Away-day specialists Manchester City saw off Crystal Palace 2-0 to close in on another Premier League title and equal a top-flight record in the process.

Chelsea beat Fulham by the same scoreline elsewhere in Saturday's Premier League action, thanks to a couple of goals from Kai Havertz.

A two-goal success was also the outcome when Brighton and Hove Albion welcomed Leeds United to the Amex Stadium, the Seagulls all but securing their top-flight status for another season.

In the late match, Aston Villa edged out Everton 2-1 to boost their chances of a top-half finish and derail their opponents' European prospects.

We use Opta data to take a look at the best facts from Saturday's games.

 

Crystal Palace 0-2 Manchester City: Patient Citizens win again on their travels

Goals from Sergio Aguero and Ferran Torres in the space of 83 seconds proved enough for City to pick up a victory that leaves them on the brink of another piece of silverware.

Those strikes came from the Citizens' first two shots on target and saw them reach the 700-goal mark under Pep Guardiola in all competitions.

City's 57-minute wait for their first on-target attempt of the match was their longest in a Premier League game since November 2019 against Southampton.

Torres added to Aguero's opener moments later with a good finish from 20 yards - the 11th league goal Palace have conceded from outside the box this term, which is the joint-most of any Premier League team alongside Sheffield United.

The victory was City's 11th in a row away from home in the Premier League, equalling the all-time English top-flight record held by Chelsea (April-December 2008) and City themselves (May-December 2017).

Brighton and Hove Albion 2-0 Leeds United: Whites lose again on south coast

Brighton moved within touching distance of securing a fifth successive season of Premier League football thanks to a well-earned victory at home to Leeds.

Pascal Gross found the bottom corner from a 14th-minute penalty and Danny Welbeck added to that with his fifth Premier League goal of the season in his 21st outing - the forward's best top-flight return since 2017-18.

It was an all-too-familiar tale for Leeds, who have now lost five successive away league meetings against Brighton without scoring - the first time that has happened in their history against a single opponent.

In fact, Brighton have won eight of their last nine league meetings with Leeds home and away, which is more than they managed in their previous 28 against them.

Leeds managed just two attempts on target as Graham Potter's Brighton claimed a seventh home clean sheet of the season, a tally bettered only by Manchester City and Chelsea (nine each) in the Premier League this season.

 

Chelsea 2-0 Fulham: Havertz inflicts more derby misery on Cottagers

Kai Havertz doubled his Premier League goals tally with a brace in Chelsea's routine victory over Championship-bound Fulham.

All eight of the Germany international's goals for Chelsea in all competitions have now been scored in London, seven of those at Stamford Bridge and one at Selhurst Park.

His second goal in this game involved some nice link-up play with Timo Werner, who with that assist became the first Chelsea player to reach double figures for both goals (11) and assists (10) in his debut season for the club since Eden Hazard in 2012-13.

Werner's combined 21 goals and assists is the most of any Chelsea player this term, and he is one of five Premier League players to reach double figures for both metrics across all competitions alongside Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Son Heung-min and Marcus Rashford.

Fulham have now gone 19 away games without a win at neighbours Chelsea in all competitions - only versus Everton (31), Hull City (23) and Middlesbrough (21) are the Blues currently enjoying a longer unbeaten run against an opponent on home soil.

The Cottagers are also now winless in 24 Premier League London derbies since beating West Ham in January 2014 - only Palace have endured a longer such run in English top-flight history, going 31 London derbies without a win between August 1969 and March 1973.

Fulham missed some good chances as Chelsea kept an 11th Premier League clean sheet under Thomas Tuchel - the most shutouts for any manager in their first 15 games in the competition, one more than ex-Blues bosses Jose Mourinho and Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Everton 1-2 Aston Villa: Toffees' poor Goodison run continues against familiar opponents

Villa dented Everton's European hopes with victory at Goodison Park in what was the 205th top-flight meeting between the clubs - the most played fixture in England's top division.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Villans have won more games (20) and scored more goals (73) in the Premier League era against Everton than they have against any other side in the competition.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored his 20th goal in all competitions this season to open the scoring in Saturday's late kick-off - with that haul including a Premier League leading seven headers - to cancel out Ollie Watkins' opener.

But Anwar El Ghazi snatched all three points for the Villans 10 minutes from time with his eighth goal in 23 Premier League games this season, doubling his tally from 34 appearances in the competition last time out.

Everton have now won just one of their last 10 home league matches and have tasted defeat at Goodison Park eight times this season - only in 1993-94 have they lost on more occasions (nine) in a single Premier League campaign.

Liverpool's trip to Manchester United on Sunday will likely be the most watched and fiercely debated match of the weekend in the Premier League, but in a sense there is feeling of it being something of a damp squib.

Perhaps it would be different were fans allowed into Old Trafford, but for the time being they remain absent.

Make no mistake, both teams still have particular ambitions to achieve this season. It's not quite a dead rubber.

But regardless of achieving their respective current targets – reach the top four for Liverpool, and United securing second place in the assumption Manchester City won't suddenly capitulate – there will still be a sense of unfulfillment.

United want more, Liverpool expected more.

Realistically the best Liverpool can hope for now is fourth, and even then that looks a tough ask, while United will seemingly have to settle for second. Although by no means a poor season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, the Red Devils' fans will surely never be entirely happy with second, especially when it's their neighbours finishing above them.

City have, for the majority of the season anyway, been considerably better than the rest. So what can United and Liverpool do to potentially bridge the gap next season?

MAN UNITED

Seek more from the right side of the defence

In recent years, when United have had issues with their team they have perhaps been too willing to chuck a load of money at the issue – maybe that's the solution here, or maybe there are young talents coming through who are ready for the next level, only Solskjaer really knows that.

Nevertheless, an area where United can improve is the two right-hand berths of their defence.

While Aaron Wan-Bissaka has proven himself a very capable defender, it's fair to say he's still lagging behind in the attacking department. His 26 chances created isn't horrendous, but there's undoubtedly a lot of room for improvement.

For example, Wan-Bissaka's 78.7 touches per 90 minutes this term is only slightly fewer than Luke Shaw's 82.2, but the left-back has played 130 (196 compared to 66) more passes into the penalty area. He's far more forward-thinking and at the moment that gives United a certain predictability in the final third.

No one would say Wan-Bissaka is a lost cause, but currently he has no competition. Shaw's improvement since having Alex Telles to put pressure on him has been considerable – perhaps such encouragement would work for the right-back as well?

Wan-Bissaka's lack of effectiveness in attack is certainly not their only issue in defence, however – Victor Lindelof appears to have hit a ceiling.

Although stylistically he seems a decent fit for Solskjaer's system as he is comfortable in possession – as evidenced by his 13 goal-ending open-play sequences being bettered by only Maguire among Premier League centre-backs – teams tend to target him because he's far less domineering.

Not since 2016-17 has Maguire averaged fewer than three aerial wins per game: Lindelof's never even reached three, while there have also been concerns about the Swede's positioning.

That's highlighted by the fact he averages considerably fewer interceptions per 90 minutes compared to Maguire (0.9/1.8).

Get an actual right winger

Again, it remains to be seen whether United's move here would be to buy or trust youth – after all, they did spend a small fortune on Amad Diallo last year, though his influence has been minimal at most since linking up with United in January.

Mason Greenwood seems their best option on the right at the moment and his form has picked up significantly of late after an underwhelming first two-thirds of the season. His ineffectiveness at times this term paved the way for Daniel James to get back into the side, and few United fans would consider the Welshman to be anywhere good enough as a long-term, first-choice option.

While Greenwood has certainly been an effective presence out on the right at times, he's not exactly been an effective creator – nine players (to have featured at least 10 times) in the United squad can better his chance creation frequency of 0.8 per 90 mins.

Now, perhaps that's partly skewed by his early season form, yet only Bruno Fernandes (3.3) averages more shots than Greenwood (3.2) each game.

With Edinson Cavani reportedly set to stick around for another season, United might opt to begin moulding Greenwood to become his replacement, thus freeing up the right-wing slot for someone else.

Facilitate a Pogba and Fernandes partnership

You'd think this would be simple, and recent evidence has strongly suggested they can coexist – after all, both were excellent against Roma on Thursday.

But since Fernandes joined, United have only won 55.2 per cent of games across all competitions in which they've both featured, as opposed to 72.2 per cent when one or the other has been missing.

Few would disagree that they are United's two most talented players, but occasionally squeezing them both into the side has resulted in Pogba being shunted out wide. While still functional there, that's clearly not the best use of his talents.

Developing their partnership may require Solskjaer to loosen the strings of pragmatism a little. He likes to play Fred and Scott McTominay together in the midfield when some feel they might be better off with just one of them.

Now, whether that's because he doesn't truly trust Pogba and Fernandes off the ball, or if he's actually not convinced enough by Fred nor McTominay defensively, only he knows.

But allowing Pogba and Fernandes to consistently thrive in the same team would surely work wonders for United in the final third.

LIVERPOOL

Provide better cover for Alexander-Arnold

If there's one Liverpool player who's shouldered the most criticism in this underwhelming title defence it's arguably Trent Alexander-Arnold.

But some of the flak has been a little harsh, whether it's been focused on his attacking productivity or defensive positioning.

Granted, his chance creation is down from 2.5 to two per 90 minutes and that's understandably been reflected in an assists decrease from 13 to five.

But the flipside to that is in 2019-20 he massively over-performed his xG value of 9.7, whereas this term there's only a 0.8 difference (five assists, 5.8 xG). This suggests that, where he was benefiting from his team-mates' brilliant finishing last term, in 2020-21 that's not been the case.

As for his defensive output, there's little evidence to suggest he's doing worse. On the contrary in fact, he's actually averaging more tackles, tackles won and interceptions than in 2019-20, while only one perceived error by Alexander-Arnold has led to a shot this season. He was guilty of three in the title-winning campaign.

The key thing we have to consider when analysing Alexander-Arnold's season, however, is the extent of Liverpool's defensive injuries.

It would be fair to assume that he's not been quite as much of an attacking threat because he's been playing in an often-makeshift defence, holding back a little because the threat of an opposing attack is greater without the likes of Virgil van Dijk.

Presuming Van Dijk and Joe Gomez stay fit next season, that in itself is a much more solid base. That may, in theory, provide Alexander-Arnold with the necessary assurances that encourage greater attacking impetus.

Get more from Thiago

Another Liverpool player whose ability has been called into question a lot this season is, remarkably, Thiago Alcantara. A key cog of Bayern Munich's all-conquering 2019-20 side, but on Merseyside he's had to contend with plenty of doubters.

While he was initially seen as the final missing weapon to Klopp's arsenal, the kind of player who could provide greater creativity in a midfield that beforehand was more functional that fun, many have since gone full revisionist.

Many of the concerns have related to suggestions he's not the right fit for Liverpool's intense style of play, particularly how high up the pitch they press.

But there is very little evidence to back such claims up. PPDA data suggest it's actually nonsense. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team's own defensive third divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.  

Liverpool's this season is 10.6 whereas Bayern's last season was 9.8, indicating that Die Roten actually press slightly higher than the Reds.

No, the far likelier cause of Thiago's underwhelming season is probably the human side of football. It can be easy to forget sometimes that footballers are people too. Having your first season at a club mired by injury problems, which also affected you, and contracting coronavirus cannot be the ideal situation.

We'll surely only get a better grasp of Thiago's suitability at Liverpool next season.

Refresh the frontline

As Mohamed Salah continues to thrive, his excellence not only highlights himself, but also casts a shadow of doubt over Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

While critics have been unconvinced by Firmino for some time, despite clearly offering a lot to the Reds when at the peak of his powers, questions over Mane are a rather newer phenomenon.

In 2019-20 he had a hand in 25 Premier League goals (18 scored, seven set up), but he's on less than half of that at the moment (eight goals, five assists).

Having outperformed his xG by 4.4 last season, he's now 3.9 under his xG value of 11.9 for 2020-21. Firmino's under-performance in 2019-20 was five, this term it's 4.4.

For Mane, this means that where he was proving to be remarkably deadly in 2019-20, he's now wasteful – Firmino is spurning more opportunities than he should, again.

Nevertheless, Mane's form over the previous two seasons probably has him quite a lot of credit in the bank – if anyone's at threat, it's Firmino.

Diogo Jota has proven a versatile and dependable alternative to all of the front three, but Klopp might prefer more of a focal point at the tip of the attack in the long run.

If there's anywhere in the team attack where the Reds might feel that can get someone better, it's probably in the place of Firmino.

If LaLiga's title race wasn't tantalising enough already, Barcelona's shock defeat to Granada on Thursday really threw a spanner in the works.

It looks set to be the most gripping end to any of the top five European leagues this term, and almost certainly the least predictable finish to LaLiga since 2006-07.

Back then there were three teams in with a chance of taking home the title on the final day of the season – Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course, plus Juande Ramos' Sevilla.

As it was, Madrid and Barca won on the last day whereas Sevilla – who needed a win and for the other two to lose – lost at home to Villarreal.

Madrid finished top by virtue of a better head-to-head record over Barca, who were essentially denied the title by their local rivals Espanyol, slumping to a 2-2 draw with them on the penultimate day to hand Los Blancos the initiative.

For the first time since then, Sevilla are again in with a shout of upsetting established order, though on this occasion Atletico Madrid are in the mix as well.

In fact, with just three points separating first from fourth with five games left, it's the closest title race LaLiga has ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present).

Diego Simeone's side looked certainties for the title not too long ago: at the start of February, they were 11 points clear, but they've won only six of their 14 league games since, including a defeat to Sevilla in early April.

Yet, remarkably, it's still in Atletico's hands thanks to Barca's surprise loss at home to Granada on Thursday.

 

What made that defeat even more incredible was the fact Granada had just 18 per cent of the ball and scored twice from an xG (expected goals) value of just 0.69. This means they netted more than two times as many as they should have, which speaks to how stunningly clinical they were.

Interestingly – or, infuriatingly, if you're a fan – it was Barcelona's second-highest share of the ball in a league game this season, behind only 82.1 per cent against Cadiz. They lost both games.

It's all shaping up for potentially decisive blows to be struck across May 8 and 9, when the top four all play each other – Barca host Atletico on the Saturday, with Sevilla going to Madrid the next day.

But what does our prediction model say about the most likely outcome in the title race?

How does the predictor work?

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table…

 

Atletico take the crown

There we have it… The AI predictor still sees Atletico as the likely champions, with a 38 per cent probability.

It essentially looks like it will come down to their showdown with Barca next Saturday. Atletico hold a slight advantage having beaten Barcelona 1-0 in Madrid earlier this season, and our predictor seemingly doesn't expect Ronald Koeman's men to overturn that at Camp Nou, as the model sees Atletico winning the title by virtue of their head-to-head record.

Nevertheless, Barcelona's outlook is almost identical to just a few weeks ago when the data suggested they had a 32.8 per cent chance, that now dropping ever so slightly to 32.6 – but you can't help but wonder what it would have been had they beaten Granada.

Madrid have drawn two of their previous three games 0-0, and so their chances have dropped from 34.4 per cent to a 26.6 per cent likelihood of winning the title.

Sevilla, perhaps unsurprisingly, remain the outsiders and our prediction model still only gives them a 2.8 per cent probability of winning their first league title since 1946.

However, that's 28 times more likely than just 18 days ago when the data gave them a 0.1 per cent chance of finishing top.

Everything seemingly hinges on next weekend…

The Premier League elite are playing for prizes, along with Champions League and Europa League places, and at the foot of the table there may still be dreams of a great escape.

Reality brings its rewards and regrets, and managers across England, from Pep Guardiola to Big Sam Allardyce are hoping to end the season on a high note.

For fantasy football managers, the same applies. This is the run-in and the time when marginal gains could count for so much in your own rivalries and leagues come the season's end. One masterstroke signing could make a world of difference and earn those bragging rights.

With that in mind, here is a look at some potentially shrewd picks for the weekend ahead, powered by Opta data.

EDOUARD MENDY

Chelsea goalkeeper Mendy has a long way to go before he can be defined as a Premier League great, but the September arrival from Rennes is making a terrific impact in his debut season. Heading into Saturday's derby with Fulham, Mendy has managed 15 clean sheets from his 27 Premier League games so far, with only Manchester City's Ederson keeping more (17 from 32 games).

Of all goalkeepers to have started at least 25 games in Premier League history, Mendy is the only one to keep a clean sheet in more than half of them (56 per cent). Looking down the list, Ederson has an impressive 49 per cent from 141 games, while former Chelsea and Arsenal shot-stopper Petr Cech had a nifty 46 per cent clean sheet record from 443 appearances.

LUKE SHAW

Tough love did not particularly work for Luke Shaw during Jose Mourinho's reign, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has found a way to unlock the brilliance within Manchester United's left-back, who was a £30million buy as an 18-year-old almost seven years ago.

Shaw, who looks likely to face Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday, has been directly involved in six goals (1 goal, 5 assists) in the Premier League this season. That is as many as he managed between the start of the 2016-17 season and the end of the 2019-20 campaign (also 1 goal, 5 assists). He is impressing going forward as well as when defending, so could bring valuable points to your team.

RUBEN DIAS

No Premier League defender has more clean sheets than Ruben Dias this season. With 14 so far, he is level with Aston Villa's Matt Targett. Manchester City stifled Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on Wednesday, but can they keep Crystal Palace's forwards at bay on Saturday?

The Premier League title is almost within City's grasp, and Dias could be a great signing this weekend, but do bear in mind that Guardiola could shuffle his team given the second leg with PSG is coming up on Tuesday.

City have a strong Premier League record against Palace, having won 13 of their last 17 matches (D2 L2) against the Eagles in the competition, earning 10 clean sheets across that run of games.

MATHEUS PEREIRA

Going down with the Baggies? Even if West Brom are relegated, which seems likely, there will surely be top-flight teams eyeing Matheus Pereira.

The Brazilian has been involved in six goals in his last four Premier League games (4 goals, 2 assists), and he enhanced his hero status among supporters when he scored twice - both penalties - in the derby against Wolves earlier this season.

West Brom won that one 3-2 and the teams meet again on Monday. Pereira is a player to keep an eye on in that game.

RAHEEM STERLING

Guardiola rhapsodised about Sterling after Manchester City's win against Tottenham in the EFL Cup final, despite erratic finishing meaning the winger again finished without a goal. He has not scored for City since February, but one could spark a flood, such is his established talent.

Facing Palace could be the ideal game for Sterling, should he be selected this weekend.

The England international has been involved in seven goals in his last seven starts against Palace in the Premier League (6 goals, 1 assist).

AYOZE PEREZ

Kelechi Iheanacho is the striker in form at Leicester City, but in horses for courses terms, Perez might be the man for Friday's clash with Southampton.

Perez has scored more Premier League goals against Southampton than he has against any other side in the competition (7). This includes two hat-tricks against Saints, including one in Leicester’s 9-0 win in this fixture last season.

HARRY KANE

Did Kane look off the pace in the EFL Cup final after his recent ankle knock? It was so hard to tell, given it felt he was constantly having to come looking for the ball, the service to him so inadequate.

If caretaker boss Ryan Mason considered him fit for that one, then it seems safe to expect the Tottenham talisman to face Sheffield United on Sunday, and surely he will find more opportunities against the blunted Blades than he enjoyed against City.

Kane has been involved in 34 goals in 30 Premier League games for Tottenham this season (21 goals, 13 assists), only registering more goal involvements in a single campaign in 2016-17 (36 – 29G 7A). The England striker has been involved in nine goals in his last six league games (7 goals, 2 assists), netting three braces in that run.

If there was one man Villarreal could rely on, it was him. If there was one man they wanted standing over that penalty, it was him. If there was one man in their squad born for such a situation, it was him.

It is April 25, 2006, the kind of night the Valencian city of Vila-Real has seen few of. It's playing host to a Champions League semi-final just eight years on from seeing its team, Villarreal, earn their first promotion to LaLiga.

Having lost the first leg of the semi 1-0 to Arsenal in London, they have so far failed to find a way to level the tie, despite laying siege to the Gunners' goal.

But with time almost up, they have the perfect opportunity to seize the initiative as a marginal call goes their way: Gael Clichy is deemed, somewhat harshly, to have fouled Jose Mari in the box.

Up steps Juan Roman Riquelme, their undisputed talisman and one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A player possessed with the kind of technical wizardry on the ball that few others are – there's surely only one outcome?

But Riquelme's spot-kick is a poor one, placed to his right and at the perfect height for Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.

The German easily makes the save, and Arsenal – not little Villarreal – are going to their first Champions League final.

They met again in the quarter-finals three years later but the tie was rather more one-sided, Arsenal winning 4-1 on aggregate.

Twelve years on and the Gunners aren't quite the power they once were, and Villarreal are looking to settle a score when they meet in their Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.

So too is Unai Emery.

A hiding to nothing

Emery's time at Arsenal was probably doomed from the start. Succeeding Arsene Wenger, even with the lack of success towards the end of his tenure, was always going to be a tough ask.

In his second season at the helm, for a while it seemed only a matter of time before he went from Gunner to gonner. He was eventually dismissed on November 29, 2019, and the following month saw Mikel Arteta appointed as his successor.

Though, it's fair to say Arsenal have not seen much of an improvement under Arteta, whose 79 matches in charge is just one more than Emery managed.

Arteta's win percentage of 51 is shy of Emery's 55, while under the latter the Gunners scored 152 (compared to 127). The main difference in the current coach's favour is that they have conceded considerably fewer (80, down from 100), which perhaps is likely linked to the fact Arsenal are less of a threat in attack now.

Emery's Villarreal arguably come into this tie as favourites as well. They boast a better record almost across the board for this season, winning more often (53 per cent to 47), scoring more (87 to 82) and conceding fewer (47 to 54) than the Gunners, and their coach's record in this competition speaks for itself having won it three times with Sevilla, losing just six of 39 games.

If Villarreal can qualify for their first European final, Gerard Moreno will probably have had something to do with it one way or another.

The Spain international is enjoying the best season of his career and is something of a triple-threat.

The key to Emery's revenge plot

Moreno is a clever player. What makes his productivity in front of goal all the more impressive is the fact he's rarely deployed as an out-and-out central striker.

Instead, Moreno prefers to operate from the right, coming inside on to his left foot and occasionally floating around to also maximise his creative talents.

After all, not only is he Villarreal's top scorer with 20 goals this season in LaLiga, he's also laid on the most chances (38) in the Yellow Submarine's squad.

In fact, Lionel Messi (66) is one of only five forwards in LaLiga to play more key passes than the former Espanyol talent.

Moreno's unpredictability is aided by excellent dribbling skills as well, with Messi, Javi Galan and Nabil Fekir the three individuals to better his 62 completed dribbles this term.

Additionally, his success rate is 62.6 per cent – to put that into context, Messi's is 58.6.

Granted, his goalscoring record is slightly skewed by the fact he's scored nine penalties this term, but Messi (25) is the sole LaLiga player outscoring him and he looks set to claim the Zarra award (given to the top-scoring Spaniard) for a second successive season.

His haul of 20 is also an improvement of 2.5 on his expected goals (xG) value as well, evidence that he's putting away more chances than the average player would ordinarily expect.

Moreno has also carried that goalscoring form into the Europa League, where he stands joint second on the list of scorers with six.

The skillset possessed by Villarreal's talisman makes him the ideal player to carry out a number of different roles, but it also means Arsenal have to be alive to the numerous ways he can hurt them: in front of goal, creatively, or with the ball at his feet.

The 29-year-old could have a major role to play for Spain at Euro 2020 at the end of the season. Having a decisive impact for Villarreal in such a big tie may be vital in earning more of Luis Enrique's faith, with La Roja's coach initially taking a little while to warm to him.

But for the moment all the trust he needs is Emery's, and his form this term proves he has the tools to inspire Arsenal's downfall and grasp revenge for the Yellow Submarine and their pilot.

The NFL is a league of giants, one dominated by towering physical specimens who can stretch the limits of athleticism and mental colossuses who fight through adversity to shine brightest in the biggest moments.

While far from a disappointing athlete, NFL teams that have done their homework on Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers ahead of this week's draft will likely have slotted him firmly in the latter category.

Rodgers is of the more diminutive build in terms of height when it comes to receivers, measuring at just over 5ft 9in at his pro day. However, though size is among the defining physical traits teams will always look for when building out their rosters, there are no shortage of examples of wideouts overcoming a lack of verticality to thrive at the highest level.

Perhaps the most prominent example of a supposedly small receiver excelling in the pros is the one who has inspired Rodgers since his formative years: Carolina Panthers great Steve Smith Sr.

"All the way through high school, all the way through college, I used to watch his highlights before every single game just to get my mindset going, get me riled up," Rodgers told Stats Perform News.

Getting himself and his opponents riled up was a key feature of Smith's career, as he used an aggressive mindset to help him outwill and outperform defenders over the course of 16 NFL seasons, five of which ended with Pro Bowl recognition.

A markedly similar approach was critical to Rodgers' success during his college career with Clemson, where he won a National Championship and emerged as a top target for presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence after Tee Higgins left for the pros last year and Justyn Ross was ruled out of the 2020 season with a spinal issue.

Rodgers racked up 77 catches for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020, using his stocky 212-pound frame to run through defenders for extra yardage once he got the ball in his hands while also displaying a hugely impressive ability to elevate over cornerbacks at the catch point.

Of his 1,020 yards, 602 came after the catch, with that total second only to Alabama's DeVonta Smith (937) in the FBS, per Stats Perform data. His catch rating, which measures how well a receiver brings in catchable passes on a 0-1 scale, was 0.917, above the average of 0.901 for Power 5 wideouts with 20 or more targets.

"That's definitely a product of my mindset. I'm just trying to run through people," Rodgers added. "If I'm about to run out of bounds on the sideline and there's somebody there they're going to feel me.

"I'm not just going to run out of bounds, it's not flag football, it's not two-hand touch. I've got the pads on for a reason, I'm going to let them feel me and let them know that I'm there and I'm coming back.

"That's just my mindset, just to let everybody know that I'm not stopping the whole game, I'm putting my best foot forward, I'm playing with the best effort, I'm just bringing that dog mentality.

"Once Justyn got hurt, I knew I was going to have most of the load in the receiver room, me and Cornell Powell. In the offseason, after spring ball, I just took it upon me to just grind every single day.

"I didn't go a day without doing something to enhance my game. I was just preparing myself mentally and physically for that load that I knew that I was going to have this past season so that when the time came I could perform."

That same relentless preparation helped Rodgers get through the toughest part of his college career a year earlier.

His ability to have a significant influence on the Tigers' 2019 campaign appeared set to be restricted when he tore his ACL in spring practice. Yet he accelerated a recovery that for many takes six to nine months to just 166 days and, by his second game of the season in September, had a 100-yard performance to his name as he went off for 121 and two touchdowns against Syracuse.

"My mindset was everything with that. I hate sitting out, I hate not playing, I hate seeing my brothers out there practicing every day, doing hard stuff and I'm on the sideline watching them, so that tore me up," said Rodgers of his rapid rehabilitation. 

"I worked every single day, three times a day, in the morning before workouts and then after lunch I'd come back in and do some more, and then I paid out of pocket and went somewhere else at night.

"So three times a day except on the weekends I'm doing rehab and strengthening the muscles around my knee and stuff like that so I can get back out there, because I knew I needed to be out there and they needed me, so I just did everything I could to get back out there with my brothers."

Such ceaseless determination is difficult to maintain, but Rodgers had the benefit of an indelible source of motivation.

Rodgers ensured he caught the eye at his pro day, running his 40-yard dash shirtless and revealing an upper body adorned by scores of tattoos.

His evident passion for body art played a crucial role in that speedy return to the field.

Asked about his favourite tattoo, Rodgers replied: "This one on my forearm, it's a quote, it says 'the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams'.

"I got that shortly after the day of my ACL injury because I did that as a daily reminder to keep shooting for my dreams and keep believing, because sometimes it may be tough going into rehab and doing the same thing over and over and over again. You want to transition to running; there's a transition to running routes, but it's a slow process, you've got to take your time and be patient. So, I just got this on my forearm just as a daily reminder.

"I look at it before I start working out every single day and I'll be dialled in, so that's definitely my most favourite tattoo."

Rodgers' dream is now about to become a reality as he will make the jump to the pros, and he sees no limit to what he can do when he gets on an NFL field.

He ran 291 routes from the slot in 2020, compared to 45 as an outside receiver.

However, his burn yards per route average – a burn being when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – only dropped from 3.65 when playing the slot to 3.53 when lined up outside. That latter number was comfortably above the average of 2.50 for wideouts with at least 10 targets as an outside receiver.

Rodgers' catch rating improved from 0.912 in the slot to 0.947 when he played outside. His average depth of target from the outside was 16.4 yards, with Rodgers recording an open percentage on his targets of 69.2 that put him 10th among outside receivers whose average depth was 16 yards or higher.

And Rodgers is convinced that, just like his idol Smith, he could excel on the outside at the next level.

"My first two years at Clemson I played outside receiver, I didn't move to the slot until my junior year, so I had that experience playing outside as well," he said. 

"I can play inside; special teams is going to help me as well. You can throw me in the backfield and create mismatches with me against linebackers on third downs, too. I can do it all. I'm a Swiss Army knife, that's really how I'm approaching this process, telling programs in the interview process, because a lot of people didn't see everything I can bring to the game at Clemson, so I'm just letting you know that I'm only getting better, they can use me in any way they want to."

Rodgers is a prospect who firmly believes he is yet to show everything he has to offer, so what can the team that calls his name expect when they add him to their ranks?

"They're going to get a dog, first and foremost, somebody that's the YAC king," Rodgers explained. "Sixty per cent of my yards was after the catch, so that just shows my ability to be dominant when I get the ball in my hands and make plays.

"So, they're going to get somebody that has strong hands, confident in their route-running, you can believe that he can get open every single play and a leader, somebody that's going to lead by example, not be one of those that's always in trouble, but go in, put the work in day in and day out, keep improving day in and day out, help the team winning that Super Bowl."

Rodgers heads to the league with lofty ambitions. Meeting them will be a tall order, but there is no doubt Rodgers will approach that challenge with the right mindset.

After months and months of speculation and dissecting the tape of this year's crop of pro hopefuls, the 2021 NFL Draft is finally here.

There will be no surprises with how the draft gets off and running, the number one pick has seemingly been locked in since the end of the 2020 season, but there is no shortage of intrigue in this first round, which will start at the third overall pick when the San Francisco 49ers make their quarterback choice following a blockbuster trade with the Miami Dolphins.

From there it is set to be a fascinating opening night in Cleveland, where five quarterbacks are anticipated to come off the board in one of the best draft classes at the position in recent years.

How will the top 32 picks shake out? Using Stats Perform data, we have taken our best shot at answering that question.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

The worst kept secret in the NFL Draft. Lawrence has effectively been a Jaguar for a few months now, but it will be made official on Thursday. Are the Jaguars getting a 'generational' quarterback as so many believe? Well, there are a plethora of numbers to support that claim. No quarterback in the Power 5 last season had a higher well-thrown percentage than Lawrence's 84.31 in 2020. His red-zone completion percentage since 2018 of 68.5 is second in the FBS.

2. New York Jets - Zach Wilson, QB, BYU 

It's no secret who the Jets are interested in at the second slot. After a mediocre first two seasons in Provo, Wilson burst onto the season last year with 3,692 yards and a 33/3 TD/INT ratio en route to an 11-1 season. He'll bring big-play potential to New York; among all FBS QBs, he was the fourth-most accurate on throws of 20 or more air yards with a 72.7 well-thrown percentage (min. 20 attempts). He made 55 of those throws last season, and didn't throw a single pickable pass, making him the only QB with more than 27 such attempts to keep the ball completely out of danger.

3. San Francisco 49ers – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

All the noise continues to surround Alabama's Mac Jones, though there is also increasing buzz around Trey Lance of North Dakota State. However, if the 49ers want a pro-ready quarterback who can take their offense to the next level, the answer should be Fields. His completion percentage on throws of 20-plus yards in the air of 47.9 was sixth among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts since 2018. Of quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, Fields' well-thrown percentage (80.18) was second only to North Carolina's Sam Howell (81.31).

4. Atlanta Falcons - Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida 

Pitts gives the Falcons a potential superstar playmaker at the tight end position. His versatility makes him a complete nightmare for defenses, with the ability to line up in-line, out wide as a receiver, or in the slot. He averaged 3.93 burn yards per route, third-best among tight ends, and he was one of three Power 5 receivers to not drop a single pass on 65 or more targets.

5. Cincinnati Bengals – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

Sewell will still only be 20 years old entering the league having been nothing short of a rock for the Ducks in his brief Pac-12 career. Before opting out of the 2020 season, Sewell produced a stellar 2019 campaign in which he allowed only 13 pressures on 285 pass protection snaps. With an adjusted sack percentage allowed of only 1.1 in 2019, Sewell should immediately step in and provide a massive upgrade in protection from what Joe Burrow had to endure last season as a rookie.

6. Miami Dolphins - Ja'Marr Chase WR, LSU 

Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but clearly it didn't hurt his draft stock. In a record-setting LSU offense loaded with weapons, Chase was arguably the most explosive of them all. He racked up 23 burn-adjusted TDs in 2019, the only player other than his team-mate Justin Jefferson to have more than 17 on the season. Chase gives the Dolphins another desperately needed weapon for their offense.

7. Detroit Lions – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

The Lions likely will not even try to pretend Jared Goff is a long-term answer under center and, should one of the top-five guys drop to this point, they must give serious consideration to drafting their quarterback of the future. Lance may only have one full year of college seasoning at the FCS level to his name, but an enticing dual-threat skill set that saw him account for 42 touchdowns and zero, yes zero, interceptions in 2019 should be enough to convince the Lions he is the man to whom they should eventually hand the keys to the offense.

8. Carolina Panthers - Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern 

Most of the talk on the offensive line is about Sewell, but Slater was incredible in 2019. The Northwestern junior gave up just six pressures in 220 pass protection opportunities, making him the single best Power 5 tackle in preventing pressures on a per-snap basis. He isn't quite the physical freak that Sewell is, but if the Panthers grab him here he should immediately fill a gaping hole on their offensive line.

9. Denver Broncos – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

Will the lure of Mac Jones be enough to swing Denver away from sticking with Drew Lock for the time being? Not in this instance. The Broncos have a very talented roster on both sides of the ball and add to their defense by giving Vic Fangio, who has worked with a plethora of great linebackers over the years, another one to develop. Parsons would bring athleticism and versatility, having frequently been used at both inside and outside linebacker as well as off the edge. Parsons was eighth in the Power 5 in run disruption percentage (14.2) among players with at least 200 linebacker snaps in his last college season in 2019.

10. Dallas Cowboys - Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

The first of three cornerbacks with NFL fathers, Surtain II feels like a great fit for the Cowboys. You may be concerned by just one interception last year (and four total in his career), but he was targeted on just 12.2 per cent of his coverage snaps, sixth-lowest among all Power 5 cornerbacks. He has the skill set to adapt quickly to the Cowboys' new Dan Quinn-led defense, which plays a lot of Cover 3-mable, with a single corner in press coverage on an island.

11. New York Giants – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC

Regardless of whether Vera-Tucker is a tackle or a guard, the Giants could use what he brings to the offensive line. He allowed 16 pressures on 204 pass protection snaps playing at left tackle in 2020. However, playing as a guard in 2019, he gave up only five in 387 such snaps for a pressure rate of 1.3 per cent that was the best among Power 5 players with at least 200 guard snaps.

12. Philadelphia Eagles - DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama 

The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner had a season unlike any we've ever seen from a college wide receiver. He racked up 111 burns on the season, which was more than any other Power 5 receiver even had targets. He also had 12 more burn-adjusted TDs and 619 more burn yards than anyone else, while also being third in burn yards per route and ninth-best in burn percentage, while forcing seven defensive penalties as well. Last year the Eagles grabbed their speed guy in Jalen Reagor; Smith gives them an elite route runner from anywhere on the field to go with him.

13. Los Angeles Chargers – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern

An ideal fit for the zone-heavy defense Brandon Staley will run with the Chargers, Newsome possesses an incredible blend of athleticism and instincts and should be an impact starter from day one. No cornerback in the Power 5 with at least 100 snaps and 25 targets had a better big plays allowed percentage than Newsome's 4.9 last season. His burns allowed percentage of 13.9 also put him top of the charts and he allowed the fewest burn yards per target (3.16). Receivers were open on 38.9 per cent of targets against Newsome, the third-lowest rate in the Power 5.

14. Minnesota Vikings - Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech 

A three-year starter for Virginia Tech, Darrisaw should be a plug-and-play option at left tackle. He was an elite blocker in both the pass game and run game, allowing just 5.2 per cent pressures and 5.4 per cent disruptions (first and third, respectively, in the ACC). The Vikings haven't had a tackle make the Pro Bowl since Bryant McKinnie in 2009, but Darrisaw would have the potential to change that in a couple years.

15. New England Patriots – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

The man many expect to head to the Bay Area actually ends up in New England, where he can learn at the feet of one of Nick Saban's great friends in Bill Belichick. After Cam Newton's struggles throwing the ball last season, Jones may be a welcome tonic whose numbers suggest he could quickly challenge for the starting role. Jones' completion percentage of 79.1 was the best in the Power 5 last season as he led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship while his well-thrown percentage (83.21) was third.

16. Arizona Cardinals - Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

Son of former New Orleans Saint and cell phone enthusiast Joe Horn, Jaycee was an elite cover corner this past year at South Carolina. No cornerback in the Power 5 had a lower open-against percentage than Horn at 36 per cent, and his burns-against rate of 40 per cent puts him seventh-best among this year's cornerback draft class.

17. Las Vegas Raiders – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Would Jon Gruden take another deep threat from Alabama in the first round after admitting disappointment with how Henry Ruggs III performed in his rookie season? Of course he would. His frightening combination of speed and agility would be near-impossible for Gruden to pass up, with Waddle third in the Power 5 in burn yards per target (19.96) and fifth in open percentage (90.6) while having an average depth of target of 11.5 yards.

18. Miami Dolphins - Azeez Ojulari EDGE, Georgia

With their first pick giving them a new offensive weapon, the Dolphins can turn to the defensive side of the ball at 18. Ojulari can be an immediate impact pass rusher for Miami; his 28.8 pressure percentage was tops in the SEC and fourth-best among Power 5 edge rushers.

19. Washington Football Team – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame

It may not be clear where Owusu-Koramoah's best position is, but he is a versatile chess piece who could thrive behind Washington's beastly front four. Owusu-Koramoah can play as a linebacker, on the edge and in the slot, and in a league where linebackers are asked to frequently coved athletic tight ends from the latter position, he can provide excellent value. His big plays allowed percentage of 11 was 12th among all Power 5 defenders with at least 50 snaps and 10 targets in the slot.

20. Chicago Bears - Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State 

With their quarterback woes being solved (?) by the Andy Dalton acquisition, the Bears can go get some help to shore up their offensive line. Enter Teven Jenkins, the top offensive tackle in the Big 12 over the past two seasons. He was elite both as a pass and run blocker at right tackle and has experience at left tackle as well, making him an ideal fit in Chicago.

21. Indianapolis Colts – Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan

Paye's production – he only had two sacks in 2020 – is a cause for concern but his tremendous athleticism and his ability to create disruption should be of significant appeal to a Colts team that has struggled for success drafting edge rushers in recent times. Paye's pressure rate of 33.3 per cent was second among Power 5 players with a minimum of 100 edge snaps last year. Playing on the same defensive front as DeForest Buckner, he should produce early in the pros.

22. Tennessee Titans - Christian Barmore, IDL, Alabama

Barmore is pretty clearly the best option in a down year for interior defensive linemen. He is a three-down defender with success both rushing the passer (18.2 PR%) and defending the run (16.5 RD%).

23. New York Jets – Landon Dickerson, IOL, Alabama

Mekhi Becton is a foundational piece at left tackle and, while there are rightfully some doubts about his torn ACL, Dickerson can fill the same role for the Jets at center, one of the most important positions in the Kyle Shanahan offense Mike LaFleur will run under Robert Saleh in New York. Last season, Dickerson gave up seven pressures on 252 pass-blocking snaps and did not concede a single adjusted sack.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers - Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami (FL) 

If not for a shaky concussion history that saw him retire from football for a short period, Phillips could easily be a top-10 pick. He is an extremely well-rounded talent on the edge that can impact the game in a wide variety of ways with his pass rush and run defending abilities. The Steelers love hard-nosed players like Phillips and he could be a great option to replace the departed Bud Dupree.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars – Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

It's time to get Lawrence a potentially elite weapon at the receiver position. A criminally underrated wideout, Bateman is a steal at this point in the draft. He can create separation with his route-running, is an excellent downfield threat and has the speed and elusiveness to make things happen after the catch. In 2019, Bateman was sixth in burn yards per target (16.15) in the Power 5 while Chris Olave (84) was the only receiver with a higher open percentage among receivers with an average depth of target of 15 yards or more than Bateman (70.2 per cent on an average depth of 16.2 yards).

26. Cleveland Browns - Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky

Davis was an elite tackler this past year at Kentucky, recording 102 tackles (fifth-most in the FBS) while missing on just six attempts the whole year. The Browns don't have many holes on the field to fill, but Davis can quickly join their linebacker rotation.

27. Baltimore Ravens – Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State

The wild card of an uninspiring edge class, Oweh did not have a sack in 2020 but a team is sure to fall in love with the untapped potential offered by his monstrous athletic traits. His pressure rate of 25 per cent was 11th in the Power 5 among players with 100 edge snaps and 75 pass-rush snaps. Baltimore is the ideal team to develop his skill set and, even if he takes time to blossom as a pass rusher, he could still find early work on run downs, having logged a run disruption rate of 20.6 per cent.

28. New Orleans Saints - Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

But for multiple back surgeries, Farley would probably be our first cornerback off the board. The medicals are obviously very concerning, but if he's right in saying this latest procedure won't affect his ability to get on the field this fall, the Saints could be getting a steal here. Farley was arguably the top cover corner in college football in 2019, holding opposing receivers to absurdly low burn (26.7 per cent) and open (28.9 per cent).

29. Green Bay Packers – Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss

The Packers cannot ignore the wide receiver position as they so infamously did a year ago. Moore would be a gift to Aaron Rodgers as a receiver who can start day one in the NFL from the slot and has the versatility to potentially take snaps as an outside receiver. A superb ball tracker who is extremely dependable at the catch point, Moore's catch rating of 0.985 was second on the list for Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets from the slot. His open percentage of 83.5 was sixth among the 22 receivers in that group.

30. Buffalo Bills - Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami (FL) 

Rousseau comes with his fair share of concerns, which include his pass-rushing success coming disproportionately from the interior despite being an edge player by trade. That said, his upside is obvious (his 19 pressures that resulted in sacks in 2019 were second to last year's number two pick Chase Young), and with their depth up front, the Bills could be a perfect landing spot for him.

31. Baltimore Ravens – Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas

A replacement for Orlando Brown Jr. became a clear need for the Ravens following last week's blockbuster trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. In a talented tackle class, his successor should not be difficult to identify. Credited with just two adjusted sacks allowed in 251 pass protection snaps playing at left tackle for the Longhorns last year, Jones may take time to adapt to playing on the opposite side at a higher level but his talent, physical gifts and numbers indicate he has what it takes to make the transition.

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Collins is an incredibly intriguing linebacker prospect that could do well to learn from the elite Devin White-Lavonte David tandem in Tampa. Collins is a versatile defender that had 18 run stuffs, seven pressures (on 35 pass rush attempts) and four interceptions (three of which came on plays where he wasn't even the defensive target). Collins wouldn't play right away in this scenario, but he could come along slowly watching White and David while being a sub-package player for the Bucs.

Justin Fields will have heard all the noise; it’s hard for a prospect in his position, as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft, to ignore the cacophony.

The chatter has been as bemusing as it has been loud, with wildly off-base critiques levelled at a quarterback who has delivered on college football's biggest stages in successive seasons.

Of those criticisms, the most prominent has surrounded Fields' ability to process quickly, with many viewing him as a quarterback who needs significant work reading the field and too often gets stuck on his first progression.

Yet, as those who espouse Fields' merits have been quick to point out, any unwillingness to come off his first read is likely the symptom of an Ohio State offense highly reliant on long-developing downfield routes.

It appears, though, that both the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are among his doubters. Picking second overall, the Jets are expected to take BYU's Zach Wilson, while the 49ers, following their massive trade up from 12 to three, are reportedly deciding between North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Mac Jones of Alabama.

Fields' apparent slide from the second-best quarterback in the draft to one that may not even go in the top five is a truly befuddling development in this year's edition of an event partially defined by head-scratching decisions.

The team who benefit from the questionable evaluations of Fields by those above them in the draft order will land a player ideally gifted to thrive in the NFL having outperformed his contemporaries in this draft class in several key areas.

Through the lens of Stats Perform data, we look at why perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the class is primed to silence his critics.

Busting the narratives

The narratives around Fields have always seemed flimsily constructed, and they are not reflected by the numbers.

Critiqued by some for holding on to the ball too long while waiting for his reads to come open, Fields had an average snap-to-release time of 2.81 seconds in 2020.

While that is considerably slower than Trevor Lawrence (2.36) and a fair way behind Jones (2.55), it is slightly faster than Wilson (2.82).

Why is that significant? Because Wilson is a prospect who has received regular praise for his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately during his time at BYU.

The reality is that Fields was on par with Wilson in that regard.

Beyond the time it took to get rid of the ball, the biggest debate around Fields pertains to how he works through his progressions to find the open man.

Yet if Fields had just been staring down his first read, it stands to reason defenders would have had frequent success jumping routes and gaining opportunities for interceptions.

His interceptions did double from three in 2019 to six last year, but Fields only threw eight 'pickable passes' in 217 attempts, his pickable pass percentage of 3.69 was the worst of the first-round quarterbacks to have played in the Power 5 but was not miles behind Lawrence (3.38).

Over the course of the past two seasons, Fields threw 16 pickable passes in 556 attempts for a percentage of 2.88. In essence, he was not a quarterback who regularly provided defenders with opportunities for takeaways, and he only got more accurate and more careful with the ball on the more difficult throws.

Downfield success

In 2020, Fields recorded a well-thrown percentage – which measures how often throws are an accurate, well-thrown ball – of 80.18 per cent.

That number was inferior to Lawrence, who led the Power 5 with 84.31 per cent, and Jones (83.21). However, of quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, it was second only to Sam Howell of North Carolina (81.31).

Only Wilson (10.29 air yards per attempt) was more aggressive in pushing the ball downfield than Fields (10.10), with Lawrence (8.67) and Jones (8.52) lagging behind.

And when it came to making those deep throws that can flip the script in an instant, it was Fields who stood out ahead of his contemporaries last year.

Indeed, on throws well past the sticks of 15 or more air yards, Fields led the way in well-thrown percentage by a wide margin.

Of Fields' throws of that distance, 76.47 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for Jones.

Wilson (3.53) was the sole quarterback of the other three to post a better pickable pass percentage on those attempts than Fields' 7.84.

When he attacked downfield, Fields was superior to the man who is a lock to be the first overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Fields beat Lawrence in the College Football Playoff semi-final last season and outplayed him in the eyes of many in their meeting at the same stage a year earlier.

Looking at their respective career numbers, there is plenty to suggest they enter the NFL on equal footing.

On a par with Lawrence

Further illustrating the gap between the two when it comes to deep passing, Fields had an air yards per attempt average of 11.0 during his college career, putting him fifth among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts since 2018, 42 spots ahead of Lawrence (8.87).

Fields' completion percentage on balls thrown 20 or more air yards in that same span of 47.9 was good enough for sixth on the list of quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 attempts, with Lawrence (42.1) coming in seven spots lower.

The former Buckeye had a clear edge on play-action throws, which are a staple of most NFL offenses, especially those that utilise the scheme run by Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, as the Jets will do in 2021.

Fields completed 67.2 per cent of his play-action throws compared to 64.6 for Lawrence and was similarly superior in a situation where games are often won and lost – on third down.

While Lawrence could only connect on 56.8 per cent of his third-down attempts, Fields completed 65.5, though the script was flipped when it came to making the most of red-zone opportunities.

At Clemson, Lawrence was at his best inside the 20, hitting on 68.5 per cent of his throws, second among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts and comfortably ahead of Fields (sixth with 63.7).

But Fields and Lawrence performed almost identically when pressure was sent, the latter having a negligible edge facing the blitz, completing 63.8 per cent of passes to Fields' 63.6.

In looking solely at the numbers, they are difficult to separate and, when he and Lawrence squared off, Fields had the upper hand in at least one matchup.

And yet he is seemingly set to slide from being a quarterback some touted as having the potential to displace Lawrence as number one to not hearing his name called until well after the top overall pick is done with his initial plethora of media commitments.

It is a baffling state of affairs that neither the tape nor the stats can explain.

Blessed with the elusiveness to evade free rushers in the pocket, the ability to escape and make sensational off-platform throws on the move and speed in the open field that saw him rush for 1,539 yards and 19 touchdowns in college, Fields has the ideal athletic profile for the modern NFL.

Jones and Wilson outperformed him in some areas in their breakout 2020 campaigns but no quarterback in the class other than Lawrence can claim to have enjoyed Fields' level of success over the course of more than one season among college football's elite.

More consistent than Lawrence when going deep and with the same release time as Wilson, the data should be enough to dispel the lazy narratives around Fields.

Instead, Fields will need to do so in the NFL and it is unclear with whom he will get the chance. Regardless of where he lands, Fields' skill set and track record point to the doubters being drowned out by the jubilation he has the talent to inspire at the highest level.

Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna Jr., J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Some of the biggest names in baseball, but MLB's elite hitters have taken a backseat to Yermin Mercedes.

Unheralded Chicago White Sox rookie Mercedes is the batting leader through 19 games – his .414 average setting the tone.

It is a case of perseverance and determination when it comes to the big-hitting 28-year-old from the Dominican Republic.

Involved in professional baseball for a decade, Mercedes is taking the majors by storm following his long road to the top, but can he sustain it?

 

Started from the bottom, now we're here

If you look at the career of Mercedes, few could have anticipated the red-hot start to his first season.

Signed by the Washington Nationals as an 18-year-old international free agent in 2011, Mercedes bounced between the Nats, Baltimore Orioles, Dominican league and independent league before the White Sox took him in the 2017 minor league Rule 5 draft.

A hitting machine in the minors, Mercedes combined to hit 23 homers across two teams at Triple-A level in 2019, including 17 home runs for Charlotte with a 1.033 on-base slugging percentage (OPS).

Those exploits earned an invitation to the White Sox's alternate site last season as Mercedes made his MLB debut with an at-bat during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign in August.

Mercedes could have easily given up on his dream, but he has not looked back since he was a late addition to the White Sox's 26-man Opening Day roster – a team with eyes on their first World Series ring since 2005.

According to Stats Perform, Mercedes joined Washington's Cecil Travis (1933) as the only MLB players in the modern era to have five hits in their first career start.

With patience continuing to pay off, he also became the first player since at least 1900 to begin a season with eight straight hits.

Mercedes also tops the leaderboard for longest home run of the season – his crushing 485-foot bomb against the Kansas City Royals the franchise's longest regular-season homer in the Statcast era (since 2015). Overall, it was the second longest blast since 2015, behind only Luis Robert's monster 487-foot in last season's playoffs.

New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton is next best at 471 feet.

"I just want to cry every time when I see I'm in the majors right now. I just want to cry because it's a long time," Mercedes said. "I've got a big history.

"It's about time, but it's hard for me because just looking around, I'm like, 'It's real. I'm here'. I know when it was a couple years ago, I said, 'What am I going to do? What's going to happen with me?' I just said, 'God, when am I going to be in the majors? What do I need to do?' Because all the time, all my years, I put up my numbers, do the best of myself."

 

History-making rookie on the right path

There is no stopping Mercedes, whose meteoric rise through the first month of the season netted him his own burger – 'The Yerminator' at Fabulous Freddies, where they honoured the designated hitter on their menu.

The last rookie to win his league's batting title (American League or National League) was Seattle Mariners great Ichiro Suzuki (.350) in 2001. Only two rookies have done that in the live-ball era (since 1920), Tony Oliva (.323 with the Minnesota Twins in 1964) being the other. Mercedes – through 19 games in 2021 – is above that mark at the moment. Whether he maintains that figure is another story.

When it comes to hits, Mercedes has tallied 29 in 70 at-bats this season. The last rookie to lead his league (AL or NL) in hits in a season was also Ichiro, who topped the American League with 242 hits in 2001.

Mercedes is only the second player to have a .400-plus batting average and 15-plus RBI over his first 20 career games since RBI became an official stat in 1920, along with Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur in 2005. Francoeur recorded a .406 avg and 19 RBI for the Braves in that 20-game span.

Francoeur was in the NL, so Mercedes is the first AL player to ever do that.

Mercedes made his debut aged 27 – only Ichiro managed more hits through 20 career games in the expansion era (since 1961). Coco Laboy, like Mercedes, also registered 29 hits for the Montreal Expos in 1969.

"A couple months ago, I wouldn't have believed that I would be at this point right now," said Mercedes. "I'm surprised. So I'm so excited for that. I never imagined I would be here. Now we're here, keep going. Don't put the head down. Just keep doing what I'm doing every day to keep it at that point.

"That's great for me, I'm feeling great, feeling nice because I'm with my people, with my fans and with everybody. So I'm excited for that."

While the season is still young, it feels like this is just the tip of the iceberg for Mercedes, who is seizing his opportunity after years battling away outside the majors. Enjoy the ride.

When FIFA announced last year they were set to introduce limits on the number of players teams could send out on loan, unsurprisingly many people's first thoughts turned to Chelsea.

At the time, the Blues had a remarkable 28 players at other clubs, though this was by no means a recent trend; in 2018-19, that figure was 41.

The 'hoarding' of talent might be a solid ploy when looking to stunt the growth of a rival team or generate long-term revenue on Football Manager, but in the real world it was a practice that had long attracted criticism.

While by no means the only club in the world to have lots of young players out on loan, Chelsea have – rightly or wrongly – arguably been the most synonymous with it.

Some feel this has directly contributed to the club's struggles in developing homegrown talent because they have so many players, whereas others point out it offers more players the chance to play first-team football at a higher level than the Under-23s.

Putting aside some of the moral issues, Mason Mount falls into the latter category and proves there is a route to the first team through the fog of war for Chelsea's loan army.

By his own admission Mount needed an extra kick when he was in Chelsea's Under-23s as an 18-year-old, and that led to his temporary switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse, where he won the club's Player of the Year award.

But it's unlikely even he realised how important his next move would be as he linked up with Chelsea great Frank Lampard.

In at the deep end

Mount made 44 appearances across all competitions for Derby County in 2018-19 as they missed out on promotion in the play-off final, but regardless of that ultimate disappointment it proved a massive year for both he and Lampard.

With Maurizio Sarri departing Stamford Bridge to join Juventus following Europa League success, Lampard was brought back to the club as head coach. Given his status and the trust he placed in young players – and, more pertinently, young players owned by Chelsea – at Derby, Lampard was seen as the ideal candidate to guide the team through a transfer embargo by bringing through homegrown talent.

Whether or not Lampard was a success as Chelsea coach is a discussion for another time, but his faith in Mount was unquestionable, chucking him straight into the team on the first day of the 2019-20 season.

The Blues suffered a rather harsh 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Mount didn't look out of his depth in the Premier League.

He clearly earnt the trust of his manager, with Lampard using the midfielder in 37 league matches over the course of the season, more than any other player. Across all competitions, the young Englishman made a whopping 53 appearances, missing just two games all year.

Mount finished his debut season with 12 goal involvements (seven scored, five set up), a figure bettered by only Tammy Abraham (18), Willian (16) and Christian Pulisic (13) in the Chelsea squad.

But that doesn't quite tell the whole story. To say he was consistent throughout the season would be a lie, as after the turn of the year there was a growing sense of frustration regarding his form. Between the start of November and the final day of the season, his three assists amounted to a couple of corner deliveries for Antonio Rudiger to head home, and a free-kick against Arsenal that Bernd Leno made a mess of. Mount's one open-play assist of 2019-20 came on the final day of the season against Wolves.

Some felt Mount was being overworked by Lampard, others put his issues down to being used in a variety of roles.

The 'teacher's pet' tag began to raise its head, with Lampard's almost incessant use of Mount leading to suggestions of preferential treatment.

Getting past this was going to be Mount's Everest.

A star of his own merit

When Thomas Tuchel was hired as Lampard's replacement in January, there wouldn't have been too many particularly worried for Mount's future given he had been a fixture in the team, his 2,130 minutes played across all competitions the most of anyone in the Blues' squad.

But when Mount was dropped for the German's first game in charge, Tuchel's decision certainly made people sit up and take note.

While he explained it away as opting to go with experience, dropping Mount suggested he had to earn his place again.

And it would be fair to say he's risen to the challenge.

"I understood and wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out," Mount said at a news conference last month. "I really tried to push to get back into the team. It's been brilliant."

Since then, he's become more productive almost across the board in the final third under Tuchel than he had been for Lampard in 2020-21.

Seemingly one of the main contributing factors is his role. While Lampard used Mount in numerous positions, Tuchel has largely deployed him further up the pitch in an attempt to get him closer to the opposition's penalty area.

Touch maps show a significant change between the two coaches' usage of the 21-year-old. While Mount's touches per 90 are almost identical under the two managers, Lampard deployed Mount deeper than his German successor, while Tuchel has shown a clear desire to get him on the ball in more advanced areas.

So much of the positive work that Mount does with the ball is not captured in goals and assists, the baseline figures that many would deem the primary indicator of an attacking midfielder's contribution. His link play and overall involvement in Chelsea’s attack can be highlighted by sequences framework.

In the 14 games since Tuchel's arrival, only Bruno Fernandes (91) has been involved in more open play sequences (or 'passages of play') that have resulted in a shot than Mount's 86. This figure translates to 7.6 sequences per 90 minutes, which is a big increase on the 5.6 per 90 he was involved in during Lampard's 18 top-flight games this term.

Not only is Mount involved more heavily in Chelsea's attacking play under Tuchel, but his involvement is generating better quality chances. The expected goals value from these sequences has increased from 0.43 per 90 minutes under Lampard to 0.7 under Tuchel. Simply put, Chelsea are creating greater quality chances with Mount further up the pitch.

Similarly, the England international's six goal-ending sequences in the same period are more than any of his team-mates have contributed to.

Even though he's still without a single open-play assist in 2020-21, it's clear to see that Mount's strong associative talents and ability to play tidily in busier areas of the pitch make him a real asset to Tuchel, who has acted quickly to shift him into a position that seemingly suits him better. He's also proving more decisive, with four of his six Premier League goals coming since January 25 – that's more than any of his team-mates in that period.

In general, though, scoring has been a bit of an issue for Chelsea. The likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz haven't properly hit their stride yet, and this has undoubtedly impacted Mount's baseline assist numbers, as his expected assists total from open play is 4.1. With more clinical finishing he wouldn't still be sat on zero.

Mount's form lately suggests that once Chelsea begin to click in front of goal, he'll be key to much of their build-up if he's not the one finishing the chances.

Another string to Mount's bow is that he is a genuine set-piece specialist. His corner deliveries are consistently dangerous, and he's created more chances from set plays (38) in 2020-21 than any other player. That's six more than James Ward-Prowse and 16 more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, both of whom have received acclaim for their set-piece prowess over the years.

When thinking of players you might consider to be particularly good at dead-ball situations, Mount may not be the first that comes to mind among non-Chelsea fans, but maybe he should be.

An unsung hero

Mount's improvements certainly don't begin and end with his creativity in the final third, however. Tuchel's preference to play him more centrally is also leading to greater off-the-ball productivity.

He's always been a hard worker and certainly couldn't be accused of neglecting the less glamorous side of the game, yet his role for Tuchel seems to be harnessing his attitude and tirelessness even more effectively.

Mount is averaging 2.2 attempted tackles per 90 minutes under Tuchel, up from 1.7 across Lampard's time at the club. While he may be winning tackles at an almost identical rate (0.95 per 90 mins, up from 0.93), the increase in challenge attempts suggests Mount's work rate makes him a good fit for Tuchel's intense pressing system.

Since the German's first game in charge, Chelsea have the lowest PPDA (9.2) in the Premier League, proof that they press higher than anyone else. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team's own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third. A lower figure indicates a higher level of pressing.

Mount leads Tuchel's press from the front. The midfielder has won possession in the final third 17 times in 19 games for Tuchel. Over the same period, İlkay Gundogan (20), Mohamed Salah (20) and Kevin De Bruyne (23) are the only Premier League players to have a better record than the Chelsea star across all competitions.

A homegrown beacon of hope

Throughout Roman Abramovich's time as Chelsea owner, the club has often found itself in a sort of purgatory. While they've undoubtedly wanted success and a first team full of homegrown talents, it's difficult to say they've truly struck a balance between the two.

After all, since the start of the century, Chelsea products reaching 100 Premier League appearances for the club have been a rarity.

John Terry, of course, leads the way, but beyond him it becomes a bit murky. John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic perhaps come closest to fitting the bill, though both did play senior football elsewhere before joining the club as teenagers.

Granted, Mount remains a little way off yet as well having played 69 times in the top-flight for Chelsea, but he's quickly making up ground.

Not too far behind him are Tammy Abraham (57), Callum Hudson-Odoi (55) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (54), while Andreas Christensen – at Chelsea since 2013 – has featured 72 times.

What's in store for their long-term futures at Chelsea remains to be seen – they are far less certain than Mount.

But Mount especially shows that where there wasn't much hope for young talent coming through at Chelsea in the past, now there is for arguably the first time in the Abramovich era.

The accusations of Mount being a 'teacher's pet' have faded. Tuchel has no ulterior motive to keep picking Mount other than the fact he wants to pick the best side to win games. And with just two defeats in his first 21 games for Chelsea in all competitions, the German is certainly doing just that.

It is business time in the Champions League as the 2020-21 semi-finals get under way with the first legs this week.

Chelsea visit Real Madrid, who have seen pre-match questions focus on their continued pursuit of the controversial European Super League.

In the other tie, Paris Saint-Germain are the only remaining outfit not to have signed up for the competition prior to its collapse, gaining favour with UEFA.

They have a tough ask against Manchester City, however, after Pep Guardiola's men collected their first piece of silverware this season in the EFL Cup final.

Using Opta data, we break down the two matches...

Real Madrid v Chelsea: Los Blancos yet to beat Blues or Tuchel

When English football fans consider their country's most-consistent representatives in the Champions League, Chelsea will not be the team that immediately springs to mind for most.

Yet this will be the Blues' eighth semi-final appearance at this stage of the competition, a record among Premier League sides, and they have every reason to feel positive about the Blues' chances here.

They have only lost the first leg in one of their previous seven Champions League semis and head into the tie in good shape domestically, with Thomas Tuchel inspiring a significant improvement in their fortunes since taking over in January.

The German was in charge of PSG as they lost in last season's final to Bayern Munich but boasts a strong record against Madrid, having faced them more often without losing in this competition than any other side (W1 D3). The only other coach to take them on as many times in the Champions League and not lose is Gerard Houllier (P4 W2 D2).

Further to that, Madrid's record against Chelsea is poor, as they've not won any of their three previous meetings. Los Blancos haven't faced any other side more often without winning in their entire history.

A key factor in Chelsea's run to the semis has been their solidity at the back, and Edouard Mendy has more than played his part.

The Frenchman has let in just two goals in his first nine Champions League matches; if he keeps a clean sheet on Tuesday, he will match the record set by ex-Madrid man Keylor Navas for fewest conceded in a goalkeeper's first 10 games.

Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester City: Pep back in the big time

If Madrid and Chelsea are vastly experienced at this level, the same is not exactly true of PSG and City. The Ligue 1 club are playing their third Champions League semi-final, while this is City's second.

Indeed, City have only progressed through one of their prior three semis in all European competitions, winning the Cup Winners' Cup on that occasion in 1970.

PSG are finally getting to grips with UEFA's premier club tournament, however, becoming only the third French team to reach the last four in consecutive seasons - after Saint-Etienne 1975-76 and Marseille 1990-91 in the European Cup - and bidding to be the ninth side to play back-to-back finals.

They will require a first win over City to get there, though, drawing two and losing the other of their previous three meetings. Only against Juventus (eight), Arsenal and Milan (both four) have PSG played more games without winning in their history.

And Guardiola, having finally returned to this stage, has the know-how his players might lack. This a record-equalling eighth Champions League semis appearance, level with Jose Mourinho.

Mauricio Pochettino, then Tottenham manager, eliminated Guardiola in their only past European clash two seasons ago at the quarter-final stage, although the Catalan coach has 10 career wins against the PSG boss.

Pochettino will rely heavily on Neymar, who has either scored (three) or assisted (one) in each of his previous three Champions League last-four outings, while Guardiola can turn to Kevin De Bruyne, with four goals and four assists across his past seven knockout appearances.

De Bruyne scored in both legs when City beat PSG in the 2015-16 quarter-finals and could join Neymar (four), Lionel Messi and Marcus Rashford (both three) in netting against the Parisians in three consecutive Champions League games.

There is light at the end of the NBA tunnel. A difficult regular season played out amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic is drawing towards a conclusion.

However, there is still plenty to play for in the closing weeks. For some teams it is about jostling for position as a play-off seed, while others are just frantically trying to make it into the postseason.

For those who have found the pace too tough, there comes the chance to give players opportunities to prove their worth. A strong finish can make all the difference to your career prospects.

Following a busy week that has seen some big names return to action, Stats Perform highlights those who have starred – as well as a few who have struggled – between April 19-25.


RUNNING HOT...

Paul George 

With team-mate Kawhi Leonard sidelined due to a foot injury, George has picked up the slack. The seven-time All-Star sat out a win for the Los Angeles Clippers over the Memphis Grizzlies, but scored 33 points against both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets last week.

He also recorded double-digit rebound totals in those outings, helping the Clippers remain firmly in the hunt to finish as the top seeds in the Western Conference. For the season, George is averaging career highs in points per game (24.0), rebounds (6.5) and assists (5.4). He is also shooting 89.1 per cent from the free-throw line.

OG Anunoby

A see-saw season for the Toronto Raptors still may yet wind up with a postseason appearance, though the 2019 champions have some work to do if they are to get inside the top 10 in the East.

Anunoby looks to be set for a strong finish to his campaign, having scored 52 points in his previous two outings following a short spell out of action - the London-born forward had averaged 14.78ppg going into the week. His six three-pointers made against the New York Knicks was a career high, though the landmark came in a losing cause.

Oshae Brissett

Brissett has seized the opportunity to impress for the Indiana Pacers while making four consecutive starts. He reached double figures for points in all of them, including posting a career-high 23 against the Oklahoma City Thunder to celebrate signing a long-term deal with the franchise.

The second-year prospect out of Syracuse played a total of 135 minutes in his rookie season with the Raptors, but nearly matched that number in a week that saw the Pacers win three out of four. Brissett also contributed when it came to rebounds, averaging 9.25 per outing.

GOING COLD...

Anthony Davis

Davis admitted it felt like the Lakers were "starting from zero" after the second outing on his return from an Achilles issue. Prior to his two-month absence, he was averaging 22.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the season.

However, unsurprisingly considering the amount of time spent off the court, the eight-time All-Star has struggled upon his return (albeit on a minutes restriction). Having shot 2-for-10 from the floor in the first of back-to-back meetings with the Dallas Mavericks, Davis followed up by going 5-for-19 in the second game between the teams.

Gary Trent Jr.

After a ridiculously hot start to life with Toronto following his involvement in a deadline-day trade, Trent Jr. has cooled off in recent outings. That is in part due to a drop in his minutes following the return of some of the regular starters for the Raptors, including back-court duo Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

The former Portland Trail Blazer still had 23 points against Oklahoma, but then dipped to a combined total of nine in limited action against the Brooklyn Nets and the Knicks. The three-point shooting is also a reason for a dip in points, as he made just one of his nine attempts from the beyond the arc during the past week.

Tobias Harris

Harris' drop in production in recent times has had less to do with him going cold and more to do with injury management. A bothersome right knee kept him out of games against the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns, both of which the Philadelphia 76ers lost.

His return in a double-header against the Milwaukee Bucks - one of Philadelphia's major rivals in the East - failed to help his team get back to winning ways. Harris had 18 points in the opening game but then just nine in the second, the first time he had recorded a single-digit outing in a game since February 25.

A week on from the drama, controversy and anger surrounding the European Super League, it felt like football – rather than its potential ruin – was at the front of the agenda this weekend.

However, the spectre of the Super League continued to loom over much of the action, with many of the so-called "big six" seeing it used as a stick to beat them with as they largely stuttered to underwhelming results.

Of those in league action over the weekend (Manchester City beat Tottenham in the EFL Cup final), only Chelsea emerged victorious, as Manchester United and Liverpool were held, while Arsenal lost at home to Everton.

Using Opta data, we look at some of the quirky facts from the latest Premier League matches…

Liverpool 1-1 Newcastle United: Reds to join exclusive list?

It was another underwhelming weekend for defending champions Liverpool, as their 1-1 draw at home to struggling Newcastle United saw them lose further ground in the fight for Champions League places.

Jurgen Klopp's men are four points adrift of Chelsea in fourth, after the Blues beat top-four rivals West Ham 1-0 at the London Stadium.

Liverpool have five matches to close the gap otherwise they face the prospect of an ignominious achievement.

Only five times before have the reigning Premier League champions failed to qualify for the Champions League the season after winning the title.

Manchester United were the first in 1994-95, also doing so in 2013-14. The other teams do this were Blackburn Rovers (1995-96), Chelsea (2015-16) and Leicester City (2016-17).

Wolves 0-4 Burnley: Wood and New Zealand join the United Nations of hat-tricks

Chris Wood enjoyed a weekend to remember as he netted his first Premier League hat-trick in Burnley's 4-0 win over Wolves.

In doing so, he became the first New Zealand national to score a treble in the competition, meaning there have been hat-tricks scored by 46 countries in the Premier League.

New Zealand has joined Gabon, South Korea, Venezuela, DR Congo, Japan, Israel, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Paraguay, Iceland, Sweden, Costa Rica and Serbia on one.

England, unsurprisingly, leads the way with 154 hat-tricks from 69 individuals. Joint second with 18 each are Netherlands and Argentina, while France (17) and Spain (11) are the only other countries into double figures.

Leeds United 0-0 Manchester United: 'Boring, boring Man United'

Fans expecting a repeat of Manchester United's 6-2 thrashing of Leeds United will have been sorely disappointed, not just with the 0-0 draw, but also given it was a fairly drab encounter.

Sure, United have excited on occasion this season, that previous win over Leeds and the 9-0 demolition of Southampton immediately coming to mind.

But Sunday's stalemate was United's seventh 0-0 draw of the season, more than any other team in the Premier League.

On top of that, 2020-21 has now seen United play out more goalless draws than any other Premier League season.

They previously played out six in 2004-05 and 2016-17, but 2020-21 now leads the way.

West Ham 0-1 Chelsea: Tuchel's at home on the road

Thomas Tuchel has made a fine impression at Chelsea since replacing Frank Lampard in January. The achievements seem to be piling up.

Chelsea's latest win saw them leave London rivals West Ham with a 1-0 win that moved them back into the top four at the expense of David Moyes' boys.

As such, he became the first Chelsea manager to avoid defeat in his first 10 away games across all competitions.

The previous club record was set by William Lewis over 100 years ago in 1906-07, when they went nine unbeaten on the road.

Tuchel also matched the record set by Luiz Felipe Scolari for the number of clean sheets (10) in his first 14 Premier League matches.

What's even more impressive about that is it's a league record, rather than just relevant to Chelsea.

The NFL Draft is an event that is both defined by and consistently challenges conventional wisdom.

Offensive tackles with short arms - though they would be considered long for must people - are widely regarded as a risky proposition, yet versatile brick wall Rashawn Slater will go in the first round despite barely meeting the 33-inch threshold.

Running backs are not supposed to be selected in the first round anymore, but Travis Etienne, Najee Harris and Javonte Williams could all hear their name called on day one.

Then there is the notion that you should not draft a tight end in the top five, one that is about to be shattered by Florida phenom Kyle Pitts.

Over 6ft and 5in tall, weighing 245 pounds, Pitts ran the 40-yard dash at his pro day in a scorching 4.44 seconds.

That is the kind of physical profile that has linebackers and safeties waking up in cold sweats.

Not that there haven't been monstrous athletes at the tight end position before. The nature of the position - blocking defensive ends one play, going one on one with a defensive back the next - demands remarkable athletic gifts.

Vernon Davis, drafted sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006, was 6ft 3in and 254 pounds and he ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds.

But Pitts is of a different ilk. Whereas Davis needed fine-tuning and took some time to reach his potential with San Francisco, Pitts heads to the league with a skill set that could hardly look more pro-ready.

Versatile, agile, Pitts is a big-play behemoth in the receiving game who has showcased an encouraging appetite for the dirty work on the line of scrimmage. As his Stats Perform data illustrates, Pitts is the tight end for whom a team should depart from the traditional groupthink.

A torrent of tight end production

Pitts was the best tight end in college football last season and, in terms of the raw statistics, it was not at all close.

Despite playing only eight games, Pitts led the FBS in receiving yards (770), with Hunter Long of Boston College his nearest challenger (685).

Pitts racked up 96.3 yards per game, nearly 14 more than Trey McBride (82.5), who played in half the number of games. The next player on the list to have featured in a comparable number of games, Ole Miss' Kenny Yeboah (7 games) averaged 74.9.

Beyond simply looking at his impact at his own position, Pitts made a compelling argument for being considered the top pass-catcher in the sport at any spot in 2020.

His yards per reception average of 17.9 was third in the FBS among all receivers with at least 40 catches last year, trailing Dyami Brown (20) and Dez Fitzpatrick (19.4).

Only two players to meet the same catches threshold last year had more touchdown catches than Pitts' 12 -- Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (23) and Jaelon Darden (19).

And a deeper examination of the advanced metrics further illustrates Pitts' potential as a dynamic, multi-faceted weapon at the next level.

Pitts' position-less upside

Utterly dominant at the catch point, Pitts uses his size superbly well to bully defenders in contested-catch situations, making him a nightmare to defend on jump-balls in the red zone.

Blessed with incredible body control and a wingspan of over 83 inches that means few balls are beyond his radius regardless of how accurately they are thrown, Pitts' ability to adjust to the flight of the pass ensured he did not drop a single one in 2020.

His catch rating, which indicates how well a receiver successfully catches throws that are considered catchable, of 0.945 was 13th among Power 5 tight ends with at least 25 targets last year, but that number was still comfortably above the average of 0.919.

While there were a group of his college contemporaries who did a better job of reeling in catchable throws -- though none had as many targets as Pitts' 67 -- finding a player who could match his upside as a downfield weapon was a near-impossible task.

Responsible for 15 plays of 20 yards or more last year, Pitts used his terrifying to speed to get open up the seam at will, logging a big-play percentage of 48.8 per cent that just three players, none of whom had more than 40 targets, could top.

It is typically more difficult to get open the further you go downfield, however, Pitts, relying on his frightening agility as well as his elite speed to create separation defied that accepted school of thought.

Pitts' average depth of target was 13.3 yards, second only to Greg Dulcich of UCLA (15.0), yet he was among the elite when it came to recording burns. 

A burn is when a receiver wins his matchup against his defender regardless of whether the throw was catchable or not. Pitts averaged 3.93 burn yards per route, third behind Brevin Jordan of Miami (4.57) and James Mitchell of Virginia Tech (4.50).

Perhaps the predominant reason for the intrigue with Pitts is that his success in getting free from defenders was only marginally impacted by where he lined up.

Of Pitts' 216 routes, he ran 103 as a tight end, 52 as an outside receiver and 60 from the slot. His big-play percentage was 53.9 as a tight end, but it only dipped to 46.5 when he lined up outside and further to 41.9 from the slot.

His burn yards per route was also best from the tight end spot (4.62), with outside receiver next (3.40) ahead of the slot (3.27). However, his burn percentage increased from 67.7 when he played at tight end to 81.3 at the slot position.

While it is generally easier to get open from the slot, with quicker receivers running shorter routes in the underneath areas of the field, Pitts' burn percentage put him fourth among all pass-catchers with at least 15 slot targets.

That is what makes Pitts so appealing. He is clearly an elite tight end but also stands as a top-tier option from the slot who can win his matchups when playing as an outside receiver.

And he has another string to his bow.

Doing the dirty work

A significant question that is always asked of tight prospects surrounds whether they can survive, if not thrive, blocking on the end of the offensive line.

Though it is not Pitts' forte, it is far from a weakness.

In 20 pass protection snaps, Pitts allowed only one pressure, indicating that, while he is best off running routes on passing downs, he can stay in and provide protection for his quarterback when required.

He was more porous when asked to run block, allowing 10 run disruptions on 95 snaps, but his 85 wins in that regard show Pitts to be a player with the ability to move defenders off the ball and create lanes for the backs to hit.

It is rare to find tight end prospects who check every box. Pitts does all that and more.

The offensive coach lucky enough to have him added to their depth chart will know they have a player whom they can immediately rely on in every facet of the game.

More than that, though, they will have the football equivalent of the queen on the chessboard, with Pitts able to wield the power of his devastating skill set from anywhere on the field, allowing his coordinator to present a variety of different looks and create mismatches against linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks alike.

Pitts provides options scarcely offered by most tight ends. He is a true unicorn with a case for being the most complete player in the draft. Tight ends don't go in the top five, but position-less prospects who offer Pitts' level of firepower are more than worthy of that status.

Chatter rippled quickly across the Wembley press room, a buzz of excitement quickly following. It was the first thing most people looking at hot-off-the-press team sheets mentioned.

"Foden's starting."

Since describing the playmaker as "a gift" in the aftermath of his maiden senior outing for Manchester City against Manchester United in the 2017 International Champions Cup, Pep Guardiola persistently had his use of Foden questioned.

The teenager wasn't playing enough, then he wasn't starting enough, then he wasn't starting enough meaningful games. Guardiola maintained he had a plan and it absolutely did not include Foden going out on loan.

But there he was in the first XI for a major cup final. He responded by turning in a man-of-the-match display as City beat Aston Villa 2-1 to win a third consecutive EFL Cup.

They will look to make it four in a row against Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday and, in the interim period, Foden has scarcely looked back.

A serious player

His outing in the 2020 final was Foden's 61st appearance for City, going back to a competitive debut from the bench against Feyenoord in the Champions League in November 2017.

Those initial steps of his career saw him make 24 starts and play 2,439 minutes. His knockdown for Sergio Aguero to open the scoring against Villa was a 10th assist to sit alongside 10 goals.

In a little over a year since, Foden has almost doubled his appearances with 56 and 38 starts contribute to a major leap of 3,598 minutes played.

The returns those appearances have yielded do much to explain his status as a one of Guardiola's go-to men, to the extent it is possible he will be afforded the luxury of a rest against Spurs, given City have a Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain on the horizon and a Premier League title to wrap up.

That might not be the most advisable course of action, given City's record of won 26, drawn three, lost one when Foden starts this season. The sole defeat came in the second Premier League game of the season against Leicester City in September.

That win percentage of 86.7 per cent drops to 68.2 (W15 D3 L4) when Guardiola opts to take Foden out of the firing line.

"His influence in our game is massive right now," the City manager told Sky Sports after another man-of-the-match showing at Villa's expense in midweek, where Foden netted a first-half equaliser in a 2-1 win before his twinkling feet mercilessly goaded opposition right-back Matty Cash into a red card.

"He is becoming a serious player for us," Guardiola added.

Pep's most prolific youngster

Last season's EFL Cup final was played out in front of a capacity Wembley crowd, for whom the Super League was a rugby league competition. It truly was a different world.

Whatever this disorientating reality is, Foden is making it his own.

In the period since he has scored 19 and laid on a further 11 in all competitions, with his minutes-per-goal figure down from 244 to 189 and shot conversion up from 13 to 16.5 per cent.

Such sharp shooting saw him score the winner in both legs of City's Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund, the latter rasping strike leading to a cathartic and emotional embrace with Guardiola.

Unsurprisingly, Foden is far outstripping his expected goals (xG) figure of 11.8 since the 2020 EFL Cup final, while an xG 9.8 aligned almost exactly with his 10 goals beforehand.

This higher output is because, much to the profound discomfort of Cash and others, Foden has evolved from the scheming midfielder of his youth to an explosive and versatile wide attacker.

Only Kevin De Bruyne with 24 has been directly involved in more City goals than Foden's 23 this season, thanks to his 14 goals and nine assists.

Looking further back across a career where Guardiola has worked with some of the finest young talent in the game, Foden's overall 29 goals and 21 assists give him 50 goal involvements – more than any other player before turning 21 under the former Barcelona Bayern Munich boss.

The England international's 29 goals are also unmatched among that age group, with Bojan Krkic also scoring the same number for Guardiola's Barcelona.

This weekend is unlikely to be the last time Foden graces Wembley this year, as a starring role with England at Euro 2020 surely awaits – the 20-year-old having taken to international football effortlessly.

From boy to main man

"He was a boy when I arrived, at 17 years old he trained every day with these guys and played more minutes," Guardiola said on Friday.

"Now he is stronger with his physicality, but it is normal. He is still at an age to get stronger, play more minutes and have more experience.

"He has the ability to play in different positions. That's why he is a better player but still, like every player, he can be better. It depends on him."

In this week of all weeks, as he hauled his boyhood team to a vital win, there was something delightful about watching Foden's star continue its unchecked and rapid ascent since that surprise cup final call.

When the modern City began stacking up trophies almost a decade ago, he cheered them on from pitchside as a ballboy. Now, he plays a pivotal role in everything they achieve.

Given his employers' involvement in the tawdry Super League debacle, it will be an incredibly long time until any vaguely romantic notions can be pinned to Manchester City as an organisation.

But Foden's story, that of a young man living out his childhood fantasy every week, playing the football from all of our wildest dreams, is one any fan can cherish. Its appeal is something the suited goons and hedge fund cretins will never understand.

When Foden plays, in those moments of velvet first touches, darting dribbles and thumping finishes, all the nonsense melts away in the face of pure footballing talent. Guardiola was right, he really is a gift.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.