To paraphrase the apocryphal question asked of Abraham Lincoln's widow, "Aside than that, Mr Laporta, how was the lunch?"

When Lionel Messi jetted into El-Prat last Wednesday, it was to complete the formalities of a long-awaited contract extension that would commit him to the club of his life for the rest of his career.

At least, that's what the six-time Ballon d'Or winner and pretty much everyone else thought until he sat down for lunch with club president Joan Laporta on Thursday. After that, all hell broke loose.

"We had everything agreed but, at the last minute, it couldn't happen," he said at his tearful Sunday news conference, with the rampaging shambles of Barca's financial, internal and political affairs having put paid to the best laid plans.

Messi is now a Paris Saint-Germain player. It will be a jarring thing to type and read for some time, and the claims, counter-claims and recriminations over how Barcelona allowed things to reach this point of collapse will rumble on for some time.

It feels like a barely relevant sidenote that four days on from their greatest ever player addressing the media and being paraded around Paris, Barcelona will host Real Sociedad to begin their LaLiga campaign. What, if anything, can Ronald Koeman and his players salvage from the wreckage?

 

The Barcelona Way

The delayed election campaign that secured Laporta's return to the top job – his initial term between 2003 and 2010 having overseen the transformative tenures of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola – was a fraught one for Koeman.

Victor Font, one of Laporta's rival candidates, pledged to bring in club great Xavi if he was successful, while the eventual winner's support for Koeman was tenuous and conditional at best.

After a chaotic 2019-20 season, where Ernesto Valverde's lamentable sacking cleared the way for Quique Setien to surrender LaLiga to Real Madrid and oversee the humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, Koeman was not a universally popular choice and easily viewed a stop-gap appointment.

Whereas Messi wanted to stay but had to leave this time around, last August he wanted to leave but had to stay – relations with Laporta's predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu having broken down. On the field, the Blaugrana were inevitably a little bit all over the place.

But after a chastening 2-1 loss to Cadiz on December 5, Barcelona and a rejuvenated Messi went 19 games unbeaten in LaLiga. It was almost enough for an unlikely title success, but the run ended with a 2-1 defeat away to Real Madrid on April 10.

Koeman lost both Clasicos and his Barca only took a point from Atletico Madrid, failing to score in either game against the eventual champions. There were heavy Champions League losses to Juventus and PSG, and Koeman's record in big games was and is an obvious concern.

Yet, it was fairly bizarre to see the Dutchman treated with such disregard during the electioneering, which ran parallel to the long undefeated streak. After tinkering with various formations earlier in the season, Koeman had settled upon a 3-4-3 in which his team thrived.

Nevertheless, in May, it was reported by Mundo Deportivo that Laporta demanded Koeman commit to Barca's classic 4-3-3 and brand of football married to the club's traditions. A stay of execution would be dependent upon one of Johan Cruyff's former disciples committing to the Barcelona Way.

Back to the future

Looking at their performances from last season, it is easy enough to spot elements of classical Barcelona in Koeman's side.

They scored the most goals in LaLiga and had the highest expected goals (xG) figure of any team, indicating they cumulatively created a better quality of chances than their rivals.

The way they got to this point was also very Barca.

No side in LaLiga had a higher average sequence time than the Blaugrana's 14.27 seconds, while their average of 5.52 passes per sequence was also a league best. They were the only team to average above five.

In terms of sequences featuring 10 or more passes, they were streets ahead with 910. The next most 10+ pass sequences came from Madrid with 662. As a consequence, Barcelona also ranked top for build-up attacks – open-play sequences of 10 or more passes that end either with a shot or a touch in the opposition box.

Now as then in the glory days of Guardiola, you spend a lot of time chasing the ball against Barcelona.

Pedri enjoyed a breakout campaign so good he's only just been allowed to finish it, shining for Spain at Euro 2020 and the Olympic Games, while the evergreen Sergio Busquets ticked away in his customary style to average 95.52 passes per game. The next best midfielder in LaLiga on that metric was Madrid's Toni Kroos on 85.76.

 

Frenkie de Jong developed a knack of chiming in with some important goals from midfield after the turn of the year, while also showing his versatility by slotting into the back three when injuries and circumstances required.

Consider the presence of Riqui Puig and teenage sensation Gavi and the "take the ball, pass the ball" part of the Cruyffian legacy remains in safe hands, albeit with the fairly large assumption that there remains room for all of them on the accounts.

Pressing concerns

The other key facet of the teams in which Messi rose to his place at the top of the world game was their work without the ball.

Teams being at their most vulnerable in transition is now an accepted reality of the modern game, but Guardiola's Barcelona swarming opponents as soon as they lost the ball altered perceptions of what was required of elite teams in terms of intelligent commitment to the cause.

Barca operated under their six-second rule, which had nothing to do with anybody dropping food on the floor. They attempted to retrieve possession within six seconds of losing it via immediate and intensive pressing. If this was not possible, they would fall back into a defensive shape to guard against opponents now settled in possession and more able to play through the press.

Pressing methods and teams' aptitude in dealing with them have obviously evolved since Barcelona scared the life out of European football a little over a decade ago, but the principles remain. If a team wishes to play a high-possession game with a high defensive line, their defending from the front as to be impeccable.

In 2020-21, Koeman's side were merely quite good in this regard. Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a metric that indicates how well a team presses. The lower the average number of passes an opponent is allowed to make outside the pressing team's defensive third before being met with a defensive action – such as a tackle, interception or a foul – the better the press.

Barca's 10.6 PPDA put them sixth best in LaLiga last season, below Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Getafe and Real Betis. Although they scored the most goals from high turnovers (seven), this can be attributed to the sharp finishing of Messi and others, as their 37 shot-ending high turnovers were only the eighth highest.

They are not numbers that suggest Laporta's fantasy of seeing a whirring 4-3-3 back in motion is one grounded in reality. By comparison, Luis Enrique's "MSN" Barca of 2014-15 averaged a staggering 7.0 PPDA. Had Messi remained, his capacity to do this sort of work is diminished, but that is now a puzzle for Mauricio Pochettino to solve.

Messi's great friend Sergio Aguero is one of the attacking reinforcements, although a calf injury means he will be sidelined for 10 weeks. If the masterful Argentina striker's body still allowed him to press with suitable intensity, he would probably still be with Guardiola at Manchester City.

 

Memphis Depay is fit to start the new season and some of the onus will fall upon the Netherlands international to sharpen Barca up a little.

He comes from a Lyon side who forced more shot-ending high turnovers than any other in Ligue 1 last season (62), while his 25 instances of winning possession back in the final third placed him joint fifth among forwards in the French top-flight. 

Antoine Griezmann won the ball 24 times deep in opposition territory last term in LaLiga, alongside 37 tackles and 100 recoveries, all of which were highs among Barca forward. He and Depay could certainly prove a useful nuisance in tandem.

Getting on with the job

Of course, it is not entirely certain Barcelona will be able to register Depay with LaLiga in time to face Real Sociedad, such is their parlous financial state.

Laporta claims this will not be a problem. But then, he said he'd re-sign Messi and essentially ran for election on a pledge he spectacularly failed to fulfil.

If it turns out Barca passed up on Messi because they decided to reject LaLiga's deal with CVC Capital Partners and its associated cash injection in favour of remaining in cahoots with Real Madrid and Florentino Perez's doomed Super League project, it's unlikely holding Laporta to account over whether or not Koeman plays 4-3-3 will be the top of anyone's agenda. It should be noted Madrid president Perez said it was "impossible" for him to have had such an influence, in response to allegations levelled by former Espai Barca Commission member Jaume Llopis.

One of the major reservations surrounding Koeman's appointment was whether he was the man to win Messi more Champions Leagues, with the clock ticking on the great man's career.

 

This might feel like an absurd grasp for positives and Koeman would be better off if the greatest player of all time was in his squad, but he is at least without one of the big over-arching narratives that Barca have specialised in both constructing and crushing themselves with over recent years.

Valverde was saddled with "only" winning LaLiga as European glory painfully slipped away. If Koeman can wrest back domestic control in these conditions, it would be recognised as a brilliant achievement in its own right. The atmosphere among fans back in Camp Nou might be perilous in the initial post-Messi weeks, but a few wins will place a defiant siege mentality within reach.

Since Cruyff was appointed head coach in 1988, this will be the first season without the late Dutch master, Guardiola or Messi – those three giants of the modern Barcelona – having any active association with the club. It is time for an institution on its knees to let go and turn the page.

Koeman put together a team that functioned well amid considerable turbulence last season and should be allowed to improve upon that template with the fine players that still remain, free from any Mes Que Un Club self-flagellation as Laporta tends to the dumpster fire he inherited and chucked a vat of petrol all over last week.

For Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League rivals, the most daunting thing is that they have seen this all before.

Lionel Messi has been unveiled as the Ligue 1 giants' latest superstar signing, reuniting him with friend and former team-mate Neymar at the Parc des Princes.

As Barcelona did between 2014 and 2017, though, PSG have more besides the great Argentina and Brazil number 10s.

At Camp Nou, Luis Suarez arrived from Liverpool to quickly link up with his two fellow forwards and fire Barca to European glory.

This time, Kylian Mbappe, already at PSG, is the third man in a frightening front line.

On paper, it is a terrifying prospect, but can the PSG trio work together as Barca's famous 'MSN' did for three years?

Goals and assists galore

Across the three seasons Messi, Suarez and Neymar played together in Catalonia, the three players ranked first (149), third (128) and joint-sixth (89) for goal involvements in Europe's top five leagues.

Only four players registered both 30 goals and 30 assists in that period and three of them played for Barca. Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, was the other.

Barca and Ronaldo's Real Madrid accounted for six of the 10 highest-scoring LaLiga seasons by a team in the competition's history over the space of those three years.

Spanish football has never before or since been as exciting – and Messi, Suarez and Neymar (and Ronaldo) were at the forefront, pushing one another on.

In that time, Messi and Suarez combined for a goal every 198 minutes in the league (36 in total from 144 chances created together). Messi and Neymar between them created 2.1 chances for one another per 90 minutes, resulting in 22 assists, while Suarez and Neymar were also an effective combination with 26 assists.

 

Messi and Neymar had already had a single season together in 2013-14, so it was Suarez's seamless introduction that was most impressive. His 43 assists over those three years tied with Messi and trailed only Kevin De Bruyne (47).

This time it is Messi's turn to join an established duo, with Neymar and Mbappe setting an alarming standard in their limited time together on the pitch.

Injuries to Neymar have limited them to 3,552 minutes – less than half as many as Messi and Suarez over a longer period – but they have combined for 102 chances (2.6 per 90) and 21 assists (one every 169 minutes).

Missing the middle man

The similarities in this context are clear, but Mbappe and Suarez are very different players in a number of ways, including their positioning. Messi and Neymar have changed their roles since they first combined, too, and that is why this front three might require a little work at first.

In 2014-15, their first season together at Barca, the Blaugrana trio's touch maps told the tale of a balanced forward line.

A huge 60.1 per cent of Neymar's touches were on the left flank in the attacking half, with 33.4 per cent concentrated in an area just outside the box.

With the former Santos man staying left, Messi and Suarez were able to link up across the rest of the final third. Messi started from the right but took 22.5 per cent of his touches in the very centre of the attacking half, the same zone in which Suarez enjoyed 17.9 per cent of his touches.

Suarez, with 20.4 per cent of his touches on the left wing in the final third and 23.1 per cent on the right, was capable of drifting out to either side to create space but would rarely occupy these spaces for an extended period. That is a crucial contrast to Mbappe.

Mbappe last season took 57.9 per cent of his touches on the left flank in the attacking half, with only 11.6 per cent on the right. That left-sided share actually dwarfed Neymar's 46.3 per cent in the same position, indicating both their lack of playing time together and a slightly freer role for the world's most expensive player.

 

Indeed, the natural striker is the one of the three PSG forwards who uses the least of his touches through the centre. Messi, like Neymar, has become even more of a central figure since breaking away from the 'MSN' attack, last term taking 25.1 per cent of his touches in a central position just outside the box.

These touches speak to a fluid PSG approach, but they may need Mbappe to stretch the play down the middle and provide a focal point – something Suarez did that suits neither Messi nor Neymar.

Pressing from the front

Barca's front three of 2014-15 were not just brilliant in possession, they were also an effective force without the ball, winning it back to quickly get on the attack once more.

Luis Enrique's men allowed just 7.0 passes per defensive action (PPDA), not letting their opponents rest and forcing 370 high turnovers that contributed to starting their attacks 44.7 metres upfield on average.

PSG are starting from a slightly lower, if still impressive, base in a pressing sense this season. They allowed 8.9 PPDA and forced 337 high turnovers to start attacks 43.7 metres upfield on average.

It is likely Mauricio Pochettino, who employed a pressing game at Tottenham, will want to move up another gear in his first full season at the club, but that might be easier said than done with the players at his disposal.

In 2014-15, Messi led all LaLiga forwards in winning possession 37 times in the final third. Neymar (26) was second and Suarez (16) joint-11th. Across Europe's top five leagues, only Karim Bellarabi (also 37) could match Messi in this regard.

Messi has never since tallied as many final-third recoveries, with that rate of 1.0 per 90 now halved to 0.5 at the age of 34.

Neymar, in limited minutes, reached a new high by winning possession 1.3 times per 90 in 2020-21, yet his tackle rate of 0.9 is considerably down on 2014-15's high of 1.5.

Mbappe twice recovered the ball in the final third in PSG's opening league game of this season against Troyes and last year peaked with 23 such examples across the campaign, but they counted among 59 total possession gains – Messi and Neymar each passed 100 in 2014-15.

So, a revival of that devastating Barca press in Paris seems unlikely at this stage, even if Messi and Neymar, with a new partner, look primed to thrill again.

Whether the silky interplay is as effective without the other side of the game is a query that should be answered by May.

After a tumultuous offseason, the Green Bay Packers can afford to look towards the 2021 season with excitement as a clear frontrunner to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

Their stand-off with Aaron Rodgers ended with his place on the roster secured for 2021 at least, meaning the league MVP will have the chance to replicate his 2020 heroics and take one of the most talented rosters one step further after losing in the NFC Championship Game in each of the last two seasons. 

Pivotal to Green Bay's hopes of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since they last won it in the 2010 season is Rodgers' rapport with his number one weapon, Davante Adams.

Their connection has been one of the most potent in recent NFL history yet, despite the resolution between Rodgers and the Packers, there is reason to fear it could be the final year in which the future Hall of Famer will be throwing in Adams' direction.

Prior to Rodgers finding middle ground with the Packers, he and Adams each posted a still from The Last Dance, which chronicled the final year of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls NBA dynasty, on their respective Instagram stories.

That did little to calm the nerves of Packers fans and, with Adams an unrestricted free agent in 2022, it would be wise not to take the 17 regular-season games he and Rodgers are scheduled to play together in 2021 for granted.

Adams wants to be the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL and said that Rodgers' return has no impact on that desire. In other words, Green Bay will not be getting a discount even if Rodgers is back for 2022, which is no guarantee.

Green Bay would be left with a dead cap charge of nearly $27million were they to trade Rodgers next offseason. Still, given the staring contest they engaged in this year, a 2022 divorce cannot be ruled out, especially if the Packers fall short again.

The Packers could, therefore, be facing up to the possibility of playing 2022 without one if not both of the duo, and simply cannot afford to waste a potential final year of one of the most dynamic partnerships in the NFL.

A prolific pairing

A second-round pick in the 2014 draft, Adams has built a compelling case for being considered the best receiver Rodgers has played with during his storied career.

They have hooked up for 498 receptions in that time, which is 17th among all quarterback and wide receiver duos since 1991.

Rodgers has thrown for 6,018 yards passing to Adams, 24th-most among QB and WR pairings since 1991, while the 57 touchdowns he has thrown to Adams is joint-ninth in the NFL (tied with Brett Favre to Antonio Freeman) in that same timeframe.

When throwing to Adams, Rodgers has a hugely impressive passer rating of 107.7, ranking 22nd on the list for QB-WR duos with a minimum of 250 targets since 1991, though it is some way adrift of the 124.2 rating he posted when throwing to Jordy Nelson between 2008 and 2017, which tops that same leaderboard.

The combination between Rodgers and Adams may not be as efficient as his partnership with Nelson, yet it seemingly has the chance to improve further in the coming season with arguably both players the best at their position in 2020.

2020's gold standards

Rodgers took Matt LaFleur's offense, with its roots in the schemes of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, to heights not scaled since Matt Ryan took the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016 with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.

Like Ryan five seasons earlier, Rodgers was named MVP after a year in which he led the league with a completion percentage of 70.7 and threw for 4,299 yards, 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Remarkably consistent with his accuracy and his decision-making, Rodgers was third in the NFL with a well-thrown percentage of 82.4 while his pickable pass percentage of 2.23 was also bettered by only two quarterbacks – Alex Smith (2.12) and Tom Brady (2.20).

Adams was the main beneficiary of one of the finest seasons of Rodgers' career. Indeed, he led the league in receiving touchdowns with 18, his ability to adjust to the football in the air combined with Rodgers' consistently superb placement making them a near-unstoppable duo in the red zone.

He racked up 1,374 receiving yards and delivered that production at an extremely efficient rate through his proficiency for creating separation with route-running skills that are among the best in the league.

Adams registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on plays where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, on 70 per cent of his 147 targets.

And he led wide receivers in burn yards per route with an average of 3.9 yards, delivering a clear improvement having ranked tied-fourth in that same metric with 3.4 yards in 2019.

The 2020 season was the one where Adams made the leap from elite to the clear-cut top receiver in the league in the eyes of many.

While his position as the gold standard may be up for debate, what is not in question is that he and Rodgers are performing at the peak of their respective powers.

So what must the Packers do to ensure their final year together, if that is what 2021 proves to be, is a successful swansong?

How to get over the hump

The Packers' 2020 season came to an end amid a controversial decision by LaFleur in the NFC Championship Game. 

With the Packers trailing the Buccaneers 31-23 and faced with fourth and goal from inside the Tampa Bay 10-yard line, LaFleur opted to kick a field goal to trim the deficit rather than to give Rodgers a final shot at finding the endzone.

Green Bay never got the ball back after the field goal, leading to intense criticism of LaFleur.

That sequence was not reflective of the Packers' performance inside the 20 last season, when they led the league in red-zone touchdown efficiency.

Yet Green Bay could certainly benefit from LaFleur being more aggressive on fourth down.

The Packers were 10th in the NFL in fourth-down conversion percentage (61.9) but their 21 fourth-down attempts ranked tied-14th.

Therefore, there is room for the Packers to put more faith in their dynamic quarterback-receiver duo in those situations. To do so, however, La Fleur will need to have plenty of confidence in his defense.

Having parted company with much-maligned defensive coordinator Mike Pettine following their playoff exit, the Packers are hoping that his replacement Joe Barry can elevate that unit to the ranks of the elite.

Green Bay finished 14th in opponent yards per play (5.49), though the Packers were top 10 in that regard against the pass. They conceded 6.13 yards per pass play.

To further bolster their options defending the pass, the Packers drafted Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, who ranked second among Power 5 corners by allowing an open percentage of 38.5, in the first round.

Yet if the Packers are to reach the upper echelon in pass defense, the onus is more likely to be on their front seven.

They ended 2020 tied-26th in opponent negative plays (72) and would benefit hugely from a bounce-back year from Preston Smith.

His pressure rate of 10 per cent was the eighth-worst among edge rushers with a minimum of 100 plays and came a year after he registered 12 sacks. Za'Darius Smith had double-digit sacks for the second successive year but his pressure rate of 16.5 was only marginally above the average of 15.9 for edge players.

The progress of Rashan Gary, who had a pressure rate of 19.1 per cent last season, has been encouraging but, as much as a better pass rush would aid Green Bay's cause, run defense is the most pressing issue on that side of the ball.

Twenty-first in opponent rushing average (4.55 yards) in 2020, the Packers appear just as vulnerable to the ground game as they were when their 2019 season was ended in an NFC title game that saw the San Francisco 49ers rack up 285 net rushing yards.

Green Bay's deficiency at linebacker was laid bare in that rout and the Packers have done little to address it. Their likely starters at inside linebacker are Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin. Barnes' 2020 run-disruption rate of 2.1 was the ninth-lowest in the NFL among linebackers while Martin made just six starts in 10 games.

Jordan's successful last dance could not have been possible without a stellar core around him. Rodgers and Adams performed at a level worthy of a Lombardi Trophy in 2020 but they will need their head coach and their defense to rise to the expectations for their potential goodbye to be one that comes on the podium in Los Angeles.

One of the best teams in Europe just got better – Lionel Messi has signed for Paris Saint-Germain.

Following his shock exit from Barcelona as a free agent, Messi becomes the Ligue 1 giants' fifth signing of the transfer window, joining the superstars Mauricio Pochettino already had at his disposal.

After coming so close in recent seasons, PSG will hope this move can bring an end to their wait for a first Champions League triumph.

But how will all these players fit in the same XI? Stats Perform attempts to work that out...

 

GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma

Keylor Navas has been one of Europe's outstanding goalkeepers in recent seasons, ranking third for goals prevented (8.1, using expected goals on target data) in the top five leagues in 2020-21. But Donnarumma – the Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020 – did not leave boyhood club Milan just to sit on the bench and, at 22, represents the long-term option.

RB: Achraf Hakimi

Alessandro Florenzi headed back to Roma at the end of his loan, but PSG identified just about the best replacement on the market. Over the previous two seasons, Robin Gosens (34) was the only defender with more goal involvements than Hakimi (30).

CB: Marquinhos

PSG won 72.5 per cent of the games Marquinhos played last season in all competitions, conceding 0.7 goals on average. Those numbers altered significantly in his absence, with a winning percentage of 52.9 while shipping 1.1 goals per game. Even with the club's superstar signings, their captain remains one of the key men.

CB: Sergio Ramos

Ramos, another freebie, may no longer be able to play every game – he appeared only 15 times in LaLiga for Real Madrid last term – but PSG better hope he is there for the big ones. Over the previous three seasons, Madrid won 10 of the 15 Champions League games Ramos featured in and only four of the 13 he missed.

LB: Abdou Diallo

This is perhaps the one position on the pitch where PSG lack a genuine world-class option. Even if Pochettino were to bring in Presnel Kimpembe as a third centre-back, there is no outstanding left-sided wing-back. Diallo, a defensive full-back in an attacking team, gets the nod by virtue of starting the season fit and ahead of Layvin Kurzawa in the pecking order.

CM: Marco Verratti

At the end of a season in which Verratti was restricted to only 16 Ligue 1 starts, Euro 2020 provided a reminder of his talents. The Italy midfielder created a tournament-leading 14 chances across just five games while still completing 93.1 per cent of his 417 passes. Now imagine those passes are being played to Messi...

CM: Leandro Paredes

Paredes, Messi's international colleague, also made just 16 league starts for PSG last term, but he was still trusted for the big occasions in the Champions League. That included a dominant display against a Barca midfield of Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, as Paredes played the second most passes on the pitch (73) and assisted one of four PSG goals.

CM: Georginio Wijnaldum

Angel Di Maria is very unfortunate to miss out on this XI and undoubtedly still has a part to play, but Wijnaldum perhaps offers a better balance in a midfield three with the attacking talent ahead of him. Across his Liverpool Premier League career, Wijnaldum led all Reds midfielders in recoveries (951) and duels won (645) and ranked second in interceptions (115) and third in tackles (181).

RW: Lionel Messi

Of course, Messi can play across the front three, but starting from the right – with Hakimi in the Dani Alves role outside him – will bring back memories of Barca teams of old. It is the role he occupied in 2014-15, forming part of perhaps the Blaugrana's most exciting attacking trio.

CF: Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe has the Luis Suarez role, providing the direct runs in behind that create space in front of the defence for Messi and Co. Last season's 53 goal involvements did not quite match the forward's career high of 54 in 2018-19, but Mbappe can expect to break all sorts of records in this thrillingly creative line-up this term.

LW: Neymar

Still the world's most expensive player if no longer the biggest name in his own dressing room, Neymar was the third member of that 2014-15 front three. Having decided to step out of Messi's shadow, the Brazil superstar wanted his old friend back. During their four years together at Barca, Neymar assisted Messi 22 times, while the six-time Ballon d'Or winner returned the favour on 20 occasions.

Roger Federer turned 40 on Sunday amid uncertainty over whether he will grace the stage of a grand slam again.

Both he and Serena Williams, who reaches the same birthday landmark in September, have kept their future plans under wraps.

However, it would come as no surprise now if one, or both, were to retire by the end of the year.

Injuries are taking their toll, and even the greatest champions cannot go on forever.

Stats Perform looked at both Federer and Williams, considering what they may still want to achieve, and their prospects of attaining those remaining goals.

 

Federer's final fling?

Ahead of his 30th birthday, Federer was asked what it felt like to hit such a milestone.

"Birthdays happen. They're part of life," Federer said. "I'm happy I'm getting older. I'd rather be 30 than 20, to be honest. To me it's a nice time."

A decade on, Federer has good reason to be satisfied with life as he chalks up another decade. Family life is good, he'll never need to borrow a dollar, and he has advanced from 16 grand slams to 20.

But the knees would sooner be 30 than 40, and Federer, remarkable sportsman though he is, looks to have entered the lap of honour stage of his career – if he can even complete such a lap.

Two knee operations in 2020 were followed by a setback that ruled him out of the Olympics and will also keep him sidelined for the Toronto and Cincinnati tournaments before the US Open.

Will Federer make it to Flushing Meadows, where he won five successive titles at the height of his career? There has to be doubt over that, and should he indeed be an absentee in New York, what is there left to target? The Laver Cup, perhaps, a tournament in which he is financially invested and which is due to be played in Boston in late September.

Would he play on in 2022? Could he tolerate more long road trips without his family, living in a tennis bubble?

Target: Federer has never settled for second best, and it may have dawned on him at Wimbledon that in all probability he no longer can win a grand slam. Losing a 6-0 set to Hubert Hurkacz on the way to a quarter-final exit would have hurt. The hunger does not go away after 20 grand slams, but Federer's battle-weary body is sending him messages. He will want to go out on his own terms, which means getting fully fit.

Prospects: Assuming the knee issue is not a major problem, and more of a niggle, then Federer could still play the US Open, Laver Cup, Indian Wells and Paris Masters this year. If the mind is willing but the body does not comply, however, then it would not be a shock to see him call time before the Australian Open comes around in January.


Serena still one short of Court

From precocious teenager to queen of the tour, Williams' tennis journey has been a 25-year odyssey and there is nobody more driven to succeed than the great American.

It is an intense frustration that she remains rooted on 23 grand slams, one short of Margaret Court's record haul, and the four grand slam final losses she has suffered while on that mark have been cruel blows.

As her 40th birthday approaches on September 26, prospects of matching Court are fading. The leg injury that cruelly forced her out of Wimbledon in the first round was a harrowing turn of events, given she looked primed to be a big title challenger in London.

She is becoming less of a factor when looking at title favourites, but Williams is still capable of beating top players, still a threat wherever she shows up. It comes down to whether the body lets her chase her goals, and whether the pain of so many near-misses in recent years persuades this great champion the exertion is no longer worth prolonging.

Target: The 24th slam has been the must-have for Williams. Tour titles feel like an irrelevance, and Williams has won just one of those since January 2017, her calendar built around peaking for the majors since returning from giving birth to daughter Olympia.

Prospects: Beating Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep at the Australian Open demonstrated Williams still has the game for the big stage, and a semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka, to whom she has now lost in three of four encounters, should not particularly detract from that. Wimbledon felt like a golden opportunity, with a host of major rivals absent and others struggling for form. There is no doubt she felt that way. Getting to 24 – and beyond – has shifted from feeling like an inevitability to being an odds-against chance now.

A tight game at Wembley in the English summer of 2021 and a spot of clock-watching and bench-watching to see whether Jack Grealish might come on. It's basically become a national past time.

Of course, this was the more sedate setting of the Community Shield between Leicester City and Manchester City, whose freshly minted £100million man was among the substitutes, and not the febrile passion pit of a push for Euro 2020 glory. More the sort of occasion that might cause you to happily wave a sparkler around rather than stick a flare somewhere unmentionable.

Not that the men on the touchline were taking this lightly. Pep Guardiola, fairly remarkably, managed to get booked as he did during the 2019 version of this fixture. He disagreed volubly after referee Paul Tierney penalised Cole Palmer for an aerial challenge on Leicester full-back Ryan Bertrand.

Shortly afterwards, Brendan Rodgers responded to a botched Kasper Schmeichel clearance by booting a water bottle towards the grey London sky.

Grealish had been merrily volleying balls around with his new team-mates during the warm-up, which he closed by thundering a 40-yard strike just over the top corner before being the last player off with an arm around City youth-team captain Tommy Doyle.

The price-tag certainly isn't weighing too heavily right now for a man who looks as if he lacks a single care in the world, even if his public approval ratings have taken a hit.

 

Wembley laid on universal adoration for Grealish and his velvet touches while playing for Gareth Southgate's England. Here, the booing from the Leicester end felt a little more edgy than pantomime when the ex-Aston Villa captain appeared on the big screen before kick-off and again when he sauntered into a gentle jog and some stretches early in the second period.

By that stage, a Leicester side close to full-strength – although lacking Wesley Fofana after the broken leg he suffered on the end of an awful tackle from Villarreal's Fer Nino in midweek – had enjoyed the edge in terms of clear chances. Zack Steffen made two close-range saves, the second particularly excellent, to deny Jamie Vardy, who played with his typical verve.

As the hour passed, it was certainly a contest worthy of Guardiola and Rodgers' investment. Teenage winger Sam Edozie grew into the match for the Premier League champions, buoyed by three goals in three pre-season outings. Ilkay Gundogan slashed off target inside a crowded penalty area, as did Riyad Mahrez when through on goal, naturally to much brouhaha in the Leicester end.

Then, in the 64th minute, some activity on the bench. Grealish thumbed through a tactics clipboard far less weighty than any encyclopaedia, threw on his white match shirt and joined Rodri on the touchline. The Manchester contingent roared and further barracking followed from the other end of the stadium.

 

With his first involvement, English football's former unity candidate dribbled easily past Ayoze Perez and laid off to Rodri. A few seconds later he was down the left flank and won a throw in a dangerous position, before a Palmer pass allowed him to advance into the Leicester area, where he was crowded out.

In the 70th minute, Grealish returned the favour with a delicious outside-of-the-foot pass, although Youri Tielemans was back to thwart the youngster. It demonstrated the space that was being opened up by two opposition players going towards the British record signing every time he collected the ball. The damage the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden might do in such conditions when they return is a chilling prospect for the rest of the league.

Bernardo Silva was rapturously welcomed for potentially a farewell City appearance and the midfielder's introduction allowed Grealish to rove – a pirouetting dribble in-field ended with him tumbling to the turf and left Tierney unimpressed.

The official had a simple call when he pointed to the spot in the 87th minute. Nathan Ake blotted a solid afternoon's work by bundling Kelechi Iheanacho over and the former City striker thumped his spot-kick past the impressive Steffen.

Wembley fate sealed from 12 yards as you watch on. The more things change, eh Jack?

As Jack Grealish begins training at the Etihad Campus and Harry Kane continues not training in Florida, it is worth remembering Pep Guardiola left a warning in plain sight that Manchester City would be prime movers and shakers in this year's transfer market.

Speaking to Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport ahead of May's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea, Guardiola pondered the ingredients needed for sustained success, having already lifted three of the past four Premier League titles on offer.

"Did you have the same squad when you won your sixth Premier League as you did your first one?" he asked former Manchester United defender Ferdinand.

"You have to shake, you have to move. With the same guys, it is almost impossible. We change. After defeats or a win, we change."

Such are the talents at Guardiola's disposal within the City squad, the £100million British record outlay to secure Grealish brought plenty of derision. Kane will cost more and, should any offer pass muster with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, it will be the same story.

But the City boss knew well of what he spoke and who he was speaking to. In 2002, Ferdinand joined United from Leeds United for a British record £30m. That deal usurped the £28.1m fee Alex Ferguson required to bring in Juan Sebastian Veron from Lazio a year earlier. In 2004, United made Wayne Rooney (£27m) the most expensive teenager in world football.

Even as the great 1998-99 United team went on to win the subsequent two Premier Leagues, Ferguson decided he had to shake. He had to move. Despite the successes of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and Jose Mourinho's Chelsea at the start of this century, this thirst to improve from a position of strength meant United were able to dominate again.

LEGACY SIGNINGS

Comparisons to Ferguson will no doubt grate for plenty of the City faithful, but geography and the scale of Guardiola's achievements to date – eight major honours in the past four seasons – mean they are easy to reach for.

The former Barcelona coach became the first manager to retain the Premier League since the great Scot and, as he looks to repeat that feat, another Fergusonism has been laid at his door.

Last season, some observers contended Guardiola had built his second great City side. Team building and re-building was a perfected art form at United in the 1990s and 2000s and the shorter tenures of the modern era mean today's elite coaches are rarely called upon to accomplish such a tall task.

Guardiola certainly fitted the contemporary template at Barca and Bayern Munich, working with bristling intensity for four and three seasons respectively before standing down amid a sense that parties on both sides of the player/coach divide were burnt out to some extent.

You only needed to study the City manager on the touchline as a team featuring a crop of youth team players won recent friendlies against Preston North End, Barnsley and Blackpool to see plenty of that intensity remains. But the combination of ideal working conditions under old Barcelona allies Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano along with the lack of either Camp Nou's tumultuous politics or ex-playing grandees as at Bayern have persuaded the 50-year-old that Manchester is a place to burnish his legacy with longevity.

A contract extension penned in November last year means Guardiola is set to remain City boss until June 2023, by which point he will have completed seven seasons.

Club record goalscorer Sergio Aguero departing at the end of last term means only captain Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling remain from the pre-Guardiola years and the latter two signed a year before his arrival when City's direction of travel was fairly well signposted.

Grealish's arrival and the potential capture of Kane for another nine-figure outlay feels like a significant pivot point in a way that 2020-21, with its inverted full-backs, false-nines and off-the-cuff solutions, did not. A new chapter begins with Saturday's Community Shield encounter against Leicester City at Wembley.

GUARDIOLA'S CITY 2.0

Guardiola's third Premier League title and fourth consecutive EFL Cup did not tell the story of a new team being methodically put together. From the point City lost 2-0 at Tottenham last November, which left them 11th in the Premier League with 12 points from eight games, it was a tale of shrewd adjustment and pragmatism within the manager's signature style.

"I said we have to come back to our first principle. We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team," Guardiola said. "We had success in the past and [we had to] come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position, run less with the ball."

City adapted better than any other Premier League side to the rigours of pandemic football. The effective pressing that is a hallmark of all Guardiola's sides was in evidence – 377 high turnovers and 80 shots from high turnovers (open play sequences that begin within 40 metres of the opposition goal) were the best numbers in the Premier League.

This was despite City allowing 11.5 passes per defensive action (PPDA), putting them joint-sixth in a category headed up by Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds Untied and their rabid pressing (9.3 PPDA).

The conclusion to be drawn here is that City picked their moments judiciously rather than relentlessly harrying opponents. Even as their press faltered during their meek 2019-20 title defence, their PPDA was 10.1.

In possession they were similarly methodical. City's direct speed – the metres per second they progressed upfield in open play – was the slowest in the Premier League. Opta's figure of 1.1 direct speed for the champions in 2020-21 compares to 1.4 when they won the league with 100 points for the first time under Guardiola in 2017-18 and 1.3 when the fought tooth and nail with Liverpool to retain it.

Alongside the key addition of talismanic centre-back Ruben Dias, slowing down in this manner helped City to be more defensively solid, although there was a price paid at the other end of the field.

Their goals (83) and shots on target (216) in the Premier League were lower than every campaign since Guardiola's initial trophy-less outing in 2016-17. City's 599 shots overall were the least of his tenure and down form 745 in 2019-20, they registered 68.9 for expected goals (xG) having been between 80 and 94 for the three prior campaigns.

Despite their array of creative midfield talent, City made 1,164 passes into the opposition box, having never clocked below 1,300 in the Guardiola era. In 2018-19, they made 1,522.

This was largely not too much of a problem, of course, but the manner in which City subsided to Chelsea after Kai Havertz scored the only goal in Porto was a concern. Thomas Tuchel's team saw out a 1-0 win in relative comfort and City's xG of 0.45 was their second lowest in any match managed by Guardiola.

JACKED UP ATTACK

Those initial title wins for Guardiola in England featured a forward line with the electrifying wing talents of Leroy Sane and Sterling to the fore.

Sane is now at Bayern Munich and, after the mid-season tweaks last term, Sterling struggled and lost his place as a locked-in starter. Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez generally started either side of a false nine as the importance of players being able to provide the "extra pass" became a Guardiola mantra.

Sterling returns reinvigorated by a fabulous Euro 2020 but Grealish is no more of a direct Sane replacement than Ferran Torres was a year ago. The qualities of the England playmaker and those of his international captain Kane suggest Guardiola is keen to keep the control of 2020-21 and bolt on increased attacking efficiency.

Despite missing 12 matches through injury, Grealish supplied 10 Premier League assists last season. De Bruyne (12) and Kane (14) were two of the three players above him, with the Spurs striker topping the league charts in terms of goals and assists.

Grealish edged De Bruyne by 81-80 in terms of chances created, while his advantage was 70-58 when it came to chances created from open play. City's record signing also edged De Bruyne in terms of expected assists (xA) with 6.52 against 6.21, indicating the high quality of chances his passes created.

Since the departures of David Silva and Sane, the creative burden has arguably rested too heavily upon De Bruyne. Joan Cancelo (45) and Mahrez (44) were the next best in the City squad for chances created, while the Belgian maestro created 19 of what Opta class as 'big chances'. That put him second only to Bruno Fernandes (20) in the division but none of his team-mates hit double figures. Grealish created 14 such opportunities.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

"I think everyone knows how much I admire Kevin and it's going to be a dream come true to play alongside him," Grealish said in his interview with City's in-house media channel on Thursday.

Without Silva and Sane's axis down the left channel, De Bruyne's role at City changed last season, with Guardiola granting him a broader midfield brief, as well as rotating the 30-year-old and Bernardo Silva as his two main false-nine options.

As a result, his touches on the right-hand side of the opposition half – in the spaces he roves to deliver those "score me!" crosses – were down by an average of 7.2 per 90 minutes when compared to 2019-20, when De Bruyne supplied a record-equalling 20 Premier League assists.

He made more touches in central areas and averaged 4.6 more per 90 on the left hand side, where Grealish likes to operate.

A report by The Athletic stated Guardiola intends to use Grealish as an option in the left-sided number eight position within his 4-3-3, one often occupied by Ilkay Gundogan as the Germany international enjoyed the most prolific goalscoring season of his career.

Grealish would provide a different threat, not least with his exceptional dribbling ability. His 60 carries ending with a shot at goal last season were the best in the division, one ahead of Kane. Of those, 37 were created chances for team-mates and the extent to which the 25-year-old occupies defenders should free up De Bruyne to thrive where he can deliver those balls that strikers love – not to say his delivery from the left is especially shabby.

"When I watch De Bruyne play he's a special, special player and some of the balls I see him put in for City are just a striker's dream if I'm honest," Kane told Gary Neville's Overlap podcast in May, demonstrating his aptitude for subtlety is not on a par with his goal poaching.

"He's an outstanding player with the ball, off the ball, pressing, but his delivery is as good as I've ever seen to be honest."  

Should Kane follow Grealish in realising his De Bruyne dream, Guardiola will field a team retaining the control that squeezed the competition last season and bolstered by a goal threat at least equal to his initial City configuration.

If he can knit it all together, and history suggests a very decent record in that regard, it represents a chilling prospect for the rest of the elite in England and Europe.

So now we know: Lionel Messi is leaving Barcelona.

Having pushed hard to force through an exit a year ago, the Argentina superstar appeared set to commit his long-term future to the Spanish club by signing a new deal this offseason.

However, his Camp Nou days now appear over due to "economic and structural obstacles", despite reportedly agreeing to take a 50 per cent wage reduction. Put simply, the dire financial situation means Barca cannot keep their prized asset.

Unless there is another dramatic twist to the saga (and we definitely should not rule that out just yet), Messi must find a new home.

So where could the six-time Ballon d'Or winner end up? The list of options appears to be short, albeit varied.

Hello, Paris!

Paris Saint-Germain are the early front-runners in this unexpected race, and rightly so. Thanks to owners Qatar Sports Investments, the Ligue 1 side have the financial backing to make Messi a tempting offer, plus they would give him a chance of Champions League glory once again – they were beaten finalists in 2020, then knocked out in the last four the following season.

Compatriot Mauricio Pochettino is there, as too are international team-mates Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria. When you add in another familiar face in former Barca colleague Neymar, it suddenly seems like a cosy, obvious fit. Such a signing could also help sway Kylian Mbappe to sign a new contract, or at least make it far more palatable to consider cashing in on the Frenchman before his deal runs out.

The Pep reunion tour

A year ago, when Messi made us look up exactly what a burofax is, Manchester City appeared the likely landing spot. A once rock-solid relationship with Barca appeared in tatters, amid disgruntlement over what was happening both on and off the pitch. Moving to England would have finally answered the old line of, 'Yeah, but can he do it on a wet Tuesday in [insert team here]?', as well as reuniting him with Pep Guardiola, the coach who twice steered Barca to Champions League glory.

However, City have seemingly moved on since missing out on Messi. Not so long after Barca's statement was released, the Premier League champions confirmed the signing of Jack Grealish for £100million. Harry Kane has also been heavily linked with them, and the England captain will not come cheap (certainly if Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has anything to do with it). Even with City, there is a limit to how much you can spend.

Made in Chelsea

So how about Messi moves to the Premier League anyway, but just not to the club where everyone once expected? Chelsea have not been mentioned too much as a possible destination, either last year or now, but they have the resources and are seemingly keen to add to their attacking options, considering rumours of moves for Erling Haaland and, more recently, Romelu Lukaku. Unlike that duo, Messi is unattached and available for nothing (in terms of a transfer fee at least).

However, those links to central strikers suggest head coach Thomas Tuchel and the Chelsea hierarchy have a certain idea of what they want to add to the squad – and it may not be a 34-year-old who would require a rethink over the entire structure of the team. While Messi would no doubt enhance the Blues, west London appears unlikely to be welcoming him into the neighbourhood.

ML-YES!

Could Messi be set to take the well-trodden path from Europe to the United States? MLS has appeared a viable option for him at some stage in his playing days – he even said so himself in an interview with La Sexta in December 2020: "I would like to play in the United States someday, it's always been one of my dreams... but I don't know if it will happen!" Well, that dream could now become a reality, with the competition having a history of attracting big names in the twilight stages of their careers.

David Beckham did just that, and now he is heavily involved with Inter Miami – perhaps the leading MLS option for Messi. New York and Los Angeles could factor into consideration, with the chance for a global superstar to take the plunge in a major market. In truth, though, it seems this idea could come to fruition further down the line, rather than in the coming weeks.

No place like home…

While he has been at Barcelona since his teenage years, coming through the famous La Masia youth academy, Messi started out with Newell's Old Boys in Argentina. A move back to his hometown of Rosario would be a wonderful way to bookend his illustrious playing days. However, having scored 30 goals in 35 LaLiga games last term, he shows no signs of his ridiculously lofty standards slipping just yet.

Diego Maradona did have a brief stint there, with Messi revealing a Newell's number 10 shirt after scoring against Osasuna to pay tribute to the Argentina legend, who died in November 2020. Still, after finally securing a first international trophy with the national team, winning this year's Copa America on Brazilian soil, a return to his roots appears unlikely.

Jack Grealish is, finally, a Manchester City player.

The Premier League champions have long been linked with the Aston Villa captain and, after weeks of speculation, a deal worth a reported £100million – a Premier League record – takes him to the Etihad Stadium.

Grealish, along with Harry Kane, reportedly represented City's top target as Pep Guardiola adds further creativity to an attacking unit which was already the envy of European football.

With the deal complete, Stats Perform has assessed what Grealish will bring to his new club.

THE NUMBERS

Grealish played 26 times in the league last season, missing 12 games towards the end of the campaign due to a shin injury.

He scored six times, adding 10 assists. His 70 chances created from open play was 26 more than any other Villa player, and only seven shy of Bruno Fernandes' league-leading 77.

When counting chances created in total, including from set plays, Grealish (81) ranked third in the league, behind Mason Mount (87) and Fernandes (95), though they played 10 and 11 games more than the Villa captain respectively.

Grealish outscored his expected goals tally of 4.65, while only Harry Kane (14), Kevin De Bruyne (12) and Fernandes (12) supplied more assists.

The playmaker, who generally featured on the left flank for Villa, attempted 110 dribbles, tallying up a success rate of 59.09 per cent, the seventh-best out of Premier League players to attempt 100 or more dribbles.

 

HOW HE WILL FIT IN

Capable of playing centrally or wide, Grealish will add another high-quality, versatile option to Guardiola's already packed squad. His 81 chances created leads the way out of City and Villa players from last term, with De Bruyne (80) a close second.

No Villa or City player attempted or completed more dribbles than Grealish, whose ability to carry the ball into dangerous positions and then release a timely pass will surely be a big draw for Guardiola, though he will want sharp, snappy passing to be brought into the midfielder's game.

Based on City's current options, Grealish would likely be competing with De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez – though several of those players have been linked with moves away – for a place in the team, either as a central midfielder or a wide attacker in the champions' preferred 4-3-3 system.

Of that sextet, only De Bruyne played more passes, including crosses, into the penalty area (239) than Grealish. However, he was some 90 ahead, while playing one game less.

Grealish's shot count of 50 ranked him fifth out of those seven players, with his shot conversion rate of 12 per cent also the fifth-best.

De Bruyne (7.4 per cent from 80) and Silva (7.14 per cent from 28) had a lower conversion percentage, though logic would suggest Grealish will have more opportunities to shoot in a City team that managed 599 attempts last season, 79 more than Villa's total.

 

HOW WILL VILLA MANAGE?

Villa had already gone some way to mitigating the damage a potential transfer would cause, with Emiliano Buendia – a creative fulcrum for Norwich City last season – arriving earlier in the transfer window.

Ashley Young has made a return to Villa Park on a free transfer from Serie A champions Inter, while Villa also made several bids for Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe before the 20-year-old signed a new deal with the Gunners.

Leon Bailey, Bayer Leverkusen's flying winger, was confirmed as a Villa player on Wednesday, meanwhile.

The Jamaica international scored 15 goals and provided 10 assists in 40 appearances last season, and his arrival could certainly soften the blow somewhat, though there is a chance he may need time to adapt from the Bundesliga.

Bailey created 63 chances in total, with 11 of these classed as 'big chances' – Grealish, by comparison, created 14 such opportunities in league football in 2020-21.

And Bailey's arrival was quickly followed by that of Danny Ings, a shock recruit from Southampton. The England forward has scored 31 non-penalty goals in the Premier League over the past two seasons, a tally only topped by Mohamed Salah (32) and Kane (35).

While Villa will still have to adapt without Grealish, they could also yet pursue significant upgrades elsewhere in the squad as Dean Smith looks to push for European qualification. Norwich's Todd Cantwell and Southampton and England midfielder James Ward-Prowse have been linked.

City, meanwhile, have signed one of English football's best talents, with Grealish having the opportunity to head into his prime years at one of Europe's leading clubs.

Pep Guardiola's quest to conquer Europe and continue domestic domination with Manchester City has seen him sign Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish in a deal reportedly worth £100million.

Grealish becomes the most expensive signing in Premier League history after being prised away from Villa Park, where he had spent his entire career and captained his boyhood club since 2019.

The England international, who helped the Three Lions to a first major final appearance in 55 years at Euro 2020, has regularly been linked away from Villa but committed his future after rumoured interest from Manchester United, signing a long-term contract in 2020.

In the 2020-21 campaign, the 25-year old contributed with six league goals and 10 assists, while also creating 81 chances across 26 appearances for the Villains.

Dean Smith will no longer have the playmaker to call upon, though, as Guardiola has demolished the previous Premier League transfer record – set by Paul Pogba's return to United in 2016 – to secure Grealish's services.

After City's record-breaking acquisition of Grealish, Stats Perform looks at the other most expensive signings in English top-flight history.

PAUL POGBA – Juventus to Manchester United, £89.3m

Jose Mourinho's first transfer window with the Red Devils saw the France midfielder return to Old Trafford in a then-world record transfer.

Since making that reunion in 2016-17, only Marcus Rashford (78) and Anthony Martial (64) have been involved in more Premier League goals for United than Pogba (57 – 28 goals, 29 assists), while the midfielder has created more top-flight chances (207) than any other player for the club during this period.

He scored and assisted one apiece for France at Euro 2020, while only Antoine Griezmann (10) created more chances than Pogba's eight for Les Bleus.

HARRY MAGUIRE – Leicester City to Manchester United £80m

United broke the world transfer record for a defender in 2002 when they signed Rio Ferdinand for £30m and 17 years later they acquired Maguire for more than double that fee.

The centre-back endured a tricky start to life in Manchester, however, his quality eventually shone through as he strung together 71 consecutive appearances for United.

Despite missing the last four games of the 2020-21 campaign, Maguire ranked second in the Premier League for aerial challenges won (135) and fifth for successful duels (203) before featuring prominently at Euro 2020 for England.

 

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Southampton to Liverpool, £75m

Jurgen Klopp, albeit under contentious circumstances, convinced Van Dijk to move away from St. Mary's Stadium in December 2017.

The commanding Netherlands captain guided Liverpool to their sixth Champions League success in 2018-19 before playing a key role as the Reds ended their 30-year wait for an English title.

Van Dijk's absence severely affected their Premier League defence last term. Klopp's men have won 75.8 per cent of their league matches with Van Dijk in the side since his debut in January 2018, a figure that falls to 54.3 per cent in his absence.

 

ROMELU LUKAKU – Everton to Manchester United £75m

The Belgium forward never settled in at Old Trafford and left after two seasons, despite converting 42 times in 96 games for United.

Lukaku scored twice in United's stunning Champions League last-16 comeback victory over Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 before completing a switch to Inter, where he helped Antonio Conte's men to their first Scudetto since 2009-10.

During the title-winning campaign, Lukaku shunned doubts over his finishing as he converted almost one in four chances to bag 24 goals and improved his link-up play to form an effective partnership with Lautaro Martinez. Since his Inter debut only five players have scored more goals in Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku (64).

He has now been linked with a return to former club Chelsea in a deal which could shatter Grealish's new record.

 

JADON SANCHO – Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United £73m

After leaving Manchester City in 2017 for Borussia Dortmund, Sancho found himself signing for the red half of Manchester four years later. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pursued Sancho for multiple transfer windows and finally got his man in the wake of England's Euro 2020 shoot-out heartbreak.

Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, the 21-year-old has been directly involved in the joint-most goals of any English player across the top five European leagues (78), while he has played fewer minutes than Harry Kane – also on 78 – in this period.

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

Lionel Messi is leaving Barcelona after failing to come to agreement on a deal that would fit within LaLiga's salary restrictions.

Although a new contract was expected, with the Blaugrana captain a free agent since the end of last season, he is now departing his only club.

It means Messi will not add to a remarkable haul of 672 goals in all competitions as a Barca player.

Of course, the 34-year-old is not only a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals, meaning Stats Perform had quite the selection to choose from when picking out a chronological top 10 from his Barca collection.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already seen one goal wrongly ruled out for offside – an audacious chip from the edge of the box – Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Malaga (H): March 22, 2009

Thierry Henry's favourite goal by Messi during their time playing together for Barca. Why not let the France great take up the story? "It defied logic what he did," Henry said in the 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball' documentary. "There's a diagonal ball and he controls it on his chest. He runs full speed, then the first player goes and the second player is just behind. If he takes another step, that player will clear the ball." A shimmy of the body and deft touch later – in the blink of an eye – Messi stabbed into the top corner to conclude a moment of 100-miles-per-hour brilliance.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, this strike against Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in a goal that began when he won the ball from a tackle at halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

At the height of the Clasico rivalry between Guardiola's Barca and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the two teams met four times in three different competitions in less than a month. The league meeting ended in a draw and Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, but Barca triumphed in the Champions League semi-final with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, an ill-tempered affair to say the least, saw Messi make it 2-0 by bursting beyond four attempted challenges and slotting past Iker Casillas, all in the space of around five seconds.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly side-footing home from just inside the penalty area.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Guardiola returned to Camp Nou with a Bayern side struggling with injury problems. They kept Barca at bay until the 77th minute of this Champions League semi-final first leg, when Messi finally struck. It was his second goal that earns a place in this list, though: collecting Ivan Rakitic's pass, a simple-looking shimmy left Jerome Boateng on his backside before he chipped Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in stoppage time gave Jordi Alba the chance to square to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Rarely has a hat-trick been completed in finer fashion. Messi's two goals had helped Barca to a 3-1 lead at the Benito Villamarin, before he passed to Rakitic, ran onto the return ball and sent a first-time chip over goalkeeper Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from just inside the box. It was a sublime effort that even had the home fans on their feet applauding – something Messi himself admitted he had not experienced before.

Liverpool (H): May 1, 2019

Over the past few years, Messi has mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. Liverpool held their own for long periods at Camp Nou but goals from Luis Suarez and Messi gave the hosts breathing space. Jurgen Klopp's side then had to bow to greatness when, after being brought down by Fabinho, Barca's talisman swept an unstoppable 30-yard effort into the top corner. Barcelona would incredibly blow their 3-0 first-leg advantage, however, losing 4-0 at Anfield as Liverpool reached the Champions League final.

Atletico Madrid (A): December 1, 2019

It was goalless in the 86th minute at the Wanda Metropolitano when Messi collected the ball on the right flank, 10 yards inside the Atletico half. Those famous feet began to shuffle with purpose, and although Atletico knew what Messi had in mind, they were powerless to resist the execution of his plan. Messi surged on, playing the ball to Suarez on the edge of the penalty area before taking the return pass and cracking a brilliant 20-yard shot into the bottom left corner of Jan Oblak's goal. A winner, and one of the highest class.

For the first time in his career, Lionel Messi is looking for a new club.

Barcelona announced on Thursday contract talks had been unsuccessful due to the "economic and structural obstacles" of LaLiga's salary restrictions.

Messi's next step is far from obvious, but what if we imagine money is no object and he could play for anyone he chooses? What if the thrill of the game were more important to him than winning a fifth Champions League? What if he threw caution to the wind and went somewhere just for fun?

We've has imagined such a scenario, and these are the teams we'd love to see him play for...

 

AJAX

The link between Ajax and Barca goes beyond the basics of football: it's a shared ideology, a philosophical connection, a spiritual understanding.

From Johan Cruyff to Ronald Koeman, plenty of players and coaches have shared the love of both clubs, but Messi moving to Amsterdam would turn the romance up to 11.

Messi as the focal point of an Ajax side – who are beautiful to watch as it is – is a wonderful idea. He will certainly know all about the club from former player and close friend Luis Suarez.

Given the players Barca have signed from Ajax in the past – Frenkie de Jong the latest – it would be nice to see a player going in the opposite direction.

ATALANTA

Gian Piero Gasperini's side have captured the hearts of the football world in recent seasons, threatening title challenges in Serie A and coming close to reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019-20.

They have done all this on a modest budget, playing vibrant, attacking football, and all during a global pandemic that struck Bergamo and the Lombardy region particularly hard.

The way Argentine Alejandro Gomez pulled the strings for Atalanta in the past was a joy to watch, but imagine if compatriot Messi were in that role. Imagine him again facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. Imagine Marten de Roon's Twitter feed.

Glorious, isn't it?

COLOGNE

The GOAT and the Billy Goats – what could be better?

Cologne have gone through some tricky times but will hope to be on the up again in the Bundesliga after surviving a relegation play-off last term.

They might not have won the title since 1978, but they are among Germany's most esteemed clubs, with an ardent fan base and a beautiful home city. If Messi could lead them to challenge the might of Bayern Munich, it would be an unforgettable story.

If not... well, they have a goat as a mascot, for goodness' sake. It's too perfect.

LEEDS UNITED

It might be too early for Messi to return to Newell's Old Boys, but what if he joined up with Rosario's other most famous footballing export in Yorkshire?

Leeds United returned to the Premier League with a bang last season, continuing their progress under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa and his big blue bucket.

The chance to truly awaken a sleeping giant of the English game and take Leeds to the next level while playing for the man who inspired Pep Guardiola sounds like an opportunity that's too good to miss.

Plus, if he wanted to visit Pep, Manchester is less than an hour away by train.

Can Paris Saint-Germain get back on track? Are champions Lille in contention again? Could any top French sides face the drop?

Stats Perform aims to answer all of these questions and more as the new Ligue 1 season gets under way.

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.

What does that mean for PSG and the rest of the French elite? Read on to find out...

POCH'S PSG TITLE FAVOURITES

It will surprise nobody, but PSG have been identified as the clear pre-season favourites. They are given a huge 79.5 per cent chance of reclaiming their title after falling behind Lille last term.

The signings of Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi and Georginio Wijnaldum should ensure PSG get back on track, while Mike Maignan, Boubakary Soumare and coach Christophe Galtier have all left Lille.

The defending champions are still considered PSG's most likely challengers, though.

Lille have a 12.4 per cent likelihood of retaining the championship, which puts them well clear of Lyon (5.7 per cent) in third. Monaco's 2.4 per cent bid to repeat their 2016-17 success makes them the fourth and final side to be given any chance at all.

TOP FOUR SEEMS SET IN STONE

Four into three does not go, so at least one of the title contenders will miss out on the Champions League. They should all make the top four, though, with Europa League qualification guaranteed for fourth place.

PSG unsurprisingly look certain for one of the two automatic Champions League spots, rated at 94.9 per cent.

Lille are considered most likely to join them at 54.6 per cent, leaving Lyon to take third – the Champions League third qualifying round (35.2) per cent – and Monaco fourth – the Europa League group stage (40.0 per cent).

There are at least a clutch of rival clubs given a slim hope of crashing the Champions League party; Marseille (0.5 per cent), Rennes (0.2 per cent) and Montpellier (0.1 per cent) are all just about in the running for second place.

Interestingly, Nice – ninth last term but having recruited Galtier – are not given a significant chance of even making the Champions League qualifiers, whereas Lens (0.2 per cent), Nantes (0.1 per cent), Reims (0.1 per cent), Saint-Etienne (0.1 per cent) and Strasbourg (0.1 per cent) all come into consideration.

Every team in the league have at least a 0.1 per cent likelihood of finishing fifth – a Europa Conference League play-off round place – although PSG are joined by newly promoted pair Troyes and Clermont with the most remote chance.

BIG-NAME BORDEAUX IN BOTHER?

It figures that Troyes (38.8 per cent) and Clermont (34.5 per cent) are backed for relegation straight back down to Ligue 2, but some of last season's top-flight sides are also at significant risk.

Brest are rated at a 26.4 per cent chance of relegation, with Angers at 19.0 per cent and Lorient at 15.0 per cent.

Most interestingly of all, though, Bordeaux are third-favourites for the drop behind the two promoted clubs.

The six-time champions won the title as recently as 2009 but have been in steady decline, even if a 12th-placed finish last time out saw them steer five points clear of the relegation play-off.

Indeed, Bordeaux were in the European picture in late January before an awful run and they will hope new coach Vladimir Petkovic can ensure there are no relegation worries in the coming campaign.

Elaine Thompson-Herah joined some esteemed company by completing a 100 and 200 metres double at the same Olympics on Tuesday.

The Jamaican sprint star backed up her sensational triumph in the shorter distance, where she posted an Olympic record 10.61 seconds, to win the half-lap race in 21.53s.

In doing so, Thompson-Herah repeated the double she completed at Rio 2016 and is the first female athlete to defend each sprint title.

Indeed, only one runner has ever done so and that person happens to be the legendary Usain Bolt, who actually achieved the accolade of winning both races on three straight occasions.

Here, Stats Perform remembers the superstar duo's memorable moments of glory.

THOMPSON-HERAH:

Rio 2016 – 100m

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was attempting to become the first woman to win the 100m title at three straight Olympics but injuries had plagued her 2016 season and she could only finish third. Instead, it was Thompson-Herah who won gold for Jamaica in a time of 10.71s. "When I crossed the line and glanced across to see I was clear I didn't quite know how to celebrate. There is a big screen back home in my community in Jamaica. I can't imagine what is happening there right now," she said on that occasion.

Rio 2016 – 200m 

Only a few days later, Thompson-Herah became the first woman since Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 to do the double in the women's premier sprint events (Marion Jones had done so in 2000 but later had her medals stripped). Then world champion Dafne Schippers tried to reel in her rival on the home stretch, but there was no stopping Thompson-Herah who crossed the line first in a time of 21.78s. "I know Dafne is a strong finisher, so I knew I had to have a strong finish, as well, just keep my composure and execute straight to the line," she said of the win.

Tokyo 2020 – 100m

Injuries had plagued Thompson-Herah in the intervening years but her form was peaking ahead of reaching these Games. And it all came together beautifully on Saturday when Thompson-Herah sprinted an Olympic-record time of 10.61s to lead a Jamaica one-two-three (Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson completed the podium) and defend her 100m title. "I could have gone faster if I wasn't pointing and celebrating early. But that shows there is more in store, so hopefully, one day, I can unleash that time," she said.

Tokyo 2020 – 200m 

Just like in 2016, Thompson-Herah backed up one dominant triumph with another. A time of 21.53 made her the second-fastest woman over 200m and also meant she could celebrate a place in the history books. She said: "Honestly I just need to sleep, I have not slept since the 100 metres, honestly my body is in shock mode, but I still had my composure to come out here. It feels good to be in the history book, to set a barrier for the other generation of athletes coming up because we have got a lot of athletes coming from Jamaica, it means a lot to me to set this barrier."

USAIN BOLT

Beijing 2008 – 100m 

The legendary Bolt started his era of domination in Beijing 13 years ago. In the 100m final, he ran a then world-record time of 9.69s despite easing up down the closing metres. "I wasn't bragging. When I thought I had the field covered I was celebrating. I was happy. I didn't know I'd broken it until my victory lap." With his victory, Bolt became the first men's 100m champion from Jamaica.

Beijing 2008 – 200m

At that same Games, Bolt became the first sprinter to break the 100 and 200m records at the same Olympics to take out the latter title in an astonishing time of 19.30s. Accused of jogging towards the line in earlier heats, Bolt delivered on a promise to run flat out in a dominant final. "I was worried [I might not break the record] after the semis. But I told everybody I would leave everything on the track and I did just that. I've proved I'm a true champion and that with hard work anything is possible," Bolt said.

London 2012 – 100m

Bolt had been beaten by a young pretender in the form of compatriot Yohan Blake in both 100 and 200m races in the 2012 season. But come Games time, it was Bolt who once again reigned supreme – clocking an Olympic record 9.63s (he had beaten his world benchmark from Beijing by this point) to defend the gold. "I tell you people it's all about business for me, and I brought it. When it comes down to business, I know what to do. The crowd were wonderful. I could feel that energy. I feel extremely good and happy," Bolt said.

London 2012 – 200m

An ever-relaxed Bolt enjoyed more success when he again came out on top against Blake in the 200m, winning with a time of 19.32s. In doing so, he became the first man to defend the 200m title and first to complete the 100-200m double twice. On the moment of history, he said: "I've got nothing left to prove. I've showed the world I'm the best and, right now, I just want to enjoy myself. This is my moment. I'll never forget this."

Rio 2016 – 100m

Bolt was by no means the favourite heading into his third Olympics four years ago, with long-time American rival Justin Gatlin holding the season's best prior to the Games. In the final, Bolt came good by defeating Gatlin by 0.08s. With this victory, Bolt became the first person to win the 100m title three times. In front of a jubilant crowd in Brazil, Bolt said: "It wasn't perfect today, but I got it done and I'm pretty proud of what I've achieved. Nobody else has done it or even attempted it."

Rio 2016 – 200m

He would again back up 100m glory in the 200m race, becoming the first man to win the 200m title three times despite having limited runs over the distance in the build-up to the Olympics. He ran a 19.78s to beat Canada's Andre De Grasse. "The fact I came here and executed what I wanted to is a brilliant feeling. I wasn't happy with the time when I crossed the line but I'm excited I got the gold medal - that's the key thing," Bolt said.

The transfer window will be open for another month and Manchester United have already made two statement signings. That fact alone is something for fans to celebrate.

"We've scrambled before towards the end of the window and now I have to say we're in a good position," manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after securing Jadon Sancho's arrival and a deal in principle for Raphael Varane before the end of July.

The issue of whether one of the world's richest and most successful sports franchises should celebrate making just two transfers is best saved for another time. The fact remains United made a mess of the majority of their recruitment drives before Solskjaer took charge in December 2018. Now, they look like having their best pre-season window since the transformative signing of Robin van Persie nine years ago, a deal that heralded their most recent Premier League title.

More signings could yet come before the deadline at the end of August – although this depends on sales - but United will almost certainly look stronger than last term when 2021-22 gets underway. Their bid to close the gap to champions Manchester City, make a decent fist of a Champions League run and win a first trophy since 2017... well, they all look a bit more promising than they did in late May, in that laboured Europa League final with Villarreal.

Off the pitch, Solskjaer has done some sterling work. Now comes the moment to get the Red Devils firing consistently on it. They are close to the top but, as a 12-point gap to City last season proves, not close enough. Solskjaer's tactical decisions could be the difference between another year of disappointment and a return to their perch atop English football.

SANCHO UNLEASHED

United had to play the long game to bring Sancho back to England, but it's ultimately proved cost-effective. Borussia Dortmund wanted over €100million guaranteed a year ago but sold Sancho in 2021 for a fee understood to be worth £72.9million (€85m), the fourth-highest in United's history.

There's a reason Solskjaer was prepared to be patient. He likes his forwards to be fast, direct and fearless, with spontaneous brilliance often encouraged over more systematic attacking patterns. In that regard, Sancho might just be the ideal Solskjaer signing.

Sancho's attacking output is fearsome. He scored 38 goals and provided 45 assists in 104 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund; since his debut in October 2017, only Thomas Muller (91) and Robert Lewandowski (137) managed more direct goal involvements. In that time, Sancho also attempted 544 dribbles – 100 more than any other player in Germany's top flight – and completed 284 of them, again the most in the division.

But why stop at one dribble? Over the past four seasons, Sancho also leads the way for multi take-ons – times on the ball when he tried to beat more than one player – with 48, at least 14 more than anyone else in the Bundesliga. In that same period, United's best such performer was Anthony Martial with 39.

Sancho, then, is an optimal player for an attack where improvisation is key. His skill and daring on the ball could be critical to United finding a way through those low-block defences against which they can look notoriously laboured.

But to unleash Sancho to his fullest, Solskjaer must tweak the system.

MOVE ON FROM MCTOMIFRED

"As long as them two are playing in midfield for Manchester United, they will not be winning big trophies," former captain Roy Keane said of Fred and Scott McTominay after May's 4-2 home loss to Liverpool. So far, he's been proven correct.

Solskjaer has often favoured a double pivot of Fred and McTominay to screen the defence while allowing Bruno Fernandes creative freedom as the number 10. It's often worked well, particularly against stronger opposition where United have been happy to give up the ball: in 2020-21, they lost only two of the 21 league matches where both players started, averaging under a goal a game conceded. The problem is they only won 10 of those matches.

"Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles," was Ferguson's old adage. In favouring Fred and McTominay last season, Solskjaer focused on both and didn't quite master either. They were sometimes possession-based, sometimes counter-punching, but never entirely comfortable in either guise.

In 2020-21, United put together 562 sequences of more than 10 passes – a figure more than 300 behind champions City. They also ranked only fifth in the league for passes per sequence (4.14) and for build-up attacks (125). However, they were not masters of the quick counter, either: they managed 61 direct attacks last season, the eighth most in the division, and although they scored six times from fast breaks, those goals came from just 13 such attempts – amazingly, seven fewer than City.

United's attack was second only to City for goals scored, but it was still not as effective as it should have been. They finished last season with 392 open-play shots in the Premier League, only the fifth-highest in the competition. Their expected goals tally of 44 put them third, as did their actual goal count of 53, when own goals and penalties are excluded.

One option to sharpen up in the final third would be to abandon the 4-2-3-1 for a 4-3-3, allowing a more forward-thinking midfielder to join Fernandes in the middle. That could be Paul Pogba, but if the France star gets the move away he apparently wants, it is also a role that would suit Donny van de Beek, who underlined his determination to kick on from a poor first season in England by returning for pre-season with some serious extra muscle.

The 6-2 thrashing of Leeds United at Old Trafford showed the value of a midfielder breaking the lines – McTominay, in that case – and United's opener against their old rivals in August would be an ideal time to test the 4-3-3 Solskjaer is said to be pondering. With Fred as the patrolling defensive player – he won possession more often than any other United player (228) last term, and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88) – Solskjaer could give licence to two attack-minded midfielders to support Sancho and fit-again Mason Greenwood, likely to start in place of the injured Marcus Rashford.

Of course, such a shift from the double defensive pivot puts the defence at greater risk. There will also still be games where more caution is warranted - key Champions League matches, or Manchester derbies. But Solskjaer may already have solved that problem.

VARANE-GUARD

Whatever certain pundits may think about the pitfalls of adapting to the Premier League, United look to have pulled off a masterstroke by signing Raphael Varane.

A World Cup winner, a four-time Champions League winner, a three-time LaLiga champion, Varane brings huge experience of success to a squad still short on trophy-lifting knowhow. The imposing France international would also, you'd expect, improve United's appalling record last season of conceding 14 goals from set-pieces, a tally surpassed only by Leeds (15) (Varane won 72.3 per cent of aerials in 2020-21; Victor Lindelof won just 59.4).

He will also add pace to a United defence that often looks cumbersome when Harry Maguire and Lindelof face direct runners – another reason why Solskjaer liked his double midfield screen. And that extra speed might also let United push further forward: their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their goal last season was deeper than six other 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 continue to battle for the number-one spot.

The centre-back 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.

Varane and Sancho give United some serious star power, but also tactical flexibility and game-winning potential. If Solskjaer can trust his defence to stay resolute and unshackle the attack, the gap to City may well begin to shrink – and that elusive first trophy could be within his grasp.

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