health and fitness, his form merits a monster pay rise.

Worryingly for the rest of the league, Embiid is not a player who rests on his laurels. The Cameroonian is determined to deliver a title to the city of Brotherly Love.

"Losing, obviously, it's gonna take a toll on me, and it does and it's doing it, but it’s also on me," said Embiid after Philly's playoff exit. "I gotta be better. I gotta take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven't really seen."

How do you solve a problem like Ben Simmons?

"I love being in Philly. I love this organisation," Simmons said after he was subjected to boos by Philly fans after their Game 7 loss to the Hawks. "The fans are great, great people. I had a bad series. I expect that. It's Philly."

Former number one pick Simmons, however, may not have a choice on the matter amid intensifying trade talk.

The 24-year-old had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star.

Fresh off elimination, Rivers was asked if he thought Simmons could be a guard on a championship team, and he told reporters post-game: "I don't know the answer to that right now."

Since then, Rivers has said he wants the player to remain as the 76ers have a plan for the Australian star, who will skip the Olympic Games in Tokyo to focus on his skillset.

But after four seasons in the league, there has been no improvement from three-time All-Star Simmons in one fundamental area – shooting.

An elite defender and creator, debate around Simmons centres on his offence or lack thereof, with the 76ers handicapped by his unwillingness to shoot.

 

Simmons' field-goal percentage has regressed, dropping from 58.0 in 2019-20 to 55.7 this season – he only managed worse in his 2017-18 rookie campaign (54.5).

He averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It is the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.

Simmons' unwillingness to shoot – he passed on a wide-open dunk during the closing stages against the Hawks, instead passing to Matisse Thybulle – who was fouled and made just one of the two free throws, irked Embiid.

"I'll be honest," Embiid said after the game. "I thought the turning point was when we - I don't know how to say it - but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw.

"We didn't get a good possession on the other end and Trae [Young] came back and he made a three and then from there down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."

Having reportedly considered the idea of using Simmons as part of a deal to prise James Harden from the Houston Rockets in January before the former MVP eventually joined the Brooklyn Nets, Morey has a decision to make with the 76ers in the win-now window.

Doc's Game 7 woes continue

Is Rivers the man to complete the process for the 76ers?

A proven winner with Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics, Rivers landed on his feet following his exit from the Los Angeles Clippers, named All-Star coach after guiding the 76ers to a 49-23 record atop the east, ahead of the star-studded Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

With Doc on the sidelines, Embiid vaulted himself to within a whisker of the MVP as the 76ers clinched the easiest path to the Conference Finals. After a humiliating series sweep to the Celtics in the opening round inside the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort the previous year, things looked on the up for Philly.

 

However, it was an all too familiar story for Rivers. His team collapsed.

Rivers suffered a fourth consecutive Game 7 defeat to tie the longest streak ever by an NBA head coach, after former Sacramento Kings and Rockets coach Rick Adelman also lost four in a row from 2002 to 2009.

The 76ers blew an 18-point lead in Game 4 against the Hawks before surrendering a 26-point advantage at home to Atlanta in Game 5. That came after Doc's Clippers somehow squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in 2020.

"Listen, this team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the Eastern finals. I'm not gonna make this into a negative year,” Rivers said.

Rivers has 29 losses with a chance to clinch a playoff series – the most defeats by a coach in NBA history. His 34.1 win percentage is the worst ever among coaches with 20-plus games.

The 59-year-old is under the microscope on the back of this latest failure, having not progressed past the second round of the playoffs since the 2012 postseason in Boston.

Verdict: Revolution

Morey and general manager Elton Brand have their work cut out this offseason, with Simmons' future at the top of the list.

Despite a horrendous playoff series, there is still plenty of value around Simmons. A host of teams are already reportedly circling, and there is a general consensus that it is time for player and franchise to go their separate ways.

Simmons could do with a change of scenery and the 76ers could use a legitimate shooter/scorer. Now it is up to Morey to weave his magic and supplement Embiid's MVP-calibre ability. Damian Lillard, perhaps? What about Bradley Beal?

Then there is Philadelphia's bench and depth. The 76ers ranked 13th in the NBA for points per game from their reserves (37.3). It remains to be seen whether the likes for Furkan Korkmaz will still be around come tip-off in 2021-22, so boosting the team's bench and three-point shooting is paramount if Philly are to get beyond the second round and complete the process.

Even in the absence of spectators at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre there was still a palpable tension when Simone Biles left the arena after finishing just one event in the women's team final on Tuesday.

An eager press tribune ready to witness the star attraction of these Games fell flat in concern when Biles, after one unconvincing performance on the vault which yielded the lowest score of the first rotation, headed to the back with a trainer while the team were involved in frantic discussions.

The warning signs had been there during the warm-up when Biles failed to complete an Amanar, a difficult vault but routine for someone of her immense talent. When it happened again in competition there was almost a stunned silence, Biles seemed to be nearing tears and her team-mates flabbergasted by what had transpired.

She would return but, donned in a tracksuit, it was announced Biles would take no further part and the team of Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum would complete the night for Team USA. The United States could only take silver, marking their first team defeat at a Worlds or Olympics since 2010.

USA Gymnastics later announced Biles had been pulled due to an unspecified "medical issue" and that her condition for the other five events she is scheduled to appear at will be "assessed daily", while NBC Sports attributed a Team USA coach with saying Biles' withdrawal was not injury related and due to a "mental issue she is having".

Biles had opened up on the pressures the Olympics brings following Sunday's qualifying, during which she made some uncharacteristic mistakes in an error-strewn team performance that saw USA outscored by the Russian Olympic Committee in what proved an eerie prelude.

"It wasn't an easy day or my best but I got through it," Biles posted.

"I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me, but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha!

"The Olympics is no joke. BUT I'm happy my family was able to be with me virtually. They mean the world to me."

The concerns over Biles' well-being will stretch far beyond the watching press pack at the arena. Those tuning in around the world will greatly hope this is not the way this megastar's Games come to an end.

Moreover, so will the organisers of the Games, who are desperately relying on the biggest stars to bring some positive PR to an Olympics many never wanted.

Having already had cauldron lighter Naomi Osaka, who returned to represent Japan after a self-imposed two-month hiatus during which she opened up about her battles with depression and anxiety, beaten in the third round of the women's tennis earlier in the day, to see Biles not compete would represent another hammer blow.

The IOC had earlier described its digital audience figures for Tokyo 2020 as "very good", but as the only way for fans to watch these Games is from the comfort of their own homes, you would kind of expect that to be the case.

If you want an idea of how important Biles is to these Games, consider that IOC president Thomas Bach was seen in conversation with the star attraction before congratulating the gold medallists. Biles herself had shown her textbook humility by being among the first to congratulate the victors in a moment of sheer class.

For these Olympics, held in the midst of a deadly pandemic, to actually be remembered for the right reasons, Tokyo 2020 needs to showcase the successes of athletes securing their crowning glories despite the unthinkable challenges posed for over a year and a half.

Such concerns are of course secondary to the welfare of a 24-year-old woman, who confirmed she is not injured, carrying so many hopes and pressures, whose delivery of the message "put mental health first" is as, if not more, inspiring than her brilliance on the floor.

This was the first of six gold-medal opportunities for Biles. Her stacked programme includes what many predicted to be a routine defence of her all-around crown, while she is slated to appear in the finals of the beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercise.

She has designs on winning the most gymnastic gold medals at a single Games (she already owns the co-record with four following her haul at Rio 2016), while three more would see her overtake Shannon Miller as America's most decorated Olympic gymnast.

Biles later said she is "dealing with something internally" and that things would be taken day by day for the rest of the Games.

Speaking at a news conference, she would elaborate on the issues she has been contending with.

"It's been really stressful this Olympic Games on the whole, with no fans, it's been a long process, a long year, and lots of variable," she said. 

"We're all a little bit too stressed out, we should be enjoying ourselves.

"Today was really stressful, we had a workout this morning, it went okay then that five-and-a-half-hour wait I was shaking, I could barely nap. I've never felt that way before a competition."

That we all hope she will compete again at this Olympics goes without saying. 

But, perhaps save for Osaka, there is arguably no athlete more important to these Games. And, as Osaka has gone to great lengths to demonstrate this year, protection of mental health and well-being must come before all else.

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

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

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

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

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

Randle raises the level

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julius just too important?

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

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

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

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

 

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

Big spenders or big savers

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

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

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

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

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

A rare watching brief

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

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

Verdict: Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sign of better times after life under Mourinho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the balance in the quest for success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sign of better times after life under Mourinho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the balance in the quest for success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Physical dominance is the key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Pressure now on Ole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

POGACAR FACES ANOTHER HUGE STAMINA TEST

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

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

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

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

 

HIGH HOPES FOR JAPANESE JUDOKAS

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

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

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

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

 

DJOKOVIC IN HUNT FOR GOLDEN SLAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paul Pogba - £94.5m from Juventus, August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romelu Lukaku - £76.23m from Everton, July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DJOKOVIC FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GRAF

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RAISING THE BAR AT THE OLYMPICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO GOT HOT

Giannis Antetokounmpo -  Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pat Connaughton - Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Paul - Suns

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO WENT COLD...

Cameron Payne - Suns

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

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

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

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

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

Devin Booker - Suns

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

P.J. Tucker - Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Giggs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talented but incompatible

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

He quickly blossomed into a key player.

Bryan the brave

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

System adaptation may be required

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Muhammad Ali

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

Sugar Ray Leonard

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

Lennox Lewis

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

Oscar de la Hoya

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

Floyd Mayweather Jr.

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

Andre Ward

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

Vasyl Lomachenko

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

Anthony Joshua

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

Katie Taylor

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

Claressa Shields

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

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