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.

The Los Angeles Rams' brass didn't say much when pressed on the future of Jared Goff in the wake of their season coming to an end in the Divisional Round.

They didn't need to. The brevity head coach Sean McVay and Les Snead displayed and their unwillingness to express confidence in Goff as the long-term starter at quarterback spoke volumes.

Indeed, their reluctance to offer vociferous support for the quarterback proved a harbinger of an offseason blockbuster, which was agreed with the final chapter of the 2020 NFL season still to be written in Tampa.

Los Angeles paid a steep price to move on from Goff, sending him to the Detroit Lions along with a third-round pick in this year's draft and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Matthew Stafford. The Rams have not made a first-round pick since selecting Goff in 2016 and, through this latest aggressive move, are not scheduled to do so until 2024.

It is a move made with the intention of realising the potential of a championship calibre offense that has too often operated with the handbrake applied during Goff's time with the team.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me," Goff told NFL.com of his trade to Detroit.

But were Goff's contributions underappreciated in Los Angeles? And will Stafford, himself one of the more underrated quarterbacks in football, unlock McVay's offense in a way Goff couldn't?

Goff prolific under McVay

There are raw numbers that would indicate Goff at least being Stafford's equal. 

Since McVay took over from Jeff Fisher in 2017, Goff has thrown 102 touchdowns, seven more than Stafford and 10th in the NFL in that span.

His yards per attempt average of 7.71 is also superior to Stafford over the past four seasons, albeit by a narrow margin, Stafford having gained 7.64 yards per pass in the same period.

In the 2018 season, when the Rams were defeated by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Goff was third in yards per attempt with 8.36 compared to Stafford's 6.81.

Only Patrick Mahomes (52) managed more passing plays of 25 yards or more than the 40 produced that year by Goff, who was third in the NFL in percentage of throws that went for a first down (41.5).

Yet those statistics must be looked at through the prism of him operating in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in football.

Set up for success

Though the two attacks have their differences, a useful way to judge Goff's performance in McVay's offense is to compare his performance to the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks in Kyle Shanahan's system.

Both offenses are based heavily on play-action and passing concepts designed to maximise their receivers' ability to pick up yardage after the catch.

The 2018 season, in which the 49ers played without starter Jimmy Garoppolo for 13 games, saw then third-stringer Nick Mullens feature for eight weeks of the season and average 8.31 yards per attempt.

That negligible difference between Goff and Mullens is reflective of the assistance schemes such as those of McVay and Shanahan give to quarterbacks.

Stafford has had no such help in recent times in Detroit and yet, over the last four seasons, he comes out as the superior signal-caller in a series of categories.

Stafford's downfield dynamism

While Stafford has been recognised as more of a gunslinger than Goff, he has done a superior job of taking care of the football.

Since 2017, Goff has a touchdown to interception ratio of 2.13, putting him 21st in the NFL. Stafford, meanwhile, is 12th with a TD-INT ratio of 2.64.

Stafford has also been the more accurate thrower in that timeframe, completing 65.2 per cent of his passes compared to 64.3 per cent for Goff, while his greater aggressiveness as a downfield thrower is reflected by their respective air yards per attempt averages across the past four seasons.

Goff has averaged 7.4 air yards per attempt, as opposed to 8.4 for Stafford, who has been substantially more successful when pushing the ball downfield.

Indeed, Stafford has completed 40.8 per cent of throws of 20 air yards or more since 2017, putting up 3,449 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 106.7.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to Goff, who has connected on 35.8 per cent of such passes for 2,639 yards, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3.

Stafford has also fared better in an area of the game this is pivotal to the Rams' offense under McVay.

Play-action production

Goff attempted 768 play-action passes during his time working under McVay, completing 65.1 per cent of them for 6,861 yards, 38 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating.

Those are excellent numbers but they are inferior to those of Stafford. In a smaller sample size of 470 play-action throws since 2017, Stafford has a completion percentage of 69.4, passing for 4,364 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 111.0.

Play-action is a tremendous tool for slowing down aggressive defenses and negating pressure, but the Rams can afford to have more confidence in Stafford's ability to handle pressure than they did with Goff.

Goff made his first NFL start in Week 11 of the 2016 season. Since then he has completed 46 per cent of his passes when under pressure - compared to 72.5 when the pocket is kept clean - for 4,907 yards, 26 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Over the same span, Stafford's completion percentage dropped to 51.7 when pressured as opposed to 70.8 from clean pockets. He threw for 4,777 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions when under duress, his passer rating of 65.6 well above Goff's 55.3.

There is no question Goff has previously flourished in McVay's offense. The numbers and the playoff wins speak to that, but the fact he ranks fifth in the NFL in yards after catch per reception (6.0) since 2017 is evidence of him being aided by a play-action heavy system that can keep pressure off him and puts the onus on receivers to make plays in the open field.

Stafford, who got an average of 5.5 YAC per reception in the last four seasons, has not enjoyed the perks of playing in one of the most innovative offenses in football, yet the data paints a clear picture of why the Rams made the trade.

He can add a downfield element to the passing game that has been sorely lacking with Goff and improve the Rams' play-action game while giving them the option of leaning more on straight dropback passes without as much fear of what will happen when the pocket breaks down.

Goff is worthy of credit and, yes, appreciation for his early success in McVay's scheme. However, in recent times he has drastically limited the ceiling of the Rams' offense. Stafford can remove those limits and help the Rams finally cash in after years of throwing their chips to the middle of the table.

Tottenham lost another battle on the same day as the Royal Rumble and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reached a Premier League landmark he will not be boasting about on Sunday.

Leandro Trossard scored the only goal of the game as Brighton and Hove Albion beat Spurs to ease their relegation fears, inflicting what looks like a finishing move on Jose Mourinho's side in the title race.

Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench for the 100th time in a top-flight game late in Liverpool's 3-1 victory at West Ham, while leaders Manchester City broke a record on Saturday.

With the help of Opta data, we take a look at some of the quirkiest stats from the Premier League action over the weekend.

 

Trossard wrestles the initiative

Tottenham made the journey to the south coast reeling from a painful midweek defeat to Liverpool in which they lost captain Harry Kane to injury.

Trossard delivered the knockout blow at the Amex Stadium, leaving Mourinho's men 11 points behind leaders City in sixth place.

Spurs fans who follow WWE may have been fearing the worst, as they have lost nine times when playing on the same day as the Royal Rumble was staged - more than any English league club.

Edge and Bianca Belair came out on top in the extravaganza at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida after Spurs were seemingly eliminated from the title race.

Sub century for Ox

Midfielder Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Divock Origi 10 minutes from time in the Reds' victory at previously in-form West Ham.

The former Arsenal man became the 15th player to make 100 top-flight appearances off the bench.

Peter Crouch (158) did so on the most occasions, with Oxlade-Chamberlain's team-mate James Milner (154) second on the list and Jermain Defoe (149) completing the top three.

Happy new year for irrepressible City

City extended their winning streak to 12 matches at the expense of bottom side Sheffield United on Saturday, Gabriel Jesus scoring the only goal of the game.

Pep Guardiola's side will take some stopping in their bid to regain the title, as they lead neighbours Manchester United by three points with a game in hand.

That early strike from Jesus made it nine wins out of nine for City in January, more than any side has achieved in a calendar month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.

Shot-shy Clarets

Chelsea eased to their first win under Thomas Tuchel on Sunday, seeing off Burnley 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.

The Clarets arrived in London on a three-match winning run, including a shock 1-0 triumph at Anfield and a 3-2 thriller against Aston Villa.

Sean Dyche's men barely laid a glove on Chelsea, though, and went the longest any side has gone without an attempt at goal in the Premier League this season.

They looked set to become the first team not to have an attempt in a game since Bournemouth against Manchester City in March 2019 until James Tarkowski's header in stoppage time. Better late than never? Dyche might not see it that way.

The eye-watering wages Lionel Messi is being paid by Barcelona have been leaked by El Mundo.

The lucrative contract signed by the Argentina international in November 2017, which is set to expire this year, was said to potentially be worth more than €555million.

According to the Spanish newspaper, that includes annual earnings in excess of €138m - dependent on some variables - as well as a renewal fee of over €115m and a loyalty bonus just shy of €78m.

The report says Messi has earned €29.8m of the €73.5m up for grabs in incentives, making the deal ultimately worth €511.5m to the superstar striker.

That would make the 33-year-old the world's best-paid athlete, seeing him bring in around five times the amount NBA great LeBron James makes.

But against a backdrop of financial woes, with Barca's accounts for 2019-20 showing a gross debt of €820m, have the Catalan giants really got value for their money?

We take a closer look at the figures involved behind the deal and provide a breakdown of Messi's worth to the side.

STRIKING IT RICH

Messi's contract renewal was made official on November 25, 2017, six months after reports emerged of the forward having turned down the club's initial offer.

At that point in his career, he had scored 523 goals in 602 appearances for the Catalans in all competitions - a staggering scoring rate that saw him break a number of records.

The Argentinian has continued to feature regularly for Barca since then, playing 152 times in all competitions.

That totals 12,678 minutes of playing time overall which, using the €511,540,548 figure Messi has received, equates to €40,349 per minute across that period - although this will decrease slightly by June as he continues to play.

The Barca number 10 has scored 126 goals in all competitions - 94 in LaLiga, 21 in the Champions League, 10 in the Copa del Rey and one in the Supercopa de Espana.

Using those same reported figures, Messi has therefore been paid €4,059,846 for every goal he has netted since putting pen to paper on his latest contract.

SCORING FIGURES DECLINING

Barcelona have not exactly enjoyed their greatest period on the field during that time, winning just four trophies - LaLiga twice and the Copa and Supercopa once apiece.

No player in LaLiga has scored (94) or assisted (45) more goals since November 2017 than Messi, while the 277 chances he has created is also a competition-high.

However, the one-club man's goalscoring figures have dropped off over the past two seasons.

Messi scored 36 league goals in 2018-19, two more than the previous campaign, compared to 25 last season and 11 in 17 games so far this term.

In terms of assists, he has just two this campaign, which is a huge decline on the 21 supplied last time out - a LaLiga record, surpassing Xavi's 20 in 2008-09.

IMPORTANCE DIMINISHING?

Coach Ronald Koeman has not been afraid to leave Messi out of his starting line-up on occasion this season and the statistics appear to show his importance to the team is dwindling.

Going back to 2017-18, the season in which the forward signed his lucrative deal, Barca's win rate in the league dropped from 81.2 per cent with Messi in the XI to 33.3 per cent without.

That is in stark contrast to the current campaign, in which Koeman's men actually have a better win rate without Messi in their starting line-up, albeit over a smaller number of games.

Barca have won 56.2 per cent of the 16 LaLiga games Messi has started this term, compared to 66.7 per cent of the three games in which he has not featured from the outset. They have not lost any of the matches Messi has missed.

Manchester City extended their lead at the Premier League summit with a 1-0 win over struggling Sheffield United on Saturday. 

Pep Guardiola's side started the day one point ahead of rivals Manchester United, but finished it three ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's outfit after they were held to a disappointing, if record breaking, 0-0 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. 

Newcastle United turned around their woeful recent form with a 2-0 win at Everton, while Aston Villa won away at Southampton. 

Crystal Palace edged past Wolves 1-0 at Selhurst Park, while strugglers West Brom and Fulham played out an entertaining 2-2 draw. 

Here is the pick of the Opta facts from the day's action in the Premier League.

Manchester City 1-0 Sheffield United: Guardiola's men keep on winning

An early goal from Gabriel Jesus helped City set a new club record of 12 consecutive wins in all competitions.

It is also the longest winning run by a Premier League team since Arsenal racked up 12 in a row between August and October 2007. 

The slender win was also their ninth triumph in January, the most they have ever won in a single month in their history. Indeed, it is the most wins by a team in the top four tiers of English football in a single month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.

The result also means City have kept 20 clean sheets in all competitions this season, which is at least five more than any other side in the top-five European leagues. 

After their shock midweek win at Manchester United, this was a case of normal service resumed for the rock-bottom Blades. 

They have now lost 20 of their last 24 Premier League matches - seven more than any other side in the same period - and have been on the end of eight 1-0 defeats this season. That is the joint-most ever by a side at this stage (21 games) of a top-flight season, along with Ipswich Town in 1985-86.

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United: Record-breaking stalemate for United

They did not come away from London with all three points, but United can at least toast an 18th consecutive away match in the Premier League without defeat – their longest run without a loss in their illustrious top-flight history.

While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side created the best opportunities, they failed to find the back of the net for a third consecutive league match against Arsenal. The last time they went that long without scoring against the Gunners was between September 1981 and May 1983 when they went four games without a goal.

The result means Solskjaer has now failed to win any of his five Premier League games against Arsenal, with the Norwegian the only Red Devils manager to face the north London side more than once in the top flight without winning a game.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have now kept four consecutive home clean sheets in all competitions for the first time since April 2019.

The draw means Mikel Arteta's side are unbeaten in their past six league games against United – their longest run against the Red Devils in league competition since between October 1980 and May 1983 (also six).

Everton 0-2 Newcastle United: Toffees downed by a familiar foe

Steve Bruce relieved some of the intense pressure he had been under as Newcastle ended an 11-game winless run in all competitions with victory at Goodison Park.

It was no surprise that Callum Wilson was the inspiration behind the win, the England international's brace means he has now been involved in 67 per cent of the Magpies' 21 Premier League goals this season (10 goals, four assists).

His first goal was his 50th in the Premier League, while he has only scored more against West Ham (eight) in the competition than he has versus Everton (six).

The Toffees, meanwhile, have now been defeated in four home league games this season. That is the most Carlo Ancelotti has lost in a single campaign since the 2007-08 campaign with Milan, when he was also beaten four times.

Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson made his 300th Premier League appearance in the defeat to become the second Icelandic player to reach the milestone after Hermann Hreidarsson (332).

Southampton 0-1 Aston Villa: Grealish and Barkley combine to overcome Saints

Villa secured a first win over Southampton in the Premier League since December 2013 thanks to Ross Barkley's first-half goal, laid on by the superb Jack Grealish.

Grealish has now been involved in 15 league goals (six goals, nine assists) in a single season for the first time, eclipsing his tally of last term when he scored eight goals and created six for his team-mates.

Only Harry Kane (11) and Kevin De Bruyne (10) have more assists than Grealish this season, while the last Villa player to register more in a single season in the competition was Ashley Young with 10 in 2010-11.

Dean Smith's side were also indebted to another clean sheet from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, whose 10th shutout of the campaign is only bettered by City's Ederson (12).

Defeat for Southampton means they have lost three consecutive top-flight matches for the first time since November 2019, while they have also failed to score in five of their past seven Premier League games - they had only drawn a blank in five of their previous 41 in the competition before this.

Marcus Rashford took just too long with his one big chance against Arsenal.

By the time he had controlled Luke Shaw's cross and turned back behind Cedric Soares, goalkeeper Bernd Leno had closed his route to goal. Rashford turned, played it backwards, and the danger was gone.

That first-half moment and a later shot blasted into the side-netting were the sum total of Rashford's threatening moments in Saturday's goalless Premier League draw at the Emirates Stadium, the third game in United's previous four that they have failed to win.

Like the 0-0 draw at Liverpool two weeks ago, there was a feeling United should have done much more to exploit their opponents' vulnerable state, with Mikel Arteta unable to call upon Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his three most likely match-winners.

Like that stalemate at Anfield, Rashford failed to score, assist a goal or create a chance. Indeed, his assist for Paul Pogba's winning volley at Burnley is the only time Rashford has been directly involved in a goal in his past six league games. It's the longest time he has gone without a top-flight goal this season. The England forward has managed just one shot in target in his past five league games, so this is not just a case of an unfortunate dry spell against heroic goalkeeping.

Of course, Rashford scored one and set up another in the 3-2 FA Cup win over Jurgen Klopp's side, but that was a short reprieve from his recent rut. In league football lately, he has been reflective of Red Devils performances: sluggish, uninspired, inadequate.

Rashford is not alone in having lost his spark. A generally tepid encounter at the Emirates, reminiscent of past battles between these teams in name only, was another in which Bruno Fernandes could not influence the attack, where Edinson Cavani had three touches in the Arsenal penalty area and Luke Shaw, with three chances created, was the visitors' most enterprising attacking outlet.

While he attempted eight dribbles, the most he has tried in a league game since the win over Aston Villa on January 1, two of them were rather desperate runs through the middle of an Arsenal defensive pair, with little apparent forethought. Perhaps he thought too much when it came to distribution: for the second time in three league outings, he played one pass into the opposition penalty area. He has not found a team-mate with a cross since the 3-2 win at Southampton on November 29.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Rashford with Mason Greenwood 10 minutes from time, and he seemed neither put out nor relieved to be given a break. He was simply... there, just on the other side of the touchline.

The United manager might be pleased with a second successive away game against a big-six side in which they have neither lost nor conceded a goal, helping them to a club-record 18-match unbeaten run on their travels. As with the Liverpool trip, they also had a clear chance to win, Cavani's late, twisting volley just missing the bottom-right corner of Bernd Leno's net.

Yet they have taken only one point from games against bottom-club Sheffield United and eighth-place Arsenal in a week in which Manchester City have opened up a three-point gap at the top of the table, with a game in hand. They've also failed to score a goal in five league games in a row against that big-six contingent.

Their title aspirations are beginning to look like Rashford's recent use of a football: worryingly misplaced.

Manchester United's 2-1 defeat at home to rock-bottom Sheffield United provided a stark warning to any Red Devils players who were potentially starting to believe the hype, but Saturday offers the chance to bounce back against an old rival and make club history.

In years gone by, United against Arsenal was arguably the most anticipated fixture in the Premier League calendar – two teams stacked with talent and fierce competitors, and led by two managerial greats.

While the outlook is perhaps a little different now to what it was at the height of the Arsene Wenger-Alex Ferguson rivalry, United head to Emirates Stadium aiming to break a record set by 'Fergie's' greatest team.

Earlier this month, United's 2-1 win at Fulham extended their unbeaten Premier League away run to 17, levelling a club record.

While the 2-1 loss to the Blades at Old Trafford might have dented the confidence of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, the data doesn't lie – they are at home on the road, so to speak, and another point will prove momentous.

EMULATING THE TREBLE WINNERS

Ferguson's famous treble-winning side is the United team that set the club record of 17 away Premier League games unbeaten.

United's run started on December 5 and lasted until the following September, therefore playing a major role in the Red Devils securing the Premier League title ahead of Arsenal, pipping Wenger's men to the crown by a point.

They scored 34 goals and claimed nine wins in those 17 games, conceding 16.

Statistically United's existing run is already an improvement on that of the 1998-99 team, as the current crop have scored 38, conceded just 14 and won 13 before going to Arsenal.

But even if they ultimately fall at the final hurdle this weekend, they can perhaps take solace in the fact no other post-Ferguson United side registers in the top seven for the club's all-time top-flight unbeaten away streaks.

Whether or not this run would have occurred if fans were in the stadiums is another matter, but it's unquestionable that progress is being made at Old Trafford – or, you know, away from Old Trafford...

RESILIENT REDS

A key factor in United's impressive run has been the character and resilience shown by them.

They have rescued 21 points from losing positions on the road in 2020-21, which is already a record for a single Premier League season, bettering the 17 accumulated by Aston Villa (1993-94) and Newcastle United (2001-02). The previous best posted by United was 16 in 2002-03.

Certainly, the pick of United's away comebacks this season was the 3-2 win at Southampton on November 29, as they fell 2-0 down before Edinson Cavani inspired a brilliant turnaround with two goals and an assist off the bench.

To give an idea of just how anomalous United's record is this term, Liverpool have recovered the second most amount of points from losing positions – 10, but that accounts for home and away.

Solskjaer's side are yet to win a point from behind at Old Trafford in 2020-21.

A WAYS TO GO

As laudable as United's away form is, they are still some way off matching the Premier League's all-time record, however.

Arsenal's 'Invincibles' hold that honour, having gone 27 matches unbeaten away from home in the top flight.

That stretched from April 2003 to September 2004, spanning well over a full season as they comfortably beat the 23-game record they themselves set between August 2001 and September 2002.

The closest any team has got to either streak is Liverpool, who between January 2019 and February 2020 went 21 away games without defeat before they suffered a shock 3-0 loss at Watford.

The Los Angeles Lakers will aim to rebound from back-to-back defeats when they face the Boston Celtics in the latest chapter of a storied NBA rivalry.  

A narrow 107-106 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers was followed by a surprise 107-92 setback against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday, so the Lakers – who lost consecutive games for the first time this season – will need to improve to walk away from TD Garden with a W in the sixth of seven straight road games.  

No teams have faced off in the Finals more than the 12 contested by the Lakers and the Celtics, who are tied for the most NBA championships of all time with 17 apiece.  

The Celtics are now 10-7 in a season that has been affected by COVID-19 issues after going down 110-106 to the San Antonio Spurs in their previous outing.

KEY PERFORMERS

Jaylen Brown

Much of the scoring burden for the Celtics this season is landing on Brown, whose 27.1 points per game ranks him inside the top 10 in the league.  

That average bumps up to 29.7 for games played at the Garden this season and he will certainly aim to make the most of home-court advantage against LeBron James and a star-studded Lakers cast.  

No one on the Celtics roster has a better three-point percentage (44.1) than Brown, plus you can add in averages of 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists during an impressive campaign so far for the 24-year-old.

LeBron James

Most players by the age of 36 are thinking about winding down in the twilight of their careers, yet James has proven throughout his distinguished playing days he is no ordinary individual. 

He leads the Lakers for both points (25.5) and assists (7.5), while he is shooting at 41.7 per cent from beyond the arc – well above his career average of 34.6 per cent. 

With Anthony Davis potentially missing again due to a right quad injury, the Lakers will need their talisman firing on all cylinders.

KEY BATTLE: CAN TATUM GO TOE-TO-TOE WITH LEBRON?

The last time these teams went head-to-head was back in February 2020, the Lakers coming out narrow 114-112 victors on that occasion. 

Following the game, James took to Instagram to give a huge endorsement to Jayson Tatum, writing: "That boi to the left of me is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM!! Keep going #YoungKing." 

Tatum had put up 41 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in a mammoth outing, though James' enduring quality was on display with a brilliant fadeaway in the closing minutes putting the Lakers into a lead they would not relinquish (James had 29 points, nine assists and eight rebounds). 

An offensive foul on what would have been a match-winning three from Tatum ended a fierce battle and the prospect of these two going head-to-head again is an exciting one.

HEAD TO HEAD

A rivalry that dates all the way back to 1948, the Celtics lead the regular season head-to-head between these heavyweights by 161-131. 

When you throw in playoff clashes, the Celtics lead the way at 204-162, while they also edge the past 10 encounters between the teams at 6-4. 

J.T. Realmuto is getting paid.

Arguably the best all-round catcher in MLB, Realmuto has signed a lucrative five-year contract to remain with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Realmuto's new deal is reportedly worth $115.5million, which sets a record average annual value for a catcher at $23.1m per season – eclipsing Joe Mauer's $23m per season for the Minnesota Twins (2011-18).

The 29-year-old – just the third catcher in league history to sign a contract in excess of $100m – is also the first catcher to sign a deal worth more than $100m in free agency after being acquired from the Miami Marlins in a four-player trade two years ago.

The Phillies, who also boast former National League (NL) MVP Bryce Harper, have locked up a two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner as their future becomes clearer.

We take a look at the numbers behind Realmuto using Stats Perform data as the playoff-chasing Phillies eye an upturn in fortunes in 2021.

 

One of MLB's finest

While big-hitting Harper dominates the headlines, Realmuto is arguably Philadelphia's most important player.

Over the last two seasons, the Phillies have won 52.8 per cent (94-84) of their games with Realmuto in the line-up, while they are just 34.1 per cent (15-29) in his absence.

The Phillies average 5.22 runs per game when Realmuto takes to the field compared to 3.43 if he has been rested or sidelined.

Since joining the Phillies in 2019, Realmuto ranks first in a number of categories among catchers – RBI (115), slugging percentage (.492), hits (194), runs (125), doubles (42) and stolen bases (13), while he is equal second for home runs (36).

Realmuto found a home in Philadelphia's number four spot last season. His 11 home runs out of the fourth position ranked second only to the Cincinnati Reds' Eugenio Suarez (13) among clean-up hitters, while his 31 RBIs were third.

Behind the plate, Realmuto has thrown out 41 runners trying to steal over the past two seasons – 14 more than any other catcher.

As a percentage, he has thrown out 39.0 percent of runners attempting to steal since joining the Phillies, second best among those with at least 100 games caught since 2019 (Roberto Perez, 45.0 percent).

Realmuto is one of three Phillies catchers to win a Gold Glove (2019), along with Bob Boone (1978 and 1979) and Mike Lieberthal (1999).

He has 95 home runs and 44 stolen bases in his 732 career games. The only other catcher in MLB history to have at least 90 homers and 40 steals within his first 750 career games was Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk.

Realmuto has proven his durability and defensive skills since his first full season in 2015. He ranks second in MLB with 5615.1 innings caught (behind Yadier Molina) and also ranks second in runners thrown out stealing with 113 (behind Jonathan Lucroy).

 

Playoffs overdue for Realmuto and Phillies

For all of Realmuto's impressive numbers, there is one glaring absence.

Realmuto has never played in the postseason; his 732 career games are the most by any active catcher who has never featured in the playoffs.

It comes as two-time World Series winners the Phillies try to emerge from the postseason wilderness.

The Phillies reigned supreme in 1980 and 2008, but Philadelphia have not made the playoffs or finished a season with a winning record since going 102-60 in 2011 – Joe Girardi's men ended the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign 28-32.

Winners of seven NL pennants, Philadelphia have gone nine consecutive seasons without a playoff berth – only second to the Seattle Mariners (19) for the longest active drought in MLB.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, have the most successive campaigns finishing .500 or worse, a run of nine putting them ahead of the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels (both five).

There was huge adversity in the early stages of Yeferson Soteldo's career.

He grew up in the underprivileged neighbourhood of El Muertico in the city of Acarigua, where he claims an early grave was the likely alternative to a career in professional football, and although he gained a spot in the academy of Caracas – Venezuela's most successful club – he was thrown out aged 14 for "indiscipline".

Furthermore, there were huge question marks over his physical capability to make it as a pro – now 23, he only stands at five feet and two inches tall.

But Venezuela's most-decorated coach Noel Sanvicente gave him a second chance at Zamora and put him on the path to Saturday's Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Palmeiras at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.  

In Messi's footsteps

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is an obvious inspiration for a number of players, but Soteldo felt a stronger connection than most to the Barcelona superstar as he worked his way through spells with Zamora, Huachipato and Universidad de Chile before ending up at Santos in 2019.

"Everyone was talking about my height, that I was not going to be able to play football because of my size, because I was very small. Now I'm here, I got over it," Soteldo told the official Libertadores website.

"That's for the young ones who are little too. They can see Soteldo and say, 'I can too.' I did that with Messi. I saw he was small, that he made it and I can too."

Since his arrival in the Campeonato Brasileiro, it is not just his short stature and bleached blond hair that have made him stand out on the pitch.

Soteldo has established himself as one of the league's most potent wingers, his low centre of gravity, incredible pace and quick feet making him a serious threat when in possession out wide.

It is no surprise he has attempted more dribbles (308) than anyone else since the start of the 2019 Brasileiro, but it is what he does in those moments that makes him dangerous.

Soteldo averages a carry with a shot every other game (0.6) in Brazil's top flight and creates a chance following a carry at least once per 90 minutes (1.1) – a league-leading amount among players to have featured for at least 1,800 minutes over the past two seasons.

That ability has seen him directly set up five goals and score three following a carry, accounting for over one third of his 22 goal involvements (13 scored, nine assisted) in the competition.

It is tough for defenders to stop him and he is unrelenting. Per 90 minutes, he averages 5.3 carries of at least 10 metres and 3.8 carries with a take on – the latter being the most among active players in the division.

Stepping up

He has managed to translate that form to the Libertadores this season, with only Carlos Tevez (30) and Nicolas de la Cruz (31) supplying more key passes than Soteldo (28) in the competition.

However, Soteldo has played one game fewer and averages three chances created per game, so would be expected to move level with De la Cruz after the final.

Carries have again formed a key part of the Venezuelan's output, with 11 of his key passes coming after a carry – three more than any other player – though only one has resulted in an assist.

This does not mean Soteldo is consistently involved, though. In this season's Libertadores he has 22 direct chance involvements, where his only contribution in those open play sequences was to create the chance. No player in the competition has more direct chance involvements and it shows the 23-year-old is always capable of popping up with a killer ball.

The next step

Life at the Vila Belmiro has not been a walk in the park for Soteldo.

Santos accepted a transfer bid from Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal last October but Soteldo opted against the move because of his desire to play in Europe.

The Brazilian side were only keen to sell to avoid a punishment from FIFA over fees owed to Huachipato following his arrival at the club, with a financial crisis making his future look increasingly uncertain.

In South America's biggest club game, at one of the continent's most famous stadiums, Soteldo can have a huge say in what happens next for him.

His journey to this point proves he will not let anything stand in his way.   

"Please, Mr Matic, get out to the ball," said an anguished Rio Ferdinand as BT Sport replayed Oliver Burke's winning goal for Sheffield United at Old Trafford.

It came after a passage of lacklustre Manchester United play that Ferdinand insisted would not have been allowed in "yesteryear", in which players ambled back, stood stock still or pointed in vain before Burke fired in a shot via Axel Tuanzebe's knee.

He took his shot just in time – there was one Manchester United player sprinting back to challenge in a desperate attempt to lift his ailing side. No prizes for guessing who that was.

Bruno Fernandes will celebrate one year as a United player on Saturday. His transfer from Sporting CP for an initial fee of £47million in January 2020 came after a similar abject home defeat for United, on that occasion against Burnley.

That 2-0 loss was a shock only in historical terms given the 20-time champions of England were on a dismal run at the time, the latest setback making it four defeats in seven. Things were different on Wednesday, when Sheffield United ended their hosts' 13-match Premier League unbeaten streak and prevented the Red Devils from returning to the top of the table.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had reached the halfway stage of this campaign 12 points better off than in 2019-20, and 23 points closer to the leaders. There has been undeniable progress in the past 12 months, inspired by Fernandes. Across all competitions, he has been involved in 45 goals – more than any other player for a Premier League club. Only Harry Maguire (53) has made more competitive appearances for United than the Portuguese (52), but the former Sporting star has scored the most goals (28), assisted his team-mates the most often (17) and created the most goalscoring chances (136).

Fernandes has been a transformative signing, in the mould of Eric Cantona and Robin van Persie – but, crucially, without the trophies. When it comes to the league title, he has made United believe again. But as doubts return over his team's credentials, is belief alone enough?

IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

Fernandes ended 2020 winning his fourth Premier League Player of the Month award, becoming the first to get that many in a calendar year. For that award, he has already matched the tallies of United greats Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo and is just one behind Wayne Rooney and Van Persie.

He's been directly involved in 33 goals in his first 34 appearances (19 goals, 14 assists), a figure bettered only by Andrew Cole (41) in the history of the Premier League – all this despite not being involved in a goal in any of his most recent four appearances in the competition.

From his debut on February 1, 2020 until January 28 this year, he has had the most direct goal involvements in the competition (33); only Kevin De Bruyne had more assists (15 > 14) and only Mohamed Salah more goals (20 > 19). In fact, the impact of the attacking midfielder has been so great that United have won more points in the Premier League than any other side since his arrival (72) – one ahead of rivals City (71).

Such were his talismanic efforts on the pitch during 2019-20, Fernandes was crowned the club's Player of the Year, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after Cristiano Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes' 22 in all competitions in 2019-20.

So integral has he been to Solskjaer's plans that he has missed just two games in 2020-21 – domestic cup wins over Brighton and Hove Albion, and Watford – and, when he was finally given a rest against Liverpool in the FA Cup last weekend, he promptly came off the bench to score the winning free-kick.

UNITED'S HEART AND SOUL

Beyond the goals and assists output, Fernandes, as the odd defensive sprint highlights, is a player who likes to be involved. Examine shot-ending sequence involvements in the Premier League from his debut to January 28 this year – that's a measure of how players contribute to the creation of shots in open play – and only De Bruyne (220) is above Fernandes (212).

For such sequences ending in goals, Fernandes is top of the pile on 33, five above anyone else. Similarly, if you look at multi chance involvements (the number of unique shot-ending sequences in open play, where the player in question created the chance and was involved in the build-up), Fernandes (21) is second only to Jack Grealish (24) – the heartbeat of an exciting Aston Villa.

Former United captain Bryan Robson sees someone else in Fernandes, telling Stats Perform: "After the first six games, I couldn't give him any bigger compliment than say he's the closest to Paul Scholes I've seen," he told Stats Perform. "The way he turns with his back to play, the vision he's got, the touch on the ball, the great goals he scores…

"Every time he gets on the ball, his first thought is to look forward and try and put somebody in. He's so quick on little one-twos in and around the last third. He's a bit like De Bruyne. He doesn't lazily pass it backwards; he's always looking to try and hurt the opposition.

"I like that he demands from his team-mates around. It's okay demanding, but if they can see the work and effort you are putting in, then you get a good response."

NOT JUST 'PENANDES'

Many Fernandes detractors will argue that his goal tally is inflated due to the propensity that United are awarded penalties.

He has scored nine times in the Premier League from the penalty spot since his debut, but he's still scored 10 league goals when excluding spot-kicks. He's posted a non-penalty expected goals/90 average of 0.24, which is just below that of De Bruyne (0.26) over that period. To put this simply, even if you take away penalties, he's getting in positions to score a goal every four games from open play – a decent return for a midfielder.

Fernandes has added a new dimension to United's attacking play and they have certainly found a player that can unpick opposition defences with the regularity that they have so often missed in recent years.

He has an expected assists total of 6.5 from open play since his Premier League debut – only Grealish (6.8) and De Bruyne (7.5) can boast a higher level of creative input for their teams since February 1, 2020.

In the 12 months before Fernandes' arrival at the club, United's best creative player from open play was Marcus Rashford with an open-play expected assists tally of 3.9 – nearly half that of Fernandes' total in his first year at the Red Devils.

After that shock defeat to bottom club Sheffield United, United find themselves a point off City with their rivals still having a game in hand. With their next four league games coming against tricky opposition all placed between fifth and 11th, this period could make or break their title challenge.

Fernandes has spent a year making United better, but Solskjaer's men still rely on him to lead by example to get results. He has dragged the Red Devils back into a title battle, but he cannot win it alone.

Manchester City are threatening to run away from the rest of the Premier League and their success has been in a large part down to the previously unsung Ilkay Gundogan.

As they prepare to face Sheffield United, who surprisingly may be relishing a second trip to Manchester in four days, we look at who else is making City tick.

A trio of Pep Guardiola's players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with high performers from Chelsea, Leicester City, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

EDOUARD MENDY

One thing is for certain: Chelsea's new boss Thomas Tuchel will know all about Mendy. Tuchel's old Paris Saint-Germain side faced Mendy twice in Ligue 1 during the goalkeeper's Reims days, scoring four the first time but just once second time around in a shock defeat. Last season saw Mendy help Rennes finish third in the French top flight.

The goalkeeper conceded just three times in his first eight Premier League games for Chelsea but has shipped 11 in eight matches since that bright start.

Clean sheets in two of his past three league games, however, suggest Mendy and the Chelsea defence are getting their act together.

Ahead of a home clash with Burnley, only one goalkeeper - City's Ederson (61 per cent) - has kept a higher share of clean sheets in the Premier League this season than Tuchel's new number one, with Mendy avoiding conceding in eight of his 16 appearances.

JOAO CANCELO

Move over Andy Robertson, there's a new defensive assist king in town. City's Cancelo has created more chances from open play than any defender in the Premier League this season after setting up 30 opportunities.

Admittedly, Robertson is second on that list after making 27 chances for Liverpool team-mates, but Cancelo has played four fewer games than the Scot.

With City facing the Blades at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, the flying full-back will doubtless be eyeing up more forward missions.

RUBEN DIAS

If City are to succeed where neighbours Manchester United failed, by keeping out the Blades, then Dias may have a big role to play.

The Portuguese centre-back has achieved more clean sheets than any other Premier League defender this season, playing in 10 games where City have had shutouts.

He is yet to score but has an xG value of 1.4, suggesting he is getting into positions from where he might soon be due a goal.

Only James Tarkowski (1.62) and Adam Webster (1.66) have a higher xG value without scoring among Premier League defenders this season.

HARVEY BARNES

Leicester winger Barnes is enjoying a purple patch after scoring three times and claiming two assists in his past six Premier League games.

Perhaps back him while he's hot as Leicester host Leeds United on Sunday.

Barnes has six goals and three assists in the top flight this season, while he also scored six and assisted eight goals across the previous Premier League campaign.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

It seemed unlikely that Gundogan would be the man to step up and be City's top scorer in the absence of Sergio Aguero this season.

Despite Aguero having been rarely available, the name of Gundogan at the top of City's list of Premier League top scorers might mystify many.

But his seven goals have come from some exhilarating performances, and all have come in his past eight league games. This weekend he could become the first German player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Where would Palace be without Zaha? The Championship seems a likely answer to that, as again his goals and attacking drive are propping up their campaign.

Palace are suffering at the moment, though, having won just one of their past nine league matches, so Saturday's home game with Wolves would be a good moment for Zaha to fire.

He has nine goals in 17 Premier League appearances this season – only in 2018-19, when he netted 10 times, has he managed more in a single campaign in the competition.

MICHAIL ANTONIO

West Ham are challenging for Champions League football. Those eight words are a lot to take in, but Antonio has had a big say in their success this season.

He has five goals in 12 games in the Premier League and two goals and an assist in his past three outings ahead of a home clash with Liverpool, who sit just behind the Hammers.

Antonio enjoys facing Liverpool, having scored more goals against the Reds than any other West Ham player in the Premier League era. His four goals in six appearances against the reigning champions shows Antonio should not be overawed by Sunday's London Stadium occasion.

Could he rub salt into Liverpool's wounds as Jurgen Klopp's side, and their vulnerable defence, wonder where their title challenge has gone to?

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.