As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

Raheem Sterling feels England's commitment to taking a knee at Euro 2020 and thereafter shows the gesture can still be powerful in the fight against racism despite certain fans voicing discontent.

In 2020, the Premier League lent its support to the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, an African American man murdered by a white police officer in the American city of Minneapolis.

Clubs wore Black Lives Matter badges on their jerseys, while players, officials and staff began to take a knee at the start of every match.

In 2021-22, clubs are generally continuing to take a knee, though there are examples of individuals opting against it – Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to say he was no longer going to kneel back in February 2021, the Ivory Coast international suggesting the gesture had lost meaning.

Ever since fans began returning to stadiums after the initial lockdown in the coronavirus pandemic, taking a knee has been a topic of debate.

Some supporters have gone as far as booing players for taking part, with the justification of such reactions being that some perceive it to be a "political" gesture despite what players and authorities say.

England players were jeered before Euro 2020 and it was confirmed they would continue to kneel during the tournament – the online abuse of Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho after their penalty misses in the final showed there was still a fight to be fought.

The Three Lions' commitment to taking a knee highlighted how this generation will not stand for such matters being swept under the carpet after a few days of outrage.

Speaking with manager Gareth Southgate to BBC Radio 4, Sterling said: "How us as a team took a stance, I think the big question was, 'Are we going to continue doing it through the Euros?'.

"And I think a lot of the time when the racism comes up or something has happened, a lot of the time in football and in the majority of society, we tend to address it for that period, for that five days or that week and then we brush it under the carpet and [pretend] things are all fine now.

"When the next scenario happens. that's when we go again. But us as a country, players that have been in those scenarios face some of that racist abuse, on a whole, we just want to keep highlighting that.

"Yes, there have been times that we've sat down and said, 'Is the message still powerful?', and we've said yes and as a group and as a collective we've tried to keep that going."

Sterling has been vocal in calling out racism for years, having routinely brought to attention the conduct of the British media.

Arguably the most famous such incident saw Sterling highlight how a newspaper reported on the spending habits of his young Manchester City team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden back in 2018.

While Foden was covered in a positive light for buying his mother a new £2million home, Adarabioyo – who is of Nigerian descent – was said to have paid a similar amount for a "mansion…despite having never started a Premier League match", the headline seeming to suggest he was not worthy.

The unity and social consciousness of the current England squad has often been put down to Southgate's management of the team, though he pointed to Sterling's stance as helping him to open his eyes.

Continuing on the subject of taking a knee, Southgate said: "At the very least, this had to be a team where we were united on how we saw it and we could send a message to young kids watching that I think the lads maybe didn't realise how powerful that would be going into a tournament because they wanted to concentrate on the football.

"They want to be judged primarily on the football but what Raheem has done, in this space, in particular…. I remember you [Sterling] put the two articles out on how Tosin had been reported on as a young player and a similar sort of story with Phil, and the difference, and it was clear the way those things had been reported.

"So, there were a lot of things that happened over the last few years, including the incident with George Floyd, which I think led…it educated me a lot and I wanted to represent the players in the best way I could."

Roberto Mancini has expressed regret about Italy's failure to secure automatic World Cup qualification and warned the Azzurri must forget about their Euro 2020 success ahead of the playoffs.

Italy, who missed out on the 2018 World Cup, have undergone a transformative period under former Inter and Manchester City manager Mancini. That culminated in them triumphing at Euro 2020 – their first European Championship title since 1968.

The Azzurri embarked on a world-record 37-game unbeaten run, which ended at the hands of Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in October, but their World Cup prospects hang in the balance.

Italy finished runners-up to Switzerland in Group C, as did Portugal to Serbia in Group A. The pair were then drawn on the same play-off path, meaning there is no way that Mancini's side and Cristiano Ronaldo and co can both qualify for Qatar 2022.

Italy have to navigate past North Macedonia in the play-off semi-final in late March and Mancini wishes his side had managed to confirm qualification earlier.

He told Sky Sports Italia: "Yes, but this is football, it is sport. Sometimes you deserve to win and you don't win, we deserved to finish the group much earlier.

"We let ourselves go a bit and now we have to roll up our sleeves and do a great job in the two games. But I remain optimistic, as I knew that our group with Switzerland would be difficult. I thought we would qualify, but I knew it would be difficult."

Reflecting on Euro 2020 success, Mancini said: "We have done an extraordinary thing, we have made millions of people happy. It is the most beautiful thing, of which we are all proud.

"But the European Championship is behind us, now we have to think about something else."

The play-offs are one-leg ties, with Italy and Portugal hosting North Macedonia and Turkey in their respective semi-finals.

The winners of those two semi-finals will meet in a final, in which Portugal or Turkey will be at home, to secure a place at Qatar 2022.

If Italy can negotiate such a tricky route, Mancini believes they have players who will benefit from experiencing a World Cup.

He said: "There are many players who can improve a lot and, for me, it will be important to go to the World Cup because I think there are 10-12 players who can improve a lot going to the World Cup, if we go there."

Inter have terminated the contract of Christian Eriksen by mutual consent, with the Denmark international unable to play in Serie A due to health regulations following his cardiac arrest.

Eriksen collapsed following a cardiac arrest in Denmark's Euro 2020 opener last June and was given CPR before subsequently undergoing successful heart surgery.

The former Tottenham man was then fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), which means he is unable to play for Inter in Serie A due to not meeting the "requirements of achieving sporting fitness" in Italy.

Eriksen would be allowed to play in other European leagues, as Daley Blind does for Ajax in the Eredivisie with an ICD fitted, and the 29-year-old has been using the training facilities of former club Odense to build up his fitness in Denmark.

The midfielder has returned to Inter on just the one occasion, visiting their training ground in early August, but Simone Inzaghi's side confirmed on Friday that Eriksen would be free to negotiate with other clubs after they parted ways.

"FC Internazionale Milano can confirm that an agreement has been reached to terminate Christian Eriksen's contract by mutual consent," the statement by Inter said. 

"The club and the entire Nerazzurri family wish Christian all the very best for his future.

"Although Inter and Christian are now parting ways, the bond shall never be broken. The good times, the goals, the victories, those Scudetto celebrations with fans outside San Siro – all this will remain forever in Nerazzurri history."

Eriksen was the part of the Inter side that ended a 10-year wait for the Scudetto last term under now-Tottenham manager Antonio Conte.

England must play their Nations League game against Italy behind closed doors at Wembley next June – as punishment for crowd trouble at the Euro 2020 final between the teams.

Gareth Southgate's side made it to the final of the delayed showpiece event in July but were beaten on home turf by the Azzurri in a penalty shoot-out following a 1-1 draw.

The Wembley final was marred by ugly scenes in the stands, outside, and on the concourses, and UEFA hit the English Football Association with a two-game ban on supporters as punishment in October, with the first closure to take place in England's next UEFA game.

The second closure was suspended for a probationary two-year period, while the FA received a €100,000 (£85,000) fine.

The Italy fixture on June 11 is England's next competitive UEFA home game and will be a rematch of the final and a chance for the hosts to gain a degree of revenge, but they will not have the boost of their supporters at the ground.

England's Nations League opponents were revealed on Thursday, with the Three Lions drawn against Germany and Hungary as well as Italy.

Southgate's team must also play in an empty stadium away from home in their opening match on June 4 against Hungary.

The Hungarians were served with a three-match behind-closed-doors order – one of which was suspended – following incidents at the Puskas Arena and in Munich at Euro 2020. That has since been reduced to two matches, with one game suspended.

The Three Lions' other two June fixtures are away against Germany on June 7 and at home to Hungary – with supporters allowed at Wembley – on June 14.

England then do not play in the competition again until a trip to Italy on September 23 before hosting Germany three days later.

Italy and Argentina will face off in what has been dubbed a "Finalissima" in June following their respective successes in Euro 2020 and the Copa America.

It was a momentous year for the Azzurri and Albiceleste, as they both put troubling periods behind them in emphatic fashion.

Italy recovered spectacularly from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally got himself an international honour to shout about.

Argentina's success ended a 28-year period without a major international title, a spell that saw them lose four Copa America finals and one World Cup final.

Italy had not won a European Championship title in 53 years, which is the longest-ever gap between two successes in the tournament by a single nation.

En route to their triumph, Italy also surpassed 30 matches unbeaten in all competitions, setting a new record in international football.

Argentina and Italy are now scheduled to play each other in a specially arranged match in London - with the venue not yet confirmed - on June 1, 2022 as part of a new agreement reached between the two continental confederations, UEFA and CONMEBOL.

The governing bodies signed a memorandum of understanding in February last year with the intention of collaborating in numerous ways – on Wednesday it was renewed and extended until June 2028, with the arrangement of the Finalissima confirmed as part of the agreement.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said: "We are delighted to build upon our excellent relationship with CONMEBOL, and our strong desire to act jointly for the development of football and its benefits to society is further reflected by this new memorandum of understanding.

"There is a long tradition of cooperation between UEFA and CONMEBOL, as could be witnessed over the years with competitions such as the Artemio Franchi Trophy and the Intercontinental Cup, and it is with great pride that we are relaunching such a prestigious national team trophy to the delight of football lovers across the globe.

"We are very much looking forward to explore new opportunities together and we are eagerly awaiting the Finalissima in London in June 2022.

"I would like to thank Alejandro Dominguez [CONMEBOL president] for his dedicated involvement in this project and for his outstanding work at the helm of South American football."

Dominguez added: "We are immensely pleased with the fruits we are reaping together with UEFA, due to an excellent relationship between our institutions.

"By signing this renewal and expansion of our memorandum of understanding we are laying the foundation for this fluent cooperation to grow and develop further.

"The final between Argentina and Italy in London will be joined by other top-level sporting events, as befits the tradition of South American and European football.

"The opening of our joint office [in London] will allow us to face new projects with agility and vigour for the benefit of millions of fans on our continents and in the rest of the world."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Gareth Southgate has been England manager for five years and says the memories of the Three Lions' Euro 2020 campaign will stay with him "forever".

The former Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace defender replaced Sam Allardyce on November 30, 2016, having held the post of Under-21s manager since 2013.

Southgate was initially appointed on an interim basis, but was handed the reins permanently after four games and has since led England to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and the final of Euro 2020 in July.

England secured their spot at the World Cup in Qatar next year by topping their qualifying group, going unbeaten and conceding just three goals in 10 games in the process, leading to a new contract for the 51-year-old that runs until 2024.

"To take a country to a first final in 55 years, for everybody involved, for all the staff, all the players and for all the fans, some of those memories of Wembley through this summer will live with me forever," Southgate said to England's official website.

"[At the 2018 World Cup in] Russia, we brought a connection back with the fans. There were probably several generations of fans who had not been to a semi-final. This year was unique, really, when you think we had been locked away for so long and everything we had lived through.

"There is an important place for international football. It does bring everyone together. When you feel like you are there with 50 million people behind you, it is an immense feeling.

"People used to say 'well, nobody cares about international football anymore' but they did. I think everybody had just been hurt and disappointed a lot, and you almost don’t want to get hurt anymore and you withdraw from it.

"Now we have some generations of fans who think it has always been this way. Well, let me tell you, folks, it hasn't!"

Southgate gave some insight into the process of rebuilding a team that was low on belief and turning them into a side capable of challenging at major tournaments.

"Confidence was low [when I first took the job]," Southgate added. "This was not a group which was disunited, but there was a lack of confidence because of the last couple of tournaments and two changes of manager in a couple of months, so we needed to stabilise things to begin with and we needed to qualify for a World Cup.

"That was the priority but of course what we knew in the background was there was a younger generation of players coming through to support the guys who were already there that could provide real competition for places, with some good experiences of winning at junior level. 

"[They were] technically really good players that could maybe play in a slightly different way to traditional England teams of the past, where I was in tournaments with England where we couldn’t keep the ball enough.

"Now in the biggest games we have a step to go with that because we have managed that for long periods in tournaments but under real pressure, we still need to be better at that.

"You have to have continuity. You need a real clear sense of direction for everyone who works at St. George’s on the football and for everybody at the FA.

"I think it is a credit to everybody, the different chairmen and chief executives I have worked with here, that they have put football more at the forefront of their thinking and there has been a plan."

It took the man in the waistcoat to turn the tanker.

In a year's time, England will be at the Qatar 2022 World Cup with serious aspirations of bringing back the trophy. And while there are a number of key figures who have made that prospect realistic, nobody stands out quite like Gareth Southgate, who on Tuesday celebrated a five-year anniversary as manager.

Greg Dyke was a newly appointed chairman of the English Football Association (FA) when he declared in a famous 2013 speech: "English football is a tanker that needs turning."

He spoke that day of wishing to create an England team that could be successful on the world stage.

"The two targets I have for the England team are – one, to at least reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and two, win the World Cup in 2022," Dyke said. Many duly scoffed.

Nine years on, England have ticked one box, with Southgate's team finishing runners-up to Italy at the delayed Euros; now, a nation expects as his squad bid to match Alf Ramsey's 1966 heroes.

 

A questionable choice?

It was not Dyke who selected Southgate after Roy Hodgson's four-year reign ended and successor Sam Allardyce lasted just one game, an ill-fated choice.

Indeed, as Dyke left his post at FA HQ in the summer of 2016, he questioned the appeal of the England manager's job, specifically asking "why anybody would want it".

Southgate was unsure initially too, albeit for a different reason, saying the role "wasn't something I think I've got the experience for". But his tune soon changed, with Allardyce's reign ending abruptly after a newspaper investigation within weeks of his appointment and the FA needing a steady hand on the tiller.

Southgate made 426 Premier League appearances in his playing career – more than anyone else with zero appearances off the bench. He was therefore not used to being deployed as a substitute, but on this occasion he accepted the chance to step in as a replacement.

His credibility for the England post had been questioned, with former Tottenham and West Ham boss Harry Redknapp dismissive of the notion that Southgate would know all about the English system.

"Knows what system? The losing system? He knows the losing formula? I like Gareth Southgate, he's a great lad," Redknapp told BBC Radio 5 Live, "but what's he done?"

Egyptian striker Mido, who played under Southgate at Middlesbrough, tweeted: "I can't believe that in England they are talking about @GarethSouthgate to become the new Manager!! I hope he learned since the @Boro days!!"

Even former Three Lions midfielder Jermaine Jenas balked at the prospect of Southgate's three years as England Under-21 manager being a suitable pathway to the senior role, instead throwing his support behind Glenn Hoddle.

In a column for Yahoo, Jenas said of Hoddle: "I know he has been out of the managerial game for a long time, but I certainly think he would be a better option than Southgate."

 

From scaredy cats to roaring lions

Dyke said Roy Hodgson's England were "just scared" as they lost to Iceland at the Euro 2016 last-16 stage, heading home humiliated by relative minnows. Hodgson promptly resigned.

"It's the same in all sport," Dyke said. "Really talented sportsmen can just freeze. That's what happens."

After the Allardyce interlude came Southgate's appointment as a caretaker coach, and British bookmakers swiftly rated him favourite to keep the job on a permanent basis, ranking Steve Bruce, Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Hoddle as next in line on the list of likely candidates.

As well as having managed the England Under-21 team, Southgate also previously held the role of head of elite development at the FA. Jenas might not have liked it, but getting not only a foot in the door, but both feet and an office to call his own, and the respect of a young generation of rising stars, made Southgate an obviously worthy candidate.

Wins over Malta and Scotland, and draws with Slovenia and Spain, earned Southgate an interview for the permanent post, and he impressed a selection panel that featured FA chief executive Martin Glenn, technical director Dan Ashworth and chairman Greg Clarke – Dyke's successor – to the point he was handed the job permanently on November 30, 2016.

Southgate has been a revelation: England reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, losing out to Croatia, before surging through to the Euro 2020 title match, a first major final since Bobby Moore led the team to World Cup glory.

Along the way, the man who was a scapegoat for England's Euro 96 exit, when he missed a crucial semi-final shoot-out penalty against Germany, has become a national treasure.

"Southgate, you're the one" sing England fans nowadays, while his uptake of a waistcoat on the touchline became a symbol of stylistic significance at the World Cup in Russia, sparking a rush of high street sales and analysis by the fashion media.

The England boss told the BBC: "If you had said to the players when I started at Crystal Palace that I was going to be upheld as the sartorial model for the country, you'd have been hooted out of the training ground."

 

How has he developed a new England?

Once Southgate was handed the job permanently, he was able to outline his manifesto. "When I played, particularly in 1996, there were captains through the team that were captains of their club," he said.

The England starting XI for the fateful Iceland game in 2016 contained one club captain: Manchester United's Wayne Rooney. For the team's most recent game, the 10-0 drubbing of San Marino, Southgate named a defensive unit consisting of three club skippers: Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings, Wolves' Conor Coady and Manchester United's Harry Maguire.

Harry Kane captains England but not his club, Tottenham. Southgate rates him as a leader par excellence. Jordan Henderson has built up years of experience in skippering Liverpool and is another England regular and vice-captain of the team.

In terms of leadership, England have no shortage of on-field generals, the ideal complement to their burgeoning crop of talented, freewheeling youngsters. This is entirely deliberate.

Southgate also declared he wanted a team "that excites the public, that the supporters like watching and are proud of".

A competitive record of 44 wins, 14 draws and 10 defeats in 68 games gives him a winning record of 64.7 per cent. Of England managers with more than one game in charge, that is second only to Fabio Capello's 66.7 per cent (42 games, 28 wins, eight draws, six defeats). World Cup winner Ramsey achieved a 61.1 per cent win record from 113 games.

Southgate has explored his options and given debuts to 50 players, the most since Bobby Robson, who handed first caps to 64 players during his eight-year tenure.

Of the debutants under Southgate, Jordan Pickford has played the most games (42), followed by Maguire (41), Kieran Trippier (35) and Jesse Lingard (32). There have been 14 players who have won just one cap to date in the Southgate era, but among those are a number of players who might realistically expect to win plenty more, such as Harvey Barnes, Nathaniel Chalobah, Conor Gallagher, Mason Greenwood, Dean Henderson, James Maddison and Aaron Ramsdale.

Others seem likelier to go down as one-cap wonders, such as Dominic Solanke, Nathan Redmond, Jack Cork and Lewis Cook. But Southgate has rewarded players in form, cultivating an open-door policy within the England camp that can only be healthy.

Twenty of the debutants have been aged 21 or under, with the youngest being Borussia Dortmund livewire Jude Bellingham, who was 17 years and 136 days old when he featured against the Republic of Ireland in November 2020.

In total, Southgate has capped 83 players to date. There should be many more to come, with the manager recently signing a contract extension through to 2024

Kane, who made his debut under Hodgson, has made more appearances than any other player (50) and scored the most goals (43) during the Southgate era.

 

"Can we not knock it?"

That was the famous remark caught by documentary film-makers as Graham Taylor spluttered in frustration in the dugout at an England attack breaking down all too easily.

The game was a World Cup qualifier in 1993 against Poland, with David Bardsley lifting a long pass hopefully towards Teddy Sheringham, who could not nod the ball down into the path of Carlton Palmer. Taylor could not contain himself.

England's tactics were all too obvious then, subtlety not their strength, with overseas influences yet to seriously permeate the domestic leagues.

There has been progress in the years since, but even when Southgate came in, he felt England were too narrow-minded in some respects, saying he needed "to broaden the horizons" of his players.

"Because the lads see one league... they think we're the centre of the Earth and we're not," Southgate said. "That's what hit me. Other countries are quite happy to say nice things to us and then they pack us off home at a certain stage [of a tournament] and think, 'Good, we've got rid of them'. That's how it feels to me and I don't like it."

England perhaps still have some catching up to do, but Southgate is shifting the culture significantly.

This can be examined through the prism of World Cup qualifiers – Southgate's first campaign leading up to the 2018 tournament, and his latest, which saw England ease into the hat for next year's finals. In both campaigns, England played 10 games, winning eight times and drawing twice.

England are steadily learning to keep the ball and be patient, moving from 195 sequences of 10-plus passes in the 2018 qualifying campaign to 268 for the 2022 preliminaries, putting them second only to Germany among European teams, albeit Spain (253) in third place played just eight games.

They are achieving more high turnovers too, going from 82 in 2018 World Cup qualifying to 111 in their quest to reach Qatar 2022. In that aspect, England have jumped from ninth to third in Europe.

Hodgson's Euro 2016 squad contained players plucked exclusively from the Premier League, with his 23-man group including stars from 11 clubs.

Southgate's 26-strong Euro 2020 party contained representatives of 16 teams, including Trippier from Atletico Madrid and Bellingham and Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund. Gone, for now, are the days of England squads being dominated by players from a small group of clubs.

 

Making Dyke's vision a reality

The acid test comes at major tournament level, and to date Southgate's England are showing up on the big stage – at least until it comes to the crunch. They stood widely accused in both the Croatia semi-final and the Italy final of retreating into their shell, having taken the lead early in each game and then failed to build on the strong start.

That is something Southgate must address and surely will. This is a technically gifted England now, with a coach who has brought more sophistication to the role than many expected.

All that being said, there are still aspects of England's play that perhaps hark back to bygone days. They played 391 long passes at Euro 2020, more than any other side, although this should not be a serious concern given that was only marginally more than champions Italy (363), and semi-finalists Denmark (340) and Spain (339) were not lagging far behind.

Old habits die hard though and England remain the kings of the 'launch' – defined by Opta as "a long high ball into space or into an area for players to chase or challenge for the ball".

They hit 125 of these in the Euros, with the Czech Republic next on the list with 96. Just 27 of England's launches were judged to be successful, and Southgate may reflect on the fact Italy played just 52 such hit-and-hopes on their way to the title.

There is always learning to be done, advances to be achieved. Such data will be monitored by England, with a view to sculpting a winning tactical model in time for next November.

"I like Gareth Southgate, he's a great lad, but what's he done?" was Harry Redknapp's question five years ago.

Turns out, rather a lot in a short space of time. The tanker has turned.

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France Football: "All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

Gareth Southgate has signed a new contract with England until after Euro 2024, at which point he will have been in charge for almost eight years.

While it remains to be seen what state the Three Lions are in at that point, it is fair to say their current trajectory suggests a positive outcome.

Shortly after finding himself moved into the top job back in 2016, Southgate surmised he had inherited "a mess" – yet, in the following five years England have come within touching distance of ending that long wait for silverware.

The drought has not been ended, and so Southgate's job is far from finished, but he has got at least another two opportunities.

And on the evidence of the progress he has made, there is much reason for hope.

September 2016

Sam Allardyce's reign as England manager lasted just 67 days, with the Three Lions playing one match in that period before he resigned in disgrace after being covertly filmed by a British newspaper while making a slew of controversial statements, which included talk of breaching FA rules.

Southgate, in charge of the Under-21s at the time, stepped into the breach in late September to assume a temporary role, leading England to a 2-0 win over Malta in his first game.

November 2016

England's form during Southgate's 'caretaking' was decent, if not spectacular, but the FA clearly saw enough promise in how he conducted himself and dealt with the players. He was appointed on a full-time basis on November 30.

In a real show of faith, Southgate was handed a four-year contract – and to be fair to all parties, there has arguably been nothing but progress since.

December 2017

The Three Lions qualified for the 2018 World Cup in convincing fashion, dropping just four points in their 10 matches as they finished eight points clear of second-placed Slovakia.

Southgate then received a massive vote of confidence in December when, shortly after being drawn alongside Belgium, Tunisia and Panama in Russia, then-FA chief executive Martin Glenn insisted the former Middlesbrough man would remain in charge regardless of how England fared at the World Cup.

July 2018

Although England finished behind Belgium, they cruised through their World Cup group. Colombia pushed them all the way in a gruelling, physical last-16 tie, but the Three Lions progressed via their first ever penalty shoot-out victory at the tournament.

They then saw off Sweden in the quarter-finals as Southgate became the first England manager since Bobby Robson in 1990 to reach a World Cup semi-final.

Hopes of ending a long wait for success that stretched back to 1966 were ended by Croatia, but at least Southgate had England fans dreaming again.

June 2019

The inaugural Nations League presented another opportunity for England to claim only a second ever international title at senior level – they finished top of their group and qualified for the Finals in Portugal.

A 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands ended their run, though their penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland at least secured them their first third-placed finish in a tournament since Euro 1968.

November 2019

Euro 2020 qualification was confirmed with an emphatic 7-0 win over Montenegro in England's 1,000th match, and optimism was swirling all around the Three Lions ahead of a tournament that presented the opportunity of potentially playing most of their matches at Wembley.

2020 was all set to be a big year for Southgate and England…

September-November 2020

Well, that did not quite work out... The coronavirus pandemic put Euro 2020 on hold for 12 months, meaning England were not in action again until September in the second edition of the Nations League.

This time, progression to the finals did not materialise as defeats to Denmark and Belgium proved costly.

June-July 2021

Euro 2020 finally arrived… in 2021… but it was still called Euro 2020. Semantics aside, there was much to cheer about for England as they reached a first major international final since 1966.

That run was built on the foundation of a solid defence that let in just one goal en route to the final – in fact, Jordan Pickford became the first goalkeeper in European Championship history to keep five clean sheets across the first five matches.

England's home comforts at Wembley almost certainly played a part, though ultimately Italy prevailed in a penalty shoot-out in the final following a 1-1 draw after extra time. Nevertheless, it was another positive step for Southgate's Three Lions.

November 2021

During the Euros, Southgate received another vote of confidence from FA higher-ups that he was going to have his contract renewed regardless of how well they did after the group stage, so Monday's announcement was hardly a surprise.

But the confirmation was at least held off until England had secured their place at Qatar 2022, with their World Cup qualification campaign culminating in back-to-back thrashings of Albania and San Marino.

But having reached the semi-final and final of their past two major tournaments, expectations will be sky-high for England in Qatar – it would be fair to say, anything short of a semi-final spot will be deemed a disappointment.

That in itself is testament to the work Southgate has done during an immensely positive five-year tenure.

Olivier Giroud has questioned why Didier Deschamps did not give France's senior players any advance notice of Karim Benzema's return from international exile.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was named in France's Euro 2020 squad in May following an absence of nearly six years.

He had been frozen out by head coach Deschamps since 2015 after becoming embroiled in a blackmail scandal involving international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema has strenuously denied he was complicit in attempted blackmail.

Looking to bolster his attacking options, Deschamps decided the time was right to bring back Benzema ahead of the European Championship, but Giroud believes the move proved unsettling to France's established way of playing.

Giroud has not featured for France since their last-16 elimination at Euro 2020, when the World Cup winners bowed out on penalties to Switzerland, and it remains to be seen whether the 35-year-old's international career is over.

Addressing Benzema's surprise return, Giroud told L'Equipe: "[It] created a tactical imbalance at the team level and in the way we play. I say this frankly, and without anything against Karim.

"The France team was able to overcome this problem of tactical adaptation much later. We have seen this, especially with the Nations League [which France won in October].

"But it took a long time. Karim quickly changed our way of playing which had been well established with certain offensive profiles for five years.

"The mix didn't work overnight, especially before a competition like the Euros."

Commenting on Deschamps' decision to seemingly spring the selection on the rest of the players, Giroud said: "It was the will of the coach to proceed like that.

"He preferred that it not be heard. I can understand it. Now who am I in his eyes for him to call me first? He is the sole decision-maker.

"But I would have appreciated being warned, that he warned certain senior figures."

Giroud is second on the list of France's all-time leading scorers, netting 46 goals, of which 45 have come during Deschamps' nine years at the helm.

Only Thierry Henry (51) has more goals for France than the former Chelsea and Arsenal forward, who is now at Milan.

He was absent from the squad that won the Nations League, when Benzema and Kylian Mbappe scored in the final against Spain.

"It was a weird feeling, even though I was happy for the guys in front of my TV," Giroud said. "It's hard not to experience that with this squad that I have known for a long time, and with whom I have shared so many beautiful things. Like any sensitive person, I had a twinge in my heart."

Jorginho is dreaming of winning the World Cup with Italy while he played down the potential of him winning the Ballon d'Or.

The Chelsea midfielder enjoyed glory for club and country after winning the Champions League with Thomas Tuchel's men and Euro 2020 with Italy, becoming just the 10th player to achieve the double in the same year.

His performances across the two competitions led him to be named the UEFA Men's Player of the Year in August as the award's top three was comprised exclusively of midfielders for the first time in 11 years.

Indeed, at the European Championships across June and July, Jorginho topped Italy's charts for recoveries (48) and interceptions (25) while only Spain's Aymeric Laporte (644) made more successful passes than the 29-year-old's 484.

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in his sights, Jorginho described winning the tournament as his lifelong ambition while remaining unsure on who would claim the Ballon d'Or.

"I don't know honestly. If you don't dream anymore you can stop playing football," Jorginho responded to Sky Sport Italia when asked about the individual award.

"My dream is to win the next match. Then I dream of the World Cup, who is the child who has never dreamed of it?

"I never imagined I would get this far, but I dreamed and all I've done is to chase my dream, now I'm living it and I'm proud.

"I am happy to give my family pride. And another dream could come true in the winter of 2022."

The midfielder has enjoyed another positive start to the new Premier League term with Chelsea, who sit a point clear at the top of the league after nine games.

Jorginho ranks sixth for minutes played under Tuchel in the top flight this term, racking up 559 minutes of action, and ranks fourth for successful passes (363) as he remains the Blues' pivot between attack and defence.

When asked about his club form, Jorginho replied: "We are on the right path, we are working hard, and we must continue like this.

"The more you work together, the more you understand what you need to do, learning new movements and creating an increasingly winning mentality.

"All this gives you solidity, confidence and makes you grow as a group. And that's what's happening at Chelsea."

England have been hit with a two-game stadium ban – one of which is deferred for two years – as punishment for the crowd trouble inside and outside Wembley Stadium during their Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.

July's clash, which Italy won on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra-time, was overshadowed by serious disturbances as ticketless supporters fought with stewards in an attempt to enter the stadium.

UEFA opened an investigation into the matter in August and announced on Monday that England must play their next match in UEFA competition behind closed doors, which is expected to be their opening 2022-23 Nations League game.

The Three Lions have also been fined £84,500 (€100,000) for the fans' disorder, which also included invading the pitch, throwing objects and jeering during Italy's national anthem.

"Although we are disappointed with the verdict, we acknowledge the outcome," England's Football Association said in a statement on Monday.

"We condemn the terrible behaviour of the individuals who caused the disgraceful scenes in and around Wembley Stadium at the Euro 2020 final, and we deeply regret that some of them were able to enter the stadium.

"We are determined that this can never be repeated, so we have commissioned an independent review, led by Baroness Casey, to report on the circumstances involved.

"We continue to work with the relevant authorities in support of their efforts to take action against those responsible and hold them to account."

Denmark became just the second team to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after defeating Austria 1-0 in Group F.

Joakim Maehle's second-half strike proved enough to edge past Franco Foda's side on Tuesday and claim an unassailable seven-point lead over Scotland with two matches left to play.

The narrow win meant Kasper Hjulmand's team also maintain their perfect record in 2022 World Cup qualifying matches, having won all eight games without conceding a single goal.

Denmark, while remaining resolute at the back, have mustered 27 unanswered goals, with thrashings of Moldova, Israel and Austria in the reverse fixture capping a perfect campaign for the Scandinavian outfit.

Hjulmand's men head to Qatar in 13 months' time with major tournament experience under their belt as well after making it to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 before suffering extra-time heartbreak against England.

Indeed, Denmark – who dealt with the hospitalisation of Christian Eriksen during the opening stages of the competition – started with consecutive losses but defied the odds to reach the last four.

They became just the fifth side in the history of the World Cup and European Championships to both win three games and lose three games in the same edition.

However, Denmark will look to use that experience after exiting at the last-16 stage in the previous World Cup to chase further success in 2022.

Aside from Denmark, Germany are the only other team to have earned qualification so far to join hosts Qatar at the tournament.

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