Chelsea once again downed Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in the headline clash of the weekend's Premier League fixtures.

Fellow title hopefuls Liverpool, who still have a game in hand, closed the gap on leaders Manchester City to nine points with victory over Crystal Palace in south London.

Staying in the capital, Arsenal were held to a goalless draw by lowly Burnley as they lost ground in the race for the top four, while Leicester City shared the points with Brighton and Hove Albion.

With the action all over for a couple of weeks, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the data from Sunday's fixtures.

Crystal Palace 1-3 Liverpool: Reds down Eagles again as Robertson delivers

Liverpool reduced Manchester City's advantage at the top to nine points after a 3-1 victory over Palace, who have lost each of their last 10 league meetings with the Reds.

Virgil van Dijk placed Jurgen Klopp's side in control after just eight minutes at Selhurst Park with his 10th headed goal in the competition – only Sami Hyypia (17) has scored more headers for the Reds in the Premier League.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain added a second after the half-hour mark as he scored in back-to-back top-flight matches for the first time since February 2020.

Both of those goals were created by Andrew Robertson, who now sits joint-second with team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold (both 43) for the most assists in the league since the start of the 2017-18 season, with only Kevin De Bruyne boasting more (52).

Odsonne Edouard halved the deficit in the second half, but Fabinho secured three points with Liverpool's 169th Premier League spot-kick – the joint-most awarded to a team in the competition's history along with Manchester United.

Arsenal 0-0 Burnley: Gunners fail to fire against Clarets

Arsenal have failed to win any of their opening five games of a calendar year for the first time since 1995 after being held to a 0-0 draw by Burnley.

Nick Pope was in excellent form, while Alexandre Lacazette spurned a glorious open-goal opportunity, as the Clarets conceded 20 shots – the most they have faced in the Premier League without conceding since May 2021 (21 versus Fulham).

Lacazette's profligacy meant the Gunners have failed to score in four consecutive matches across all competitions for the first time since December 2005.

Arsenal will be desperate to improve upon their torrid run of form to challenge for the top four, with this stalemate being the first time the Gunners have failed to beat the team starting the day bottom of the table at home for the first time since October 2008.

Leicester City 1-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Foxes tamed by away specialists

Leicester remained unbeaten at home to Brighton in the Premier League, though Brendan Rodgers may feel they should have claimed victory after a 1-1 draw.

Patson Daka broke the deadlock as he became just the second Foxes player to score in each of his first three home starts in the competition, after Leonardo Ulloa in the 2014-15 season.

The Zambia striker found the net just 26 seconds after the interval, the quickest goal scored in the second half of a top-flight game since February 2020.

However, Danny Welbeck levelled things up as he scored his fourth goal against Leicester in the Premier League, only bettering that haul in games with Aston Villa (five).

Neither side could find a late winner, ensuring the Foxes remain unbeaten at home to the Seagulls in the top flight since December 1980, while Graham Potter's side have only lost one of their last 11 away leagues games – a joint-low with Manchester City.

Chelsea 2-0 Tottenham: Blues make London derby history  

Chelsea registered their fourth win in all competitions this season – and third in January alone – over London rivals Tottenham with a 2-0 triumph at Stamford Bridge.

Harry Kane thought he had struck first before the break but a slight push on Thiago Silva saw his finish ruled out before Hakim Ziyech expertly curled in his fifth league goal for Chelsea – all five of those having come at different venues.

Silva added a second soon after as he became the oldest player (37 years, 123 days) to score in the Premier League since February 2013 to condemn Antonio Conte to his first top-flight defeat as Spurs head coach.

The defender's header was set up by a free-kick from Mason Mount, who provided his 20th assist since the start of the 2019-20 campaign – the most by any Chelsea player across all competitions in that period.

Spurs were unable to breach the Blues' goal, meaning they have now gone six matches across all competitions since last scoring against Chelsea, who became the first side to collect 500 points in Premier League London derby matches (501 points from 272 derbies).

Despite claiming the number one seed in the AFC, there has not been much hype around the Tennessee Titans ahead of the start of their playoff campaign.

After they each exploded for five-touchdown performances in the Wild Card Round, most of the attention on the AFC side of the postseason has focused on the rematch between Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes.

Yet there is a 6ft 3in, 247-pound reason to pay attention to the Titans as they face Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round.

Running back Derrick Henry's season appeared to be over when he suffered a Jones fracture in his foot in the Titans' Week 8 clash with the Indianapolis Colts.

But he was activated from injured reserve this week and is in line to make his return for the visit of the Bengals as the Titans look to reach the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

A two-time rushing champion, on the surface Henry's value to the Tennessee offense is obvious as an explosive powerhouse back who when healthy this season was threatening Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing yards record.

However, with the Titans continuing to excel on the ground even after Henry's injury, it is fair to ask: how much does his return actually matter?

A slight drop-off

If you looked solely at the raw numbers, it would be easy to answer that question in the affirmative.

Between Weeks 1 and 8, when Henry was on the field, the Titans were fourth in the NFL with 147.6 rushing yards per game.

After he went down injured, that average dropped to 135.9 yards per game, though that was still good enough to put them sixth in the league.

In other words, Henry was worth nearly 12 extra rushing yards - or one explosive run - a game to the Titans.

But in the grand scheme of things, that is a negligible difference and the counting statistics point to Tennessee still possessing an elite rushing attack even without Henry.

And a more granular look at the performance of Henry and the two backs that assumed the bulk of the workload in his absence, D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, also suggests there was not much of a drop-off when he left the lineup.

Henry low on power?

Henry's fearsome reputation as the most overpowering running back in the NFL is one earned off the back of a string of highlight-reel runs comprising brute force and remarkable open-field speed for a man of his size.

More than simply bouncing off defenders, Henry is a back who can run them over at will.

That makes his numbers in terms of after-contact yardage this season extremely surprising.

Henry averaged 1.87 yards after contact per attempt in the regular season, below the league average of 1.95, with Foreman (1.92) outperforming him.

His average of 3.05 yards per rush attempt on carries where then was a run disruption by a defender was on the right side of the ledger. The league average in the regular season was 2.88 yards per carry.

Yet his efforts in that regard were inferior to those of both Foreman and Hilliard. Foreman averaged 3.40 yards per attempt when faced with a run disruption and Hilliard went beyond that with 4.03 yards per carry in those situations.

Their efficiency in that area is in part down to a smaller sample size, Henry carried the ball 219 times this season compared to 133 rush attempts for Foreman and 56 for Hilliard.

Still, Foreman and Hilliard got enough run in his absence to indicate that they were actually superior to Henry when it came to turning potential negative plays into gains for Tennessee.

In fact, Henry's most substantial contribution may not be what he does with the ball in his hands, but the influence the threat of him carrying it has on opposing defenses.

A play-action asset

He might not have been overly effective in gaining yards after contact in the regular season, however, it is obvious defenses still very much respect his ability to do so.

Indeed, Henry was consistently faced by defenses who committed an extra man to the box. Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Henry was fifth in the NFL in percentage of snaps where the opponent had one more man in the defensive box than the offense had in its box.

Per Stats Perform data, Henry encountered a 'bad box' on 58 per cent of his snaps compared to 48.2 per cent for Foreman. Additionally, on bad box plays where Henry was on the field, the Titans gained 6.05 yards per play but only 5.09 yards when he was off the field in those situations.

And the Titans excelled at using their opponents' aggressiveness in committing to stopping Henry against them.

The Titans sold the run to throw a pass on play-action or a quarterback bootleg on 25 per cent of their passing plays in the regular season, the second-highest rate in the NFL and well above the league average of 19 per cent.

Without Henry, they averaged 7.06 yards per play on play-action and bootleg passes, below the league average of 8.1. With Henry on the field, that figure ballooned to a remarkable 9.94 yards per play.

Henry's impact as a runner may be somewhat overstated, but his influence on the Titans' offense is not.

As a player whose reputation precedes him, Henry's mere presence forces defenses to commit more men to the box and helps set up play-action passes on which the Titans averaged almost enough yardage for a first down on every such play when he was healthy in 2021.

It remains to be seen how effective Henry can be after his lengthy spell on the sidelines, yet the numbers leave no doubt his return does matter. However, he is less important to what has been a consistent rushing attack than he is to a passing game that may need to go blow for blow with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to avoid a swift playoff exit.

Not many would have predicted before the season that Manchester United versus West Ham represented a key game in the battle for the top four, but that's where we are.

The Red Devils' win over Brentford moved them to within two points of the Hammers in fourth, with a game in hand, meaning Saturday's clash at Old Trafford offers a good chance to make some headway in the race to finish behind Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.

It also gives David Moyes the chance to end a pretty rotten record at the home of his old club – and that's not including the nine months he was in charge there – as well as the chance for West Ham to avenge their defeat in the reverse fixture.

Let's not forget they have already won away against United in 2021-22 – and not many teams manage to do that twice in a season. The last one, in fact, was managed by Jose Mourinho.


BEDEVILLED

United have won 20 of their 25 home games against West Ham in the Premier League, their last defeat coming in May 2007, when soon-to-be Red Devil Carlos Tevez secured a 1-0 win for the visitors.

Yet their record when London clubs come calling hasn't been so strong of late: they have lost three of the previous eight home games against teams from the capital, as many such defeats as they suffered in 38 matches at Old Trafford between 2013-14 and 2019-20.

West Ham, of course, boast the rare feat of being above United in the table: while they sit fourth, United are seventh. Only four times previously in the Premier League era have the Hammers faced them while being placed higher in the standings; interestingly, they failed to win any of them, losing 2-1 in August 1995 and September 2014, drawing 0-0 in August 1998 and losing 3-1 in December 2020.

'PLAY LIKE FERGIE'S BOYS...'

Moyes has done a quite brilliant job at West Ham since being parachuted in to rescue them in December 2019. Since the start of 2020-21, he has managed 30 wins from 60 league matches, accruing 102 points in that time. The only sides with more victories and more points are United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.

Old Trafford, though, is not a happy hunting ground for the former United boss. He has drawn four and lost 10 of his away games at the stadium as a Premier League manager; only Harry Redknapp (15 games) has visited more often in the competition without a single win.

That being said, Moyes did lead West Ham to victory on this ground in the EFL Cup back in September, and they could become just the fourth team to beat United away twice in the same season after Aston Villa (1919-20), Tottenham (1989-90) and Chelsea (2004-05).

BOWEN'S ROAD RAGE, HAMMER TIME FOR RONALDO

Cristiano Ronaldo scored in United's dramatic 2-1 win in the reverse fixture in September, in which he was also denied a couple of pretty strong penalty shouts before Mark Noble's injury-time spot-kick was saved by David de Gea.

The Portugal great has always quite enjoyed facing the Hammers, with six goals and one assist in his five league appearances against them. He was directly involved in seven of the 10 United goals in those matches, in fact, so you wouldn't bet against him keeping up that record – assuming, of course, he isn't having a strop on the bench instead.

Jarrod Bowen, arguably West Ham's most in-form player, is another who will be hoping to make an impact.

He has scored six and assisted seven goals in his past 18 league appearances, including goals in his most recent two, but the former Hull City man has only scored three times in 43 top-flight matches on the road, converting a meagre four per cent of his shots (3/69).

Bowen has played seven times against United from the start, but he's never scored, and only twice has he even lasted the whole game.

SATURDAY SLUMP

It's a minor novelty in itself that United are playing a match at 15:00 local time on a Saturday. Such is their global appeal that broadcasters are usually quick to shift them to a more viewer-friendly kick-off time.

Ralf Rangnick might actually have preferred a different slot. United have lost their most recent two games to start at this time on a Saturday, both of which were this season: 4-2 at Leicester City, and 4-1 at Watford, a result that ended the reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Never before have they lost three in a row when playing at this time.

United's opening league game of 2022 ended in a 1-0 loss to Wolves at Old Trafford. They have not lost their first two home league matches in a year since 1985, when Ron Atkinson's side were beaten by Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City. They did go on to finish fourth, though...

When Thomas Tuchel arrived at Chelsea in January 2021, there were some raised eyebrows and curiosity as to whether the German could succeed where his predecessor, club legend Frank Lampard, had arguably failed.

It did not take long for Tuchel to do as another German coach had done on arrival in England and turn doubters into believers, leading the Blues to a top four finish (just), an FA Cup final and a Champions League triumph.

However, with the 48-year-old set to celebrate a year in charge at Stamford Bridge next week, he is experiencing perhaps his first rocky period in England, having won just one of his last seven Premier League games and sitting 12 points behind leaders Manchester City having played a game more.

Before Tuchel blows out the candles on his anniversary cake, Stats Perform has taken a look at his first year at Chelsea to try and figure out how much of a success it has been, and where things may go from here.

Welcome to the Premier League


In appointing Tuchel, who had been out of work since leaving Paris Saint Germain a month prior, Chelsea may have been trying to capture the lightning in a bottle that rivals Liverpool had when hiring Jurgen Klopp a few years earlier.

Tuchel's journey to England was eerily similar to Klopp's, aside from a stop in France, with an unremarkable playing career eventually leading to a management opportunity at Bundesliga outfit Mainz, via Augsburg's second team, and then on to Borussia Dortmund.

It was almost an impossible job to follow 'Kloppo' at Signal Iduna Park but Tuchel did well enough to catch the eye of PSG, where he won two league titles, two domestic cups and reached the 2020 Champions League final, before being sacked after a poor start to the Ligue 1 season.

He even began life in the Premier League with a 0-0 draw in his first game against Wolves, just as Klopp did against Tottenham, but from there you could see the shoots of improvement fairly rapidly, winning his next four and conceding only one goal.

In fact, Chelsea conceded just twice in Tuchel's 10-game unbeaten start in the Premier League, before a barely believable 5-2 home defeat to ultimately relegated West Brom.

They recovered to win five of their last eight league games, although a 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa on the last day of the season meant they were reliant on Tottenham for a favour, with Spurs duly obliging as they beat Leicester.

A promising start to the 2021-22 season saw the Blues lead the way, winning eight of their first 10 games, only dropping points to title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City.

However, since a 2-1 win at Watford at the start of December that even Mason Mount admitted was "one of our worst [performances] so far with the manager", Chelsea's form has plummeted, winning just two of their nine league games since, which has seen them fall well behind City.

The 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday was Tuchel's 42nd league game since arriving, with his record standing at 23 wins, 13 draws and six defeats.

When compared to previous Chelsea managers in the Premier League era who have also reached 42 league games, some of Tuchel's numbers are surprisingly lacklustre.

His win percentage of 55 is well below that of Jose Mourinho (79), Antonio Conte (79) and Carlo Ancelotti (74), and only Lampard (52) had a worse win percentage at this stage of managers who arrived at the club after Roman Abramovich took ownership in 2003.

He has lost the same number of games as Conte and Ancelotti (six), but no Chelsea manager in the Premier League era has drawn more than Tuchel's 13 after 42 games.

Goals scored has been an issue as only the teams of Glenn Hoddle (49) and Gianluca Vialli (63) scored fewer goals in their first 42 games in charge, but he has clearly tightened things up at the back with only Mourinho (15) conceding fewer than Tuchel's 31 goals against.

That said, only Pep Guardiola (2.48) and Klopp (2.00) can boast a superior points per game records in the Premier League since Tuchel (1.95) arrived, so you could argue that form is merely relative to the standard of competition.

Pressing matters

Under Lampard in the first half of the 2020-21 season, Chelsea ranked 13th in the league for high turnovers, but in the second half after Tuchel had arrived, they moved up to eighth.

So far this season for the same metric they sit fifth, behind only Liverpool, City, Brighton and Southampton, so while it has not necessarily become their defined tactic, their pressing has improved markedly under Tuchel.

The emergence of Reece James and Ben Chilwell also allowed Tuchel to utilise his favoured three at the back system, and to good effect as he has managed to get an impressive amount of goal involvements out of his wing backs.

Before their respective injuries earlier this season, James managed five goals and seven assists in 52 appearances under the German on the right, while Chilwell got five goals and three assists in 32 appearances from the left. Marcos Alonso has six goal involvements (G3 A3) from 41 games.

In terms of the Premier League, no defenders have scored more than James or Chilwell (four), which is particularly impressive for the latter as he has played just 17 times in the league under Tuchel, while only Liverpool duo Trent Alexander-Arnold (107) and Andrew Robertson (58) as well as Manchester United's Luke Shaw (73) have created more chances than James (54).

One night in Porto

Say what you will about Roman Abramovich's penchant for sacking managers, last year marked the second time he has installed a new one part-way through a season and ended up with a Champions League trophy in his cabinet.

Tuchel followed in the footsteps of Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 by only having to navigate the knockout stages, impressively getting past Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid before a tactical masterclass saw them overcome Manchester City 1-0 in the final.

It is no wonder that optimism was so high heading into this season, despite a disappointing 1-0 loss to Leicester City in the FA Cup final, and it seemed reasonable to think there was only one more piece to add to the puzzle.

The Lukaku conundrum

The reason many were tipping Chelsea to push Manchester City all the way in the Premier League this season was mostly based on the balance that Tuchel had in his team.

An exceptional goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, an experienced backline including Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger, almost every kind of central midfielder a coach could dream of with Jorginho, N'Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Mount among others to choose from, while a young and promising attacking line including Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz was supplemented by £97m man Romelu Lukaku.

Where were the weaknesses? Well in a twist that very few saw coming, it was in the returning Belgian.

In fairness to Lukaku, who was brought back to Stamford Bridge after registering 30 goals and 11 assists in 44 games in all competitions last year for Inter, he started well enough as he bagged four goals in his first four games back, while also getting three in two for his country during the season's first international break.

However, things have gone downhill since then, with Lukaku going 10 games without a goal between September and December and scoring just four goals in his last 19 appearances for the Blues, one of which was in the 5-1 FA Cup third round win against non-league Chesterfield.

It is not just the lack of goals, though. Lukaku's style of play seems entirely unsuited to what Tuchel is trying to achieve.

He thrived at Inter playing in a partnership with Lautaro Martinez, but does not look anything like the same player in Tuchel's system that uses one central striker, something that Lukaku himself acknowledged in a recent interview when he indicated frustration at the manager's use of him. 

Manager and player seemed to bury the hatchet, only for Tuchel to lambast Lukaku again after his showing in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City that all but ended their hopes of the title.

"[Lukaku] had many ball losses without any pressure, many ball losses in very promising circumstances. He had a huge chance," the Blues boss said after the game.

"We want to serve him, but he is part of the team, and the performance up front, particularly in the first half, we can do much, much better."

Next steps

Almost a year into the job, it feels like a mostly positive experience for both is reaching a crossroads. Chelsea have no doubt improved under Tuchel, but their recent form has been concerning and we're now just waiting to see if it is a blip or simply form reverting to the mean.

If the German is to get things back on track you feel the key lies with the Lukaku situation. Either he somehow makes the former Everton and Manchester United striker work – and he has already stated he won't change the style of the team to do so – or he opts for a different approach.

His biggest achievement and definitive performance since arriving at Stamford Bridge was the Champions League win, and the difference in performances from Havertz, striker that night and scorer of the winning goal, and Lukaku's showing against the same opposition last week was night and day.

That is one big decision to make, but another area where Tuchel might be looking to evolve his team lies with Mount, arguably his most impressive player during the last year.

The 23-year-old has had more goal involvements than anyone else since Tuchel arrived (22, G13 A9) and the England international is the only attacker in the top 10 players with the most minutes clocked under Tuchel (4,025).

However, Mount was curiously left on the bench for the trip to City, where Tuchel explained: "We were simply opting for runners. We thought we could break the line more often with Hakim [Ziyech] as a left foot on the left side and going for Christian [Pulisic] as a right side because of the arrival of Christian in the box.

"Normally, he is a bit more offensive, a bit more of a runner than Mason and we expected the spaces more behind the last line and not in front of the back four from City. So that was the decision."

It was a curious decision, but was perhaps a way of trying to tempt a bit more out of Mount in terms of his running.

Tuchel has already achieved more than many thought he would at this stage, reaching an FA Cup final, lifting the Champions League and European Super Cup, and recently winning the FIFA Best coach of the year award.

However, if he wants to one day be in the conversation to be among the Mount Rushmore of Chelsea managers, maybe unlocking his team's full potential is as simple as making Mount rush more.

The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

With the action getting under way in Melbourne on Monday, Stats Perform looks at the main protagonists and what the numbers tell us about another high-stakes grand slam.

Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

 

So who takes the title now?

Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

 

Others have more modest ambitions

Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

Barty backed in stacked women's draw

For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

 

Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

 

You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

Chelsea already knew the odds were slim. No team that has been clear by at least 10 points at the top of the Premier League after 21 matches has ever failed to lift the trophy.

The Blues travelled to leaders Manchester City on Saturday exactly 10 adrift and desperate to improve on their showing against Pep Guardiola's men from earlier in the season.

But a familiar foe once again brought their downfall as City sealed a 1-0 win that further increases their lead at the summit and probably has them over the horizon in the title race – at least as far as Chelsea are concerned.

Thomas Tuchel spoke with great clarity and assuredness as he addressed the media on Friday, accepting Chelsea were far too negative in their 1-0 defeat to City at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.

We say "defeat", but in reality it was as close to a 1-0 battering as they come. City tallied three times as many shots as Chelsea (15 to five), and it was a similar story in terms of touches in the opposition's box (34 to 11).

But there was little sign of a major improvement here. Tuchel flailed and flapped like a headless chicken on the touchline, his instructions ultimately powerless against a City side that smothered Chelsea with a high press that just seemed to suffocate them more as the game went on.

Initially, as much as anything, Chelsea just looked confused. Their bravery in playing out from the back was to be commended in some instances, but that mentality seemed to be completely at odds with almost everything else they did.

They would get into the midfield but then launch long balls out wide or to Christian Pulisic in the hole rather than for Romelu Lukaku to run onto. The moves would go nowhere.

 

There was no period of sustained pressure from Chelsea at all in the first half – in fact, they got to the interval without registering a single shot, the first time that's happened in a league game under Tuchel.

Lukaku, bar one early instance where he rolled John Stones before mucking up the final pass, cut a frustrated figure up top. While Chelsea's play in the build-up largely seemed unlikely to get the best out of him, his team-mates might have expected more attempts to run in behind the City defence.

The second half was just a few minutes old when such a situation did present itself, with Lukaku able to do what he's best at: running on to throughballs rather than acting as a target man.

Ederson produced a fine save to block Lukaku's effort, but it was the clearest evidence yet of how Chelsea were likely to hurt City – not that it was necessarily a sign of things to come for the visitors.

 

If anything, it served as a jolt for City, a reminder that, as good as they are, they weren't going to be able to sleepwalk to a win here.

City allowed Chelsea more of the ball, but Guardiola's men upped the intensity significantly with their pressing – the Blues started to find passing through the midfield rather trickier.

Eight of the nine times City won possession in the final third (Chelsea only did so once in the whole game) came in the second half, which was not only evidence of how they were able to impressively dig deep physically, but also highlighted how a team can take the game to an opponent even without the ball.

Of course, City relied on a moment of pure inspiration, which was somewhat predictably delivered by Kevin De Bruyne, who strode away from N'Golo Kante and saw his gorgeous curling effort find the bottom-right corner from 25 yards.

 

It was his fifth Premier League goal against Chelsea, making his old club his favourite opposition in that regard, and a figure bettered by no other former Blue in the competition.

In the context of the match, it also highlighted the differing fortunes of players with comparable pasts: both De Bruyne and Lukaku joined Chelsea as youngsters and ultimately failed to make an impression.

The midfielder now regularly lights up the Premier League, but his international colleague is back at Stamford Bridge and struggling again, albeit for different reasons.

But the fact of the matter is, Lukaku was brought back to turn Chelsea into title contenders – that now looks impossible thanks to another familiar face.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three Australian Open titles and lifted the trophy nine times in all, which means he arrived in Melbourne as a hot favourite to triumph again.

Yet even before the chaos of the last 10 days, this looked a tough Australian Open for Djokovic, given the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have recently taken his scalp in major hard-court matches.

There was no doubt he was a worthy favourite, but Djokovic's dominance of the first half of last season was followed by a series of painful defeats, weakening his standing at the top of the game.

When the men's singles draw was made on Thursday, only two former champions featured: Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the 2009 winner.

Here, Stats Perform assesses the contenders to follow Djokovic onto the Melbourne Park throne.

NEXT NUMBER ONE? DANIIL MEDVEDEV

Last year's runner-up, given a sound pasting by Djokovic in a final that came nowhere close to matching expectations, has come a long way since that crushing blow. Russian Medvedev was the only man to beat Djokovic in a grand slam last year, doing so at the final hurdle of the final major, without dropping a set in the US Open title match. That denied Djokovic a calendar year sweep of the majors, which would have been the first time the feat had been achieved by a man since Rod Laver's 1969 complete set.

He also took the first set off Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, only to lose the match. What is clear is that Medvedev is amassing experiences against Djokovic: some good and some bad, but all surely massively helpful. He lost in their first three encounters but has won four of the seven since.

Progress like this is what repeat champions are made of. Medvedev has a 9-9 win-loss record when dropping the first set of matches over the past year, which shows he is not easily beaten. Only Djokovic (14-6) has a better record in that respect.

Medvedev has a 54-9 record on hardcourts over the past 12 months, has gone mightily close to hitting number one in the rankings, and might see a lot of that top step in the months and years to come. On the 52-week rolling list, he holds a 16-8 win-loss record against top-10 opponents, which is second only to Djokovic (22-5).

Should Medvedev pull off a second consecutive grand slam win, it would make him just the third Russian man to win two or more grand slam singles titles, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov (French Open 1996 and Australian Open 1999) and Marat Safin (US Open 2000 and Australian Open 2005).

The last player other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back majors was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000).

 

OVERDUE SLAM INCOMING? ALEXANDER ZVEREV

The Olympic champion and ATP Finals winner is just lacking a grand slam title to confirm to the wider sporting world his status as one of the rising generation's preeminent performers. Zverev beat Djokovic in semi-finals en route to both of those big 2021 titles, and although he also lost three times to the 20-time major winner over the season, he took four sets off the man from Belgrade in those defeats.

Zverev is improving season on season, and if he avoids injuries or other tribulations in 2022 then he surely stands a strong chance of picking up that first slam before the year is out. He won six titles in all in 2021, more than any other singles player on the ATP Tour, and holds a 43-10 win-loss record on hardcourts on the 52-week rolling list.

When the draw was made, he and Djokovic were set on another semi-final collision course, and that prospect looked tantalising. Until recently so far apart, the gap has closed considerably, Zverev tallying victories that will have surely troubled the world number one.

NOT READY TO BE YESTERDAY'S MAN: RAFAEL NADAL

Because why the heck not? Nadal, at the age of 35, returned from a long foot injury lay-off with a title at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month, and if his record at the Australian Open is deemed unspectacular by some, the Spaniard himself takes great pride in his achievements.

Recently, in a Melbourne news conference, he was asked why he had not reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open since his title year, and Nadal swiftly put his questioner right.

"I am very sorry to tell you – I don't want to – but I have been in the final of 2012, '14, '17, '19," he said. "I got injured a couple of times here in my tennis career, so of course it's been a great tournament for me, and of course I had a lot of challenges in terms of injuries in this event. Sorry to correct you."

Polite as ever, but pointed. Nadal knows he has been successful in Australia and would surely not have returned this year if he felt there was no chance of another run to the final. He rightly takes issue with those who forget his feats. Remember, he, like Djokovic and Federer, sits on 20 grand slams.

Nadal reached the quarter-finals last year and lost from two sets up against Stefanos Tsitsipas, so he will want to banish that memory. There is little evidence of hard-court form beyond his win in a mediocre field last week in Melbourne, but he is Rafael Nadal and he wins tennis tournaments. At least one every year since 2004. A 6-8 record against rival top-10 players over the past 52 weeks is no great shakes, but you count out Nadal at your peril.

 

NEXTGEN OR NEXT NEW CHAMP? JANNIK SINNER

Tennis is such a generation game just now. The Big Three (Big Four, if you include Andy Murray) are in the twilight years of their careers, coming under long-awaited threat from the mid-twenties likes of Medvedev, Zverev, Dominic Thiem (absent from Australia), Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini.

Sinner is to the forefront of the pack of the next big group coming through (see also: Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti). At 20, the Italian is entering a big year in the context of his career. By the time Djokovic turned 20, he was sixth in the world, Federer was 14th on the day he left his teenage years behind, and Nadal was second. Progress comes at different rates.

Sinner was 15th in the rankings on his last birthday, in August, but has since dipped his toes into the top 10 and currently stands 11th. He won four ATP Tour titles in 2021, finished the year with a 49-22 record, and can reasonably be expected to kick on. The Italian has yet to majorly show up at the grand slams, with a Roland Garros quarter-final in 2020 his best run yet.

Expect that to change soon enough. Sinner is only 6-9 against top-10 players on the 52-week list, but he warmed up for the challenge that lies ahead in Melbourne with three straight-sets singles victories at the ATP Cup. His 42-14 record on hardcourts over the last year suggests the Australian Open should suit him as well as any slam.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in for just a smattering of criticism during his final weeks in charge of Manchester United. The fact that his team had apparently forgotten how to play professional football matches was quite the talking point.

But few things put quite so many noses out of joint as his comments about Marcus Rashford some weeks before his departure.

In October, as Rashford prepared to make his first appearance since shoulder surgery two months earlier, Solskjaer suggested the forward needed to "maybe prioritise his football" after 18 months of dominating headlines for philanthropy rather than finishing.

Later, Solskjaer was forced to clarify his remarks as some felt he was criticising Rashford for tallying up free school meals instead of goals. That felt unfair given Solskjaer was generally speaking in glowing terms, but if there was a hint of brutal honesty there, it's only grown more pertinent.

Rashford is an estimable young man, one who has forced a government into two U-turns over providing for disadvantaged children, who was awarded an MBE for his charity work at the age of just 24. He is also an elite footballer who has produced far too many uninspiring performances in the past year, whose form only seems to be getting worse, who has only played a full game on two occasions all season and who caused astonishment in the Stretford End when he gave up chasing a loose ball in the penalty area in the FA Cup win over Aston Villa.

For United interim manager Ralf Rangnick, Rashford is potentially one of his greatest assets. Right now, his form – and his mood – represent one of his biggest problems.

Rash-flow problems

Rashford started 2021 in promising fashion, with six goals and five assists in 20 starts in all competitions beginning with one of each in an FA Cup win over Liverpool at Old Trafford. Soon came a seven-game run in which United went into pragmatic mode, keeping clean sheets in all but one match but scoring only four times. Rashford then netted in consecutive games and looked to be firing again.

He would only score another four goals for United all year.

Some important context is needed. Rashford went through some personal upheaval last year that would have been hard simply to shrug off. He also spent much of 2021 playing through injury: ankle and shoulder problems were a big hindrance when he was on the pitch, and the latter required an operation following Euro 2020, a tournament to which even he admitted he probably shouldn't have gone. He did go, of course: he played 83 minutes, all as a substitute, failed to score and missed a penalty in the final shoot-out. He did not then appear in 2021-22 until October 16; he marked his return with a goal, but it came in a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City that spelled the beginning of the end for his manager. This was hardly the smoothest of years.

Part of the reason Rashford played through pain for so long was he embraced being Solskjaer's Mr Reliable. He played 135 games under the Norwegian, more than any other United player. In that time, he also scored the most goals – 55, 11 more than Bruno Fernandes – and provided 22 assists, a tally behind just Fernandes (33) and Paul Pogba (23). In the nearly three years Solskjaer was in charge, both as caretaker and permanent boss, only seven Premier League players scored more goals than Rashford in all competitions.

Like many managers, Solskjaer had his favourites. It gave his team a consistent structure and meant that, when things were going well, good habits and good spirits could permeate the side. But when it started to go wrong, when players kept their places even as their form took a nosedive, the scrutiny and pressure to improve grew exponentially. This took its toll in real time: Harry Maguire went from England rock to a running joke; Fernandes looked more forlorn with every flail of his arms. And Rashford, as former United star Rio Ferdinand pointed out, has looked like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, running himself further into the ground with every insipid display.

From April 9 until the end of 2021, Rashford scored four goals in 23 games in all competitions. Among Premier League players, he had a worse strike rate than Burnley's Jay Rodriguez (five goals in 23 games) and Leicester defender Jonny Evans (four in 21). Former Red Devil Danny Welbeck scored the same number in just 14 Brighton and Hove Albion appearances.

Over the same time frame, Rashford managed three assists, as many as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Joshua King, and one less than Conor Gallagher. That left him on seven direct goal involvements, while midfielders John McGinn and Declan Rice managed eight. Rashford created 19 goalscoring chances, marginally more than Leicester's close-season signing Patson Daka (18) and Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rudiger (17). Rashford (45) had only two more shots than Rudiger over that time, with just 14 on target, the same number as Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold.

On average, Rashford was involved in 0.41 goals per 90 minutes; among United players with at least two goals in that time, only three come off worse. One is July signing Jadon Sancho, a 21-year-old trying to adapt to a new club, new systems and new expectations. The others are Fred and Scott McTominay.

Running for Ralf

Just after his appointment, Rashford spoke positively about Rangnick's attention to detail.

"He's done a good job because prior to him coming in he spent a lot of time analysing the team and analysing individuals and he knows what our strengths are," he said to Sky Sports.

"We've got a lot more together, we've obviously been working on pressing and we'll still improve on that, but the main thing is just doing everything together as a team, whether we are attacking or defending."

For his part, Rangnick doesn't appear outwardly worried about Rashford's form, even though he was at a loss to explain it. Speaking after the win over Villa, he said: "Of course it would be good, for example, for Marcus if he could score a goal but as long as he's trying, as long as he's training well, I don't see that much of a problem."

"Trying" doesn't seem to be an issue. Rangnick, we know, is a stickler for hard running and high pressing, and only Cristiano Ronaldo (93) has made more sprints than Rashford (85) in the Premier League since the German was appointed in late November (including the 3-2 win over Arsenal, when Michael Carrick was still in caretaker charge of the side). Similarly, only McTominay (82) has contested more duels than Rashford (53), and nobody has attempted more dribbles (22). 

Going back to the start of last year, Rashford has recorded 500 sprints in the Premier League, the fourth-most among United players at a rate of about one every four and a half minutes. The only United attackers to play at least 10 times with better rates are Sancho (4.35) and Dan James (3.11), now at Leeds United. Ronaldo, if you're interested – and let's face it, you are – averages roughly one sprint every five and three-quarter minutes, which is more frequent than Fernandes, who is closer to one every six minutes.

On and off the pitch, you can't fault Rashford's endeavour. The story of the past year hasn't been one of attitude, but aptitude. Rashford runs, but not always at the right moments; he dribbles, but in the wrong areas; he finds an opening, and he makes the wrong choice.

Rash converters

You don't need to look too closely to see that Rashford's output is below par this season, but the deeper you dig, the starker that reality becomes.

His career average for minutes per goal is 207; this season, it's 282. His dribble success rate is 38.6, down from 42.5 on average. His shooting accuracy is 53.3, down from 57 on average. His crossing accuracy has more than halved from 15.8 to 7.1.

Across all competitions since January 1 last year, Rashford has attempted 207 take-ons, way more than any other United player (Mason Greenwood is next on 170), 178 of which have been in the opposition's half. His 21 drives into the box are at least 10 more than anyone else at United, he is joint-top for take-ons with a shot (seven, with Greenwood) and top for take-ons with a chance created (four). He is also United's attacking player with the most progressive carries in which he has moved with the ball 10 metres or more towards the opponents' goal (158). However much the Villa incident suggested otherwise, there's no obvious lack of effort.

Yet there is a verifiable, worrying lack of efficacy in these attempts to make things happen. Looking at the Premier League alone, only five players since last January 1 have attempted more take-ons in the opposition half than Rashford (128); the man top of that list, Adama Traore (184), is the only player with more drives into the box (26 to Rashford's 16). But the Wolves winger, so often derided for end product, has 11 take-ons with a shot and 14 take-ons with a chance created, 14 more than Rashford when you combine the two.

Over the same period, Mohamed Salah (41) had the most carries to end in a shot, with Greenwood second alongside Harry Kane with 38. There are 25 players who had more than Rashford (18). When it comes to a carry ending in a chance created, Traore is top of the table with 36; Rashford, with 10, is below 49 other players.

It reflects a recurring concern: that when Rashford runs at defenders with the ball, it's less a calculated attacking move and more one of hope, or desperation. It's a symptom of both Solskjaer's system, which relied on the spontaneity of the individual, and of Rashford's own conviction that any problem is just waiting for him to solve it. He tries to play like a man who has earned the famous United number 10, a superstar performer in a squad bursting with talent. In reality, the shirt looks heavier with every passing minute.

In some ways, Rashford is emblematic of United's wider problems. He desperately needs not only a morale boost, but a tactical one: he needs hardline instructions, and to play in a system in which he feels confident as well as competent. Ironically, he is one of the few for whom the Solskjaer-Rangnick transition should be simplest since both Ole's 4-2-3-1 and Ralf's 4-2-2-2 offer the kind of wide left attacking role Rashford likes best.

Whatever the root cause of his malaise, he will be desperate for things to change, and change quickly. Perhaps they will. Perhaps he'll light up Villa Park on Saturday, kick-start his return to form and United's road to redemption.

After all, U-turns are a Marcus Rashford speciality.

Manchester City and Chelsea were both in the market for a striker ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Although Chelsea sealed Romelu Lukaku's return – for a club-record fee reported to be £97.5million – City were unable to break Tottenham's resolve and sign Harry Kane.

For a brief time towards the end of August, it seemed Cristiano Ronaldo would be heading to the Etihad Stadium. Yet City again came away empty-handed – Ronaldo, like Lukaku, returning to a former club as he joined rivals Manchester United.

Indeed, City were once linked with Lukaku, with the forward himself claiming he had turned down an approach in 2020. But Pep Guardiola's team have, so far, cast aside any doubts that a lack of an out-and-out striker would cost them dearly.

City looked set to be in a three-way title race earlier in the season, alongside Chelsea and Liverpool. Heading into their second top-flight match of 2022, they are 10 points clear of the Blues and 11 clear of the Reds.

City turned in a statement performance in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in September and, while rumours swirl of impending approaches for Erling Haaland or Dusan Vlahovic, two of Europe's brightest striking prospects, it will be Guardiola's 4-3-3, false nine system that Thomas Tuchel must look to counter on Saturday.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the respective attacks have stacked up this season.

Rom's return

It would be fair to say Lukaku's return to Stamford Bridge has not yet matched what was expected. Having led Inter to their first Serie A title in 11 years, Lukaku re-signed for Chelsea to much fanfare and, undoubtedly, as one of the most fearsome finishers in European football.

Lukaku's second Chelsea debut could hardly have gone better as he opened the scoring against Arsenal after just 15 minutes, putting his strength, pace and positioning prowess on full display.

Yet he has so far failed to hit his stride. His five league goals from 13 appearances ranks him behind Mason Mount and Jorginho (both six) in Chelsea's squad, albeit the latter has netted all of his from the penalty spot.

Lukaku's goal return has come from a total of 22 shots, the fifth-most in Chelsea's squad, at an average of 2.3 per 90 minutes played. However, his rate of scoring every 166 minutes in the league puts him top of Chelsea's squad in that metric.

But that has been another issue with his comeback. Lukaku has featured for just 828 minutes in the league, starting only eight times, with 12 team-mates accumulating more game time.

An injury sustained in a Champions League win over Malmo in October kept him out of action for several weeks and he subsequently contracted COVID-19.

Then, late in December after he scored in successive matches against Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion, Sky Italia released an interview, conducted several weeks previously, in which Lukaku questioned Tuchel's tactics and suggested he could leave Chelsea.

Tuchel reacted strongly, dropping the forward for a pivotal clash with Liverpool on January 2, which finished 2-2. Lukaku apologised and returned to Chelsea's side for the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

One of Lukaku's complaints was about how Tuchel has used him so far. 

Last season, playing typically in a 3-5-2 system at Inter, Lukaku averaged three shots, 1.5 attempts on target, 7.3 touches in the opposition box and 1.6 chances created per 90 minutes, across 36 Serie A appearances. But those figures have so far dropped to 2.4 shots, 0.9 attempts on target, 6.4 touches in the opponent's box and 1.5 chances created this term, with the forward deployed as a target man to combine with Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and the rest of Chelsea's attack.

It is a role that does not seem to suit Lukaku best, though Tuchel has made it clear who the boss is.

False nines and a flying full-back

Chelsea and City have played 21 league games this season, but Guardiola's team have netted six goals more. They average one every 36 minutes, compared to Chelsea's 43, and have out-shot the Blues 391 to 320.

This is all without a recognised number nine but, as proved by their charge to a third league title in four seasons in 2020-21, City have cracked the code of having any player but a centre-forward lead their line.

Whether it is Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gundogan, the magnificent Bernardo Silva or, occasionally, the man who wears nine, Gabriel Jesus, City have a wealth of stellar options to slot into that role.

Sterling and Silva, who has been in sensational form all season, lead the way with seven goals each. It is a testament to Guardiola's man management that the duo, who might have left the club in 2021, are in such rich form.

Riyad Mahrez – the only City attacker with a consistent position – has netted six. De Bruyne and Foden have added five apiece.

City share their goals around for fun, while three players (Sterling, Silva and Jesus) have had over 100 touches in the opposition box, with Grealish on 99. No Chelsea player has managed more than 76 (Mount). 

De Bruyne's 36 chances created is more than any other player in City or Chelsea's squads, while the Belgian is level with Foden and Gundogan for big chances created (six), with Mount the only Blues player able to match them.

Allowing whichever front five plays for City to flourish is Rodri, who has taken the mantle from Fernandinho at the base of midfield, and creative support comes from the superb Joao Cancelo.

He has provided four league assists from 22 chances created, which ranks him sixth in the competition for defenders, with his four big chances tied for fourth, behind Trent Alexander-Arnold (11), Andrew Robertson and Reece James (five), who is a big injury miss for Chelsea.

It is not just Cancelo's passing and crossing that supports City's attack, however, with the full-back registering fourth in the league, behind three club-mates, for total carries (380) and sixth for carry distance (3,867 metres). Thiago Silva is the sole Chelsea player to have a place in the top 10 for either statistic.

Finely balanced

While City seemingly have the edge heading into Saturday's contest, Tuchel found a way to thwart Guardiola's system last season.

City countered this with their aggressive approach at Stamford Bridge but only four months previously, Guardiola's men fell short in their first Champions League final – Havertz scoring the winner in a match that perhaps forced City to make their move for Kane.

Tuchel won all three of his encounters with City in 2020-21, though those matches are the only times he has beaten Guardiola, who won three of their five Bundesliga meetings.

Chelsea went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and came out with a point earlier this month, though if Chelsea are to rope City back in, they need their investment in Lukaku to pay off.

Should City's death by a thousand cuts prevail, Chelsea's title challenge might well and truly have bitten the dust.

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

Mikel Arteta was unable to provide excuses on Sunday, after Arsenal crashed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.

"We are out of the competition and we have to apologise."

Arsenal have won the FA Cup a record 14 times, with their last triumph coming in Arteta's first half-season in charge. But while they will lament being on the end of a giant-killing, they have the chance to bounce back from only their second third-round exit in the past 26 seasons when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Thursday in the first leg of a semi-final in England's other major domestic cup competition.

Initially, the Anfield fixture of this EFL Cup tie was due to be played second but Liverpool's coronavirus crisis, which Jurgen Klopp revealed was ultimately down to several false-positives within the squad, led to the postponement of the first leg at Emirates Stadium, originally set to be played on January 6.

The Gunners lost 4-0 at the home of the Reds in November's Premier League meeting, as Arteta's men were dealt a harsh dose of reality after a 10-match unbeaten run across all competitions.

A further 10 games have passed since then, with Arsenal losing four and winning six.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang having been stripped of the captaincy and ostracised before travelling away for the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta has once again turned mostly to youth as he looks to continue to grow a new "culture" at Arsenal, who sit fourth in the league.

Claiming some measure of revenge at Anfield could just prove Arteta's plan is the solution for long-term success, and four players seem crucial to that blueprint.

Super-sub Smith Rowe

Aubameyang's omission for a breach of club rules brought unnecessary noise in December, though results were not immediately impacted. With the 32-year-old not playing since December 6, Alexandre Lacazette has stepped in to spearhead Arsenal's attack, but behind him Arteta has an abundance of talent to choose from.

Emile Smith Rowe started the season brilliantly, though has only started one league game since November. That has not stopped the 21-year-old from being effective, however, with three of his eight league goals this season coming from the bench in recent wins over West Ham, Leeds United and Norwich City.

Smith Rowe has only played 63 league minutes since featuring for 70 in the December 2 loss to Manchester United, meaning he averages a goal every 21 minutes in that period. 

Asked about Smith Rowe's game time before the defeat to Forest, which the midfielder missed altogether, Arteta explained he had been carrying an injury, one which also means he is a doubt for Thursday's clash.

"The only reason that changed the dynamic was that [injury], and obviously now there are others who are doing well and have been performing well. That changed the situation, but I am very happy with him," Arteta told reporters, before adding that competition for places can only be positive.

"This is why we need that, we raise the level. Each player raises the level of the player next to him, and this is how you evolve as a team, how you create a culture around the team."

Few could say Smith Rowe isn't embracing that "culture", with his recent hot streak off the bench reflecting a commendable attitude.

 

Martin the maestro

One of the "others" Arteta was referring to will surely be Martin Odegaard, who signed permanently from Real Madrid following a bright loan spell last season. Given the Norway international burst onto the scene at the age of 15 in 2014, becoming the youngest footballer ever to play in his homeland's top tier, it would be easy to forget he has only just turned 23.

Only Bukayo Saka (38) has created more chances than Odegaard (34) in Arsenal's squad in all competitions this season, with the midfielder topping that metric per 90 minutes when it comes to players to have featured over two times, producing 2.1 opportunities on average.

His eight direct goal contributions ranks him fifth in the squad while his shot conversion rate of 18.2 is good for a midfielder. Indeed, only the outstanding Smith Rowe, who has converted 32.1 per cent (nine goals) of his 28 attempts can boast better among Arsenal's midfield contingent.

Yet with Smith Rowe's recent spell as an impact player, Odegaard has started behind the striker in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, his eye for a pass and knack of finding space on the edge of the area a key facet to some slick attacking play.

That playmaking ability was on show in the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich on Boxing Day, with Odegaard providing the assists for Arsenal's opening two goals and a key role in their final strike.

While Odegaard (33) has had fewer touches in the opposition box than left-back Nuno Tavares (35) and completed just 10 dribbles compared to Smith Rowe's 23 and the team-leading Saka's 27, no Arsenal player has attempted more passes in the opposition half than Odegaard (523), with 80.9 per cent (423) proving successful.

Odegaard's ability to keep Arsenal in possession with neat and incisive passing has been crucial for the Gunners. Indeed, only centre-backs Ben White (933) and Gabriel Magalhaes (822) have found a team-mate on more occasions than the playmaker (703).

 

Wing wizards

Flanking Odegaard (or Smith Rowe), Saka and Gabriel Martinelli both head to Anfield in superb form. While Saka scored the opener in the 2-1 defeat to City on New Year's Day, Martinelli has directly contributed to six goals from 18 appearances.

Martinelli's devastating turn of pace was on show in a 4-1 rout of Leeds United last month, though the Brazilian flyer missed a golden chance to put Arsenal back in front in their defeat to City, slicing wide of an open goal – if we're being generous, perhaps he was put off by the referee. Still, he should have scored.

Nevertheless, his four goals have come from an xG value of 4.2, putting him just about on par based on the quality of chances he has been provided with, though that is in contrast to Saka.

The England winger's tally of seven goals is second only to Smith Rowe (nine), yet they have come from 4.6 xG, suggesting the 20-year-old is finishing chances the average player wouldn't ordinarily be expected to convert.

For example, his swept effort low into the corner against City was only the seventh-best chance of the game, while a wonderful solo strike at Norwich (his second goal of the game) registered an xG of just 0.03 – essentially, this translates to a three per cent likelihood of scoring.

 

Saka also leads the way for big chances created (defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score) with eight, three more than any of his club-mates, and only Nicolas Pepe has provided more assists (five to four).

Not only is Saka already a proven creator of opportunities, but he is now putting them away with unerring accuracy.

Arsenal were dealt a harsh lesson on their last visit to Anfield, but with a second leg at home to look forward to and with Liverpool missing key duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Thursday could see Arteta's counter-attacking youngsters thrive, with a north London derby against Tottenham up after that.

Even if it again proves a step too far, there's no doubt the future is bright.

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