Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

As the NBA All-Star break approaches, three players look to have established themselves as this season's MVP frontrunners – and they all happen to be big men born outside the United States.

That is surprising with the league trending towards teams hoisting up insane amounts of three-pointers and the idea of the big man in the middle becoming almost obsolete.

While this race will undoubtedly come down to the 11th hour, these three players have clearly separated themselves from the pack by playing some otherworldly basketball this season. 

JOEL EMBIID, Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid is the only one of the top three who has never won an MVP and that could end up working in his favour. The Philadelphia center was the runner-up to winner Nikola Jokic last season, and some wondered whether that was his best chance to win the award, but he has been better in nearly every area of the game while single-handedly carrying the 76ers to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference.

Embiid's points (29.1), rebounds (10.8) and assists (4.4) have all ticked up slightly this season, though his field goal percentage has dropped. Maybe the most important stat that puts a fine point on just how valuable Embiid has been is Philadelphia's 27-12 record when he plays and 4-8 mark when he doesn't.

Embiid has had issues with durability throughout his career, never playing more than 64 games in any season. He has mostly put those issues to rest this season and played in 21 straight games before he had a scheduled maintenance day and missed Monday's win over Memphis. 

Because he hasn't had Ben Simmons playing alongside him this season, Embiid has taken on an even bigger role in the team's offense. He's maintained his scoring rate and his assists have jumped from 2.8 to 4.4 as he has assumed greater playmaking responsibility in both the half-court and transition, all while lowering his turnovers. 

Embiid's defence hasn't suffered even with his increased burden on the opposite end. His blocks have increased (1.35 to 1.44) and he is the biggest reason the 76ers have improved their scoring defence from last season (108.1 to 105.5).

Since Christmas, Embiid leads the league in scoring (33.8) while pulling down 10.9 rebounds per game. His stretch of eight consecutive games with at least 30 points from December 26 to January 12 is the longest in the NBA this season and is tied for the longest by any 76ers player (Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain) since at least 1963-64. 

Philadelphia have won 15 of 19 during that span for a .789 winning percentage that ranks behind only the Grizzlies, moving the Sixers up to third in the Eastern Conference.

With 50.8 points, 16.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists per 48 minutes in January, Embiid became the first player in league history to average 50-15-5 per 48 in a calendar month. 

Embiid also isn't shrinking in the big moments, topping the league in points (127), field goals (40) and blocks (nine) in clutch situations.

All the ingredients necessary for an MVP are in place for Embiid, who has the production, the team success and even the narrative that he has put the team on his back in the absence of a fellow star player. Winning the top seed in the conference would certainly help Embiid's cause, and his play has that well within reach for the 76ers.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, Milwaukee Bucks

In the same that way that Embiid could be helped by having never won an MVP, Antetokounmpo could be hindered by having won back-to-back awards before Jokic took home the hardware last season. Only eight players have won three or more MVPs, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way with six and LeBron James the only active player with more than two (four). 

The Greek Freak has overcome a slow start following a short offseason and is putting up remarkably similar numbers to his last few campaigns, so there is no denying that he is having another MVP-worthy season. As impressive as Antetokounmpo's numbers are, he may not be getting the attention he deserves because this level of production has become the norm for a player who is arguably an all-time great at just 27 years old. 

Antetokounmpo is the only player who had almost as good a January as Embiid, averaging 31.7 points, 10.9 points and 6.3 assists. His nine 30-point games in the month trailed only Embiid (12).

Milwaukee are jockeying with Cleveland and Chicago for the Central Division lead despite dealing with a revolving door of availability from their roster all season. Just like Embiid's chances at the MVP are boosted with a top seed, team success can only help Antetokounmpo's case. The Bucks were the number one seed in the East in both of his MVP seasons. 

Antetokounmpo's ability to affect a game in a myriad of ways was on display in a win over Golden State on January 13, when he had 30 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and three blocks. All that production came in under 30 minutes of play and made him the first player with multiple 30-point triple-doubles in 30 minutes or less in the last 40 seasons. His other such outing came October 24, 2019, at Houston.

The Bucks superstar is one of only two players (also Jokic) currently averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. 

If Milwaukee finish with the best record in the East and Antetokounmpo averages near 30 points per game, 11 rebounds and six assists, it might be difficult to deny him a third MVP award. 

NIKOLA JOKIC, Denver Nuggets

After winning the MVP last season, Jokic has replicated his numbers in 2021-22, if not exceeded many of them. He's done all that while leading the Nuggets to a 28-23 record despite the long-term absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Denver's second and third-leading scorers last season. 

His performance this season has only reinforced his place among the league's elite and proven for the last time that he is not dependent on any player for his success, instead driving it for himself and his team-mates.

Jokic's scoring is basically equal to last season (25.9 to 26.4 in 2020-21), but his rebounds have jumped from 10.8 to 13.8 to put him second in the league behind Utah's Rudy Gobert as he has picked up the slack with Porter sidelined since early November. 

Jokic's assists (7.8), blocks (0.73), steals (1.42) and shooting percentage (57.2) are similar to last season, and he's again racking up the triple-doubles with a league-best 13 in 45 games after he had 16 in 72 last season. In only his seventh season, he is already fourth all-time in triple-doubles (70).

While Jokic's scoring in January (26.6) wasn't as robust as Embiid and Antetokounmpo, he did lead the league in total rebounds (212), ranked second in assists (144) and third in field goals made (158). He had a stretch of four consecutive triple-doubles from January 15 to 21 where he averaged 29.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 12.3 assists, astonishing totals from any player, let alone a seven-footer. 

With 49 points in a win over the Clippers on January 19, Jokic became just the third center (also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 and Alvan Adams in 1977) since 1970-71 to record a triple-double with 45 points or more. 

While each player faces a separate set of circumstances from year to year, Jokic has been as good or better than his MVP season and has done so with much less around him. That itself won't guarantee him another MVP, but he's right there with the other candidates and has the rest of the season to prove himself worthy of becoming a back-to-back winner. 

Superstars of the winter sports world are lining up at Beijing 2022 to create more breathtaking Olympic memories.

This festival of fast-paced action and technical excellence, a bewilderingly brilliant show set on snow and ice, has delivered sporting legends since it was first staged 98 years ago.

The Winter Olympics has ballooned in scale since Chamonix 1924, but its foundations were set then, with bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, skiing in its varying forms and both figure skating and speed skating on the original programme.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the achievements of the greatest athletes to strike gold.

BIATHLON: Ole Einar Bjorndalen

Stemming from the sport known in 1924 as military patrol, biathlon is that peculiar blend of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. It might be archaic in origin, but so too is the 100 metres dash at the summer Olympics, and biathlon remains an integral part of the winter programme.

Norwegian master Bjorndalen has been its greatest exponent, winning five solo gold medals and three in relay events. He competed at each Games from Lillehammer 1994 through to Sochi 2014, first striking gold at Nagano 1998. Bjorndalen peaked at Salt Lake City in 2002, landing four golds.

His fame has never rivalled that of a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, even though biathlon commands huge television audiences in parts of mainland Europe. Yet the man whose hunger for devouring the competition earned him the nickname of 'The Cannibal' belongs in Olympic legend.

Four silvers and a bronze took him to 13 Olympic medals in all, the most successful male Winter Olympics athlete for the most successful nation in the history of the Games.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: Marit Bjorgen and Bjorn Daehlie

Bjorgen is the most successful athlete in Winter Olympics history, with eight gold medals, four silver and three bronze, out-ranking even Bjorndalen in Norway's parade of great champions.

She scooped 18 World Championship golds too, had 114 wins among 184 top-three finishes at World Cup events, and ranks as the third most successful Olympian of all time in terms of medals won, after swimming great Phelps (28 medals, including 23 golds) and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine golds).

Bjorgen made her Olympic debut in 2002 but had to wait until 2010 before landing a first gold at the Games, triumphing in the pursuit, the sprint and the 4×5km relay. Three more triumphs followed in Sochi, before Bjorgen, by now a mother, won twice again at Pyeongchang in 2018. Her career climaxed in a dazzling triumph by almost two minutes in the 30km race on the final day of competition, the gold vaulting Bjorgen above Bjorndalen on the all-time list in the process. She retired a matter of weeks later, a mission accomplished.

Oslo-based Bjorgen ranks only just ahead of compatriot and fellow cross-country superstar Daehlie in the grand totting up. Daehlie was the first Winter Olympics star to land eight gold medals, winning those from 1992 to 1998, including two in front of home crowds at Lillehammer in 1994.

He captured four silver medals across his Olympic career, too, and might have gone on to enjoy success in subsequent Games, only for injuries from a roller-skiing accident to force him into retirement in 2001, at the age of 33.

SPEED SKATING: Eric Heiden, Clas Thunberg and Viktor Ahn

Heiden's story is remarkable, with the American sweeping the board by winning five gold medals at his home Winter Olympics in 1980, taking the Games in Lake Placid by storm and instantly making himself an all-timer in speed skating. He snatched Olympic records across the board, and his feat would be remarkable enough if the story ended there, as the only winter athlete in history to win five gold medals in a Games, but Heiden had more up his sleeve.

He turned his focus to cycling and represented the United States on the track before switching to the road, winning a US national championship and competing at the 1985 Giro d'Italia and 1986 Tour de France, crashing out of the latter late on in the race. Later he became an orthopaedic surgeon, and to this day operates a medical centre in Park City, Utah.

Finland's Clas Thunberg also won five Olympic golds in speed skating, three at the inaugural Chamonix Games and two at St Moritz in 1928, before he went on to serve as a politician. Claudia Pechstein of Germany and Ireen Wust of the Netherlands have also both won five golds.

The only speed skaters to win more have been Lidiya Skoblikova, a six-time gold medallist for the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and Viktor Ahn, a more modern marvel.

Ahn, a short-track speed skater, won the first three medals of his set competing for South Korea as Ahn Hyun-soo in 2006 at Turin. He added three more after switching to race for Russia at the 2014 Sochi Games, a tough pill for Seoul to swallow, with Ahn having cited a lack of support from South Korean authorities as the reason for his sporting defection. South Korean president Park Geun-hye demanded answers.

Ahn was controversially not invited to compete for the Olympic Athletes from Russia team at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A state-sponsored doping scandal from Sochi saw the Russian Olympic Committee banned, with a makeshift team entering in their place. Ahn, who insists he has never cheated, said it was "outrageous" to exclude him.

FIGURE SKATING: Sonja Henie

Before she became a Hollywood movie star, and before Adolf Hitler became an admirer of her graceful routines, Norwegian Henie made her Winter Olympics debut as an 11-year-old in 1924. She was a raw talent at the time but in 1928 she landed the gold medal at St Moritz, before repeating the feat four years later at Lake Placid and completing a hat-trick in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. She had a fan in Hitler and warmly greeted the Nazi leader before the 1936 Games, which did not sit well with many, although she managed to set the controversy aside. Henie elected to turn professional after that triumph in Germany, ensuring she could monetise her talent, and American film studios soon beckoned.

Henie became an ever bigger star, appearing in a host of major box-office movies. Her Olympic gold medal success has never been beaten in figure skating, although Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom also won three consecutive titles in the men's event, with the first of those coming at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, where figure skating was part of the programme.

ALPINE SKIING: Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Janica Kostelic

Alberto Tomba, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Marc Girardelli were bona fide superstars of the slopes in the 1980s and early 1990s, but none of them have an Olympic record to match that of Aamodt.

At the age of 20, Aamodt denied Girardelli the super-G gold at Val d'Isere in Albertville's 1992 Games, pulling off a shock victory that was an omen of things to come, although it was 10 years before he won a second Olympic gold. In Salt Lake City, Aamodt captured the super-G and combined titles, while four years later in Turin he edged out Hermann Maier to take a third super-G title, becoming the first male alpine skier to win four Olympic golds. That he did that after two injury-blighted years, at the age of 34, only enhanced the achievement.

Within minutes of Norwegian Aamodt reaching four, so too did Croatia's Janica Kostelic, the only woman to achieve such a haul. She had won three times in Salt Lake City in 2002, taking the slalom, giant slalom and combined titles, and in Turin, after a bout of sickness disrupted her preparation, Kostelic defended the combined.

Aamodt has eight Olympic medals in all (four gold, two silver, two bronze), while Kostelic has six (four gold, two silver).

George North is looking forward to the day his children face the big choice: cycling or rugby.

North is also looking forward to the Six Nations Championship, starting this weekend, when Wales begin their title defence against Ireland in Dublin.

There is an awful lot for this 29-year-old to be looking forward to, now that his injury hell has passed.

For now, North is enjoying the freedom of being able to run again, after suffering an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury in his right knee last April, playing for the Ospreys.

It ended his year on the rugby pitch, ruining hopes of a starring role for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and denying him a shot at the Springboks, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

North would sooner have been healthy and active of course, but being sidelined has had its upsides. He and his wife, double Olympic cyclist silver medallist Becky James, welcomed their second son, Tomi, a brother for Jac, in October.

Rather than dividing his time between the family and Wales camps, North has been essentially a stay-at-home dad for months on end.

"It's been brilliant. Normally I'm away playing or touring or something," says North, who is a Land Rover ambassador.

"To have this time at home, it's priceless. But Becky's been a superstar. When I had my surgery to start with, I couldn't do much on crutches with Jac, and obviously Tomi's joined us now and he's class.

"I'm in that stage now where effectively I'm in pre-season again, and I'm absolutely battered when I come home from training. And I'm not much use to anyone, but she's been amazing through this whole process.

"It has been tough, but it's been amazing you know, the two boys are amazing. Thank goodness for Becky, because it'd have been a lot harder at one point, with one leg up and hopping around the place. Especially my surgery, it was very tough. But yeah, she's a superhero."

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years. Despite being holders, however, few are giving them much of a chance this time around.

After all, Wales have been up and down with results in the tournament. Across the last five years, they have trailed in fifth twice, as well as clinching a couple of championships, including the 2019 grand slam.

This time, they head into the tournament without a clutch of key players: North is absent, but so too is captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric also sidelined.

 

Head coach Wayne Pivac said his squad has lost around 680 caps' worth of experience, but Wales should still be no mugs.

The players Pivac has chosen for the tournament come with an average of 27.1 Test caps of experience, only topped by Ireland's 30.9 among the six teams.

Those that are missing are proven class, however. In last year's championship, Faletau had 66 carries, putting him in third place among all players, while Tipuric made the most tackles (82). Faletau was fourth on that list (74), and skipper Jones was sixth (72).

On the Six Nations all-time list, North, who has featured on the wing and at outside centre, ranks fourth for metres gained (2,548), third for defenders beaten (126), and third for most clean breaks (48).

Jones is top of the all-time tackles chart (719), with fly-half Dan  Biggar a different animal to the absent lock. Biggar sits second on the Six Nations' all-time try assists list, after setting up 17 five-pointers in the competition.

To lose a raft of proven top-level talent would hurt any team, and North is not blind to that. He has been in and around the Wales squad since his late teens, however, so is certain there will be no defeatist attitude in Pivac's camp.

"Obviously there are a number of players out missing, and I think Wayne's come out with a stat of something like 680 caps that he's lost," says North. "That's a tough place to be."

 

But can Wales kick on regardless? North says so.

"Well, that that's the only way you get better, isn't it? By pushing the standards up every time," North tells Stats Perform News.

"I think for us, as Wales, we're used to being the underdogs, and we're always used to being kind of like always wanting more, and I think that shows in the performances that we have and the results we have had of late.

"From the lads' point of view, that's something they will certainly be looking at: how they push on from last year. Obviously winning the championship [is one thing], but you know the next step is backing it up again and as we said, it's going to be incredibly tough for the boys."

In the 2021 Six Nations, Wales made the most tackles of all teams (871), were third for tackle success with a healthy 88.2 per cent record, ranked second for lineout success with 90.8 per cent, and matched France for the most scrum success with 96.2 per cent.

Pivac's side averaged 3.7 points per entry into the opposition 22, making them the only side to average over three points per entry. It is a hard act to follow.

The loss of veteran skipper Jones gives 32-year-old playmaker Biggar the opportunity to lead the team into the championship.

"Yeah, it's not easy following the most capped player in the world is it!" North says. "I wouldn't like to follow Alun Wyn, put it that way.

"But what you're getting with Dan is a fierce competitor who drives the squad from the front row, right the way back all the way through to the full-back.

"He expects high standards of everyone, and he expects those standards of himself. I'm excited to see Dan as captain because what you see on the field is a fierce competitor. And that's not just on the field, that's Monday to Friday, and that's in whatever jersey he is.

"He expects the best for himself, and also the best from others because you know he is a competitor and wants to win."

North has the most international tries of all current players in the world game, and he has spoken of hoping to be available to Pivac at the back end of the championship.  Wales have home games against France and Italy on March 11 and 19 to finish the campaign.

He longs to make his children proud, even though both are much too young to understand his day job, or to understand their mother was a world champion.

From the routines of parenthood to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, North is focused on pulling out all the stops. Jac and Tomi are keeping him grounded but also fuelling his ambitions.

"Obviously they don't know what Dad does. They don't know what Mum used to do," he says. "And I think that's something that's special.

"I am looking forward to the day that I'd be able to play and Becky can bring the boys to watch. I'm incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play rugby, but to be able to share that with the boys and, you know, show them more. Whatever they want to do in the future, there's always that conversation, is it a bike or a rugby ball?"

North, who during last year's Six Nations became the youngest player to reach 100 caps for any country, is targeting the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a long-range goal.

That could add up to over two months away from home, and given he will be 31 by the time that tournament comes around, it might be a last shot at global glory.

"I've got a fair few steps to cross off before we get back in any jersey. Certainly it's something I want to be able to put my hand up and be fighting for my selection there," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to go to a few now, and you know that's a big push. It's not too far away, and it's something that is certainly exciting."

There he goes again, always looking forward.


:: George North is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

March 8 will mark 10 years since Manchester United suffered one of their most one-sided home defeats in the Alex Ferguson era.

The Europa League last-16 first leg finished 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, but the scoreline belied the contest. United were comprehensively out-run and outplayed, dismantled by Marcelo Bielsa's bold, brilliant Basques. Ferguson went as far as admitting that David de Gea kept embarrassment levels to a minimum: "Our goalkeeper's made four or five terrific saves in the game, so really, it's not the worst result for us."

Athletic's performance was one of the finest by an away team against United in the past 30 years. That might sound an exaggeration, but it was clear to everyone present in Manchester that night, Ferguson included. Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were four of the visitors' standout stars but there was barely a misstep from any of them.

And one man – one teenager, to be precise – looked like he was playing a different game to everyone else.

Iker Muniain scored what proved to be the winner in the closing minutes, capping a quite astonishing performance from a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the home of the reigning English champions and Champions League runners-up. He was beguiling, fearless, two steps ahead – everything you might expect from a player who had been a fixture in the first team from the age of 16.

Today, Muniain has 481 appearances for the club, the eighth-most in their history. He has played under seven coaches and been integral to the plans of each. He is Athletic's captain, their standard-bearer, the man who inspired them past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey last month with a powerhouse of a performance. He is probably playing the best football of his career.

As Athletic prepare to face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, they will hope that form continues. Muniain has finished runner-up in this competition four times, including twice last year. He lost the 2012 Europa League final, too, and the Supercopa de Espana two weeks ago.

Now more than ever, he deserves a winner's medal.

 

San Iker

There is something unquantifiable about Muniain's importance to Athletic; after his two-goal performance in the 3-2 win over Barca, coach Marcelino grasped for the right words to describe his impact beyond mere numbers, eventually settling on "a huge presence" and "constancy". But the numbers are also pretty good.

In 23 games in all competitions this season, Muniain has scored four goals and set up a further six. He is on track to surpass his best return for direct goal involvements in a single season of 16, set in 2011-12. Back then, he averaged a goal or assist every 284 minutes; this term, that figure is down to one every 186. He's already created more chances this season than he did under Bielsa in the whole campaign a decade ago, in part because he has set-piece responsibility these days.

 

Muniain has created at least 10 more chances (60) than any other player in LaLiga this term, while his tally of 72 across all competitions is eight more than second-place Vinicius Junior among players from Spain's top tier. It puts him fifth among players across Europe's top five leagues, behind Benjamin Bourigeaud (73), Bruno Fernandes (79), Thomas Muller (82) and Dimitri Payet (105). He has completed at least 14 more dribbles (41) than those players and made at least two more interceptions (19) than them, just to remind you that he's not your average playmaker.

And yet, those assist numbers feel a little low for someone who creates quite so many attacking opportunities, even though the numbers add up (his five assists in LaLiga this season come from an expected assists figure of 4.65). The problem perhaps lies in Athletic's rather chronic lack of ruthlessness – something that has reared its head in recent years, including in those unsuccessful finals.

 

Marcelino's side have scored 21 goals from 30.9 expected goals in LaLiga in 2021-22, the biggest negative difference in the competition. Their top scorer is Inaki Williams with five goals in 22 games. There's no Telmo Zarra, Llorente or Aritz Aduriz these days. Nobody has managed more than 15 in a season in the league since Aduriz in 2016-17 (16).

It makes you wonder how high that Muniain assist count would be had he been tempted away by another club to play alongside a Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappe. Of course, it's not something the man himself has ever really considered. "San Mames is magic, magic," he said recently. "I'm lucky to play here, to have that feeling that runs over your whole body."

 

Captain Maravilloso

Compared with many star number 10s, Muniain has what you might call an atypical view of his football career (when he signed his latest contract in 2018, it contained no release clause – why would he ever want to leave?). Then again, he is far from what might be called a traditional player to wear that number, the kind of static central playmaker whose primary task is to get the ball to others to do damage.

One thing that sets Muniain apart is his movement with the ball. Whether working space in attack or simply keeping possession, as he did to brilliant, game-killing effect in the 120th minute against Barcelona, Muniain is devilishly difficult to dispossess. There's a reason he was once called the Spanish Messi.

Muniain is joint-11th among attacking players in LaLiga with the most take-ons in the opponents' half (57) this season, completing just over half of his overall attempts across the pitch; among that group, only Lucas Boye (68 per cent), Oscar Trejo (64 per cent) and Nabil Fekir (58 per cent) have better success rates.

That dribbling tends to yield results, too: Nico Gonzalez (five) is the only player in LaLiga this season with more take-ons ending in a chance created than Muniain (four).

 

Among LaLiga's forwards this season, only Vinicius (427), Nabil Fekir (302) and Goncalo Guedes (283) have tallied more carries – a run of five metres or more with the ball – than Muniain (241), while Vinicius is the only man in that list to create more chances at the end of a carry (19 to Muniain's 14). If you look at those chances in which the creator was also earlier involved in the build-up (nine), Muniain ranks joint-fourth in the division, again proving his importance to Marcelino's plans goes well beyond the final pass.

Athletic want their captain on the ball, and he rarely disappoints when he gets it, whether it be through bringing others into play or retaining possession until the optimum moment. As Marcelino said after the Barca match: "His decision-making, the technical ability... brutal."

And final-ly...

Athletic's policy of fielding only Basque players, the vast majority of them products of their own academy, is a laudable one. It's also an ethos that sets them at a disadvantage compared to rival teams.

In that context, their successes are remarkable: one of just three teams never to be relegated from Spain's top flight, along with Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic have won eight league titles, 23 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. Additionally, they lifted the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

It also means they have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January last year. Their best league finish since 1998 was fourth place in 2013-14, and this is their fourth successive season without European football. 

Yet it's the final defeats that have hurt most. Barcelona (five times), Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad (boy, that one stung) have beaten Athletic to a trophy since 2009. Muniain has been at the club for all of them.

There is little shame in those defeats. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe. Athletic also lost to Diego Simeone's Atletico in the Europa League final in 2012 and the runaway league leaders most recently in the Supercopa. They deserve recognition just for competing with these sides for so long.

 

Markel Susaeta told Stats Perform last year: "It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Muniain has lived it. He deserves to do so again, and this time, to lift a trophy: first for the fans at the stadium, and then on the famous Gabarra down the Nervion river. If that sounds romantic... well, this is a player who makes you love the game.

Opinions on this 2021-22 NBA season are being firmly formed as we enter February.

Last month saw the All-Star starters announced, while the MVP race hotted up – or cooled down, with several early contenders struggling with form and fitness.

But who really lit up the league in January? And whose bright end to 2021 did not carry over into the new year?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check looks at the best and worst performers of the month...

RUNNING HOT...

RJ Barrett

Now in his third year with the New York Knicks, Barrett's has been a season of peaks and troughs. In the month of November, he averaged 12.8 points per game; in January, that mark was a mightily impressive 21.8.

Such inconsistency leaves the guard just below last year's average of 17.6 at 17.3, but he is now a man in form, scoring double-figures in 17 straight games – including all 15 in January.

Barrett's 31 points against the San Antonio Spurs on January 10 were followed by 32 against the Dallas Mavericks on January 12 in consecutive wins, before the Knicks traded for Cam Reddish, his old Duke team-mate, the next day. As stretches go, this was a good one.

Reddish is yet to find his feet in New York but at least finds a familiar face full of confidence in the locker room.

Kyle Kuzma

January finished with the Washington Wizards on a five-game losing streak that was extended to six on Tuesday, but it was a month of progress for Kuzma.

Comparing output for the past month to the rest of the season, Kuzma ranked second in the league for an increase in both scoring (up from 13.4 to 22.5) and rebounding (up from 8.0 to 11.1).

While this form is clearly not doing enough to get the Wizards' year back on track, it is at least providing the Los Angeles Lakers with a reminder of what they gave up in a trade for Russell Westbrook.

Kuzma was one of three players, along with a first-round pick, sent to Washington in exchange for Westbrook, who has again flattered to deceive and appears to be back on the market with the Lakers toiling at 24-27.

Anfernee Simons

One place behind the Lakers in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers are similarly out of sorts, with Damian Lillard falling below his usual standards and the rest of the team struggling to pick up the slack.

The Blazers have still had some breakout stars, however, with Simons the most obvious of those in year four after a dazzling January.

Already averaging double-figures at 11.9 heading into 2022 – something he had failed to do in his previous three campaigns – Simons was the most improved scorer last month, scoring 23.1 points across 15 games. He made 4.5 three-pointers per game over that period, also a league-leading improvement on his prior 2.0.

Third-year forward Nassir Little (13.1 points and 2.1 threes in January) ranked seventh and fifth by those metrics, only to sustain a season-ending labrum tear – a setback that just about summed up Portland's season.

GOING COLD...

Stephen Curry

Curry's 26.0 points per game this year are up on two of his three title-winning campaigns with the Golden State Warriors but significantly down on last year's 32.0 – enough to win the scoring title – and falling rapidly from his early-season standards.

The two-time MVP made a hot start with 28.7 points in October and was still operating at 27.7 come the end of 2021. In January, however, he scored only 22.3 points – the biggest drop in the NBA.

Curry also led an unwanted chart in seeing his 5.4 made threes per game decrease massively to 3.5, a career 42.9 per cent three-point shooter and 47.3 per cent field-goal shooter slumping to 32.9 per cent and 38.5 per cent.

Such is the depth of talent on the Warriors' roster – in Kevon Looney and Jonathan Kuminga, they had two of January's three most-improved rebounders – they have been able to ride out Curry's rough patch. However, Jordan Poole had also been struggling to maintain his high standards (fifth for scoring decrease in January), though a 31-point effort in Tuesday's win over the Spurs hinted at a return to form.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's move to Barcelona belatedly confirmed on Tuesday, transfer business in Europe's top five leagues is now over until the end of the season.

Not every leading club traded in January – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and, not for want of trying, Milan were all quiet – but there were plenty of deals done that may yet alter the landscape of this campaign.

So, who boosted their title bid or European push? And whose hopes took a hit after failing to make the most of the past month?

Stats Perform picks out the winners and losers of the transfer window, starting with the biggest move of all...

WINNERS

Juventus

This has been another tough season for Juve, who enter February on the outside looking in at Serie A's top-four race. But they could have done little more in the window to address their issues, plugging the hole left in their attack by first Cristiano Ronaldo's departure and then Federico Chiesa's injury by bringing in Dusan Vlahovic, Serie A's leading marksman, for €75million – the biggest buy of 2022 so far.

There were departures, but Dejan Kulusevski has hardly been a key man and Rodrigo Bentancur's exit was offset by the bargain capture of Denis Zakaria, while the Bianconeri will no doubt be grateful to get at least part of Aaron Ramsey's salary off the books.

Barcelona

Another struggling European Super League advocate, Barcelona's finances are tighter than Juve's, but they got creative to bolster a squad still coming to terms with Lionel Messi's absence. Ferran Torres appeared to be the replacement for the retired Sergio Aguero, only for Aubameyang to also arrive right at the last, surely bringing to an end Luuk de Jong's short, unsuccessful stint as the Blaugrana's leading man.

Dani Alves and Adama Traore each returned to Camp Nou, too, as Philippe Coutinho and a chunk of his wages headed out on loan.

Aston Villa

Coutinho may have been unwanted at Barca, but his signing represented a major coup for former team-mate Steven Gerrard at Villa. A goal on his debut against Manchester United suggested the one-time Liverpool superstar may yet have what it takes to shine in the Premier League.

Lucas Digne's arrival at left-back significantly upgraded that position, meanwhile, and ensures Villa are looking up the table, not down. Although this feels a little like a lost season – 12 points from the top four, 11 from the bottom three – two eye-catching deals should at least give fans plenty to shout about.

Sevilla

If Villa lack any obvious short-term objective, the same is not true of Sevilla. Julen Lopetegui's men are second in LaLiga, firmly in a title fight with Madrid, and targeting a Europa League final at their home stadium. Persistent talk of a departure for defender Diego Carlos, targeted by Newcastle United, therefore represented a concern, but director of football Monchi stood firm – and then landed a stunning signing, too.

Anthony Martial blew hot and cold at Manchester United but should be the main man in Spain, where he offers far more than Sevilla's other striking options. With his goals at one end and Diego Carlos' enduring partnership with Jules Kounde at the other, this could yet be a sensational season.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool could easily have let January pass without doing business, having no real need to improve their side in the short term. But then Tottenham agreed a deal with Porto for Luis Diaz, and the Reds sensed an opportunity, swooping in to secure his £33.3m signing. Liverpool have the luxury of not needing Diaz to hit the ground running, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah soon returning from international duty, yet he appears an ideal long-term replacement in one of the attacking positions.

LOSERS

Arsenal

Mikel Arteta must fear Arsenal's momentum has been lost. The Gunners headed into January on a five-match winning run in all competitions, only to fail to add another victory in five games before February, crashing out of both domestic cups and falling out of the top four. New signings could have righted the ship, yet Arsenal ended the month with Colorado Rapids defender Auston Trusty – loaned back to MLS – as their only done deal.

A move for Vlahovic was dismissed by the player and trumped by Juve, while long-standing interest in Bruno Guimaraes did not materialise into a transfer, as the Brazil midfielder instead joined Newcastle. Arteta trimmed the squad in securing temporary and permanent departures for Aubameyang, Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac, Pablo Mari, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun, but Arsenal did not raise a fee for any of them.

West Ham

Flush with cash and without the serious threat of losing star performer Declan Rice, January brought opportunity for West Ham, joining modest spenders Arsenal, United and Tottenham in a top-four tussle. However, despite reports of increasingly wild big-money bids, the Hammers did not make a single recruit.

Interest in Leeds United pair Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha seemed optimistic at best, but failing to land either was not as costly as the inability to provide competition up front. Although Hugo Ekitike and Darwin Nunez were both discussed, the club remain a Michail Antonio injury away from a crisis.

Roger Goodell's description of Tom Brady on Tuesday as merely "one of the greatest to ever play in the NFL" felt a little generous to the competition. 

In the period of claim and counter-claim between reports of his retirement on Saturday and confirmation on Tuesday, the verdict had been cast – not that it was ever in doubt. 

Among others, Patrick Mahomes, better placed than most to consider quality quarterback play, told ESPN: "His career is one of a kind. That's why he's the GOAT." 

There is no dispute, no debate: Brady is the greatest. 

The 44-year-old leads the way by most metrics, including the most important one, with an unprecedented seven Super Bowl championships. 

Yet the stunning nature of some of those successes mean the emotional argument in Brady's favour is as convincing as the statistical one. 

Unmoved by his NFL-record 84,520 passing yards? Try the Super Bowl LI comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. 

This career had it all, and most dissenting voices had long since disappeared by the time Brady arrived in Tampa in 2020 "as the greatest football player of all time", as Bruce Arians put it. He still had another title in him. 

But Brady has not just set the standard in the NFL for the past 22 years; his achievements are surely unmatched across the entire sporting world. 

BEATING THE BEST

Wrestling with past legacies is never easy for an elite sports star. Even as the best of their generation, comparisons will be drawn with those who have gone before. 

In the case of LeBron James in the NBA, Michael Jordan casts a long shadow. 

James may now widely be considered the second-greatest player in the history of the league, but the gap to the number one spot scarcely seems to be closing, even now with titles and Finals MVP recognition on three different teams – and his own Space Jam sequel. 

Elsewhere, Formula One's Lewis Hamilton has done what James could not with Jordan in matching Michael Schumacher's haul of titles. 

But when Hamilton closed in on a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship in 2021, rival Sebastian Vettel scoffed: "Even if Lewis wins, to me Michael is still the greatest. Lewis can win one more, two more, three more, five more championships, but it doesn't change anything for me." 

The combination of being unable to see two athletes side by side and having memories tinged with nostalgia makes life hard on the modern great. 

For Brady, Joe Montana was the closest thing to a Jordan or Schumacher figure at quarterback. 

Although Montana ranked sixth for all-time passing yards – Dan Marino, the 20th century's passing yards leader, never won a title – his four Super Bowls had matched Terry Bradshaw's benchmark and were still fresh enough in the memory in 2000, the last coming in the 1989 season. 

Yet that was a gap Brady was swiftly able to bridge. By August 2005, with three rings already in his collection, the headline of a GQ profile asked if the Patriots passer was "the best there ever was". 

At 27, 10 years younger than James and Hamilton are now, there appeared little doubt Brady would leave Marino behind. 

TOP OF HIS CLASS

Perhaps Brady benefited from the standard of the competition. His career overlapped with Brett Favre at the start, Mahomes at the end and met with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers somewhere around the middle, all of them forcing him to raise his game. 

But such depth of talent can so easily muddy the waters. 

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have matched each other stride for stride, meaning there remains no consensus pick for football's 'GOAT'. Both merit the position, yet neither have dominated an era like Pele or Diego Maradona. 

In tennis, the tussle is even more intense. Until Rafael Nadal's Australian Open triumph on Sunday, three men were tied on a record 20 grand slam titles. 

Injuries to Roger Federer and coronavirus complications with Novak Djokovic may be enough to keep Nadal at the summit, but personal preference dictates the all-time rankings when the margins are so fine. 

Again, however, Brady came through. None of those modern-day rivals have won three Super Bowls, let alone matching Montana's four or Brady's staggering seven. 

Mahomes had appeared the most likely to challenge that mark in the years to come, but four seasons as a starter have now yielded one title. At the same point, Brady had three and that GQ headline. 

"To win that many Super Bowls and win that many games, it's hard," Mahomes said after losing Sunday's AFC Championship Game. "I understand that. The years that I've had, I've been close a lot.  

"I've only been there twice, and I've only won once. I understand it takes a special player ... for that to happen." 

In Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, Mahomes will not have it easy going forward either – an exciting new generation guarding Brady's legacy, not that he could not have done it himself had he chosen to play on. 

Brady, in the regular season and playoffs, holds a 3-2 record against Mahomes, 4-0 against Allen and 1-0 against Herbert. He never faced Burrow, potentially the next Super Bowl-winning QB. 

Instead, the perennial winner departs not as a champion – he has been that enough times – but as undoubtedly the best player his sport has ever seen. A rare phenomenon indeed. 

Tom Brady has called time on his NFL career after 22 seasons, at the age of 44.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback officially announced his decision on Tuesday after days of speculation, with the news initially having been reported on Saturday.

It means Brady's final game in the sport was the dramatic Divisional Round loss to the Los Angeles Rams, in which he had led the Bucs in a remarkable late comeback.

That display, at the end of a season in which Brady led the league in passing yards (5,316) and touchdown passes (43), had elements of everything that made him the greatest of all time.

Brady's legacy has long been unmatched but will not now be added to, as he watches the 2022 season from his sofa.

There is little prospect of any other QB coming close in the near future, however, as Stats Perform examines the stunning numbers behind his record-breaking career.

THE BREES BATTLE

Brady's seven Super Bowls counted for more than any other statistic ever could, but there was still intrigue around his battle with Drew Brees for a number of all-time passing marks.

Brees was drafted by the San Diego Chargers the year after Brady was selected by the New England Patriots, forever pitting the pair against one another.

But the long-time New Orleans Saints QB did not quite have Brady's longevity, retiring a year earlier, and allowed the gap between the two men's achievements to widen in 2021.

Brady leads the NFL with 84,520 passing yards, ahead of the second-placed Brees and his 80,358.

In terms of touchdown passes, it is a similar story. Brady's 624 top the charts, with Brees his nearest challenger on 571.

Brees also ranks second for seasons with 20 touchdown passes (17) and team points per game among quarterbacks with at least 100 starts (27.4). Brady (19 and 28.3) is the main man in both categories.

WINS, WINS, WINS

There is an enduring debate over whether wins are a quarterback statistic, but one would have a hard time arguing otherwise in Brady's case. Even after benefiting from Bill Belichick's coaching for 20 years, the veteran headed to Tampa and won right away.

Brady finishes with 243 QB wins, meaning an incredible margin to second-placed pair Peyton Manning and Brett Favre on 186.

In fact, Brady has 69 wins in the month of December alone. In terms of a single month, Favre is next, with 52 wins also in December.

It should come as no surprise then that Brady has the best record among QBs with at least 100 starts, his .769 again comfortably ahead of the next-best performance, Roger Staubach's .746.

Of course, Brady has kept winning as each season has extended into the postseason.

He has 35 playoff wins, too many to compare to one rival QB alone. Among all NFL teams excluding Brady's Pats and Bucs, the Baltimore Ravens have won the most playoff games since 2000. They are on 16.

STILL GOING STRONG

Brady's 2021 performance made his decision to quit at this stage something of a shock. Even in his mid-40s, there have been no signs of slowing.

This was Brady's 19th different season with 3,000 passing yards – clear of Favre's 18 – and his fifth 4,000-yard season just since he turned 40.

Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Staubach and Steve Young combined for three seasons with 4,000 passing yards for their careers.

Tom Brady has officially retired.

After premature reports at the weekend prompted backlash, the decision was confirmed on Tuesday, leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to replace the greatest of all time this offseason.

The Buccaneers do have an in-house option but, if head coach Bruce Arians stays on board as expected, it is likely he will want a quarterback who can help an extremely talented team, albeit one that could lose some of that talent in free agency, contend for further Super Bowls.

So who could be in line to take the reins under center from Brady?

Stats Perform looks at the young gun who may have the substantial challenge of stepping into Brady's shoes and, with free agent options thin on the ground, three players they could target in a trade to run the offense.

 

Kyle Trask

The Buccaneers selected Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist in his final year at Florida in 2020, in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Tampa Bay probably would have liked him to have another year of seasoning before throwing him in at the deep end, but they now have to consider whether he is ready to make the leap to the starting role in the pros.

Trask led the FBS in passing touchdowns with 43 in his final season with the Gators and, though there should be cause for concern over an elongated throwing motion and his decision-making, his play under pressure in college in 2020 was encouraging.

Indeed, Trask delivered a well-thrown ball on 74.56 of his pass attempts when under pressure – only three Power 5 quarterbacks (min. 50 attempts under pressure) fared better.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo is almost certain to be on the trade market after he crumbled in the fourth quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Championship Game defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. 

With Trey Lance waiting in the wings, the Niners will likely look to recoup what they can for a quarterback who helped them reach Super Bowl LIV in the 2019 season.

Despite his 31-14 record in the regular season with the 49ers, the Buccaneers may be reticent to strike a deal for a quarterback whose skill set would not appear to mesh well with Arians' aggressive downfield passing attack.

Garoppolo averaged just 7.51 air yards per attempt in 2021, the eighth-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts.

Russell Wilson

If you want downfield aggressiveness, look no further than Wilson.

Only Justin Fields (10.02) averaged more air yards per attempt than Wilson (10) in 2021, while Davis Mills (114.6), another rookie, was the sole quarterback to have a higher passer rating on attempts of 21 air yards or more (114.0) among signal-callers with at least 25 attempts of that distance.

The stylistic fit is obvious, and the Buccaneers critically have the offensive line to satisfy Wilson's main issue with the Seattle Seahawks, a lack of pass protection.

But, with an ageing core, it is debatable at best whether the Bucs would consider mortgaging their future in a blockbuster trade for Wilson, and it's still not clear whether Seattle would even come to the table.

Aaron Rodgers

The potential biggest prize out there on the trade market seems like the largest long shot for the Bucs.

Rodgers would no doubt be able to adapt to Arians' offense and, if the Bucs keep hold of Chris Godwin, he would be thrilled with the receiving corps he would have at his disposal.

Yet there are signs of an improving relationship between Rodgers and the Packers' brass and perhaps a willingness to give it another go even after this season's playoff failure.

If Rodgers does decide he wants to go elsewhere, the Denver Broncos would be the favourites to land him having hired former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as their new head coach. The Bucs may have to give it the hard sell to land Rodgers.

In the NFL, it is very difficult to go out on top.

Parity reigns supreme in North America's dominant league, with no team since the 2004 New England Patriots achieving the feat of winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

As such, the task of winning the Super Bowl in your final season as a player is an extremely challenging one, especially in an era where there is an apparent production line of young quarterbacks rapidly ascending to the top of the sport.

John Elway and Peyton Manning both did it, in the 1998 and 2015 seasons respectively, both signing off with Super Bowl victories for the Denver Broncos. 

But neither nor Elway nor Manning could be considered at the top of their game, with both arguably carried to the title by an extremely talented roster.

Tom Brady could not replicate their achievement but, though he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came up short against the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in what proved his final game, the case can be made his farewell was superior even without it coming on the Super Bowl podium.

Brady will, of course, look back on his Super Bowl-winning seasons with the greatest fondness. However, his 2021 numbers compare favourably with those from a 2007 campaign most consider his finest, another year in which he did not lift the Lombardi Trophy.

In 2007, Brady threw for 4,806 yards, 50 touchdowns and averaged 300.4 yards per game. That touchdown tally trails only Manning in 2013 (55) for the most in a single season, Brady forming a devastating combination with wide receiver Randy Moss in a Patriots offense that is regarded as one of the greatest in NFL history

The yardage total was topped in 2011 (5,235) and 2012 (4,827), yet the zenith in that sense came in 2021, Brady racking up a league-leading 5,316 passing yards at an average of 312.7 yards per game while also leading the NFL with 43 touchdowns.

Those numbers served as a further testament to his ability to adapt to Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians' aggressive downhill passing game following his switch from the New England Patriots after the 2019 season.

His 42 passing plays of 25 yards or more were the most in the 2021 regular season, Brady continuing to produce explosive plays in a year that saw him shorn of the services of Chris Godwin through injury and, later in the year, Antonio Brown following the All-Pro wide receiver's very public split from the Bucs.

Delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 79.2 per cent of his attempts in 2021 – the average among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts was 78.3 – and throwing a pickable pass on only 2.56 per cent of passes, third-best for signal-callers to meet that threshold, there was no sign of a drop-off in terms of accuracy or decision-making from Brady in his final year.

The combination of accuracy and an arm clearly still strong enough to make throws to every level of the field came to the fore as Brady pounced on a collection of Rams errors to help the Bucs fight back from 27-3 down to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, his 55-yard bomb to Mike Evans to cut the gap to seven points encapsulating his ability to still produce the remarkable even with a depleted receiving group and his offensive line being bullied by Los Angeles.

That the Rams recovered to kick the game-winning field goal is almost immaterial. Brady's send-off was still a thrilling one and a scarcely needed reminder that, in his unprecedented two-plus decades of dominance, no lead was ever safe.

For Elway and Manning, their career-ending Super Bowl triumphs were legacy-defining. Brady did not need to pad his legacy any further but still threw for over 4,000 yards for the fifth time since turning 40 and delivered one final bewitching rollercoaster.

Brady did not go out on top but, rather than being carried to victory, he exited the stage still arguably at the peak of his powers having narrowly missed out on lifting his team to an astonishing comeback win. It wasn't a winning farewell but, in every other sense, it was the perfect Brady goodbye.

Rewind to January 2020. At the time, Bruno Fernandes just seemed like he was becoming the latest in a long list of players who had been linked with Manchester United but ultimately never set foot in Old Trafford.

Remember Nico Gaitan?

But, as it happened, United did get a deal done for the Portugal midfielder, who – on the evidence of his time at Sporting CP – was going to bring goals, craft and fire to the Red Devils' engine room.

It would be fair to say he has surpassed the expectations of many fans and neutrals alike. While he undoubtedly has the capacity to frustrate, anyone who doubts his ability is surely just being contrarian.

Tuesday marks two years since his United debut, a disappointing 0-0 draw with – fittingly – Portugal Lite, or Wolves as they are known in the Midlands.

During his two years at United, Fernandes has become arguably their key man, best player and general lynchpin, the individual who most things are built around.

Yet, the noise around him this season would suggest United's wider issues have started to catch up with him – but just how accurate is that? Has his level truly dropped?

Over-reaction or justified criticism?

Regardless of your opinion on Fernandes' form, we can all agree he has been largely an excellent addition for United. Even when you take away the penalties, his 44 Premier League goal involvements since his debut is bettered only by Mohamed Salah (55), Harry Kane (46) and Son Heung-min (45).

His arrival introduced some much-needed creative consistency to the United midfield. Paul Pogba didn't quite provide that – whether that's entirely his fault is a debate for another time, but Fernandes has shown an ability to habitually unlock defences, with his 148 chances created in open play at least 18 more than any other player since February 1, 2020.

But in a season that has proven so tumultuous at Old Trafford, not even Fernandes has escaped criticism, which appears to be levelled at him now more vociferously among fans than at any other point in his two years there.

His off-the-cuff style undoubtedly feeds that. If a player is trying the killer ball at every opportunity and it frequently fails, that's obviously going to feed fan frustrations.

And, to be fair, there has been a slight drop-off in his creative threat. He averaged 0.25 expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes across his Premier League career before 2021-22, the fourth-highest among players to play at least 1,000 minutes, and that's at 0.21 for the current season – though that's still only bettered by six players (minimum 1,000 minutes).

He's never just been about threatening with his passing ability, though. Fernandes has been the club's best source of goals from midfield in years – his nine non-penalty (np) top-flight goals last season has only ever been bettered twice by a United central midfielder in the Premier League era: Paul Scholes in 1995-96 (10) and 2002-03 (14).

To his credit, Fernandes already has seven this season despite his np-xG slipping from 0.17 to 0.24 per 90 minutes. So, although he's not getting into as good goalscoring positions, he remains a potent weapon, which highlights the class he possesses. Of course, some might suggest that goals haul is somewhat skewed by his hat-trick against a notoriously open Leeds United on matchday one, but he still deservers his dues for that performance.

Furthermore, his average of 2.9 chances created every 90 minutes in 2021-22 is actually up slightly on his record for his first 18 months at Old Trafford (2.6) – so, while certain factions of the United support might be growing frustrated by particular aspects of Fernandes' game, it's clear to see he still offers a lot.

Out of his comfort zone

Another key element to be taken into consideration is the overarching institutional mess that has been Manchester United in 2021-22. The club is enduring a difficult season, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign coming to an end and Ralf Rangnick coming in.

There have been considerable changes to the backroom staff and the team is undergoing a significant philosophical shift, both in terms of tactics and formation. Solskjaer's plight came down to a collective failing, with so many players suffering a dip in form, and Rangnick's introduction may well have been something of a shock to the system – he and the Norwegian are hardly cut from the same cloth.

This has clearly impacted Fernandes, given his usual 'number 10' role suddenly became less assured. While Rangnick has shown a certain degree of tactical flexibility, with United appearing to operate with a 4-2-3-1 against Brentford, for the most part they have played 4-2-2-2 or 4-3-3.

As such, Fernandes has had to adapt and that's meant becoming something more closely resembling a roaming number eight, but with greater emphasis on operating towards the left.

As his touch locations map shows, Fernandes is averaging as many as 9.8 touches more per 90 minutes on the left flank under Rangnick than he was with Solskjaer this season. While his touch frequency through the middle hasn't changed massively, his numbers are down slightly except for in the zone just past the halfway line, where they have increased.

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that Fernandes is having fewer shots (1.9, down from 2.5) and creating fewer chances (2.4, down from 3.1) under Rangnick than he was for Solskjaer, but there is every chance this is deliberate.

Rangnick may have felt Fernandes wasn't having enough influence in United's general play, with his touches per 90 minutes averaging at 69.1 this season under Solskjaer and Michael Carrick. That was well below his average pre-2021-22 (81.8) but it has since been boosted to 78.7.

Similarly, Fernandes – perhaps owing to operating more in less congested areas of the pitch – is playing 10.4 passes into the box on average every 90 minutes, which is 2.6 more than before.

Again, this may be a deliberate ploy to try to make the most of Fernandes' passing abilities, but it could also be argued this is where he's at odds with the new role and system. With his xA average slipping to 0.19 (per 90) for Rangnick, those extra passes into the box aren't – seemingly – hugely reliable in terms of good chance creation, meaning they are likely more hopeful than expectant.

Given Rangnick's desire for "control", one would think he'd want fewer hopeful deliveries into the box, favouring a more careful approach to attacking, but this could feasibly be put down to Fernandes still requiring time to adapt to a new function, which would be reasonable.

What's clear is the fact Fernandes' two-year anniversary arrives at a time when he's personally going through probably the most testing period of his United career, with the spotlight being shone directly on his contributions amid the wider narrative of team's general woes.

Maybe his levels have dropped slightly, but that's a common theme across this United squad. Either way, he's still proving effective, and it remains difficult to imagine them being a better attacking unit without him.

Tom Brady may or may not retire. Despite the backlash at seemingly premature reports of the end of his career, there is a strong chance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be looking to replace the greatest of all time this offseason.

The Buccaneers do have an in-house option but, if head coach Bruce Arians stays on board as expected, it is likely he will want a quarterback who can help an extremely talented team, albeit one that could lose some of that talent in free agency, contend for further Super Bowls.

So who could be in line to take the reins under center from Brady?

Stats Perform looks at the young gun who may have the substantial challenge of stepping into Brady's shoes and, with free agent options thin on the ground, three players they could target in a trade to run the offense.

 

Kyle Trask

The Buccaneers selected Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist in his final year at Florida in 2020, in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Tampa Bay probably would have liked him to have another year of seasoning before throwing him in at the deep end, but they may now have to consider whether he is ready to make the leap to the starting role in the pros.

Trask led the FBS in passing touchdowns with 43 in his final season with the Gators and, though there should be cause for concern over an elongated throwing motion and his decision-making, his play under pressure in college in 2020 was encouraging.

Indeed, Trask delivered a well-thrown ball on 74.56 of his pass attempts when under pressure – only three Power 5 quarterbacks (min. 50 attempts under pressure) fared better.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo is almost certain to be on the trade market after he crumbled in the fourth quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Championship Game defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. 

With Trey Lance waiting in the wings, the Niners will likely look to recoup what they can for a quarterback who helped them reach Super Bowl LIV in the 2019 season.

Despite his 31-14 record in the regular season with the 49ers, the Buccaneers may be reticent to strike a deal for a quarterback whose skill set would not appear to mesh well with Arians' aggressive downfield passing attack.

Garoppolo averaged just 7.51 air yards per attempt in 2021, the eighth-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts.

Russell Wilson

If you want downfield aggressiveness, look no further than Wilson.

Only Justin Fields (10.02) averaged more air yards per attempt than Wilson (10) in 2021, while another rookie, Davis Mills (114.6) was the sole quarterback to have a higher passer rating on attempts of 21 air yards or more (114.0) among signal-callers with at least 25 attempts of that distance.

The stylistic fit is obvious, and the Buccaneers critically have the offensive line to satisfy Wilson's main issue with the Seattle Seahawks, a lack of pass protection.

But, with an aging core, it is debatable at best whether the Bucs would consider mortgaging their future in a blockbuster trade for Wilson, and it's still not clear whether Seattle would even come to the table.

Aaron Rodgers

The potential biggest prize out there on the trade market seems like the largest long shot for the Bucs.

Rodgers would no doubt be able to adapt to Arians' offense and, if the Bucs keep hold of Chris Godwin, he would be thrilled with the receiving corps he would have at his disposal.

Yet there are signs of an improving relationship between Rodgers and the Packers' brass and perhaps a willingness to give it another go even after this season's playoff failure.

If Rodgers does decide he wants to go elsewhere, the Denver Broncos would be the favourites to land him having hired former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as their new head coach. The Bucs may have to give it the hard sell to land Rodgers.

It's not how you start, it's how you finish. The old adage rang true for the victorious defenses on Conference Championship weekend.

A stunning upset pulled off by the Cincinnati Bengals appeared extremely unlikely when they fell 21-3 behind to the Kansas City Chiefs.

But the Chiefs scored just three points across the second half and overtime, with Patrick Mahomes intercepted twice as the Bengals fought back to claim an improbable 27-24 win.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Rams looked to be on the ropes at 17-7 down to the San Francisco 49ers when Jimmy Garoppolo hit George Kittle for a 16-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.

Yet the Rams outscored the Niners 13-0 in the fourth, Garoppolo and the San Francisco attack collapsing when the pressure was at its highest.

So how did both the Bengals and the Rams stymie their opponents when it mattered most and punch their tickets to Super Bowl LVI?

The name's Hubbard, Sam Hubbard

Arguably as important to stopping Mahomes through the air was the move the Bengals made to prevent him from doing damage with his legs.

The Bengals deployed defensive end Sam Hubbard as a de-facto spy of Mahomes, protecting against him rolling out and making throws on the move, as he did twice for touchdowns in the first half, or picking up yardage on the ground.

That meant relying on their coverage to hold up while sending only three-man rushes up front. The Bengals rushed three on 23.9 per cent of their defensive snaps, and the results speak for themselves.

Mahomes attempted just six passes on the move and had five scrambles for an average of just one yard per carry. In other words, when there was not a clear option for Mahomes when operating from the pocket, the possibility to escape and extend the play was taken away.

Travis Kelce had 10 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown while Tyreek Hill registered seven catches for 78 yards and a score. However, Hill did not have a catch after the first half and Kelce only had one across that second half and overtime that went for double-digit yardage, the Bengals' ploy of sporadically bracketing both working perfectly.

The combination of Hubbard's deployment in an unfamiliar role and the attention paid to both Kelce and Hill led to the sight of a quarterback who was unstoppable in the Divisional Round running backwards as the pocket collapsed in a vain effort to produce explosive plays that were not there.

Mahomes had done an excellent job down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs of being patient and taking what the defense gave him. In the second half against Cincinnati, the Bengals afforded him no options, and that patience ran out.

Rams give no room to run

The Rams did not need to lure Garoppolo into the bad decision, as Los Angeles knew that, with enough pressure on the much-maligned 49ers quarterback, a mistake is always on the horizon.

Los Angeles only pressured Garoppolo 12 times, but the pass rush came at the ideal time in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter as Aaron Donald and Co. took advantage of a banged-up offensive line when it mattered most.

The level of joy the Rams enjoyed late on was in part a result of their success in defending the run.

With the scoreboard turning rapidly in Los Angeles' favour, San Francisco became one-dimensional having been consistently stymied by the Rams' run defense.

The often dominant 49ers running game was held to 2.5 yards per carry, putting the emphasis on Garoppolo and his O-Line to deliver.

Niners tight end Kittle explained San Francisco's struggles running the ball were down to the Rams employing a new wrinkle in blitzing the A and B gaps when the 49ers went in motion, leading to stacked boxes.

As Kittle put it: "It's hard to run the ball when there are nine guys in the box."

After erasing the Niners' 10-point lead, the Rams' defense could go in attack mode with the ground game shut down and no reason to fear the opposing quarterback.

Given the struggles of the Bengals' offensive line, a similar approach could well be used in the Super Bowl.

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