Preston to Liverpool may not be too far to travel in terms of miles, but it has been quite a footballing journey that has seen Ben Davies end up at Anfield. 

The defender completed one of the more unlikely transfers of this mid-season window, or of any other year for that matter, when he signed a long-term contract to join the reigning Premier League champions on deadline day.  

In need of defensive reinforcements with Joel Matip becoming the latest long-term casualty, the Reds turned to a player from the Championship few thought to be on their radar less than 48 hours earlier. Even the player himself admitted it was all a bit surreal, though this was the kind of career opportunity simply too good to turn down.   

So, February 1, 2021, will now always live long in the memory for Davies, who has taken in a few temporary stops along the way to his current destination. The first of those was at York City, where as a talented but raw teenager he was initially set to stay for a month but ended up sticking around for an entire season in League Two.  

"He was a skinny kid who came into our changing room and was very, very quiet," former York goalkeeper Michael Ingham told Stats Perform News about that 2013-14 campaign. "I think the difference from when he first came to the end of his spell was night and day. 

"Ben came into a good changing room, one with a lot of characters. He was the butt of a couple of jokes but just grew and grew. That's what parent clubs try to do, to get their young players out on loan so they can grow up a bit. He definitely did that. 

"When he was with us, you'd have thought he was a left-back all day long. He's obviously grown into his body and developed that aggressive side to his game, something which you need to play at centre-half."

It was far from easy going in the first half of that campaign: York went into 2014 sitting outside the relegation zone only on goal difference. However, a January recruitment drive by boss Nigel Worthington changed everything. The Minstermen lost just twice in their remaining league games, going from serious candidates to drop through the trapdoor and out of the Football League to unexpected challengers for promotion.  

Davies was a mainstay in the team, making 47 appearances in all competitions. The last of them was in a 0-0 draw in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Fleetwood, a result that ended hopes of going up. There was no promotion to celebrate, but the campaign had undoubtedly been a huge success for him personally. 

Worthington had also produced another transfer masterstroke in getting Nick Pope to York in from Charlton Athletic for the second half of the campaign.  

"I'd picked up a groin strain and had said I’d need to come out, but there was no room in the budget for someone to come in at that stage," Ingham recalls.  

"I played and I played until it eventually went, then someone came in on loan before Popey. I got fit again, kept two clean sheets as we won three games on the bounce. Then, on a Monday, I saw this big lad in the changing room and I knew straight away that I was coming out of the team again.  

"He was an unbelievable size and had great attributes. He struggled a little bit with his kicking while with us but was a great shot-stopper and would come out all day long for crosses. He might drop the odd one but would come again the next time. 

"You could see he had great confidence in his ability and was going on to higher things." 

Both Pope – now pushing hard to be considered England's number one - and Davies would go out on loan again elsewhere to gain valuable experience. It could well be that exactly seven years on from playing on the same team as York's promotion bid ended at Fleetwood, they line up as opponents when Burnley host Liverpool at Turf Moor in mid-May.  

Ingham, now playing at a semi-professional level while working as a coach for i2i Football Academy, will watch on if his former team-mates are pitted on opposite sides in the Premier League. He knows only too well the value of loan moves, something that helped him personally in the early stages of his career after moving to Sunderland.

"I had the quick realisation when going there [to Sunderland] that I needed to play games somewhere to get ready for the first team," the former Northern Ireland international explained. "I didn't think reserve team football was good enough for me, so I went out on loan probably twice every year I was there." 

Davies continued to be a loan ranger for several years too, heading out to Tranmere Rovers, Southport, Newport County and Fleetwood before eventually establishing himself the first team at Preston, initially as a full-back before transitioning to the heart of North End's defence.   

He had been a mainstay in the 2020-21 campaign for manager Alex Neil, playing 1,691 minutes with the team conceding 23 goals in his 19 second-tier appearances. Celtic were reportedly interested with his contract winding down - then Liverpool suddenly came calling and his future plans changed overnight.  

While set to line up in the same position his responsibilities will change markedly for Liverpool, where playing centre-back is about more than just heading the ball clear and getting in the way to block shots. You are expected to perform those tasks, of course, but also help build attacks from the back in a possession-based system that gives licence for those defenders positioned next to you on the flanks to roam forwards.  

Davies has averaged 39.7 passes per game for Preston this term, boasting a completion rate of 79 per cent. Against West Ham on Sunday, the centre-back pairing Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Phillips made 92 and 76 respectively for the Reds. He, along with fellow new addition Ozan Kabak, will have to quickly learn how to play for the ever-demanding Klopp. 

"We play differently to Preston and Schalke so they'll need time but we don't have a lot, so we'll use the time we have in our hands and try our best," the German coach told the media.

After the surreal experience of signing for Liverpool, reality is about to kick in. Still, while no longer that same skinny kid seen at York, that season plying his trade in the fourth tier demonstrated how Davies is capable of adapting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goff prolific under McVay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set up for success

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

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

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

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

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

Stafford's downfield dynamism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play-action production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trossard wrestles the initiative

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

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

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

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

Sub century for Ox

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

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

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

Happy new year for irrepressible City

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

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

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

Shot-shy Clarets

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

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

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

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

One year on from his Red Devils debut, Bruno Fernandes is the face of Manchester United and one of Europe's finest, but back in 2012 it was a lot different.

There were no camera crews when a baby-faced Fernandes packed his bags and left Portugal for Italy almost nine years ago – Novara was the destination for the unheralded midfielder.

Novara, a club based in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, had been alerted to the 17-year-old. Scouted by former head of youth Mauro Borghetti, they opted to sign Fernandes from Boavista – investing for the future.

"The previous season our club was in Serie A but was being relegated in Serie B, so with the board we took the decision to invest some money on some foreign talents," Borghetti – now sporting director of the Serie C side – told Stats Perform News.

"Bruno Fernandes was in this list and because of his technical skills and his value – we knew his value more or less – we decided to make a survey for this player and pay him a visit.

"On a Saturday morning I took a flight to Portugal to watch an Under-19 Boavista game. He struck me for the characteristics he is showing now, although he didn't shine that much in that game. But I could see his skills and his personality on top of his creativity."

It is not often Portuguese talent leave their homeland for abroad, but Fernandes forged his own path en route to Old Trafford, having also played for Udinese, Sampdoria and Sporting CP.

"Bruno's situation was peculiar," Borghetti said. "He was not playing in one of the top Portuguese clubs that boast great visibility and can make young talents grow in the country. Bruno was playing in the U19 of Boavista, a club relegated in the third division at the time.

"He was waiting for his chance to shine. Novara, an Italian club, albeit in Serie B at the time, was what Bruno was waiting for. So it was not hard to find a deal and Bruno didn't take long to give us the green light."

Initially signed to Novara's youth team, Fernandes made an immediate impact at Stadio Silvio Piola, where he learnt Italian language using post-it notes.

Fernandes scored four goals in 23 appearances as Novara finished fifth in the 2012-13 Serie B season before falling to Empoli in the promotion play-offs.

"Bruno is a very smart guy so he settled in right away at Novara," Borghetti continued. "In one week, 10 days tops, he started communicating with the group in Italian, an example of his intelligence. This helped him a lot as much as the fact of being the only foreigner, the only Portuguese, in a full Italian squad. This helped him get involved faster, he was basically forced to speak Italian. He settled down so quickly and this helped him a lot."

Borghetti added: "As a foreign kid who was supposed to take his time to settle in, he definitely was quick in doing it. We didn't expect such a growth as we didn't know him so well. When we started to know him better, then yes, we thought he could go straight to the first team.

"In fact, he stayed only six months in Novara U19 squad. He then played the second part of the season as a starter of the first squad, scoring and taking the team to the playoff for Serie A."

Having exceeded expectations at Novara, Fernandes quickly made the step up to Serie A – firstly with Udinese before joining Sampdoria three years later in 2016.

But it was not until 2017, when he returned to his homeland, that Fernandes captured the attention of United and Europe's elite.

Fernandes was a class above in Primeira Liga, scoring 64 goals in 137 appearances for Sporting, where he led the Portuguese giants to Taca da Liga (2018 and 2019) and Taca de Portugal (2019) glory.

There were rumours of interest from Real Madrid and Tottenham, but after months of speculation, United finally landed their talisman in deal worth an initial £47million last year.

Fernandes has not looked back – the Portugal international has been involved in 45 goals across all competitions, more than any other player for a Premier League club.

Only captain Harry Maguire (54) has made more competitive appearances for United than the Portuguese (53), but the former Sporting skipper has scored the most goals (28) and assisted his team-mates the most often (17).

Fernandes ended 2020 winning his fourth Premier League Player of the Month award, becoming the first to claim that many honours in a calendar year. For that award, he has already matched the tallies of United greats Paul Scholes and Ronaldo and is just one behind all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.

A transformative signing for the Red Devils, Fernandes has been directly involved in 33 goals in his first 35 appearances (19 goals, 14 assists) – a figure bettered only by Andrew Cole (41) in the history of the Premier League.

"For us he was a very important player," Borghetti said. "He always proved he was a cut above the average footballers. But to be honest with Udinese and Sampdoria he was in Serie A but hadn't impressed us all so much.

"His breakthrough came after his season in Portugal with Sporting. There he became a world-class player, playing the World Cup next to Cristiano Ronaldo, so you could expect a big move.

"Now he is at United, one of the most glorious clubs in Europe, and he fully deserves it. He epitomises the idea that a player can always improve throughout his career and achieve higher and higher results."

Fernandes was crowned United's Player of the Year in 2019-20, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after international team-mate Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes' 22 in all competitions last term.

This season, Fernandes has scored 11 Premier League goals and supplied seven assists in 21 appearances as second-placed United dream of silverware. In total, he has managed 16 goals across all competitions.

Not since 2013 – Alex Ferguson's final season at the Theatre of Dreams – have United won the Premier League but Fernandes' presence has awoken a sleeping giant after years of mediocrity. While Maguire wears the armband, the 26-year-old Fernandes is a demanding figure on and off the pitch.

"He didn't stay long in the youth team and then in the first squad because he moved to Serie A right away, so he didn't have the chance to become a captain [at Novara]," Borghetti said. "But he is a soul captain, his personality makes him an example on the pitch and as a professional. He always proved this so I am not surprised at all that in his career and now he is so mature as a leader and could be shortlisted for being the captain." 

As Fernandes continues to take England by storm, Borghetti added: "When I watch him on TV, I feel satisfaction. I follow United more now because there is a kid I know who plays there. Whatever he achieved was done thanks to his skills, exclusively his merit. On the other hand, a glimpse of importance is mine because with one evaluation I gave him the chance to prove himself.

"Novara in his history, although short, was a chance to shine. Without Novara, maybe Bruno would have got to the highest level anyway through different paths, but since this cannot be proved, I can say Novara and I have been an important stepping-stone for him." 

"I think he is at a high level now," he said. "To improve he should only win individual trophies or with his team domestically and in Europe. That is what he should do with Manchester United. On a personal level, it is the athlete's constant aim to improving all the time, but now Bruno is at such a high level where improvements are now difficult."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STRIKING IT RICH

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCORING FIGURES DECLINING

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

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

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

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

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

IMPORTANCE DIMINISHING?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMULATING THE TREBLE WINNERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESILIENT REDS

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

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

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

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

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

A WAYS TO GO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

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

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

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

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

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

UNITED'S HEART AND SOUL

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

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

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

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

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

NOT JUST 'PENANDES'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDOUARD MENDY

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

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

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

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

JOAO CANCELO

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

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

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

RUBEN DIAS

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

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

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

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

HARVEY BARNES

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

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

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

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

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

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

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

WILFRIED ZAHA

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

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

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

MICHAIL ANTONIO

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

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

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

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

"I'm not only a good-weather coach," said Jurgen Klopp ahead of Liverpool's trip to Tottenham. How prophetic.

In the pouring north-London rain on Thursday, the Reds manager took a patched-up defence and misfiring attack to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and put on a show, one that will have the Manchester clubs feeling a touch of nerves.

Liverpool's 3-1 victory was their sixth in a row against Spurs and Klopp's fifth in nine league games against Jose Mourinho, but this was still something of a surprise. The Reds had won once in seven games in all competitions, lost their last two at home to Burnley and away to Manchester United, and struggled their way through 482 minutes and 93 shots without scoring in the league.

They welcomed back Joel Matip and captain Jordan Henderson but lost Fabinho to a muscle problem, and Matip himself only lasted the first half. This was a patched-up, pockmarked line-up tasked with stopping Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, who have scored and assisted 41 times between them this season.

They had to ride their luck early on, the remarkably ruthless Son slotting past Alisson with his first chance only to be penalised for an offside heel. There was an element of fortune about Liverpool's opener, too: Sadio Mane's scuffed cross reached Roberto Firmino for a tap-in only because Eric Dier and Hugo Lloris chose to let it bobble between them.

But it was a goal, and a win, that Klopp's men wholly deserved.

Mourinho seemed to sense it, too. If he was furious with Firmino's goal, he was apoplectic when Trent Alexander-Arnold, another whose form has been questioned, rifled in a second just after half-time after Lloris parried the ball right to his boot. Pierre-Emile Hojgbjerg blasted in a stunning reply but it never felt as though Liverpool's lead was under threat, even after Mohamed Salah's goal was disallowed for a distant Firmino handball.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg made sure of it when he let Alexander-Arnold's deep cross reach Mane, who blasted home. It's now 21 goal involvements in the league for the right-back since the start of last season, the most of any defender in the competition. That patchwork defence then made certain Alisson did not have another save to make, even with Son, Erik Lamela, Steven Bergwijn and Gareth Bale on the pitch, the injured Kane having exited at half-time.

This was not 'vintage' Liverpool, if there can be such a thing. There were poor misses and errant backheels apiece from Salah and Mane, and Thiago Alcantara was ineffective even before suffering a cut head. They were also given a huge helping hand by some abject Spurs defending. But for a team who haven't won a league game for over a month, this was pretty emphatic.

Klopp's men are now back to within three points of United and four of leaders Manchester City. They meet Pep Guardiola's men at Anfield on February 7 – a match they will now likely go into with a far sunnier outlook.

Manchester United were stunned by bottom club Sheffield United in a seismic result for both ends of the Premier League table.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side were expected to regain top spot and end Manchester City's stay at the summit after 24 hours, although Chris Wilder's basement boys had other ideas.

Former City youth product Kean Bryan gave the visitors the lead at Old Trafford but normal service looked to have been resumed when former Blade Harry Maguire headed home.

But Oliver Burke had the final word in the 74th minute, giving Sheffield United a 2-1 triumph – only their second win of the Premier League season.

Brighton and Hove Albion and Fulham could not add to their pair of wins after a goalless draw at the Amex Stadium and sit 10 and five points better off than Wilder's men respectively.

It was the same scoreline at Stamford Bridge as Thomas Tuchel's reign got off to an underwhelming start against Wolves, while Everton against Leicester City also ended all square and there was a thrilling win for Burnley over Aston Villa.

Here are the pick of the Opta facts from some results that might look crucial in the final reckoning.

Manchester United 1-2 Sheffield United: Bryan and Burke land title-race body blow

It was a case of familiar frailties returning to haunt United's title bid as Bryan headed home John Fleck's corner.

Since the start of last season, no team has shipped more goals from corners than the 14 let in by Manchester United, Brighton and Chelsea.

Maguire also made the most of slack set-piece marking to net his sixth league goal for the club and his first at home.

But the hosts' defending from open play left a similar amount to be desired as Burke settled matters via a deflection off Axel Tuanzebe.

Bryan and Burke are the first players to net their maiden Premier League goals in the same match against United since Esteban Cambiasso and Jamie Vardy did likewise for Leicester in 2014.

Four defeats in 10 home matches means the Red Devils have amassed their highest number of league losses at Old Trafford since going down in seven in 2013-14.

Sheffield United became the first team from Yorkshire to win a Premier League game at Manchester United and only the third side in the Premier League era, following Leeds United in January 2010 (FA Cup) and York City in September 1996 (League Cup).

Chelsea 0-0 Wolves: Possession without penetration for Tuchel's Blues

A day after being installed as Frank Lampard's successor, Tuchel saw his swiftly remodelled Chelsea dominate but fail to find the net against Wolves.

Struggles against Nuno Espirito Santo's side are nothing new, no matter who is in charge. This is the second time in three seasons that Wolves have gone unbeaten versus Chelsea, having also won at Molineux and drawn at Stamford Bridge in 2018-19.

The visitors certainly had to work to keep their opponents at bay as the Blues hogged 78.9 per cent of possession and racked up 820 passes. Since Opta began collecting this data in 2003-04, both are the highest totals by a team in their coach's first match in charge.

Tuchel is on a run of four consecutive league clean sheets after Paris Saint-Germain completed shutouts in his final three Ligue 1 matches.

Before this season, Thiago Silva was a key part of his backline in the French capital. Reunited in London, the Brazil veteran is now unbeaten in 25 home league appearances under Tuchel (W22 D3).

Wolves have not been so assured defensively of late and this was their first league clean sheet since a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on October 30, ending a run of 12 straight games without one.

Burnley 3-2 Aston Villa: Wood heads for the heights to lift Clarets

Chris Wood netted a 79th-minute winner as Burnley twice came from behind at Turf Moor to beat Aston Villa and move nine points clear of the relegation zone.

Wood rose to nod home a cross from winger Dwight McNeil for something of a trademark goal. Since his top-flight debut for Burnley in August 2017, no player has scored more headed goals than the New Zealand striker, who is level with Harry Kane on 15.

McNeil pulled Sean Dyche's side level after Jack Grealish netted his sixth league goal of the campaign. Combined with his eight assists, the England star has 14 goal involvements in 18 Premier League matches – the same number he managed last season (eight goals, six assists).

Ollie Watkins matched Grealish's goals mark from 2019-20 when he opened the scoring, making it eight Premier League goals in 18 outings.

Ashley Westwood got the assist for Ben Mee's initial equaliser, meaning he has 16 assists for Burnley in the competition. Only Johann Gudmundsson (17) has more.

Everton 1-1 Leicester City: Long-range lone ranger James shines again

James Rodriguez continued his fine form for Everton with a spectacular strike to put Carlo Ancelotti's men in front.

The Colombia international has scored 19 goals from outside the box in Europe's top five leagues – three for Monaco, 11 for Real Madrid, three for Bayern Munich and now two for Everton.

This was his first with his right foot and added to an impressive personal haul of four goals and three assists. Only Dominic Calvert-Lewin (11) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals for Everton this season.

However, another specialist made sure the points were shared. All five of Youri Tielemans' goals for Leicester in the league this season have come away from home.

The Belgium international has netted the most away goals of any player yet to score at home this term.

Everton might well have a further say in the title battle to come. They are unbeaten in the three league games they have played against opponents starting the day above them in the table this season – a 1-0 win over Chelsea and 2-0 defeat of Leicester last December.

Brighton and Hove Albion 0-0 Fulham: All square in tense basement battle

High stakes did nothing for the entertainment value in this relegation six-pointer, completing a pair of 0-0 draws between Brighton and Fulham this season.

Perhaps it was not for the want of trying – with 26 shots combined (16 for Brighton and 10 for Fulham), only Aston Villa v Burnley (33) last month and Leeds United v Arsenal (34) in November have produced more shots without a goal being scored in 2020-21.

It was the first time Fulham have played out two goalless draws against the same opponent in a single season since a pair of 2001-02 stalemates with Leicester.

Brighton have become bore-draw specialists, playing out 14 0-0s since their promotion to the top-flight in 2017-18, which is more than any other side in that period.

As their positions in 17th and 18th illustrate, both teams are finding victories hard to come by.

Fulham are winless in nine, with six draws and three losses, since beating Leicester 2-1 in November, while Brighton's 2-1 triumph against Arsenal in June is their only win in the past 19 matches at the Amex Stadium. Since then they have lost and drawn seven apiece on home turf.

No player's journey to the NBA has ever been easy. Christian Wood's may just have been the hardest. 

An undrafted player that was waived several times, including by a team in China, Wood has remarkably ascended into the upper echelon of the league behind a stellar first season in Houston.  

The 6-foot-10 center is averaging 23.5 points and 10.8 rebounds in 12 games, and while he hasn't made Rockets fans forget James Harden, he's certainly offered a ray of optimism in a difficult season.  

Through January 20, Wood had seven games this season with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Only Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic had more with eight apiece during that span. 

Wood and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid are the only players (minimum 10 games) currently among the league's top 25 in points, rebounds and blocks per game.  

All signs point to stardom for Wood, who is a leading contender for the Most Improved Player award and is even receiving consideration for the 2021 United States Olympic team. None of this could've been predicted early in Wood's career when he had trouble just holding onto a roster spot and was a G League regular.  

Undrafted in 2015 after two seasons at UNLV, Wood, 25, was given a chance by the Rockets but was never offered a contract. He made his NBA debut with the 76ers in 2015-16, averaging 3.6 points in 17 games but spent most of the season with Delaware in the G League. 

Wood appeared in 13 games for Charlotte in 2016-17 but was let go after that season and then played for the Mavericks' and Suns' summer league teams in 2017.  

With no NBA team willing to sign him, Wood accepted an offer from the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese league. He would never play for them and was waived after the Sturgeons signed another former NBA player, Mike Harris.  

Despite putting up impressive numbers in the G League for Philadelphia in 2017-18 and then Milwaukee the next season, Wood only played in 13 games for the Bucks and averaged 2.8 points.  

Signed as a free agent by New Orleans in March 2019, Wood finally began to offer glimpses of his potential. He averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in eight games, but the Pelicans decided to waive him on July 15, 2019. 

Picked up three days later by the Pistons, Wood beat out veteran guard Joe Johnson for the final spot on Detroit's 2019-20 roster. A solid reserve most of that season with averages of 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, Wood's career truly took off when he was inserted into the starting lineup in early February following the trade of center Andre Drummond to Cleveland.

In the final 13 games that season, Wood averaged 22.8 points on 56.8 per cent shooting and 9.9 rebounds. He even connected on 22 of 55 from three-point range, proving he can be an effective offensive player in a myriad of ways.

Though Detroit hoped to retain Wood, the Rockets offered a three-year, $41million contract and the teams worked out a sign-and-trade deal. That contract looks like a stroke of genius now for Houston since they have no choice but to undergo a transformation with the trade of Russell Westbrook followed by Harden's blockbuster move to Brooklyn.  

Wood is currently dealing with a sprained right ankle and has missed the past three games, but his first 12 have left quite an impression.  

Wood is just one of five players since 1985-86 to accumulate at least 280 points and 125 total rebounds in his first 12 games with a team. The others on that list are Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers, 1996), Zach Randolph (Clippers, 2008), Charles Barkley (Suns, 1992) and Moses Malone (Washington Bullets, 1986). 

Only Elvin Hayes (326 in 1968) and Harden (294 in 2012) have more points than Wood (282) in their first 12 games with the Rockets. That's a more productive start than Westbrook, Ralph Sampson, Tracy McGrady or even Hakeem Olajuwon had in their first few weeks with the franchise.  

Missing time in an abbreviated season won't help his case for Most Improved Player but Wood is one of only two qualified players (appeared in 70 per cent of team's games both seasons) to have raised his scoring average by at least 10 points from last season.  

Wood (+10.4) trails only Detroit’s Jerami Grant (+12.4) in scoring and leads in improvement in rebounds per game (+4.5) and ranks third in blocks (+0.88). 

Among undrafted players, Wood (23.5) leads the league in scoring by a wide margin over Toronto's Fred VanVleet (18.9) and in rebounding (10.8) over JaMychal Green (6.7) of the Nuggets. 

In matchups this season against Jokic, Vucevic and San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge – some of the game's best big men – Wood has averaged 24 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. 

A lack of maturity certainly contributed to Wood's difficulty in landing a regular NBA role early in his career, as did a lack of on-court focus at times. But those issues seem to be a thing of the past and Wood's future is very bright given his youth, athletic ability and skill set that seems tailor made for the modern NBA. 

Wood will have a difficult time becoming an All-Star in a stacked Western Conference but that his name is even being mentioned among the NBA's elite is rather incredible for a player that the mighty Sturgeons had no use for. 

The sight of Thomas Tuchel marching in sprightly fashion onto the Cobham training pitches to take his first training session, a few hours after being confirmed as Chelsea's latest head coach, oozed urgency.

Perhaps, just 24 hours later, as Chelsea played out a goalless draw Wolves, everyone was just a little bit tired. It had been a tumultuous few days in west London, after all.

Frank Lampard's sacking by the club where he is the all-time record goalscorer has prompted an understandably emotional reaction.

Identity and how a fanbase relates to their club is one of those intangible things that matters more than most in football, despite and maybe even more so with these times of isolation.

Chelsea fans have seen a parade of managers, popular or otherwise, slung out of the door whether or not they won trophies. But then came Super Frank, one of their own, and a team where the club's best-in-class academy talents were given a chance.

For many, this just felt right. Being part of something, belonging, was even enough to anesthetise against the damaging reality of two wins and five defeats in the past eight Premier League games for a Champions League club that splurged on a £200million close-season refit.

Lampard, all eloquent charm for the most part in public, also comes from good football stock and is a good interview. As such, his defenders in the British sports press have lined up this week to condemn Roman Abramovich's most heinous sacking to date.

These twin fronts have acted to obscure an inarguable fact: Tuchel, winner of the only trophy in the post-Jurgen Klopp years at Borussia Dortmund, a two-time Ligue 1 winner and a Champions League finalist at Paris Saint-Germain, is an obvious upgrade on a much-loved figure whose only season in management before being handed the reins at Chelsea was a sixth-place finish in the Championship with Derby County.

Nevertheless, battlelines are drawn and people will polarise accordingly. This is the 21st century, after all.

The first check on the outragometer came an hour before kick-off. Mason Mount, Lampard's star pupil - benched! Antonio Rudiger, reported chief agitator against Our Frankie - starting!

Where the brave, young Chelsea Lions in this Bundesliga-flavoured XI? Actually, Callum Hudson-Odoi was given license from right wing-back. Kai Havertz roved alongside Hakim Ziyech behind the centre-forward, who was Olivier Giroud, not Timo Werner.

The Germany striker, along with Tuchel's former Dortmund charge Christian Pulisic, had to be content with places on the bench.

Chelsea looked to paint pretty patterns early on, with their first-half passing map something of a Jackson Pollock. A total of 433 passes was the most they have ever recorded in the first half of a Premier League game, with Mateo Kovacic dictating matters nicely.

The trade-off was a home team lacking incision, save for one lung-bursting surge through midfield and into the area by Havertz and the constant threat posed by Hudson-Odoi in an unfamiliar role.

This was only the England international's fourth Premier League start of the season, showing Lampard did not simply select by passport and birth certificate. On this evidence, he will feature prominently under Tuchel.

Giroud was agonisingly close to turning in an early low delivery, while he saw Ben Chilwell blaze over another cross on the volley. The 20-year-old delivered 11 crosses overall and attempted five dribbles.

Hudson-Odoi was right back into the faces of a deep-lying Wolves defence after the break, while it was to Tuchel's slight misfortune that the next clear opening again fell to Chilwell. Havertz was the provider with a 61st-minute cutback, the former Leicester man again woefully off target.

The Chelsea wing-backs were pegged high and a back three remained even after Pulisic replaced Chilwell, although Pedro Neto lobbed against the bar for Wolves in a rare 71st-minute attack.

Tammy Abraham and Mount were the other substitutes as Werner remained unused, much to the disappointment of writers punting for an easy end to their narrative arc.

Kovacic, who completed a remarkable 146 of 150 passes, clipped the side netting with a late curling effort and the relentless Hudson-Odoi forced Rui Patricio into a full-length save.

Had that or a stoppage-time Havertz header gone in, a new era would have had lift-off. But, as heavy rain cloaked Stamford Bridge and the banner in honour of Lampard remained, a sense of mourning lingered.

In Tommy We Trust? Not just yet.

No one at Liverpool will ever rush to take comfort from any defeat to Manchester United.

But, amid the rubble of Sunday's 3-2 loss at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup, there were signs the Premier League's most-celebrated frontline of recent times were clicking back into gear.

Mohamed Salah scored both Liverpool goals and will hope to end a top-flight drought stretching back to December's 7-0 shellacking of Crystal Palace when Tottenham host the defending champions on Thursday.

Perhaps more significantly, each of Salah's strikes were laid on by Roberto Firmino.

Aside from trying to work out who on earth will play at centre-back on any given week, it feels like Jurgen Klopp has spent more time on public defences of the Brazil centre-forward than anything else this season.

The Reds boss claimed he would be "embarrassed" to list all of Firmino's qualities and said "I can't help these people, sorry" when asked to explain the player's worth to the doubters.

Later in November he labelled Firmino "a complete footballer", not to mention a pretty impressive musician, who "plays something like 12 instruments in our orchestra".

However, since the symphonic grandeur of their display at Palace, Liverpool have not been able to move for bum notes in front of goal.

Firmino has not found the net in any competitive game since that trip to Selhurst Park, and former Anfield favourite Jamie Carragher singled him out after the 0-0 top-flight draw against United earlier this month.

"I'm still confident Sadio Mane and Salah will start scoring goals again," he said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football. "I must say I am worried for Firmino."

Again, Klopp went in to bat for the former Hoffenheim man. But is it fair for the 29-year-old to repeatedly receive such scrutiny? Conversely, is Klopp motivated by anything more than loyalty to a diligent servant by this point?

Bobby's strike rate not dazzling

Firmino's five Premier League goals this season have come from 46 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 6.9. He is yet to score in the Champions League.

Under-performing his xG is not exactly new territory for him. When widely hailed as a key member of a dominant title-winning team last season, his nine league goals from 99 shots came in well below an xG of 14.

When Spurs and Liverpool met at Anfield last month, Firmino netted a 90th-minute winner to snatch a 2-1 victory. These are the sort of "heavy goals" that will endear a player to a manager.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, when the Salah-Mane-Firmino trident first came together, 16 of Firmino's 41 Premier League goals have been winners, or 39 per cent.

Mane (56) and Salah (86) have scored more often and netted more winners (17 and 26 respectively) but their percentage of decisive goals is slightly lower at 30.

Salah heads into Thursday's game as the Premier League's top scorer with 13 goals – one ahead of Spurs duo Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on 12 apiece – and 19 in all competitions.

Given goalscoring has never been hailed as Firmino's forte, perhaps it is Mane's drop off inside the penalty area that should be a greater cause for concern.

The Senegal international's six Premier League goals have arrived from 52 attempts with an xG value of 7.4. Amid a career-best run of form on the way to the title, Mane's 18 top-flight goals comfortably outstripped an xG of 13.7.

Diogo Jota's perceived importance to Liverpool has skyrocketed during his injury absence and the former Wolves man's nine goals across the Premier League and Champions League from an xG of 4.9 give him a solid argument to be picked ahead of either Mane or Firmino when fitness allows.

Old Trafford sea change?

As mentioned above, Firmino showcased a key facet of his game at the weekend by laying on both Salah strikes and creating four chances overall – his most in a game this season.

He now has five assists in all competitions this term, set against four for Salah and three from Mane.

However, he has created notably fewer chances – 28 compared to Salah's 41 and Mane's 40.

Indeed, using Opta's expected assists (xA) metric, we can see that in the Premier League and Champions League combined, Firmino has created a lower quality of chances cumulatively.

The trio have three open play assists apiece in those competitions, although Salah's open play xA is four, with Mane's 2.9 and Firmino's 2.3.

Heavy metal football for the multi-instrumentalists 

Outside of their goal involvements, the collective work rate of the Liverpool front three, their willingness to do the dirty work and set the tone for Klopp's gegenpressing machine has become a trademark.

Firmino is particularly celebrated in this regard. Per 90 minutes, his tackles (1.24 > 1.06), interceptions (0.3 > 0.24) and instances of winning possession in the final third (1.08 > 0.82) are all down on last season. With 1.52 tackles per 90 and 0.4 interceptions, he is being outperformed by Mane in these aspects.

However, in the context of a condensed Premier League schedule placing extra strain on players, this is not an especially alarming drop.

Liverpool's high turnovers per game are down to 8.9 from 10.7 last season, meaning they have swapped positions with Manchester City at the top of those rankings.

They remain second to City in terms of shot-ending high turnovers. Pep Guardiola's team have managed to maintain their level in this regard, averaging 2.2 high turnovers per game compared to 2.1 in 2019-20. Liverpool's per 90 drop is from 1.7 to 1.3.

Regarding pressed sequences per game, Klopp's men are holding steady as the best team in the league – 17.5 compared to 18.1 from the season gone.

They are also allowing slightly fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League, with 10.1 in 2020-21 compared to 10.3. On this metric, possibly due to poor early-season form and some atypically cautious performances that followed, City have dropped from 10.1 to 11.4.

Creating and hustling

Of course, the Liverpool front three's work off the ball would not be so notable without them doing the business once it's at their feet.

Looking a little deeper than goals and assists data, Salah and Mane ranked in the Premier League's top 10 when it comes to involvement in open play sequences ending in a shot before the start of this midweek round.

Firmino came in 11th with 89 involvements, behind Mane on 100 (sixth) and Salah with 102 (fifth). Of those sequences to yield goals, Salah has featured in 12, compared to nine and six for Mane and Firmino respectively.

The Brazilian has suffered from some poor finishing at the end of his involvements. The cumulative xG for the sequences he played a part in is 12.3, slightly better than Mane (11.6) and Salah (10.8).

An Opta metric where Firmino certainly lives up to his reputation is the seven times he has started a period of possession that ended in a shot this term. That puts him joint seventh in the Premier League overall as the highest ranked striker in a category where Rodri, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and N'Golo Kante are among the high flyers – defensive midfielders whose primary role is winning the ball back to get their teams on the front foot.

The pain of Kane - the perfect hybrid

The temptation before Thursday might be to point towards Kane as the centre-forward Liverpool would love Firmino to be. The England captain's incredible alliance with Son demonstrates being a scorer or a provider is not an either/or equation.

Kane has 12 Premier League goals and has laid on 11 more. Firmino's best assist tally over the course of an entire top-flight season was eight en route to glory last time around.

Unflattering comparisons are easy to reach for but, as the numbers above demonstrate, Firmino and Liverpool's front three as a collective have not fallen too dramatically from the performance levels that made them the most feared attack in Europe.

Virgil van Dijk's injury, influential midfielders being deployed in defence in his absence and the knock-on in terms of both midfield balance and the effectiveness of attacking full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson look like more plausible explanations for Liverpool's malaise.

Even so, a fifth goal against Tottenham and a third consecutive winner in this fixture would be the best way to stop Klopp making another weary argument in Firmino's favour.

Martin Odegaard's Real Madrid career was being set up to fail right from the start, when he joined the club just over a month after his 16th birthday back in January 2015.

The fact he remains their player six years on is testament to the Norwegian's talent, persistence and level-headed attitude, as his first couple of years at the club seemingly had people willing him to fade into obscurity.

From unnecessary speculation relating to his wages and exaggerated suggestions that his presence threatened the future of Madrid's academy, to murmurings that his arrival upset the harmony of Real Madrid Castilla's squad – life wasn't made easy for him early on.

For the most part he has managed to keep his career on track and has shown why he was so highly rated as a 15-year-old bursting on to the scene at Stromsgodset, impressing in a series of loan spells, but Odegaard now has another challenge in front of him.

He joins Arsenal on loan for the rest of the season in a move that will surely shape the next major step he takes in his career, whether that is kicking on at Real Madrid or moving elsewhere permanently.

While first-team football has been difficult to come by at Madrid this term, it's easy to see why Arsenal made their move for the attacking midfielder.

A REAL GEM

If there are any Arsenal fans questioning why they have moved for a player who has made just three starts for a – let's be frank – unspectacular Madrid side this season, it's worth recalling the amount of talent Zinedine Zidane has struggled to incorporate and subsequently discarded in recent years.

Marcos Llorente, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilon, Theo Hernandez, James Rodriguez – you could potentially even add Isco to that list in the not-too-distant future. All are fine players generally thriving elsewhere, but Zidane was seemingly unconvinced by them.

Injuries haven't helped Odegaard's cause this term, but his form with Real Sociedad on loan last season demonstrated just how impressive he is when given consistent opportunities – and it was revealed in July that he had been suffering with a chronic knee issue for most of 2019-20.

The 22-year-old created 62 chances in LaLiga last term, a tally only beaten by five other players, one of which was predictably Lionel Messi. 

 

That gave him a key pass frequency just under 0.5 every 90 minutes, which again ranked very highly among players with more than 30 chances created – six had better records, though his 6.8 xA (expected assists) rating was third only to Messi and Jesus Navas.

He also offers a great threat from set-pieces, with 27 of his key passes coming from dead-ball situations. This is an area Arsenal have struggled, as their 20 chances created from set plays is the fourth-fewest in the Premier League this term.

Odegaard was a major catalyst for La Real's largely impressive campaign, as they reached the Copa del Rey final – which is still due to be contested later this year – and finished sixth in LaLiga.

Arsenal fans will hope he can have a similar impact in the second half of the 2020-21 season, particularly given their lack of creativity at times this term.

WHERE WILL HE STRENGTHEN ARSENAL?

At La Real, Odegaard was often deployed from the right side of the attack in a 4-3-3, but given he is most comfortable on his left foot, he would routinely cut inside and wreak havoc in the middle.

 

While he spent more time on the right flank, with 38.3 per cent of his touches occurring in the right third of the pitch between the halfway line and the edge of the opposing area, much of his best work was carried out more centrally.

Indeed, 31.1 per cent of his key passes and assists came from the middle third of the pitch just outside the box.

 

Arsenal have been much less active centrally and on the right flank, with just under 12 per cent of their assists and chances created stemming from play in the middle of the attacking half. They aren't much more effective on the right, which will likely not come as a surprise to Gunners fans given the largely underwhelming form of Willian and Nicolas Pepe.

 

Odegaard's display in the September 2019 defeat at Sevilla was something of a microcosm of much of what he was good at last season, with his late assist for Portu seeing him come in off the right and play a disguised pass into the right side of the box for his team-mate to finish. Earlier on, he had taken up possession in a central area and sliced open the Sevilla backline only for Willian Jose to skew wide.

In both situations he showed great poise, a trait he has combined with his wonderful ability on the ball, as demonstrated by the fact he played 19 key passes after ball carries – Messi (30) had the most and was one of only five players to better the Norwegian in this area.

 

THE RISK OF SHORT-TERM LOANS

The addition of Odegaard will add some welcome creativity to Mikel Arteta's squad, the Gunners having managed 23 goals from 230 attempts (excluding penalties) - slightly below their 25.2 xG - so far in what has been a topsy-turvy 2020-21 season. 

Arsenal players have collectively created 26 Opta-defined "big chances", well adrift of the league-high 43 recorded by Manchester City in 2020-21. While this only includes shots that have been specifically assisted by a pass, it does highlight a creative deficiency.

 

Emile Smith Rowe has impressed of late, contributing three assists in open play, but no individual has created more chances for them in the Premier League than Bukayo Saka, his total of 23 putting him one above Kieran Tierney. It is clear they need greater threat in central areas, and Odegaard should offer that.

But, while he is undoubtedly a fine talent, Arsenal fans should be wary and patient – Odegaard hasn't featured regularly this season so cannot be expected to be sharp, and this move is another instance of upheaval in a fairly short period of time after leaving La Real for a return to Madrid. It would unfair to assume he will find his stride immediately.

Short-term loans in the second half of a season are often risky and Odegaard will likely take a little while to get up to speed. If he adapts quickly, his arrival could be a masterstroke – but if he doesn't it could be a wasted few months for both parties.

Arsenal will hope he's not another Denis Suarez.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.