"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

Offensive linemen do not win NFL awards.

For as much as their performance is pivotal to the success of an NFL team, the cold hard truth is the narratives that decide the MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards are not built around those who spend their time in the trenches.

But if there is going to be an end to the wait for the first offensive lineman to win Rookie of the Year, then it may come from Rashawn Slater of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Slater is enjoying a stellar beginning to his NFL career, the 13th overall pick vindicating his draft status and locking down the left tackle spot to allow quarterback Justin Herbert to enjoy an MVP calibre start as the Chargers have gone 4-1 through five games.

With the class of rookie quarterbacks enduring plenty of first-year struggles and few of the highly drafted skill position players delivering results worthy of such significant recognition, Slater should have a better chance of at least receiving some Offensive Rookie of the Year votes.

And ahead of a blockbuster clash between the Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens, Stats Perform assesses whether Slater can take home the prize.

Slater's stellar performance

Though he had difficulties protecting Herbert from Cleveland Browns star Myles Garrett in Week 5, giving up a sack on a stunt involving Garrett and Malik McDowell and another following a spin move from the 2017 first overall pick, Slater has otherwise done a superb job keeping his quarterback clean.

His pressure rate allowed of 5.3 per cent ranks fourth among left tackles with a minimum of 100 pass protection snaps. Digging deeper into his numbers, Slater has lost only 13 of his 110 pass protection matchups, a win rate of 88.18 per cent.

Slater's stunt-adjusted win rate of 87.29 per cent is 13th among tackles with at least 50 matchups and is superior to that of Penei Sewell (76.27), the seventh overall pick of the Detroit Lions.

With his athleticism translating superbly to the highest level, Slater has been similarly effective in the run game, with a double-team adjusted win rate of 85.25 per cent from his 37 matchups.

Rarely would such sound offensive line play even put a rookie in the conversation for an individual award; however, 2021 could prove a unique case.

A lacklustre QB class?

Much was made of the strength of the 2021 quarterback class, yet that has not been reflected in the play of the five signal-callers to be taken in the first round so far.

Truly standout performances from rookie quarterbacks have been thin on the ground to this point, and the fact 15th overall pick Mac Jones leads the group in passing yards (1,243) and percentage of accurate, well-thrown balls (83.2) speaks to the mediocrity of their displays.

Jones has been accurate while struggling to push the ball downfield, with his air yards per attempt average of 7.51 the lowest among rookie quarterbacks.

First overall pick Trevor Lawrence's six touchdowns lead all rookies, yet his well-thrown percentage is a disappointing 75.2 per cent and his pickable pass percentage of 4.85 is well above the league average of 3.16.

The only two rookies to have excelled at avoiding turnover-worthy throws are Justin Fields (1.43 per cent) and Trey Lance (2.13 per cent). However, Fields has yet to put together a game to suggest he could win the award while Lance's one start so far was an uneven performance in which his positive flashes were negated by the poor execution of his offensive team-mates.

With the quarterbacks failing to build a convincing case, the favourite for Offensive Rookie of the Year must be Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

Chase's 456 receiving yards are seventh in the NFL and he already has five touchdowns to his name. The fifth overall pick is producing a big play on 38.9 per cent of targets, comfortably the best rate among rookie receivers with at least 10 targets.

Such numbers would seem to make him the clear frontrunner, but with the Bengals now 3-2 and facing a more difficult schedule than they have contended with through five weeks, his stock could soon take a dent and open the door for Slater, whose case would be strengthened by a strong performance against a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Oweh a significant challenge

The Chargers' ability to move the ball against the Ravens on Sunday may be contingent on how well Slater performs against another first-rounder in Baltimore pass rusher Odafe Oweh.

Oweh already has three sacks to his name and his 14 pressures were second only to Miami Dolphins' rookie Jaelan Phillips among first-year edge rushers heading into Week 6.

Boasting only 12 wins from 54 pass rush matchups, the more granular numbers are not as impressive for Oweh.

But his production to this point in terms of sacks suggests Oweh is a player who is quick to take advantage of opportunities that come his way.

A freakish athlete with elite short-area and long speed, Oweh only started playing football in high school, meaning there is likely plenty more growth to come from a defender who has already developed rapidly in his short time with the Ravens.

Slater, therefore, cannot afford to take the challenge of facing Oweh lightly despite the matchup numbers indicating he should have a clear advantage over his fellow rookie.

Coverage of the sport is such that more focus is given to the plays where the pass rusher beats his man and gets to the quarterback than to the plethora of snaps where the offensive lineman stops a defender from making an impact.

As a result, Slater's Rookie of the Year argument perhaps rests on him completely stopping Oweh from producing any splash plays.

Even if he does so, the prospect of him claiming the honour will be an unlikely one, but a performance that sees him shut down Oweh, help the Chargers to 5-1 and assist Herbert in further building his MVP case will at least be worthy of a wider conversation about recognition for arguably the premier offensive rookie of the class in the opening month of the season.

Five and a half years after the iconic line "Carlos Brathwaite, remember the name" was delivered, England are among the favourites to banish the memories of their T20 World Cup heartbreak.

Ian Bishop delivered those famous words from an Eden Gardens commentary box after watching Brathwaite win the 2016 T20 World Cup for West Indies in dramatic fashion.

Needing 19 off the final over for the Windies to be crowned champions for a record second time in Kolkata, Brathwaite launched Ben Stokes for four huge sixes in as many balls to leave England shell-shocked.

It remains to be seen who will make a name for themselves in the 2021 showpiece, which could not be staged in Australia last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and was then moved from India to the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Stats Perform pick out the contenders and key players ahead of a cricketing extravaganza that will finally get under way when Oman face Papua New Guinea on Sunday.

 

Gayle force to put Wind in champions' sails?

It is 22 years since Chris Gayle made his Windies debut, so there will be no need for a "remember the name" if the left-handed opener cuts loose.

Powerhouse Gayle cut short his latest Indian Premier League spell with Punjab Kings due to bubble fatigue to ensure he would be fresh for the T20 World Cup.

Gayle is the highest run-scorer in T20 history with a staggering 14,276 from 440 innings at an average of 36.79, with 22 centuries and a strike rate of 145.71.

The 42-year-old self-proclaimed 'Universe Boss' has proved to be the man for a big occasion time and again and he could produce more fireworks as a talented Windies squad, which does not include Brathwaite, target a hat-trick.

 

England could be Living it up

England won the last major international white-ball tournament on home soil with a dramatic Super Over-defeat of New Zealand in an incredible 2019 World Cup final at Lord's.

Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer were key to that stunning victory, but they will both be absent as Eoin Morgan attempts to lead England to T20 glory.

Top of the rankings and with the number one T20 batsman in the world in the shape of Dawid Malan, they have every chance of lifting the trophy in Dubai on November 14.

Destructive all-rounder Liam Livingstone can play a huge part, while Tymal Mills will be one to watch over three years after the left-arm paceman's last international appearance.

Kohli desperate to end reign on a high note

Virat Kohli will step down as India captain after the tournament, although the prolific right-hander will continue to play for his country in the shortest format.

Kohli has not won a major ICC trophy as skipper, but this competition represents another huge opportunity to put that unwanted record right.

The highest scorer in international T20 cricket, Kohli could take the World Cup by storm and he will lead a squad packed with firepower both with bat and ball.

Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant are just a few of the other key men for India.

 

Australia to put on 'Big Show'?

Preparation for some of the Australia players has been anything but ideal, having faced a strict lockdown in their homeland.

Yet captain Aaron Finch says they will be ready to go when they face South Africa in their first match of the Super 12 stage on October 23 as he steps up his recovery from knee surgery.

David Warner has been out of sorts, but Finch has backed his fellow opener and Australia have no shortage of potential match-winners in their squad.

All-rounder Glenn Maxwell may need to live up to his 'Big Show' nickname if Australia are to lift the trophy.

Black Caps and Pakistan can mount a challenge, outside chance for Proteas

New Zealand celebrated winning the first World Test Championship final this year and they have the armoury for T20 success under the inspirational leadership of Kane Williamson.

Kyle Jamieson and Trent Boult can spearhead a strong attack, while Williamson consistently racks up the runs in all formats and Devon Conway can make his mark.

Much rests on the shoulders of skipper Babar Azam in Pakistan's pursuit of glory, while the likes of Quinton de Kock, Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada will be key for South Africa.

If you want a true renaissance team, one that epitomises a city, look no further than Venezia.

From bankruptcy and the lower echelons of Italian football to a global fashion icon, the small side from the iconic city of Venice are the club on so many lips, attracting worldwide interest.

A football team on the water, literally, Venezia are setting trends with their must-have kits as they enjoy life back in Serie A for the first time in almost two decades, but it has not been an easy road for I Leoni Alati – the Winged Lions–, who resided in the depths of Serie D just five years ago.

Founded in 1907 and with their most significant achievement to date being victory in the 1940-41 Coppa Italia, Venezia were relegated from Serie B in 2005 and went bankrupt.

Businessman owner Maurizio Zamparini had left for Palermo in 2002, taking with him 12 players in a move dubbed locally as the "furto di Pergini" – the "theft of Pergine".

Venezia were re-founded twice – at the end of the 2008-09 and 2014-15 seasons – having been declared insolvent on both occasions. It led to the 2015 arrival of a group of American investors, and while they have been in the ascendency at Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo ever since, Venezia have soared to new heights under president Duncan Niederauer.

A former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer arrived in early 2020 and it coincided with Venezia going from Serie B battlers to Serie A newcomers after a breathtaking and dramatic play-off in May of this year, which led to the Venetian version of a street party – fans jumping into the canals and players celebrating on gondolas.

 In an interview with Stats Perform, Niederauer – whose Venezia have five points from seven rounds to start the 2021-22 campaign – said: "When we took over in early 2020, I think step one was just to survive in Serie B to be perfectly honest. The team was struggling in the second division. Then last season, from the outset, I thought we would be very, very competitive. I thought we built a very good team. I don't think the experts agreed with me, but we declared early in the season last year that I thought we could compete for a spot in the play-offs. The team backed that up and was really in the play-off discussion all season.

"Somewhat unexpectedly to just about everybody, we got through the play-off battles. One of the things we hoped to accomplish was to get to Serie A in two-three years. We're kind of a couple of years ahead of schedule. The good news is you're ahead of schedule. The other news when you're in Serie A for the first time in two decades, you probably don't have the infrastructure that you need, you don't have the organisational construct that you need and that was certainly true for us. While it's been very exciting to be in the first division, we've had a lot of work to do to try to get ourselves prepared as a team and organisation to be in the first division. That's where a lot of the focus was spent on in the summer. We had to upgrade the stadium, we had to add to the organisation and re-think the roster to be competitive in Serie A while respecting our approach and budget."

Venezia captured the attention of millions with their last-gasp play-off win over Cittadella – Paolo Zanetti's men were down a man and trailing 1-0 after 36 minutes, and appeared destined for another season in the second tier.

But, with virtually the last kick of the game, Riccardo Bocalon's strike three minutes into stoppage time salvaged a 1-1 draw and a 2-1 aggregate win to send Venezia back to Serie A for the first time since 2001-02.

It sparked wild scenes on the pitch as Niederauer celebrated promotion with Venezia. While the team exceeded expectations externally, their president always believed.

"We have a really different philosophy with this team. Our culture is very much one of a family. I was discouraged by many others from getting close to the players," Niederauer said. "I was told if you get close to the players, it will cloud your judgement and it won't work. I fundamentally disagree with that in any business I've ever run. If you take care of your people, they can do great things, right?

"I remember saying to the players early in the season, 'Just to be clear, I work for you, you don't work for me. You tell me what you need to be successful, I just want to clear all the clutter so you can play.' They really took it to heart and they knew they could count on me. I think what you saw was a group of guys, who throughout the season, believed more and more in themselves. It culminated in that evening in late May... the players on the field, I said, 'Guys, that was unbelievable'. They said, 'Pres, not really, that's what family does'. We didn't want the story to be about Pasquale Mazzocchi's red card but about our promotion to Serie A... I thought that was a pretty strong culture which benefited a lot.

"To be there in person. It's a weekend, my wife and I, we will never forget. It's our favourite city in the world. We were there together the night of the match. I held it together surprisingly well until I saw her on the field and then I burst into tears because I think I was just so proud of them for what they did. If you watch the celebration, it's not a group of people who sort of like each other, sort of know each other, it's a family celebrating a shared success. Lots of tears and joy. If I had a do-over, I don't think I'd jump in the canal again, but at the moment, the players were doing it and seemed like the right thing to do. We had been in it together, so how could I not do it? It was a surreal experience. The celebration over the weekend... I said to my wife, when we don't remember each other's names, we will remember floating down the canal during that parade because it's like no other celebration in the world. It's a long emotional answer, but it was a really, really special evening."

Having stepped into the precarious world of Italian football, Niederauer added: "People ask me, what other sporting ventures are you going to do in Europe and the answer is none. Our second home is in Italy. My wife and I spend a lot of time in Italy. Venice has been our favourite city for a long time.

"When the opportunity came up to do this and do something special for these kids and this city, I don't think we would've done this anywhere else to be honest. I wasn't on the hunt for a football team to run from the United States. I just thought all the stars aligned and it seemed like an opportunity to do something really, really special. The pay-off was watching these young men perform above everyone's expectations except ours. I said to them at the start of the season, 'Guys, you're really, really good. Don't let anyone tell you you're not good. You're a good team and if you play for each other like family plays for each other, you can do spectacular things this year.' That's what happened, it's not any more complicated than that."

Fast forward to this season and Venezia are riding an unprecedented wave. During the 2020-21 campaign, their popular Nike jerseys – both home and away – were a hot commodity, despite the team being a relative minnow.

But at a time when the jersey industry is booming, and fashion and football more entwined than ever, Venezia have hit record heights since switching to Italian manufacturer Kappa. All three jerseys – now collectors' items – were swiftly sold out.

While a strategic plan to turn heads on and off the pitch, it's something not even Niederauer could have anticipated following the collaboration with a brand closely tied to Italian football.

"If you're in the city like Venice which is at the centre of art, fashion and history, I think it's incumbent on us to do our best to have the club aligned with the virtues of the city and the strengths of the city," Niederauer said as he discussed the global branding and fashion-forward identity ahead of Monday's clash with Fiorentina.

"Step number two which was a little less obvious, I like and respect Nike a lot. The current CEO is someone I've known for a long time. In fairness to Nike, we weren't big enough as a small second division club in Italy that had not been particularly well run previously. I don't blame them for not spending a lot of time with us. If I'm honest, I probably would've made the same decision if I were Nike. It seemed like it was time for us to find a partner that was closer to home who we could really collaborate with and almost co-author the designs.

"I thought this year was a really, really important year to make a statement. We left it to the design team and the design team collaborated with Kappa. It was a little bit rushed, but you see the results of what they produced... we're about to drop the fourth jersey in a couple of weeks here. All three we have released are all in the top 20 globally. That was purposeful. I don't know if we will hit all the right tones again every year, but for this year, I thought it was really important we take some risks and go over the top to design something special. Kudos to the design teams. I had basically nothing to do with it except turn them loose. What I like about the third and fourth jerseys, both were down in collaboration with foundations which support sustainability in Venice. We think part of our purpose as a club is we have to be part of the community and part of the city. Venice is obviously beautiful but not without its challenges with climate change. Proceeds from the third and fourth jersey go towards those organisations. We've tried to position ourselves as a global brand. It's early, early days but the jerseys are helping us do that. Now it will come down to can we perform in Serie A and stick around for a while?"

A few years ahead of schedule, now is when Niederauer's ambitious plan of turning Venezia into a viable business clicks into gear, with the former Goldman Sachs banker leaning on his financial background as the club learn from past mistakes.

"Our philosophy is you do your best to leave every situation better than when you found it. That's already been accomplished. I think our next objective is to build a sustainable club that, I don't think is competing for Champions League in the next few years, but at least is a club that you come into every season not solely focused on salvation," he said, with Venezia since signing former Manchester United and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero as the club benefit from the picturesque city as a recruiting tool.

"You come into the season where you're expected to be a mid-table team. A mid-table team in Serie A given our investment approach and how we identify players, we have a long way to go to be as great as Atalanta have become at this. But if you built the foundation in the youth academy that we're doing and on your first team, and if you can get to that point where you're mid-table pretty predictable, I think we can run quite a profitable and sustainable franchise. We wouldn't look beyond that yet. We would have another decision to make. It would be arrogant to start thinking of those things before we prove ourselves. The next three years is about proving that the model works, proving we can stay in Serie A, proving that we can be a mid-table team and then hopefully start to reap all the seeds we planted in the youth academies, which were grossly underinvested."

The plan for Venezia goes beyond the first team, with the increased infrastructure leading to the establishment of their first ever women's team on top of a revamped stadium and facilities – a new headquarters set to open next September – as Niederauer bets on the future.

Niederauer – whose Venezia could draw three consecutive Serie A games for the first time since April 1962 – added: "You have to be conscious about the past because if you don't look back a bit to understand what you can learn from history, you're making a big mistake. Our approach was really simple and I think we were fortunate in the pandemic because as a Serie B team who weren't really drawing a lot of fans and didn't have a global brand, the revenue that ticket sales and merchandise were accounting for before we really organised and set ourselves on a better path, was small enough that it didn't poke a big hole in our boat last year. Our salaries were well under control – I think we had the 13th or 14th highest payroll in Serie B. We are pretty thoughtful about it. Our approach this season hasn't changed too much. We obviously want to be competitive and would like to stay, so you're willing to spend a bit of money to do that. I would bet you that our payroll is the lowest in the league. I would bet you our coach is not only the youngest coach but probably one of the lowest paid, but we think he is one of the best and that's why he has a four-year contract. We believe in him and are willing to bet on him. The players deserve continuity. We're not the type that would change coaches if the team isn't performing. That's on us more than it's on him – we are the ones that assembled the roster. It's up to Zanetti to do the best he can with it.

"We didn't overspend. We stuck to our strategy – we find young talented players. We did spend a little money acquiring some of them? Yes. My background would suggest that if you buy undervalued assets in the long run, as long as you take a long view, your returns will be just fine. That's what we convey in every decision. These are long-term investments. We didn't panic when we lost the first two games of the season. When you have a strategy, you don't divert from it and you don't let your emotions get the best of you. I don't find it that complicated. We have a challenge ahead of us. Serie A is a great league but I think we've built a really good roster. We're improving with every match. I like our chances of surviving and then the sky is the limit after that."

 

"Last year, at the start of the season, in Italian football everyone talks about salvation," he continued, with Venezia boasting the youngest player in Serie A this season with at least one goal and one assist – 19-year-old American sensation Gianluca Busio. "I said, 'Guys, I know I'm going to sound a lot like Ted Lasso here, I apologise, but we're not going to talk about salvation'. And they're like, 'Pres, what do you mean? We all talk about salvation.' I said, 'I'm going to stand up and say you're a play-off team, I believe that you are. I believe you will be in the conversation for promotion this year. So if that's our goal, why would we talk about salvation? We're not going to talk about salvation, I don't want you talking about it in your interviews and I won't in my interviews other than to dismiss it.' They were completely confused.

"At the beginning of this season, I said, 'I'm not a hypocrite, but this year we talk about salvation. This year it would not be realistic not to talk about salvation. So this year it's OK to talk about salvation.' But last year, we did not say a word about it on purpose because I thought our ambition should not just be about to survive but to win. I think they got it. It's a little bit unorthodox for Italy, but I think we have a few people starting to mimic what we're doing.

"There's a lot of people betting on this project and I like our chances, if we can stick to the long-term view and not waver from it, I really like what we're building here."

The October international break has provided an opportunity to reflect on the club season so far, with the campaign starting to settle into some sort of pattern.

Paris Saint-Germain have quickly moved clear at the top of Ligue 1, but there look to be genuine title tussles on the cards in the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A.

However, while there are familiar names involved in each league, that does not mean the same individuals are excelling as in previous seasons.

A close-season that saw two of the sport's greats make moves shook things up a little, giving other emerging stars the opportunity to establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.

Studying the best shooters, creators, dribblers and goalkeepers, Stats Perform takes you through the standout statistical performers of 2021-22 so far.

Hotshot Haaland and luckless Lorenzo

There were familiar faces at the top of the shooting charts last season, as Lionel Messi (196 shots) led the way ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (168). This term, although Ronaldo has hit the ground running, neither rank among the top marksmen.

Kylian Mbappe (35) has had the most attempts, but Erling Haaland is averaging 5.2 per 90. While that is the most among players with 20 total shots or more, it falls short of the 5.8 Messi was mustering last term.

Haaland is certainly making the most of his opportunities, though. From chances worth just 4.77 expected goals (xG), he has produced finishes worth 7.05 expected goals on target (xGOT) – a metric measured after the shot. These efforts have led to seven goals, performing in line with the quality of his finishing.

The Borussia Dortmund man is not outperforming his xG by as much as Karim Benzema, who leads the way in that regard. His nine goals have come from opportunities worth 4.43 xG, although his shots have only accounted for 5.22 xGOT, suggesting poor goalkeeping has also contributed to his success.

Lorenzo Insigne certainly has not encountered any below-par work from opposition keepers. His 27 attempts have been worth 5.5 xG, and he has narrowly surpassed that mark with his xGOT of 5.57. Yet the Napoli captain, third behind Messi and Ronaldo last year with 144 shots, somehow has only two goals.

Just two players in the whole of 2020-21 – Houssem Aouar (seven goals, 10.75 xGOT) and Edin Dzeko (seven goals, 10.58 xGOT) – fell so far short of their xGOT, suggesting Insigne's fortunes must surely change soon.

Benzema benefiting like Kane last year

Bruno Fernandes is one of Europe's best creators and scarcely gets a rest at Manchester United, so it is no surprise to see him figuring high up the rankings for key passes both this season and last. In 2020-21, Fernandes created the second-most chances (95) and the second-most chances from open play (77). This term, he is joint-fifth for total chances created (23).

Eden Hazard is back producing once again, averaging 3.99 key passes per 90 – all from open play. He is third for chances created and first for chances created from open play among those to forge 10 or more opportunities.

But Hazard has only a single assist to his name, not so far as fortunate as Fernandes' team-mate Paul Pogba or his own colleague Benzema.

Pogba has created chances worth just 1.45 expected assists (xA) and Benzema 2.05 xA, yet the pair have seven assists apiece thanks to the fine work of their club-mates. It means Benzema has been involved in 16 goals despite his combined xG and xA making up a mere 6.48. He is a man in top form, but this statistical output does not seem sustainable.

It is Harry Kane's example that Pogba and Benzema are following. His 14 assists led the Premier League last term, but he only actually created chances worth 3.63 xA, far and away the most spectacular disparity as Son Heung-min and Co. boosted Kane's figures.

Messi actually went in the opposite direction, last season creating chances worth 13.37 xA but only being rewarded with nine assists.

Adama dominant with Messi missing

As well as being one of Europe's most prominent shooters and creators, Messi was right at the top for dribbles last term. No player attempted (261) or completed (159) more take-ons. Given Neymar attempted the most dribbles per 90 (11.28) among those with 50 or more attempts, slow starts for two Paris Saint-Germain stars have left a gap in the market.

Unsurprisingly, Adama Traore has stepped into that void. The Wolves winger was next behind Messi for attempts (232) and completions (153) in 2020-21 and now comfortably leads the way (61 and 49). Among those with 20 attempted take-ons or more, Traore is now completing more dribbles per 90 (9.63) than any other player in Europe is even attempting. His success rate is an astonishing 80.33 per cent.

The Spain international has 14 times this season beaten multiple players in the same run and has created six chances immediately after a successful dribble – two more Europe-wide highs.

Traore only ranks joint-second for chances created from all carries, however, his nine trailing Allan Saint-Maximin's 11, with the pair out in front of the rest across various metrics with the ball at their feet.

Oblak off the mark and Keylor kept out

There were two clear outstanding goalkeepers in Europe in 2020-21, as Jan Oblak led the way for goals prevented using expected goals on target data (8.58, having conceded only 25 times excluding own goals) while Keylor Navas had the best save percentage of those to face 50 or more shots on target (80.43). Oblak was second for save percentage (80), with Navas third for goals prevented (8.11).

But both men have slipped below those standards this season.

Oblak has endured a significant wobble, saving only 57.14 per cent of 14 shots and conceding five goals from efforts worth 4.22 xGOT. Navas has a better save percentage of 72.73 but still is not having a positive impact, conceding six from an xGOT of 5.02. He also now looks to have lost his place to Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Going the other way, though, there has been a positive change in fortunes for Aaron Ramsdale, who last year had to make 147 saves – behind only fellow relegated England international Sam Johnstone (166). Since joining Arsenal, Ramsdale has faced just 10 shots on target and saved nine of them, a benchmark save percentage.

Matias Dituro is the standout difference-maker this term, however. Despite conceding 11 times, excluding own goals, since joining Celta Vigo, he has actually prevented 4.05 goals.

You wouldn't necessarily know it given some of the scrutiny, but things aren't going all that terribly at Manchester United.

With four wins and two draws from their first seven games of the Premier League season, they are just two points behind leaders Chelsea. It's a solid improvement from 2020-21, when, at the same stage of the campaign, they were four points worse off and with a negative goal difference.

Exiting the EFL Cup was frustrating, as was losing to Young Boys, but that last-gasp win over Villarreal means their Champions League fate remains firmly in their own hands. It also ensured their challenge for the two biggest trophies on offer are very much alive, and it's why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job is not currently under threat.

Their next 10 games could change that. It's very hard to predict United results and quality of performances from week to week, but their coming fixture list looks seriously daunting on paper. Before the end of November, they must face league visits to Leicester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, home games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, a Champions League double-header with Atalanta and a trip to Villarreal, LaLiga's only remaining unbeaten side.

Solskjaer could approach the third anniversary of his return to Old Trafford on the back of a buoyant run of results, with a renewed spring in his step ahead of the festive season. Alternatively, December may bring about a deafening clamour for a change of management, just as Jose Mourinho faced in 2018.

Hallowe'en season makes for scary reading

One thing that's marked Solskjaer's time in charge is a tendency to pull out big results when the pressure is on. He's lost just one of five league games against Pep Guardiola and is the only United manager to win all three of his first league visits to the Etihad Stadium. He is unbeaten in five against Chelsea and has been beaten just once by Tottenham.

With two wins in six matches before the international break, the Norwegian will need to summon something similar in the coming seven league fixtures. The trouble is, these games did not go according to plan last time.

United's next league fixtures are Leicester City away, Liverpool at home, Spurs away, Man City at home, Watford away, Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. Last season, the only one of those same games that resulted in a United victory was the trip to Spurs and the embattled Mourinho. Of course, Watford weren't in the top flight last season, but United's last visit to Vicarage Road in December 2019 ended in a miserable 2-0 defeat.

In the Champions League, Solskjaer's men face Atalanta at home and away before heading to Spain to play Villarreal. They edged out Unai Emery's side at home thanks to a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo goal at the end of a contest in which the visitors had 2.31 expected goals to United's 1.07 but were thwarted by goalkeeper David de Gea.

While that was an important result, it didn't gloss over wider concerns. United have kept only one clean sheet in 12 Champions League games under Solskjaer, losing seven of them in total. That's only one defeat less than predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho suffered in 30 matches combined in the competition.

In short, it would take a serious optimist to expect United to get through this run of matches in overwhelmingly positive fashion.

What's the plan, Ole?

But hang on: two points off the top, only one defeat... United's Premier League form isn't that bad, surely?

Well, it's certainly not awful. United have scored more open-play goals than anyone else this season (14) and conceded four, a figure bettered only by Man City (three), Brighton and Hove Albion (two) and leaders Chelsea (zero).

There is often criticism around United's perceived lack of control over games, but that is perhaps not as bad as some think. Only Man City (63.4 per cent) average more possession per game than United (60.7 per cent), while their tally of 55 open-play shots against is the same as Liverpool's and only five down on Chelsea. Indeed, their expected goals against figure in open play (5.5) is slightly lower than that of Jurgen Klopp's men (5.9).

The problem is, as injury-time Ronaldo goals and De Gea penalty saves will tell you, United are treading a fine line between success and disappointment.

Those league-high 14 open-play goals came from 86 shots, a figure only bettered by Man City (94) and Liverpool (97), but one worth just 7.9 expected goals. That differential of 6.1 between goals scored and xG is by far the biggest in the league, and will almost certainly begin to level off at some stage.

That xG figure is in spite of United registering 1,256 passes ending in the final third, a tally only beaten by Man City (1,340). They also rank just fifth for passes into the box (234) and are well behind Liverpool (270) and Man City (273) for touches in the opponents' penalty area (206). Despite having lots of the ball, those clear-cut chances are scarce.

That relatively high possession figure apparently doesn't offer the security at the back that it should, either. But United have still faced 77 shots this season and are on an 11-game run without a clean sheet at home, their worst such sequence since 1964. Champions City, meanwhile, use keeping the ball as their first line of defence: they have only faced 42 shots, just 10 of which have been on target compared to United's 24.

At least United can't generally be accused of a want of trying. There are only two teams – Southampton (997) and Leeds United (1,210) – who have tallied more team sprints than United (991), which is impressive given the length of time they keep the ball rather than scurrying around trying to win it back.

Plus, only Liverpool (147) and Man City (127) have attempted more shots overall than United (120), while there are four United players among the top 18 in the division for attempts at goal this season. Those four – Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba – have also created 50 goalscoring chances between them. In fact, Fernandes leads the league when it comes to shots attempted and chances created combined.

Solskjaer's ethos, it seems, continues to be based on individual inspiration: put enough talented attackers on the pitch, and, more often than not, they'll do enough to win you a game. But that tactic did not work against Everton, or Aston Villa, or Young Boys, or Southampton. Will it be enough against the rest of the 'big six' between now and December?

Will it be enough, indeed, to keep the wolves from Solskjaer's door?

After a COVID-19 enforced postponement, the T20 World Cup will finally get underway on Sunday.

Initially scheduled to take place in Australia last year, and then India following the postponement, the competition will now take place in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

A first round featuring eight teams, including debutants Namibia and Papua New Guinea as well as 2014 champions Sri Lanka (who have reached three T20 World Cup finals, more than any other side), gets the tournament up and running, with four teams progressing into the Super 12 stage.

The West Indies are aiming to defend their title, having edged out England in the 2016 edition. Eoin Morgan's team, who have the world's top T20 batsman in their ranks, are sure to be one of the main challengers for the Windies' crown.

Virat Kohli's India are among the favourites, while Pakistan will be hoping captain Babar Azam delivers. Australia and New Zealand (the most economic side when it came to bowling in 2016) cannot be discounted either, with South Africa also improving in recent years.

It promises to be a thrilling tournament and, with the help of Opta, Stats Perform looks at some of the key data points heading into the tournament.

 

Gayle on the record trail

The Windies have won two of the last three T20 World Cups, triumphing in 2016 and 2012 either side of Sri Lanka's success, and they remain the only team to have won the tournament on multiple occasions. Key to their sustained success has been Chris Gayle, who at 42, is still the face of the sport in the Caribbean.

He is just 80 runs away from becoming the second player to score 1,000 runs at the T20 World Cup. In fact, he needs only 97 runs to surpass Mahela Jayawardene's record tally of 1,016. Gayle already holds one competition record, for the number of sixes (60), while he averages 40 across 26 innings at the tournament, with a brilliant strike rate of 146.7.

New Zealand great Brendon McCullum (123) is the only player to have a higher T20 World Cup score than Gayle's 117, and you would not bet against the Windies talisman claiming that record either.

Gayle will have able support from the likes of Kieron Pollard (1,378 T20 runs), Dwayne Bravo (1,229) and Lendl Simmons (1,508), not to mention Nicholas Pooran.

Despite batting in the middle order, Pooran hit the second-highest number of sixes in this year's Caribbean Premier League (25). He also has form in the middle east, having struck 350 runs at a rate of 170 in the most recent edition of the Indian Premier League.

 

Malan and Livingstone to lead England

The Windies' first opponents in the Super 12 phase will be England, who will be out for revenge. They had a batting strike rate of 148 in 2016, the best of any team, but still fell short. Yet while the West Indies are now ninth in the ICC's T20I rankings, Morgan's men sit top of the pile.

Dawid Malan is the star batsman. He is ranked number one in the world in T20Is, with a rating of 841, way clear of second-placed Babar (819). Over 30 innings, he has amassed 1,123 runs at an average of 43.2 and a strike rate of 139.3.

Morgan, not shy of a big innings himself, is also able to call on Liam Livingstone, who has made a fantastic start to his T20I career. 

From seven innings, Livingstone has hit 206 runs with a strike rate of 167.5. His high score of 103 is the joint-highest in England's squad, level with Malan (103 not out).

As was the case at the 2019 World Cup, England's batting depth is exceptional, though they are shorn of Ben Stokes, who always seems to deliver when it matters most.

 

Kohli's last shot

Not too far behind Malan in the ICC's T20I batsman rankings is India star Kohli, who is stepping down as the captain in the shortest format of the game following the World Cup.

Winners of the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, India have only reached one other final, back in 2014. Kohli was named player of the tournament, top-scoring with 319 runs, and as he prepares to bow out as captain, he will be determined to cap off his tenure on a high.

No player has made more half-centuries in the competition than the 32-year-old (level with Gayle on nine), though Kohli is yet to log a century.

Kohli's hopes may well rest on the shoulders of Rohit Sharma. The opener debuted with an unbeaten half-century back in 2007 and has made 111 T20I appearances, behind only Shoaib Malik (116) and Mohammed Hafeez (113).

Only Martin Guptill (147) has struck more sixes than Sharma (133) in the format, while over the last five years, India have won every time the batsman has scored 50+ runs.

 

Captain fantastic

Shahid Afridi has taken the most wickets of any player in T20 World Cup history (39). Indeed, Bangladesh's Shakib Al Hasan has taken the most wickets at the tournament of any player set to participate in this edition (30), which shows the void Pakistan are having to fill following Afridi's retirement.

They do, however, possess a supreme batsman in the form of captain Babar. 

Since his T20I bow in 2016, Babar has tallied up 2,204 runs. His average of 46.9 puts him third on the all-time T20I list (20+ innings), behind Kohli (52.7) and his fellow opener Mohammad Rizwan (48.4), who provides another string to Pakistan's bow.

Babar, who has only managed one century to date (122 from 59 balls against South Africa earlier this year) was the fastest player to 2,000 T20I runs (52 innings) beating Kohli's previous best of 56, and an enticing encounter between the sub-continental rivals takes place on October 24.

Karl Darlow, Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden all started for Newcastle United in the final game of the Mike Ashley era. Dwight Gayle appeared from the bench.

Those were five of Newcastle's 12 most-used players in the Championship in 2016-17, appearing for a combined 14,122 minutes. Gayle, with 23 goals, was their leading scorer.

Steve Bruce, in charge against Wolves, regularly cited this longevity as a positive as the team battled relegation.

Like Bruce, though, clinging to his job ahead of his 1,000th career game in management against Tottenham, their stays are highly unlikely to be extended long into the ownership of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which last week purchased 80 per cent of the St James' Park outfit to become the richest football club owner in the world.

Amanda Staveley, whose PCP Capital Partners bought 10 per cent of Newcastle, has already talked of matching Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who this year respectively became the first British club to make a £100million signing and recruited the greatest player in the history of the game.

The mere thought of Jack Grealish or Lionel Messi might make steady, unspectacular centre-back Clark a little dizzy.

"We are in the market to compete for world-class players," Staveley said in another interview, before generously adding: "We already have world-class players."

One-paced right-winger-turned-left-back Ritchie certainly cannot be counted in that group. But Allan Saint-Maximin, with a little time and some elite coaching, might yet be.

Key like Kompany

It is easy to imagine Newcastle's bottomless budget allowing them to cast aside their entire existing XI.

A viral social media post shared by Gary Lineker last week showed a video clip of an alternative Magpies team lining up for the Champions League anthem on EA Sports' FIFA: Mohamed Salah, Messi, Kevin De Bruyne, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe, Son Heung-min, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo, bolstered by N'Golo Kante in goal.

But if City's 2008 takeover provided the blueprint, it showed how some players already at the club can have vital roles in the years ahead.

In their final game before the Abu Dhabi United Group took charge, Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany both started. Pablo Zabaleta was signed the same day.

Kompany (358), Zabaleta (333) and Hart (308) to this day rank third, fifth and seventh for City appearances in all competitions in the Abu Dhabi era, each sticking around for at least two of the club's five Premier League title triumphs.

So, who might be the Newcastle equivalents?

"I don't think anyone has lived up to their potential," former Newcastle captain Rob Lee told Stats Perform. "You've got to be brutally honest and say we wouldn't be in this position we're in [19th] if they'd played as well as they can."

However, he added: "Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson I'd leave out of that."

Wilson and Joe Willock were both reportedly of interest to Staveley's group before they were brought to Tyneside, but Saint-Maximin is the genuine jewel in Newcastle's knock-off crown.

In fact, if not for this takeover, Newcastle fans would have been fearing a January exit for their exciting number 10.

A year ago, Saint-Maximin said: "If the club is developing well, and it's in line with my desires, staying is a possibility. Afterwards, if things don't turn out like that, obviously the question of leaving will arise."

Since that interview, Newcastle have earned the joint-fewest points of all ever-present Premier League teams (41 – tied with Southampton). Saint-Maximin, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength.

Maximin impact

Saint-Maximin arrived at Newcastle with a reputation as an entertainer, equal parts exhilarating and frustrating. Across his first two seasons at St James' Park, he lived up to that billing.

Among players to make 10 starts in that time, the winger ranked third in Europe's top five leagues for both dribbles attempted (9.1 – behind Neymar and Sofiane Boufal) and dribbles completed (5.7 – behind Neymar and Adama Traore) per 90 minutes, but his end product was too often lacking.

Three goals and four assists in 2019-20 represented a goal involvement every 267 minutes, ranking between Jonjo Shelvey (265) and Matej Vydra (271) in the Premier League. When he reproduced the same figures again the following season, Saint-Maximin improved to an involvement every 224 minutes – just behind Danny Welbeck (221).

However, with two goals and three assists already this term, he has an involvement every 126 minutes, which puts him directly between Bruno Fernandes (125) and Son (130).

Indeed, only seven Premier League players have this season created more than Saint-Maximin's 16 chances – Ritchie (21) is actually joint-second – which include 15 from open play and four 'big chances', from which Opta would expect a player to score.

These attacking statistics are all the more impressive given the role Saint-Maximin is asked to play for Newcastle.

The Magpies start their possessions just 39 metres from their own goal on average – third-deepest in the league – meaning Saint-Maximin, of late playing as a central striker in either a 3-5-2, 5-4-1 or 4-3-3, is tasked with taking the team up the pitch.

That is why Saint-Maximin has carried the ball 1,950m, further than any other player in the league, including 1,212m upfield – trailing only Traore (1,267m). His 99 carries upfield are the most of any attacking player.

Traore is the sole player in Europe to successfully take on more players (49) than Saint-Maximin's 33, although only five of the Newcastle man's 54 attempted dribbles have been in the box – some way shy of Mbappe's leading 18.

Saint-Maximin is Europe's outstanding counter-attacking creator, forging 11 chances from carries (two more than Traore), but he might be even more effective a little closer to goal in a better, more progressive team. That opportunity should now arise on Tyneside.

"Imagine what these players must be thinking," Lee said. "I'd love to be a player at the minute at Newcastle.

"I'd be thinking, 'If I win something here, there'll be statues of me everywhere'. That's what you've got to look at. The first people to win something after that long are going to be idolised forever."

Saviour, then superstar?

There will undoubtedly be some high-profile, high-cost arrivals to come at St James' Park – Lee, doing his best Kevin Keegan impression, "would love it" if Newcastle signed Sunday's opponent Harry Kane – but Saint-Maximin must first lead his side to Premier League safety.

Newcastle are without a victory in seven this season and winless in four at home against Spurs.

But City also found life tough in 2008-09, tumbling into the bottom three at Christmas despite being afforded a single day in September to sign Robinho following the takeover.

Three goals from Robinho across the next two games provided a little breathing space going into January, when City were able to spend again and finish the campaign comfortably in midtable – their form from Boxing Day onwards the seventh-best in the division.

For now, Saint-Maximin is the closest thing Newcastle have to a Robinho, who provided a goal involvement (14 goals, five assists) every 139 minutes in that campaign.

Across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Newcastle won 42.9 per cent of the 42 matches in which Saint-Maximin started, earning 1.5 points per game, versus 14.7 per cent of 34 without him, collecting just 0.8 points.

That puts into context their awful start to this season, in which Saint-Maximin has been one of only two Newcastle players – Ritchie the other – to play all 630 minutes, a bright spark in a gloomy stretch.

If the Frenchman can continue to stay fit, he will be key to ensuring results quickly turn in this new era – starting against Tottenham.

"I'd love to see superstars [at Newcastle] – that's what we all want to see," Lee said. "'The Entertainers' was all about having a very, very good team but also signing superstars, like Alan [Shearer], Tino [Asprilla] and David Ginola."

Forget Kane, Philippe Coutinho and Mauro Icardi; Saint-Maximin is primed to be this team's first superstar.

Week 6 of the NFL season sees the first byes of the campaign, meaning fantasy managers may need to start utilising their bench.

Though the starters picked in the early rounds of the draft often lay the foundations for a championship-winning season, the players selected to fill the void when they are not available can be the difference between claiming and missing out on the title.

With that in mind, this week's edition of fantasy picks features three players who can fill the void for fantasy managers with holes in their line-up.

A second-year wide receiver primed to play an even bigger part in an underperforming offense also features in Stats Perform's look at four players and a defense worthy of fantasy selection this week. 

Quarterback: Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team vs. Kansas City Chiefs

If you have a quarterback on a bye, or you are unfortunate to be in a position where the injured Russell Wilson is your starter, then you may be in scramble mode at quarterback.

Heinicke presents a solution to fantasy owners in such a bind. Yes, Washington will be underdogs against Kansas City, but Heinicke has thrown for multiple passing touchdowns in three of his last four games and should have little difficulty moving the ball against a defense allowing 7.08 yards per play, the most in the NFL.

With a high-scoring affair likely on the horizon, Heinicke is a leading option for fantasy owners in need of a quarterback fill-in.

Running Back: Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins @ Jacksonville Jaguars

There isn't much reason to get excited about the Dolphins but fantasy owners of Gaskin should be extremely intrigued by this matchup in the second and final London game of the year.

Gaskin had only five carries for 25 yards last week in the Dolphins' 45-17 loss to the Buccaneers but found the endzone twice as a receiver as he hauled all 10 of his targets for 74 yards.

Against a Jacksonville defense that has been stout against the run but is allowing a league-worst 8.79 yards per pass play, there is scope for another big day for Gaskin as the Dolphins seek their second win of an underwhelming campaign.

Wide Receiver: Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks

Claypool has 296 receiving yards and a touchdown over his last three games playing for a Steelers offense that had struggled mightily prior to their Week 5 win over the Denver Broncos.

With Juju Smith-Schuster out for the season, Claypool should claim even more of a featured role in the offense and in Week 6 has the inviting prospect of a matchup with a Seahawks defense ranked 28th in the NFL in opposing pass yards per play (7.49). Claypool is well worthy of being in your starting lineup come Sunday.

Tight End: Mo Alie-Cox, Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans

Alie-Cox was not able to find the endzone in Week 5 after catching two touchdown passes a week earlier, however, he is averaging 13.8 yards per reception, illustrating his big-play threat.

Facing a Texans defense allowing the most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends, Alie-Cox should have an opportunity to make a significant impact in Week 6. Alie-Cox could prove an astute pickup for fantasy owners struggling for options at tight end.

Defense: Dallas Cowboys @ New England Patriots

The Cowboys' defense was not expected to be one of the top fantasy units in the league going into the season, however, through five games they have forced 12 takeaways, the second-most in the NFL.

Facing a quarterback in Mac Jones who has thrown a pickable pass on 4.89 per cent of his attempts, well above the average of 3.16, a meeting with the Patriots presents the Cowboys with the chance to add to that total and rack up fantasy points.

From "Arsene Who" to "The Invincibles", via all those things he did not see, Arsene Wenger brought a whole new lexicon to English football.

He also changed the way the game is viewed in England, completely altering the horizons of a largely closed-off football culture to turbo-charge its transformation into the home of the most diverse, globally respected and richest domestic league on the planet.

Wenger's legacy in the Premier League is beyond question and its roots go back 25 years to October 12, 1996, when he oversaw his first ever match in charge of the club.

Across more than two decades, Wenger's Arsenal broke records, moved homes and changed their image forever. Here we look back at some memorable moments and the Opta numbers behind a towering sporting era.

Ton-up strikers

Wenger's initial years in north London saw him skilfully combine the rugged English core of a team that previously enjoyed trophy success under George Graham with his more pioneering ideas – a blend that found full realisation with the 1997-98 double success.

"One of my jobs was to keep faithful to the qualities I had found here. I tried always to maintain the tradition and values of this club," Wenger said on the eve of his final game at Huddersfield Town in May 2018.

That was game 1,235 and game one took place on the other side of the Pennines against Blackburn Rovers.

Foremost among the qualities Wenger found at Arsenal were those of the man who would become the club's record goalscorer on his watch.

Ian Wright scored both goals to get the brave new era up and running with a 2-0 win over a club who had been champions of England a little over a year earlier.

Wright was 33 when Wenger arrived and injury curtailed his involvement in the glorious 1997-98 run-in. However, earlier in that season he broke Cliff Bastin's long-standing Arsenal club record and concluded his Gunners' career with 185 goals in 288 appearances.

The England striker's best mark would, of course, be surpassed by the great Thierry Henry, whose phenomenal haul of 228 all came on Wenger's watch.

Overall, there were five goalscoring centurions during the Wenger era, with Robin van Persie next on the list with 132 before his acrimonious departure to Manchester United in 2012.

Theo Walcott (108), Olivier Giroud (105) and Wright's one-time strike partner Dennis Bergkamp (102) were the other men into three figures.

Glory days at Old Trafford

That first taste of victory was one of 10 wins in 17 visits to Ewood Park, a win percentage of 58.8 per cent. Of the away or neutral venues Wenger's Arsenal played at in Britain, that ratio was only bettered by seven wins from 11 at Fulham's Craven Cottage (63.6 per cent).

Of course, there are other grounds far more synonymous with his reign, not least the home of Manchester United and his great rival Alex Ferguson.

Other than Highbury and the Emirates, Wenger managed his biggest number of Arsenal games at Old Trafford – 31 in total.

It was often an unhappy hunting ground, the scene of an 8-2 defeat in August 2011 that was his worst in terms of goals conceded and joint-heaviest by margin.

Only at Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium (18.2 per cent) and Tottenham's White Hart Lane (24 per cent) was Wenger's win ratio lower than at Old Trafford (W8 D6 L17 for 25.8 per cent). But when the wins came, they were seismic.

In March 1998, Marc Overmars nodded Nicolas Anelka's flick-on into his own path and steered beyond Peter Schmeichel for a 1-0 victory that proved pivotal in that season's title race.

Another iconic Arsenal moment came in May 2002, when Sylvain Wiltord pounced to beat compatriot Fabien Barthez and the Gunners secured Premier League glory on United's own patch.

There were more recriminations than celebrations in September 2003 after an ill-tempered 0-0 draw between the sides. However, had Ruud van Nistelrooy not crashed a penalty against the crossbar – much to Martin Keown's contorted, vein-popping satisfaction – Arsenal would not have been Invincibles.

7-up and springing Prague

An away ground not quite as synonymous with Wenger is the Madejski Stadium.

Nevertheless, Reading are the opponent Arsenal played most often while maintaining a 100 per cent record under the Frenchman, winning 10 out of 10.

The most famous of these wins was a 7-5 triumph in Berkshire in October 2012, where Arsenal averted EFL Cup embarrassment in utterly berserk fashion.

After 35 minutes, Reading were 4-0 up thanks to Jason Roberts, a Laurent Koscielny own goal, Mikele Leigertwood and Noel Hunt. Afterwards, their manager Brian McDermott, a former Arsenal player, would reflect upon the "worst" defeat of his career.

Walcott reduced the arrears before the interval and the England winger's second of the match deep into injury time, after a goal from Giroud and one at the right end from Koscielny, forced an additional half hour.

Marouane Chamakh put Arsenal ahead for the first time in the tie and, although Pavel Pogrebnyak made it 5-5, the Moroccan forward scored his second after Walcott completed his hat-trick to crown what Wenger dubbed "maybe my greatest comeback", with a touch of understatement.

It was not the only time Arsenal scored seven under Wenger, and the biggest wins of his tenure came when they kept the back door shut, with Everton, Middlesbrough and Slavia Prague all beaten 7-0 in a spell spanning May 2005 to October 2007.

Coincidentally, Slavia's neighbours Sparta are next on Wenger's perfect record list after Reading, losing six out of six against Arsenal in the Champions League.

Mourinh-woe

Over time, an underlying warmth revealed itself in the Wenger-Ferguson rivalry. It was hard to say the same when it came to his jousts with Jose Mourinho.

Wenger was a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure" according to Mourinho's acidic tongue and the older man could be similarly biting.

"When you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent," he witheringly observed after Mourinho announced himself in English football with his 2004-05 Chelsea sweeping all before them.

It will therefore have stung deeply when Wenger's 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal saw them ransacked in a 6-0 demolition at Stamford Bridge on March 22, 2014.

If the manner of the loss was humiliating, the defeat itself was one to be expected. In 19 encounters with Mourinho, Wenger won two – a 10.5 per cent win ratio that is by far his worst against another manager, with 30.6 per cent thanks to 15 victories from 49 attempts versus Ferguson next on the list.

Those paltry returns against the self-styled 'Special One' mostly come within a wider context of decline.

Wenger's first decade at Arsenal – spanning 1996-97 to 2005-06, their last at Highbury – yielded 11 trophies out of the 17 he won overall in north London, including all three Premier League titles.

Arsenal's win percentage dropped slightly after the move to Emirates Stadium, going from 70.2 per cent to 67.9 per cent, though they did score slightly more often, with their goals-per-game figure up from 1.8 to 1.9 in the latter period.

By this point, Wenger was joined in the Premier League by the finest coaching talents from across Europe. It was a far cry from his own appointment, when he became only the fourth manager in England's top flight to hail from outside the British Isles.

Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and others had all come along to raise the bar Wenger set to even greater heights, although he would enjoy one last defining triumph at the expense of one of their contemporaries.

FA Cup specialist

Chelsea entered the 2017 FA Cup final as hot favourites to complete the double after romping to Premier League glory in Antonio Conte's first season in charge.

A 3-0 defeat to Arsenal the previous September inspired Conte to revert to his favoured 3-4-2-1 system and was the catalyst for a dominant revival.

This turn of events seemed to encapsulate the futility of the late Wenger years, when every small success appeared only to serve as a precursor for a greater disappointment.

You could even say the same for his last final in the competition he dominated, given it preceded his lowest ever Premier League finish of sixth in his farewell campaign.

But Arsenal were stirringly brilliant that day at Wembley. Per Mertesacker was wheeled out of cold storage to put in a colossal display at centre-back as Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey sealed a deserved 2-1 win.

Ramsey ranks 10th among Arsenal's top scorers of the Wenger era with 58 and two of those were FA Cup final winners, the Wales midfielder also netting decisively against Hull City in 2014.

Those were Wenger's fifth and seventh successes in a competition he has won more than any other manager in history, where his incredible Arsenal tenure means his position is ensured for posterity.

In Week 4, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced an AFC East defense and by, their standards, looked out of sync. In Week 5, they faced an AFC East defense and could hardly have looked more impressive.

Freed from the rainy confines of Foxborough and away from the defensive scheming of his old boss Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers routed a Miami Dolphins team whose rebuild appears poised to come crashing down 45-17 to improve to 4-1 on the season.

Back in the Florida sunshine, it was very much a return to business as usual for the Bucs, but, for Tampa Bay, business as usual is looking steadily more remarkable.

Speaking after Sunday's game, running back Leonard Fournette said: "Prior to the third quarter Rich [Richard Sherman] came up to me and said, 'Man, I've never been part of a team with so much talent.'

"And I'm telling him like, and excuse my language, but this s*** is different."

It is tough to disagree with Fournette's assessment of the Super Bowl champions. When performing at their peak, the Bucs appear to be on a different level to almost every team in the NFL.

They were several leagues above their in-state neighbours at the weekend, with the gulf in class illustrated by a rapport between Brady and arguably the NFL's premier group of wide receivers that appears to be growing ever stronger.

Brady heading for more history

Brady finished with 411 yards passing and five touchdowns against the Dolphins for a 144.4 passer rating, tying Peyton Manning with his ninth career game with at least five touchdown passes. Only Drew Brees (11) has more in NFL history.

It was his 36th game with at least four touchdown passes, taking him past Manning (35) and one shy of Brees. Brees (16), Manning (14) and Dan Marino (13) are the only players with more 400 passing-yard games than Brady's 12.

A 62-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown marked Brady's 45th of 50 or more yards, moving him level with Brees and John Hadl for the third most in league history. Johnny Unitas (51) and Manning (46) stand ahead of him in that regard.

Leading the league in passing yards (1,767) and second in passing touchdowns (15) and plays of 25 yards or more (16), Brady will be a strong bet to keep moving up those lists, provided he and his wideouts continue operating at a level that left a Dolphins defense known for producing momentum-stopping takeaways powerless to stem the tide.

Pressure? What pressure?

Brady delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 81.6 per cent of his pass attempts against Miami. The average for the week heading into Monday was 81.7, but Brady was close to that mark while also averaging 10.53 air yards per attempt.

Only two quarterbacks who averaged more air yards had a better well-thrown percentage. Russell Wilson was accurate on 93.3 per cent with 12.00 air yards per attempt before his injury, and Josh Allen was on target 87.5 per cent of the time with an average of 12.46 air yards.

It was under pressure where Brady stood out in Week 5, as his first of two touchdown hookups with Brown saw him stand in against the interior rush and deliver a perfectly timed ball to the former Pittsburgh Steeler on a crossing route despite falling away from the throw.

Brown was able to collect the pass in stride, racing into open space to find the endzone and give the Bucs a 17-10 lead they never looked like relinquishing.

Arguably as impressive was Brady's 34-yard bomb to Mike Evans. The first of two touchdown catches for Evans, Brady dropped a downfield shot into the bucket despite dealing with late-arriving pressure from the backside and Byron Jones being in phase in good trail position covering the receiver.

Brady was accurate on four of his five attempts under pressure, on which he averaged 9.80 air yards, with his release time of 2.41 seconds on those passes the second-fastest in the NFL.

In a league increasingly dominated by quarterbacks who can escape pressure with their legs, Brady is a 44-year-old statue winning through his mind and his arm operating at a faster speed than everyone else on the field while continuing to demonstrate remarkable placement on throws that seemed beyond him as recently as 2019.

Part of the credit for his success, though, must be attributed to a receiving corps firmly living up to its reputation.

Business booming for AB and Co.

Evans, Brown and Chris Godwin can each be considered elite options at the wideout position, and their status in that regard was further solidified in a game where the Bucs shredded the opposing defense despite Brady being without a tight end in Rob Gronkowski who is averaging a big play on 57.0 per cent of his targets.

Brown finished with seven receptions for 124 yards and his two scores, becoming the fastest player to reach 900 catches as he took his tally to 906 in 143 career games, breaking the record set by Marvin Harrison (149 games).

He also became the fifth player in league history to reach 12,000 receiving yards in fewer than 150 games and, while Brown may never reach the levels he demonstrated during his time in Pittsburgh, he is undoubtedly worthy of Brady's increasing faith in him.

Producing a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – 69.0 per cent of the time, Brown is tied-third among receivers with at least 20 targets with his 5.3 burn yards per route.

Evans, meanwhile, is seventh on the list of receivers who meet that same threshold with a big play on 41.7 per cent of his targets, and Godwin – the quietest of the trio versus Miami with seven catches for 70 yards – is fifth in burn percentage for receivers with a 20-target minimum, winning his matchup on 74.4 per cent of targets.

Godwin's average depth of target of 8.3 yards speaks to a receiver who is working more as an underneath option while Evans (14.2) and Brown (13.9) are being relied on to produce the more explosive plays downfield.

Yet when performing at the standard they showcased on Sunday, the nature of their deployment is almost immaterial. With three receivers who could be number one targets on most teams in the NFL and a quarterback whose arm and ability to process are seemingly unaffected by the passage of time, a Bucs offense that is clicking is a near-impossible one to stop.

Any notion of a short stay in Tampa being akin to a Florida retirement home for Brady has long since been dispelled. With an embarrassment of riches at receiver, he is continually polishing a legacy that glistens more than any other in league history. With more offensive performances like his 400-yard blitz of the Dolphins, he may end the year buffing up an eighth Lombardi Trophy.

After the 2018 World Cup final, when highlights of France's thrilling 4-2 win were played back at Luzhniki Stadium, one man in particular was enraptured.

Antoine Griezmann stood on the pitch, ignoring the celebrations that surrounded him, his gaze fixed upwards at the big screen beneath the storm-laden sky.

His hands to his mouth, eyes watering, smile beaming, the face of the man bore an expression of boyish disbelief: I was just man of the match in the World Cup final. And we won.

It's unlikely anything in Griezmann's career will ever top that victory over Croatia in the Russian capital. Win or lose, Sunday's Nations League final against Spain almost certainly won't. Still, it will be another special occasion for the Atletico Madrid forward, who is set to win his 100th cap against the national team of his adoptive country.

It also offers a chance to reflect on Griezmann's international career, which began only seven years ago. In the Didier Deschamps era, there has been no more important player.

 

Didier's favourite

Reaching a century of international games is commendable for any player – only eight men have ever achieved it for France before. What makes Griezmann unique is that all of his caps have come under the same coach.

It was Deschamps who handed Griezmann his debut on March 5, 2014 against the Netherlands, starting the forward wide on the left of a front three. Griezmann has since been used across the forward line in changing systems, but his presence in Deschamps' set-up has been constant: he has only missed four France games since his first appearance and has played in 56 matches in a row for Les Bleus, the longest such streak in their history.

 

Under Deschamps, only Olivier Giroud (101) has played more often than Griezmann, while only goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has started more games (96 compared with Griezmann's 84) or played more minutes (8,700 to Griezmann's 7,300).

When he scored his second in the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland in September, Griezmann moved level with Michel Platini on 41 international goals. Only Giroud (46) and Thierry Henry (51) have managed more in the national team's history. Given his rate of just over five international goals per year, the outright record looks well within Griezmann's reach, even if he insists it is not an "obsession" to get it.

Another record beckons in 2022: should France reach the semi-finals in Qatar, Griezmann could surpass Henry and Fabien Barthez (both on 17) for the most appearances for Les Bleus at World Cup finals.

 

Griezi does it on the biggest stage

In the 2018 World Cup final, Griezmann won and took the free-kick from which Mario Mandzukic scored the opening own goal, and he converted the penalty that restored France's lead when Croatia were beginning to take control.

It was a decisive display in the biggest match of the Deschamps era, but the fact Griezmann stepped up for his country when it mattered should not have come as a shock.

In the knockouts in Russia, Griezmann scored in the 4-3 win over Argentina, got a goal and an assist in the quarter-final with Uruguay and crossed for Samuel Umtiti's headed winner against Belgium in the last four. He won the bronze ball as the third-best player at the tournament and the silver boot for finishing as second in the goal standings, two behind England's Harry Kane on six.

 

Two years earlier, he scored twice against the Republic of Ireland, got a goal and two assists against Iceland and two more strikes against Germany in the knockouts of Euro 2016 before France fell at the final hurdle on home soil against Portugal. In both 2016 and 2018, he came third in the Ballon d'Or standings.

Griezmann won the golden boot and was named player of the tournament at Euro 2016. Indeed, in the history of the European Championship finals, only Cristiano Ronaldo (20) and Michel Platini (10) have been directly involved in more goals than the 30-year-old (nine).

 

Antoine-derful

Griezmann scored 22 goals in 74 LaLiga games for Barcelona as he struggled to find his place in the system alongside Lionel Messi under three different coaches. It was a fairly poor return for €120million. Yet for France, regardless of tactics and personnel, he has delivered consistently when it matters.

Since his debut, Griezmann has nine goals and four assists in 16 World Cup qualifying games. No player has managed more, or made more appearances. He also leads the way for chances created (33, 14 more than anyone else), and shots (46, seven more than nearest rival Paul Pogba).

In Euros qualifying, only Giroud matches Griezmann for games (10) and beats him for goals (six), while the Atleti man is again top for assists (seven). In fact, he has created 42 goalscoring chances in those games, which is 28 more than anyone else for France during his international career.

At World Cup finals, no France player has played more matches (12), scored more goals (four) or provided more assists (two) than Griezmann in the Deschamps era. His 17 chances created are, again, the most in that time.

And, at the European Championships... well, you can guess where we're going here. His seven goals and two assists in 11 games is a better return than any other France player since his debut. If you add in four goals and an assist in 11 Nations League matches – again, nobody for France has played as many – then Griezmann stands on 43 direct goal involvements in competitive internationals, which is 15 more than any other player since he made his bow on the senior stage.

 

In Spain, Griezmann went from underrated Real Sociedad talent to Atletico Madrid superstar to Barcelona let-down. For France, he has been Monsieur Dependable for more than seven years.

If he marks his 100th cap with a decisive turn in a Nations League final victory, nobody – among the French, at least – would be surprised.

So far, so good, Dak Prescott. At least from a personal perspective, though, it was a similar story through four weeks in 2020.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback set a record-breaking pace last year, his 1,690 passing yards comfortably the most by any player over the first four weeks of a season since 1960. In fact, in at least the past 40 years, no QB can match that total across any four-game span.

Going back to 1960, only Jameis Winston had previously thrown for 450 yards in consecutive games. Prescott became the first to do so in three in a row against the Atlanta Falcons (450), the Seattle Seahawks (472, a career high) and the Cleveland Browns (502, another career high) in Weeks 2, 3 and 4.

Yet the Cowboys were only 1-3, and when Prescott went down for the year against the New York Giants in Week 5, any hopes of recovering their season were dashed. Dallas went from averaging a league-leading 509.5 total net yards and third-ranked 31.5 points per game through Week 4 to 325.9 yards and 22.5 points over the rest of the year — ranking joint-21st and 25th.

In 2021, however, they are 3-1 heading into another Week 5 matchup with the Giants, despite having played three other 3-1 teams. And although Prescott has again been outstanding, this year's Cowboys do not look quite so fragile.

'The best I've ever played'

Of course, Dallas' excellent start begins with the man under center. Prescott is back this season having finally signed a four-year, $160million extension, and he is quickly proving worth that investment.

Although his 1,066 yards pale next to last year's early efforts, the 28-year-old has thrown 10 touchdown passes, up on 2020's nine and the second-most ever at this stage of a season by a Cowboys QB, behind Tony Romo's 11 in 2007. Only Don Meredith (twice — in 1966 and 1968) has bettered Prescott's 116.9 passer rating to this point.

After three TDs and no interceptions in the Week 3 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott said he had gained "a different perspective" from his spell on the sidelines. "I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played," he added. He then had four TDs and no interceptions versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.

Prescott is undoubtedly excelling — he has delivered a well-thrown, accurate ball with 84.7 per cent of his passes this year, third among QBs with 100 or more attempts — but he is also getting help. In the Panthers game, he did not take a single sack. His seven for the year are fewer than 21 other QBs through four weeks.

Indeed, the Dallas number four said coming into the season offensive linemen Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, who all missed at least large chunks of 2020 through injury, were "the most important" members of the offense.

Of the 32 pressures Prescott has faced this season, 20 came in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Martin was on the COVID list. He has won 57 of 58 pass protection attempts, allowing only a single hurry. Smith has won 90 of 93 attempts, giving up a sole adjusted sack. The Cowboys still have the suspended Collins to come back in.

Even when Prescott is pressured, he is performing well, getting the ball out quickly and accurately, his 2.84-second release time the fourth-fastest under duress (minimum 10 attempts) and his 81.3 well-thrown percentage the fourth-best.

Having top-level talents to give the ball to makes the job easier, though.

Sharing the ball around

Prescott completed at least 80 per cent of his passes in consecutive weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers (85.2) and the Eagles (80.8), while the Cowboys also put up more than 150 rushing yards in both matchups (198 and 160). The 1984 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana, had been the last team to achieve that feat in back-to-back games.

That statistic speaks to the threat Dallas pose on offense this year.

Through the air, Prescott has had three outstanding weapons to target at the start of this season. Wide receivers Amari Cooper (22) and CeeDee Lamb (20) and tight end Dalton Schultz (20) have each made at least 20 catches, making the Cowboys the only team to have three players reach this mark through four weeks in 2021.

In just Lamb's second season in the league, he and Cooper have already established themselves as one of football's premier wide receiver duos — they are one of seven pairs of team-mates to each have 250 receiving yards at the position through Week 4 (258 for Cooper, 264 for Lamb).

Against the Panthers, when Lamb was limited to just two catches, four other Cowboys caught TD passes — among them breakout star Schultz, who has three scores in four games after four in his first three years in the league.

Two of those prior four TDs came in the first four games of 2020, though, with Prescott targeting Schultz with 28 passes, leading to a career-high four-game span of 219 receiving yards. Of those, 105 yards came after the catch, showing his power as he ranked fifth at TE in the NFL. So far this year, his 131 yards after the catch trail only Travis Kelce and George Kittle — good company to be keeping.

Crucially, however, Dallas also have multiple options on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott looks back to his best and is boosted by having Tony Pollard emerge as an effective alternative.

"We've got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it's not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25, 30 times a game," head coach Mike McCarthy said in July. "When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25, 30 times if needed."

Elliott is certainly being used more efficiently; his 342 rushing yards fall well short of the Week 4 marks set in 2016 (412) and 2018 (426), but only in the latter year (5.84) has he averaged more yards per carry than this year's 5.34. The 26-year-old's four rushing scores are his most at this stage of a season. He still played a key role against Carolina, with 143 rushing yards his most in a game since 2018.

The Cowboys are difficult to stop, with Pollard (4.29) and Elliott (4.00) ranking third and fourth among running backs for yards per carry on plays where run disruption occurs and defenders get the better of the O-line. It is easy to see why Dallas are now running the ball on 47.0 per cent of plays, fifth-most in the league, easing the burden on Prescott.

Young defense delivering

This outstanding offensive production would all count for little if the Cowboys were not also showing improvement on the defensive end. The reasons for their 1-3 start in 2020 were the 430.5 total net yards (third-most) and league-high 36.5 points allowed per game.

Happily, with Prescott returning and faith in the offensive options, the Cowboys were able to focus almost solely on defense in the draft. Their first six picks, including 12th overall selection Micah Parsons, were on that side of the ball.

Linebacker Parsons has quickly established himself, leading the team with 2.5 sacks and 32 sack yards while registering 13 pressures on 46 pass rush attempts — a strong 28.3 per cent. At defensive tackle, third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa has been similarly impressive, pressuring at a 21.4 per cent rate and registering an adjusted sack on 7.1 per cent of plays when lined up on the interior. With Jaylon Smith released, fourth-rounder Jabril Cox could also now get an opportunity.

The undoubted star of the season so far, however, is second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dallas have registered 10 total takeaways, only behind the Buffalo Bills, and Diggs' five interceptions — at least one in each game, including a pick-six against the Eagles — account for half of them. Since 1960, only three players have had more interceptions heading into Week 5; since 1980, just two have had a longer streak of games with picks to start a season.

As a team, the Cowboys had 10 interceptions in the whole of 2020, with Diggs, then a rookie, contributing three.

The Cowboys have now given up 24.3 points per game, tied for 16th in the league, but they have allowed just six points — from two field goals — in the fourth quarter of one-score games, giving Prescott every opportunity to win the game.

Unlike the QB, the key men in the defensive unit are largely too young to have worked with former Cowboys coach and current Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but on the evidence of this season so far they will relish making life hell for his man Daniel Jones on Sunday.

In their last game against weak NFC East rivals until a kind end to the schedule starting in Week 14, the Cowboys will look to lay down a marker, extending this strong start and encouraging hopes they can be a genuine contender this year. Getting Jones off the field and allowing Prescott, Elliott and Co to get to work should ensure they do that.

In the hours after the takeover of Newcastle United was confirmed, Steve Bruce admitted he would not be surprised to lose his job.

The former Manchester United defender has rarely been too popular in his two years at St James' Park, and with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and their astonishing financial might now in control of things, fans are expecting a more high-profile candidate to lead the first team.

While Bruce is expected to have talks with the new owners next week, there are suggestions he could leave his role before the home game with Tottenham on October 17.

Who might be chosen to lead the Magpies into their new era of promise? Stats Perform looks at some of the favourites.

 

Antonio Conte

Having left Inter at the end of last season, Conte represents an ideal choice for Newcastle: an elite coach with Premier League experience who is presently a free agent.

Conte won the 2016-17 Premier League title with Chelsea and the FA Cup the following year. He won 50 of his first 73 games in charge in England's top flight, a record bettered only by Jose Mourinho (50 wins in 63) and Pep Guardiola (50 wins in 69) at the time.

The Italian then ended Inter's decade-long wait for the Scudetto before walking out before this season, highlighting the risk that comes with appointing such a volatile coach. Still, back his demands in the transfer market and it will usually pay dividends in the short term. If Newcastle's owners are after a statement of intent, there are not too many better candidates.

 

Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers was tipped for the Tottenham job when Mourinho left but was apparently committed to Leicester City. However, recent reports have suggested he could be tempted by the project now developing at Newcastle.

The former Liverpool boss has done extremely well with Leicester, with back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the league and a brilliant FA Cup triumph last term, but he has perhaps taken the Foxes as far as he realistically can. Indeed, while fifth place cannot be snubbed at, Leicester held a spot in the top four for the majority of the previous two seasons, while they have had an indifferent start to this term.

Rodgers would also offer Newcastle fans the kind of attractive football they will be craving for the new era.

Steven Gerrard

According to reports, Gerrard is keeping a close eye on developments at St James' Park and would be a welcome choice among supporters given his pedigree as a Premier League player.

Last season, the ex-Liverpool captain led Rangers to the Scottish title without losing a single game, and they are on course to defend that crown after a promising start to 2021-22.

Gerrard would be more of a gamble than some of the more experienced candidates, but he has arguably earned the opportunity.

 

Roberto Martinez

Barcelona were said to be trying to work out how they could afford to replace Ronald Koeman with Martinez last month, although the former is keeping his job for now.

After watching Belgium give up a 2-0 lead to lose to France in the Nations League semi-finals, a deeply frustrated Martinez accused his side of throwing away five years of work, adding fuel to rumours that he feels his time with the Red Devils is coming to an end.

Martinez sprung a shock by winning the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic in 2013, although his commitment to attacking football could not keep them in the division and his Everton spell ended in disappointment after an initially bright start. But he said only this week to Goal that his ideal next job was a long-term project and that it "doesn't matter where it might be in the world".

Eddie Howe

Despite being considered for the Celtic job, Howe surprisingly remains unattached since leaving Bournemouth, the club he helped to lead from England's fourth tier to the Premier League.

Like Martinez, Howe won praise for the attractive football he was able to coax out of relatively unheralded players, although he too could not quite master the balance between positive play and defensive discipline, with Bournemouth relegated in 2019-20.

There was also criticism of Bournemouth's transfer spending during Howe's time in the Premier League: Dominic Solanke, signed for roughly £19m from Liverpool in 2019, only scored three times in 42 appearances in the top flight (although his Championship form since has been much improved).

 

Rafael Benitez

The return of Benitez would undoubtedly be welcomed by Newcastle fans, who generally hold him in high esteem following his three years at the club before his move to China.

Despite failing to save them from relegation in 2016-17, the Spaniard was considered a top-drawer coach who was hamstrung by the ownership of Mike Ashley and a lack of significant investment in the squad. After winning the Championship in 2017, Newcastle finished 10th in their first season back in the top flight but only 13th in the following two campaigns.

Prising him away from Everton would be neither easy nor cheap, but his experience of winning big trophies and his relationship with the supporters would arguably make him the most popular choice as manager.

No franchise wants to rebuild. Tanking your immediate hopes of success to collect assets that can eventually propel the team back to the top can be a miserable experience. However, the Miami Dolphins attacked rebuilding with remarkable zeal and have endured relatively little pain as they have constructed their roster on a new foundation.

Brian Flores oversaw a 5-11 season not short on reasons for encouragement in 2019 even amid a fire sale that saw the likes of Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick sent off to pastures new in exchange for major draft capital. Last season, the Dolphins finished 10-6 and narrowly missed the playoffs, raising hopes that their project would imminently yield dividends.

As such, this season was always likely to be seen as a measuring stick for the franchise, with Flores entering his third year as head coach and the man they picked to be the quarterback of the future faced with a make-or-break campaign, the Dolphins entered 2021 with expectations with which they are unfamiliar.

And, following a 1-3 start, with a franchise quarterback at least temporarily on the shelf and the defending champions coming to town to potentially put Miami in a deeper hole, tough questions will start to be asked about the direction of the organisation.

Few teams recover from a 1-4 start to reach the postseason. There is the unlikely possibility the Dolphins could upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, but the more plausible scenario is a fourth successive defeat that would beg the question: is Miami's rebuild a failure?

Defense developing, but results declining

The biggest feather in the cap of this Dolphins' regime has been the play of Miami's defense, which last season led the NFL in takeaways with 29.

Yet those turnovers masked the fact that the Dolphins' defense was one teams generally had success moving the ball against. Indeed, Miami ranked 24th in opponent yards per play allowed in 2020, giving up an average of 5.90.

The Dolphins have improved in that regard so far this season, sitting 13th with 5.51 yards per play allowed, but are 23rd in offensive points allowed despite generating six turnovers through four games.

Miami's defense is one that appears to have grown more efficient when it comes to stopping the progress of offenses on a per-play basis and still takes the ball away but is not keeping offenses from putting up points.

Why is that the case? Put simply, they are on the field too long because of the failures of an offense that is not living up to the amount the Dolphins have invested.

A lack of possession

Miami's offense ranks 30th in average time of possession, having control of the ball for just 26 minutes and eight seconds. Their defense, as a result, has been on the field for an average of 33 minutes and 52 seconds. Only the defenses of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks have had to exercise greater endurance this season.

And the offense has shown little in the way of efficiency when on the field.

The Dolphins rank last in yards per play with an average of just 4.05. The New York Jets (5) are the sole team to have scored fewer offensive touchdowns than the Dolphins' six while only 10 of Miami's 42 offensive drives have ended in points.

That level of offensive ineptitude is unacceptable for a team looking to compete, and much of the blame can be pinned on an offensive line where the Dolphins have spent a large portion of their resources.

Despite having a first-round pick and two second-rounders starting up front, the Dolphins have allowed 80 pressures through four games, the seventh-most in the NFL.

It is difficult for a quarterback to succeed when under duress that consistently but, if the Dolphins continue to struggle, an apparent misevaluation of the class of signal-callers in the 2020 draft will come under even greater scrutiny.

Tua a costly mistake?

The elephant in the room is quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whom the Dolphins selected fifth overall in the 2020 draft despite his career with Alabama being ended by a dislocated hip.

Miami backed Tagovailoa to eventually put that injury behind him and develop into the NFL star many expected him to become. Yet he failed to prove a superior option to Ryan Fitzpatrick in his rookie year and, rather than taking season-two strides, seemed to be regressing before a rib injury suffered in the Week 2 loss to the Buffalo Bills saw him placed on injured reserve.

In the small sample size of 30 attempts this season, Tagovailoa has delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball a league-low 63.3 per cent of the time. Only two quarterbacks, rookies Zach Wilson and Davis Mills, have a worse pickable pass rate than Tagovailoa's 6.67 per cent.

Tagovailoa was long since pencilled in as the player the Dolphins' grand rebuild was going to be constructed around. Now reduced to the role of spectator for the time being and struggling to live up to his draft status, going with him over reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert looks like a serious misstep.

It is not the only premium pick Miami made from that class whose selection is in question. Left tackle Austin Jackson's inability to make the leap to the highest level effectively is a key reason for the offensive line struggles — he has won under 70 per cent of his pass-blocking matchups in 2021 — and their third first-round choice from 2020, cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, has not played a single defensive snap in 2021.

Any judgement on this year's crop would be a premature one but, although there have been some encouraging signs from first-round picks Jaylen Waddle and Jaelan Phillips, the former is being limited by the struggles of the offense, recording a big play on an underwhelming 16 per cent of his targets, and pass rusher Phillips has won only 12 of his 43 rushes this season.

The mediocre starts of Waddle and Phillips are a long way down the list of concerns for the Dolphins, however, and they will not be the primary causes should Miami's poor start lead to a year of unmatched expectations.

Miami's rebuild rested on whom the Dolphins selected to be their quarterback and their fortunes in protecting him. The decisions they made in each of those areas have to this point largely backfired, leaving them with an offense that looks ill-equipped to compete this Sunday with a Buccaneers attack that could hardly be in a better position in the trenches and under center.

There is, of course, time for Miami to right the ship this year and the Dolphins — through their pre-2021 draft trade with the San Francisco 49ers — have more capital with which to improve weaknesses on their roster in the coming years.

But persistent talk of the Dolphins using those resources to strike a deal for quarterback Deshaun Watson is not a sign of a successful rebuild or faith in Tagovailoa to turn things around.

It's becoming increasingly clear the Dolphins bet on the wrong horse at quarterback last year and may have failed to properly evaluate prospects at several other positions. Opportunities for any regime to get the chance to select a second quarterback are rare but, regardless of how the Dolphins try to rescue their best-laid plans to return to prominence, the franchise's future gambles must be more astute.

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