Dimitar Berbatov hopes the "soap opera" surrounding Paul Pogba's future is at an end after becoming increasingly influential for Manchester United.

Pogba's agent Mino Raiola revealed in December - with a crucial Champions League clash with RB Leipzig looming on the horizon - that he expected the Frenchman to leave Old Trafford in 2021, albeit not during the January transfer window.

The midfielder, who is under contract until 2022, has by no means been a regular starter this season, though his impact on the team has grown considerably in recent weeks.

His winning goal against Burnley sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side top of the Premier League - a position they retained on Sunday thanks to a 0-0 draw away at reigning champions Liverpool.

Pogba was unable to take a late opportunity at Anfield that could have secured all three points, yet former Red Devil Berbatov has been impressed by what he has seen from a player he knows well.

"It's been a long time since I've seen him open on the pitch fighting, intercepting, reading the game," Berbatov told Stats Perform News.

"In the game against Liverpool, again, he continued on that trend for me. He was solid on the pitch again, trying to read and control the game, defending and intercepting.

"The chance that fell to him was because he was again in the box trying to score, though it didn't happen this time. Next time, it's going to happen.

"But as I said many times before, I hope that the TV soap opera over him - whether he's going or staying - is going to end, and we're not going to speak about that.

"I would like him to stay because I knew him back in the day, he was coming to train with us when he was still very young. You could see the talent straight away.

"If he's concentrated 100 per cent for the team, then he's on a level I think not many players can reach in the way he does."

United did not manage a shot on target in the first half against Liverpool, the first time they had failed to do so in a Premier League fixture since December 2019.

However, they posed a far greater attacking threat as the game wore on, Pogba and Bruno Fernandes drawing smart saves out of Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson after the break.

For Berbatov, the crucial aspect for the visitors was not to be beaten by potential title rivals.

"United had a good game, a solid game. I think I said before the game to a couple of reporters that for them it was going to be important not to lose," said the Bulgarian, who won the Premier League twice during his time at United.

"They had good chances to score in the game as well, especially Pogba. That chance was probably the best one in the game, one where I was almost screaming, but it didn't happen.

"But it was a solid performance, especially in defence, tactically the discipline was there on the pitch. As I said, a couple of chances to score came up, as well.

"Probably, if you look from the perspective of a neutral, you can say that the draw was okay for both teams."

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

Manchester United have been so reliant on "fantastic" Bruno Fernandes that it can lead to inconsistent results and performances, according to John Barnes.

Fernandes has made an incredible impact for United since signing from Sporting CP a year ago and was on Friday named Premier League Player of the Month for a fourth time.

That was the first occasion any player has won the award four times in a single calendar year.

Fernandes will again be central to United's chances as they travel to Anfield to face champions Liverpool on Sunday holding a surprise three-point lead at the top of the table.

Liverpool great Barnes believes similarities can be drawn to the Reds side which ran through Philippe Coutinho and believes having one star dominating the ball does not always lead to the best results.

Barnes also feels there are signs United are adapting in their ongoing 11-game unbeaten run in the Premier League but believes the presence of Fernandes can still detract from other stars like Paul Pogba.

His views came after being asked whether Fernandes' signing was similar to that of Liverpool landing defender Virgil van Dijk.

"They have done it in a different way," Barnes said to Stats Perform News.

"Fernandes has come and he has dominated the game – Virgil doesn't dominate the game, doesn't dominate the midfield players or the front three, he doesn't want the ball all the time.

"He's not the focal point of the way we play, he calms them down psychologically but he isn't, 'Give me the ball, I'm going to do everything'.

"That's not what Virgil does, he gives enough sense of security, whereas that is what Fernandes does. 

"I suppose that probably adds to the inconsistency [for United]. It's a bit like when Coutinho was at Liverpool, when you have a player who's going to be a number 10, or a ball player who dominates.

"All the attacking impetus of the team - the ball has to go through him all the time. It takes away from the other players - maybe other players feel 'Every time we get the ball, we have to look for Fernandes'.

"Then what's going to happen to Pogba, [Anthony] Martial, [Marcus] Rashford and all these other players who also want to be the main player.

"So he does it in a different way and in many respects, I think that has probably added to the inconsistency of Man United because when he doesn't do it, or when he's not playing, United do miss him. 

"They miss him physically in terms of what he actually gives them. Whereas Liverpool miss Van Dijk psychologically. 

"The way Manchester United physically play is really dictated to by Fernandes. 

"Sometimes it really detracts from Pogba because Pogba wants to do that, and then you have got Martial and all the players who also want to get involved in that."

Barnes believes if Barcelona's Coutinho was to return to Liverpool it would not necessarily improve the team, despite his quality.

He added: "I'd liken it to Coutinho coming back which people talk about.

"Coutinho would be fantastic - the team wouldn't, because it will all be about him being the main player, getting man of the match and people saying he's the reason why we're winning because of the way he plays. 

"Fernandes is a fantastic player. And I think of late, if you look at him, I think he's become much more of a team player than he was early on. 

"That's probably helped him at Manchester United because you can see Pogba, you can see Rashford and Martial.

"In his first 13, 14 games, it was all about him [Fernandes], which meant that he was playing well, but Man United were inconsistent. So maybe they have addressed that."

Jurgen Klopp revealed he had already been wowed by Bruno Fernandes before Manchester United signed the man who has driven them to the top of the Premier League.

The deal to take Fernandes from Sporting CP to Old Trafford last January could eventually go down as one of the best pieces of business by an English club.

His arrival transformed United and sparked a surge into the Champions League places, and this season the playmaker is inspiring a title challenge. Klopp quipped that Fernandes was "unfortunately" proving a shrewd signing.

Since Fernandes' Premier League debut on February 1 last year, United have won more points than any other team in the top flight (68) – Manchester City and Liverpool have earned six fewer.

During that time frame the Portugal international has been involved in a league-high 33 goals (19 scored, 14 assisted) – Harry Kane is second on 29 (18 scored, 11 assisted) – and on Friday was named the competition's Player of the Month for the fourth time.

Klopp has been an admirer of Fernandes since he scored in a 2-2 draw against Liverpool for Sporting in a pre-season friendly at Yankee Stadium in July 2019.

"He's an outstanding player. Before he joined United we played Sporting in the USA on tour," Klopp said.

"In that game already you could see... wow! You could really see he was a difference maker and that's what he shows now.

"He's settled and is a very influential player now for United. He's involved in a lot of things. I know people talk mostly about the goal involvements, which is very important stuff, but he's a link-up in lot of other situations as well.

"I don't know him well enough to really judge but he seems to be a leader as well. So he was a good signing, unfortunately, for United."

United will go six points clear of Liverpool if they win on Merseyside, but Klopp's side have won the past two league clashes between the teams at Anfield and will go top if they triumph. Liverpool last reached three home victories in a row over their great rivals in March 2011.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has yet to beat Liverpool in the Premier League since joining United as manager, drawing twice and losing once. Only two managers in United's history have failed to win any of their first four league clashes with the Reds - John Chapman (1921-26) and Tommy Docherty (1973-76).

Klopp looked to play down the significance of the points perspective in this weekend's battle, saying: "Winning a football game and winning against United is enough itself.

"There's no extra add-on in that game because they're in the situation they are. They deserve the points they have so far and we have ours and the season has still a long way to go.

"We just try to win our games and we need to perform on our highest level because United are good and always were."

Klopp ruled injured midfielder Naby Keita out of the game but said centre-back Joel Matip was "close" to full fitness and suggested he could be involved, depending on how he trains.

Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes has won the Premier League Player of the Month award for the fourth time in his first year with the club.

Fernandes was confirmed as the winner of December's award on Friday, following up his success in November.

His fourth overall Player of the Month award means he is already level with United greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, while just one behind Wayne Rooney's career tally.

Fernandes has closed to within three of the overall record held by Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who won seven.

The Portugal international is the first player to win the award four times in a calendar year.

He scored twice and added an assist in the 6-2 win against Leeds United while he also netted and set up a goal in the 2-2 draw at Leicester City on Boxing Day.

Fernandes additionally assisted key goals for Paul Pogba (against West Ham) and Marcus Rashford (against Wolves) over the course of the month.

The 26-year-old said: "Three goals and four assists was a complete month.

"Scoring and assisting your team-mates is perfect. I want to achieve other trophies and awards but I'm really happy to make history.

"It is a long way before we can start talking about being [Premier League] champions. We have to keep working. 

"We play against one of the best teams in England [Liverpool on Sunday] and we know what it means to the fans. But the main point is the same: three points."

Fernandes' team-mate Rashford was also on the shortlist along with Anwar El Ghazi, Emiliano Martinez, Ben Mee, Mohamed Salah, Tomas Soucek and John Stones.

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith was named Manager of the Month.

His side are just 10 points behind leaders United with two games in hand having secured wins over Wolves, West Brom and Crystal Palace in December, conceding just once in five games.

Carlo Ancelotti, Sean Dyche and United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were the other nominees.

Ordinarily, Burnley v Manchester United wouldn't be the sort of match that receives much attention from those without a vested interest in either team.

A somewhat local encounter it may be, Burnley perhaps aren't – with all due respect – the sort of team that attracts swathes of neutrals.

Nevertheless, Tuesday's fixture at Turf Moor holds genuine significance for United as it provides them with the opportunity to go top of the Premier League.

Granted, it may only be January 12 and we aren't quite at the halfway point of the season, but such an opportunity represents real progress.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men go into the match – which was postponed at the start of the campaign due to United's run to the Europa League semi-finals – level on points with the Liverpool, who they host at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Once the leading power in the Premier League under Alex Ferguson, United have not been at such a level for a while – could this be the start of a sustained resurgence?

A long time coming

In Solskjaer's pre-match news conference, he initially downplayed the importance of going top in January, suggesting such matters were trivial until March or April.

Yet, he also made a point of telling the team that it is time United establish themselves as title challengers again.

It would be generous to suggest they have been worthy of that distinction at any point since Ferguson's retirement in 2013.

Their highest finish during this time was second in 2017-18, though United finished 19 points adrift of a devastating Manchester City side that looked like champions-elect for much of the season as they amassed a record 100 points.

Indeed, United have been top of the table for a grand total of 51 days in the post-Ferguson era – 41 of those were under Jose Mourinho, eight with Louis van Gaal and just two during David Moyes' ill-fated reign.

The last time they finished the day top of the Premier League table was in August 2018, though considering their 2-1 win over Leicester City was the sole game on the very first day of the season and they did not retain their place for 24 hours, one has to ask whether that even counts.

But what most highlights the strides Solskjaer has made is the fact that none of those previous 51 days at the summit were this far into a season.

Of course, Burnley could yet pull off an upset and United may finish the season without ever sitting in top spot – or this could be a watershed moment for them and Solskjaer.

The Fernandes factor

Every team needs its talisman and even the most ardent United supporter will surely admit any title challenge would be impossible without Bruno Fernandes.

The Portugal midfielder's influence since joining United at the end of the January 2020 transfer window has been nothing short of remarkable.

While Liverpool have certainly not been without personnel issues, Fernandes has more than played his part in bridging the gap.

When we look at the Premier League table during Fernandes' time in England, United sit top with 65 points from 30 games, three clear of Liverpool who have played a game extra.

United's 19 wins is a league high and their three defeats is the lowest over the same time period, while only Liverpool (66) have scored more than their 63.

They might already be way out in front without the defensive issues that have intermittently reared their head, though few would accuse the team of lacking character – United have claimed 25 points from losing positions since Fernandes' first game.

'On the road is where I really come alive'

If there's one thing Solskjaer's Man United and The Office character David Brent have in common, it's that they relish life on the road.

United's record away from home over the past year has been in a league of its own, as they are unbeaten in 14 games away from Old Trafford.

It's also away from home where their never-say-die attitude has been most prominent. They seldom see a foregone conclusion when they fall behind, with 20 of their 36 points on the road coming from being at least a goal down. That's double any other team.

If you want the rainbow, you've got to put up with the rain, but thankfully for United they are yet to slip up on their travels since February.

They are averaging 2.6 points per away game, with no other side managing more than 1.7.

Solskjaer won't be counting on a free ride at Turf Moor on Tuesday, but he will surely expect at least the point they need to go top.

Bruno Fernandes believes a confident Paul Pogba can keep on getting better after the duo were influential in Manchester United's home win over Aston Villa.

The Red Devils claimed the lead when Anthony Martial scored just prior to half-time, only for the visitors to equalise after the break through Bertrand Traore.

However, United went back ahead when the impressive Pogba – who had four shots and created two chances, as well as having the most touches (69) for the hosts – was fouled inside the penalty area.

Fernandes duly converted from the spot – his ninth penalty in the Premier League since February 2020 – and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side held firm under intense late pressure, securing the three points that moves them level with Liverpool at the top of the table.

"I think today Paul was top, the first goal he makes a good skill. We all know the qualities he has, it's not in doubt," Fernandes told MUTV about his team-mate.

"We know he can play, he can help us, he can play really well and today he did it. He was involved in both goals, with the penalty he covered the ball and went away from the players.

"He will give more and more with the confidence coming in every game."

United sit behind the reigning champions on goal difference, though Liverpool can move clear again when they visit Southampton on Monday.

Still, victory over Villa extends United's unbeaten league run to 10 games, while they have now won three on the spin at home in the competition having struggled previously this season at Old Trafford.

For Fernandes, these are all promising signs for the future, though the Portugal international insists there are still areas to improve in the remainder of the campaign.

"We are building something important, most important for us is building a team and a group of players who take care of each other," Fernandes said.

"In the stands, in the last two or three minutes, everyone was shouting for us. Everyone wants the three points and that win.

"It was tough, we have to learn from here and from the Leicester game [which ended in a 2-2 draw]. We have to do better, we had situations to close the game, we have to do that."

Fernandes has now contributed 19 goals and 14 assists in his first 30 Premier League appearances for United, who host neighbours Manchester City next in the EFL Cup.

Bruno Fernandes' penalty sent Manchester United level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League as they edged Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford.

A Villa side looking to move third in the table always promised to pose a tricky test for United and so it proved in an open encounter.

The visitors appeared to be in the ascendancy after Bertrand Traore's 58th-minute effort cancelled out Anthony Martial's first-half opener.

However, United's lead was re-established through Fernandes' ninth Premier League penalty since the start of February 2020 - his tally in that time two more than any other player.

And it was enough for United to further boost their title hopes, with only goal difference keeping Liverpool top of the pile.

Goalkeepers Emiliano Martinez and David de Gea were each forced into important early saves from Martial and John McGinn respectively, but the better opportunities came United's way, with Fred and Paul Pogba spurning presentable chances.

Fernandes bent wide but United's first goal of the new year came from Martial, who rounded off a neat move with a stooping header from Aaron Wan-Bissaka's right-wing cross.

Only the tremendous reflexes of De Gea prevented Ollie Watkins from levelling the contest, the Spain international producing heroics to turn Watkins' header from Jack Grealish over the crossbar.

Anwar El Ghazi then lashed a volley narrowly wide of the near post before Villa got the goal their second-half efforts deserved, a quick free-kick ending with Grealish's low cross finding Traore at the far post to tuck home.

But parity lasted little under four minutes as Fernandes powered his penalty into the bottom-left corner after Douglas Luiz had clipped Pogba following a throw-in.

Martial stung the palms of Martinez who, after Pogba produced an errant finish from close range, tipped a marvellous Fernandes effort onto the crossbar.

Tyrone Mings let a gilt-edged chance go begging late on, ensuring United's inability to double their lead was not punished, though they will need to be more clinical if they are to narrow the eight-goal gap between themselves and Liverpool.

Marcus Rashford hopes his hunger for goals and assists will propel Manchester United to success this season.

The England international has been in fine form so far this term, with his stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday helping the Red Devils crank up the pressure on leaders Liverpool. 

United are now just three points behind the champions, who drew 0-0 with Newcastle United on Wednesday, and have played a game less. 

In 14 Premier League starts this season, Rashford has scored seven goals and laid on four for his team-mates from 20 chances created. 

That compares to 17 goals in 31 starts last season and a total of seven assists from 33 chances created. 

His total this campaign is second only to Bruno Fernandes in the United side, the Portuguese midfielder scoring 10 goals and providing seven assists. 

United can go level on points with Liverpool with victory over Aston Villa on Friday and Rashford has made it clear only one thing will be on his mind when Dean Smith's side visit Old Trafford.

"My main aim is to help the team and, as a forward, it's goals and assists that do that so the more of them I can get is the best for the team," he told United's official website. 

"That's what I'm concentrating on doing and ultimately that's what is going to help the team pick up points and if we have three or four of us that are playing in that way and trying to help each other score, then we can have big possibilities this season."

United have recovered from a poor start to the season, which saw them pick up just seven points from their opening six games. 

There were three home defeats in that run, including a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Tottenham. 

The 13-time Premier League champions are now in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten streak, however, which Rashford attributes to a new-found consistency amongst the players.

"This season with what's been going on and the way the season has started and players being out with COVID-19, when one player goes out with it, it affects the team and it's difficult to find consistency," he added. "I think that's what teams have been struggling with and that leads to results being up and down.

"I expect that to happen throughout the season so the only thing we can do is concentrate on ourselves and give ourselves the best chance of winning three points. To be fair, we've done that. 

"The beginning of the season wasn't the best for us, especially at home, but we've found a way to get back on track and probably when it was the most difficult period for us we came out of it in a good way and stuck together as a team.

"As long as we keep doing that and do as well as we can on the pitch we can't ask for anything more."

Around the globe, nations are welcoming in 2021, bidding goodbye to what has been a tumultuous year.

Much has changed in 2020, and while the coronavirus pandemic continues, football has at least returned, albeit in a vastly different way to what came before.

The Premier League was suspended for three months between March and June, but following a successful Project Restart, 2020-21 is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable campaigns in recent history.

With 2020 coming to an end, and 2021 promising signs of improvement, we use Opta data to review the Premier League year.

PASS MASTERS CITY CONFINE DEFENSIVE CONCERNS TO HISTORY?

Pep Guardiola's swashbuckling Manchester City side of 2017 to 2019 may well be a thing of the past, but so, it seems, are defensive lapses.

While often rampant in attack, City could be got at the back, as Liverpool usually managed to expose in meetings between the two title challengers.

Perhaps with the league all but sewn up in Liverpool's favour by early 2020, however, Guardiola seems to have found the tonic to City's issues in defence.

City have kept 17 clean sheets in 2020, three more than any other side. Seven of those have come this season, while the resurgence of John Stones in recent weeks has been a major success story.

Stones has made six league appearances – all of them starts – and has helped City keep five clean sheets, while forming a fine partnership with Ruben Dias, meaning Aymeric Laporte has found himself out of the side.

City's improved defence has come at something of a cost, with their goal tally falling to 69, six behind Liverpool, who netted 75 times across 2020, and a drop of 26 from their total of 95 in 2019.

However, Guardiola's team still control possession as much as they ever did, making 20,237 successful passes in 2020.

Indeed, holding midfielder Rodri completed the most passes of any player in the Premier League, while his pass completion rate of 92.4 per cent was also the highest of any midfielder.

DYNAMIC PLAYMAKERS TOP THE CHARTS

While James Rodriguez has come into the Premier League and made a strong impact at Everton, creating 25 chances – including three assists – and scoring three times in 10 appearances for Carlo Ancelotti's side, it is the playmakers with more dynamism and tenacity who have impressed the most through 2020.

Kevin De Bruyne – last season's PFA Premier League Player of the Year – was the chief creator.

He was the only player to create more than 100 chances in the Premier League in 2020, while he also led all players in chances created from open play (83). De Bruyne's tally of 15 assists was also more than twice as many as any of his City team-mates.

Another standout is Bruno Fernandes, who has seemingly transformed Manchester United's fortunes since joining in January.

Fernandes was involved in 32 Premier League goals in 29 games in 2020 (18 goals, 14 assists). The 26-year-old is one of two players to have been involved in 30 or more Premier League strikes in a calendar year, after Luis Suarez in 2013.

Topping the chances created charts for this campaign, however, is Jack Grealish. Villa's captain crafted 93 opportunities in total through the year, second only to De Bruyne, and 51 of those have come from 14 appearances this term – an average of 3.64 per game.

Grealish's 10 big chances created is level with Fernandes, while only De Bruyne (11) has made more.

The key attribute which stands Grealish out, however, is his ability to carry the ball. Having amassed 8,634.99 metres, he leads the way in the league, ahead of Harry Maguire (7,462.14m), Adama Traore (6,912.35m) and Andrew Robertson (6,882.03m).

De Bruyne and Fernandes are no strangers to picking up the ball and powering forward, though their chance creation relies more on precise crossing and slick passing.

RUN, FOREST, RUN! THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S MARATHON MEN

It is no surprise to see that Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool top the distance-covered metrics for the year. In total, the Reds ran 3,854.8 metres, 20.1 more than second-placed Sheffield United, albeit Chris Wilder's men will not get much-needed points just because they run more than the opposition.

West Ham (3820.2m), Brighton and Hove Albion (3804.1m) and Chelsea (3722.4m) complete the top five, with Southampton something of a surprise omission, as Ralph Hasenhuttl's side are renowned for their pressing system.

However, Saints captain James Ward-Prowse does lead the way for distance covered, tallying up just under 396km over the course of 3,060 minutes (the equivalent of nine-and-a-half marathons).

As well as being a tireless worker, Ward-Prowse is a set-piece specialist, scoring four free-kick goals.

Indeed, those strikes contributed to Southampton's league-leading tally of 15 goals from outside of the area, with Danny Ings netting five long-range efforts and Stuart Armstrong adding four.

While Grealish has carried the ball further than any other player, Wolves' Traore clocked up the most dribbles, amassing 142 – 46 more than anybody else.

In January, Traore completed 14 dribbles in a game against Watford – the most by a player in a Premier League game since 2003-04, when Opta began recording.

 

BRUNO AND VARDY'S PENALTY PARTY

A total of 112 penalties were awarded in 2020 – 13 of these went to Leicester City, while 10 went the way of United, Chelsea and City respectively.

Fernandes converted eight times from the spot, while Leicester's Jamie Vardy scored seven, one ahead of Liverpool's Mohamed Salah.

West Brom are the only team to have not been awarded a Premier League spot-kick, with Crystal Palace, Norwich City and Burnley – much to Sean Dyche's chagrin – winning two each.

While Leicester won the most fouls inside the area, it was Grealish who was felled the most in general, averaging at least one foul in all 32 of his appearances.

 

SUPER STRIKERS

Rounding off our review are the Premier League's leading marksmen. Salah (23) and Fernandes (18) headline the scoring charts.

Salah's 23 strikes came from 33 appearances, while Fernandes made four fewer, though more of his goals did come from penalties.

The evergreen Vardy, with 17 goals, is next on the list, tied with Tottenham star Son Heung-min, who was involved in 18 open play sequences ending in goals, more than any other player.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin has enjoyed a brilliant run since Ancelotti took charge of Everton, scoring 16 times in 2020 – with 11 coming this season.

Calvert-Lewin had 93 attempts in total, which ranks second in the league, though it is 31 fewer than Salah managed, and his strikes, along with telling contributions from Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and the creative forces of Robertson (12 assists) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (seven assists), helped Liverpool to their first-ever Premier League title.

Harry Kane's seemingly telepathic partnership with Son has proved fruitful for Spurs, and the England skipper scored 16 times across the year from 25 appearances, recording 10 assists.

Bruno Fernandes said the relentless pursuit of perfection by Portugal team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo feeds his own desire to keep churning out impressive numbers at Manchester United.

Fernandes has scored 10 goals and provided seven assists in the Premier League this term to help the Red Devils climb up to second in the table.

The midfielder is the first Portuguese player to reach double figures for goals in the competition since the 2008-09 campaign when Ronaldo achieved it as a United player.

United have lost just three of their 29 Premier League games since Fernandes made his debut at the start of February 2020 (won 18, drawn eight), going unbeaten in each of the last nine (won seven, drawn two).

Fernandes has also been directly involved in 32 goals in 29 games in the Premier League (18 goals, 14 assists) since he joined United from Sporting CP in January 2020.

The 26-year-old's tally of 14 assists in 29 games is the quickest a player has arrived at that total in the competition's history.

Juventus forward Ronaldo turns 36 next February but with 12 goals this season is Serie A's leading scorer and his powers show little sign of waning, which is a source of inspiration to his compatriot.

"If you see Cristiano and [Lionel] Messi, they are improving all seasons. How is this possible?" Fernandes said in an interview on United's website.

"Everyone says it's impossible to do better but, every season, they do better and better and better. It is 11 years fighting for a Ballon d’Or and this will never happen again.

"It will never happen again in the story of football because they are still improving and I have the chance to be with Cristiano in the national team.

"I see the way he wants to improve every time, in free-kicks, in shots, in headers, in penalties and you want everything. 

"You want to improve every time. When you lose, he knows he has to improve more and when you win, he understands he needs to go to the details of the good [work] to improve a little bit more.

"In everything in life, you have to improve and understand you're not the worst and you are not the best.

"There is always time to improve. It's impossible to be the worst because you have time to improve, and it's impossible to be the best because you always have time to improve."

United's players, along with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have endured periods of criticism this season but Fernandes claimed they have been able to shrug off any negativity.

"The club have a lot of media behind, a lot of people talking," added Fernandes ahead of their clash with Aston Villa at Old Trafford on New Year's Day.

"They will be talking all the time. They want to talk when you lose, they don't want to talk when you win, because it is better to attack than to defend the club.

"I think the most important thing is, inside of the group, we understand what we have to do, what we have to improve, where we are and where we want to go. 

"For me, the most important thing is like when we lose, we are not the worst."

Bruno Fernandes will take greater satisfaction from lifting trophies with Manchester United than winning individual accolades.

The Portugal international has been in fine form since joining United from Sporting CP for £47million (€55m) in January, scoring 26 times and setting up 16 more in 45 outings.

That includes 10 goals and seven assists in the English top flight this term, making him the first Portuguese player to reach double figures for goals in the competition since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008-09.

Fernandes' total of 32 goal involvements since his debut on February 1 is more than any other player in the Premier League, with Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah (27) and Tottenham striker Harry Kane (26) next on the list.

That form has seen the attacking midfielder secure three Premier League Player of the Month awards already - only the third player to achieve that feat in a calendar year, along with Ashley Young and Harry Kane.

He is a strong contender to be crowned the PFA Player of the Year come the end of 2020-21, but Fernandes is prioritising team honours at the expense of individual awards.

"If we win trophies, it is the most important thing," he told MUTV.

"Of course, it's good for a player to win individual awards and I will never say I don't want to be the best player in the league or I don't want to be the PFA player of the season.

"I want to be [that] but I want to be [that] if the team wins trophies. If the team does win trophies, for me, it's the same.

"For me, the most important thing is to help my team-mates to also be player of the season. That's the most important thing because, if someone from the club is player of the season, it means that we do very, very well this season.

"I think we will always be happy if someone else takes an individual award because it means the team is doing well. Nobody in football, a team sport, wins an individual trophy just doing well himself.

"You have to do well but you have to have the help of your team-mates to do well.

"When you have an individual trophy, of course, you are doing really well and deserve the credit but that credit goes to the team because they help you do better and better."

United are unbeaten in nine Premier League matches and will end 2020 three points behind leaders Liverpool, with a game in hand.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, who are also still in three cup competitions, return to action on Friday with a home match against Aston Villa.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said he cannot see the benefit of the Premier League temporarily halting action in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Premier League confirmed 18 new positive COVID-19 tests in the week commencing December 21 – the highest number of positive results in a single round of tests this season.

The news came just a day after Manchester City's game at Everton was postponed at four hours' notice due to a coronavirus outbreak at the Etihad Stadium, while Fulham's match against Tottenham on Wednesday is also in doubt.

Eighteen positive cases surpasses the previous high of 16 recorded in the week commencing November 9, and mirrors the wider situation in England, with more people now in hospital due to the virus than at the peak of the first wave in April.

West Brom head coach Sam Allardyce has called for a circuit break – a tight set of restrictions designed to reverse the tide of the pandemic – but Solskjaer is unsure what benefit that would bring. 

"As a club and as a group we've been really good at following the protocols," Solskjaer said after United's 1-0 win over Wolves on Tuesday.

"That's part of the job. I can't see the benefit in having a circuit break because when are we going to play the games?

"We all know this year is so difficult, but if you stop more games I don't think that's going to make a big change – it might be a longer one. When do we finish the season?"

Marcus Rashford's stoppage-time goal handed United all three points against Wolves at Old Trafford and moved the Red Devils up to second in the table, two points behind leaders Liverpool. 

The result stretched United's unbeaten run in the league to nine games, but Solskjaer said it is too early to start talking about a title challenge.

"There's no title race after 15 games," he added. "You can lose the chance of being in a race in the first 10 games. But play another 15, get to 30, and then maybe we can start talking about a title race."

Bruno Fernandes was once again instrumental in United's win, with his ball over the top leading to Rashford's late strike. 

Since his Premier League debut in February, the Portugal international has been directly involved in more goals in the Premier League than any other player (32 – 18 goals, 14 assists).

Solskjaer admitted it was not Fernandes' most stellar performance but he was pleased his perseverance paid off. 

"He didn't play his best game, definitely," he said. "He's played better games but he's always in and around creating chances.

"Maybe he made more for them than he did for us today! But he's got that knack of looking for that pass, and in the end it worked."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer paid tribute to Bruno Fernandes' ability to change games for Manchester United, even if the midfielder's exuberance sometimes frustrates his manager.

Fernandes was once again pivotal for United on Saturday as they drew 2-2 at Leicester City, the Portugal international setting up Marcus Rashford for the opener and then scoring the visitors' second.

In finding the net, Fernandes became the first Portuguese player to score 10 goals in a single Premier League season since Cristiano Ronaldo did so for the Red Devils in 2008-09.

Since making his Premier League debut in February, Fernandes has had a hand in over half of United's goals (31/60), scoring 18 and setting up a further 13.

Fernandes has quickly made himself indispensable for United and, while Solskjaer admitted he would sometimes prefer his talisman to play a simpler pass, he understands the attacking midfielder's abilities make him essential.

"He is definitely a player that impacts results," Solskjaer told reporters. "He creates goals, scores goals, he takes risks, which every Man United player should be allowed to do, be brave enough to do. He's definitely a brave boy who sees the pass and takes the moments.

"Sometimes I tear my hair out and say there is an easier pass, but you can't take that away from Bruno. You want that 'X factor'.

"He's got players in front making runs, getting the chances, so I'm very pleased with his influence this season – or a year he's been here now, for 11 months he's been great. He's always there, supporting and encouraging his team-mates as well.

"But that's also part of the team. When Bruno is that type of player, when he's got players in front of him who do make runs, do give him the opportunities to make those passes, that is not just down to Bruno.

"We have to remember he's come into a team that has helped him. We all have a role to play and he's playing his to the top of his ability."

Fernandes' expected assists (xA) record further highlights his exceptional first year at Old Trafford.

He has set up 10 goals in open play, but his open play xA is just 4.8, meaning he has twice as many assists as one would expect the average player to make from the situations he has been involved in.

Additionally, only Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish have created more chances than Fernandes' 74 since the start of February – the next most creative player in the division over the same period (Andrew Robertson) has laid on 54 key passes.

Bruno Fernandes became the first Portuguese player to score 10 goals in a Premier League season since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008-09, but it was not enough to seal a win for Manchester United at Leicester City.

Fernandes, who teed up Marcus Rashford's opener at the King Power Stadium on Boxing Day, thought he had secured the points for United when he struck home after latching onto Edinson Cavani's pass with 11 minutes remaining.

It took Fernandes onto double figures in league goals for the season.

That made him the first player from Portugal to score 10 or more in a single campaign in England's top-flight since former United star Ronaldo did so in 2008-09, when the winger netted 18 times.

Fernandes has had a direct hand in over half of United's Premier League goals since his debut (31/60), scoring 18 and assisting a further 13.

Cavani, meanwhile, has now been directly involved in five top-flight goals as a substitute this season (three goals and two assists), two more than any other player. 

However, United, who were looking to match Chelsea and Manchester City's record of 11 consecutive away Premier League victories, were pegged back for a second time in the 85th minute – Jamie Vardy sweeping in via a deflection from Ayoze Perez's cross.

The strike looked set to take Vardy onto 44 Premier League goals since Brendan Rodgers took over at Leicester – more than any other player in the league in that time.

Indeed, only Luis Suarez (54) has scored more times under the Northern Irishman than Vardy has managed so far.

However, Vardy did not get the goal, with the dubious goals panel officially putting it down as an Axel Tuanzebe own goal, albeit the Foxes forward expected that decision to be made.

"I don't think I'll get that goal, it might have just been going wide but at the end of the day it's got us a point that we thoroughly deserved," Vardy told BT Sport as the 2-2 draw ensured Leicester stayed in second.

"It's all about patience, you can't score with every single attack. It's about being patient, keeping the ball and making sure we get into the best opportunity possible and hopefully be in a position to be on the end of a cross at the end of it.

"I think you could tell that nobody wanted to lose, everyone was going out for the win, but we played really well against a really good team, defended really well so to get the point at the end of it, we’ll be happy with that.

"We're a bit disappointed to only get the draw, I think their [first] goal was a bit lucky but it's about reacting. We reacted brilliantly with [Harvey] Barnes' finish and it was all about doing more of the same to keep probing."

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