After weeks of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Barcelona will at last hold their presidential elections on Sunday, March 7.

More than 111,000 members, or socios, will cast their vote either in person at polling stations or by mail to determine who will succeed Josep Maria Bartomeu in the top job.

Bartomeu stepped down last October, just days before a scheduled vote of no confidence against his board, but interim president Carlos Tusquets has hardly had an easy few months since.

As well as a delay in the hustings, which were initially set for January 24, Barca's off-the-pitch concerns have been exacerbated by official debt levels of more than €1billion and a legal investigation that involves Bartomeu, who was provisionally released under charges of unfair administration and corruption of business on March 3.

Meanwhile, the men's senior football team requires an overhaul made even more difficult by the economic damage wrought by COVID-19, with Ronald Koeman's men chasing Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and facing a likely Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

The presidency has therefore become arguably the toughest job in elite football and could have a significant impact on the medium-term future of the club.

Who are the candidates?

There are three men in the race for the presidency: Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

The favourite is Laporta, who previously held the post from 2003 to 2010, one of Barca's most successful periods that saw them win 12 major trophies, including their first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009. He remains popular with a large part of the fan base and is arguably the candidate on best terms with Lionel Messi.

Freixa, who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2015, previously advised Laporta's board of directors and served as spokesperson under Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu, and has been involved with the club for 18 years. His knowledge and experience of working for different administrations at Camp Nou could be key.

Font, meanwhile, is banking on the support of those members who feel a fresh approach is needed. A successful entrepreneur, his expertise lies in telecommunication, media and technology, but his vision for Barca's future has been worked on since 2013 and perhaps represents the most prudent option available.

What do they promise?

The message from Laporta's camp is simple: "We are a group of Barca fans with ideas for the future and the experience to carry them out." He promises to focus on "social and human" results, as well as those on the pitch and in financial statements. He has vowed to put faith back in academy products from La Masia to complement the first-team stars, while he insists he is the best chance Barca have of convincing Messi to sign a contract extension.

Freixa's campaign – Fidels al Barca, or 'True to Barca' – is, he says, "a candidacy for the people, free of outside interests". Following a member-first approach, he has vowed to correct Barca's crippling €1.2billion debt levels without the need for outside investors. Freixa's focus is on weaponising the club's passionate supporters: he wants to pack out the stadium "with Barca fans, not tourists", with reward schemes in place for the most loyal followers, and make sure the planned Espai Barca redevelopment of the stadium and surrounding area does not compromise the club's image.

Font has been building his 'Yes to the Future' campaign for the best part of eight years. Founded on "new blood and good governance", his is an honest approach: accepting the club have reached "an historic crossroads" that requires professional experience to navigate, he says his project has the groundwork and the expertise to be by far the most viable for the club's future. His plan is "to revamp collectively the club and to ensure that Barca can contribute in a tangible way to making the world a better place".

Will they hire a new coach?

Ronald Koeman has rightly become fed up with questions over his future and will be glad when Sunday's elections are over and he can find out from the new president what his job prospects look like.

While there can be few guarantees for any coach – Barca could still win the treble this season, or end up with nothing – it feels unlikely Koeman will be in charge for 2021-22.

Laporta has reportedly considered offering the job to Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, having previously struck gold with former players when he gave the inexperienced Guardiola a shot back in 2008. Font, who has the valuable support of former club captain Carles Puyol, is believed to be eager to bring Xavi back to Camp Nou after the ex-midfielder's impressive spell with Al-Sadd in Qatar.

Freixa has at least offered Koeman a public show of support until the end of his contract next year, but he too has spoken of wanting Xavi back in Catalonia sooner rather than later, even if that would initially see him take over the B team.

What will happen with transfers?

Barca's dire financial situation makes star signings, the kind on which many past club elections in Spain have been based, a very difficult thing to expect.

Font has adopted by far the more prudent approach, warning fans that selling high-earning under-performers and restructuring the wage bill is essential to stave off a deepening financial crisis, but that is not a policy that will appease fans desperate to see Barca challenging for the Champions League again.

Freixa has gone for the Hail Mary, insisting signing Kylian Mbappe AND Erling Haaland would be perfectly possible and that he has an investor lined up who could bolster the club to the tune of €250m through a stake in Barca Corporate.

Laporta's priority is to build a competitive side around their club captain...

So, what about Messi?

As mentioned, Laporta claims electing him will give Barca the best chance of convincing Messi to stay. The Argentina star broke into the first team during Laporta's previous presidency and enjoyed great success in that spell, including winning the Champions League – the trophy he covets most – under Frank Rijkaard and Guardiola.

Font and Freixa, without any personal connection to call upon, have each admitted keeping Messi depends more on Barca's ability to sell the strength of their new project to the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Again, Font is the real pragmatist. When El Mundo leaked details of Messi's massive contract, Font rejected the notion that paying such a salary was a financial burden too great to bear, insisting Messi was an asset who helped to generate as much money as he cost. However, he also told Onda Cero: "If [Messi] is not here in the future then it would not be the end of the world."

It didn't take long for the Arizona Cardinals to make their first big offseason splash.

For the second year running, the Cardinals took advantage of the dysfunction enveloping the Houston Texans to land a star player whom they hope will push them towards the playoffs.

J.J. Watt has linked up with former Texans team-mate DeAndre Hopkins, signing a two-year deal to provide a significant boost to the Cardinals' defense.

While Watt should unquestionably improve the Cardinals' odds of stopping opposing attacks, Arizona will need to take several other steps this offseason to have a chance of emerging from a hyper-competitive NFC West and progressing to the playoffs.

The Cardinals looked ready to make such a leap in 2020 in the second year of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray experience.

But an ugly finish to an 8-8 season suggested this is still a team some way from true championship contention.

Using Stats Perform data, we look at what was learned from that campaign and what the Cardinals must do in 2021 to ensure they have a winning record and are playing postseason football next season.

Offense

The Arizona offense was in the top half of the NFL in terms of yards per play, their average of 5.68 putting them 14th.

However, the lack of progression from the passing game, even after the addition of Hopkins, held the Cardinals back from becoming one of the league's elite offenses.

Arizona finished the year 18th in pass yards per play (6.48) but were ninth in rushing average (4.67).

The Cardinals' underperformance in the passing game was not for lack of effort on Murray's part.

Indeed, his completion percentage jumped from 64.4 in 2019 to 67.2, his passing yardage improved from 3,722 to 3,971 and he threw 26 touchdowns compared to 20 a year earlier.

Yet his yards per attempt average of 7.12 was still only good enough for 22nd in the NFL, while his interception percentage of 2.2 was the third-most among quarterbacks to have started all 16 games.

Given Kingsbury's expertise in the Air Raid offense, a system renowned for its reliance on downfield passing concepts, Murray's tally of 44 completions of 20 yards or more - tied for 15th in the NFL - was disappointing.

But the Cardinals should continue to be excited about the offense's potential when they fully harness Murray's upside as a deep-ball thrower. Among the quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 or more air yards, his passer rating of 127.4 on such throws was the third-best.

One of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Murray again added significant value as a runner, rushing for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. With 419 of those yards on scrambles, Murray continues to be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league when the pocket breaks down.

Hopkins enjoyed a monster first season in Arizona - his 1,407 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL - but the numbers suggest he could use more help.

Deep threat Christian Kirk had six touchdowns but esteemed veteran Larry Fitzgerald's yards per catch average of 7.6 was the lowest of his remarkable career, indicating he may be reaching the limits of his longevity and that a more dynamic third option is required.

Defense

Watt joins a defense that performed at a high level in 2020.

The Cardinals allowed 5.34 yards per play, the eighth-least in the NFL, while their average of 5.86 yards per pass play allowed ranked sixth in the league.

Their success in that regard came despite losing star edge rusher Chandler Jones to a torn bicep, the three-time Pro Bowler denied the chance to maintain his streak of having double-digit sacks in every season of his Cardinals career.

Stepping up in Jones' absence was Haason Reddick, who posted a career-high 12.5 sacks - including five in one game against the New York Giants - and 15 tackles for loss along with 16 quarterback hits.

His contributions down the stretch helped the Cardinals produce 109 negative plays from their opponents for a total of minus 477 yards, the fourth-best mark in the league.

Taking that into account, their takeaway tally of 21 may be seen as disappointing, though it was in line with the league average.

Arizona's inability to trouble the upper echelon in terms of takeaways could be partially attributed to the play of veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Peterson had a burn percentage of 64.1 in 2020. A burn occurs when a receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down. The yardage is attributed to the defender regardless of whether the receiver catches the pass.

He gave up 590 burn yards and had six burns for touchdowns, both team highs.

The Cardinals have added a veteran presence to the front seven in Watt but, as with Fitzgerald in the receiving corps, a more youthful talent may be required to take on Peterson's role and help Arizona make key improvements in the secondary.

Offseason

Fitzgerald and Peterson make up two of Arizona's 23 unrestricted free agents this offseason, though if the former is not back it will likely be because he has decided to hang up the cleats.

Peterson appears set to play his football elsewhere, with the Cardinals lacking the resources and perhaps the appetite to re-sign him based on his 2020 performance.

The Cardinals are projected to have a little over $17.5million in cap space, assuming a salary cap of $185m, just above the league average.

Arizona's addition of Watt to bolster the pass rush may mean Reddick and Markus Golden, who also helped fill the void in Jones' 2020 absence, are allowed to walk in free agency. Running back Kenyan Drake appears another likely departure.

The draft is the likely avenue on which the Cardinals will focus most of their attention as they attempt to further supplement a roster that fell just shy of the postseason.

Picking 16th in the first round, Arizona will be in a decent spot to address the cornerback position and find a replacement for Peterson who can help them better defend three NFC West rivals who all possess explosive offenses when at their best.

Watt's arrival should improve their odds of keeping their division rivals in check but, after a strong showing on defense last year, this Cardinals offseason is one that will also be defined by what they do in terms of making life easier for Murray.

Stronger depth at receiver and more dynamism at tight end, something which the Cardinals have long since lacked, should be on Arizona's wishlist.

If they can check off those items and put a support system around Murray that allows him to have a breakout year three, the Cardinals will be in a good spot to celebrate a first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Should they fail, Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim's jobs may come under severe scrutiny.

Bayern Munich have rarely been shy about coaxing players to cross the divide and make the move from Der Klassiker rivals Borussia Dortmund.

Their willingness to do so ensured Dortmund's last spell at the top of German football, when a vibrant young side gegenpressed their way to a Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2011-12 and a Champions League final a year later, was an ephemeral one, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze each making the move to Bayern in 2013 and experiencing varying degrees of success.

And the build-up to the most famous fixture in Germany was partially defined by Bayern seemingly beginning a charm offensive to attract one of Dortmund's most prized assets, Erling Haaland, to eschew potential moves elsewhere in favour of following Lewandowski's path.

"Haaland is what a centre-forward has to be," Bayern coach Hansi Flick said in his pre-match media conference. "He has an enormous hunger for goals. The future could belong to him because he has everything he needs for it."

The Norway forward's agent, Mino Raiola, has claimed only 10 clubs in the world would be able to afford to sign Haaland, who has a release clause that does not become active until 2022.

But Bayern president Herbert Hainer told Sport1 this week: "We will go even more down our successful path of signing young players with outstanding skills. We are an economically very strong and healthy club.

"Although we're also suffering massively from the pandemic, we can always bring in players when we're convinced about them."

Bayern clearly have no doubts about their financial capability to sign Haaland, and they may be convinced to make a concerted push to do so after his first-half salvo in Saturday's Klassiker, which forced Flick's men to produce a stirring comeback.

Haaland had two games without a goal prior to Dortmund's trip to the Allianz Arena.

He ended that 'drought' in the space of a minute and 14 seconds, taking a few touches to steady himself on the edge of the Bayern box and power an effort that deflected off Jerome Boateng beyond Manuel Neuer and into the bottom-right corner.

Fewer than eight minutes later, he made it 2-0, his goalscorer's instinct again shining through with a much more simple finish as he popped up in the box to turn home Thorgan Hazard's pull-back from point-blank range at the end of a wonderful Dortmund move.

His double took his tally against Bayern for the season to four goals, but he would ultimately be denied the chance to become the first player since Cristiano Ronaldo (5) in 2016-17 to score more than four in a season versus Die Roten.

A second-half ankle injury forced Haaland off, the looming second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Sevilla likely playing a role in his withdrawal on the hour.

That blow followed a first-half fightback from Bayern, which was fuelled by a predictable source in Lewandowski, who diverted a shot-turned-cross from Leroy Sane into the net before rolling home a penalty after Mahmoud Dahoud's foul on the ever influential Kingsley Coman, taking his tally of Bundesliga goals against Dortmund to a league-record 19.

Dortmund's rearguard action in a one-sided second half looked set to frustrate Bayern and keep RB Leipzig top of the Bundesliga.

But their resilience wilted late on, Schalke product Leon Goretzka hitting home on the volley in the 88th minute and Lewandowski making it 20 against his former club by completing his hat-trick with an unerring finish from the edge of the area.

It was the kind of rapid collapse from Dortmund that illustrated why Haaland, having hastily adapted to life in the Bundesliga following his move from Salzburg last year, could be keen to make a swift departure to a team better prepared to compete at the sharp end of European football, even with the highly touted Marco Rose set to take over as coach next season.

Dortmund are four points behind Eintracht Frankfurt in the race for the top four, and have a fight on their hands if they are to secure Champions League qualification for next season.

Haaland appeared set to steal the show 10 minutes into this storied fixture, but his 20-touch contribution was ultimately overshadowed by the man who reigns supreme as the Bundesliga's most potent goalscoring threat.

With Lewandowski maintaining this kind of form, Bayern have no rush to find the successor for a player under contract until 2023.

But after Haaland produced two goals from a game where had four touches in the box, his supporting role in the latest thrilling episode of this classic rivalry could compel Bayern to open the chequebook and add to what is arguably European football's most extensive embarrassment of riches.

Unfortunately for Houston Texans fans, their team's offseason business has been more noteworthy than their performances on the field over the past 12 months.

The Texans stunningly traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last March and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has already departed this year.

But the biggest move might be yet to come.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out and, although Houston insist they will not facilitate a move, the current impasse – with the 25-year-old seemingly prepared to sit if not granted an exit – suits nobody.

Watson's lack of input in the team's search for head coach Bill O'Brien's successor was said to be the largest contributing factor when he first pushed for a trade in January.

But the Texans had issues last year beyond the process that eventually led to the hiring of David Culley, crashing to 4-12 in 2020 as results on the field accurately depicted the overall direction of the franchise.

A study of Stats Perform data shows the vast work to be done whether Watson stays or goes.

Offense

Hopkins had been Houston's leading receiver in each of the five seasons prior to his departure, including 104 catches for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.

His shock trade to the Arizona Cardinals - which came under a year after the franchise had given up a boatload of draft capital to acquire star tackle Laremy Tunsil - meant a rethink.

Will Fuller, second on that list with 49 receptions, was the obvious candidate to step up and he had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games.

But a six-game suspension – one week of which remains – for breaching the NFL's drug policy ended his season early. Former Green Bay stalwart Randall Cobb, who started only two games, also missed the end of the year due to a toe injury.

Meanwhile, the running game – led by David Johnson, who made up part of the Hopkins trade – scarcely registered.

Houston ranked 31st for rushing yards per game (91.6), 26th for rushing plays of 10 yards or more (38) and tied-30th for plays of 20 yards or more (five).

And yet despite losing Hopkins, leaving Brandin Cooks as his top target, having no run game to turn to and playing behind a bad offensive line – he was sacked 49 times, second-most among all QBs – Watson remained one of the league's best.

He topped the charts for overall passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.87) and big plays of 25 yards or more (42). His passer rating of 112.4 trailed only MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Defense

Unfortunately, as Watson did all he could on offense to almost singlehandedly keep the Texans competitive, the defense also let him down.

Houston ranked 30th for opponent yards per game (416.8) and per play (6.24).

They were dead last for opponent rushing yards per game (160.3), where the failure to slow opponents over the ground could be attributed to D.J. Reader's departure in free agency and a shoulder injury to Benardrick McKinney that restricted him to four games and 19 tackles.

Meanwhile, the Texans were 24th for opponent net passing yards per game (256.5). Whitney Mercilus and Watt were each another year older and saw their numbers decline as a result, although the latter still led the team in sacks (5.0), QB hits (17) and defensive TDs (one).

And so with Watt's exit, the defense continues to lose talent just as it has in years past with Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom left after a 2018 season in which Houston finished 11-5 and had six Pro Bowlers – including three on defense.

Offseason

Despite this grave picture, the Texans' reluctance to deal Watson suggests they have not given up just yet.

But with so much to fix – arguably every aspect of the team besides the outstanding QB – the offer of a substantial trade package for an unhappy player might start to appeal.

In another offseason in which a number of teams are looking for a new star under center, Watson, at 25, is the most valuable option on the table.

Perhaps a franchise like the Chicago Bears – potentially a Watson away from being a major contender – would make sense as a trade partner, desperate enough to give Houston the sort of assets that could allow for a rebuild.

But it may only be a team like the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets - with extra draft picks and young QB options to throw into the mix - who can come close to providing the sort of offer Houston would contemplate.

The Texans are projected to have around $33million in cap space, assuming a $185m cap, but there simply appears to be too much to do even if they can convince Watson to stay and play.

Moving on prematurely from the four-year, $156m deal Watson signed last year would provide room to manoeuvre in the years to come, too.

Houston's decision is unlikely to prove popular whichever way they go.

News of Watson's trade request prompted plans for a protest that the player himself had to call off.

But keeping their talisman might condemn the Texans to many more years like 2020, without a talented roster to support one of the NFL's most valuable assets.

Despite boasting one of the best QBs in the game, they are in an unenviable position of their own making.  

The last derby was a rare off-day for Atletico Madrid – and for Luis Suarez.

On a run of seven wins in a row and two goals conceded, with no LaLiga defeats all season, Diego Simeone's men were second best in a 2-0 defeat last December. As for Suarez, his 73 minutes on the pitch yielded a single, wayward shot.

Still, that result turned out to be an aberration. Three months on, Atleti head into Sunday's game at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead over Real Madrid and Barca at the top of the table, and with a game in hand. Suarez, meanwhile, has scored 11 of his 16 LaLiga goals this term since that chastening day at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Suarez's form for Atleti has made a complete mockery of Barca's decision to cast him aside last year, the suggestion the striker was "too old" to be relied upon looking more foolish by the week as he spearheads their charge for a first league title since 2014.

Indeed, given his record against Madrid and the state of the league table, this weekend could be the moment Suarez tips the balance of the title race inexorably in Atletico's favour.

 

OLD HABITS

It wasn't simply being told to leave by Barca that left Suarez so incensed; it was being made to feel he was no longer good enough for "a great team".

"That's what I did not like," he told France Football. "If I hadn't done anything at a club like Barca for three or four seasons, I would have understood.

"But, every year at Barca, I scored more than 20 goals per season. I have always had good statistics, just behind Leo [Messi]."

So he is again. Suarez's 16 goals in 21 league games this term puts him second in the top-scorer standings, three behind Messi. Add in assists, and only his old team-mate (23) has had more direct goal involvements than Suarez (18) in LaLiga this season.

While Suarez is no longer as explosive as he was at Liverpool and in his earlier Barca years, he has lost little of his ruthlessness. Discounting the two penalties he has converted this term, Suarez has scored 14 times from an expected goals value of just 9.6. That differential of 4.4 is the biggest in the division, save for that of 'El Comandante', Levante's 33-year-old star striker Jose Luis Morales (5.0).

It follows that Suarez has a shot conversion rate (including blocked shots) of 23.9, the fourth-highest figure for any LaLiga player with at least 10 goals this season, the best being Roger Marti with 31.3.

The Uruguayan also boasts a big chance conversion rate of 63.2 per cent, having scored 12 out of 19 this term. No player to have scored from at least 10 big chances can match that success rate. That cutting edge in a team that has conceded just 16 league goals in 24 matches is a potent combination.

 

CAN SUAREZ STOP THE DERBY ROT?

Atleti followed December's derby defeat by winning 10 of their next 12 games, the only slip-ups being a Copa del Rey shock at Cornella and a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo on February 8 (in which Suarez scored twice).

However, including that result, they have won only twice in their past five league matches, a run that has emboldened Barca and Madrid's title hopes and left fans wondering whether 'Hay Liga' after all.

A dip in form before a derby is never positive, but Atleti in particular need no extra pessimism. They have not won any of the most recent nine league meetings with Madrid, their longest run without a victory under Diego Simeone, and they have not even scored in the previous three. Only once in their history have they gone four league derbies without a goal.

Madrid are also the only team to play a league match at the Wanda Metropolitano without ever losing (one win, two draws), with Simeone having won only 12.5 per cent of league games against opposite number Zinedine Zidane, his worst return against any coach from at least four meetings.

But Suarez has happy memories of facing Los Blancos. Although he's gone two games without scoring against them, his goal record overall reads nine scored in 12 league appearances versus Madrid, the most of any player since his first season in Spain in 2014-15.

What's more, he has an all-important side-kick back in form.

 

JOAO, THAT'S IMPRESSIVE

Joao Felix's sublime strike against Villarreal secured a valuable three points for Atleti last time out and ended his own month-long goal drought. He responded with a stony-faced 'shushing' celebration, to which a delighted Simeone responded: "I love it when players rebel."

Simeone will be desperate to see his €126m man in a similar mood come Sunday. Not only is he Atleti's most exciting individual talent, but he's also the man who has brought the best out of Suarez this season.

Joao Felix has created eight chances for Suarez in LaLiga in 2020-21, more than any other Atleti player. Of his four assists, three have been for the former Ajax man; only Marcos Llorente has provided as many for Atleti's number nine.

Perhaps Suarez has found a kindred spirit in Joao Felix: supremely talented, decisive, and "rebellious". What better double act to deploy in the Atleti's most important LaLiga derby in seven years?

At various points during the early stages of this Premier League season, Manchester City and Manchester United had their defensive capabilities called into question by television pundits.

As soon as the opening weekend 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, in fact, Gary Neville emptied a bucket of cold water upon transfer speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Speaking on Sky Sports, the former England and United defender gave a damning assessment of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof's centre-back capabilities

"You can talk about Jadon Sancho all you like, but until they get a centre-back in that can run and defend one on one, you're never going to win the league," he said.

A weekend later, City were hammered 5-2 at home to Leicester City – a result that immediately preceded the club-record arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica.

The Portugal international's debut came in a harum-scarum 1-1 draw at Leeds United, after which beIN Sports' anchor Richard Keys offered a more radical solution to Pep Guardiola.

"It can't be that hard, he could go and watch Roy Hodgson work. Or he could bring Sam Allardyce in on a temporary basis."

Things have changed a little since then. City head into Sunday's top-of-the-table clash 14 points clear of United in second and aiming to extend a 21-match winning run across all competitions.

Central to that, and untouched by the hand of Allardyce, is a water-tight defence and the supreme alliance formed by Dias and a rejuvenated John Stones.

Silk and steel

In the 14 Premier League games Dias and Stones have started in tandem, City boast 13 wins and a draw, keeping 11 clean sheets

Goals for each man in last weekend's 2-1 win over West Ham mean they are responsible for four goals at the other end during these matches – one more than the three they have conceded overall.

In his debut Premier League season, Dias boasts a win percentage of 75 per cent thanks to 18 victories from 24 matches.

Stones' own win rate leaps to a frankly absurd 94 per cent, finishing on the winning side in 15 of his 16 Premier League outings in 2020-21. Guardiola's men have only conceded four times with him on the pitch.

Though Keys opined that Guardiola might have been sacked for his "reckless" spending before settling upon Dias, acclaim for the Catalan tactician and his first-choice central defenders has otherwise been close to universal.

Over on the red side of Manchester, however, Neville still isn't happy.

Drawing blanks and protecting keepers

Despite being the centre-back pairing in each of United's five 0-0 Premier League draws in "big six" encounters this season, last month Neville described Lindelof and Maguire as a "problem" to one another on account of their individual attributes.

Demanding defensive changes for a team who have just run up three consecutive goalless draws in all competitions might, on the face of it, look like a fairly off-target conclusion.

However, outside of those matches that were as high on anticipation as they proved low on goals, another picture emerges.

In 20 Premier League games together, Lindelof and Maguire have seven clean sheets this term – only two outside of big-six encounters. United have won half of those games, drawing eight and losing two, leaving them way down on City's 92.9 per cent success rate when Dias and Stones start together.

Overall, United have conceded nearly double the amount City have let in across the Premier League season, with 32 set against 17.

Expected goals on target (xGOT) numbers collected by Opta – figures that illustrate the overall quality of chances faced  - show City's first-choice goalkeeper Ederson is better protected by his defence than United number one David de Gea.

Ederson has conceded 15 times and has an xGOT of 18.61, meaning he has conceded fewer goals than expected, something that cannot be said for De Gea, who will sit out the weekend game after returning home for the birth of his child.

An xGOT figure of 25.9 is outstripped by the 27 the Spain international has let in. Although his negative goals prevented score of 1.1 does Maguire, Lindelof and those others in front of him a slight disservice, he is being given more taxing work to get through than Ederson.

Building from the back

It is not the case that Stones and Dias are flying into numerous last-ditch challenges to spare their goalkeeper, much as they appear to relish that work when it arrives.

A chunk of their value to Guardiola stems from how they are each able to get City swiftly back on the front foot.

Every 90 minutes, Dias averages 16.3 progressive carries, with Stones on 14.7. On this metric, despite his noted ability with the ball at his feet, Maguire tallies 11.8, with Lindelof down on 9.8.

Building play from the back is another non-negotiable for Guardiola's defensive players and City's 161 build-up attacks – open play sequences featuring 10 or more passes that end in a shot or a touch in the opposition penalty area - are the most in the Premier League this season.

Despite the apparent risk they run of playing themselves into trouble, 120 high turnovers against and 14 shot-ending high turnovers are once again the best results in the division.

By contrast, United have conceded 35 shots from high turnovers – the second-worst in the league – from 205 such instances. Solskjaer's men have attempted 91 build-up attacks, suggesting his team create too many problems for themselves.

Stones and Dias have managed their shutouts compilation despite City having the highest defensive line in the Premier League, starting attacks an average of 45.2 metres from their own goal. United's 42.9m is third behind Liverpool, although the lack of pace Neville has highlighted in Solskjaer's first-choice pairing might be encouraging a measure of caution.

Even if Maguire and Lindelof are able to wheel out their effective spoiling act to thwart the City juggernaut this weekend, Neville is right that the bigger picture needs better solutions at his old club. Although, probably nothing as outlandish as suggesting Sam Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach.

The Denver Broncos enter the offseason surely casting envious glances at the rest of the AFC West.

Still searching for the solution at quarterback, an uneven season for Drew Lock did not provide satisfactory answers about their second-round pick from 2019.

Denver endured a 5-11 season with Lock in and out of the line-up as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance, Justin Herbert surged to Offensive Rookie of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr made strides for the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason will therefore be defined by what the Broncos decide to do at quarterback, with the heat set to turn up on head coach Vic Fangio as he heads into year three after two successive seasons without a playoff berth.

Using Stats Perform data we look back at another year of disappointment in Denver and assess what they can do this offseason to ensure a five-season exile from the postseason comes to an end in 2021.

Offense

A switch at offensive coordinator from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur did not yield the desired results for the Broncos, who ran one of the least efficient offenses in football.

Denver averaged 5.21 yards per play, putting the Broncos 25th in the NFL. The Broncos' paltry 5.87 yards per pass play illustrated the lack of progress made by Lock, who missed three games last season, with Denver also ranking 25th in that metric.

For a player who came out of college with a reputation for having an elite arm, Lock's tally of 38 completions of 20 yards or more was disappointing. He ranked 19th in that regard but his average distance on such completions of 32.9 yards was ninth among quarterbacks to have completed at least 10.

More worrying for Denver were Lock's numbers on throws of at least 21 air yards. He completed 15 of 63 such attempts for 597 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 49.4 that ranked second last among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 air yards or more.

Lock did not provide the downfield upside some expected of him when he was drafted in 2019 and a tendency to commit turnovers that was all too evident in college has remained in the NFL. His 15 interceptions in 2020 were tied for the most in the NFL.

The absence of Courtland Sutton, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1, did not help Lock's cause, with first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy committing the second-most drops (nine) in the NFL.

However, 23 incomplete targets thrown Jeudy's way were deemed poor throws - only three receivers were on the end of more - that number pointing to below-par play under center as the primary reason for Denver's passing game struggles.

Denver's running game fared slightly better, finishing the year tied-14th for rushes of 10 yards or more with 51. The Broncos were tied for sixth with 13 runs of at least 20 yards.

Melvin Gordon proved a useful addition as he contributed 26 rushes of at least 10 yards. Philip Lindsay had 13, with six of those going for 20 yards or more.

Defense

The Broncos' talent on defense paired with Fangio's acumen on that side of the ball should have theoretically produced a strong season on defense.

However, Denver finished the year a disappointing 20th in the NFL with 5.64 yards per play allowed.

They were 13th against the pass (6.25) but 29th against the run (4.79), with their efforts in stopping opposing attacks not helped by Lock's propensity for turnovers.

A freak injury to Von Miller before the season robbed Denver of one of the most dominant pass rushers of his generation, but the Broncos still finished tied-10th in sacks (39) and 10th in total negative pass plays forced (50).

By contrast, they only forced 83 negative run plays, that total putting them 23rd in the NFL.

The pressure the Broncos created last season did not translate to takeaways, with just three teams producing fewer than Denver's 16.

A lack of a settled line-up at cornerback was a significant reason for their struggles stopping the pass and taking away the football.

Kareem Jackson and Michael Ojemudia were the only Broncos cornerbacks to play in all 16 games, with the latter enduring a difficult rookie year.

Ojemudia had a burn percentage of 63 in 2020. A burn occurs when the receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down, with the defender credited with giving up burn yardage regardless of whether the ball is caught.

No Denver cornerback allowed more yards per burn than Ojemudia's 18.1, with corner featuring prominently on a long list of offseason issues the Broncos must fix.

Offseason

New general manager George Paton has a lot of significant decisions to make to try to inspire a turnaround in fortunes.

The Broncos' future at quarterback casts a large shadow over their plans for the rest of the roster. Picking ninth in the draft, they are in a decent spot to land one of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks seen as the cream of the crop after presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence.

Denver must decide whether to stick with Lock or cut him loose in favour of one of that trio, with a possible trade for Deshaun Watson appearing unlikely at this point.

There is a similarly significant decision to make concerning Miller, who will be 32 come the 2021 season and has a contract option the Broncos could decline, eschewing a salary cap hit of $22.25million and making him a free agent.

The Broncos are projected to have $48m in cap space, assuming a cap of $185m, even with Miller on the roster, and a large portion of that may go towards re-signing Pro Bowl free safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise tag in 2020.

If they can keep hold of Simmons and find dependable reinforcements at corner, the Broncos defense will be well-placed to make a return to the top half of the league in 2021.

Yet the fate of next season's Broncos likely rests on Paton's ability to succeed where predecessor John Elway consistently failed, and come to a definitive and correct answer under center.

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

When Borussia Dortmund parted with a reported €20million to sign Erling Haaland from Salzburg a little over a year ago, they'll have been acutely aware of the coup they'd just struck – but whether they expected him to be quite this good is another matter entirely.

Those explosive first few months of the 2019-20 season at Salzburg left most of Europe's biggest clubs clamouring for the Norwegian, but Bayern were seemingly not among them. At least, not in the final straight.

While you can't necessarily have too many great players, few at the time or since have decried Bayern's lack of interest in the striking sensation, and that purely comes down to the presence of Robert Lewandowski.

Eleven months on from Haaland's Dortmund debut, Lewandowski won the FIFA Best Men's Player award having scored 60 goals across the qualifying period and led Bayern to a treble.

But the fact Haaland - named the Golden Boy soon after - was seen as unfortunate not to be nominated for the major gong ultimately won by Lewandowski is testament to the former Molde youngster's frightening potential.

Saturday's Der Klassiker is unlikely to have much bearing on Dortmund's Bundesliga title hopes given they'll still be 10 points behind Bayern even if they win, but the game does provide the opportunity to see the two sharp-shooters pitted against each other, like gunslingers in an old Western movie.

Haaland, along with Kylian Mbappe, is being outlined as the world's next great number nine, but is he already ahead of even Lewandowski?

LEWY'S LONG ROAD

It's easy to forget Lewandowski's backstory and route to the top, simply because he has been one of Europe's most-feared strikers for so long.

But Lewandowski's tale is one of rejection, perseverance and mastery – to say he always looked destined to reach the level he has would be revisionist. After all, the early years of his career in Poland were impacted by the death of his father, being cast aside by Legia Warsaw, a serious injury and failed transfers.

Sporting Gijon turned him down and the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull resulted in the collapse of a move from Lech Poznan to Blackburn Rovers.

 

He joined Dortmund in June of that year, a couple of months before his 22nd birthday – by comparison, Haaland was still six months from turning 20 when he signed for BVB.

On top of that, Haaland's early impact on the Bundesliga has been far superior to that of Lewandowski, whose first season yielded only nine goals in 42 games across all competitions. The Norwegian managed 24 in 27 matches.

Looking at that alone, it's easy to make the assumption that Haaland is destined for even greater things than Lewandowski, but it's worth pointing out the Pole was played out of position a lot in his first campaign.

"I was annoyed having to play as a number 10 instead of playing up front as the number nine," Lewandowski told the Daily Mail in 2016. "I played the whole season as number 10. The following season I thought about why I was in that position, then I realised my game had improved. I learned a lot and, when I played up top again, I realised playing as a number 10 had made me a better player."

The data backs him up as well. Not only did his overall productivity in front of goal improve from nine goals to 30, he was proving more consistent generally in those decisive moments, his conversion rate increasing from 8.5 per cent to 19.5.

DIFFERENT BEASTS

When looking at – or comparing – any player in relation to Lewandowski, you have to consider the two different versions of him; pre-26 and post-26.

It was around this age that Lewandowski began to harness the fitness and nutrition expertise of his wife Anna, and it's quite easy to spot when that appeared to start paying dividends, as his goals haul rocketed from 25 to 42 in 2015-16.

He has not gone below 40 in any full season since then and already has 34 to his name in 2020-21 (32 appearances) – he is also just four behind Klaus Fischer (268), the second most-prolific player in Bundesliga history.

Haaland's long-term future isn't at Dortmund and, by extension, doesn't appear to be in the Bundesliga, so matching Lewandowski's record in Germany's top-flight looks unlikely.

But what's clear is he has found this 'world-class' level much earlier than Lewandowski – Haaland has more goals (55) across all competitions than any other current under-21 player in Europe's top five leagues despite playing just 57 games. Jadon Sancho is his closest rival with 46 in 130 appearances.

 

Haaland's first Bundesliga season with Dortmund saw him score 13 times, outperforming his expected goals (xG) by 4.2 – that's a greater differential than Lewandowski has recorded since 2016-17 (7.8), though the youngster's figure here has dropped to 2.5 in 2020-21.

While that is 0.7 less than Lewandowski's 3.2 xG differential, either way he's scoring a lot of goals and more than he would ordinarily be expected to over a long period of time, which speaks for his clinical nature.

Further to that, Haaland – who earlier this term became the youngest player to net four in one Bundesliga game (20 years, 123 days) – boasts a stunning conversion rate at Dortmund. Last season's 41.4 per cent (all competitions) is better than Lewandowski has ever managed, though it was of course limited to half a season.

In 2020-21 he hasn't quite found the same standard, yet his 29.7 conversion rate in all competitions is still better than any other Bundesliga player with 10 goals or more. By comparison, Lewandowski's 28.3 per cent will be a career-high for a single season if he maintains it.

BRILLIANCE IN LONGEVITY

At the very least, Haaland is already a contemporary of Lewandowski's – his effectiveness in front of goal is utterly devastating and, as demonstrated, seemingly a level above that of the Bayern talisman during his early Bundesliga days.

But the challenge for Haaland is to maintain that level and keep kicking on, as Lewandowski clearly did around the age of 26 when analysing what he could do better, taking himself from an excellent number nine to arguably the best of his generation.

Haaland is building from a higher platform than Lewandowski ever was, therefore one has to suspect he has the potential to surpass his exploits.

Maybe he could be this generation's standard-bearer. If he has half the amount of perseverance as Lewandowski, that'd be a good start.

As for whether he's already better than Lewandowski – well, part of the Bayern man's brilliance is his longevity and consistency, how he seems to be getting better with age. But for Haaland to be rivalling the world's best before he's even 21 is an achievement in itself.

Jurgen Klopp can't say he didn't have ample notice of Chelsea's tactical intentions against Liverpool.

A teamsheet that showed Olivier Giroud swapped out for Timo Werner at centre-forward provided early notice of the visitors' approach to a crucial game.

Clearly, Thomas Tuchel had looked at a Reds backline that, even with Fabinho restored, would still feature the unconvincing Ozan Kabak and smelled blood.

He had also spotted a weakness in a midfield trio of Georginio Wijnaldum, Thiago Alcantara and Curtis Jones that, despite some decent individual performances of late, has proved itself incapable of pressing well as a unit.

And so he set about exposing a fragile backline with a combination of pace and pressure-free passes from the centre of the park.


The value of this setup almost told early in the first half, only for a farcical offside decision to deny Werner and Chelsea a deserved goal.

But the visitors did get their breakthrough before half-time, working the ball all too easily through a loose opposition midfield before Mason Mount finished well.

Struggling at the back and in the centre, Liverpool were equally unimpressive at the top end of the pitch, clocking up just 0.07xG to Chelsea's 0.65 in the first half.

And when your issues span from front to back in that manner, it all adds up to a team that simply isn't good enough to finish in the top four.

For Liverpool, that represents a sizeable failure worthy of self-reflection that must go further than simply blaming some poor fortune with injuries.

Fortunately for Chelsea, they look increasingly unlikely to be engaged in any such post-season inquest.

The Blues' improvement on the defensive side of the ball told again here and, while there is some way to go in attack, they look to have enough to qualify for the Champions League.

The sheer quality they possess in comparison to the likes of West Ham and Everton makes them favourites for fourth place.

And Leicester City's poor recent form and late-season collapse last time around means a third-placed finish remains a possibility.

Perhaps most importantly, a place in the top four would ensure Tuchel has the funds to continue building on what are strong foundations.

The aim, of course, is to quickly get Chelsea back challenging for the trophies Liverpool won over the course of the last two seasons.

And they certainly look closer to reaching that point than the team they so convincingly dispatched at Anfield.

Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


Offense

After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

Defense

The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

Offseason

It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

Offense

The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

Defense

One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

Offseason

Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

Brees has restructured his contract in advance of his expected retirement, helping the Saints significantly, yet their odds of keeping around defenders such as Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson - who was third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in 2020 - still look slim.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

Should Brees indeed ride off into the sunset, New Orleans will need to decide whether to gamble on Hill or bring back Jameis Winston on an affordable deal and make him the successor.

The draft could also be an avenue by which the Saints could find Brees' heir, however, it seems more likely they will use their draft capital to reinforce a defense that could lose talent at all three levels.

Their decision-making in resolving the issue at quarterback and minimising the impact of the potential departures on defense will define whether the Saints stay at the sharp end of the NFC in 2021.

Manchester United became the best "school" in Nani's life once he learned how to work with Alex Ferguson – but crossing that bridge was not easy for the former Portugal star.

Nani's United career was a curious one, for he constantly had to contend with comparisons to compatriot and fellow Sporting CP product Cristiano Ronaldo, and that seemingly impacted fan expectations of him at the start.

His first season had some memorable highs, as he highlighted his penchant for a spectacular goal or two with long-range strikes against Middlesbrough and Tottenham, while also helping United to a Premier League and Champions League double, scoring in the penalty shootout that secured European glory.

Yet, despite his 12 Premier League goal involvements that term, Nani was regularly decried for a lack of consistency in his performances – a talented winger who seemed to frustrate as much as he did delight, with a man-of-the-match display in a 4-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal in February 2008 evidence of the devastating ability that perhaps was not shown enough.

After playing only 13 games – partly due to injuries – in his second domestic season, some fans might have expected United to cut their losses with Nani, but the penny seemed to drop, as he had a hand in 10 goals (six assists and four goals) in 23 appearances in the subsequent campaign and that proved the launchpad he needed.

Nani's best individual season followed in 2010-11 as he claimed 14 assists and nine goals to earn himself a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) Team of the Year and win United's Players' Player of the Season award. The key for him? Finally understanding what made Ferguson tick.

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said of his time working with Ferguson: "I think the best moment is all the trophies we won together, because I think when you play for a coach like that, the way he managed the team and always continued to win, we are privileged, no?

"But obviously, I learned to understand how to work with Alex Ferguson, because at the beginning, I was not understanding very well, because I was too emotional.

"My background, you know, you need some lessons of life, and I was learning so fast with all my team-mates and the coaches helping in that way, and I was happy at the end because they made me mature so fast.

"I learned how to play the game with them and how to behave in a big club like Man United, and that's why today when I look back, I have so great memories.

"That was my best school in all my life because what I learned from the time I had, seven years in Man United, they gave me today the capacity to be who I am and to understand things the way I understand them."

Across his time in the Premier League, only five players made more assists than Nani (43), though that figure may have been even more impressive were he not restricted by injuries to just 11 league games each in Ferguson's final season and David Moyes' solitary campaign.

Louis van Gaal subsequently decided his time at Old Trafford was up, but Nani looks back fondly on his time in Manchester, and particularly under Ferguson, whom he shared a touching moment with as he walked down the steps of the Stade de France having helped Portugal to Euro 2016 glory.

"Nani!" came the shout from Ferguson.

"Boss!" replied a visibly shocked but joyous Nani, still seeing the Scot as a person of authority despite being out of the game for three years at this point. The pair hugged and exchanged a few words before Ferguson sent his former player on his way.

And it was this personable character – rather than the authoritative figure Ferguson is often perceived to be – that Nani remembers most, yet still took some time to get used to.

"I understood that he would always like the players to go and talk with him," Nani said. "But he appreciated more when the players opened up to him and were honest, and told him whatever the truth was or whatever you needed.

"If you had any problem, he would like to have this opportunity to hear from the players, and as soon as you do that one or two times, you are more confident to talk with him, and then you feel you closer to the manager.

"You understand and you feel like, 'Oh, now he understands me, it doesn't matter if I'm happy or not'.

"So, I knew I could count on him if I needed to talk or if I needed anything, or if I wasn't in good shape or good form, it doesn't matter because he sees me as part of the team."

Now 34 and in MLS with Orlando City as he approaches the end of an illustrious career, Nani may feel he could have achieved even more on a personal level at United.

But being shaped by a man as revered as Ferguson is a claim to fame in itself.

"Of course we have a certain history…but we don't know each other as well as everybody thinks."

So said Thomas Tuchel during a glowing assessment of his German compatriot Jurgen Klopp, not long after replacing club legend Frank Lampard in the Chelsea dugout in January.

You could be forgiven, though, for thinking there is a much stronger bond between two men from the same country, whose paths from young heavy-metal upstarts to coaching heavyweights have taken eerily similar paths.

There are striking facets in each man's style of play too. The high intensity pressing, the devastating speed of the counter-attack, the fluidity of the forwards.

Now, whether you are a believer in fate or coincidence, the two are set to battle in the Premier League for the first time on Thursday when Chelsea – unbeaten so far under Tuchel – visit Anfield to take on Klopp's Liverpool.

With that in mind, let's take a trip down memory lane.

BECOMING THE MAINZ MAN

"I had fourth-division feet and a first-division head".

Even as a player, Klopp always believed his talents were better suited to the touchline than inside the white lines and it was at second-tier Mainz – where he made over 300 league appearances as a player – where he would get the chance to cut his coaching teeth.

Appointed in February 2001, Klopp helped stave off the threat of relegation and then led the team to consecutive fourth-place finishes, narrowly missing out on promotion.

But the old adage proved true, as the third time proved a charm for Klopp as Mainz were promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.

Klopp had the smallest budget and the smallest stadium in the top flight, but in his first two campaigns among the elite, employing his now famed Gegenpress, he led Mainz to back-to-back 11th-place finishes and a first foray into European football – qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to the Fair Play draw.

Relegation followed in the next campaign, and in total Klopp enjoyed 29 wins from 102 Bundesliga games as Mainz boss, a win percentage of 28.43 in Germany's top flight – his side scoring 130 goals and conceding 159.

He had a points-per-game average of 1.13 with Mainz in the Bundesliga but, after failing to secure a return to the top tier the following campaign, Klopp departed for pastures new. More on that later.

So, what next for Mainz? Well, the original route was the appointment of Jorn Andersen, who successfully achieved promotion but was sacked before the 2009-10 top-flight campaign even started, with Mainz stating the aims of the club and the coach were no longer the same.

Enter Tuchel…

A knee injury curtailed Tuchel's playing career at the age of 25 and he worked in the youth team at Stuttgart before overseeing the second team at Augsburg – a club he previously played for.

It was here where Tuchel impressed Bundesliga teams, coaching a side including Julian Nagelsmann, and Mainz came calling after dismissing Andersen.

Despite limited funds and a supposedly inferior playing squad, a team including Andre Schurrle and Adam Szalai helped Mainz to a ninth-placed finish.

Better things were to come the following season. The likes of Lewis Holtby and future Premier League winner Christian Fuchs arrived and Tuchel led Mainz to their highest ever finish of fifth.

The difficulties of mixing domestic and European football were a struggle and the next two campaigns saw Mainz finish 13th before coming an impressive seventh in 2013-14, Tuchel's last season in charge.

By the end of his tenure, Tuchel had a win percentage of 38.24 in the Bundesliga – significantly higher than Klopp's and the best of any Mainz coach.

Under Tuchel, Mainz won 65 Bundesliga games, scored 229 goals, conceded 230 and finished with a points-per-game ratio of 1.41. After a year out of the game, another opportunity was to arise…

DELIGHTING IN DORTMUND

When Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, both parties could hardly have dreamed they would be a better match.

Earlier in the decade, Dortmund were a club on the brink of financial ruin after years of heavy spending.

It meant Klopp's remit was to work within a limited budget and develop youth talent. And boy did he succeed in his task – putting together a team that would mix it with the best of European football.

The early signs were promising as Dortmund finished sixth and fifth in Klopp's first two campaigns, an improvement on 13th in the season prior to him taking over.

But it was 2010-11 when things really clicked. A star-studded cast led by Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and Shinji Kagawa pressed, hassled and swashbuckled their way to Bundesliga glory.

Dortmund would repeat the trick a year later with their 81 points at the time a Bundesliga record, while they made it a domestic double in the process by adding the DFB-Pokal.

Bayern Munich regained top spot in the Bundesliga in the following season (and have not looked back since) but Klopp's reputation continued to grow as Dortmund reached the Champions League final – only to be denied as Arjen Robben's 89th-minute winner earned Bayern a famous treble.

Dortmund were runners-up in the league and cup in 2013-14, and a disappointing start to the next term that saw Dortmund initially in relegation trouble would mark the beginning of the end of a glorious chapter.

Still, a recovery to seventh in the table and a run to the Pokal final meant Klopp left with his head held high. In total, Dortmund won 133 of their 238 Bundesliga matches under Klopp – ending with a win percentage of 55.88 and an average of 1.91 points per game, with 469 goals scored and 248 conceded.

But life at Signal Iduna Park had to go on and, you guessed it… enter Tuchel.

It was a natural fit in many ways, with Dortmund keen to find someone who would fit a similar mould to Klopp when he first joined. Young, vibrant, a desire to press and attack at pace.

There was much to admire in Tuchel's first campaign, but Bayern's winning machine continued as they finished 10 points clear of their rivals.

Dortmund spent big to replenish a squad depleted by the departures of Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan ahead of the 2016-17 season, but they accumulated 14 fewer points to finish third in the league – a triumph in the Pokal proving Tuchel's only trophy at the club.

While there was plenty to admire on the pitch, off it Tuchel's reign was mired by disagreements with Dortmund's hierarchy – most notably CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke.

Tuchel left with a win percentage in the Bundesliga of 61.76 (beaten only by Lucien Favre's 63.29 among Dortmund coaches with at least 10 games in charge), accruing an impressive 2.09 points per game.

HEAD-TO-HEAD AND 'THAT' GAME AT ANFIELD

Similar paths, similarities in styles, contrasting fortunes then.

But Thursday's clash at Anfield is by no means the first time these two have gone head to head.

Indeed, there were 10 occasions when the two were in opposition dugouts in the Bundesliga – with Klopp winning seven of those and Tuchel only one.

When extending that to all competitions, Klopp has triumphed nine times from 14 games, while Tuchel bumps up only slightly to two victories.

Their most famous showdown, of course, came in the 2015-16 Europa League quarter-finals, where Klopp was handed a romantic return to the club he once considered his home.

A 1-1 draw in Dortmund preceded one of the greatest second-leg contests in the competition's history.

Goals from Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Dortmund 2-0 up inside 10 minutes to stun Anfield and, although Divock Origi's goal just after the break reduced the arrears, Marco Reus' effort before the hour had seemingly sewn things up.

Cue pandemonium. Philippe Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho were on target to level things on the night and Dejan Lovren's injury-time header completed the most memorable and emotional of comebacks, Liverpool celebrating a 4-3 victory.

Since that night, Klopp has become a Premier League and Champions League winner with the Reds, while Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge was preceded by a couple of Ligue 1 title triumphs with Paris Saint-Germain and a 1-0 loss to Bayern in last season's showpiece game in Europe's premier competition.

Klopp and Tuchel also had a win apiece when Liverpool and PSG met in the 2018-19 Champions League group stages.

Now their familiar paths have led to the Premier League for the latest showdown between two of the greatest coaching minds in football.

A permanent residency in Las Vegas. It's what so many performers around the world dream of getting, but in 2020 the Raiders were left delivering a mediocre performance to a non-existent audience in their first year in the desert. 

Their mammoth new Allegiant Stadium home was left empty due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Raiders again flattered to deceive, an exciting opening act giving way to an underwhelming finale that ended hopes of a postseason encore. 

Under normal circumstances, a third successive season in which the Raiders missed the playoffs would lead to pressure on Jon Gruden. 

But because the Raiders rolled the dice by giving Gruden a 10-year contract, the head coach is a long way from the hot seat during his second spell with the franchise. 

Playing in a division alongside Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, plus Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Raiders face a tough challenge to contend in the AFC West. 

The pressure on Gruden may finally come should they miss the postseason again in 2021, but what can the Raiders do to ensure their first season with fans in Vegas results in a playoff berth? 

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we reflect on the Raiders' 2020 season and assess what they can learn from an 8-8 year.

Offense

The Raiders failed in their pursuit of a Wild Card spot despite an impressive year from much-maligned quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for a career-high 4,103 passing yards and finished the season in a three-way tie for fifth in yards per attempt with an average of 7.94. 

Where Carr made clear and significant strides was as a deep-ball thrower. 

On passes of 21 air yards or more, Carr had a passer rating of 124.2, throwing for 10 touchdowns and one interception. Among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 such passes, his rating put him fourth in the league, behind only Daniel Jones, Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. 

The exciting thing for the Raiders is there is clear room for him to grow in that area. 

While Carr was much improved pushing the ball downfield, his rapport with Raiders speedster Henry Ruggs III still needs work. 

Carr had 54 completions of at least 20 yards but first-round pick Ruggs registered only eight receptions of 20 yards or more. 

The average distance on those Ruggs receptions was 40.4 yards, putting him fifth among receivers to have had at least five catches of 20-plus yards. 

If Carr and Ruggs can develop their downfield chemistry, opposing defenses will have more reason to fear the passing game, potentially opening things up further for Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller underneath and a running game that underwhelmed in 2020. 

Though Josh Jacobs scored 12 touchdowns, the Raiders averaged 4.19 yards per rush, the 19th-best mark in the NFL.

There will be onus on Jacobs and the offensive line to improve drastically in that regard but, should Carr make further progress going deep and force defenses to focus on the pass, everyone else's jobs will become a little bit easier.

Defense

Save for occasional flashes - the shackling of Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of their Week 5 win at Arrowhead Stadium being the most prominent example - the Raiders defense failed to live up to the significant investment in that side of the ball.

Indeed, the Raiders continued to struggle to contain opposing offenses in 2020, allowing 5.99 yards per play, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL.

They were one of just six teams to give up over seven yards per pass play, with the Raiders' issues on defense leading to the firing of coordinator Paul Guenther.

Las Vegas will hope that Gus Bradley - Guenther's replacement - will be the man to oversee a turnaround.

To do that, Bradley will need to help deliver a significant upturn in production from the Raiders' pass rush. They finished the season with 21 sacks - just three teams had fewer - with edge rusher Maxx Crosby seeing his numbers drop from 10 sacks as a rookie to seven in 2020.

A first-round pick in 2019, Clelin Ferrell had just 2.5 sacks, with the Raiders' inability to get consistent pressure a factor in them allowing a passer rating of 108.9 on opponent throws of 21 air yards or more.

That number also raises questions about a young and exploitable secondary that has found it difficult to produce turnovers.

Las Vegas ranked 30th in takeaways with a meagre 15, with their 10 interceptions tied for 23rd.

Having consistently failed to pressure quarterbacks and to take the ball away, there is significant room for improvement on defense, but the Raiders do not have the financial flexibility with which to add players who can aid their cause.

Offseason

Even after one of the best seasons of his career, there has again been talk about the Raiders trading Carr in the hope of finding an upgrade at quarterback. 

The more likely scenario is that the Raiders parlay Marcus Mariota's one appearance last season, in which he excelled in relief of the injured Carr, into a trade that can net them more draft capital. 

With the Raiders poised to be over $9million above an assumed salary cap of $185m, potentially limiting their options in free agency, those extra draft picks would be welcomed. 

Regardless of how many picks the Raiders end up with, the areas of need are obvious. 

Pass-rush help both on the edge and on the interior of the defensive line is a must, as is an infusion of athleticism at linebacker, last year's free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski proving ill-equipped to help the Raiders stop the threats posed by modern passing attacks. 

Making those additions to the front seven will be crucial to the progress Gruden and the Raiders hope they can make in the fourth year of his tenure. 

Should the Raiders fail to identify the correct players at those spots, the ceiling of this team may again be limited in 2021 irrespective of any further strides from Carr.

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