Not for the first time during his run as a Sky Sports pundit, Roy Keane looked like he might combust. 

Manchester City had raced into a 3-0 lead against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, piling more pressure on under-fire boss Frank Lampard, but Keane had an expensively assembled attack in his crosshairs. 

"The attacking players need to show up," he said of a line-up boasting big money close-season arrivals Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner. Kai Havertz could only make the bench. 

"We spoke before the game, we said they have a lot of quality, but to me they don't look like they're up to it. What do Chelsea need? 

"They need a miracle to get back into this game. They've been shocking, particularly the attacking players." 

Alongside him, former Liverpool great Graeme Souness had an issue with Ziyech's tracking back – or lack thereof – on Kevin De Bruyne's goal. 

"Just watch Ziyech, he takes the free-kick, he wanders in and watch him. Big players don’t act like that," he said. "Sprint back as fast as you possibly can, you don't stand and watch the game like this. 

"I'm sure when Frank sees that, he'll point out to Ziyech that you cannot do that in our football."

When Lampard was sacked a little over three weeks later, his uncle Harry Redknapp was similarly and more bluntly parochial about the biggest story in "our football".

"When you look at the players, people say he's spent all this money, did he bring the players in? Did he bring the Germans in?" he rhetorically asked on talkSPORT.

"The two German players have been massive disappointments, massive. I'm not even sure Timo Werner is cut out for Premier League football, the physical side is too much for him."

Perhaps it is a function of the frequent changes in Chelsea's dugout that narratives around goodies and baddies are so hastily constructed. Remember Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard as the "three rats" after Jose Mourinho's 2015 demise?

In that context, the role Ziyech and the two Germans played in Thomas Tuchel's Blues comprehensively downing Atletico Madrid gave a stark demonstration how much Werner and Havertz's compatriot has entirely changed the mood and trajectory of this talented team.

KAI HOPES

It said much of Havertz's woes since joining from Bayer Leverkusen for an initial £72million that Redknapp didn't actually use his name when he was the focus of his opprobrium. 

One Premier League goal set against 12 in his final Bundesliga campaign suggests there is still plenty of ground to make up, but in a couple of blurring seconds, Havertz showed exactly what made him one of the most sought-after talents in Europe. 

He was alert to move in front of Kieran Trippier and bring the ball under his spell. In that instant, Atleti were on the receiving end of the sort of lethal counter-attack that has become their Champions League calling card. 

Then it was time to marvel at the pace, power and poise as he approached halfway before shovelling possession into Werner's path. 

Under Tuchel, Havertz's shots per 90 minutes are up 2.3 from 1.4. The goals will surely come, but for now he had played his supporting role to perfection.

TURNING ON THE AFTER-WERNERS

However much Havertz will be keen to hit the back of the net, his desire must pale next to Werner's.

The former RB Leipzig star was simmering with intent from early on against Atleti, bustling in behind their defence early on.

That famous pace was put to its best use when he galloped onto Havertz's 34th-minute pass. Head up and on high alert, Werner assessed the scene, took a touch with the outside of his right foot and then lined up a low cross with his left.

The 25-year-old had fired wide a little earlier after Ziyech missed a kick, but he backed his team-mate to get it right this time.

Werner drew a brilliant save from Jan Oblak early in the second half and lashed into the side netting after his speed had again tormented Atleti.

Part of a collective also going at full tilt, he only has one goal under Tuchel so far, but 10 overall and seven assists this term are more goal involvements than any other Chelsea player in 2020-21.

There lies one of the joys of this 13-match unbeaten run for Tuchel. He has had a watertight defence in place from the get-go. Now, an all-star attack is just starting to shine.

HAKIM LIVING THE DREAM AGAIN

When he delighted on Ajax's phenomenal run to the semi-finals in 2018-19, Ziyech showed he loved this stage. 

He particularly loves to grace it with his sumptuous left foot, but Werner's cross was so immediate and so precise, he had to stick his weaker right on the end of it. 

Oblak could not keep the shot out and four of Ziyech's Champions League goals have arrived against Spanish opposition. Roll on Real Madrid in the quarters? 

The 27-year-old was evidently enjoying himself when he jinked into space on halfway and released Werner early in the second period – his three key passes in the match level best for Chelsea alongside Reece James, whose deliveries from right-back were majestic.

That was actually a touch under recent par for Ziyech, who is creating an average of 3.6 chances per game in the Tuchel era – taking his 2.4 under Lampard up a notch. 

By the time substitute Emerson Palmieri thundered home in stoppage time to seal a 3-0 aggregate triumph, there could be no question Chelsea's attacking stars had shown up. 

Maybe they could go all the way – a Champions League miracle form the rubble of the Lampard era. 

Atletico Madrid's main focus this term is arguably maintaining their position at LaLiga's summit, but prolonging their Champions League campaign might provide a psychological boost and Luis Suarez will be eager to play the leading role.

The Uruguayan striker's struggles in the Champions League have been well-publicised, but if his move to Atletico from Barcelona has proven anything, it is that he is not one to be written off.

Suarez will hope to be decisive as Atletico go to Chelsea chasing a one-goal deficit, while in Wednesday's other tie, defending champions Bayern Munich are practically already through.

We used Opta numbers to preview the two clashes.

Chelsea v Atletico Madrid (1-0 on aggregate): Suarez's Champions League misery

Thomas Tuchel's men are in the driving seat thanks to a commendable 1-0 win at the Spanish top-flight leaders last time, though Atletico do have previous experience of downing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – they beat them 3-1 in London to secure a place in the 2013-14 Champions League final.

Nevertheless, the Blues will take confidence in the fact they have never been eliminated in a two-legged knockout European tie after winning the first leg away from home.

If any team can overcome the odds, however, it is Atletico, whose 50 per cent progression rate from European Cup/Champions League knockout ties after losing the first leg is bettered by only one team to have played a minimum of five knockout ties: Reims (60 per cent, three out of five).

Their chances will surely be boosted if Suarez can finally sort himself out at this level. He is still to net in five Champions League games for Atletico and has not scored in any of his previous 24 away appearances in the competition despite having 70 shots amounting to an expected goals (xG) value of 9.6 over the course of a run that stretches back to September 2015.

By contrast, Chelsea's Olivier Giroud is averaging a goal every 38 minutes in the Champions League this term, the best single-season record of any player to feature for at least 200 minutes since the 1979-80 European Cup campaign (Ton Blanker, Ajax, one goal every 34 minutes).

Bayern Munich v Lazio (4-1 on aggregate): Italians face challenge of historic proportions

While Hansi Flick surely will not fall into the trap of complacency, it's fair to say Bayern are looking pretty rosy heading into the second leg having handed out a comprehensive thrashing in Rome.

Even if you forget they are facing the reigning European champions, the task at hand for Lazio is monumental – no side in the history of the Champions League or its predecessor has ever progressed from a knockout tie after losing the first leg by three goals or more at home.

Additionally, Lazio have not scored four times – the figure they are chasing in Munich – in an away Champions League game since 1999 when they beat Maribor 4-0.

Bayern's record at home in the competition under Flick has been almost flawless as well, winning each of their six matches by an aggregate score of 18-3.

Each of Lazio's previous 13 games in the Champions League has seen both teams score, the longest run the history of Europe's top competition, so they will at least fancy their chances of netting.

But keeping Robert Lewandowski at bay is improbable – after all, he boasts 14 goals and five assists in 12 appearances for Flick in this tournament and has won all of those games.

Atalanta will hope to keep Italy's Champions League interest alive in Tuesday's last-16 second legs.

Gian Piero Gasperini's men have the simple tasking of overturning a 1-0 deficit away to Real Madrid, the most successful club in the competition's history and winners of four of the past seven tournaments.

Zinedine Zidane's men have struggled for consistency in 2020-21 but the Champions League traditionally brings out their best, while Atalanta's visit could also be one to celebrate for Toni Kroos.

Madrid may be confident in their chances, but Manchester City are in an even more enviable position, having won 2-0 away to Borussia Monchengladbach in their first leg.

Gladbach have struggled badly since the announcement that Marco Rose will be leaving for Borussia Dortmund ahead of next season, losing six games in a row in all competitions, and they could represent good opposition for Sergio Aguero, who is chasing a milestone goal.

 

Real Madrid (1) v Atalanta (0): Can Gasperini's men restore national pride in Spain?

Atalanta enjoyed their only previous visit to Spain in European competition, winning 4-3 at Valencia at this stage of last season's competition to secure a sensational 8-4 aggregate victory, with Josip Ilicic scoring all four goals.

However, history is not on their side this time. Italian teams have lost 11 of their previous 12 games against Madrid and conceded at least twice in 10 of those matches. You have to go back to Juventus in November 2008 to find an Italian side who stopped Los Blancos scoring.

Madrid have progressed from eight of the past nine Champions League knockout ties in which they have won the first leg, the exception being two years ago, when Ajax caused a shock with a 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, more recent form may give them reason for concern.

Madrid have gone four home knockout games without a win, while Atalanta have not conceded an away Champions League goal this season and are enjoying a five-game winning run on their travels, the best such sequence of any side in the competition.

Toni Kroos could be in for a milestone match. The midfielder could become only the second German outfield player to start 100 Champions League matches, after Bayern Munich great Philipp Lahm, who finished on 110.

With Eden Hazard injured once more, Zidane could do with Marco Asensio ending his goal drought. The Spain international has attempted 14 shots in six games, the most of any player left in the competition who has failed to score a goal.

Manchester City (2) v Borussia Monchengladbach (0): Bundesliga side hoping for miracle

Gladbach's last visit to City ended in a 4-0 loss, their joint-heaviest away defeat in the competition. In fact, City are unbeaten in five meetings with Tuesday's opponents and have scored at least twice in each of their four victories.

Pep Guardiola's first Champions League game in charge was a 4-0 home win over Gladbach, with City having won more games (16) and scored more goals (59) in home matches than any other English side in the competition in that time. They are on a run of 10 wins in 11 European games at the Etihad Stadium, in which they have averaged 3.5 goals per match.

Gladbach enjoyed a superb group stage but, since consecutive 6-0 and 4-0 wins over Shakhtar Donetsk, they have lost three games in a row and failed to score in their previous two. It is hard to look beyond a comfortable City victory.

Aguero will hope for another start, and should the Argentinian score, he will reach 20 goals in 29 Champions League games under Guardiola. That would draw him level with Thomas Muller and leave him behind only Lionel Messi (43) for the most goals scored in the competition under the former Barcelona boss.

The NBA's top-ranked defense will be aiming to slow down the leading offense when the New York Knicks make the short trip to play the Brooklyn Nets. 

The in-form Nets have won 12 of their previous 13 games to rise up the Eastern Conference, the impressive run of form leaving them just a game back of the Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the way in the standings. 

But while they were always expected to be near the summit, particularly following the arrival of James Harden from the Houston Rockets, the Knicks have been one of the surprise packages so far. 

A first playoff appearance since 2013 is a distinct possibility, with coach Tom Thibodeau building solid foundations for a franchise that has chopped and changed in the hope of finding success.

TOP PERFORMERS

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

Randle has excelled since moving to the Big Apple, leading to a first All-Star appearance this year. The seventh overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014 averages 22.9 points and 11 rebounds through 39 games, as well as 5.7 assists.  

His 375 defensive rebounds puts him inside the top three in the league, while he has also contributed 31 steals as the Knicks have tightened up under Thibodeau.  

Having registered a season-low seven points as the Knicks returned from the All-Star break with a lopsided loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle bounced back with 26 in a resounding triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Since joining the Nets, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, the latest of them coming in a 100-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday that saw him score his team's final 10 points of the contest.  

While he was the focal point for Houston, the two-time MVP no longer has to carry the offensive burden in the same way for star-studded Brooklyn. He is shooting at a career-high 48.9 per cent from the field though, while his improved success from deep (39.7 per cent) has been noticeable.  

Harden has also demonstrated his ability as a passer too, his tally of 363 assists comfortably the most by any player, averaging out at a whopping 11 a game.

KEY BATTLE - A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE

The continued absence of Kevin Durant has not prevented the Nets from putting up points. They average 120.6 a game, while their combined field goal percentage of 49.9 is also the best by any team in the NBA.  

However, the Knicks have given up a league-low 105 points per outing. Randle and his fellow big men will look to dominate when it comes to rebounding, while the visitors will hope to get better at capitalising on turnovers – their average of 14 points when gaining possession in such circumstances ranks them 29th out of 30 teams.  

"It starts with our effort, our defense, those are the most important things," Immanuel Quickley, who has impressed in his rookie season, averaging 12.5 points, said ahead of the game. 

"We try to have that defensive mindset coming into games, then let everything take care of itself. The little things – defense, rebounding, energy, effort – give you a chance to win every night." 

HEAD TO HEAD 

These neighbours have met in 200 regular-season games, the Knicks narrowly leading 101-99 overall. 

Last season's four-game series was split 2-2, while the Nets prevailed 116-10 in January of this year, Durant – who has missed Brooklyn's last 11 games due to a heal issue – leading the way with 26 points in the absence of Kyrie Irving and with the Harden trade yet to be completed.  

All eyes were on the Emirates Stadium on Sunday for the north London derby and there was a lot of comforting familiarity on display.

A red card, Erik Lamela attempting a rabona (and scoring it!) instead of using his right foot, and, of course, Spurs throwing away a lead.

Elsewhere, Manchester United remained on course to finish second as they ensured David Moyes' continues to dread returning to his former employers, while Sheffield United's first game since Chris Wilder's exit arguably proved just how good the Yorkshireman was as manager.

There was also a potentially vital win near the bottom of the table for Brighton and Hove Albion, and we have taken a look at all the best Opta facts from those games.

Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham: Spurs surrender once again in a north London derby

Lamela's opening goal will be shown in north London derby highlight reels for years – his rabona finish was so good, so audacious.

But even with that being the opening goal, it never really looked like being decisive, so underwhelming were Spurs otherwise from an attacking perspective – the fact they went on to lose meant they have now dropped 45 points from winning positions against Arsenal in the Premier League, the most of any team against a specific opponent in the competition.

After Martin Odegaard levelled, becoming just the fourth Gunners player to score in his first top-flight north London derby, Alexandre Lacazette's second-half penalty secured Arsenal the points.

It was Spurs' ninth league defeat of the season, the joint-most Jose Mourinho has ever suffered in a single season, and Lamela's sending off certainly did not help their situation.

In collecting two bookings, he became only the fifth substitute in Premier League history to score and be sent off in the same game.

His goal will be the enduring moment from the match, but in the grand scheme it was meaningless for a Spurs side in increasing danger of missing out on the top four.

Manchester United 1-0 West Ham: Moyes' Old Trafford misery continues

It was not an occasion for the neutral at Old Trafford as Man United scraped an unconvincing win thanks to an own goal by Craig Dawson.

The defeat means only Harry Redknapp (15) has managed more Premier League games away to United without winning than former Red Devils boss Moyes (14 – four draws, 10 losses).

The Hammers' difficulties in front of goal were partly to blame as none of their seven attempts were on target, the highest number of shots they have had in a league game without a single accurate once since August 2013 (nine shots).

On the flipside, Man United kept a fourth straight Premier League clean sheet for the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the club last achieving that feat in January 2018 under Mourinho.

They have also lost just one of their previous 23 league outings having suffered three losses in their opening six games this term.

Leicester City 5-0 Sheffield United: Blades suffer bruising defeat as they venture into the Wilder-less wilderness

Less than 24 hours on from confirmation of Wilder's "mutual" departure as Blades manager, many were likely left wondering why the club did not fight harder to keep him.

While seemingly doomed for relegation anyway, Wilder retained significant respect for the job he presided over at Bramall Lane, and Sunday's result showed why.

With interim boss Paul Heckingbottom taking over for the first time, he has already shipped five goals in a single game as many times as Wilder did in 227 matches (a 5-4 defeat to Fulham in 2017). Their former manager was never beaten by more than a three-goal margin.

Heckingbottom also became only the third manager in Premier League history to lose by five or more goals in his first game, but this should not take credit away from Brendan Rodgers' ferocious Foxes.

Kelechi Iheanacho scored his first hat-trick and also netted in three successive top-flight games for the first time. Jamie Vardy set up two of those goals and in doing so became only the sixth player to register 100 or more goal involvements in the Premier League after turning 30.

Those to achieve this before him were Teddy Sheringham, Frank Lampard, Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Gianfranco Zola – esteemed company indeed.

Southampton 1-2 Brighton and Hove Albion: Seagulls remember their shooting boots as Saints sink

Much has been said and written about Brighton's woes in front of goal this term, but they got the job done here.

Their 2-1 win at St Mary's is only the second time in 2021 that they have scored twice or more in a single Premier League game – the other instance was their 3-3 draw with Wolves in their first match of the year.

This was their 11th outing since.

The win took Graham Potter's men three points clear of the relegation zone and just four behind Saints, who are in a difficult spot.

It is 10 defeats in the past 12 Premier League games now for Southampton, with Ralph Hasenhuttl coming under increasing pressure – their previous 10 losses came across a 38-match spell.

As expected, Drew Brees has announced his retirement, a decision that puts the full stop on a 20-year story that has seen the quarterback set numerous NFL passing records. 

Pick number 32 in the 2001 draft, Brees started out with the San Diego Chargers but will be best remembered for his time with the New Orleans Saints. 

He sits as the all-time leader with 80,358 passing yards, though should not get too comfortable on top of the pile, considering Tom Brady sits right behind him on the list.  

While Brady is to keep on playing after winning the Super Bowl in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his fellow forty-something has decided the time is right to move on to a new chapter. 

After 10,551 passing attempts (of which he completed 67.7 per cent), 571 touchdowns throws and 172 wins - plus one Super Bowl ring, of course - Brees bows out an undoubted great of the game. 
 

SAINTS GO MARCHING ON

It could have all been so different, though. Brees suffered a painful end to the 2005 season, injuring his shoulder in Week 17. When it became clear his future would lie away from the Chargers, who had a young Philip Rivers waiting in the wings, there were two possible destinations: Miami or New Orleans.  

The Dolphins, however, had concerns over Brees' recovery. They traded for Daunte Culpepper instead, the first of 15 different quarterbacks they have started since 2006.  

Meanwhile, the one they let get off the hook formed an alliance with head coach Sean Payton, one that turned the Saints from perennial strugglers to persistent winners. 

A franchise that had only made the playoffs five times previously has enjoyed nine postseason trips since 2006, including an unforgettable run in the 2009 season that culminated in winning Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, of all places.  

In the stadium he could well have called home, Brees completed 32 of his 39 attempts for 288 yards and two scores. Those numbers were good enough to see him named MVP as the Saints were crowned champions for the first time in franchise history.


SEVEN IN ONE AND THE HOT STREAKS

Brees' play has been central to the prolonged success for the Saints. He had five seasons with over 5,000 passing yards, a feat no other quarterback has accomplished more than once. Not Brady, not Peyton Manning, not Patrick Mahomes (yet).  

His total of 5,476 yards in 2011 saw him break Dan Marino's longstanding NFL record for a single campaign, though Manning squeezed above him by one solitary yard to take top spot on the all-time list two years later.  

The former Purdue Boilermaker has the record for most seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes per year (10). There were once seven in a single game in 2015, against the New York Giants, a feat only eight players have ever achieved in the league's history. 

However, no signal-caller has had more career games with at least three scores through the air than his total of 97. Same goes for four or more (37). And five (11), too.  

Brees' 54-game stretch with at least one touchdown pass from 2009 to 2012 is also an NFL record, while there were twice nine-game streaks where he posted 300 or more passing yards in each outing.


THE TWILIGHT YEARS, COMING CLOSE TO PERFECTION

From 2006 to 2017, Brees threw for over 4,000 yards in each and every season. While there was a downturn in his output in that category in the closing chapters of his NFL tale, he also became more careful with the ball. 

Indeed, in his final 54 starts there were just 23 interceptions, demonstrating his efficiency as part of a Saints offense that began to lean more heavily on the run game. 

In 2018, a 74.4 per cent completion rate for the campaign raised the bar. The following year, in a 34-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts, all but one of his 30 passes found a fellow Saint. That 96.7 per cent success on his throws is the best posted in a game for a player with at least 20 attempts. 

While his impact as a passer may have dipped, his importance to the Saints remained high. The 42-year-old did not get to ride off into the sunset as a Super Bowl champion, thanks in part to fellow golden oldie Brady, but he can be absolutely certain that he is destined to end up in the NFL's Hall of Fame.

It is about far more than the numbers with Brees, too, as Saints owner Gayle Benson made clear: "Drew is so much more valuable than all the records, awards and accolades that he amassed through a 15-year career with the New Orleans Saints and 20-year NFL playing career, one of the greatest in our league's history."

Next stop: Canton, Ohio.

Rarely has it been more important for teams to spend their money wisely in free agency. 

With the NFL salary cap dropping from $198.2million to $182.5m, those close to the limit will have to be especially prudent with their resources, while teams that have more to spend will have to make sure not to waste it on ineffective players. 

There are still several options for those front offices that are likely to be shopping in the discount aisle. Those whose pockets are more flush must be wary of expensive players that may not live up to their price tag. 

Here we look at some of free agency's best bargains, as well as identifying those players that teams should perhaps be wary of giving a lucrative contract.

Bargains

Justin Houston - Indianapolis Colts

Houston has been productive through stops in Kansas City and Indianapolis and proved he still had plenty in the tank with an eight-sack season for the Colts last year. The 32-year-old is 2.5 sacks away from becoming the 36th player to reach 100. He may be willing to take a one-year deal with a contender at this stage in his career. 

Jaquiski Tartt - San Francisco 49ers

Tartt has had some injury issues in his career. However, when he has been on the field, he has proven himself a versatile and physically imposing safety. In seven games last season, he did not miss a single tackle for the 49ers and, in a deep safety free-agent class, could prove a steal if he can stay healthy. 

Gerald Everett - Los Angeles Rams

Everett was never quite able to carve out a defined role in Los Angeles. Since entering the league in 2017, he ranks 22nd in yards per reception among tight ends. His average of 10.9 yard per catch in that time is only slightly below that of Hunter Henry (11.5) and Jonnu Smith (11.4), with that duo sure to command a higher price on the open market.

Mike Hilton - Pittsburgh Steelers

K'Waun Williams of the 49ers might get the most money of any nickel cornerback in free agency, but Hilton could provide as much value at a cheaper cost. He had three interceptions last season and his 32 pass deflections are the second-most by any Steelers player since 2017.

Kenyan Drake - Arizona Cardinals

Still only 27, Drake has been an asset as both a runner and a pass-catcher in his career, with the former Miami Dolphins back having compiled three successive seasons with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Investing in running backs can be risky, but Drake should come at a price that represents excellent value for money. 

Buyer Beware

Leonard Floyd - Los Angeles Rams

Floyd took the Dante Fowler route in signing a one-year deal with the Rams and benefiting greatly from playing on the same defensive line as Aaron Donald, posting a career-high 10.5 sacks. Potential suitors should heed the cautionary tale of Fowler, who cashed in after an 11.5-sack 2019 season but recorded just three in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons.

Juju Smith-Schuster - Pittsburgh Steelers

Smith-Schuster looked like one of the best wide receivers in football as recently as 2018, when he racked up 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. However, since Antonio Brown made his acrimonious exit from Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster has struggled to produce his best, ranking 98th among wideouts with a yards-per-catch average of 9.9. Teams should be wary of getting caught up in the name value here.

Yannick Ngakoue - Baltimore Ravens

Ngakoue has gradually declined since his 12-sack season with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. Traded twice last year, he failed to impress with either the Minnesota Vikings (5 sacks) or the Ravens (3). The limitations to his skill set are such that he would be better landing with a team that can use him as a rotational edge player, rather than as somebody who is expected to lead the pass rush.

Chris Carson - Seattle Seahawks

It's difficult to argue too much with Carson's production, his 4,045 scrimmage yards since 2017 are 14th among all running backs. However, he has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in his career, with durability concerns exacerbated by his extremely physical style of play.

Will Fuller - Houston Texans

Issues staying on the field have defined the career of a player who is one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL. Add on a four-game suspension for violating league policy on performance-enhancing substances and Fuller represents a massive gamble for teams looking for receiver help.

All eyes will be on Emirates Stadium on Sunday when Tottenham chase a first league double over Arsenal in the north London derby since 1992-93.

Premier League leaders Manchester City are also in the capital, giving struggling Fulham a tough task at Craven Cottage in Saturday's late kick-off.

The most intriguing tactical battle of the weekend could come at Elland Road, where Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United host Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, while West Ham are likely to face a thorough examination of their top-four ambitions at Manchester United.

Here, we give a few pointers on which players could come up trumps in fantasy football terms.

DEAN HENDERSON

England goalkeeper Henderson has not played too frequently since opting to make a go of things with parent club Manchester United.

But when he has featured for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side, the 24-year-old has generally impressed, even if his midweek outing against Milan in the Europa League contained an unwanted sting in the tail.

If David de Gea is absent once more against West Ham, Henderson's 19 saves from 22 shots faced in the Premier League this season suggests the United goal is in safe hands. His save percentage of 86.4 is the best of any goalkeeper to have played more than one game this season.

AARON CRESSWELL

Given the dearth of natural left-back options available to England manager Gareth Southgate, a strong season at West Ham for Cresswell could turn out to have been perfectly timed.

The full-back is also a threat in opposition territory, with his seven assists more than any other defender in the division. It is a left-back dominated list, with Lucas Digne up next on six from Andy Robertson, Luke Shaw (both five) and Southgate's first choice Ben Chilwell (four).

Seven assists also matches the most productive season of Cresswell's career in that regard, having provided the same number in 2017-18.

CESAR AZPILICUETA

Tuchel has overseen a defensive transformation since taking over from Frank Lampard, tightening up an unhelpfully leaky backline.

Club captain Azpilicueta has been a pillar of this turnaround. His eight clean sheets are the most for any Premier League defender in 2021.

Azpilicueta is one ahead of rejuvenated club-mate Antonio Rudiger, while Manchester City centre-backs John Stones and Ruben Dias and Manchester United duo Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka similarly have seven apiece.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Relegation-haunted West Brom would be forgiven for dreading the sight of Crystal Palace winger Zaha.

In his past four outings against the Baggies, the Ivory Coast international has scored four times.

That run includes a second-half brace from when Palace hammered the Baggies 5-1 at The Hawthorns in December – a result that would prove influential in Slaven Bilic's sacking later that month.

RAHEEM STERLING

England forward Sterling sat out City's 5-2 win over Southampton in midweek after his latest disappointment in the derby against United.

His native London is a far happier hunting ground, with the 26-year-old amassing 16 goal involvements (10 goals and six assists) in his previous 16 Premier League starts in the English capital.

Sterling continued that streak last time out at Emirates Stadium, heading the only goal early on in a 1-0 win over Arsenal.

GARETH BALE

This weekend, another wide forward on a hot streak will be foremost in Arsenal's thoughts.

A revitalised Bale scored twice in a 4-1 win over Palace last weekend, meaning he has had a hand in six goals in his past four top-flight appearances (four goals and two assists).

And, if you believe the form book stays on this side of the window on derby day, the Wales star has five Premier League goals against Arsenal – more than against any other side in his career.

DOMINIC CALVERT-LEWIN

As the battle for a top-four finish hots up, sides in the chasing pack will need players to weigh in with 'heavy' goals.

Thankfully for Everton, no player's goals in the Premier League this season have been worth more in terms of points gained than Calvert-Lewin's.

The centre-forward, who was rewarded with an England breakthrough following a sensational start to the campaign, has netted 13 times in the league this season – strikes that have won a total of 14 points.

Burnley, this weekend's visitors to Goodison Park, could be the next team to add to his tally.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me."

The Detroit Lions are about to find out if that factor alone can restore Jared Goff to the player he should have been.

Goff was the first overall pick in 2016 and led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season. In September 2019, he signed a four-year contract extension in LA, including $110million in guaranteed money - then the most in NFL history.

But that deal does not kick in until this 2021 season and the Rams have long since lost faith in the quarterback.

So disappointing has been Goff's form, his former team had to send two future first-round picks and a third as well as him to the Lions to get Matthew Stafford in return.

Rather than their underrated stalwart QB, Detroit are set to head into the new campaign with Goff under center, starting a new era.

But the Lions must hope the struggling 26-year-old will not make their offense significantly worse, because their defense does not leave a lot of room for error, as Stats Perform data shows.

Offense

If there is a huge drop-off in Detroit's offensive output in 2021, it might not necessarily all be down to Goff.

There are understandable fears the QB might struggle to an even greater degree without the aid of Sean McVay's scheme – his passer rating in 2016, the year before the Rams changed coaches, was an awful 63.6 – but it is not only the system that looks an issue right now.

Wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola are all set for free agency. The Lions surprisingly opted against franchise-tagging Golladay, who played only five games last season due to injury but still led the team in yards per game (67.6) and had gone for 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns the previous year.

Veteran running back Adrian Peterson will not be back after his 156 carries in 2020 either.

Detroit ranked 20th with 350.2 yards per game last season and have since lost their QB, three WRs and their most-used RB – and the defense is supposed to be the problem!

However, the departure of Peterson has at least cleared space for D'Andre Swift, whose rookie year included 10 total TDs, with 521 rushing yards and 357 receiving yards.

At tight end, there is talent, too, in the form of T.J. Hockenson, behind only Jones with 67 catches for 723 yards and six TDs.

Tyrell Williams has already been brought in as the task to rebuild the receiving corps begins. Barring some huge, unexpected investment, Hockenson and a top draft pick will be Goff's top targets.

Defense

If Goff was already feeling a little disorientated by the lack of depth in the offense, just wait until he gets off the field.

With the Rams, the QB would know errors could often go unpunished, with his defensive team-mates capable of making huge stops. In Detroit, the opposite is likely to be true.

Where LA conceded the fewest total points (296), fewest yards per game (281.9) and fewest yards per play (4.56) in 2020, the Lions were at the other end of the spectrum, ranking 32nd in all three categories.

The new QB has gone from sharing a locker room with the best defense around to the very worst.

And Detroit are actually set to get worse on this side of the ball, at least on paper.

They registered only 24 sacks in 2020, tied for 26th in the league, and Romeo Okwara contributed by far the greatest share of those with 10.0, ranking 10th. Just like Golladay, the defensive end was not tagged ahead of the deadline and is set instead for free agency, seemingly leaving his brother Julian – six games last year – as a starter.

Everson Griffen, the veteran signed from the Dallas Cowboys in a midseason trade, was next behind Romeo for sacks (3.5) and QB hits (eight). He is also a free agent.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Okudah had an incredibly difficult season at cornerback after being picked at number three overall.

The Lions were also not helped by 2020 signing Jamie Collins Sr.'s form falling off a cliff after agreeing a three-year, $30m contract. From his 2019 season with the New England Patriots, the linebacker was down 6.0 sacks, seven QB hits and two interceptions.

Offseason

So the Lions approach 2021 paying $6.5m more than last year at QB for an inferior player, while the cap has fallen to $182.5m. They have lost key players on offense and defense, having started from the low base of a 5-11 record.

It leaves general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell – both new hires – with just $9m of cap space to play with.

They need multiple wide receivers and cornerbacks just for starters, with drafting a QB of the future also in play.

Campbell did not exactly encourage optimism when he spoke of looking for "free agents that maybe aren't quite as talented but, man, they are gritty, salty guys that know how to compete". They "will help us in the meantime", he said.

Detroit retain the seventh pick in this year's draft – a vital asset – but the first-round selections received in the Stafford-Goff deal will not come into play until 2022 and 2023.

Looking some way short of a competitive NFL roster, Holmes and Campbell will be kept busy in their preparation for the new season, but this will realistically be a rebuild across multiple years.

For two-time Pro Bowler Goff, looking to recover his reputation, that might make for a painful 2021.

The Seattle Seahawks' Wild Card round exit in the playoffs was a result that underlined the need for significant changes, but they may be about to head down a path nobody expected or would advise. 

Frustrated by the level of punishment he has taken behind an offensive line the Seahawks have failed to properly upgrade, quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason reportedly provided Seattle with a list of teams to whom he would accept a trade. 

On that list are the Dallas Cowboys - who are out of the running having re-signed Dak Prescott - New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and Las Vegas Raiders. 

If speculation is to be believed, the Seahawks are fielding offers for Wilson and do not appear dead against trading one of NFL's elite quarterbacks, with the Bears said to be the team in that quartet most interested in striking a trade. 

It would be a franchise-altering decision for a team that has consistently been in the playoff mix because of the heroics of Wilson. 

The likely outcome remains that Wilson is still a Seahawk in 2021, but what do Seattle need to do this offseason to ensure this same drama is not repeated next year? 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on another year in which regular-season optimism gave way to postseason frustration for the Seahawks and the moves they will need to make to be better placed to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy in 2021. 

Offense 

The Seahawks dispensed with the services of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer following the loss to the Rams, a move that appeared unlikely early in the season as the Seattle thrived after Schottenheimer and head coach Pete Carroll heeded the widespread calls to 'let Russ cook'. 

Yet there was an evident decline in the second half of the season. Of the 56 plays of 20 yards or more Seattle produced in 2020 - putting them a disappointing 23rd in the NFL - only 20 of them came in the final eight games of the campaign. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that the drop-off came in the wake of a 44-34 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in Week 9 that, combined with a subsequent loss to the Los Angeles Rams - a pair of games in which Wilson committed seven turnovers - sparked a change in approach from Carroll and a disagreement with his quarterback about how to fix the offense. 

Carroll reverted to type, relying on the running game and the strength of a defense that made strides down the stretch as Seattle clinched the NFC West title. 

From Weeks 1-9, only three teams registered fewer rushing attempts than the Seahawks' 193. However, from Week 10 onwards they attempted the 12th-most rushes in the NFL (218). 

And the difference in the Seahawks' performance on offense in those two timeframes could hardly be starker.

Between Weeks 1-9, Seattle led the league in scrimmage yards per game (434.5). From Weeks 10-17, they dropped to 24th with an average of 342.5. 

The numbers clearly point to an aggressive approach through the air being Seattle's best route to offensive success. 

Wilson's statistics on deep throws also support the argument that letting him 'cook' is in Seattle's best interests. Indeed, of quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 throws of 21 or more air yards last season, Wilson led the way with 13 touchdowns on such passes. 

Yet for him to have the opportunity to make a strategy built around his remarkable deep ball prowess succeed, the Seahawks must do a better job in pass protection. 

Among quarterbacks to have at least 100 dropbacks, Wilson's sacks per pass play percentage of 7.77 was tied for the ninth-highest with Cam Newton. 

When given licence to do so, Wilson torched defenses. Allowing him that freedom, and reinforcing the offensive line, is the best way for the Seahawks to take the burden off a defense not without his holes despite a strong finish to the 2020 regular season. 

Defense 

Seattle's big splash last year was to strike a blockbuster trade for All-Pro safety Jamal Adams that caused excitement and raised eyebrows in equal measure. 

The decision to trade two first-round picks to acquire Adams from the New York Jets was met with scepticism from many. He may fail to ever live up to that price tag, but he did make a tangible impact on the success the defense enjoyed in 2020. 

Adams posted 9.5 sacks, the most by a defensive back in a single-season in NFL history, providing a significant boost to a Seahawks' pass rush that lacks dominant players up front. 

His efforts in that regard helped the Seahawks finish in the top 10 in opponent negative play yardage, Seattle forcing 109 negative plays for minus 393 yards. 

Yet the Seahawks were still extremely susceptible to the passing game. 

Seattle allowed 55 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for seventh in the NFL, indicating Adams had little positive impact in coverage. 

Where the Seahawks' defense consistently excelled was in defending the run. 

Only four teams allowed fewer runs of 20 yards or more than Seattle (7), and the Seahawks did not give up a single touchdown run of 20 yards. 

Finishing the year 12th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.48), the Seahawks will be out to join the league's elite on defense in 2021. 

To do that they will likely need better production from the defensive line in terms of turning pressure into sacks, of which they put up 46. 

That tally was good enough for seventh in the NFL, but plenty of opportunities clearly went begging with Seattle leading the league in hurries (190) and tied for sixth in knockdowns (104). Defensive tackle Jarran Reed was second behind Adams for sacks on the team with 6.5 and Carlos Dunlap (5) is no longer a Seahawk. 

The Seahawks cannot rely on a safety to carry the pass-rushing load on a regular basis, and finding a dominant edge player who can convert on the pressure they create should be top priority on defense in an offseason where they will have to perform a financial balancing act. 

Offseason 

Seattle must face up to the same challenge that beckons for the rest of the league, improving the roster by acquiring new talent and trying to keep their own while dealing with the issues presented by a declining salary cap. 

The Seahawks are scheduled to be $21.4million under the salary cap of $182.5m, that is more wiggle room than just under half the league and is little enough to raise doubts over how many free agents they can retain. 

Shaquill Griffin is likely to be the Seahawks' priority in terms of keeping their own players, Griffin having developed into an impressive starting cornerback for Seattle. 

He could command significant money on the market, potentially limiting Seattle's ability to re-sign veteran linebacker K.J. Wright. 

Seattle drafted linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round last year and he should slot in as the successor if Wright departs. 

Without a first-round pick because of the Adams trade, the Seahawks will need to get creative if they are to fill their most pressing needs on both sides of the trenches. 

General manager John Schneider has long been one of the best in the league at manoeuvring up and down the draft board. 

The onus is on him to do so and find financially viable solutions in free agency to ensure the pass rush improves and that the Seahawks do a better job of keeping opposing pass rushes away from Wilson. 

Should he fail to do so, Wilson's dissatisfaction may lead to some franchise-changing consequences next offseason. 

One of the most interesting offseasons in modern NFL history is on the horizon, with free agency set to begin next week.

Teams can negotiate with free agents from Monday, and franchises will be able to announce signings from Wednesday when the new league year begins.

The drop in salary cap, which is set at $182.5million, means many teams will have limited financial means with which to pursue their potential targets.

Yet there is a select group of players that will be able to command top dollar regardless of the economic challenges the coronavirus has presented.

Here we look at some of the players in that category by ranking the top 10 players set to hit the open market.

 

1. Shaquil Barrett - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the Buccaneers franchising wide receiver Chris Godwin, Barrett is set to hit the open market and will earn a long overdue payday. Pivotal to Tampa's success in Super Bowl LV, only T.J. Watt (29.5) has more sacks over the last two seasons than Barrett's 27.5.

2. Trent Williams - San Francisco 49ers

It is extremely rare for left tackles of Williams' calibre to hit free agency. Williams would not be doing so had the Niners agreed not to franchise tag him. There have been positive noises about him re-signing with San Francisco, but Williams will likely command over $20million a year. He has not allowed more than 3.5 sacks since the 2014 season when he gave up six.

3. Kenny Golladay - Detroit Lions

Golladay was not franchised by the Lions following an injury-hit 2020, but that should not cloud what he did in his first three years in the league. One of the league's top big-play threats, Golladay's 33 receptions of 25 yards or more ranked fifth in the NFL between 2017 and 2019.

4. Aaron Jones - Green Bay Packers

That the Packers elected not to pay Jones $8million for one season on the franchise tag is not reflective of the running back's tremendous skill set. He has 43 touchdowns from scrimmage since entering the league in 2017, the eighth-most in the NFL in that time.

5. Carl Lawson - Cincinnati Bengals

One of the most underrated pass rushers on the market, the sack numbers have not quite been there for Lawson. He had only 5.5 last season but was tied-ninth in the NFL in hurries and knockdowns with 65.5. Lawson should flourish playing on a superior defense to that of Cincinnati.

6. Joe Thuney - New England Patriots

Franchised last year, Thuney could become the league's highest-paid guard and deservedly so. The picture of reliability, he has allowed just 1.5 sacks over the past three seasons in New England, playing in every regular season game.

7. Bud Dupree - Pittsburgh Steelers

Dupree has 19.5 sacks in the last two seasons, but his free agency value will be hurt by the torn ACL that brought his 2020 to a premature end. He has shown a nose for the football during his surge in production, Dupree's six forced fumbles from 2019-20 the fourth-highest total in that span.

8. Corey Linsley - Green Bay Packers

Linsley's pending free agency may have influenced the Packers' decision not to franchise Jones. They will surely make effort to bring the center back, Linsley having allowed one sack this season. For the second time in three seasons, he did not commit a single holding penalty and played a pivotal role in a rushing attack that finished eighth in yards per game.

9. Trey Hendrickson - New Orleans Saints

Hendrickson enjoyed a breakout year for a Saints team mired in salary cap hell. He won't be back in New Orleans, but should have no shortage of suitors at the age of 26 after finishing tied-second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks. 

10. Curtis Samuel - Carolina Panthers

Samuel perfectly fits an era where there is an increasing emphasis on wide receivers who can operate out of the backfield. He was second in rushing yards among wideouts with 200 and finished the year 11th in scrimmage yards per touch (8.9).

France resume their bid to win a first Six Nations title since 2010 with a trip to face wounded England at Twickenham, and Wales should made it four wins out of four this weekend.

A coronavirus outbreak in the French camp led to their clash with Scotland being postponed, but they will be back in action against the Red Rose on Saturday a month after beating Ireland.

Wales shattered England's hopes of retaining the title with a 40-24 win at the Principality Stadium and will be expected to stay perfect when they face Italy in Rome, also on Saturday.

Scotland will look to reignite their title challenge when they face Ireland at Murrayfield on Sunday.

We use Opta data to preview the round-four encounters.

 

ITALY v WALES

FORM

Wales have won their last 15 Tests against Italy, and a 16th would represent their longest ever winning run against a single opponent in Test rugby (they won 15 in a row against France from 1908 to 1927).

A win over England secured Wales' fifth Triple Crown of the Six Nations era, They completed the Grand Slam in each of their previous four Triple Crown-winning campaigns since 2000 (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019).

Italy's losing run in the competition stands at 30 games and they have lost 19 in a row at home, stretching back to a defeat of Ireland eight years ago.

ONES TO WATCH

Azzurri fly-half Paolo Garbisi has made more kicks in play (29) and recorded more kicking metres (1,142m) than any other player in this year's Six Nations.

Josh Adams marked his first match of the tournament by scoring a controversial try against England and the Wales wing will fancy his chances of touching down again in Rome.

 

ENGLAND v FRANCE

FORM

England have won nine of their 10 home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row. Their only defeat came in February 2005, going down 18-17.

France have won seven of their last eight games in the Six Nations and will look for a fourth consecutive victory in the competition this weekend.

Les Bleus have scored the opening try of the game in 15 of their most previous 18 matches in this tournament, including their last eight in a row.

ONES TO WATCH

Wing Anthony Watson will win his 50th cap for England. He has the best average gain per carry rate (10.1 metres) of anyone to make 10 or more carries in the 2021 Six Nations and has also made the most post-contact metres (141).

France lock Paul Willemse has not missed any of his 34 tackles in the Six Nations this year and has made the joint-second most dominant tackles with four, England's Tom Curry (5) the only player to have made more.

SCOTLAND v IRELAND

FORM

Ireland have lost just three of their last 19 games against Scotland in the Six Nations, winning all the rest. Each of the men in green's defeats came by a margin of five points or fewer.

Scotland have lost their last two Test matches at Murrayfield. They have not been beaten in more consecutive games at their traditional home venue since losing four on the bounce between November 2014 and March 2015.

Gregor Townsend's side are the only team to average fewer than 10 missed tackles (8.5) per game in the Six Nations in 2021 and as a result boast the best tackle success rate of 92 per cent.

ONES TO WATCH

Hamish Watson has been an influential performer for Scotland, winning three turnovers and getting through a huge amount of work in the back row.

Ireland back-row Tadhg Beirne has recorded the most ruck arrivals (117) in the tournament, hitting the most rucks of anyone in both attack (87) and defence (30).

Expectations are high in Chicago as the White Sox set their sights on the World Series.

Gone are the days of 100-loss seasons, with 2018's 62-100 record consigned to bitter memory. The White Sox are in contention mode after catapulting themselves into the mix last year, with a rebuild firmly in the rear-view mirror following a remarkable ascent during the 2020 coronavirus-shortened MLB season.

Led by American League (AL) MVP Jose Abreu, the White Sox returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But it is win-now for the White Sox, who swapped manager Rick Renteria for Hall of Famer Tony La Russa in pursuit of a first World Series crown in 16 years.

Liam Hendriks is another new face in Chicago as the White Sox look to emerge from the shadows of city rivals the Cubs, who claimed the ultimate prize in 2016.

All eyes are on the White Sox in 2021 and while most projections tip La Russa's team to do well, All-Star closer Hendriks and his team-mates are focused on silencing the naysayers.

There will be a limited number of White Sox fans allowed to attend their home opener on April 8 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after the team visit the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day (April 1).

"There's been some projections that said we will be pretty good this year, but there's been some that we've taken a little offensively," Hendriks told Stats Perform News. "We're focusing more on the bad ones.

"The mindset we gotta take is 'you guys don't think we're gonna get to 95, 100 or however many wins, we're gonna prove you wrong and watch us do what we need to do and we're gonna go out there and make sure we win this division'.

"The biggest thing is making sure we prove people wrong. It's time for the city of Chicago to get on the White Sox bandwagon, it's been on the Cubs one for too long now."

The White Sox snapped a 12-year postseason drought in 2020 – officially going from rebuilder to contender.

They were the first AL team to clinch a playoff spot, but only won three of their remaining 12 regular-season games as the White Sox took their foot off the pedal.

It proved detrimental as Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics eliminated the White Sox in the Wild Card Round.

Having contributed to the White Sox's demise, 2019 All-Star Hendriks now finds himself at Guaranteed Rate Field, where the experienced Australian signed a three-year, $54million contract via free agency – a record annual average salary for a relief pitcher at $18m.

"They did a really good job with their team last season," Hendriks said. "They had a bunch of good players and guys developing they were hoping for. Hopefully we can take it into this year.

"The big thing for me is keeping the foot on the gas for as long as we can. They self-admitted that once they clinched a playoff spot last year, they kind of got too relaxed, they thought they'd made it.

"All of sudden, they went 3-12 the last two weeks and they were looking at a wildcard spot instead of hosting a series. That's big difference."

Hendriks was named Reliever of the Year in the American League in 2020 after finishing with a 3-1 record, a 1.78 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP, 14 saves (second best in MLB), 37 strikeouts and three walks over 24 appearances and 25.3 innings.

His WHIFF percentage (swings and misses/pitches) was 180 last season – sixth best in MLB last season among pitchers who faced at least 50 batters. Compared to his new White Sox team-mates, Lucas Giolito (141) was the closest to that figure, well ahead of Codi Heuer (128), Lance Lynn (125) and Dallas Keuchel (81).

"The big thing I'm hoping to bring in is that intensity. It doesn't matter, you could clinch in July but that last month of the season is more absolutely more important than anything because that's when you get the momentum going into the playoffs and that's the one thing we have to focus on," said Hendriks, who spent four years with the Athletics before moving to Chicago at the end of 2020.

"The other thing, just dealing with some of the young guys in the bullpen. They had a good first taste of the big leagues last year but this is generally the year where guys have their biggest struggles – that sophomore slump.

"They think they have it all figured out but the league makes adjustments. Being able to deal with that and bounce ideas off the veteran guys out there is important. That's why bringing in guys like Lance Lynn, who's won a ring before, is a big deal."

Hendriks joins a bullpen that boasts World Series champions in Keuchel (also an AL Cy Young Award winner) and Lynn, as well 2019 All-Star Giolito.

"The biggest thing is I'm not trying to stand out at all in this bullpen," the 32-year-old continued. "We have too many guys who can do too many special things.

"This is the part where I can lean on what has happened to me in my career. Me and Evan Marshall in the team – we've both had our ups and downs and bounced around a bit, but we've come to a position where we're at now.

"We have some guys out there who are younger, in the middle and guys like me and Evan who are a little older with kind of life experiences.

"We're not trying to stand out. We're just trying to make sure we're flowing as a unit. If one of us has a tough day, the next guy in line picks us up. That's how it's gotta be. It's not one guy coming to save the rescue, it's an entire collection.

"We're gonna have seven or eight guys out there and at certain points of the year, we're gonna have to rely on all seven or eight to get it done and making sure we have confidence in everyone at all times."

Not since 2005, when sweeping the Houston Astros in the World Series, have the White Sox reigned supreme, but Hendriks added: "I think they have the right attitude [this year]. A lot of young guys. But this is a window that's not only open for just a year, but will be open for several years. I'm excited about being a part of that. They got a little taste of it last year.

"That's generally how it goes, you get your feet wet and the next year you're ready and know what to expect and embrace it. You don't let the moment get too big for you, you just take care of business. Hopefully we can make a bit of a run at it."

Hendriks is one of the MLB's superior closers, but it has not been an easy journey for the Perth native, rather a long and winding road taking him to the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, back to the Blue Jays and then the Athletics in 2016.

It was not until landing in Oakland and some words of wisdom from a tarot card reader that Hendriks truly felt that he belonged in the big leagues.

Since taking over as the Athletics' closer on June 21 in 2019, Hendriks has recorded a 1.99 ERA over 68 innings pitched, with 39 saves, 14.7 strikeout rate and a 0.79 WHIP in 65 appearances, which all rank first in the league.

"A lot of the time, I felt like I was just there," Hendriks said. "I didn't feel like I had a place where to succeed. I put ceilings on myself. I'd cap myself in statistical categories or whether it be in the role I was at – I'm not that guy, I'll never be at that point. Just hoping to eke out here and there.

"Then I had a bit of a come to Jesus moment, where I used some different sources. My wife actually connected us with a tarot card reader – Ruby. She had no idea about baseball and she still has zero idea about baseball. But she was like, 'okay, why can't you do that?'. Then you get thinking, 'she's right, why can't I?'.  Why can't I break that record or get to his position that I thought was unattainable? You take those ceilings off and restrictions away, all of a sudden let the engine purr a little bit and look where we are.

"There was a lot of perseverance and persistence. The biggest thing for me is trying to prove people wrong. There's a lot of people out there that say I can't do it again, can't do it again, can't do it again. Now, it's going out to prove them wrong – 'you don't think I can do it again? Watch me, this is what I'm gonna do'."

Hendriks, who was close to re-joining AL rivals the Blue Jays continued: "It comes down to having a positive mindset. I had a chat with the pitchers recently. I consider myself some kind of a leader. I wanted to see where their minds are at.

"On the board, I wrote FIGJAM – f*** I'm good, just ask me. That positive mindset is one of the biggest things. If you throw a pitch with conviction, a pitch that you really want to throw, it's going to be better than a perfectly placed other pitch because you had that vibe, intensity and aggressiveness behind it.

"Convincing these guys, your pitches get people out. It's not like, okay he is usually getting a hit.

"The best hitter in the league is going to get a hit three out of 10 times, that means we win seven out of 10 times. That's the best hitter in the league. Don't ever doubt yourself against anybody.

"Pitchers are better than hitters and that's what we need to prove every time. Prove that you're better than the hitter in every single moment. That's one of the things I've taken into it. No matter what happens, you can't hit my fastball. I'm just going to keep throwing it until you get close to it, then all of a sudden, I'll pull the string and throw something else.

"It's a little cat and mouse game but you have to have the confidence behind it."

Hendriks is somewhat of a ninth-inning specialist, having recorded a 1.42 ERA (third), 0.68 WHIP (first) last season in 19 games. Over the course of his career, he has managed 95 games in the ninth inning – only tallying more in the seventh inning since entering MLB.

Since 2018, Hendriks tops the list for ERA (1.81) in the ninth inning among pitchers to have pitched 50 innings, while his WHIP figure (0.80) is only second to Josh Hader (0.77).

So, is there an advantage to having a traditional closer as opposed to a more analytic or committee approach?

"I think there is," Hendriks insisted. "I may be a bit biased because I want the ninth inning. Just purely based on the fact that you'll see guys and they will be really good in the highest leveraged situations throughout the game or anything and then they struggle in the ninth inning. It's a different mindset, different way of approaching the ball.

"In saying that, it gives some fluidly. All of a sudden, if you're up by three, you know you're getting the ninth. If you know you're getting the ninth, you prepare for that inning. If you're not sure when you're going to pitch between the sixth and the ninth, the preparation gets a little different.

"Some guys are good at it, some guys aren't. I think any time you give a guy a certain role, it's easier to adapt. If you get that consistent role, you know what you need to do to get ready."

Data and artificial intelligence continue to play a huge role in MLB, and Hendriks added: "I have two separate ways of looking at it. I love the analytical side off the field because I love to be able to be able to compare and look at something and be like, 'okay, what was I doing when I was good, what was I doing when I was bad? What is the difference and this is one area I need to focus on'. Whether it be, for me, release height, release extension point, the spin axis, the spin rate and all that fun stuff.

"And as soon as the game hits, I don't know a single thing. I want to be as stupid as I can on the mound because as soon as you start overthinking things, you just start thinking that, you'll come up with some negative ideas and it snowballs.

"For me, I love the analytical stuff off field and ways to get better, but on the field, I want to be as dumb as possible. I use a company and they print out these little maps. The maps are colour-coordinated – get in the blue, blue is good and red is bad. It's the easiest thing for me to remember.

"I pull up my piece of paper in the bullpen, be like okay, so and so are coming up – blue, blue, blue. I don't even look at the red. I just notice where the blue is. So it's okay, fast balls up this guy is good. Easy. then I don't have to worry about anything else.

"It's a lot easier to play the game when you're not having to worry about anything else and letting everything take over."

There were 124 years of All-Star experience at last weekend's showcase game between Team LeBron and Team Durant in Atlanta. 

The Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine was responsible for one of those years. 

And of all the exceptional players at last weekend's event, the first-time All-Star from the Bulls is one of the more intriguing. 

While several All-Stars are future Hall of Famers – the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul just to name a few – and others are young and established stars – the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons – LaVine is a veteran who is suddenly developing into a superstar. 

In fact, over the past five weeks, no one is scoring more than LaVine, who is averaging a league-best 32.3 points since February 6, while making exactly half of his 104 three-point attempts. 

He's been so spectacular he's played himself into max contract talk, although other discussions have had his name in various trade rumours if the rebuilding Bulls do not plan to sign him to an extension before his contract expires in 2022. 

Now in his fourth season in Chicago after spending his first three with the Minnesota Timberwolves, LaVine has the Bulls in position to participate in the Play-In Tournament and possibly earn their first postseason berth since 2016-17. 

He has the Bulls on the cusp of the playoffs behind a breakout season in which he is averaging career highs in every major category – 28.7 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game and 3.5 made three-pointers per game, while shooting 52.5 per cent on all field goals and 43.5 per cent on threes. 

If those numbers look impressive, that is because they have only been reached once before in a single season in NBA history. 

LaVine joins Stephen Curry from 2015-16 as the only players ever to average 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and three-plus made three-pointers per game, while shooting 50 per cent on field goals and 40 per cent on threes. Curry won his second MVP that season while leading the Warriors to a record 73 wins. 

While Curry was already an established star at that point after winning league MVP honours and an NBA title the season prior, LaVine is unexpectedly proving that he also belongs among the upper echelon of players in the league. 

He has transformed himself into one of the league's most dangerous scorers, capable of knocking down a three-pointer, pulling up and hitting a mid-range jumper or beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. 

Coming out of the All-Star break, his 167 dunks and layups are seventh-most in the NBA – and the most by any guard. And while the six-foot-six LaVine was also among the league leaders in dunks and layups last season (11th with 287), he is finishing at higher rate. 

He is converting 64.2 per cent of his dunk and layup attempts this season after making 57.4 per cent of his attempts last season, and that increase in field goal percentage of 6.8 is the eighth largest by any player six-foot-six or shorter. 

While many of the leaders among dunks and layups are big men – New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson, Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jazz centre Rudy Gobert – who live in the paint, the dynamic LaVine is just as much of a threat to knock down a three-pointer. 

His 120 made three-pointers rank fifth in the league and he is the league's only player with more than 120 dunks and layups and 90 threes. 

It is one thing to have made a lot of threes but another to actually be an efficient shooter – the Sacramento Kings' Buddy Hield has made 20 more three-pointers than LaVine but has hoisted up 94 more attempts – and LaVine has refined his shooting touch and is deadly from beyond the arc. 

He is hitting 43.8 per cent of his three-point attempts from the wing and his 53.8 per cent shooting from the corner ranks sixth in the league among the 103 players with at least 30 attempts.   

Overall, LaVine is shooting 43.5 per cent on three-pointers, an increase of 0.55 per cent from the perimeter from last season – the eighth-largest improvement in the NBA among players with at least 150 three-point attempts this season and last. 

The mid-range shot is somewhat of a lost art in the current game with the added weight given to a shot from a few feet further back beyond the arc, but it still has a place and if a shooter can connect from mid-range with regularity he becomes all the more threatening to score. 

LaVine has found his touch from mid-range, making 44.6 per cent of those shots this season after hitting at a 31.9 per cent clip last season. That increase of 12.7 per cent is the sixth-largest in the NBA among 73 shooters who have attempted at least 50 mid-range shots this season and last. 

Shooters shoot, and LaVine is thriving. His effective field goal percentage of 61.5 ranks second in the NBA among all guards. 

His all-round offensive game is one of the most complete in the league, and opposing defences are tasked with game planning against him, giving him similar treatment as they would give Curry or James, as he is a threat to score from anywhere on the court. 

Curry and James, however, have won multiple MVPs and titles. LaVine is certainly putting up MVP-type numbers, but the Bulls are not in the championship conversation. 

At the moment, at least. 

Chicago are only two games back of the Boston Celtics for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and are viewed as a team on the rise under first-year Bulls coach Billy Donovan. Instead of trading LaVine as was being speculated weeks ago, it is possible Chicago will be buyers at the March 25 trade deadline in their pursuit of a playoff berth. 

And if LaVine continues to excel and Chicago continue to improve over the next few seasons, MVP awards and NBA titles might not be out of the question for LaVine and the Bulls. 

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