Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.

As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City's 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient," he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad."

The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.

A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.

At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.

THE ENFORCER

Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City's record signing for £62million.

The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi's erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.

Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.

An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias' one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.

The Portugal international's 2,298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.

He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias' 2,241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4 per cent – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola's style.

Dias' 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable."

This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola's team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.

In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.

Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias' transfer fee, though. During England's autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.

The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.

THE ARTIST

If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City's season, December's dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.

"There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match," an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.

"If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we'd be killing them now. We'd be saying it's not good enough, it's boring, it's parking the bus."

Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.

In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.

Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City's nine.

In terms of minutes per goal, City's 67.5 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65.45).

The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.

On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night's work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.

But Ilkay Gundogan's performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.

From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.

A look at the playmaker's pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having "a special sense of finishing".

Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70 per cent of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20 per cent in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 50.5 and 41.2 respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan's goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.

It is to Gundogan's credit that the PFA Players' Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva's close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.

"Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Especially in the 2012 season, he was unbelievable and played pretty much like he is playing now," said former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp ahead of this weekend's reunion.

"Then he had, unfortunately, some injuries, really tough injuries, but that's now all sorted. He was always that player.

"When you are smart and experience comes into play as well, then it's another jump in your performance level. I'm not surprised at all."

THE WONDERKID

Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola's playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.

In other words, Gundogan hasn't just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.

One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.

"I didn't like much the way we were playing. We've come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles," Guardiola explained.

"For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.

"In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects."

One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.

Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City's on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.

It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.

Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden's numbers are on the up.

During City's period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City's shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2

Foden's most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero's on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.

Guardiola feels Foden's energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a "number eight" in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.

THE WILDCARD

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.

Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.

Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.

Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola's City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.

Walker and Cancelo's touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.

Walker plays a full part in City's build-up from deep but the majority of his touches – 54 per cent – come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.

Cancelo's numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5 per cent) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6 per cent) for Walker.

Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.

In short, he's everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.

Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1,108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.

Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan's innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.

THE MENTOR

One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.

Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.

When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo's Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.

A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club's history.

Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.

"It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me," Guardiola said of Lillo last week.

"He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.

"Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma's influence during this period has been so, so, so important.

"He's important to me and that is what I need."

Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.

An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.

In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.

"Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball. How can one exist without the other?" he said.

"You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.

"You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance."

Guardiola hasn't taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo's Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.

"The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment," he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo's philosophy.

"When we don't have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that's why we are able to play a little bit better."

Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.

Just two days from now, a significantly reduced number of flashbulbs will fly and the talking will stop with the opening kick-off of Super Bowl LV.

One way or another, history will be made, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking to become the first team to win the Super Bowl at their home stadium and the Kansas City Chiefs out to retain the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Should the latter succeed, Patrick Mahomes will not only deny Tom Brady a record-extending seventh Super Bowl triumph but he will also break his counterpart's record as the youngest starting quarterback to win multiple titles. Brady won his second at 26, Mahomes does not turn 26 until September.

But which areas of the game will have the biggest impact on who is celebrating making history once the dust settles on a unique NFL season?

Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at where the game could be won.

Explosive plays potentially decisive

The Chiefs have established themselves as the most devastating offensive team in the NFL. Drawing comparisons to the NBA's Golden State Warriors at the peak of their powers, the Chiefs' ability to score deluges of points helps them put games to bed in a hurry.

Tampa Bay learned that the hard way in the regular-season meeting between these two teams back in Week 12 when the Chiefs surged into a 17-0 lead en route to a 27-24 win.

Mahomes had 229 passing yards in the first quarter while Tyreek Hill had 203 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the same period.

The Buccaneers simply cannot afford to have the Chiefs get such a jump on them this time around and, if they are to successfully go toe to toe with the champions, they will need to maintain their tendency for quick strikes.

Nine of Tampa's 10 touchdown drives in the postseason have been under four minutes. In the regular season, they had 41 touchdown drives lasting fewer than four minutes and nine in which they scored in under 30 seconds, no other team had more than five.

Combining the regular season and the postseason, the Bucs lead the NFL with 90 plays of 20 yards or more compared to 88 for the Chiefs. However, the Chiefs led the way in the regular season with 79, while their 17 offensive touchdowns of 20 yards or more were tied with the Las Vegas Raiders for most in the NFL.

Whoever hits on the most explosive plays this time around will likely be lifting the trophy.

Can Bucs get home with four?

Given what Hill did to the Buccaneers' defense in the regular-season meeting, the Bucs may well largely avoid blitzing Patrick Mahomes in order to devote as many players to coverage as possible.

Thankfully that plays to the strength of their outstanding defensive line, which has done an excellent job of getting to the quarterback with only four pass rushers.

Indeed, in the postseason, the 51 pass plays on which the Buccaneers have blitzed have delivered two sacks and one interception.

The 83 plays where they have not blitzed have resulted in five sacks and four interceptions.

Edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are tied for the most pressures in the playoffs with 15 apiece. If they can get after Mahomes without blitzing and the seven defenders playing coverage can keep Hill and Travis Kelce relatively in check, the Bucs will be well-placed for victory.

Will 'Playoff Lenny' deliver again?

For all the hype around their remarkable offense, the Chiefs' defense remains underrated.

It was pivotal in closing out the Super Bowl LIV win over the San Francisco 49ers and the numbers suggest it has a strong chance of frustrating Brady.

Brady has a potent group of wide receivers to target, but the Chiefs have been one of the best teams in the league at defending wideouts.

They allowed 178 receptions to opposing receivers in 2020, giving up an average of 140.3 yards per game, putting the Chiefs second in the NFL in each of those areas.

Kansas City conceded 15 receiving touchdowns to wideouts, the Chiefs ranking tied-ninth in that category.

In the playoffs, the Chiefs are allowing just 4.78 yards per pass but have been much more susceptible to the run, opponents gaining 6.03 yards per rush.

The Bucs could, therefore, have to look to their running game, led by Leonard Fournette, to have success on offense.

Earning the moniker 'Playoff Lenny', Fournette has enjoyed a stunning postseason. After averaging 46.2 yards from scrimmage in the regular season, he is putting up 104.3 yards from scrimmage per game in the playoffs.

The run game might not be the first thing that comes to mind when looking at how to beat the Chiefs but, should Kansas City keep the receivers under wraps, the Bucs might have to turn to it.

Bucs must stand tall in the red zone

Regardless of what the Buccaneers do on offense, they will likely be fighting an uphill battle if they cannot end their recent struggles making red-zone stops.

In their last six games, the Buccaneers have allowed scores on all 19 of their opponents' drives inside the 20-yard line (12 touchdowns and seven field goals).

Looking solely at their three postseason games, the Bucs have given up scores on all 10 red-zone drives, with the breakdown of those a little more even with six touchdowns and four field goals.

Keeping the Chiefs to the latter will be crucial but that is easier said than done.

The Chiefs scored touchdowns on 57.8 per cent of their red-zone possessions in the regular season. That number ranked 16th in the NFL but it has ballooned to 73.1 in the playoffs as they have scored touchdowns on 19 of 26 trips inside the 20.

Kansas City turned a potentially mouth-watering AFC Championship Game with the Buffalo Bills into a mismatch by scoring on five of their six red-zone possessions, only failing to score on the final one because Mahomes took a knee to run out the clock.

If the Bucs cannot stop the Chiefs from being similarly clinical on Sunday, the Lombardi Trophy will again be making the journey back to Arrowhead Stadium.

With a double over Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg, Cristiano Ronaldo took his tally to 22 goals in 23 appearances for Juventus this season.

The Portugal star is the leading goalscorer across all competitions from within Italy's top flight, two above Romelu Lukaku and four clear of Ciro Immobile, the winner of last season's European Golden Shoe.

Not bad for a man who turns 36 on Friday.

Of course, Ronaldo is far from your average goalscorer and few would discount him from continuing to break records even as he approaches his 40th birthday.

He has already made history in his two and a half years in Serie A and will be gunning for more before he leaves Turin.

 

OLD HABITS DIE HARD

Since his €112million move from Real Madrid in 2018, Ronaldo has scored 67 goals in 80 Serie A games, more than any other player in that time (Immobile is next on 64).

His rate of 0.84 goals per game puts him joint-top among players in their 30s to play in Italy's top division since 1994-95, level with Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has 49 in 58 appearances.

In 2019-20, Ronaldo set a new record for goals scored by Serie A stars over 30 as he became the first such player to net at least 30 goals in a season (he finished on 31).

The previous best such figure was 29, achieved by Edin Dzeko for Roma in 2016-17 and Antonio Di Natale in 2009-10. And Ronaldo might just have another milestone set by the Udinese great in his sights.

 

A RECORD FOR THE AGED

There are 14 players in Serie A history to score more goals in their 30s than Ronaldo, and only one of them – Dzeko, who has 78 – is still playing.

Should he stay at Juve, Ronaldo will fancy his chances of becoming only the fifth player to score at least 100 times in the division in his 30s.

Still, the top four are some distance ahead. Roma great Francesco Totti is on 125, revered former Milan striker Gunnar Nordahl scored 137, and top of the tree is Di Natale with a remarkable 162.

It sounds a tall order for even Ronaldo to catch the former Italy striker, who called time on his career in 2016 at the age of 38. However, if he continues scoring at an average of 32 goals per season, he would reach Di Natale's tally in the latter part of the 2023-24 season, when he would have just turned 39.

And would you really bet against him?

Raheem Sterling struck Manchester City's second goal in their 2-0 win at Burnley to move onto 99 for the club in the Premier League.

With Pep Guardiola's men starting to build an ominous lead at the top of the table, this weekend would be an ideal time for Sterling to score for just the second time against Liverpool in what would be his 11th league meeting with his former employers.

Burnley have had a poor couple of games but there's value to be had in backing three of their top performers to deliver when they host in-form Brighton and Hove Albion.

Meanwhile, Anthony Martial is back among the goals for Manchester United and could well be worth a spot in your fantasy line-up.

NICK POPE

Burnley's number one Nick Pope had a rare moment of misfortune last time out, flapping at a Bernardo Silva shot that allowed Gabriel Jesus a simple goal three minutes in.

Still, he made four saves in total to keep the scoreline reasonably respectable and take his tally to 204 in the competition since the start of last season. No goalkeeper has made more.

In fact, only Ederson (29) has kept more clean sheets than Pope (22) in that same time frame, and the man hopeful of becoming England's regular number one will be determined to add to that against Brighton and prove his City slip-up was a mere blip.

 

JAMES TARKOWSKI

Like his goalkeeper, James Tarkowski has also kept 22 Premier League clean sheets since August 2019, more than any other defender (Harry Maguire is next on 21). He has every chance of getting another here.

Brighton are on a roll after beating Tottenham and Liverpool 1-0 and they won this game last season at Turf Moor 2-1, Aaron Connolly scoring a second-half winner.

However, three of the seven Premier League meetings between these two have finished 0-0, including the reverse game in November. Indeed, this could be the first fixture in Premier League history to see no goals scored in both games in two separate campaigns (there were two 0-0 draws in 2017-18, too).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Everton left-back Lucas Digne has already registered six assists this season, the most of any defender in the league. Since he joined the Toffees in 2018, only Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) can better his tally of 17.

Digne actually splits the two Liverpool full-backs when it comes to chances created over the same time period, his 165 bettered only by Alexander-Arnold among defenders (166).

His battle with Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka could be key to the result at Old Trafford.

RAHEEM STERLING

As well as scoring 99 goals, Sterling has provided 55 assists in all competitions for City under Guardiola. Those 154 goal involvements are the most of any player in the Catalan's time in charge, eight more than next best Sergio Aguero.

The England forward has not always enjoyed facing his old club and City have a fairly miserable record at Anfield, having won just once in their previous 29 league visits – and that was back in May 2003.

But with the champions reeling from consecutive home defeats to Burnley and Brighton, Sterling may well sense the Reds are there for the taking.

 

JAMES MADDISON

In Leicester City's 2-0 win at Fulham, James Maddison set up both goals, marking the first time he has recorded multiple assists in a Premier League game.

In his previous 12 appearances in all competitions, the former Norwich City man has been directly involved in 12 goals (six scored and six assisted). There were just three games in that run where he failed to score or set up a team-mate.

Brendan Rodgers' men are flying high and will be confident of a result away to an inconsistent Wolves.

 

CHRIS WOOD

Chris Wood has only scored four league goals all season and just one of those has come in his most recent seven appearances.

That could all change against Brighton. Wood has scored eight times in league football against the Seagulls, making them his favourite opponent in English football.

 

ANTHONY MARTIAL

Anthony Martial had a positive cameo in that 9-0 demolition of Southampton, scoring twice and winning a (controversial) penalty after coming on at half-time.

Everton will not want to see Martial with renewed confidence. The France forward has managed six goals and three assists in his past 11 appearances in all competitions against the Toffees.

Even if Edinson Cavani starts in his place, Martial may well be a threat: he came off the bench to score one and set up another in a 2-0 EFL Cup win at Goodison Park in December.

Anthony Martial's Manchester United debut is one of the club's most memorable in the modern era of the Premier League. His jinking run left Liverpool's defence in knots before he coolly slotted into the bottom-right corner to help secure a 3-1 win over his new team's bitter rivals.

It was a stunning start and one that promised much for the future, producing the ultimate response to the many pundits who had questioned his signing and reported £36million transfer fee.

Yet, five and a half years on, it's difficult to say Martial's debut resembles a microcosm of his United career, with those spectacular moments remaining fleeting rather than developing into sustained excellence.

Of course, 2019-20 was surely the closest he's come to finding consistency as he scored 17 times in the Premier League. Finally, the penny had seemingly dropped and Martial was developing the decisiveness he had previously teased in flashes.

But 2020-21 has been largely disappointing for the Frenchman and has fans wondering if he is their best option. Was last season just another false dawn?

 

THE REGRESSION

United fans will hope Martial's lively appearance off the bench in Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of Southampton is a sign of things to come – he got two goals and also won a penalty, albeit a questionable one.

There was certainly plenty to like about his performance, with both goals coming from the central zone of the penalty area, and the first saw him use his strength to see off a defender prior to finding the net. For a player whose suitability as a number nine has been questioned, it was a promising development.

But while there were undoubtedly reasons for optimism, we cannot disregard his previous struggles this season on the basis of that 9-0 win. Saints became subjugated essentially as soon as Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off after 82 seconds, and Martial's second came when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side were down to nine men.

Before Tuesday, Martial's shot conversion rate this season (5.9 per cent) had been lower than any of his previous campaigns with United. Even when you take into consideration his two latest goals, which lifts it to 13.3 per cent, he's still well down on 2019-20 (21.3 per cent) and 2018-19 (25.6 per cent).

His issues don't appear to come down to a lack of clear opportunities either, as prior to Tuesday he was actually averaging roughly the same amount of big chances per 90 minutes this season as in 2019-20 (0.7). However, he had been proving more wasteful from such situations, with Martial's big chance conversion rate of 0.15 per game down from 0.3.

Martial particularly excelled with regards to expected goals in 2019-20, with his xG rating of 11.3 meaning he netted six more than he would have been expected to – by comparison, ahead of the Southampton win, he had two goals from an xG of 4.5.

Positionally, Martial has generally occupied the same spaces as he did in 2019-20 but given his emphatic out-performing of xG was seemingly unsustainable, perhaps this is part of the problem.

A NEW THREAT

Edinson Cavani's signing, while initially criticised as a knee-jerk or 'panic' acquisition, was always likely to be a positive move for United as it offered them a new dynamic in attack. Martial may like to play at being a number nine, he may wear that shirt, but his characteristics are much different to those of Cavani.

Even though Martial has been regularly deployed as the focal point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's attack over the past 18 months, his positional maps still prove a predilection to operate from the left.

 

Being involved more towards the left than the right flank is understandable in one sense, given United carry greater threat there with Luke Shaw than they do on the opposite side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

But Cavani takes up central positions with greater regularity than Martial. As such, the Uruguayan's far greater goal frequency this term (one every 133 minutes, compared to one every 312.5 minutes for Martial) cannot be a surprise, even if Martial actually averages more touches of the ball in the area (7.6 per 90 mins, to 5.3).

There is also a school of thought that Martial's mentality becomes affected when he feels threatened. It's not a secret that he had long seen his future as a central striker, but Louis van Gaal felt he was better suited to playing on the flank and Jose Mourinho openly questioned his suitability to the number nine role.

The latter's arrival in 2016 coincided with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who essentially killed Martial's chances of playing as a striker, and his form subsequently suffered almost across the board after a positive first season.

Although he showed signs of improvement in 2017-18 despite Romelu Lukaku's arrival, Martial was no more productive than when he first joined.

And now there's Cavani, who is out-scoring Martial five to four despite playing less than half the number of minutes in the Premier League this season. It seems he's treading on Martial's toes rather than keeping him on them.

CAVANI THE MORE DEPENDABLE OPTION?

For what it's worth, Martial's dip in form hasn't impacted United massively – after all, they've a better xG differential this term (5.7) than they did in 2019-20 (3.2) and are challenging at the top of the table, something they haven't really managed since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

 

Tuesday's mauling of Southampton might have been just what the doctor ordered for Martial, who had previously gone a month without a goal in all competitions, though few would have any complaints if Cavani was just starting out on a run as United's first choice in attack.

He may not possess the pace of Martial or indeed his ability on the ball, but he has proven more clinical as evidenced by his greater conversion rate of big chances (45.4 per cent, over 33.3), such as his nonchalant header against Southampton.

The experienced Uruguay international is also being presented with more big chances (1.5 per 90 minutes) than Martial (0.9), suggesting Cavani boasts a greater ability to create openings with his movement.

It is, of course, always handy to have players with varying skillsets and it offers Solskjaer the ability to choose individuals based on his set-up or the opposition on a given day.

But on current form, the more consistent talents of Cavani might just offer United the greater reliability they need if they're to sustain a title challenge.

At the very least, he would seem a smart choice on Saturday if fit having already netted three times in two games for United against Everton.

The St Louis Cardinals made a splash after acquiring Nolan Arenado on Monday.

It cost five players, but the Cardinals fleeced the Colorado Rockies to bring in a five-time All-Star via a blockbuster trade.

The Cardinals will reportedly receive $50million in cash considerations, new deferrals in Arenado's contract that has six years and $199m remaining, and the waiving of his no-trade clause.

Arenado only signed an eight-year, $260m contract with the Rockies prior to the 2019 MLB season but Colorado opted to make a deal with the Cardinals.

The 29-year-old's arrival is a significant addition and quickly establishes the Cardinals as the team to beat in the National League (NL) Central ahead of the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

St Louis – eyeing their first World Series championship since 2011 – now boast a formidable corner-infield combination in Arenado and six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt.

We take a look at the numbers behind Arenado using Stats Perform data as the World Series-chasing Cardinals eye success in 2021.

 

Arenado's a genuine star

The third baseman's record speaks for itself.

Eight Gold Gloves, four Silver Slugger awards and four Platinum Gloves, to go with three NL home run and NL RBI leader honours.

Arenado is one of two players in MLB history to win a Gold Glove in each of his first eight seasons in the majors, along with former Seattle Mariners favourite Ichiro Suzuki.

While he was hampered by a shoulder injury during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season – tallying 46 hits, 23 runs, eight homers and 26 RBIs in 182 at-bats for the Rockies, Arenado was coming off a career-best .315 with 41 home runs and 118 RBIs in 2019.

Arenado had five successive seasons with at least 35 home runs and 110 RBIs from 2015-19 (before the shortened 2020 season) – tied for the longest streak in NL history, alongside ex-Cubs star Sammy Sosa (1997-2001).

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have never had a third baseman hit 35-plus home runs in a season in their history.

St Louis are one of five current franchises that have never had a third baseman hit 35-plus homers in a season (34 in 1992 and 2004), and they are the oldest team (1882) in that group, ahead of the Boston Red Sox (1901), Washington Nationals (1969), Mariners (1977) and Miami Marlins (1993).

After making his debut with the Rockies in 2013, Arenado has amassed 1,206 hits, 649 runs, 235 homers and 760 RBIs at an average of .293 in his career.

Since his first MLB appearance almost eight years ago, only Nelson Cruz (287), Mike Trout (267) and Edwin Encarnacion (265) have hit more homers than Arenado.

Arenado, though, tops the list for most RBIs since 2013 – ahead of new team-mate Goldschmidt (720), who sits fourth.

In the postseason, Arenado has two runs, one homer and three RBIs while averaging .190 in 21 at-bats.

The Cardinals – beaten in the Wild Card Round last season – lost to the Nationals in the 2019 National League Championship Series (NLCS), while they went down to the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series.

It wasn't the most celebrated or impactful trade of the Summer of 2019 – the newest gold banner that is waiting to be unveiled at the Staples Center answers that question.

Still, when browsing the current state of affairs in the Western Conference, it's hard to deny the significance of another deal that went down shortly after the franchise-defining blockbuster that landed Anthony Davis alongside LeBron James in Los Angeles and shifted the balance of power within the NBA.

With the aftershock of the Davis deal still reverberating, the Memphis Grizzlies were making a more under-the-radar move to set their own new course. Just days after the gigantic trade, Memphis sent the franchise's all-time leading scorer and arguably most popular player, Mike Conley, to the Utah Jazz, formally closing the door on the moderately successful 'Grit and Grind' era of the previous decade.

It's fair to say the trade is working out quite well for both teams, though. The Jazz presently sport the NBA's best record at 16-5 with Conley superbly manning the point following a somewhat trying first season in Salt Lake City. The Grizzlies currently stand as the surprise leader of a suspect Southwest Division and are seemingly well ahead of schedule on a rebuilding plan young general manager Zach Kleiman has so far orchestrated with a master stroke.

Memphis' swift rise to respectability was hard to see coming, and neither was the considerable effect so far generated by a trade centered around a player who has never made an All-Star team in 13 NBA seasons. That may change in Conley's 14th, however. The 33-year-old has been a major force on both ends of the court in what has been a terrific bounce-back campaign to date, as his 124.2 offensive rating is the highest of his career and his 2.35 steals per 48 minutes is his best mark since making the NBA All-Defensive Team in 2012-13. 

Perhaps most importantly, however, is how the Jazz have performed with Conley on the court as opposed to him off it. The veteran point guard's plus-minus rating of 11.0 per game trails only Clippers star Kawhi Leonard for the best in the league among players averaging at least 15 minutes per outing and who have appeared in at least half of their team's games, and the following chart illustrates how much better Utah has been when Conley is on the floor: 

JAZZ, WITH/WITHOUT MIKE CONLEY ON COURT, 2020-21 

With/Without stats (/100 = per 100 possessions) 

Points/100: 116.5/108.8 
Opp Points/100: 99.9/113.8 
Point Diff/100: +16.6/-5.0
FG Pct: .470/.444 
Opp FG Pct: .427/.475 
Turnovers/100: 13.4/16.6 

Conley's presence also allows Donovan Mitchell, Utah's leading scorer and their highest usage player, to play more off the ball where he is most effective, as the numbers demonstrate: 

DONOVAN MITCHELL, WITH/WITHOUT MIKE CONLEY ON COURT, 2020-21 

With/Without stats (/100 = per 100 possessions) 

Points/100: 35.0/32.9 
Rebounds/100: 6.8/5.5 
Assists/100: 5.4/8.1 
Turnovers/100: 3.5/5.7 
FG Pct: .451/.409 
3-Pt Pct: .446/.343 

With Conley playing at an elite level and a pair of All-Stars in Mitchell and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the question can now be raised: Have the Jazz finally achieved the status of a legitimate challenger to the West's upper crust after four years of consistently winning in the regular season but never seriously threatening in the playoffs? 

Quite possibly. 

The Jazz are the only team that currently ranks in the NBA's top five in both offensive and defensive rating. They have never finished a season higher than ninth in the former category under coach Quin Snyder, but there is reason to believe this team differs from its predecessors. It has been hitting 3-pointers at a historic rate (16.9 per game) with both impressive efficiency (39.8 percent) and variety. Six of the Jazz's top seven scorers are shooting better than 38 percent from beyond the arc while taking at least four attempts per game, the most in the league. 

Only one team in NBA history has shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range while making 12 or more 3s per game, and that is the 2015-16 Warriors that set an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins. Granted, there are three other teams that currently fall under that category this season, and they are all pretty good as well: The Clippers, Bucks and Nets. 

So, we have discussed how the Conley trade has benefited the Jazz. How about the Grizzlies, who received Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, a 2019 first-round pick and a future first-rounder in the deal? 

Korver was immediately traded to Phoenix in a swap that brought back De'Anthony Melton, Memphis' best wing defender, and a 2020 second-round pick that turned into center Xavier Tillman, who has quickly emerged as a solid rotational piece as a rookie.

Crowder was later shipped to Miami, with capable veteran Gorgui Dieng and the still-injured Justise Winslow the return.

Last year's first-rounder was ultimately used on Brandon Clarke, one of only five players from the 2019 class to average 12 points and 5.5 rebounds per game through his first season-plus.

All told, that is five viable contributors (Clarke, Allen, Dieng, Melton, Tillman) and a possible sixth if Winslow can ever get healthy. And Melton may have a chance to be something more than that if he continues to make strides with his still-developing shot.

And we have yet to mention the primary motive for moving Conley, which was to clear a path at the point guard spot for the electric Ja Morant. Though Memphis was able to go 4-4 in the eight games the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year missed with a sprained ankle earlier this season thanks to the enviable depth Kleiman has assembled, there is no question the Grizzlies are a more dangerous team with the 2019 No. 2 overall pick in the lineup.

Here are the numbers to back it up: The Grizzlies average 117.4 points with him, compared to 103.1 in his absence. Their field goal percentage (.479 compared to .451) and 3-point percentage (.381 compared to .331) are also unsurprisingly better, while the turnovers drop by just over one per game (13.5 with him, 14.9 without).

If the Grizzlies could maintain that points-per-game average throughout the season, they would rank third in the league behind only the power-laden Nets and Bucks. Combine it with their other strengths, an opportunistic defense that leads the NBA in steals per game and a rotation that boasts a league-high 11 players averaging 8.0 points or more (min. 50 percent of team’s games played), and it is no stretch to proclaim they will be a formidable playoff foe for any team should they get in – especially if budding star Jaren Jackson Jr. makes it back from the knee injury that has sidelined him all season thus far. 

Memphis are still not ready to realistically threaten the league's championship contenders, but there is a lot to like about this team going forward. The Grizzlies have one bona fide star in Morant, a potential second in Jackson and a young and promising supporting cast – most of whom are under contract for at least two more years. They are also set up to be flush in cap space and a potential dark horse player in free agency come the 2021 offseason.

The Grizzlies have the NBA's third-youngest roster, its youngest GM in Kleiman and third-youngest head coach in 36-year-old Taylor Jenkins. It looks like their rebuild is maturing beyond its years , too.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets meet for the first time since last season's Western Conference Finals on Thursday.

A 4-1 series win for the Lakers paved the way for the franchise to win their first NBA championship since 2010 and they are the favourites to repeat the feat this season.

After a gruelling two-week road trip in which they went 5-2, they will be back in the familiar surroundings of Staples Center to start a five-game home stand.

The Lakers are 4-4 on their home court this season and the Nuggets have only dropped three of their 10 road games, while LeBron James and Nikola Jokic have started the campaign in form befitting MVP candidates.

The stage is set for an intriguing battle between two of the West's heavyweights.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

An average of 25 points per game may not be on a par with previous prolific seasons, but James is enjoying a career year from beyond the arc.

He is shooting at 40.9 per cent from three-point range and is averaging over twice as many attempts per game (6.8 compared to 3.3) as when he set his previous high of 40.6 per cent in the 2012-13 season.

He has improved from downtown year on year with the Lakers but operates at 27.1 per cent from three against the Nuggets since his arrival in Los Angeles in 2018. He only made more than one three-pointer in one of their Western Conference Finals meetings last season.

Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets

Denver's Serbian center has made an incredible start to the 2020-21 season.

While tying his career high of 47 points and ending the Utah Jazz's 11-game winning streak, he registered his 20th straight double-double to start the season – Bill Walton is the only other player to have achieved that feat, though he went on to record 34 straight in the 1976-77 season.

The last team to deny him a double-double? That's right, it was the Lakers. Jokic only had one double-double in the Nuggets' 4-1 series loss to the Lakers in the bubble.

KEY BATTLE: CONTROL OF THE PAINT

Only Zion Williamson (173), Giannis Antetokounmpo (165) and Domantas Sabonis (157) have made more field goals in the paint than Jokic this season, with the centre averaging 14.8 points per game in the key.

However, for the Lakers, Anthony Davis and LeBron have each made 111 field goals in the paint, while Montrezl Harrell also places inside the top 20 with 107.

Through Davis and James alone the Lakers average 21.8 points per game in the paint and the former shoots at 69.8 per cent in that area – better than Jokic's 65.2 success rate and the fifth best in the NBA among players to have attempted at least 100 such shots.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nuggets have only won four of their 12 meetings with the Lakers in the regular season and playoffs since LeBron arrived at Staples Center.

Davis has particularly enjoyed playing against Denver since becoming a Laker too, averaging 30.3 points and 7.6 assists across nine meetings with the Nuggets. The only side he has averaged more points against in the same time frame – with a minimum of two games played – is his former team the New Orleans Pelicans (31.3).

Denver will therefore likely need Jamal Murray to shine alongside Jokic. However, he had one of his worst games over the past two seasons against the Lakers December 2019, when he had just six points on 3-of-17 shooting. Only once has he scored fewer in at least 24 minutes on the floor – he had four points against the Brooklyn Nets a month prior.

Joe Root is used to reaching milestones, but the batsman will bring up a special Test century when he leads England in the series opener against India.  

For Root, the game in Chennai – the first of four in the series – will see him make his 100th Test appearance. He will become just the 15th Englishman to get to the landmark in the format and the 69th overall. 

The fresh-faced 21-year-old who made his debut in India in 2012 is now a fresh-faced 30-year-old considered one of the best in the world, with his memories of that maiden outing still helping to shape the player he is.

"Walking out for the first time in an England shirt would probably be the proudest moment," he said.

"I look back at walking out to bat and seeing Kevin Pietersen at the other end, someone I watched as a teenager and as a kid growing up, and I just couldn't stop smiling. I was living my childhood dream and have been ever since.

"Whenever I'm going through a lean spell or things aren't quite falling for me, I try to look back at that moment and remember what that feeling was like – almost try and embrace that really excitable young lad and bring that into the current situation."

THE HIGHS AND LOWS AHEAD OF A BUSY YEAR 

To say 2021 will be a busy year for Root is an understatement. While not currently part of England's plans in Twenty20 cricket, meaning he seems set to miss out on the World Cup in India in October and November, there is plenty on the Test captain's plate.  

The tour to India will see England play four of their scheduled 17 Tests across the calendar year, a schedule that includes a home series against the same opponents, the visit of ICC Test Championship finalists New Zealand and, after that busy summer, the small matter of an Ashes tour.  

He made an outstanding start with 426 runs on the recent tour of Sri Lanka, helping England secure a 2-0 series sweep that extended their winning streak overseas to five matches, their best run away since 1914.  

Yet Root went into that tour off the back of a below-par year. His top score in 2020 was 68, though he still finished with an average of 42.2, narrowly better than 2018 (41.2) and 2019 (37). The right-hander managed as many three-figure scores in January as he recorded across the previous two years combined.  

If England are to prosper on what will undoubtedly be a long and tough road ahead, Root will need to lead from the front. Captaincy has seen his batting numbers suffer – he averages 45.7 as skipper, compared to 52.8 beforehand – but the signs are some tinkering during time off has allowed him to rediscover his best form at just the right time.

RUNS ON TOUR, FANTASTIC AT FOUR 

India has been a happy destination for Root on previous trips, including hitting 124 in the drawn series opener on the 2016 tour. It was also the country where he made his Test bow, four years earlier. Batting at six, an innings of 73 offered a demonstration of his undoubted skill. 

The Yorkshireman has had plenty of other good moments against India: they are one of five opposing nations he has scored over 1,000 Test runs against. Only Alastair Cook (seven) has managed it against more countries for England.  

Australia is also on that list for Root, who will be hoping to improve on a career average of 38 when he heads Down Under again later this year. His first tour there in 2013-14 was particularly tough, with a run of low scores leading to him being left out of the XI in Sydney. It was a rare low point, while also serving as motivation to make sure it never happened again.  

His 2017-18 tour was more productive, albeit without a three-figure score. Conversion rates are often used as a measurement when comparing the leading names, and Root’s numbers – 19 centuries but 49 scores between 50 and 99 – have been used against him when held up alongside Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson.  

The needs of the team have seen him moved up and down the order, away from his favoured place at four. That position has seen him score 10 of his Test hundreds, while only Kevin Pietersen (6,490) and Denis Compton (4,234) have amassed more runs when occupying that spot for England.  

"I know previous captains have preferred to get out there early and just get amongst it but I quite like to split the two and to really focus on my batting," he said in November 2019 during a tour to New Zealand. "I've found over time that, generally, I've consistently played better in that position."  

The numbers back up his statement; Root has a 52.2 average when listed at four in the batting order. Only at five (69.1) has he done better, albeit with a far smaller sample size.

ENGLAND EXPECTS AND THE PURSUIT OF TENDULKAR 

During his brilliant double hundred in the first Test in Sri Lanka, Root became the seventh Englishman to reach 8,000 runs in the format.   

By the end of the trip, he had moved past Geoffrey Boycott, Pietersen and David Gower on the all-time run-scoring list for his country – and it is unlikely he will have to wait long to overtake two more legendary names.  

Root’s tally after 99 Tests stands at 8,249 runs. Alec Stewart (8,463) and Graham Gooch (8,900) are firmly in his sights, particularly when you consider the number of games to come this year.  

However, Cook is well clear at the top. The opening batsman and former skipper finished with 12,472 runs in 161 appearances. Only four men in the history of the game have managed more, Sachin Tendulkar (15,921 runs in 200 Tests) leading the way.  

Could Root potentially chase Tendulkar down? He is about to hit the halfway point in terms of number of games in the head-to-head comparison, yet is ahead of schedule in terms of output. He has only missed two Test matches since his debut, while a decision at some stage along the line to focus solely on the longest format of the game could extend his Test career even further. 

Such talk of individual records is likely to be of little concern for the man himself, though. Reaching 100 Tests is an impressive achievement for Root, who will hope it is not his last century in the months to come. 

Tottenham have generally enjoyed playing Chelsea this season. A penalty shoot-out win in September saw them progress in an EFL Cup tie, while October's 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge took them top of the Premier League. 

Yet Jose Mourinho's men head into Thursday's clash with a little trepidation. After back-to-back defeats and just one win in four in the league, and with Chelsea playing largely without pressure as they get to grips with life under new boss Thomas Tuchel, the onus is on Spurs to deliver and underline their credentials as top-four contenders. 

With Harry Kane injured and Son Heung-min without a goal in six games, getting three points looks far from straightforward. There is, however, an unlikely Mourinho acolyte who could lead the charge at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. 

Tanguy Ndombele has gone from peripheral irritant to midfield centrepiece at Spurs, sustaining his good form even during the recent downbeat run. It's a transformation few saw coming, but it has been hugely welcome to Mourinho, who has been unable to coax form out of Gareth Bale and apparently unwilling to try with Dele Alli but has talked of Ndombele's "big evolution" in recent months. 

So, what's changed?

A PASSING FANCY?

Ndombele has made 27 appearances in all competitions this season, with 21 of those as a starter. He has scored six goals and assisted three; only Lucas Moura (10), Son (26) and Kane (33) have had more direct goal involvements. 

At the same stage of last season, when Spurs were also sixth in the league but three points worse off, Ndombele had scored two and set up three goals in only 13 starts. There were seven team-mates with more goal involvements. 

This term, the France international is third for chances created from open play (20), third for completed passes in the opponents' half (540) and third for completed passes ending in the final third (245). Still, on average, these numbers have actually diminished slightly since last season. 

Ndombele has created just over one chance per 90 minutes from open play in 2020-21, a drop of more than 0.5 since this stage of 2019-20. He has also slipped in successful passes in the opposition half per 90 minutes (29.6 from 32.4) and completed passes ending in the final third (13.4 from 15.3). His per-90 average for successful tackles and duels shows negligible change, so it's not as though he is being tasked with more defensive work at the expense of attacking abandon, either. 

Besides, few would argue Ndombele is not enjoying his best spell since his reported €62million switch from Lyon. As former Spurs midfielder Gustavo Poyet told Stats Perform News: "It looks like it was not a feeling of him being part of a [Jose] Mourinho team. It was like a conflict in there of ideas. 

"But it looks to me that this year, after pre-season, Ndombele understands his role perfectly, is playing in a more advanced position, and is really affecting the game in an incredible way." 

So, what is it that he's doing so well?

RUNNING RIOT

Put simply, he runs with the ball and makes things happen. 

Ndombele has attempted (56) and completed (41) take-ons, the most by any Spurs player this season. Indeed, Kane, who is second on that list, has only completed 26. Notably, 34 of Ndombele's completed take-ons have come in the opposition half, reflecting his advanced role. 

Mourinho appears to have identified Ndombele has a previously underused weapon – he was only sixth for attempted dribbles at this stage last season – and encouraged him to be bold.  

This season, Ndombele is third among Spurs players for ball carries – where a player moves five metres or more in possession – on 174, but 21 of those instances have ended in a take-on, which is seven more than any team-mate. Similarly, five carries have ended in a chance created, a figure bettered only by Son (eight) and Kane (10). 

Ndombele has managed not only to win back the trust of one of the world's most demanding coaches, he has done it by filling a role vacated by Christian Eriksen and the out-of-favour Alli and developed it in his own style. Little wonder Poyet believes he is helping Spurs "go to another level". 

The Uruguayan says, in all likelihood: "Mourinho was trying to convince him [Ndombele] last year about certain players getting [settled] very quickly and certain players need a little bit more time. 

"Because let's remember in that position we were used to seeing Eriksen or Dele Alli and now we see Ndombele most of the time, so it's a very good story and he could be a key player for them." 

Liverpool were stunned by Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield as they lost for the second home Premier League game in a row, while Manchester City stretched their winning streak at Burnley.

Having seen their 68-game unbeaten home league run ended by Burnley two weeks ago, the champions again came unstuck against an improving Brighton side.

Liverpool's next opponents are leaders City, who had less trouble seeing off Burnley as they made it 13 victories in a row in all competitions - the longest such run by a Premier League side since Arsenal between March and August 2002 (also 13).

There were also victories for Leicester City, Everton and West Ham on Wednesday, overcoming Fulham, Leeds United and Aston Villa respectively.

Here is the pick of the Opta facts on a day in which history was made as all five away sides triumphed.

Burnley 0-2 Manchester City: Jesus and Sterling keep winning run going

Twenty-four hours on from Manchester United's record-equalling 9-0 win against Southampton, City regained a three-point lead at the summit with a game in hand thanks to a routine victory at Turf Moor.

Gabriel Jesus scored for the third game in a row that he has started to give City an early lead and Raheem Sterling marked his recall to the starting line-up with his 99th goal under Pep Guardiola in all competitions.

Burnley offered little in response as they failed to register a single shot on target for the second game running, making them the first Premier League side to do so since Everton in January 2018.

It meant for a quiet day for City's defenders as they kept a sixth straight shutout in the competition - their joint-longest run without conceding - in what was a 12th successive victory in games played on a Wednesday, which is a Premier League record.

Burnley will be glad to see the back of City for another season having now lost to them by an aggregate 10-0 scoreline across their three meetings in all competitions this season, the other defeat coming in the EFL Cup.

Fulham 0-2 Leicester City: Maddison inspires Foxes to another away win

Kelechi Iheanacho's first Premier League goal in 15 appearances and a second strike of the season for James Justin earned Leicester all three points at Fulham.

James Maddison set up Iheanacho and Justin to take his goal involvement to 12 - six goals and as many assists - in his last 12 outings in all competitions, with this the first occasion he has laid on more than one goal in a Premier League match.

Leicester have now collected 26 points on their travels this season, which is already their second-highest tally in a campaign after their 2015-16 title success (39 points).

As for Fulham, they have now gone 11 games without a win in the Premier League and have lost their opening four home games of a calendar year in all competitions for the first time in their English Football League history.

Leeds United 1-2 Everton: Toffees earn rare Elland Road triumph

Everton made it four consecutive away league victories for the first time since December 1985 through first-half goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

This may just be the sweetest victory of the lot during that run, given it is only their second at Elland Road in the top flight in 38 attempts - the most recent before today coming in 2002.

It is the fifth home league match Leeds have lost in 10 games this term - the last time a Marcelo Bielsa side lost more at home in the league in a single season was Athletic Bilbao in the 2012-13 LaLiga campaign.

Sigurdsson put Everton on their way with another goal assisted by Lucas Digne - the sixth he has set up in the Premier League this season, which is the most by any defender. 

Only Liverpool pair Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson (both 28) have registered more than Digne's 17 assists since the start of the 2018-19 season.

Calvert-Lewin doubled his side's tally with his ninth headed goal in the Premier League since the start of last season - only Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski (12) has scored more in Europe's top five leagues over that period.

Aston Villa 1-3 West Ham: Lingard at the double on Hammers bow

Jesse Lingard marked his first appearance for West Ham since joining on loan from Manchester United with a couple of goals against Aston Villa.

The England international is only the second player for the club to achieve that two-goal debut feat after Trevor Sinclair against Everton in January 1998.

Lingard's double came after Tomas Soucek had given West Ham the lead with his eighth league goal of the season - the most of any midfielder when excluding penalties.

Ollie Watkins gave Villa temporary hope at 2-0 but the home side could not avoid a fourth defeat in their last six league matches, compared to only four losses in their opening 14.

David Moyes has plenty of reasons to be cheerful, having overseen three successive away wins in the competition for the first time since April 2014 when at Man United, with this latest victory taking West Ham to 38 points - their highest top-flight tally after 22 games since 1985-86.

Liverpool 0-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Alzate stuns stuns toothless champions

Liverpool's home struggles continued with defeat to Brighton, who picked up a victory in this fixture for the first time in 13 meetings in all competitions - and a first at Anfield since 1982.

The Merseyside club having now lost consecutive games at Anfield in the top flight for the first time since September 2012, having gone 68 without a home loss in the Premier League.

It is four Premier League games at Anfield without a win, meanwhile, the last three of those without scoring - the first time that has happened since October 1984 - in a goalless run spanning 348 minutes and counting.

Steven Alzate was the match-winning hero for Brighton with his first Premier League goal in his 28th appearance, coming from the first shot on target of the contest. 

Toothless Liverpool offered little in reply, testing opposition keeper Robert Sanchez just once as Brighton made it four top-flight clean sheets on the bounce for the first time in their history.

Do you believe in unlikelihoods?  

It's unclear how familiar Patrick Mahomes is with the underdog story of 'Average Joes' in the movie 'Dodgeball', but reflecting on his first three seasons as a starter in the NFL, it's fair to assume his answer to the question posed by fictitious ESPN anchor Cotton McKnight would be an emphatic yes. 

Since the Kansas City Chiefs installed Mahomes as the starter in 2018, he has turned achieving the unlikely into an art form. 

From a league MVP award in his first season, three double-digit playoff comebacks and a Super Bowl MVP in his second, Mahomes has defined himself as a quarterback for whom the seemingly impossible always appears well within his grasp.

On Sunday, he will attempt to become the first quarterback to win back-to-back Super Bowls since his Tampa Bay Buccaneers counterpart Tom Brady achieved the feat at the end of the 2004 season. 

It would be a fitting way to cap arguably the most remarkable three-season spell by any quarterback in NFL history, and here we examine the numbers behind his stratospheric rise.

Pre-draft concerns prove inaccurate

When Mahomes entered the NFL Draft, he was viewed as a prospect with phenomenal upside but one whose unorthodox, gunslinging style risked inefficiency and turnovers at the highest level. 

The Chiefs were undeterred by such concerns, however, taking a significant gamble in trading up from 27th in the first round to select the former Texas Tech standout with the 10th overall pick.

It is a move that has been overwhelmingly justified, with any doubts over his accuracy completely quashed.

Mahomes ranks first in completions all-time among quarterbacks in their first three full seasons (which is defined as a campaign where a quarterback attempts at least 100 passes). He has connected on 1,092 of his passes, doing so at a completion percentage of 66.1 that, using the same criteria, puts him sixth all-time. 

Only five quarterbacks have hit their team-mates more consistently in their first three full seasons, but there are none that have done a better job of avoiding turnovers and putting the ball in the end zone.

Prolific and protective of the ball

First in passing yards among quarterbacks in their first three full seasons with 13,868, Mahomes also leads the way in touchdown passes. 

He has 114 TD throws through the air while being intercepted on just 23 occasions during that same span. That disparity gives him the all-time lead with a touchdown to interception ratio of 4.96.

What is even more impressive is that Mahomes has largely succeeded in taking care of the ball despite being very aggressive in pushing it downfield. 

His yards per attempt average of 8.39 is fifth all-time among signal-callers in their first three full seasons, while for his career he is the all-time leader in adjusted net yards per attempt (8.49). 

The combination of Mahomes' high yards per attempt, impressive completion percentage and unmatched TD-INT ratio has left him without an equal in the most widely used measure of quarterback performance.

Unprecedented early success

Passer rating is viewed by many as an imperfect metric when it comes to analysing quarterbacks, but the fact Mahomes is the all-time leader with a rating of 109.3 across his first three full seasons is illustrative of the utter dominance he has enjoyed to this point. 

Mahomes also boasts the highest career passer rating in the regular season (108.7) and the postseason (109.8) and it is his incredible level of performance in the playoffs that has ensured he will be the first quarterback in the NFL to start multiple Super Bowls aged 25 or younger. 

Should the Chiefs prevail, the 25-year-old will break Brady's record and become the youngest starting quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls, Brady having claimed his second at the age of 26. 

It was a scenario few envisaged when he left Texas Tech, but the Chiefs had the foresight to understand he was a talent that could elevate them to the league's elite.

The devastating impact and speed with which he did so was what took the league by surprise, yet few are now shocked by the exploits of a player who makes the amazing look startlingly routine. 

There is perhaps no greater sign of the aura Mahomes has quickly established than the fact he and the Chiefs are favoured to deny the man regarded as the greatest quarterback ever a seventh Lombardi Trophy. 

Super Bowl LV will not be an underdog story for Mahomes and there are unlikely to be many rubbing their eyes in disbelief on Sunday if, as he has done so often, he delivers yet another tale of the unexpected.

Manchester United matched their own record for the biggest home win in Premier League history as Southampton suffered the unprecedented ignominy of 9-0 defeats in consecutive seasons.

Ralph Hasenhuttl's men saw their outing at Old Trafford unravel from the moment Alexandre Jankewitz was shown a second-minute red card for an ugly lunge on Scott McTominay.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka began the rout and efforts from Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani either side of a Jan Bednarek own goal made it 4-0 at half-time.

Anthony Martial and McTominay made it 6-0 inside the final 20 minutes before a Bruno Fernandes penalty, Martial's second and a closing goal from Daniel James left Southampton – who also saw Bednarek sent off – in an unsightly heap.

From nine goals to nine men, Arsenal had David Luiz and Bernd Leno dismissed as they lost 2-1 at Wolves.

That scoreline was repeated in victories for Sheffield United and Crystal Palace that could have repercussions at the bottom of the table.

Manchester United 9-0 Southampton: Record-equalling joy and despair at Old Trafford

James' goal deep into stoppage time meant United won 9-0 for the first time since thrashing Ipswich Town in March 1995. It is only the third instance of this scoreline in the Premier League, following Southampton's thrashing on home turf against Leicester City in October 2019.

This fixture is not always anything like as kind to United. In fact, they have won home and away against Saints for the first time since 2012-13 – the last time they lifted the title.

Southampton's fourth consecutive Premier League defeat is also their biggest ever away loss in any competition.

United's efforts to share the goals around, with only Martial hitting a brace, means they are the second side to have seven different scorers in a Premier League match following Chelsea against Aston Villa in December 2012.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seen his side utterly transform their home performances. They won only one of six at Old Trafford at the start of this league season, scoring three times. A run of four wins out of five, with one defeat, has yielded 19 goals.

The late flurry was aided by Bednarek adding a red card to his own goal, while it could have been so different were it not for Jankewitz's rash tackle. The teenager is the first player to be sent off on his first Premier League start since Serge Aurier for Tottenham in September 2017 and the fourth man to be dismissed inside two minutes in a Premier League game.

Wolves 2-1 Arsenal: David Luiz and Leno leave Arteta's men short

Arsenal took a deserved lead at Molineux through Nicolas Pepe, who now has three goals in his past four league starts – as many as he managed on his previous 16 starts.

Mikel Arteta says he will appeal David Luiz's punishment but the Brazilian defender's foul on Willian Jose means he has been sent off three times and conceded six penalties since his Arsenal debut in August 2019, more than any other player in the division during that time.

Ruben Neves converted from the spot before fellow Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho hammered in a fabulous 30-yard effort. Very much a collectors' item, it was the first home goal of his Wolves career at the 61st attempt.

When Leno charged from his area to handball in a wretched misjudgement, Wolves' first league double over Arsenal since 1978-79 was virtually assured and the Germany international became the second Gunners keeper to be sent off in the Premier League – and the first since David Seaman against West Ham back in 1993.

Whether largely down to indiscipline or misfortune, Arsenal have been shown nine red cards since Arteta took charge on Boxing Day 2019 – six more than any other side.

Sheffield United 2-1 West Brom: Blades sharpen survival chances

Bottom club Sheffield United are now just a point behind West Brom in 19th, even though they fell behind to Matt Phillips' close-range finish before half-time.

Phillips has now found the net in each of the past 13 seasons in English league football, a run that goes back to 2008-09.

Jayden Bogle brought the hosts level before captain Billy Sharp stepped up to net another crucial goal.

Since Chris Wilder's first game in charge of United in August 2016, Sharp has scored 76 goals in all competitions – 44 more than any other Blades player during that period.

Sam Allardyce's much-vaunted reputation for making his teams hard to beat is not doing West Brom much good at the moment. The Baggies have conceded 26 goals in nine Premier League games under the ex-England boss, as many as they let in during 13 matches under Slaven Bilic this term.

Newcastle United 1-2 Crystal Palace: Eagles soar clear of trouble

Newcastle remain eight points above the drop zone but are now seven shy of Palace, despite enjoying a dream start.

Jonjo Shelvey's long-ranger after 71 seconds was the quickest goal the Eagles have conceded in a Premier League match since Ian Taylor scored for Aston Villa inside a minute in March 1998.

Roy Hodgson's side had not won away from home after conceding first since overcoming West Ham in October 2019, drawing two and losing 12 of such games since.

But Jairo Riedewald's venomous hit saw them level in style as he ended a run of 13 games without a goal in the Premier League.

Gary Cahill then became Crystal Palace's oldest ever goalscorer in the Premier League at 35 years and 45 days. He is also the oldest Englishman to score in the Premier League at St James' Park since Alan Shearer last did so.

Poor, poor Southampton.

For all the progress Ralph Hasenhuttl has made since their October 2019 mauling at the hands of Leicester City, here they are again. 9-0. Again.

Manchester United made hay at Old Trafford, reigniting their Premier League title bid by equalling the competition's all-time largest winning margin - the second time the 20-time English champions have accomplished the feat, albeit with a near 26-year gap.

Saints' teenage debutant Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off in the second minute and it got unimaginably worse or implausibly better from there, depending on your point of view.

Here, we look back at the times one-sided encounters in England's top flight have spun wildly out of control.

Manchester United 9-0 Southampton - February 2, 2021

After Jankewitz was dismissed for a shocking studs-up lunge on Scott McTominay, Hasenhuttl perhaps should have checked the date and feared the worst. February 2 is Groundhog Day. Aaron Wan-Bissaka got United off and running in the 18th minute, with Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani more familiar sights on the scoresheet either side of a Jan Bednarek own goal. Anthony Martial came on at half-time, but even after he scored in the 69th minute and McTominay did shortly afterwards, the game could have meandered towards a conclusion. Instead, the roof fell in on Southampton as they crumpled entirely under late strikes from Martial and Dan James after a Bruno Fernandes penalty and a red card for Bednarek.

Southampton 0-9 Leicester City – October 25, 2019

Ryan Bertrand - one of seven Southampton players to feature in both 9-0s - was the Jankewitz of the piece as he was sent off for a challenge in the build-up to Ben Chilwell's 10th-minute opener. Youri Tielemans was granted ample room to double the lead, then Ayoze Perez began romping towards a hat-trick that he completed a minute before Jamie Vardy's headed second made it 7-0 in the 58th minute. A James Maddison free-kick and a Vardy penalty took this defeat into uncharted territory for a home side in the Premier League.

Manchester United 9-0 Ipswich Town – March 4, 1995

For nearly a quarter of a century, Alex Ferguson's United were out there on their own. Andy Cole scored five after Roy Keane began this rout in the 15th minute. Mark Hughes hit a quickfire second-half double and Paul Ince also got in on the act. Peter Schmeichel watched it all unfold from the other end, just as his son Kasper did in goal for Leicester at St Mary's all those years later.

Tottenham 9-1 Wigan Athletic – November 22, 2009

Wigan had a slither of hope when Paul Scharner pulled a goal back to make it 3-1 before the hour at White Hart Lane. Ultimately, the only significance of that strike was to keep them off the top of this list. Jermain Defoe did his best Cole impression, rattling in five goals from the 51st minute onwards, while Aaron Lennon, David Bentley and Nico Kranjcar piled on the pain. Remarkably, Peter Crouch's ninth-minute header was the only goal of the 10 scored before half-time.

That same season, Wigan lost 8-0 at Chelsea, who beat Aston Villa by the same margin at Stamford Bridge two years later. Newcastle United claimed the division's first 8-0 scoreline at the expense of Sheffield Wednesday in 1999, with Alan Shearer scoring five.

Southampton 8-0 Sunderland – October 18, 2014

The St Mary's faithful at least know what it feels like to be on the joyous end of what they have endured in the past two seasons. The boot was definitely on the other foot here, although what exactly Sunderland defender Santiago Vergini and his boots were trying to achieve when he inexplicably walloped into his own net after 12 minutes remains anyone's guess. Graziano Pelle scored the first of a double six minutes later. Jack Cork, Dusan Tadic and Victor Wanyama also netted, with Patrick van Aanholt and Liam Bridcutt joining Vergini in putting through their own goal.

Manchester City 8-0 Watford – September 21, 2019

When City raced into a 5-0 lead inside 18 minutes against Watford last season, double figures looked to be on the cards for the first time in the Premier League era. David Silva netted from close range inside a minute, with Riyad Mahrez winning a penalty for Sergio Aguero before scoring himself. Bernardo Silva opened his tally on the way to a hat-trick, with Nicolas Otamendi a more unlikely first-half goalscorer. Kevin De Bruyne masterfully orchestrated the destruction of a side City demolished 6-0 four months earlier in the FA Cup final and wrapped up the scoring with an emphatic strike into the top corner.

Nottingham Forest 1 Manchester United 8 – February 6, 1999

The biggest away win the Premier League had seen until Leicester went about their savagery. This seemed fairly standard stuff for Alex Ferguson's majestic treble-winning side as Dwight Yorke and Cole both scored twice against an overmatched Forest, who would finish the season bottom of the table. Standard, that was, until Ole Gunnar Solskjaer emerged from the bench and pilfered four goals in the final 11 minutes at the City Ground. Apparently, he has passed on the wisdom of targeting flurries of late goals against bedraggled opponents.

It's the man who has defined the last two decades in the NFL versus the man most likely to cast a considerable shadow over the 2020s in Super Bowl LV: Tom Brady will look to add to his remarkable legacy against a quarterback well placed to live up to it in Patrick Mahomes.

There are, of course, several other subplots to consider in the first Super Bowl to see a team play in its home stadium. Yet the overriding narrative in Sunday's matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium surrounds the two men under center and the significant contrast between them.

At 43, Brady is the man who continues to defy the odds, casting himself free from the shackles of the Patriots' talent-starved offense to find new life with Tampa, proving he can still methodically dissect defenses and, when necessary, hit members of his star-studded cast of receivers with the deep pass.

It is Mahomes, however, who will be expected to provide the explosiveness in this battle of old versus still relatively new. Like Brady, Mahomes can carve teams up from the pocket, but what makes him so difficult to defend is his ability to connect on otherworldly passes when throwing off-platform and when on the run, taking a flair for improvisation to levels never before seen in the NFL.

The stage is set for a fascinating battle between two players who have each left indelible marks on the game, but how do their numbers stack up? Ahead of a potentially captivating end to a season like no other, we compared the data on the two men who will be centre stage as the destination of the Lombardi Trophy is decided.

Brady's wide lead

Given his significantly greater experience, his scarcely believable longevity and unparalleled success, it is no surprise that the counting stats overwhelmingly favour Brady.

Brady has 47 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in the regular season compared to seven for Mahomes. In the postseason, Brady's advantage in that area is 14-1.

The New England Patriots legend has 33 playoff wins to seven for Mahomes, who should rapidly improve on that tally if his early career success continues.

Brady has racked up 44 touchdown throws of 50 yards or more, with Mahomes having put up 12 across his three regular seasons as a starter.

However, Mahomes already has half as many 400-yard regular-season games as the 10 Brady has in his career. He is a third of the way there in terms of drawing level in games with at least four touchdown passes, Mahomes having produced 11 such performances with Brady on 33.

And there are several other areas in which Mahomes has already closed the gap.

Mahomes' early-career magic

Illustrative of the incredibly high level of play Mahomes has reached and maintained during his time as a starter is his passer rating, which has never dipped below 105 in those three seasons. To put that into context, Brady has had a passer rating of 105 or above just four times in his career (2007, 2010, 2011, 2016).

Similarly, Mahomes has averaged at least eight yards per attempt in each of his years as a starter while Brady has achieved that feat only three occasions (2007, 2011, 2016).

Mahomes is level with Brady with two games of at least 450 passing yards and they also each have a pair of games with six touchdown passes.

Owing to his superior athleticism, Mahomes has surpassed Brady for playoff rushing yards. Brady has rushed for 135 yards in the postseason – his lack of a playoff touchdown on the ground perhaps surprising for arguably the greatest exponent of the quarterback sneak.

Mahomes has 173 yards on the ground in the playoffs and four touchdowns, including one in last year's Super Bowl LIV win over the San Francisco 49ers. He will undoubtedly be expected to have an impact as a runner on Sunday and it is clear where he has the advantage as a thrower.

Deep ball to close the gap?

It speaks to Mahomes' astonishing skill set that he is already established as one of the best downfield throwers in NFL history.

Looking at their respective air yards per attempt averages, there doesn't appear to be much to choose between Brady and Mahomes in aggressiveness in pushing the ball deep. Brady averages 8.25 air yards for his career, with Mahomes slightly ahead on 8.44.

The divide comes in a comparison of their success in going downfield.

Indeed, on passes of 20 air yards or more, Brady has a completion percentage of 32.6 per cent, those completions resulting in 14,206 yards, 116 touchdowns, 62 interceptions and a passer rating of 86.

In his short time in the league, Mahomes has connected on 41.6 per cent of such throws for 3,258 yards, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 109.6 passer rating.

Mahomes' superiority as a deep passer is further reflected by his and Brady's performance in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A), which is better used as a measure of overall team effectiveness in the passing game but is inflated by the long gains that have become a staple for the Chiefs with Mahomes under center.

Astoundingly, in his relatively short time as a starting quarterback, Mahomes has claimed the all-time lead in adjusted net yards per attempt among signal-callers with at least 1,500 throws. He has averaged 8.49 ANY/A in his career, with Aaron Rodgers (7.42) a distant second and Brady even further back on 7.10.

Mahomes' best season in the context of ANY/A was his MVP campaign of 2018 when he averaged 8.89 yards. In his decorated career, Brady only came close to matching that in 2007, when he put up 8.88 ANY/A as a record-breaking Patriots offense steamrolled its way to an unbeaten regular season.

Beyond that, Brady has only one other regular season that was superior to Mahomes' efforts in 2019 (8.38) and 2020 (8.33), which came in 2016 when he finished with 8.81 ANY/A en route to a fifth Super Bowl title.

Mahomes has yet to deliver a repeat effort as impressive as his 2018 campaign, but rarely has Brady succeeded in matching the downfield exploits of his counterpart.

A win away from becoming the first quarterback to claim back-to-back Super Bowls since Brady did so at the end of the 2004 season, Mahomes has a long way to go to replicate the achievements of the player whose six rings are the most in NFL history.

However, his evident advantage as a deep-ball thrower could be what makes the difference in Mahomes and Kansas City defeating the Bucs on their own turf and narrowing the gap for the quarterback viewed as the best bet to eventually knock Brady off the top of the mountain.

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