Manchester City saw their main rivals for the Premier League title get off to a flying start on Saturday before the champions stumbled at Tottenham on Sunday.

Son Heung-min continued his phenomenal recent record against City with the only goal, while Pep Guardiola's men drew a blank for a third consecutive game in all competitions. Perhaps there's someone in north London who could help them out with that?

Manchester United and European champions Chelsea revelled back in front of full houses and Liverpool gave newly-promoted Norwich City a reality check.

But those are the bare facts. Let's delve a little deeper to examine some of the quirkier happenings on the Premier League's opening weekend.

Stumbling start for City

Guardiola suggested his stars returning from Euro 2020 and Copa America duty might be undercooked and so it proved. The 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium puts City in territory they are not used to.

You have to go back to 2008-09 and a 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa for the previous time City lost their opening Premier League fixture.

In that same campaign, Guardiola's fledgling Barcelona tenure got off to an inauspicious start with a reverse against Numancia that indicated little of the treble win that was about to unfold. The Catalan had overseen 11 subsequent opening day wins since then.

Perhaps it was always going to be Spurs who halted his run, Guardiola has now lost more away games against Tottenham (five) in all competitions than any other opponent in his career.

It is also worth considering whether he is chasing the wrong Spurs forward. Only Jamie Vardy (nine) has more than Son's seven goals against City since Guardiola took charge in 2016.

It has arguably never been easier to be a pass-catcher in the NFL.

Living in a golden era of quarterback play with a host of phenomenal athletes entering the league and confounding defenses with what they can do with both their arms and legs, receivers and tight ends continually benefit from sharing the field with signal-callers who can extend the play and complete tight-window throws with outstanding ball placement almost at will.

But the best supporting casts can elevate those quarterbacks to even greater heights while those passers who lack elite talent around them at receiver and tight end can struggle to fulfil their potential as a result.

Which pass-catching groups should provide the most assistance to their quarterbacks in 2021? And which will leave the man under center poorly equipped to succeed?

Using Stats Perform's advanced data, every group of wideouts and tight ends in the NFL has been ranked by their collective open percentage from 2020, providing an insight into the best and worst pass-catching units in the league going into the new campaign.

The Elite

1. Green Bay Packers

Green Bay will have Aaron Rodgers under center at least for one more year, and the reigning MVP will have the benefit of the best supporting cast of pass-catchers in football, a group that combined to record an open percentage of 36 in 2020.

The player who did the most to inflate that number is undoubtedly Davante Adams. Arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, Adams' adjusted open percentage – which looks at how often a player got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position – of 51.97 was second only to Julian Edelman (52.13 per cent).

Adams registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, regardless of whether the pass is catchable, on just over 70 per cent of his targets, and his burn yards per route average of 3.9 was the best among wideouts last season.

Though Adams did the heavy lifting, there were signs of improvement from the players behind him on the depth chart. Allen Lazard led all receivers with a burn percentage of 82.6 and was 10th in adjusted open percentage (46.55) in 2020.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling (23.32) was less impressive in the latter regard but was second in burn yards per target (18.96). Only one team, the Buffalo Bills, got a larger contribution to their collective open percentage from their wideouts, but the Packers were 12th in terms of tight end production, indicating room for improvement at that spot even after a year in which Robert Tonyan averaged 11.71 burn yards per target.

2. Buffalo Bills

The Bills finished below the Packers in the rankings with an open percentage of 34.54 because of the lack of the contribution from the tight end position, which was the eighth lowest in the league, with Dawson Knox still yet to truly harness the athletic upside that helped convince the Bills to draft him in 2019.

His adjusted open percentage of 27.86 was mediocre but there was encouragement in his burn yards per target average of 10.45 that was 11th among tight ends with at least 25 targets.

Though the Bills might not be convinced by what they have at tight end, few teams in the NFL can claim to have the same level of depth at wide receiver.

The Bills have three receivers on their depth chart who were in the top 25 in adjusted open percentage last year – Cole Beasley (48.30), Stefon Diggs (42.68) and Emmanuel Sanders (41.16) – while Gabriel Davis produced an extremely promising rookie year, finishing 17th in burn yards per target with 13.45, giving Josh Allen a plethora of options with which to try to sustain his year-three leap.

Diggs, who expediently built a tremendous rapport with Allen following last year's trade from the Minnesota Vikings, is the cream of the crop. He trailed only Adams in burn yards per route in 2020 with an average of 3.6.

With the benefit of a full offseason to further their understanding, that Allen to Diggs connection could yet be more devastating in 2021. And, when teams do succeed in keeping Diggs under wraps, chances are another of this group of skilled separators will be able to create the space to keep a high-powered passing game operating at a level that was critical to the Bills joining the AFC's elite.

3. Dallas Cowboys

When Dak Prescott was healthy last season, the Cowboys offense performed at a record-setting pace, which is perhaps no surprise given the wealth of options they have among their pass-catchers.

Through the first four weeks of the 2020 campaign before Prescott suffered his season-ending ankle injury, the Cowboys led the league with 407.8 net passing yards per game. The closest team to them, the Bills, averaged 316.3 across the same period.

Whether that pace would have been sustainable even with Prescott under center is debatable, yet there is no doubt he has the weapons for this attack to be extremely potent again in 2021.

The Cowboys' pass-catchers had a collective open percentage of 31.69 to rank third overall, with Amari Cooper a significant factor in their success, Dallas' top receiver fourth in the NFL in adjusted open percentage (49.61).

Cooper recorded a second successive 1,000-yard season but tallied 12.1 yards per reception having racked up 15.1 per catch in 2019. His burn yards per route rate of 2.3 fell from 3.0 in 2019 and was the average for wideouts last year. Though that may be reflective of the drop-off from Prescott to Andy Dalton, Cooper will surely want to do more with the separation he can create in 2021.

Encouragingly, last year's first-round pick CeeDee Lamb (2.5) outperformed Cooper in the latter regard despite Prescott's absence and there is reason to believe Michael Gallup can bounce back from a down season where his adjusted open percentage was still a highly respectable 33.53.

Only 12 teams got less of a contribution to their overall open percentage from the tight end position than the Cowboys, an injury to Blake Jarwin curtailing his hopes of a breakout 2020. If Jarwin can stay healthy and boost the production from a spot where the Cowboys have long since struggled and Lamb makes the leap many expect, Dallas' pass-catching corps could lay the foundation for a postseason return.

The Bottom

30. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are hopeful Tua Tagovailoa can put an uneven rookie year behind him, but questions must be asked as to whether they have put enough around him at the pass-catching positions to allow him to make the necessary strides.

Indeed, Miami's group of pass-catchers goes into the 2021 ranked as the third worst in the NFL with a collective open percentage of 25.17.

Will Fuller leads the way with an adjusted open percentage of 38.29, yet he will miss the first game of the season through suspension and his injury track record makes the Dolphins' bet on him a very risky one.

Fuller was eighth among receivers with at least 25 targets with 14.08 burn yards per target, but the Dolphins will obviously need more than an oft-injured burner for their passing game to succeed.

The Dolphins recognised that fact and made a move to address the situation in the draft by adding another speedster who boasts a rapport with Tagovailoa from his Alabama days, using the sixth overall pick on Jaylen Waddle.

A broken ankle limited him to 32 targets in 2020, but Waddle led the Power 5 with an average of 19.96 burn yards per target and was third in burn yards per route (5.60) among receivers with at least 25 targets.

The 2019 season saw Waddle finish seventh in burn yards per target (16.64) on 40 targets for the Crimson Tide, yet his arrival does not lessen the pressure on DeVante Parker.

Parker finished 2020 with only 793 yards having topped 1,200 in 2019 and posted an adjusted open percentage of only 27.14, his burn yards per target rate of 9.45 well below the average of 10.98.

The Dolphins are relying on a bounce-back year from Parker, an instant impact from Waddle and consistency from a player in Fuller whose injury history has kept him from producing it to this point in his career.

Beyond that, Miami could use a significantly greater contribution from their tight ends, with Mike Gesicki's adjusted open percentage of 23.71 in 2020 a big reason why only 10 teams ranked lower than the Dolphins in terms of contribution from the position.

That is a lot to ask of one group of players and the reality is the Dolphins might have to look to another position group to help them take the next step towards playoff contention.

31. Chicago Bears

The Bears seemingly won't be throwing Justin Fields straight into the firing line as a rookie, and part of that decision may be influenced by the lack of receiving talent around him, which is reflected by an overall open percentage of 25.08

Regardless of whether it is Fields or fellow new face Dalton throwing the ball, they will likely be farming most of their passes in the direction of two receivers.

Allen Robinson (34.29) is the sole Bears pass-catcher who had an adjusted open percentage of over 30 last year, though Darnell Mooney (27.75) was not far off achieving that feat and is backed by many to make the leap in 2021.

Robinson's 2.5 burn yards per route put him slightly above average but the Bears did not add the support to suggest he could join the elite in that category this season.

Damiere Byrd averaged 11.76 burn yards per target in his sole season in New England before signing with the Bears but is unlikely to strike fear into defenses and it is tough to envision a substantial impact from rookie sixth-round pick Dazz Newsome despite his open percentage of 87.1 in his final college season at North Carolina.

With the Bears 15th in the league in contribution from tight ends, the onus will be on 2020 second-round pick Cole Kmet to take more of the burden from 34-year-old Jimmy Graham.

Kmet can look to build on a rookie season where he ranked 12th among tight ends with a minimum of 25 targets with a burn percentage of 68.2. His ability to repay the faith of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy may go some way to potentially saving their jobs.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

Only one rookie quarterback has a worse situation than Fields in terms of supporting pass-catchers, and it is the man who heard his named called first in April's draft.

Trevor Lawrence will get to work with a group of pass-catchers with a combined open percentage of 24.65, with just two teams performing worse in terms of tight end contribution to that collective grade.

Collin Johnson (30.47) and D.J. Chark (30.33) are the only pass-catchers on the roster with adjusted open percentages of over 30 from last year, the former providing some reason for optimism courtesy of his above-average burn yards per target rate of 11.25.

Johnson built a decent argument for receiving more than the 31 targets thrown his way last season, yet he may still find himself near the bottom of the pecking order.

More will be expected from 2020 second-round pick Laviska Shenault after he produced a burn on only 53.2 percent of his targets despite an average of depth of target of 6.5 yards, but he and Johnson may be prevented from making strides if Marvin Jones earns an established role in the offense.

Though Jones fell 22 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season for the Lions last year, he posted an adjusted open percentage of 25.05 and averaged 2.2 burn yards per route. Is he a player who can help this group progress or, at this stage in his career, is the 31-year-old a progress stopper?

The hope will be that Jones' familiarity with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can help him provide a valuable veteran safety net for Lawrence, whose immediate success hinges on Urban Meyer's untested ability to develop a quarterback at the pro level and the rest of the Jags' pass-catchers making a jump that recent history indicates should not be expected.

On The Rise

Denver Broncos

So much in Denver hinges on who prevails in the quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. The early reports from training camp suggest the scales may be tipping in the latter's direction and Bridgewater will have one of the most exciting groups of pass-catchers in the league to work with should he indeed win the battle.

The Broncos' lowly position of 22nd in overall open percentage was likely in part a product of being robbed of Courtland Sutton for most of the 2020 campaign due to his torn ACL.

With Sutton on the sideline, Jerry Jeudy produced a rookie season to suggest he can be a star for the Broncos for years to come, leading the team with an adjusted open percentage of 38.21.

Renowned for his route-running ability, Jeudy averaged 2.6 burn yards per route and 11.44 burn yards per target with an average depth of target of 14.6, indicating he consistently won matchups on downfield routes, though he will hope to reduce the drops after letting eight passes slip through his fingers.

The return of Sutton should divert coverage away from Jeudy and the Broncos also have other options who can command the attention of defenses.

Tim Patrick (32.72) was second on the team behind Jeudy in adjusted open percentage but led Broncos receivers by producing a big play on 33.8 per cent of his targets. Noah Fant was ninth among tight ends with 50 or more targets in burn yards per target (9.92) and he and Albert Okwuegbunam have a convincing argument for being the league's most athletic duo at the position.

In a division containing Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr, the Broncos look desperately short at quarterback. However, if Sutton is back to his best coming off the injury and the tight ends further capitalise on their physical gifts, the Broncos may end 2021 with the top pass-catching group in the AFC West.

Washington Football Team

Washington made the playoffs in 2020 despite a losing record, highlighting the lack of quality in the NFC East, and despite extremely pedestrian quarterback play throughout the season that limited the upside of a talented receiving corps.

Washington's pass-catchers go into the new season with only seven teams below them in collective open percentage (27.75) but there is reason to believe they should make significant progress this campaign.

In 2021, while Washington might get unpredictability at quarterback, there is likely to be little pedestrian about the passing game if free agent signing Ryan Fitzpatrick takes the reins under center. He produced a well-thrown ball on nearly 80 per cent of his passes in 2020 but his pickable pass percentage of 6.82 was the third highest in the NFL.

Steven Sims Jr. was Washington's best performer in terms of adjusted open percentage (41.4), though Terry McLaurin (37.20) is undoubtedly the premier receiving option. McLaurin's burn yards per route dropped from 3.4 in 2019 to 2.9 in 2020, but that still saw him outperform the likes of DK Metcalf (2.8) and Chris Godwin (2.7) in a year where he registered his first 1,000-yard campaign.

With improved if volatile quarterback play and more dynamic options around him, McLaurin will have expectations of performing at a more efficient level this season.

Curtis Samuel can stretch defenses horizontally with what he can do out of the backfield and in the motion game, while rookie Dyami Brown offers a substantial deep threat whose burn yards per target average of 17.30 was second behind Waddle among Power 5 receivers last season.

The presence of that duo will theoretically make life much easier for McLaurin and allow the pass-catchers to help this offense provide much better support to Washington's elite defense.

A greater impact from the tight end position would aid that cause. Logan Thomas, recently signed to an extension, finished 2020 with an adjusted open percentage of only 19.66, making Washington's presence in the bottom five in tight end contribution unsurprising.

San Francisco 49ers

As is the case for essentially the entirety of the Niners' roster, the performance of their pass-catchers in 2021 is a question of health. San Francisco may not have overly impressive depth at wideout or tight end but, when healthy, the 49ers arguably boast one of the most exciting receiving trios in the NFL.

The Niners' pass-catchers rank 16th in collective open percentage following their injury-derailed 6-10 campaign in 2020, yet the talent is there for them to experience a substantial step forward and move into the top 10.

Only one team got more from the tight end position in terms of influence on overall open percentage, with George Kittle still demonstrating his remarkable value to the 49ers last season despite missing half the season.

Kittle excels at using his athleticism and his route-running to separate from defenders, these qualities borne out by a 2020 adjusted open percentage of 45.09 that was first among tight ends and 12th overall. He also led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route.

Deebo Samuel spent more than half the season playing the role of spectator, meaning he rarely had a chance to produce in the same manner as in 2019 – when he delivered a big play on 41.5 per cent of his targets – and recorded a disappointing adjusted open percentage of 23.85.

Samuel still managed 3.0 burn yards per route in a year where the limitations of the backup quarterbacks pressed into service meant he received passes almost exclusively in the backfield – his average depth target of 2.3 yards was the lowest among wide receivers.

With either Jimmy Garoppolo or third overall pick Trey Lance set to be under center in 2021, Samuel can afford to be confident of receiving more downfield targets this season and will look to benefit from getting to play alongside Brandon Aiyuk more often.

Aiyuk was second for the Niners in adjusted open percentage (30.57) and 33.1 per cent of his targets went for big plays.

Beyond that triumvirate, Richie James, though he has not impressed so far in preseason, appears worthy of an expanded role having ended 2020 sixth in burn yards per target for wideouts with an average of 16.30. Yet, for all the deserved attention on San Francisco's quarterback position, the success of the Kyle Shanahan offense this season will hinge largely on the ability of Kittle, Samuel and Aiyuk to stay healthy and make the most of their combined talents.

Paris Saint-Germain had last played in front of a full Parc des Princes on February 29 last year, a 4-0 win over Dijon. It's unlikely many fans in attendance on that day would have contemplated the idea of Lionel Messi being present upon their next visit.

Yet despite Messi not actually being involved, his presence was certainly felt.

The Barcelona great – like the rest of PSG's new signings – was paraded on the pitch before kick-off of Saturday's visit of Strasbourg, simultaneously setting fans' tongues wagging and surely leaving Ligue 1 defenders quaking in their boots, if they weren't already.

As Messi stood there with a big grin on his face, arm around Sergio Ramos of all people, the sheer nonsense of the situation just set in a little more. Previously two pillars of arguably the most famous rivalry in world football, now they're both party to the same 'galactico' project in Paris.

Understandably, the pre-match show helped stir up an incredible atmosphere, and it all seemed to rub off on the players as well, with PSG 3-0 up inside 27 minutes.

But if there was one thing PSG's eventual 4-2 victory suggested, it was that Ramos' arrival is arguably the more important of the two transfers.

After all, Messi wasn't the only one of their soon-to-be first-choice front three absent; Neymar was sat up in the stands next to him, owing to lack of fitness following his Copa America exploits.

But they still had Kylian Mbappe out strutting his stuff, seemingly relishing all eyes being on him, the France superstar tormenting the Strasbourg defence relentlessly with his direct running and astonishing pace.

Perhaps it was a taste of what life might be like at Real Madrid should he choose not to renew in Paris; he was the main man and the star of the show, whereas he'll soon have to share the spotlight with not just Neymar but his old Barcelona pal as well.

That's not to say Mbappe looked anything other than focused on where he was, in what was his 150th Ligue 1 appearance.

 

Soon after Mauro Icardi – another big name, though one who'll likely be reduced to a back-up role – nodded PSG in front in just the third minute, Mbappe carved open the Strasbourg defence with a disguised pass in from the left, though it was ultimately a little too deceptive as it even caught Georginio Wijnaldum flat-footed.

He was then in the thick of the action as PSG went 2-0 up, cutting in from the left and hammering a ferocious effort that went in off Ludovic Ajorque, and Mbappe did much of the damage to make it 3-0, too.

Stepover. Shimmy. Another stepover and then an explosion of pace. He made himself the tiniest bit of space to squeeze a left-footed cross into the danger zone and Julian Draxler was on hand to tap in.

Mbappe somehow failed to add another himself, shooting at Matz Sels twice after the break. The second of which, in the 62nd minute, was a particularly strong opportunity with an expected goals (xG) value of 0.35 – the one he created for Draxler was 0.90.

By that point Strasbourg had already been given some encouragement, with Kevin Gameiro capitalising on the shoddy awareness of Achraf Hakimi and Thilo Kehrer in the 53rd minute to ghost between them and head in.

Then, swiftly after Mbappe's second miss, Ajorque made a mockery of Presnel Kimpembe as he slashed the deficit to one goal with an emphatic header that also left Keylor Navas helpless.

 

For a significant part of the second half, Strasbourg looked the better team. PSG had seemingly become comfortable with their lead and that complacency was being capitalised on by the visitors.

But two yellow cards in quick succession for Alexander Djiku essentially spelled game over for Strasbourg, and PSG made it 4-2 soon after through Pablo Sarabia.

Majeed Waris should have pulled one back, his shot into the side-netting seeing him waste a chance with an xG value of 0.38, making it the worst miss of the day.

 

Mauricio Pochettino's men ultimately survived this scare, but their second-half drop-off will have been a real worry for the head coach and his staff – had Strasbourg got the score back to 3-3, it would have been utterly humiliating.

While this was of course a PSG without Marquinhos, their defensive frailty and seeming arrogance when thinking the game was won had Ramos' signing looking like an absolute necessity.

After the very wholesome and, well, very Arsenal scenes at the Brentford Community Stadium on Friday, a little bit of the other side of football with fans landed in Manchester for the resumption of a simmering and bitter rivalry.

Running scraps between Manchester United and Leeds United supporters in the city centre, including one clobbering another with a bin. The Leeds contingent not so politely enquiring over the identity of new signing Raphael Varane as he was paraded to the Old Trafford faithful, who then burst into a hearty rendition of, "We all hate Leeds scum!" inside 20 seconds.

Nature is healing.

Of course, novelty becoming normality with all its warts is something everyone can broadly get behind after the past 18 months. Ideally without WWE re-enactments using waste disposal facilities, but you play the cards you're dealt.

Another familiar narrative as the masses returned to the Stretford End was Paul Pogba's future in Manchester and how uneasily it sat. Once again, the France midfielder was reported to be keen on a move away from the club he re-joined for £89.3million in 2016 – a fee only overtaken as a British record by Jack Grealish's switch to Manchester City earlier this month. Once again, he appears to be going nowhere.

Lionel Messi's arrival means there is no longer enough elasticity in the Paris Saint-Germain books to bring Pogba to the French capital, leaving him to make the best of a curious status within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Jadon Sancho is the new headline signing and Bruno Fernandes' bottomless well of goals and assists has led some to idly question whether Pogba would be missed that much.

But, aside from both being attacking midfielders, they are elite players of different and contrasting qualities. When those talents mesh as they did in United's riotous 5-1 win over their foes from the other side of the Pennines, they suggest the most obvious route to quenching a four-season trophy drought.

The difference in approach was highlighted by two first-half one on ones, with such openings always on the agenda due to a porous Leeds midfield that badly missed Kalvin Phillips at its base.

In the 27th minute, after Mason Greenwood snaffled a loose ball in the centre circle, Pogba was sent clear. His stepover worked an angle to beat countryman IIlan Meslier in the Leeds goal and he clipped a left-footed finish just wide.

Had it gone in, it would have been a beautiful finish, every bit as attractive as the throughball with which Pogba released Fernandes three minutes later. The Portugal star mashed a shot towards goal that bounced off Meslier and spun in. Fernandes lacks Pogba's aesthetics but he gets things done and relentlessly so.

Luke Ayling's blistering 48th-minute equaliser gave us a more agreeable instance of top bins and could have been a pivot point in the contest. Well, it was. Just not the one you might have expected.

For once, there seemed to be little danger when Pogba collected possession inside the United half in the 52nd minute, but the pass with which he brought Ayling back down to earth and sent Greenwood scampering away to finish via the post was a piece of implausible perfection.

Fernandes made it 3-1, clumping a shot into a crowded goalmouth that Ayling cleared from behind the line. Not pretty, but no matter.

Pogba now had a hat-trick of assists and his partner in crime claimed the matchball as he thundered home Victor Lindelof's raking pass. Beauty but of a more visceral kind than Pogba typically deals in.

Twenty minutes on from Ayling's leveller, Fred made it 5-1 and Pogba had gorged himself to surpass his Premier League assists tally of three from 2020-21 in a single lunchtime.

He departed to a standing ovation as the new hero Sancho entered the fray alongside Anthony Martial. Once the England winger is up to full fitness and Marcus Rashford returns from shoulder surgery, it will be fascinating to see what configuration Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opts for.

Granting Pogba the roving role from the left flank that allowed him to decimate Leeds would leave a couple of high-profile wide attackers disgruntled most weeks.

There could be changes in formation, with Saturday's 4-2-3-1 wheeled out as much by necessity as design. But Pogba's six passes to Fernandes were more than he made to any United team-mate and look what that led to.

A deeper role for the Frenchman when the other attackers return would be the easy call, but why sever an alliance that looked utterly unplayable here? The start of Fernandes' story at Old Trafford once looked like it might be the end of Pogba's. They should be allowed the chance to script something far more compelling in tandem.

Raphael Varane's move to Manchester United has finally gone through.

United confirmed at the end of July that they had reached an agreement with Real Madrid to purchase the France centre-back for a fee believed to be in the region of £42.7million (€50m).

Varane had one year left on his contract with Madrid, who have been looking to trim their squad due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having moved to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2011, Varane has won three LaLiga titles and the Champions League on four occasions.

He racked up over 350 appearances for Los Blancos and arrives at Old Trafford as one of the world's finest defenders. Indeed, Varane has played 79 times for France, winning the World Cup in 2018 before featuring in all four of Les Bleus' games at Euro 2020.

With his switch to United now official, Stats Perform used Opta data to assess just what he can bring to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's defence.

 

FRONT-FOOT DEFENDING AND AERIAL DOMINANCE

In the absence of Sergio Ramos for much of last season, Varane ranked second among Madrid defenders in terms of both duels won (110) and interceptions (36) in LaLiga.

His aerial presence also came to the fore – with the former Lens man registering 72.3 successful aerial duels, more than double the figure that any of his fellow Madrid defenders managed.

Out of LaLiga defenders to contest 20 or more aerial battles last term, Varane led the way with a 76 per cent success rate.

Combined with Harry Maguire's ability when it comes to winning headers, United seem set to have a centre-back pairing which can dominate in both boxes.

Perhaps surprisingly given Maguire's aerial power, United conceded a total of 14 set-piece goals in the Premier League last season, a tally surpassed only by Leeds United (15) – the Red Devils' first opponents of 2021-22.

Varane would seem to immediately offer a greater impact in this regard than Victor Lindelof, who won just 59.4 per cent of the aerials he went up for in 2020-21, while Maguire won 72.9 per cent of his tussles in the air.

When compared per 90 minutes played, Varane won 2.4 aerial duels across all competitions as opposed to Lindelof's tally of 1.8.

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

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

THE BEST FORM OF ATTACK IS... DEFENCE?

Another flaw in United's backline was that they often looked cumbersome when Maguire and Lindelof were up against direct runners.

Varane will add some much-needed pace, and that extra speed should – in theory – enable United to push further upfield: their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their goal last season was deeper than six other Premier League sides.

A higher line would make attacking easier and perhaps keep the opposition shot count down. United faced 317 in 2020-21, more than Arsenal, Wolves, Brighton and Hove Albion, and relegated Fulham. Limiting attempts on goal would also reduce the pressure on the goalkeeper, as David de Gea and Dean Henderson, who is still recovering from coronavirus, continue to battle for the number-one spot.

Varane also offers a tactical bonus, to which Solskjaer has already hinted: he can play comfortably enough in a back three.

Maguire, Varane and Lindelof would represent an imposing rearguard and allow the rejuvenated Luke Shaw to push up as a wing-back. If United's pursuit of Kieran Trippier proves fruitful, even better. A 3-4-1-2 would give Solskjaer that balance of defensive security without compromising too much on attacking quality, which could be essential for the biggest derbies, knockout games or cup finals.

ON THE BALL

In terms of possession, there is not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt.

The Sweden international – who has a wicked long pass in his arsenal – averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

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

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

LaLiga has seen a lot of upheaval over the past few months, none more so than since the start of August as Lionel Messi's future unravelled.

This will be the first season that LaLiga has been without Messi since 2003-04, and as such there are plenty of people suggesting Spain's top tier has subsequently lost much of its appeal.

Be that as it may, even with spending significantly limited among clubs this year, there are still some interesting new arrivals to LaLiga.

Below, Stats Perform uses Opta data to look at five of them…

Memphis Depay, forward - Barcelona, free transfer from Lyon

Granted, Barcelona's rocky financial situation means it is yet to be confirmed if Depay will be registered for the start of the season.

But assuming Depay is involved as Barca begin the campaign against Real Sociedad, he will be under pressure to help make up for the loss of Messi.

His record at Lyon at least shows he should carry a threat, and in theory he will be surrounded by better players at Camp Nou.

Depay scored 76 goals in 178 appearances for Lyon after joining from Manchester United in January 2017 and enjoyed a particularly impressive final season in Ligue 1, finishing with 20 goals to trail only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27).

 

The former PSV youth product's 12 assists and 94 chances created were more than any other player managed in France's top flight in 2020-21.

In all competitions, meanwhile, Depay scored 22 goals last term at an average of one goal every 141.5 minutes, making it his second-best season since arriving.

He massively exceeded his expected goals (xG) tally of 12.38, so perhaps he shouldn't be expected to be quite as prolific, but if he can reach double figures in goals and assists once again, Depay would have to be considered a shrewd signing.

David Alaba, centre-back - Real Madrid, free transfer from Bayern Munich

It has been a difficult few months for Madrid. While caught up in plenty of off-field controversy, they have also lost the centre-back partnership that guided them to so much success. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, as well as their former head coach Zinedine Zidane, are no longer around.

The one signing Madrid have managed to bring in does at least offset one of those losses, as Alaba will offer experience, versatility and all-round quality at centre-back. After all, he made 298 Bundesliga appearances for Bayern, and a player does not reach such figures without being excellent.

 

He helped Bayern keep 111 clean sheets across those games, did not receive a single red card in the league, and made only two errors leading to goals in the competition, according to Opta data.

Bayern team-mate Thomas Muller is the only other player in Bundesliga history to have won 10 titles, and Bayern had counted on Alaba as their Mr Dependable. Carlo Ancelotti will hope he can form a great partnership with Eder Militao.

Rodrigo De Paul, central midfielder - Atletico Madrid, €35m from Udinese

While Diego Simeone has perhaps been a bit hit and miss when it comes to making the most of creative talents, De Paul appears to be ideal schemer for his new coach.

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A.

Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

 

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area which highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

Jose Macias, striker - Getafe, on loan (with purchase option) from Guadalajara

It is fair to say Getafe are not particularly one of LaLiga's most-fashionable sides. Under Jose Bordalas they were more renowned for their aggression and physical style of play, though new boss Michel has significantly different ideas.

In theory, that should immediately make them a more likable proposition for the neutral, and the signing of Macias will only add to the intrigue.

The 21-year-old Mexico international had been linked with numerous clubs with greater status than Getafe, such as Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, but Los Azulones pulled off something of a coup in bringing him to the Coliseum Alfonso Perez on loan with an option to buy.

 

Macias is the first forward that Guadalajara have sold to a European side since Javier Hernandez left for Manchester United in 2010 and he heads to Spain having netted 12 times in the most recent Mexican Apertura and Clausura campaigns.

His 20 shots on target in the 2021 Clausura was the most by a Mexican player, though it was during a loan spell with Leon where Macias really announced himself, netting 24 times in 38 Liga MX matches.

He didn't quite hit those heights again upon returning to Guadalajara, so the jury is still out to a degree, but there is lots of potential for Getafe to tap into.

Yusuf Demir, winger - Barcelona, €500k loan fee (€10m purchase option) from Rapid Vienna

Barcelona fans need not fear life without Messi, for they have signed the 'Austrian Messi'… or something like that.

Obviously that is a fair bit of pressure for an 18-year-old to have, particularly given he was initially signed for the B team, but he's produced some positive performances in pre-season for the senior side and arrived from Rapid with a burgeoning reputation.

While Demir only started in six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga appearances (825 minutes) last season, he finished the campaign with a highly respectable seven goal involvements, which averages out at one every 117.9 minutes – only 10 players to play at least 825 minutes had a better record.

Despite only getting the one assist, Demir was a regular source of creativity when he did feature, as highlighted by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth highest among those to play at least 825 minutes.

 

But arguably his most notable asset, and the one that inspires the comparison with Messi, is his ability on the ball.

A dynamic and exciting player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles per 90 minutes on average, a figure matched by no one who featured for more than 108 minutes last term.

Similarly, he was successful with 3.8 dribble attempts per game, which was also a league high. It was that kind of flair that helped him realise a childhood dream by moving to Camp Nou, and he could have a more prominent role than he may have initially predicted upon his arrival.

If the coming LaLiga campaign can match the previous few months for drama, an epic is in store.

The 2021-22 season gets under way this weekend with Spanish football still reeling from Lionel Messi's remarkable Barcelona departure.

The move to Paris Saint-Germain leaves one of LaLiga's grandest clubs without its talisman, while rivals Real Madrid have also seen their captain depart for the French capital on a free transfer.

Where does that leave defending champions Atletico Madrid and the rest heading into the opening weekend? Stats Perform takes a look.

CHAOS IN CATALONIA

Barca still have plenty of world-class players and will this season be able to count on Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Antoine Griezmann and, they hope, Memphis Depay.

But the shocking nature of Messi's exit is going to be tough to move on from, even if the club's dire financial situation does not prevent Depay and the Blaugrana's other new signings from being registered.

Messi either attempted (196) or created (77) 46.8 per cent of Barca's 583 shots in 2020-21 – and he missed three games – so Ronald Koeman's side are going to have to completely change the way they play.

He was already missed when out through injury – Barca won 73.7 per cent of the 520 league games in which Messi featured for the club but just 56.7 per cent of the 120 he did not – and that issue is not going away now.

MADRID COPE WITH CHANGE

Money is tight at Madrid too, but Los Blancos have faced that reality, cutting back spending and agreeing the departures of high earners like Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

Despite Zinedine Zidane's exit, they also look in better shape on the pitch on the eve of the new campaign.

Madrid ended last season unbeaten in 18, the best ongoing run in the competition, with only frustrating late-season draws with Getafe, Real Betis and Sevilla – all in the space of five games – leaving them two points shy of Atletico.

They have gone for a familiar face with a proven track record to replace Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti returning after winning 75 per cent of the league games in his first Madrid stint – trailing only Jose Mourinho (76 per cent win rate) among Madrid coaches to oversee 50 matches or more.

ATLETI AT THE TOP

It is a strange phenomenon for Atleti to be both top of the league and not the target of constant transfer enquiries.

Their key men are unlikely to be poached while Barca and Madrid are so short of cash, with the Blaugrana instead reportedly pursuing a deal going the other way, with Griezmann returning to the Wanda Metropolitano.

The development with Messi appears to have put that idea to bed, and Atleti instead spent the week before the season agreeing new contracts for defensive stars.

Those clubs on the outside of the title race looking in are enjoying unfamiliar comforts too, with Europa League winners Villarreal keeping their best players – including Gerard Moreno, whose 23 goals only trailed Messi – and Real Sociedad bringing back the same team that finished fifth.

Unless Ancelotti quickly restores an ageing Madrid side to past glories, this season could be wide open at the summit.

Julian Nagelsmann has long seemed destined to be Bayern Munich coach, and the 34-year-old now has his chance after succeeding Hansi Flick.

He has a lot to live up to. Flick, in his 18-month tenure, Flick led Bayern to two Bundesliga titles, one DFB-Pokal, a Champions League triumph, Club World Cup glory, the DFL-Supercup and the UEFA Super Cup – a remarkable seven trophies.

While Nagelsmann settles into life in the hottest of coaching seats in Germany, his former team RB Leipzig will look to finally make a title challenge last, this time under new coach Jesse Marsch.

Borussia Dortmund scraped into the Champions League places thanks to a super run late in the season, and now Marco Rose will look to build on their DFB-Pokal success in his first season in charge.

Just what can we expect from each of Germany's big three in 2021-22?


Bayern Munich

Bayern ultimately claimed their ninth successive Bundesliga title with ease last term and Robert Lewandowski was once again the driving force. He had to wait until the last kick of the last day, but he finally broke Gerd Muller's long-standing Bundesliga record of 41 goals in a single campaign.

Unsurprisingly, Bayern scored the most goals in Germany's top tier in 2020-21, netting 99 times across their 34 fixtures. Their tally of 483 chances was also by far the most in the division, 54 ahead of second-ranked Leipzig (429) in that regard, though they conceded 44 times while the Leipzig defence under Nagelsmann was the stingiest, with only 32 goals conceded. 

Bayern averaged 65.39 per cent possession and had 1,304 touches in the opposition box, over 400 more than any other side.

However, Nagelsmann does have to contend with the loss of some players who have been crucial to Bayern's dominance. David Alaba has joined Real Madrid, while fellow stalwarts Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng also left on free transfers.

Dayot Upamecano has made the same switch from Leipzig as Nagelsmann, and the young centre-back adds pace and dynamism to Bayern's backline. Other than that, the squad remains largely the same, with Sven Ulreich having returned after a spell at Hamburg, while Omar Richards arrived on a free transfer from Reading.

Even without much more in the way of incomings, it is difficult to see Bayern letting the chance to make it 10 titles in a row slip from their grasp.

 

Dortmund

Last season was a difficult campaign for Dortmund, but it was one which ultimately ended successfully. They clinched Champions League qualification and ran riot against Leipzig to lift the DFB-Pokal.

It was a fine parting gift from Edin Terzic, who took over on an interim basis after Lucien Favre was relieved of his duties, and now Rose – whose Borussia Monchengladbach team slumped in the back half of the season and missed out on Europe – will look to reshape Dortmund in his own way.

Renowned for attacking, front-foot football, Rose's style, if all goes to plan, is bound to be a hit with the Dortmund fans upon their return to Signal Iduna Park.

Dortmund may have sold Jadon Sancho, but they still have Norway sensation Erling Haaland, who scored 27 Bundesliga goals last season from 93 attempts, giving him a shot conversion rate of 29.03 per cent, the third-highest in the league out of players to have scored 10 or more times.

Donyell Malen has arrived as Sancho's replacement, and Rose has already been talking up the Netherlands youngster, while goalkeeper Gregor Kobel has arrived from Stuttgart. Like Bayern, Dortmund said goodbye to a club legend in the form of Lukasz Piszczek, but with Marco Reus, Thorgan Hazard, Malen and Haaland complemented by the likes of Julian Brandt and Jude Bellingham, there should be plenty of cause for optimism.

It might well be Haaland's final season at the club, and you would not put it past the youngster, who also set up six goals last term, to propel Dortmund into the title race, back where they belong.

 

RB Leipzig

There are plenty of quality teams competing with the three leading lights, and it would certainly not be surprising to see Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt or Gladbach mount a serious push for Champions League football.

However, Leipzig have well and truly established themselves as a Champions League regular now, and will be looking to Marsch, who has made the transition from sister club Salzburg, to continue Nagelsmann's work.

Leipzig sold Timo Werner to Chelsea in 2020, and netting just 60 times, they clearly missed the striker. Indeed, midfielder Marcel Sabitzer, with eight goals, was their leading scorer, with forwards Alexander Sorloth and Yussuf Poulsen only managing five each.

In Andre Silva, signed from Frankfurt, Leipzig have a forward who scored more than Haaland in the Bundesliga last season, with the Portugal international finding the net 28 times in 32 appearances.

Silva boasted an impressive 'big chance', as defined by Opta, conversion rate of 55 per cent, while only Lewandowski (137) had more than the former Milan man's 117 attempts. Dani Olmo and Christopher Nkunku – who supplied nine and six assists respectively last season – can provide the creativity, with Poulsen and Sorloth able to offer Marsch a variety of attacking options. Caden Clark, who is starring in MLS, will arrive before the turn of the year, while Dominik Szoboszlai is almost like a new signing, given he is yet to feature for the club since his arrival in January due to injury.

Leipzig have faced a reshuffle in what had been a strong defence, with key man Upamacano departing while Ibrahima Konate has also left for Liverpool, though the acquisition of Salzburg's highly rated Mohamed Simakan shows the production line is still ticking along, and a Champions League place will be the minimum expectation. 

Romelu Lukaku has returned to Chelsea.

Seven years after leaving Stamford Bridge, the Belgium forward has become one of Europe's leading strikers, and the Blues have now paid a club-record fee – believed to be £97.5million (€115m) – to secure his signature.

Lukaku leaves Inter having led them to their first Serie A title in more than a decade, scoring 24 goals for the Nerazzurri in Serie A last term.

The 28-year-old brings strength, pace and supreme finishing to Thomas Tuchel's side – arguably the one area of Chelsea's squad that was lacking last term, albeit they still went on to win the Champions League.

Chelsea are not shy of attacking talent, with Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech having all arrived in 2020, while Mason Mount thrived under both Frank Lampard and Tuchel.

With Lukaku on board, Stats Perform assesses how Chelsea might line up in 2021-22.

 

3-4-3: Edouard Mendy; Thiago Silva, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger; Reece James, N'Golo Kante, Jorginho, Ben Chilwell; Kai Havertz, Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount.

Tuchel implemented a back three upon his arrival in January, and the formation switch helped turn Chelsea's fortunes around. This potential XI is based on the team Chelsea started in the Champions League final against Manchester City in May, albeit with Andreas Christensen – who enjoyed a brilliant Euro 2020 with Denmark and ended the season strongly for the Blues – in for Cesar Azpilicueta.

Lukaku could act as an out-and-out replacement for Werner, whose finishing all too often let him down last season. The Germany forward provided eight assists and netted six league goals, but from 79 attempts, giving him a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 big chances that came his way in his maiden Premier League campaign. Lukaku, on the other hand, converted 25 per cent of his 96 shots in Serie A, scored 20 big chances from 39 and added a further 11 assists.

As demonstrated in the Super Cup against Villarreal on Wednesday, Chelsea need a focal point for their attack, and they now have just that.

3-5-2: Edouard Mendy; Thiago Silva, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger; Callum Hudson-Odoi, N'Golo Kante, Jorginho, Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell; Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner.

Based on the system in which Lukaku excelled at Inter under Antonio Conte, the former Everton and Manchester United star could easily be used in tandem with Werner in a front two – and it could be to great effect for Chelsea, should he replicate his partnership with Lautaro Martinez, who scored 17 Serie A goals in 2020-21.

This formation would allow Jorginho to sit in front of the defence and distribute the ball forward – perhaps in the same mould as Inter's Marcelo Brozovic – while Mount can drop in to receive and drive forward with the ball. The wing-backs provide width, with Callum Hudson-Odoi potentially coming in to offer another attacking threat to balance out the extra man in midfield.

4-3-3: Edouard Mendy; Reece James, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Ben Chilwell; N'Golo Kante, Jorginho, Mason Mount; Hakim Ziyech, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Pulisic.

Another system which has been utilised by Tuchel in the past is the 4-3-3, which he often employed during his time at Paris Saint-Germain. The centre-backs are interchangeable – such is the depth of quality in that area for Chelsea – while James and Ben Chilwell would be the offensive full-back choices, with Azpilicueta certainly another option.

In midfield, Jorginho sits with N'Golo Kante given licence to hassle the opposition, freeing up Mount to be the creative fulcrum. In the forward line, Ziyech, who scored the opener against Villarreal before going off with a shoulder injury, excelled in a role off the right in his time at Ajax and his wonderous left foot can be lethal from wide positions, whether to cross or shoot. On the other flank, Christian Pulisic or Werner would provide the pace and tenacity to link up with Lukaku, who can either hold up the play or stretch the defence.

4-2-3-1: Edouard Mendy; Reece James, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Ben Chilwell; N'Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic; Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount; Romelu Lukaku.

With so many options at his disposal, Tuchel is sure to chop and change. This formation would see Mateo Kovacic drop in alongside Kante, while Pulisic switches over to the right to make way for Havertz, who would occupy the number 10 position.

Mount has established himself as a pivotal figure, and would have the freedom to roam from the left, with Lukaku having three sharp, incisive playmakers behind him, though Werner could also be called upon to play on the left and inject even more pace. Indeed, this is the system in which he enjoyed some brilliant campaigns during his time at Everton, and is another example of his versatility. 

The new Premier League season has not even begun yet and we're already enjoying some enthralling narratives.

Beyond the mundane matter of who might win the league, who will beat the drop and how thick the VAR lines will be, there are some tantalising stories we'll be following closely in the coming weeks.

Below, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the big talking points...

 

Blue Benitez

Predicting football is often a fool's game – especially in an era when Lionel Messi no longer plays for Barcelona – but Rafael Benitez at Everton? Who saw that coming?

The Spaniard is back in the Premier League, two years after walking away from Newcastle United, having been tempted by the same project that won over Carlo Ancelotti before the lure of a Real Madrid return became too great.

Benitez was a fans' favourite at Newcastle, arguably as much as he was at Liverpool, where he reached two Champions League finals including the unforgettable triumph in Istanbul. His connection to the red half of Merseyside meant his decision to head to Goodison Park raised the eyebrows of some and the blood pressure of others. In fact, only one man has ever managed both clubs: William Edward Barclay, Everton's first boss in 1888 and Liverpool's manager from 1892. We'll forgive you if you don't remember.

The scrutiny on Benitez, who has recorded 11 wins against Everton in his coaching career, will be severe. He has the credentials, but if he cannot quickly prove he is the man to realise the dreams of owner Farhad Moshiri and challenge the 'big six', the pressure could become pretty uncomfortable.

 

Virgil return lifts Reds

For a while, it seemed everything would be okay. In the first 11 games after Virgil van Dijk was injured against Everton last October, Liverpool conceded just six goals and kept as many clean sheets. Perhaps the loss of the Netherlands colossus would not be quite so damaging.

Of course, as injuries in defence piled up and confidence in their title chances waned, Liverpool's season ended up being one of major disappointment even though a strong final few weeks saw them snatch a Champions League spot.

Van Dijk's impact cannot really be disputed: since his move to Anfield in January 2018, Liverpool have won 75.8 per cent of matches with the centre-back in the side and only 54.3 per cent without him. They average 2.4 points per game with him (compared with 1.9 without), and even score more goals on average (2.3 compared with 1.8) when he's playing. No wonder fans began to count down the days to his return.

On Saturday, we can finally expect to watch Van Dijk in competitive action again, with Jurgen Klopp confirming he is fit to start the season. He could even begin his partnership with new signing Ibrahima Konate against Norwich City at Carrow Road. How Liverpool's campaign progresses over the opening few weeks, and how Van Dijk's return goes, might just tell us whether another title tilt is on the cards.

 

Rom-ember us?

Two of the biggest transfers in this pre-season have seen stars returning to England: Jadon Sancho, who finally got his Manchester United move for £72.9million a year after Borussia Dortmund had demanded a sizeably bigger sum; and Romelu Lukaku, who is heading to Chelsea for roughly £93m.

Sancho left Manchester City for the Bundesliga as a teenager and promptly became one of Europe's standout attacking players, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 137 appearances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a player to get fans on their feet, and he's almost certainly found it: Sancho completed 48 multi take-ons (beating more than one player with a dribble) in the Bundesliga, at least 14 more than any other player in his time in Germany.

For Lukaku, it's a case of unfinished business at Chelsea, the club he left back in 2014. The standout performer for Inter last season, with 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, he propelled his side to their first Serie A title since 2010 before taking up the chance to return to Stamford Bridge, where a consistent goalscorer could be decisive to their Premier League title hopes.

Sancho and Lukaku initially struggled to convince managers to give them a shot as youngsters in the Premier League. They return as elite players determined to prove a point. Given the costs involved, the pressure will be on both to perform – and quickly.

 

Did Jack hammer Harry's City hopes?

Manchester City are not exactly frugal in the transfer market, but rarely will they willingly pay over the odds for an individual. That's what made their willingness to spend £100million on Jack Grealish, a player with 12 senior international caps and zero Champions League experience, a touch surprising.

This is not to suggest Grealish is not a good player, of course. This is a man who was involved in a remarkable 376 open-play attacking sequences over the past two seasons for Aston Villa, a team who finished 17th and 11th in those campaigns. It's just notable that Pep Guardiola felt it was warranted to smash City's transfer record by nearly £40m to sign yet another midfielder, especially given what's going on – or not going on – with Harry Kane.

Kane was expected to be City's marquee signing in this window but, as of now, his future is unclear. He is finally due to return to Tottenham training this week but whether he is involved against City in their opening game is harder to know. And if City were willing to spend nine figures on Grealish, you can expect Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to demand top dollar for last term's golden boot winner, who has three years left on his contract.

Will City stump up the cash? Will Kane try his best to force Spurs' hand? Will he be staying in north London for at least a few months more, his form undimmed, the goals flowing as normal? It will be fascinating to watch.

 

The new Premier League season is on the horizon and there are plenty of exciting new signings to keep an eye on.

Jack Grealish has moved within the league for a record £100million fee, while a familiar face in Romelu Lukaku is set to return to England's top flight.

Premier League fans can also look forward to watching plenty of new stars, though.

Stats Perform picks out four exciting additions...
 

Jadon Sancho

An England international who has never played in English football, Sancho will garner plenty of attention at Manchester United this season – and rightly so.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Sancho has the joint-most goal involvements among English players in Europe's top five leagues, his 78 matched by Three Lions captain Harry Kane.

Those involvements arrived once every 87 minutes on average and included 41 assists, trailing only Thomas Muller (48) and Lionel Messi (43) in that regard.

Sancho left Borussia Dortmund on a high with May's DFB-Pokal final triumph, but the 2019-20 campaign was arguably his best.

The winger had 17 goals and 16 assists in the league; over the past 10 seasons, only Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez have also tallied at least 15 goals and 15 assists in the same season.

And Sancho now joins a United side who last term already had six players with 10 or more goal involvements in all competitions (Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba).

Patson Daka

Leicester City have now firmly established themselves as one of the leading clubs in the Premier League, but Jamie Vardy's advancing years had provided a worry on the horizon. The Foxes great has been a key man for so long.

But there were signs of Leicester moving on from their reliance on Vardy last season as Kelechi Iheanacho scored 12 times in the Premier League.

Now, the arrival of Daka could really put Vardy's place under pressure.

The Zambia forward scored 27 goals in 28 league games for Salzburg in 2020-21, adding four assists for a remarkable goal involvement every 63 minutes. By comparison, Vardy delivered every 119 minutes and Iheanacho every 104 minutes.

Despite playing fewer minutes, Daka (101) attempted significantly more shots than Vardy (82) and scored with a greater share of them, too (26.7 per cent versus 18.3 per cent).

Still just 22, Daka looks a great fit for the veteran Vardy's role, taking a comparable 19 per cent of his touches last season in the penalty area (23 per cent for Vardy).

Cristian Romero

The Kane transfer saga is providing an unhelpful distraction, but Tottenham are making moves, bringing in Bryan Gil and Pierluigi Gollini alongside Romero.

The centre-back should be suited to the Premier League, having established himself as one of the most aggressive, physically dominant defenders in Serie A.

Romero ranked ninth among all Serie A players for aerial duel success last season (68 per cent), putting him ahead of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Matthijs de Ligt.

This was particularly impressive as only 15 players contested more aerial duels per 90 than Romero (5.9).

The Argentina international – who has joined from Atalanta on an initial loan – is an impressive defender on the ground, too, making 3.4 interceptions per 90 to rank second in the division.

He should bolster a Spurs defence now without Toby Alderweireld.

Raphael Varane

There are no shortage of centre-back signings in the Premier League. Ibrahima Konate has arrived at Liverpool but faces a fight to be first choice. The same is not true of Varane.

United hope the World Cup winner can team up with Harry Maguire to make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side genuine title contenders.

Like Romero, Varane is dominant in the air, leading LaLiga defenders with his 76 per cent success rate in aerial duels last season.

That is an area of need for United, too, as only Leeds United (15) conceded more goals from set-pieces last season excluding penalties than the Red Devils (14).

United conceded a league-high 32 per cent of their goals against in this fashion.

And Varane will also look to set Sancho and Co on their way, having initiated 22 open play sequences that ended with a shot in 2020-21 – behind only Clement Lenglet (24) among LaLiga centre-backs.

LaLiga is arguably harder to call than ever before heading into 2021-22 – Barcelona no longer have Lionel Messi to guide the way and Real Madrid have seen significant upheaval, so surely the smart money is on defending champions Atletico Madrid?

Diego Simeone's men won the title in 2020-21 after watching Barca and Madrid trade success for seven years and look in good shape given they've not lost any major players. But can you really write off the 'big two'?

Well, you shouldn't, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Without further ado, let's look at what could occur over the 2021-22 LaLiga season.

 

ANCELOTTI DELIVERS THE GOODS

Carlo Ancelotti's back at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so – it seems – will the Spanish title. The Stats Perform model calculates Madrid have a 42.3 per cent chance of taking the crown back from their local rivals.

In fact, if the model proves accurate, Atletico may not even finish in the top two, as their 18.7 per cent chance is a fair bit smaller than Barca's 30.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga.

However, it's worth pointing out that, because the model is based on historical data points and results, the Barcelona that appears here is one that has had Messi in the team for past 17 years.

It's entirely reasonable to expect Barca to see a significant drop-off given they'll no longer have the greatest player of all time on their books – as such, a 30.4 per cent chance of winning the title might actually be quite generous.

THE BIG FOUR?

The 2020-21 season was the tightest LaLiga title fight in recent memory. Although Atletico were 11 points clear at one point, with five matches left there were just three points separating first from fourth.

In that respect, it was the closest title race LaLiga had ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present) and the least predictable since 2006-07, when Madrid, Barca and Sevilla could all win the league on the final day of the season.

Sevilla's challenge ultimately faded before that stage in 2020-21 but they've managed to keep Julen Lopetegui, their coach, and their squad is largely unaltered for the time being.

The prediction model makes them fourth favourites for the title (6.8 per cent) and far better placed to take the final Champions League spot (69.4 per cent) for the third year in a row than their likeliest challengers Villarreal (36.2 per cent).

There was a 15-point gap between fourth and fifth last season – this is the closest to a 'big four' Spain has had in years.

 

FOUR TIPPED FOR RELEGATION TUSSLE

Rayo Vallecano, Real Mallorca and Espanyol were the three to come up from the Segunda last season. While most people would ordinarily point to the promoted sides as the most likely to be relegated, the prediction model disagrees.

It gives Mallorca a 30.7 per cent likelihood of going straight back down, and Espanyol are at 17.6 per cent – neither of those are among the bottom three, though Rayo (45.9 per cent) are seen as the second favourites to head back to the second tier.

But it's Elche (57.9 per cent) who are the clear front-runners in this regard, and then it looks agonisingly close for the third and final relegation spot.

According to the predictor, it's likely to be neck-and-neck between Deportivo Alaves (41.1 per cent) and Cadiz (41.9 per cent).

Bayern Munich are entering a new era under Julian Nagelsmann, but it looks unlikely much will change when it comes to their dominance of the Bundesliga in 2021-22.

It could be another good season for Wolfsburg, but things are not looking too good for Greuther Furth, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Let's see what we can (likely) expect from the new Bundesliga season...

 

NO STOPPING NAGELSMANN

It looks like Nagelsmann's first season at the Allianz Arena is set to be a positive one. The predictor model gives Bayern a huge 84.3 per cent chance of winning the title for the 10th time in a row.

With the loss of David Alaba mitigated by the signing of Dayot Upamecano, there is little reason to doubt Bayern's credentials even as their new coach gets to grip with the job. Indeed, they are given just a 0.1 per cent chance of failing to qualify for the Champions League, while the likelihood of relegation stands at a big, fat zero.

Borussia Dortmund might have lost Jadon Sancho but they are still expected to be Bayern's biggest challengers, the Stats Perform model giving them an 11.7 per cent chance of a first title since 2012. RB Leipzig, third last term, have just a 2.9 per cent chance of finishing first, while Wolfsburg are fourth-favourites at a lowly 0.6 per cent. At least their chances of a Champions League spot stand at a strong 49.6 per cent.

TOP-FOUR TENSION

Last term's top four look likely to repeat their league positions, but don't discount Eintracht Frankfurt from a surprise Champions League place – they're given a 30.8 per cent chance of qualifying for Europe's top tournament.

Similarly, Bayer Leverkusen have just under a one-in-four chance of a top-four spot, with Borussia Monchengladbach at 14.7 per cent – slightly above their likelihood of a Europa League place.

 

BOCHUM OF THE PILE

Bochum won the second-tier title last term to return to the Bundesliga for the first time in 11 years. Their stay is not expected to be a long one, however: the Stats Perform model gives them a 54.8 per cent chance of being relegated in 2021-22.

Still, it could be worse. Greuther Furth are the favourites for the drop at 59.7 per cent, with a 15.8 per cent of finishing the season in the relegation play-off spot.

Cologne (27 per cent) and Augsburg (25.8 per cent) are the other favourites for the drop, while all four sides are given 18th out of 18 as their lowest probable finish.

Arminia Bielefeld fans should not feel too comfortable, either, given their side have a 19 per cent chance of going down.

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

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

 

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

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

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

Chelsea's Champions League final win in May was their third consecutive victory over Manchester City in all competitions.

Only two managers have ever beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row since he left Barcelona B: Jurgen Klopp, and now Thomas Tuchel.

It was Klopp's Liverpool who denied City three Premier League titles in three seasons when they triumphed in 2019-20. It's Tuchel's Chelsea who look best placed to wrestle the crown from the head of the champions in 2021-22.

The Blues begin their campaign in the UEFA Super Cup against Europa League winners Villarreal: no pushovers, as Manchester United will tell you, but a team who will not be expected to win in Belfast.

It could be a double celebration for Chelsea fans, too, as a deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter looks set to be concluded shortly. It could well be Belgium's record goalscorer who makes the difference when Tuchel targets the club's first league title since 2017...

Putting it bluntly...

Chelsea went unbeaten in their first 14 games under Tuchel after he replaced Frank Lampard as head coach in January. They secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League for the second time.

It seems strange, then, to say they weren't particularly good going forward.

From Tuchel's appointment on January 26 to the end of last season, Chelsea scored 38 goals in all competitions, as many as Granada and Montpellier over the same time frame. By contrast, Tottenham scored 49, Manchester United 58, and City 70. A 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on April 10 remains the only occasion Tuchel's Chelsea have scored more than twice in a game.

The lack of cutting edge was not for a paucity of chances, either. They were third in the Premier League last term for shots, and their expected goals from open play in the top flight (42.5) was the fifth-best in the division. The problem was they underperformed that value by 6.5 – only Liverpool (6.6) did worse among top-half teams.

They may have found a €115million solution to that problem.

Rom's redemption

Lukaku enjoyed the season of his career in 2020-21. With 30 goals and 11 assists, only six players in Europe's top-five leagues were directly involved in more goals. All of those assists came from open play, too, a figure nobody in Serie A could better.

By contrast, Chelsea's most productive forward was Timo Werner (12 goals, 11 assists), with the Germany international's xG of 21.07 significantly down on Lukaku's 30.02. Werner was, of course, scrutinised ever more intensely for failing to take his opportunities (he scored 28.57 per cent of his 'big chances'), but there were no such problems for Lukaku, who converted 51.02 per cent of his.

Lukaku, of course, is more than a goalscorer. He created 63 chances last term, more than any Chelsea player except Mason Mount (109). He also completed 67 dribbles, a figure only two players surpassed for Tuchel's team. He was equally adept at carving out opportunities as he was at taking them, his partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade.

It's that all-round threat that was too often missing in his days at United, when Jose Mourinho deployed him generally as a rudimentary target man, not as the roving forward sometimes seen starting out wide for his country. The Lukaku of 2021 is a player who thrives when involved in sequences of play, not just when trying to finish them.

Given Chelsea were second only to City last season for passes per sequence (4.83), sequences of 10 or more passes (778) and build-up attacks (187), Lukaku will have every chance to operate at the heart of things.

Impregnable

Tuchel's first 10 Premier League matches produced only 13 goals, an average of 1.3 per game. There were 12 goals scored in their preceding two league matches alone.

We know about their limitations in attack, but the lack of consistent goal-fests also proves just how strong in defence they have become.

Only Manchester City and Liverpool faced fewer shots than Chelsea (336) in the Premier League last season, while they conceded 36 goals, a number only beaten by the champions. There was also just one game where they conceded more than a single goal under Tuchel: that bizarre 5-2 home defeat to West Brom, when the Baggies played like peak Barcelona, and Chelsea played like... well, like last season's West Brom.

Even with that defeat considered, Chelsea's expected goals against under Tuchel was just 20.53, well below City (26.58) or anyone else in England's top flight across all competitions. They kept 10 clean sheets in their first 14 league games under the German, equalling the quickest time for a manager to reach such a figure in Premier League history (Luiz Felipe Scolari did it in 2008).

From Tuchel's first game to the end of the season, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) than Chelsea in all competitions. And now, they reportedly want to add Sevilla's talented Jules Kounde to their defensive options.

The game against Villarreal in Northern Ireland could well showcase the new English champions in waiting.

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