Bruno Fernandes has become the latest player to dismiss reports of a divide in the Manchester United dressing room, insisting the team are sticking together.

A rift between captain Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo was reported ahead of Sunday's clash with Leeds United.

But Marcus Rashford and Maguire each responded on social media, while interim manager Ralf Rangnick described the claims as "absolute nonsense," before saying the 4-2 victory was the "perfect response" from his players.

Fernandes has also now denied the story, saying the togetherness and camaraderie of the group was evident in their goal celebrations at Elland Road.

"It is honestly people trying to complain and making stories about this club," said the Portugal midfielder ahead of Wednesday's game against Atletico Madrid.

"I don't know what people mean. I saw the goal of H [Maguire] and saw Paul [Pogba] running behind, sliding on his knees, happy for him. I was slapping his head and saying finally he had scored with that big head.

"We know when someone talks about this club or players at this club, it goes around the world with their voice. That is something that they want.

"For us, it is nothing. If we stick to the plan and stick together, that is the main thing: losing together and winning together." 

Ralf Rangnick has heaped praise upon his opposite number Diego Simeone ahead of Manchester Untied's Champions League first-leg clash with Atletico Madrid. 

Rangnick, who is taking charge of just the third Champions League knockout tie of his career after reaching the semi-finals with Schalke in 2010-11, was rewarded for guiding the Red Devils to top of Group F with a trip to the Wanda Metropolitano. 

Despite winning LaLiga last season, Atletico have endured a difficult campaign domestically, and are currently fighting with a rejuvenated Barcelona for a place in Spain's top four.

Atletico have also lost each of their last four Champions League meetings with English opposition, but Rangnick was keen to emphasise Simeone's achievements in Madrid, stressing that United will have to match their hosts both mentally and physically if they are to stand a chance of progressing.

"He has won trophies with a clear identity, with a recognisable style", Rangnick said of Simeone. "I don't think this has changed in the last few years. 

"They are always an emotional side, and this reflects the character of the manager. Simeone is probably one of the best emotional managers in Europe. 

"The style and the way his teams have always performed reflects those emotions that he brings to the team. We need to match those levels of energy and emotion in both games. 

"It will be physical, it will be emotional, and we will have to be mentally strong. I will try to prepare our team for that challenge."

Rangnick has only lost one of his 15 games since taking the reins at United, but a recent FA Cup exit plus draws against Burnley and Southampton brought renewed criticism of the Red Devils' performances.

However, attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes has defended their displays, as he aims to fire United to their 500th goal in the history of the European Cup and Champions League.

 

"I think the team has been playing well even, in the games we didn't win", Fernandes, who scored in Sunday's dramatic 4-2 win at Leeds United, said.

"Obviously when you don't get the result, it's not perfect. Winning games [makes] you feel more confident. 

"Going into this game, which is an important one, we know that having the confidence of winning games gives you something more. If we stick from the plan from the first to the last minute, we can win the game."

Fernandes has the most goal involvements (15) of any Manchester United player in the Premier League this season, and has recorded the most assists (five) of any player in the Champions League this term, but is yet to find the net in Europe himself this campaign.

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

Remember Nico Gaitan?

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

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

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

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

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

Over-reaction or justified criticism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of his comfort zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United's starting line-up for their trip to Brentford after missing the past two games through injury. 

The Portugal captain has scored 14 times in 21 appearances this term but has not featured for Ralf Rangnick's side since a 1-0 home loss against Wolves on January 3, having suffered a minor injury setback. 

The former Real Madrid man led the United attack – replacing Edinson Cavani – in west London on Wednesday, though, with Bruno Fernandes slotting in behind his countryman as captain. 

Rangnick also handed another start to youngster Anthony Elanga, who was utilised from the outset against Aston Villa last Saturday, while Mason Greenwood was deployed on the opposite flank. 

Scott McTominay was Rangnick's only other change from the Villa game as he returned from a one-game suspension to replace Nemanja Matic in midfield. 

Club captain Harry Maguire was still only fit enough for the bench after suffering from an abdominal injury, meaning Victor Lindelof partnered Raphael Varane in the United defence again. 

Kevin De Bruyne came back to haunt his old club as his fine strike handed Premier League leaders Manchester City a 1-0 win over Chelsea on Saturday.

Against no side has De Bruyne scored more Premier League goals than he has against the Blues (five), with this total the most against Chelsea by any player who has previously played for them in the competition.

Elsewhere, Manchester United threw away a two-goal lead at Aston Villa to draw 2-2, with Philippe Coutinho sealing a point on his debut following his loan move from Barcelona.

Wolves beat Southampton 3-1 and Norwich City piled the pressure on Rafael Benitez with a 2-1 win over Everton, while strugglers Newcastle United and Watford played out a 1-1 draw.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data from another eventful day in the Premier League.

Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: De Bruyne edges Guardiola's men closer to the title

City's seemingly unstoppable march towards the Premier League title continued with a 12th straight top-flight win.

It marked the ninth run of 12 or more victories in the competition's history, with Pep Guardiola's side now responsible for four of those.

The decisive goal came from Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgium international superbly whipping into the bottom-right corner from distance with 20 minutes remaining.

De Bruyne has scored 21 Premier League goals from outside the penalty area – the most of any player since his first season with City (2015-16), and the joint-most of any Citizens player in the competition's history (level with Sergio Aguero).

Chelsea scarcely landed a blow on their hosts, failing to register a single shot in the first half. Indeed, they had just seven touches in City's penalty area – their fewest in a single Premier League match since January 2015 (also seven vs Man City).

Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United: Red Devils squander two-goal lead

A stirring late fight back from Villa meant United failed to win a Premier League away game in which they led by 2+ goals for the first time since January 2016 against Newcastle (3-3).

Bruno Fernandes' opener was the first Premier League goal United have scored from a set piece situation this season (excluding penalties), before the Portugal international doubled their advantage in the second period.  

Since making his United debut in February 2020, only Mohamed Salah (45) and Harry Kane (34) have scored more Premier League goals than Fernandes (33), while only James Ward-Prowse (seven) has scored more goals from outside the box in the competition during this period than the Portuguese (six).

Jacob Ramsey inspired a memorable comeback, though, the 20-year-old becoming the first Villa player to both score and assist against United in a single Premier League game since John Carew in April 2009, and the third-youngest player to do it against the Red Devils in the Premier League overall after Kelechi Iheanacho in September 2016 and Harry Kewell in November 1998.

Coutinho ensured the points were shared in what was his first Premier League appearance in 1477 days (for Liverpool vs Leicester City in December 2017).

Norwich City 2-1 Everton: Idah gets off the mark to put Benitez on the brink

The Canaries kick-started their bid for survival with a second win in six Premier League home games under Dean Smith – as many as they managed in their final 21 home games in the competition under previous manager Daniel Farke.

There were just 92 seconds between Michael Keane's own goal and Adam Idah's first Premier League strike, the hosts scoring as many times inside the opening 18 minutes as they had in their previous eight top-flight matches combined (one).

Idah's goal was his first in 27 Premier League appearances, while it was his first league goal since May 2021, when he scored in Norwich's final game of the Championship season.

The result meant Everton, who pulled one back through Richarlison, have won just 19 points from their 19 league games this season. Only twice previously have they had fewer at this stage of a Premier League campaign (17 in 1997-98 and 2005-06) and it looks as though Benitez's time may be up.

Wolves 3-1 Southampton: Traore off the mark as hosts' fine season continues

Wolves completed a top-flight double over Southampton for the first time since 1971-72, as well as winning three in a row against Saints in the top tier for the first time since October 1970.

Raul Jimenez and Conor Coady put them 2-0 up before the hour mark, with the latter's three Premier League goals coming from just four shots on target in 134 appearances.

Saints captain James Ward-Prowse scored his 12th direct free-kick goal in the Premier League to reduce the deficit – a haul bettered only by David Beckham (18).

However, Adama Traore's first goal in 22 top-flight appearances ensured Wolves picked up 31 points from their first 20 games of the season – their best return at this stage of a top-flight campaign since 1979-80 (also 31 points) when they finished in sixth place.

Ralf Rangnick believes Manchester United took another "step forward" despite feeling as if they had lost after throwing away a two-goal lead in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.

United found themselves 2-0 up in the 67th minute thanks to Bruno Fernandes' brace, his first-half opener a result of an Emiliano Martinez error and his emphatic second coming after Morgan Sanson's poor pass.

But it was a case of United being unable to get over the line, with Jacob Ramsey pulling one back before then teeing up Philippe Coutinho to net the crucial equaliser on his debut with eight minutes left.

United did control large parts of the match and arguably looked at their most fluent in attack under Ralf Rangnick, with Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga both threatening from the flanks.

But Rangnick could not hide his frustration at United failing to maintain their level into the dying stages.

"It is very difficult to find positives after these 95 minutes," he told Sky Sports. "I felt it was the best game since I came here, in the first half for 30 minutes, when we dominated the game. We had taken some steps forward but have a few things to do better.

"The plan was to press them in the midzone and we did that very well in the first 30 minutes, and control the ball, and those were the positives. When you are 2-0 up you have to defend better than we did in the last 15 minutes.

"We gave away too many balls at times in the last 15 minutes, we were not as compact as before and conceded the two goals. In the last 15 minutes before half-time we were not as courageous to step up, it was better in the second half and then you have to take the three points home. It feels like a defeat, to be honest.

"Right now it's very disappointing but what we showed was a step forward, but it's about getting the results, it feels like two points lost and given away."

Fernandes' first goal was only his second since September, with the midfielder – who wore the captain's armband – appearing to thrive a little more in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, missing out with a hip injury.

While he acknowledged the performance was better than some recent efforts, Fernandes was left bemoaning United's lack of ruthless in the final third, something Ronaldo may have been able to do something about.

"We got into the perfect position to score more goals and take the third goal and finish the game, but we don't get our chance on the counters and gave the chances to them," he added.

"They have good players up front and draw the game, it is tough to take because I think the game was under control.

"After our first goal they began to press us more, but still we had our chances and could have scored again. Sometimes the shot was not good, or the pass was not good and you start losing confidence, the game got more open and they got more space between the lines. With the quality of players they have up front, they hurt you.

"The performance was better than the result, more controlled but the main point is winning games and points. We deserved more, but it's not about deserving, it's about getting points.

"We still have a lot to improve but it is about performance and results together."

United remain seventh in the Premier League as a result of the draw.

Philippe Coutinho scored a late equaliser on his debut as Aston Villa recovered from two down to draw 2-2 with Manchester United at Villa Park on Saturday.

United looked set to seal a morale-boosting and hard-fought victory thanks to Bruno Fernandes' brace, but Villa fought back in the final 13 minutes to secure an unlikely point.

There was undoubtedly a hint of fortune about United's opener, an Emiliano Martinez howler allowing Fernandes to score for only the second time in the Premier League since September, but the Portugal star's second was an emphatic effort.

That looked as though it would be enough for United, but Jacob Ramsey scored and then teed up new loan signing Coutinho to rescue a draw with a dream debut goal.

It took United – who were without Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford due to injury – just six minutes to score, though Martinez gave them more than a helping hand, inexplicably allowing Fernandes' long-range strike squirm through his legs.

Villa came to life towards the end of the half, but David de Gea was equal to Emi Buendia's near-post header and debutant Lucas Digne's controlled strike.

Chances continued to flow at either end after the restart, with Anthony Elanga going close twice and Ramsey forcing De Gea into a smart save.

But Fernandes was less wasteful, his drive clattering in off the crossbar after a Morgan Sanson error led to Fred feeding United's captain.

Villa rallied, however. Ramsey pulled one back with a well-taken left-footed finish inside the box before playing an inch-perfect pass across goal for Coutinho to smash home five minutes later.

Bruno Fernandes joked April Fools' Day has come early as the Manchester United midfielder moved to rubbish reports linking him with a move to Barcelona.

The Portugal international is approaching the two-year anniversary since arriving at United from Sporting CP and has been arguably the club's best performer over that period.

However, reports from Fernandes' homeland on Saturday claimed the 27-year-old is seeking a way out of Old Trafford and has been offered to Barcelona by his agent.

Fernandes was quick to call out those reports, though, with a message posted on his personal Instagram page.

"And I thought the new year only started a few days ago, yet we're already on April 1!" he said in a direct response to SPORT TV's report.

"Or is this once again just bad journalism?"

 

Fernandes still has three and a half years to run on the contract signed when arriving from Sporting in a deal worth up to £68million (€80m) in January 2020.

Since his debut on February 1 that year – a goalless home draw with Wolves – Fernandes has played 104 times for United in all competitions.

That is at least 10 times more than any other United player, with Harry Maguire (94) next on the list, the pair having both started 93 times over that period.

He has been directly involved in 79 goals in those two years – 45 goals and 34 assists – a tally bettered by only six others among players from clubs in Europe's top five leagues.

But Fernandes has not been quite as effective this term, coinciding with the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, with 19 players boasting more than his eight Premier League goals involvements.

Phil Jones will make his first Premier League start in two years for Manchester United, while Bruno Fernandes was left on the bench for the visit of Wolves.

Jones last started a top-flight game against Burnley in January 2020 but injury issues with Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly, along with COVID-19 complications for Victor Lindelof, have left United short-handed in defence.

The 712 days between games for Jones is the longest gap any player who has not left the club - including loan spells - has had between appearances for the Red Devils in the competition.

The former Blackburn defender, who missed the entire 2020-21 season, has been an unused substitute in five league games this campaign, though he will join Raphael Varane at the back on Monday.

Further forward, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood will operate in behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, meaning Fernandes is left among the substitutes for the clash with Bruno Lage's side.

The Portugal international was absent from the 3-1 win over Burnley last Thursday due to suspension, after he and compatriot Ronaldo came into criticism from Sky pundit Gary Neville for their body language during a disappointing 1-1 draw at Newcastle.

Fernandes was an integral figure in propelling United to Champions League qualification last campaign as he netted 28 times in all competitions. 

That was the best return by a midfielder for a Premier League club in a single campaign, surpassing Frank Lampard's 27 for Chelsea in 2009-10, but he has failed to hit those lofty heights this term with five top-flight goals to his name so far.

Wolves make two changes as Francisco Trincao and Nelson Semedo come into the starting line-up, while Adama Traore starts on the bench for the visitors.

TEAMS

Manchester United: David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Edinson Cavani, Cristiano Ronaldo. Subs: Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Fred, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Dalot, Dean Henderson, Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek, Anthony Elanga.

Wolves: Jose Sa, Max Kilman, Conor Coady, Romain Saiss, Nelson Semedo, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Marcal, Francisco Trincao, Raul Jimenez, Daniel Podence. Subs: Ki-Jana Hoever, Rayan Ait Nouri, Bruno Jordao, Fabio Silva, John Ruddy, Leander Dendoncker, Adama Traore, Luke Cundle, Hugo Bueno.

Ralf Rangnick insisted Manchester United must develop as a "whole team", adding that a partnership between Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes was not his priority.

Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford in early September and has since netted 14 goals across all competitions as he leads the Premier League and Champions League scoring charts.

The 36-year-old found the net and assisted another in a comfortable 3-1 win over Burnley that moved United up to sixth on Thursday – the forward registering double figures for goal involvements in a 17th consecutive league season.

But there have been questions about whether Ronaldo and compatriot Fernandes, who missed the Burnley game through suspension, can fit into the same team together and work effectively.

Former United captain Gary Neville aimed criticism at the pair following a disappointing 1-1 draw with Newcastle United on Monday, labelling the duo as "whingebags" who were having a "devastating" impact on United's underwhelming season thus far.

Rangnick previously commented on the body language of United players in the slender win over Norwich City, while he has also insisted that the Red Devils will not solely rely on the Portugal pair.

"Against Burnley, we had to play without Bruno and again we did well, we played with two strikers, two wingers, two number sixes, every player in his best possible position," he told Sky Sports.

"This is another thing we are trying to achieve, no matter which formation we are trying to play we have every player in his best possible position.

"So it is not only about the partnership between Cristiano and Bruno, it is about partnerships between other players.

"Yesterday [Thursday] it was about a partnership between Edinson [Cavani] and Cristiano and it worked well. Edinson was the player with the highest distance [covered] in the whole team.

"Since we will change the team and starting line-up every game it is about different partnerships and developing the whole team.

"They should play with the same mindset and principles when we are in possession of the ball or when the other team is in possession."

Fernandes was an integral figure in propelling United to Champions League qualification last campaign as he netted 28 times for United in all competitions. 

That was the best return by a midfielder for a Premier League club in a single campaign, surpassing Frank Lampard's 27 for Chelsea in 2009-10, but he has failed to hit those lofty heights this term with five top-flight goals to his name so far.

Whether Fernandes comes back into the team for the visit of Wolves on January 3 remains unclear, but Rangnick is aware that man-management will be key to his success in Manchester.

He added: "This is always about man management, having a good relationship with the players. But also be aware that you're the one to take the decisions.

"Who is going to play, who will be substituted, who will be on the bench or possibly not even make it into the squad for the next game."

United spent heavily in the last transfer window, bringing in Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, though that does not necessarily rule out further transfer activity in January.

Anthony Martial has also stated his desire to seek new pastures away from United, but Rangnick believes it is too soon to start thinking about potential signings and departures with an abundance of first-team players to choose from already.

"[It's] too early now," he responded when asked about transfer dealings in the new year. "The current squad is big enough, with a lot of competition in the squad.

"To speak about future players coming into the club doesn't make sense at this stage when we have to find out which player is in which position, the best possible solution for every game.

"Right now for me, it doesn't make sense to think about future players. My full focus is on the current squad and to find for each game the best possible formation and line-up."

Reigning champions Manchester City end the year as hot favourites to win the Premier League again, but how many of Pep Guardiola's players should make it into a team of the year?

Do any of the Manchester United players Gary Neville described as "whingebags" deserve a place in an elite XI? And is there a case to be made for any players from beyond the 'big six'?

The answers to those questions are: a) five, by our estimations; b) yes; and c) yes.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform selected a dream team for 2021, packed with standout performers from the calendar year.

Safe hands? It has to be Mendy

Chelsea's Edouard Mendy had a save percentage of 74.36, which put him fourth among goalkeepers with five or more Premier League appearances. Curiously, his Blues club-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga headed that list with an 81.82 per cent record, but he only played five Premier League games: the Spaniard's previous inconsistency and propensity to make expensive errors cost him a regular place.

Mendy has demonstrated reliability and Chelsea's upturn in form under Thomas Tuchel, highlighted by their Champions League triumph, owed a lot to the man at the back. He had 18 clean sheets in 38 Premier League games and in this team of the year he edges out the likes of Arsenal's former Sheffield United shot-stopper Aaron Ramsdale, and Wolves' outstanding Jose Sa (80.28 per cent save percentage in 18 games – a half-season wonder so far).

Risk-takers on the defensive flanks, no-nonsense in the middle

Top of the defenders' league for assists (13) and ball recoveries (308), Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold remains a sensational presence at right-back. He is much closer to the bottom of the league when it comes to duel success (46.77 per cent), and being dribbled past by opposition players (34 incidences), but his strengths are such that Liverpool can put up with those figures. The playmaker at full-back might be prone to an occasional error, but his service from the flanks has often been a match-winning ingredient in the Reds' mix.

Similar can be said for Manchester City's Joao Cancelo, a first-class operator on either defensive flank. He has three goals and six assists in the league over the year and has created 39 chances from open play, putting him in the top five among defenders in the latter metric (Alexander-Arnold's 67 leads the way). Cancelo has a healthy tackle success rate of 66.27 per cent, but he has also been dribbled past 53 times by opponents, more than any other defender and has made three errors leading to shots (Harry Maguire tops this list, with six errors). Cancelo is imperfect, but also often quite brilliant.

In the centre of defence, Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger might be in his last season at Stamford Bridge, amid speculation linking him with Real Madrid and others. He has been largely formidable, developing a strong alliance with Thiago Silva. Only three defenders with more than 20 Premier League appearances across the year managed to top 60 per cent for duel success (Rudiger: 63.75) and 70 per cent for tackle success (Rudiger: 73.08) while being dribbled past no more than 10 times (Rudiger: 10). Surprisingly, one of those was Newcastle's Ciaran Clark. The others were Rudiger and Silva, and you could have either in a team of the year.

Ruben Dias has been the Rolls-Royce engine in Manchester City's defence: powerful and classy, surely built to last. His passing accuracy of 93.28 per cent has been beaten only by one defender in the league – team-mate Aymeric Laporte (93.91) – with Dias also managing three goals and two assists in 2021, his first full year in English football. City are no longer crying out for a Vincent Kompany replacement: Dias, 24, could be the cornerstone of their defence for many seasons to come.

Midfield marvels... from Manchester

Is Bruno Fernandes a maestro or a "whingebag"? Neville used the latter description after Manchester United's draw at Newcastle, but he would doubtless concur on the former too, given it has not been all shoulder shrugs and finger-pointing from the mercurial Portuguese this year. In 2020, Fernandes had 18 goals and 14 assists, alongside 60 open-play chances created. He has played more games this year (39, compared to 29 in 2021) and finished up with 13 goals, eight assists and 79 open-play chances created. His 21 goal involvements lead the way among midfielders, and even if those have dried up in recent weeks – he had just one goal and one assist in his final nine league games of the year – he had already done enough.

Across Manchester, Ilkay Gundogan was a revelation for City, particularly during a purple patch last season. He ends the year with 15 goals, the most of any midfielder, adding five assists from the 44 open-play chances he created, and had a princely passing accuracy in the opposition half of 90.09 per cent. Among Premier League players with more than 30 games, that accuracy was only beaten by Gundogan's City team-mates Bernardo Silva (90.23) and Rodri (90.74).

Of course Bernardo Silva makes the team too, a flagrant example of recency bias after the Portuguese's five goals in five league games from early November to early December. With his nine goals and seven assists across the Premier League year, and his determined dribbling (109 dribbling attempts - second only to Burnley's Dwight McNeil among midfielders), the ever-elegant Bernardo just edges out Manchester City team-mate and previously perennial all-star Kevin De Bruyne.

What a year it has been for Phil Foden, another City star to make this team. Granted, it would have been better had City won the Champions League final on his 21st birthday, but the young man from Stockport has continued his growth at Premier League level, bagging 12 goals and seven assists and another title. Those goals have come at an average of 0.53 per 90 minutes, and the assists at one every 0.31 per 90. He is top five in both per-90 aspects among midfielders, but is Foden still truly a midfielder? The twinkle-toed local lad has been deployed in the frontline frequently, looking at home wherever Pep Guardiola decides he should be slotted.

Standout Salah, remarkable Raphinha

Where would Leeds United be without Raphinha? Rumours of Bayern Munich interest surfaced in December, and his numbers tell us why the German giants might fancy the Brazilian. His 20 goal involvements (12 goals, eight assists) put him joint-fifth among Premier League forwards, with only Mohamed Salah (35), Michail Antonio (24), Harry Kane (23) and Son Heung-min (22) ahead of Raphinha. The former Rennes player attempted 194 dribbles (only Adama Traore, 252, and Allan Saint-Maximin, 238, tried more) and he also played far more passes into the final third than any other forward (198 – Leandro Trossard second on this list with 136). Raphinha got stuck in too, making 50 tackles (only Jordan Ayew, with 60, attempted more among forwards).

Mohamed Salah became the first player to score 20 or more goals in five consecutive seasons for Liverpool in all competitions since Ian Rush from 1981-82 to 1986-87 (six in a row). That is the remarkable level he has reached, and with his own long-term future still somewhat in doubt, Liverpool will be making every effort to retain the Egyptian. In the year when Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the Premier League, the Portuguese was resoundingly outshone by Liverpool's star forward. Salah had more touches in the opposition box than any other player in 2021 (383), and he made good use of those. He created 67 chances from open play, and the goals and assists hauls were both league-highs among forwards.

Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain each have four nominees in the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA FIFPRO Men's World 11 for 2021.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold are also included, although there is no place for Mohamed Salah.

PSG's attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are among the forwards, as is Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Veteran Dani Alves also won enough votes to make the list, even though the 38-year-old, who recently rejoined Barcelona, only played 16 times in domestic competition in Brazil this year.

Professional footballers across the world were asked to vote for the three players they considered to have the best seasons during the 2020-21 season among goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.

FIFPRO said: "For the first time in 17 years, FIFPRO is updating the announcement about the most-voted players, reducing the shortlist from 55 to 23. This has been done to resemble a real-life 'squad' which, usually for international competitions, is the number of players involved. 

"The three goalkeepers, six defenders, six midfielders and six forwards with the most votes earned a place in the 23-men World 11 'squad'. To complete this elite selection, the two remaining outfield players with the most votes were added."

The keeper, three defenders, three midfielders and three forwards with the most votes will be chosen for the World 11, with the remaining spot assigned to the outfield player with the next highest number of votes.

The final 11 will be announced at The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony on January 17.

 

FIFA FIFPRO MEN'S WORLD 11 23-PLAYER SHORTLIST:

Goalkeepers:
Alisson (Liverpool, Brazil)
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan/Paris Saint-Germain, Italy)
Edouard Mendy (Chelsea, Senegal)

Defenders:
David Alaba (Bayern Munich/Real Madrid, Austria)
Jordi Alba (Barcelona, Spain)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, England)
Dani Alves (Sao Paulo/Barcelona, Brazil)
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus, Italy)
Ruben Dias (Manchester City, Portugal)

Midfielders:
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona, Spain)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United, Portugal)
Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, The Netherlands)
Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)
N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Forwards:
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus/Manchester United, Portugal)
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, Norway)
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
Romelu Lukaku (Inter/Chelsea, Belgium)
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Paris Saint-Germain, Argentina)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil)

Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes both refused to dwell on Manchester United's come-from-behind win against Arsenal as the Red Devils look ahead to life under interim manager Ralf Rangnick.

With Rangnick watching in the stands, Ronaldo scored twice to lead United past Premier League rivals Arsenal 3-2 on Thursday before caretaker boss Michael Carrick announced his departure from Old Trafford.

Carrick – who was placed in temporary charge after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's sacking, overseeing wins against Villarreal and Arsenal, and a draw at Chelsea – revealed he would not be staying on and serving as a coach under Rangnick.

After helping to snap United's three-game drought in the Premier League, superstar Ronaldo quickly switched focus as Rangnick prepares to see the embattled giants through until the end of the season.

Ronaldo, who scored the 800th and 801st goals of his illustrious career, wrote via his social media pages: "Our minds are already set on the next game, there's no time to celebrate!

"Today's win was very important to get back on track, but there's still a long road to go until we reach our destination… Congrats to all my team-mates, great spirit tonight."

United – seventh in the standings and 12 points behind leaders Chelsea – scored three goals in a home Premier League game against Arsenal for the first time since February 2016, with Carrick completing all 90 minutes that day.

The Red Devils were forced to come from behind following Emile Smith Rowe's 13th-minute opener – Fernandes restoring parity a minute before half-time.

Fernandes made his 100th competitive appearance for United. Since his club debut in 2020, he has been directly involved in more goals in all competitions than any other player for Premier League sides (79 - 45 goals, 34 assists).

Ronaldo put United ahead seven minutes into the second half, only for Martin Odegaard to equalise two minutes later, though the Portuguese superstar sealed United's victory via a 70th-minute penalty.

"Every win is important for us at this moment," Portuguese star Fernandes told Amazon Prime post-match.

"We know that we have been through a lot of ups and downs, and it has been hard for us to come out of that.

"Today we got a great win, but we cannot stop here and be satisfied because we beat Arsenal. The next game is coming quick, so we have to put our heads on that straight away and be ready for that one."

On countryman and team-mate Ronaldo, Fernandes added: "What can you say about that? It's incredible.

"He's proving game by game, year by year, season by season, that he wants to keep being the best, he wants to be the best and that's what he did.

"He doesn't need anyone to motivate him, he knows how to do it and how to carry on scoring goals."

Before players were told of Carrick's decision to step down, Fernandes hailed the former United midfielder.

Carrick, winner of five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown among other honours during his 12 years as a player in Manchester, made 464 appearances for United between 2006 and 2018 before stepping into coaching.

"Michael can be a really good manager in the future if he gets the chance," said Fernandes. "He knows how to speak, he knows a lot about football.

"He was one of those great players that not a lot of people talk about but from what I know and what I have seen, he can be a top coach."

Manchester United have broken with modern tradition and made a footballing decision that everyone seems to think is a good one.

The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as interim manager until the end of the season was confirmed on Monday, a day after caretaker Michael Carrick managed a creditable 1-1 draw at Premier League leaders Chelsea.

While he hasn't been a coach for the best part of three years, Rangnick's legacy in the Bundesliga and his influence on some of Germany's finest minds makes him a shrewd appointment for United, not least because he will take up a two-year consultancy role after 2021-22.

This, then, is a decision taken by United with a view to long-term changes to their fortunes, not simply a quick fix to arrest poor results. Still, with more than half the season still to go, Rangnick could yet guide the Red Devils to some tangible on-pitch success over the coming months – provided that he gets to work quickly on some of their biggest problems.

Stats Perform looks at five things Rangnick must address as soon as possible...

 

Fix the defence

United conceded 21 goals in the first 12 games of the season; they have never previously let in more at the same stage in the competition's history. In November alone, they have faced 60 shots, the most of any side in the division.

That tells you something about the state of their defence.

Of course, Rangnick's gegenpressing system is likely to demand off-the-ball contributions from every player on the pitch (more on that shortly) but the rearguard is in need of some serious fine-tuning. In particular, captain Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have seen their individual form fall off a cliff since they helped England to the final of Euro 2020; it was telling that a good defensive performance against Chelsea on Sunday came with both players sidelined.

Getting the best out of Shaw and Maguire, arresting Aaron Wan-Bissaka's decline and getting Raphael Varane fit and integrated into the side will be essential to Rangnick's aims.

Get Bruno firing again

So often United's star performer under Solskjaer, Bruno Fernandes is another who has endured a comparatively poor season.

He tallied his 50 direct goal involvement on his 58th appearance in October (30 goals, 20 assists), which is a tally only Andy Cole (43), Alan Shearer (54) and Eric Cantona (54) reached in fewer games, so it's not all bad. But the Portugal playmaker has scored just once in 19 appearances for club and country.

He looks a player in need of a lift and, so central is he to United's attack play, he could be Rangnick's first port of call at Carrington. Well, apart from...

Accommodate Ronaldo

Like a black hole devouring a gas cloud, all the noise surrounding United's performances seems to be drawn inexorably back to Cristiano Ronaldo.

It's a beguiling narrative: a five-time Ballon d'Or winner who has to start every game but who should not expect to start every game; a 36-year-old forward who no longer contributes enough to make up for any shortcomings, but one with six goals in five Champions League matches this season, two of them winners and one a last-gasp equaliser.

There are some writing off Ronaldo's chances of winning over a coach like Rangnick who demands hard graft from every member of his team, while others say the onus is on the incoming manager to construct a unit that brings the best out of the leading male international goalscorer in history. Time will tell what the future holds.

And just a note for the 'Ronaldo doesn't press' crowd: he made three more sprints and 21 more intensive runs against Chelsea than Jesse Lingard, who came on at the same time.

Tie down Pogba and tidy the squad

Some of Solskjaer's best work at United was putting together a strong squad, but that seemed to unravel in his final few months in charge.

Lingard returned rejuvenated from West Ham but, rather than cash in when there was a demand, Solskjaer kept the England international yet gave him just 63 minutes of league action. It's now likely he'll leave for nothing next June.

There were similarly strange decisions behind contract extensions for Eric Bailly and the seldom-seen Juan Mata, while Phil Jones is still at the club after two years of injury hell and Anthony Martial was retained despite falling way down the attacking pecking order. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson also appears unlikely now to dislodge David de Gea.

Then there is Paul Pogba, still yet to sign a new deal or announce plans to leave for free next year, whose agent wastes few opportunities to discuss potentially interested parties. The word is that Pogba is excited to work with Rangnick, but the France star is just one of several members of the United squad who needs clarity on their positions.

Give Donny a chance

It felt almost pre-ordained when Donny van de Beek scored the final goal of the Solskjaer era against Watford, having come on as a substitute to rapturous (and ironic) cheers from the visiting fans.

Van de Beek has spent most of his time at United being assured his chances would come, then left wondering when that would be. Having only started four league games in 14 months, the Netherlands international – who has lost his place in the national squad – would almost certainly have pushed to leave in January had Solskjaer stayed in the job.

Now, Van de Beek has the opportunity to prove himself to a new manager. Rangnick's methods might not be Cruyffian exactly, but they are certainly more closely aligned to the Ajax way than Solskjaer's focus on individual inspiration.

Bruno Fernandes has refused to single Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out for blame following Manchester United's humiliating 4-1 defeat against Watford on Saturday, insisting it is a collective failure.

Josh King, Ismaila Sarr, Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Bonaventure helped themselves to goals against the Red Devils who had Harry Maguire sent off after receiving a second yellow card.

The result means United have won just once in their last six Premier League games, losing four and conceding 12 goals in that run, with pressure intensifying on Solskjaer's position as manager. Indeed, a board meeting is rumoured to have taken place in the wake of the loss.

Fernandes however, instead directed the blame for the side's poor form at the team as a collective unit.

"It's everyone's fault," Fernandes said to beIN Sports after the game. "It's not the coach, it's not one player or two, it's everyone. Everyone has to take responsibility because everyone has to do better, everyone. Not one of us can say 'I'm doing well'."

Fernandes feels United only turned up for one half of the game and described the first half as "sloppy", while also highlighting the Red Devils' defensive issues.

"We [played like a wounded animal] but just for one half and that is not enough in these kinds of games in the Premier League," Fernandes continued. "It's not enough playing just for one half.

"Watford are a good team, they are aggressive, they have quality up front, and if you give them chances, you will concede goals. That has been a problem for us for many games and I think the attitude in the second half was there but in the first half, it was too sloppy from everyone.

"We didn't go on the front foot, we didn't tackle, we didn't win our duels and against these teams, you have to do that. You have to try to keep the same intensity as them and after that, show your quality, show why you play for Manchester United."

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