Kevin Durant will make a long-awaited return to the Bay Area on Saturday as the Brooklyn Nets visit the Golden State Warriors in a mouth-watering NBA clash at Chase Center.

It is a game that pits the league's newest 'big three' (Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden) against a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry, whose incredible performances this season merit MVP votes.

But more significantly it is Durant's first road game against the Warriors since leaving them to join the Nets after the 2018-19 season that ended with Golden State losing the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors in a series that saw the 2014 MVP suffer an Achilles injury.

Having missed the last three games because of coronavirus contact tracing protocols, Durant has been cleared and will face the team with whom he won two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs, though Curry does not expect his former team-mate to treat the contest any differently.

Reflecting on Durant's time with the Warriors, Curry told a media conference: "Two championships, an unfortunate ending with injuries and not getting it done in the 2019 Finals, but it was some of the best basketball the world has ever seen.

"The ability to put that much talent and experience together and make it work, there was no guarantee it was going to work, and we figured it out and it was an amazing run."

Asked about the emotions of his return, Curry added: "Honestly, I don't know how special it'll be because it's not at Oracle [Arena] and there's no fans, so it's kind of weird that whole vibe.

"We've got a tribute video which he deserves, and hopefully it'll be a moment that he'll appreciate. But outside of that it is kind of weird to be honest, in terms of all the things that have changed since 18-19.

"If you ask him how he feels he'll probably say it's another game and I'm sure that's how it will be once the ball drops on Saturday."

TOP PERFORMERS

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

Curry has bounced back from a 2019-20 season lost to injury in utterly remarkable form.

He is averaging 30 points a game, the only other season in which he has done so was in 2015-16, when he was named the league MVP in a unanimous vote.

Curry is shooting 43.5 per cent from beyond the arc, having made 10 threes in Thursday's win over the Orlando Magic, which he finished with 40 points.

That his tally against the Magic was not close to his season-high is indicative of the level at which he is playing.

The six-time All-Star has a 62-point game and a 57-point game this season, and has topped 30 points on 10 other occasions. Curry is back, and he's back to his best.

James Harden - Brooklyn Nets

Harden may not be scoring at the same level as Curry but his impact this season is undoubted.

The former Houston Rockets star is sixth in the NBA in PAR (Points + Assists + Rebounds) per game with 41.8, so far justifying the Nets' blockbuster trade for his services.

He started the month with his fourth triple-double of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers and has four successive double-doubles since.

Whether it's as a scorer, facilitator or rebounder, the Warriors will have to do all they can to limit Harden's influence.

KEY BATTLE: CAN DRAYMOND STOP DURANT?

With the Warriors still without rookie center James Wiseman because of a wrist injury and DeAndre Jordan out for the Nets, Durant may have to matchup with Draymond Green at center.

In the absence of Wiseman, the Warriors have had to turn to small ball and play Green at the five, and his clash with Durant promises to be a feisty one, given they weren't afraid to get in each other's faces as team-mates.

One of Green's tasks will be to stop Durant from getting into the paint consistently. That is no easy feat, but the Warriors have had success stopping teams in that regard this season.

Their 43.5 points in the paint allowed per game are the sixth-fewest in the NBA. If Green and the Warriors can limit Durant's opportunities to get to the hoop, they will have a much better shot of pulling off the upset.

HEAD TO HEAD

Durant and Irving inspired the Nets to a blowout win over the Warriors to start the new season.

The Nets emerged 125-99 victors, Durant scoring 22 points and leading Brooklyn with a plus-minus rating of plus 26.

That game was illustrative of the massive changes both teams have undergone. It was Brooklyn's second successive win over the Warriors but they had lost their previous eight meetings with one of most dominant teams in NBA history.

Manchester United's FA Cup win over West Ham wasn't the easiest watch for the neutral, but the average armchair fan likely had a better time than Donny van de Beek.

The Netherlands midfielder was granted the chance to impress in the number 10 role in just his 12th start for the Red Devils. With Bruno Fernandes resting on the bench and Paul Pogba out injured, this was Van de Beek's latest opportunity to show his creative mettle.

After 73 lacklustre minutes, he headed ruefully back to the bench. He had completed 28 passes and touched the ball 46 times, the lowest numbers of any starting outfield player for United. Fernandes, on as his replacement, surpassed both those figures in normal and extra time, with fellow sub Scott McTominay scoring the winning goal.

This was the latest unspectacular outing for a player who caught the eye of the world's biggest clubs at Ajax. An initial fee of £34.7million that looked a bargain at first is beginning to seem a bit of a waste as a player so in tune with that wonderful Ajax harmony looks increasingly disconnected in a United shirt.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has certainly not given up on Van de Beek just 25 games into his United career and has repeatedly called for patience as he beds the 23-year-old into his plans. But as Europa League football returns and fixtures pile up again, and with Pogba sidelined at least for a few weeks, Van de Beek is under mounting pressure to prove his worth.

 

BEEN THERE, DON THAT

During his final three seasons in the Netherlands, in which time he had established himself as first choice at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, Van de Beek registered 39 goals and 29 assists in 132 games in all competitions. No Eredivisie midfielder scored more in that time, and only former team-mate Hakim Ziyech had more assists (54).

Ziyech is an interesting comparison. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, the playmaker, now with Chelsea, was consistently the only Eredivisie midfielder with superior attacking numbers to Van de Beek. They were top two in that time for chances created from open play (275 for Ziyech, 192 for Van de Beek); top two for shots (543 and 242); and top two for efforts on target (180 and 101).

Van de Beek was also third for passes ending in the final third on 1,938, while only two midfielders (Ziyech and AZ's Fredrik Midtsjo) started more sequences to end in a shot, underlining his importance when it came to synchronising the Ajax attack. The fact he did all this from a deeper starting position than Ziyech is notable: the majority of his touches came in the left-centre of the pitch, an area that served as a springboard for forays forward that yielded 28 chance-creating carries in the Eredivisie alone.

 

ILL-FITTING

There is a notion that Van de Beek was an opportunistic signing by Solskjaer, who had no guarantees over Pogba's future or the chances of bringing in top target Jadon Sancho.

You can understand his desire to cover that base. Over those same three seasons (2017-18 to 2019-20), Pogba was the United midfielder with the most touches (7,909), the most goals (23), most assists (26), most chances created from open play (163), most passes ending in the final third (2,358) and most shots (180). And, like Van de Beek, Pogba mostly thrived to the centre-left of midfield in that time – nearly 20 per cent of his total touches all came in that general area of the pitch.

Yet a key difference lies in their possession play: during that same time frame, Pogba averaged roughly 20 more completed passes and 32 more touches in each game than Van de Beek, who was happier to let others have the ball as he took up threatening positions. Once it became clear he was spending another season at United, this gave Pogba a distinct advantage in Solskjaer's system.

The arrival of Bruno Fernandes last January more or less prompted the United boss to give up on a 4-3-3 and use a predominant 4-2-3-1, in which the attacking players are afforded relative free reign to produce match-winning moments in front of a stable base. This has often meant Pogba dropping deeper into a position that, while not his favourite, is one in which those ball-playing numbers make him a distinctly valuable asset, just as they did in France's World Cup win three years ago. Van de Beek has proven less adaptable.

 

MAKE OR BEEK

Solskjaer tends to have two versions of deep central midfielders. Playmakers like Pogba and Nemanja Matic are generally used in matches where more penetrative passing is needed to unlock low blocks who are happy to give up the ball. When facing stronger, more possession-hungry sides, the United manager has found comfort – and success – in a double pivot of Fred and McTominay, who bring far greater dynamism without the ball.

Van de Beek has, so far, failed to convince as either.

Among United midfielders to play more than three games this season, Van de Beek has produced just one goal and one assist, with only Fred and Matic yet to have a direct goal involvement. Per 90 minutes, he averages roughly three passes into the final third and just 0.3 shots, comfortably the lowest, while only substitute winger Dan James averages fewer touches (60.95).

He appears little better suited to the disruptive role, either. Per 90 minutes this season, Van de Beek averages less than one tackle, half the number of interceptions as McTominay and fewer successful duels than any midfield team-mates except James and Juan Mata. Pogba is top of that particular chart with eight.

Right now, Van de Beek appears suited neither to the recycling service of United's deep midfield nor to the attacking quartet where spontaneity is king. He must adapt soon if his Old Trafford career is going to take off.

Pep Guardiola has long known the lot of the holding midfielder.

During his playing days, Guardiola operated at the base of Barcelona's engine room as the likes of Michael Laudrup, Romario, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and Ronaldo took the plaudits higher up the field.

In his Manchester City side, who claimed a 15th successive win across all competitions this week to set a new record in English top-flight history, the attacking stars also trip off the tongue.

Ilkay Gundogan is enjoying the most prolific season of his career from midfield and was named Premier League Player of the Month on Friday, while Phil Foden's rapid rise is firing enthusiasm over England's Euro 2020 prospects.

City's all-time leading scorer Sergio Aguero and star playmaker Kevin De Bruyne are still to return to the mix after spells on the sidelines, but another less-glamorous player has been there throughout the dominant run.

No one in Guardiola's squad has made more than Rodri's 21 appearances, the Spain international having made the anchor role his own.

"The best holding midfielders never appear in the newspapers, in the front pages," the City manager said ahead of Saturday's game against Tottenham.

"They hide behind the team but when [the team] plays good it is because they are playing outstanding."

Since a 2-0 defeat to Spurs last November, City are undefeated in 22 matches - something that reflects very well indeed on Rodri in Guardiola's eyes.

 

A £62.8million signing from Atletico Madrid in July 2019, the 24-year-old's first season in English football proved a struggle at times.

Without Aymeric Laporte through injury for large chunks of the season, the defence Rodri was charged with protecting often looked vulnerable.

Fernandinho being pressed into action at centre-back meant the new man was left to learn on the job as Guardiola sought and struggled for midfield balance.

But Rodri has started to thrive in the months since City last tasted defeat, with Ruben Dias at the heart of defence and an attacking line ahead of him displaying its fluidity of old.

"He adapted quickly, immediately. He's still young and there are some issues that he still has to learn but he will learn them," Guardiola said. "He's a really important player for us."

No Premier League player has attempted more than Rodri's 1,723 passes this season and he retains an impressive 90.3 per cent accuracy across that volume of work.

The quality of possession Rodri plays a part in and often launches is notable.

According to Opta, he has initiated 36 open play sequences leading to a shot and five resulting in goals - both league-best returns.

Similarly, Rodri is out on his own with 81 involvements in open play build-ups concluding with a shot, while weekend opponent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is the only man who can match the Spaniard's 11 involvements in build-ups preceding a goal.

Smoothness on the ball is a pre-requisite for any Guardiola player, especially one operating in the Catalan's old position, but Rodri has also shown an aptitude for the dirty work required to keep City's pristine machine on the road.

None of his team-mates can boast more than his 174 recoveries this term - 10th in the Premier League overall. Rodri also leads the way at City for tackles (40) and duels won (128), while winning 52 of 70 aerials contested – that is unmatched in the top-flight leaders' squad as well.

"A good holding midfielder plays for the other ones and not for himself. These are the best holding midfielders," Guardiola said.

"They think what's happening, what they have to do to correct the mistakes of the other ones and don't play for the highlights."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed on Friday that teenagers Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri will be promoted to Manchester United's senior squad.

The young attackers have been playing for United's Under-23s this season and blossomed in Neil Wood's free-scoring team.

Still just 17 and 18, respectively, Shoretire and Mejbri are seemingly now considered a level above that which United's second team play, with both looking destined for big futures.

Shoretire was spotted training with the United first-team squad last week and Mejbri is set to join him, with Solskjaer confirming it is his plan to integrate both into the senior group.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Solskjaer said: "Yeah, we've moved Shola up with us, Hannibal will probably join us, and we'll keep them with us for a while.

"Of course, it's a decision we have to make – are they going to train with us and travel by themselves and not be a part of the Under-23s group?

"We felt, with Shola, it was time for him to train with us. In the Under-23s games, he's just got to travel by himself; he can't be in the dressing room, but we felt it was the right thing to do for him.

"I think it's the next step in their development and we've just got to take the hit on them when they play in the Under-23s – that they've got to travel by themselves, because they're in our [first-team] bubble."

Shoretire and Mejbri have long been considered among the best prospects in United's academy, but what can they offer?

 

HANNIBAL MEJBRI, 18 – ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Many will have had an eye on Mejbri's development ever since he joined the club from Monaco in August 2019 in a deal that could potentially cost €10million (£8.75m).

A France youth international, Mejbri quickly progressed to United's Under-23s last term despite only being 17 and has become a regular.

A technically gifted attack-minded midfielder, Mejbri has impressed not only with his ability on the ball, but his knack of crafting opportunities for team-mates.

In Premier League 2 Division One, his 42 chances created in 13 games is more than any other player, while his six assists is a joint-best for the league.

He has combined his creativity and comfort in possession to good effect as well, as evidenced by the fact seven of his carries (a movement of more than five metres with the ball) have led to chances created, a figured bettered by only five.

Mejbri has also attempted 49 dribbles, the fourth-most in the division, and won a remarkable 94 fouls – almost three times as many as anyone else – two of which secured penalties in the recent 6-3 win over Liverpool's Under-23s.

In fact, Wood recently urged referees to do more to protect him from such rough treatment, concerned Mejbri will suffer a serious injury if it continues.

He can expect similar attention if he does get minutes in the top flight, though Wood is adamant Mejbri does not let it get to him, saying: "I think he's the type that he wants the ball all the time, he's not going to shy away from it and that's what we want, you don't want your top players being worried, he just needs a bit of protection or it could result in him being badly injured."

SHOLA SHORETIRE, 17 – FORWARD

Shoretire joined the United academy in 2014 having previously played for Newcastle United, and for several years now he has looked like one of the next high-potential kids to come off the Old Trafford production line.

He made his debut for the club's Under-18s in 2018, in doing so becoming the youngest player to ever feature in UEFA's Youth League at 14 years and 314 days.

Shoretire – whose name is pronounced 'Shor-ay-ti-reh' – is most-often used as a winger (on either flank) for the Under-23s, but given his excellent dribbling, vision and finishing abilities, he could potentially have a future as a more central striker.

He signed his first professional contract on Monday, just three days after netting a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers' Under-23s.

That took him to five goals in 13 appearances this term, while he also has four assists from 22 chances created.

Where he comes out particularly well is with regards to goal-ending passing sequences, of which he has been involved in 13 – only Mejbri (14) has a better record here.

Like Mejbri, Shoretire also has a penchant for taking the game to his opponents, as showcased by the fact he has created eight chances at the end of ball carries, the fifth-most in the league.

Given United's packed schedule over the next few weeks, with their European campaign set to resume, it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two make their first-team bows.

Even if they don't this season, it is surely only a matter of time.

Three weeks ago, it appeared this season was shaping up to be like each of the previous 14 for the Sacramento Kings.

A 115-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 20 marked the sixth defeat in seven games for the Kings and dropped their record to 5-10 – third worst in the Western Conference.

A month into the season and it was already looking like Sacramento would match the Clippers' dubious record of 15 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth from 1976-77 to 1990-91 for the longest playoff drought in NBA history.

Now one-third of the way into their season, however, the Kings have pulled within a half-game of the eighth-placed Golden State Warriors in the West on the heels of a 7-2 stretch. on Friday night, they take on the Orlando Magic.

The turnaround began two nights after the blowout loss to the Clippers with a 103-94 victory over the New York Knicks. The Kings' performance that night was emblematic of how they've managed to climb back into the playoff picture, but is their formula for winning sustainable?

Against the Knicks, the Kings found themselves up 89-87 with just under four minutes remaining after New York went on an 8-0 run. Sacramento then went on a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Tyrese Haliburton three-pointer with 2:35 to play to put the game away.

The Kings ended up scoring 14 of the game's final 21 points, and over the next few weeks displayed a proficiency for closing out tight games.

Prior to January 22, the Kings had the NBA's third-worst fourth-quarter point differential at minus-2.8 while ranking 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring with an average of 25.5 points. Since then, they are averaging 28.1 points over the final 12 minutes of games.

It's been in the game's final moments, however, that the Kings have really excelled. Their 10.0-scoring average in the final three minutes since January 22 is the best in the NBA.

The Kings are finding ways to grind out victories and have a league-high eight wins this season by five points or less, but this typically is not a blueprint for success in the NBA.

The Kings' 5.9-point differential in their wins is the lowest in the NBA, and no team have finished a season with a point differential of less than 6.0 in their victories since 2005-06, when the Portland Trail Blazers were at 5.6 and the Atlanta Hawks were at 5.8. Sacramento, however, do not want to be too closely linked to those teams, as Portland were a league-worst 21-61 while Atlanta were not much better at 26-56.

Winning close games rarely leads to long-term success, seeing as only one team in the last 30 years have reached the playoffs while having a point differential of less than 8.0 in their wins – the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.8.

In fact, in NBA history only two teams have reached the playoffs while outscoring their opponents by fewer than 7.0 points in their wins and those instances came well before man even walked on the Moon – the 1954-55 Rochester Royals at 6.6 and the 1948-49 St Louis Bombers at 6.8.

Grinding out wins over the long haul of a full season takes its toll and it may have caught up with the Kings in their last time on the court.

In Tuesday's 119-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Kings seemed to tire down the stretch, missing seven straight shots over a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter as the Sixers went on a 10-0 run to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead with just over four and a half minutes to play.

Sacramento were playing for the third time in four days, so they were playing on tired legs, but it's also possible fatigue was setting in because each of their previous three games went down to the wire and the minutes are piling up for their stars.

De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield each played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday and have regularly been playing in crunch time.

Since January 22, the Kings have four players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes – Haliburton (1st, 10.7), Fox (11th, 9.9), Hield (12th, 9.7) and Harrison Barnes (18th, 9.4).

The Nets are the only other team to have more than two players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes in that period.

Sacramento have counted on Fox down the stretch, as his 11 field-goal attempts in late and close situations since January 22 trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (15) and the Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (13) for the most in the NBA. Late and close situations here are defined as the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.

Fox's shots, however, weren't falling on Tuesday.

Over a five-game stretch from January 30 to February 7, Fox led the league with an average of 13.2 fourth-quarter points (minimum three games) while shooting 57.8 per cent. He misfired on 10 of 13 shots, though, while scoring seven points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter.

Haliburton's fourth quarter – as well as his third quarter for that matter – was even more forgettable. His final points on Tuesday came on a three-pointer with 2:00 remaining before halftime.

It was a sub-par showing for someone who is shooting at a staggering clip when the game moves to the fourth quarter.

The 20-year-old rookie is making 60.6 per cent (40-of-66) on all fourth-quarter shots – tied for fourth in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 109 players with at least 50 shot attempts in the fourth – and has been connecting at an even higher percentage from beyond the arc.

Shooting an absurd 61.5 per cent on three-pointers (24-of-39) in the fourth quarter, Haliburton is on track to become the only player seeing regular minutes to shoot at least 60 per cent from deep in the final quarter in the last 15 seasons. Since 2005-06, Kyle Korver for the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks has the highest fourth-quarter shooting percentage on three-pointers at 57.4, among players with at least 50 3-point attempts.

Haliburton has also made seven clutch three-pointers this season to trail only James (11), the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte’ Graham (eight) and the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (eight) for most in the league. Here, clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when a game is within six points.

Considering Haliburton is knocking down 44.1 per cent of his shots in the game's first three quarters, his fourth-quarter shooting has been especially baffling. His increase in shooting of 16.5 per cent from the first three quarters to the fourth is the biggest in the NBA this season (minimum 125 field goal attempts in first three quarters and 50 in fourth).

His shooting has been exceptional but hitting a rookie wall could be a concern. Tuesday marked the 22nd game of the season for Haliburton – the exact same number of games he played all of last season collegiately at Iowa State.

The fourth-quarter exploits of Haliburton and Fox have played a big role in Sacramento's climb in the standings, but the climb is just beginning. The season is only a little more than seven weeks old and time will tell if the Kings have the strength to continue their playoff push.

Manchester City made history on Wednesday as they cruised to a routine 3-1 FA Cup fifth-round victory at Swansea City.

It was the 15th consecutive win across all competitions for Pep Guardiola's Premier League leaders – setting a new record for any top-flight team in English football.

Sunday's comprehensive 4-1 triumph over Liverpool at Anfield brought them level with Arsenal's 1987 vintage and Preston North End back in 1892, who won 14 in a row.

Goals from Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus in Wales ensured City now hold the record outright.

In 2017-18, they prevailed in 20 consecutive matches, although there was a penalty shoot-out win over Wolves in the EFL Cup during that run and Opta classifies such matches as draws.

Given their recent record from the spot, it is perhaps handy that City have not required penalties in their current streak.

Here, we look at the numbers behind a dominant run unprecedented in scope.

Gundo in the goals

Sterling scored the goal that set City on their way into the record books, netting decisively in a 1-0 win at Southampton on December 19.

His goal at Swansea takes him to six in 10 starts during the period in question, the same as England colleague Phil Foden, who has played 905 minutes to Sterling's 856.

But it is Ilkay Gundogan who leads the way. The Germany international's brace against Liverpool improved upon what was already the most prolific season of his professional career.

In 13 appearances and 12 starts during the winning run, Gundogan has eight goals at an average of one every 124.5 minutes.

Jesus had to reckon with a positive coronavirus test during City's prolific stretch, although he now has five goals from seven starts, with a strike every 139.8 minutes second only to Gundogan in terms of frequency.

Kev the creator

PFA Players' Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne was typically influential before suffering a hamstring injury during last month's 2-0 win over Aston Villa.

Despite being restricted to eight appearances and 621 minutes on the field, his five assists are more than any of his team-mates have managed during this period.

Foden, Bernardo Silva (who also has three goals) and defensive midfielder Rodri are up next on three assists.

Extra time on the pitch has allowed Foden to rack up 28 chances created, ahead of De Bruyne with 24.

Gundogan's all-round importance is highlighted by his 21 opportunities laid on for others, while Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez have crafted 18 and 17 respectively. All three have two assists apiece.

 

Dominant Dias

Ruben Dias was the only ever-present during the winning run until Guardiola allowed him to sit out the trip to Swansea.

The Portugal centre-back has been a transformative presence since joining for a club-record £62million from Benfica last September and was involved in nine clean sheets over the course of the 15 matches – one more than his centre-back partner John Stones and first-choice goalkeeper Ederson.

Dias' 21 interceptions are the most during this time from any City player, as are his 1,141 passes at a completion rate of 92.81 – better than any colleague to have played three games or more.

Headed clearances and aerials won are also categories where Dias performs strongly, although Rodri leads the way here with 18 and 41 respectively.

The Spain international has won 31 one of his aerials, level with Aymeric Laporte and no one can better his 27 tackles – a stock in trade for a man operating at the base of the midfield.

Rodri's importance to the cause means the sight of him limping off during the second half at the Liberty Stadium could compromise City when the look to swagger on this weekend against Tottenham – the last side to beat them competitively, 23 matches ago.

Julen Lopetegui wasn't instantly won over by Jules Kounde following his 2019 arrival at Sevilla from Bordeaux, unlikely as that seems currently.

He had only made four LaLiga starts by the end of October in his first season, and although that was followed by a more prolonged run in the team, a rocky performance against Osasuna in December saw him back on the bench.

As it was, Osasuna weren't able to punish Kounde's struggles on that occasion – the closest they came was hitting the post after his misjudgement of a bouncing ball led to a clear opportunity.

He was withdrawn soon after and only made another two league starts – a defeat at Real Madrid and underwhelming 1-1 home draw with Deportivo Alaves – before the start of February.

Indeed, it arguably wasn't until LaLiga's resumption after the coronavirus lockdown that Kounde truly nailed down a place and found genuine consistency in his performances, but now he is probably the first name on the team sheet.

Sevilla's 'selling club' business model is no secret, and by that logic it is unlikely that Kounde will remain at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan long-term – after all, Manchester City were keen in pre-season.

In years gone by Barcelona would've been not only a likely destination for him such has been their affinity for Sevilla-developed talent, it would have also been a stylistically ideal place for him to play. But ahead of the two teams' Copa del Rey semi-final tie, the archetypal Barca defender appears to be well out of their reach financially.

The 'false right-back'

In 2006, two years before he came Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola wrote a column for El Pais in which he discussed what has become known as the 'Lavolpiana build-up', a defensive setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward.

While La Volpe's Mexico side used a back three, the key ball-playing and forward-thinking elements of this system are still evident in the four-man defensive structure at Guardiola's City now – it is also identifiable in Lopetegui's Sevilla.

Kounde is a massive part of that, with the young Frenchman a fine player technically, both on the ball and when distributing.

The attack-minded nature of Sevilla right-back Jesus Navas leaves a lot of space for Kounde to operate in, and he often helps create overloads on the right flank – his positional map shows how he essentially works as a secondary right-back when in possession, while Fernando drops back into central defence to form a back three.

 

The recent 3-0 win over Getafe show this perfectly, with Kounde almost spending as much time in the attacking half as he did his own.

While the 'Lavolpiana build up' is a risky strategy, the right players can ensure it brings greater incisiveness particularly when playing through a press, and Sevilla have clearly adapted well – they are one of just two teams to not concede a goal as a result of a high turnover this term.

At no point this season has Sevilla's ability to play through the press been more prevalent than when remarkably stringing together 37 passes leading up to Luuk de Jong's second goal in the 3-0 Copa win over Valencia last month. Kounde more than played his role in that.

 

The defensive playmaker

This setup suits Kounde down to the ground. It's no wonder City were interested in him before going for Ruben Dias, and by extension he would clearly suit the ethos cultivated at Barcelona.

In 2019-20, Kounde showed glimpses of his undoubted ability but it was his partner Diego Carlos who arguably attracted more acclaim.

But this season, building on his positive development post-lockdown last term, Kounde has stepped things up a notch and seemingly relished that forward-thinking ball-playing role.

That is most notable with respect to how often he has carried the ball – his 331 carries (defined as a movement of five metres or more in possession of the ball) is bettered by only six players in LaLiga this term, three of whom are Frenkie de Jong, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric.

Of those 331 carries, 205 have been progressive, so moving Sevilla up the pitch. This gives him another very high ranking, with Pau Torres (321), De Jong (288), Messi (252) and Raul Albiol (246) the four individuals to boast more.

 

Kounde ranks in the top 10 for several other carry-related metrics – last season he did not. In fact, his 338 carries in 2019-20 is only seven more than he has in 2020-21, which in itself highlights his development.

But his forward runs in possession aren't Kounde's only way of getting on the front foot. His passing is also very positive.

Possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs given many of the passes they make are simple short balls to their defensive colleagues, but Kounde is often looking ahead.

His 387 successful forward passes is more than anyone else in LaLiga, while his 486 attempted forward balls is second only to Torres (502), who has played 360 minutes more than Kounde.

The Sevilla talent's 79.6 per cent completion rate from such passes is also better than Torres' 74.5 per cent.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he has developed into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who wouldn't have looked out of place in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

While Sevilla and Lopetegui remain the perfect fit for Kounde, it is surely only a matter of time before his €80million release clause no longer appears a daunting figure for certain clubs – though Barca's perilous financial position means they won't be in the hunt.

He's come a long way from that shaky night in Pamplona.

After turning 36 last week, Cristiano Ronaldo felt compelled to remind fans that he cannot go on forever.

"I'm sorry that I can't promise you 20 more years of this," said the Juventus star, who looks every inch a man that could quite comfortably play professional football into his mid-fifties. "But what I can promise you, is that as long as I keep going, you'll never receive less than 100 per cent from me."

That much would never be in doubt from a man who, blessed with talent as he is, has built an extraordinary career on a foundation of boundless ambition and unyielding endeavour. He brings to mind Brad Pitt's turn as Achilles in Troy, the war-seeking warrior-hero who wins a skirmish singlehandedly before, abs a-glistening, he proclaims to a prisoner: "I want what all men want. I just want it more."

Achilles, as this version has it, knew Troy would bring about his death in a blaze of glory. Ronaldo, too, can already sense time's winged chariot hurrying near.

Which brings us to Gianluigi Buffon.

Juve's veteran goalkeeper, who celebrated his 43rd birthday less than two weeks ago, has for so long defied convention when it comes to a footballer's longevity. Even keepers rarely keep playing beyond the age of 40 and certainly not for Europe's grandest teams.

Buffon is not Juve's first choice these days, of course, but he remains the cup stand-in for Wojciech Szczesny and he duly kept his spot for Tuesday's Coppa Italia semi-final second leg with Inter. It was a day to celebrate, too, as a goalless draw earned him club clean sheet number 288 of his Juve career and sent his team into the final 2-1 on aggregate.

The game also showed why head coach Andrea Pirlo would do well to consider how much more his old friend has to offer.

A resolute defence meant he only had two saves to make throughout; in fact, the only time Juve looked especially anxious was when Buffon had the ball. There was one pass under pressure that went straight out for a corner, another in the second half that let Lautaro Martinez drive into the box only to foul Buffon after a heavy touch. There were three attempted punches while under pressure from Romelu Lukaku, all of which ended with Buffon clueless as to the ball's position as he landed, then grateful that it had already bounced away, and another positional mishap on which Martinez really should have capitalised.

The contrast with Samir Handanovic - himself no spring chicken at 36 - was stark. Handanovic made four saves to Buffon's two, a couple of which were exceptional stops to deny Ronaldo, who could have killed the tie long before full-time in Turin. Commanding in his penalty area, he gave quite a different impression to Buffon, who seemed like a doddering uncle at a family wedding trying desperately to keep up with the dance moves. Indeed, had Inter's attacking players showed the same level of laser-focus as Handanovic, perhaps they could have rescued this contest.

Pirlo's Juve have become supremely difficult to beat. They have won 10 of their 12 games in 2021, the sole defeat being a 2-0 Serie A loss to the Nerazzurri. Since that game on January 17, they had won six out of six games before this encounter and conceded only one goal: a close-range strike by Martinez in the first leg that squirmed into the net when Buffon, in game number 1,100 of his club career, was too slow to get to ground.

The Bianconeri are on course for more silverware this season and Buffon will deserve any more medals he can add to his impeccable collection. He may well start the final, too - one more turn in the limelight. But there is no shame in admitting that, in the 26th year of his professional career, the time is approaching when he should graciously step into the wings.

The Kansas City Chiefs' offense was the riddle the rest of the NFL had been trying to solve for the past two seasons. 

In Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers found a simple and time-tested answer: pressure Patrick Mahomes with four pass rushers.

It's hardly a new solution. After all, the San Francisco 49ers held the Chiefs to 10 points through three and a half quarters in Super Bowl LIV largely through the efforts of a stellar defensive line.

While the Niners ran out of gas and surrendered a 10-point lead, the Buccaneers were relentless and their pass rush had a more devastating impact, completely derailing the most feared passing attack in the NFL en route to a 31-9 win.

How did they do it, and what do the Chiefs' struggles in pass protection mean for Kansas City next season and beyond? We examine those questions with the help of Stats Perform data. 

Four-man front delivers five-star performance

The Buccaneers racked up 33 total pressures of Mahomes, with the sight of last season's Super Bowl MVP sprinting from the pocket to avoid swarming Tampa defenders the defining image of almost every Kansas City possession.

Just seven of those pressures came via the blitz, illustrating the dominance the Buccaneers' four-man defensive line had against an undermanned Chiefs offensive line. 

When the blitzes did come, they were well-designed and effective, with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles devising a gameplan his counterparts around the league will surely be looking to replicate.

Yet it likely would not have been so effective had the Chiefs entered the field with two key members of the offensive line group that did just enough to keep the Niners at bay a year ago.

Fisher injury a fatal blow

Kansas City had been without three-time second-team All-Pro and 2018 first-team All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz since Week 7 because of a back injury. 

The Chiefs managed to cope minus his services, but the loss of left tackle Eric Fisher to an Achilles issue in the AFC Championship game proved the tipping point on the O-Line.

It forced a reshuffle in the trenches, with Mike Remmers moving over to left tackle and Andrew Wylie playing on the right.

Adapting to new positions at short notice in the biggest game of the season against a defense as talented of that of Tampa Bay is a long way from ideal, and so it proved as the Bucs' edge rushers prospered throughout.

Shaquil Barrett made a strong case for MVP with a remarkable 13 pressures, while veteran Jason Pierre-Paul registered five.

But the Chiefs cannot just point to injuries for their struggles up front, with the Bucs' success up the middle pointing to a larger problem the Chiefs will have to solve in the offseason.

Interior issues

A Week 5 injury to guard Kelechi Osemele loomed large as the interior of the Chiefs' offensive line left Mahomes having to deal with pressure in his face as well as Barrett applying it from the periphery.

Center Austin Reiter and guards Stefen Wisniewski and Nick Allegretti were overmatched in their battle with the Bucs' defensive tackles.

Veteran Ndamukong Suh had eight pressures, Vita Vea logged six and Steve McLendon added four as they took advantage of an area of the Chiefs' roster that looks set for a rebuild.

Reiter, Remmers, Osemele and backup center Daniel Kilgore are all in their 30s and are all unrestricted free agents this offseason.

In a year where the salary cap is set to shrink due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, the Chiefs must determine whether it is worth the outlay to bring any of that quartet back or if they would be better served to trying to upgrade the heart of their O-Line through the draft.

With just over a month to go until teams can negotiate with pending free agents, Kansas City's front office has a relatively quick decision to make about an area that opponents will surely target more readily after it was ruthlessly exposed by Bowles and the Bucs.

There was more penalty drama for Manchester City as the Premier League leaders visited reigning champions Liverpool on Sunday.

Gundogan skied his spot-kick at an empty Anfield, although it would not prove a costly miss as City ran out 4-1 winners to extend their advantage at the summit.

Pep Guardiola will no doubt be keen to correct a remarkable failing in his outstanding side's game, however.

City's record from 12 yards features in our quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.
 

Sterling's penchant for pens wasted at City

As Gundogan, who later scored twice, blazed over in front of the Kop, it meant City have now accounted for four of the past six Premier League spot-kicks to miss the target - including three against Liverpool (also Riyad Mahrez in October 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in November 2020).

City are five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand but could be in an even more commanding position if they were more clinical from the spot.

In Raheem Sterling, City boast the player who has won more penalties (21) than any other in Premier League history, the latest seeing Fabinho trip the former Liverpool forward.

Sterling is unlikely to ease his side's penalty woes, however, having scored just one of his four attempts in the competition.

Only two players in Premier League history have a worse record after taking at least four penalties, with Mike Newell and Juninho Paulista each missing all their four attempts.

Nick Barmby, like Sterling, netted one of four. No player in the competition has ever taken five or more penalties and converted fewer than two.
 

Lloris longevity leading Ronaldo and Messi

Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris made his 500th top-flight appearance in the 2-0 win over West Brom, keeping his 173rd clean sheet.

Since his Ligue 1 bow for Nice in March 2006, no player has appeared more often in Europe's top five leagues than the World Cup-winning France goalkeeper.

Second on the list over that span is another goalkeeper still going strong in Inter's Samir Handanovic on 493 games, coincidentally also registering 173 clean sheets.

And the two biggest names of all sit third and fourth, Cristiano Ronaldo on 484 appearances just ahead of Lionel Messi's 480.

Karim Benzema (463) makes the top 10, while David Silva (448), Sergio Ramos (446) and Sergio Aguero (443) are all in the top 20.
 

Saints star not quite the free-kick king

James Ward-Prowse's latest free-kick goal came in a losing effort for Southampton at Newcastle United, but he nudged further up the all-time Premier League standings.

The spectacular effort at St James' Park was the England international's 10th direct free-kick strike in the competition, becoming the ninth player to that mark.

Ward-Prowse has scored with 13.9 per cent of his 72 direct free-kick shots, while 37 per cent of his 27 Premier League goals have come via this method.

Only Laurent Robert (11 of 23 goals for 47.8 per cent) and Sebastian Larsson (11 of 26 goals for 42.3 per cent) netted a greater share of their goals in the competition direct from set-pieces.

Ward-Prowse still has some way to go to match David Beckham's record of 20 free-kick goals, however. Thierry Henry (12), Gianfranco Zola (12) and Ronaldo (11), along with Robert and Larsson, are the others still above the Southampton star.

His tally of four this term trails only Beckham in 2000-01 and Robert the following season (both five) over a single campaign.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was kept waiting but finally scored his 500th career club goal for Milan against Crotone on Sunday.

The 39-year-old reached 499 on Tuesday with the opening goal against rivals Inter in the Coppa Italia, but he was later sent off in a 2-1 defeat.

Ibrahimovic should have netted the milestone goal in the first half against Bologna last weekend, only to miss a 26th-minute penalty, although Ante Rebic scored the rebound.

But the former Sweden striker's moment came at San Siro when he played a one-two with Rafael Leao.

Ibrahimovic fed Leao on the edge of the box and the young Portuguese slotted a perfect return ball behind the Crotone defence for his veteran strike partner to drive into the far right corner, securing another milestone for one of the greatest goalscorers of the modern era.
 

MILAN'S MAIN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

With Saturday's strike, Ibrahimovic now has 15 goals in all competitions this term, including 13 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 82.

His 122 appearances are his most for any Italian club - having also represented Juventus and Inter - while this goal set Milan on course for a 71st victory with Ibrahimovic in the side.

GLOBAL SUPERSTAR

Ibrahimovic has been one of Italian football's biggest names in the 21st century, but he has proven his worth worldwide between his spells in Serie A.

Indeed, the greatest share of his 500 goals came in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, 156 in just 180 matches.

Ibrahimovic's Inter tally of 66 is third on the list after his Milan haul, with LA Galaxy next after he netted a remarkable 52 goals in only 58 games.

As well as scoring 26 times for Juve, Ibrahimovic has plundered goals in the Netherlands (48 for Ajax), England (29 for Manchester United), Spain (22 for Barcelona) and his native Sweden (18 for Malmo).

"This season is about making sure history remembers us as we wish to be remembered. This season is about adding to our legacy. And I can't wait, Dodger fans."

While the Los Angeles Dodgers are yet to announce the deal, Trevor Bauer revealed his free-agency decision via his YouTube channel on Friday.

Hot off being crowned the National League (NL) Cy Young award winner with the Cincinnati Reds in 2020, Bauer is getting paid after the opting to join World Series champions the Dodgers instead of the New York Mets in a record-breaking deal.

Bauer - the first Cy Young winner to enter free agency since Greg Maddux in 1992 - is reportedly due to earn $40million in 2021 and $45m in 2022. The 2021 salary would make him the highest-paid player in MLB history, a record he would break again the following year.

The right-handed ace will help form an intimidating Dodgers bullpen, which also includes past Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and David Price, plus star pitcher Walker Buehler.

As Bauer looks to experience success in Los Angeles, where Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager spearheaded the Dodgers to World Series glory for the first time since 1988, we take a look at the numbers behind the 30-year-old using Stats Perform Data.

Bauer joins Cy Young club but is success on the horizon?

Bauer led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.795), opponents' batting average (.159), opponents' BABIP (.215), adjusted ERA-plus (276), hits per nine innings (5.1), shutouts (two) and complete games (two) in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign.

He also ranked second in strikeouts (100) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.3).

In nine seasons since he broke into the majors with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012, Bauer is 75-64 with 1,279 strikeouts and a 3.90 ERA. His only All-Star selection came in 2018.

Bauer is the eighth reigning Cy Young award winner to change teams that subsequent offseason after taking his talents to LA, and the fourth to do so in free agency, following Catfish Hunter (1975), Mark Davis (1990), Maddux (1993), David Cone (1995), Pedro Martinez (1998), Roger Clemens (1999) and R.A. Dickey (2013).

Did those players go on to enjoy further success?

Hunter made two All-Star teams with the New York Yankees in 1975 and 1976, Maddux won the NL Cy Young in that 1993 season with the Atlanta Braves as well as in 1994 and 1995 while he also earned All-Star selection between 1994-98 and in 2000, to go with Gold Glove honours in his first 10 years in Atlanta, where World Series victory followed.

Cone was an All-Star with the Yankees in 1997 and 1999, Martinez earned Cy Young Awards with the Boston Red Sox in 1999 and 2000, made All-Star teams in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002 (and in 2005 and 2006 with the Mets).

Clemens was a Cy Young winner with the Yankees in 2001 and the Houston Astros in 2004. He also made All-Star teams in 2001 and 2003-05 (the latter with the Astros), while Dickey's first year in Toronto saw him secure Gold Glove status.

Ace trio to lead back-to-back bid?

The star-studded Dodgers now boast three Cy Young winners in superstar Kershaw, veteran Price and Bauer.

The last team with three? The 2014 Detroit Tigers, who had a certain Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in their rotation.

That 2014 Tigers side went 90-72 and won the American League (AL) Central, but were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Division Series (ALDS) 3-0. 

The Cy Young trio started those three playoff games, combining to go 0-2 with a 4.43 ERA. Detroit did not acquire Price that year until the trade deadline; from August 1 to the end of the regular season, the Tigers were 32-25 with a 3.94 team ERA (3.97 from starters).

The Dodgers are the first World Series champions to add a reigning Cy Young award winner that offseason, after the 1999 Yankees, who prised Clemens to New York and went on to win the ultimate prize that year. 

But how does Bauer compare to three-time Cy winner Kershaw (32) and 2012 recipient Price (35)?

Bauer's career numbers do not really measure up to the other two, especially Kershaw, with the exception of his strikeout rate - the younger Bauer comes in at 9.7, level with Kershaw and ahead of Price (8.8).

But just looking at the last three seasons, Bauer has more than held his own.

Since 2018, Bauer has a .211 BA allowed percentage - fewer than Kershaw (.220) and Price (.241).

When it comes to strikeouts per nine innings, Bauer comes in at 11.2, ahead of Price (9.7) and Kershaw (9.2), while the Dodgers recruit (1.0) has fared much better than Price (1.3) and Kershaw (1.2) when it comes to home runs per nine innings.

Bauer also has postseason and World Series experience, having made 10 playoff appearances with the Cleveland Indians and one with the Reds. 

In the NL Wild Card Series against the Braves last season, Bauer allowed just two hits and struck out 12 over 7.3 innings.

If Aaron Rodgers intended to make a statement in the 2020 season, he could hardly have done so more emphatically.

The quarterback's future in Green Bay became a hot topic in the offseason when the franchise surprisingly used their first-round pick in the 2020 draft to seemingly choose his replacement. 

Selecting Jordan Love was obviously part of the long-term plan for the Packers, but Rodgers – who may have hoped for an upgrade in weapons, rather than an apprentice to watch and learn while waiting in the wings – showed he is no mood to relinquish the starting job in a hurry. 

Winning the MVP award for a third time in his career may not ease the disappointment of his team missing out on the Super Bowl, but it is a thoroughly deserved honour following a season that suggests, even at 37, he may just be better than ever. 

The basic numbers are impressive enough: 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent. His quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, just behind... Aaron Rodgers. His 2011 campaign sits top at 122.5, though that year he threw fewer touchdowns (45) and one extra pick. 

Dig a little deeper, though, and you see just why the members of the Associated Press voted the signal-caller as the most valuable player during the regular season. 

 

Old dog, new records

Conventional wisdom suggests Rodgers' career should, at his age, be winding down towards a conclusion. However, the man who helped defeat Rodgers and the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, 43-year-old Tom Brady, has redefined the limits for quarterbacks seemingly in their final years in the game.

And Rodgers produced some NFL firsts as he led Green Bay to the best record in the conference.

No player in NFL history had previously managed to complete at least 70 per cent of their pass attempts while managing a passer rating of at least 120.0 in a season - until this year.

Displaying a devastating ability to carve up defenses while doing a superb job of protecting the football, Rodgers also became the first quarterback to have 40 or more touchdowns while throwing five or fewer interceptions. Two of those picks were in Week 5 against the Buccaneers, the only outing in which he failed to manage a scoring pass.

Davante Adams was, unsurprisingly, his favourite option. The wide receiver was targeted 149 times - putting him fourth on the list for the entire league, behind only Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins and Allen Robinson.

Running back Aaron Jones was second for the Packers with 63 targets, but Rodgers was willing to share the ball around. On the roster, nine players made it to double figures, among them receiving duo Marquez Valdes-Scantling (63) and Allen Lazard (46), who both finished with 33 catches. Breakout tight end Robert Tonyan, meanwhile, caught all but seven of his 59 targets.

Hat-trick hero

Though Rodgers could not get the better of Brady in either the regular season or the playoffs, he did at least emulate an achievement the six-time Super Bowl champion pulled off during the season widely considered as his greatest.

Rodgers had 12 games with at least three passing touchdowns, tied for the most in a single campaign in NFL history. Brady had reached that same tally in 2007, when he scorched defenses across the league in leading the New England Patriots to an unbeaten 16-0 regular season.

Yet even Brady at that 2007 zenith could not produce what Rodgers did in 10 games in 2020, as he reached double figures with at least three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Of course, it is significantly easier to protect the football when playing with a lead - and Rodgers' extraordinary first-half performances ensured the Packers did a lot of that this season on their way to a second successive 13-3 record under head coach Matt LaFleur.

Stunning in the second quarter

Rodgers threw an incredible 70.8 per cent of his touchdown passes in the opening half, with his total of 34 scores the most ever in an NFL season. The second quarter was clearly his favourite too, with 25 TDs also a new record for a single quarter.

Those remarkable numbers were fuelled partially by Rodgers' dominance over the rest of the NFC North, which was illustrated by him throwing 20 touchdowns with no interceptions in six games against division opponents. No other player has reached that number and avoided being picked off in divisional match-ups.

With the Minnesota Vikings the only realistic threat in the NFC North as the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions plot their next moves at the quarterback, there is no immediate sign of the Packers' grip on the division loosening.

So while Rodgers pondered his future in the aftermath of the Packers' postseason exit, the reality is that, as long as he has the ability to perform at his 2020 levels and Green Bay have control of the NFC North, there is little reason for the newly crowned MVP to look elsewhere to fulfil his ambition of winning a second Lombardi Trophy.

Love may well end up being the future starter for Green Bay, but there is little reason to suggest they are about to move on from a franchise legend just yet.

The NFL crowned its two top rookies on Saturday as Chase Young and Justin Herbert claimed deserved recognition for stunning first years in the league. 

Defensive Rookie of the Year Young, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, had long since been the frontrunner for that award.

His case was helped substantially by the pivotal role he played in propelling the Washington Football Team to an unlikely playoff berth as part of a fearsome defensive front.

Herbert was not given the chance to test himself in the playoffs as the Los Angeles Chargers' mystifying tendency for throwing away leads condemned them to another losing season.

But the Chargers can afford to be confident that better days are ahead, Herbert looked every inch a franchise quarterback as he subverted pre-draft expectations that were not as high as those placed on former Heisman Trophy finalist Young.

Both Young and Herbert look poised to have a defining impact on the NFL over the course of the 2020s and here, using Stats Perform data, we look back on their magnificent maiden years.

Chase Young

Just like his fellow former Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa, drafted second overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2019, Young emphatically lived up to his draft status, becoming the fourth ex-Buckeye to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in the last five seasons (DE Joey Bosa, 2016; CB Marshon Lattimore, 2017; DE Nick Bosa, 2019).

He did so through making the lives of opposing offensive linemen miserable, leading rookies in every metric that measures pass rush.

Young's 7.5 sacks were first among all rookies, while he also led the way hurries (37), knockdowns (12.5), quarterback hits (12) and total pressures (55).

Similarly dominant against the run, Young was first among all rookies with 10 tackles for loss and six stuffs, his performance in the latter category putting him tied-13th among all defenders.

He demonstrated a nose for the football, his four forced fumbles tied third in the NFL. Three of those resulted in turnovers, with only Myles Garrett (4) performing better in that regard.

Young's game-wrecking rookie year proved his pre-draft billing was well deserved and, in the eyes of many, vindicated taking him ahead of the other quarterbacks not named Joe Burrow.

However, the success of the Chargers' gamble on a quarterback seen as a level below Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa raises the question of whether Washington would have been better served taking a chance on Herbert.

Justin Herbert

After making his first start in Week 2 amid unusual circumstances, Herbert's rookie season was one defined by him setting rookie records.

Herbert is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season having not played the opener, Week 1 starter Tyrod Taylor sidelined after a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung while administering a painkilling injection.

His 4,336 passing yards rank second all-time among rookie quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck, who racked up 4,374 with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012.

With his completion percentage of 66.6 trailing only Dak Prescott's 67.8 in 2016, Herbert set all-time leading marks for rookie quarterbacks in completions (396), passing yards per game (289.1), passing touchdowns (31) and 300-yard games, of which he recorded eight.

Just three players - Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady - finished with a higher yards per game average in the regular season in 2020.

Herbert's name already being in such elite company indicates he is primed to make the leap to the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, provided Los Angeles can build an ecosystem to make the most of his undoubted gifts, and it unquestionably makes him worthy of being the first Charger to win Offensive Rookie of the Year since Don Woods in 1974.

Few anticipated Herbert outperforming both Burrow and Tagovailoa in his rookie season. While Young's incredible first year is an endorsement for betting on freakish athleticism on defense, Herbert's record-setting start to what the Chargers hope will be a storied career serves as further evidence of the significantly more imposing challenge that comes with evaluating quarterbacks.

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