Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola's side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.

Plenty of what's happened since then - for both of these clubs and throughout the division - would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.

However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.

It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign.

Mutual respect

Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.

Before the match, the 25-year-old revealed he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.

"For the past 24 hours, I've been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game," he told Sky Sports.

"I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.

"That's what I've done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day - I have no shame in saying that and that's what gets me going for football matches."

After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.

"I rate him very highly," he said. "He's somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates at City, in a random conversation.

"In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot."

Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola's successful contract extension negotiations in November.

Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.

However, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year.

King creators

Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.

In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne's 51, although City's number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish's seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday's 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.

Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League's assists table, Harry Kane's fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.

Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.

Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe's top five leagues.

Hakan Calhanoglu has created 59 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon's Memphis Depay being level with De Bruyne on 51.

In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).

Goals, guile and grubby work

De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish's 40 (14 on target).

However, City's designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea.

Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith's men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.

Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne's 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man's 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.

In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.

Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol's 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.

His 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace's Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool's Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.

A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa's attacking play. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team's passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.

As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart do plenty to get it back.

The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish.

It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.

Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.

Manchester United's 0-0 draw away to Liverpool on Sunday left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer "disappointed", the Norwegian adamant they did enough to end the Reds' remarkable long-standing unbeaten home run.

But there were two silver linings; firstly, United remained top of the Premier League, and secondly, the point preserved their own exceptional streak without a defeat.

It ensured United's run without a loss away from home in the Premier League would surpass a full year, having last suffered a domestic defeat on the road at Anfield on January 19, 2020.

Liverpool's win on that occasion took them 30 points clear of United in the table, but the obvious gulf between the two last season has not carried into 2020-21.

United are away from home again on Wednesday as they go to Fulham, and avoiding defeat again will see them equal a club record.

EMULATING THE TREBLE WINNERS

The last United team to go 17 away games unbeaten in the Premier League was Alex Ferguson's famous treble-winning side in 1998-99.

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 Arsene Wenger's men to the crown by a point.

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

Should United avoid defeat to Fulham, statistically they appear set to improve of the 1998-99 team's run, as the current crop have already scored 36, conceded just 13 and won 12.

But even if they ultimately fall at the final hurdle at Craven Cottage, they are safe in the knowledge that no other post-Ferguson United side registers in the top seven for the club's all-time top-flight unbeaten away runs.

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 18 points from losing positions on the road in 2020-21, which is already a record for a single Premier League season, bettering the 17 accumulating 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.

A WAYS TO GO

As laudable as United's current 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.

It looked like 10-man Fulham were going to keep Chelsea frustrated until Mason Mount intervened.

The midfielder fired home with 12 minutes remaining to secure a 1-0 victory, just the Blues' second in their past seven Premier League games.

It was fitting that Mount proved the match-winner following another exemplary display in the Chelsea midfield, settling the contest with his second goal from outside the box this season.

The 22-year-old has 11 goals and 10 assists in 78 career appearances as a Premier League player for Chelsea. At the same age, Lampard (for West Ham) had scored 18 times and set up a further eight, but having played 44 further matches.

Ahead of Tuesday's trip to Leicester City, the Chelsea boss said of his struggling stars: "There are things that other players can look at with Mason." He has a point.

 

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Surrounded by expensive, high-profile stars, Mount has cemented his place as perhaps the most important fixture in Lampard's system.

He has three goals and five assists in 22 starts in all competitions this term. The only Chelsea players with more goal involvements are all more attack-minded: Timo Werner (nine goals, five assists), Tammy Abraham (eight goals, four assists), Kai Havertz (five goals, five assists) and Olivier Giroud (nine goals).

There's an argument to say Mount has been let down a little in that regard. He has created 54 goalscoring chances in 2020-21, more than twice as many as any other player, while 27 of those have been from open play – again, more than anyone else.

Only Werner, Abraham and Giroud have managed more shots on target than Mount (14), eight of which have been from outside the box, a team-high tally. Nobody could accuse him of going missing in attack.

INSURMOUNTABLE

As Lampard has been eager to point out, Mount's influence is far beyond goalscoring.

In all competitions, only three Chelsea players have completed more passes than Mount (1,032). Two of those are centre-backs Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva, who enjoy the benefit of a playing position where attempted passes are likely to be over short distances to team-mates under less pressure.

Mount, on the other hand, is required to be bolder with the ball. He has completed 427 passes ending in the final third, significantly more than any team-mate, with Ben Chilwell nearest on 268. Similarly, Mount has played 121 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, which is nine more than nearest rival Chilwell.

And if there were any doubts around Mount's impact without the ball at his feet, consider that only N'Golo Kante (26) has won more tackles (24).

Still unconvinced? Allow Lampard the final word: "Anyone who knows football and watches Mason Mount play understands what an incredible talent he is. He's just turned 22. Imagine when he's 25, imagine when he's 27. The critics don't matter when it comes to Mason."

It was far from business as usual in the NBA again last week.

A total of 11 games were postponed due to stringent COVID-19 protocols, making it tough for some players and teams to find their rhythm early in the season.

Others have taken full advantage of opportunities presented to them by teams having to go deep into their rosters in order to fulfil fixtures.

We take a look at the players who had the biggest increases and decreases in production over the previous week.

 

RUNNING HOT…

Shake Milton

The Philadelphie 76ers have seen their roster badly affected by COVID-19 protocols and results over the past week have been a little patchy as a result – a pair of wins over the Miami Heat ended a run of three straight defeats but were followed by a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. One who man stepped up, though, was Milton, who was averaging 14.1 points per game up to January 10. Last week he averaged 29.5 – a difference of 15.4, the highest in the league. 

Duncan Robinson

Last season's beaten finalists the Heat are in somewhat of a rut having lost four of their past five to slip to 4-7 for the season. Robinson has done his best to help reverse the fortunes, though, having averaged 23.3 points last week – his improvement of 12.1 from his average at January 10 was second only to Milton. Part of the improvement can be attributed to his prowess from three-point range over with Robinson averaging five per game, compared to 3.1 for the season prior to the week. Team-mate Tyler Herro has also impressed – averaging 25.5 points per game for the week, a +9.9 difference to his average leading into it.

Bruce Brown

With the Brooklyn Nets trading away Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert and Rodions Kurucs – as well as a ton of picks – to acquire James Harden, Brown received greater minutes in Steve Nash's rotation. He shot 8-of-11 from the field for 16 points in a win over the Denver Nuggets and had a double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds against the New York Knicks the following day. However, when Kyrie Irving returns, Brown can expect to see a significant reduction in his time on the floor.

Luka Doncic

The Dallas Mavericks star started to find his range from three over the past week, going 5-of-9 from beyond the arc against the Charlotte Hornets and 6-of-11 versus the Chicago Bulls. He averaged four three-point makes per game last week, a significant improvement on his figure of 1.63 on the season he went in with. Doncic also had 16 rebounds and 15 assists against the Bulls to record his 29th triple-double, surpassing the legendary Michael Jordan on the all-time list. However, he ended up on the losing side against Chicago and blamed himself: "That's on me, that game. I was being selfish a little bit because I had 30 points in the first half. That wasn't me in the second half."

GOING COLD...

Fred VanVleet

Four years after going undrafted, VanVleet was rewarded for his role in the Raptors' recent success as he signed a four-year, $85million deal to stay with Toronto ahead of this season. His performances have not yet justified that outlay, however, and the past week was a particularly disappointing one. The struggling Raptors actually enjoyed a minor upturn in form, winning back-to-back games against the Hornets to improve to 4-8, but VanVleet scored just 14 points per game, 8.1 down on his prior season average of 22.1. There was at least some solace in a first double-double of the season as he stacked up 10 assists in the second Hornets game.

Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter

It was not a good week for the Atlanta Hawks, their shock 3-0 start long since forgotten. Three Atlanta players were at least 6.0 points down on their prior scoring average for the year, yet it was the decline in three-point shooting that really stood out. Huerter and Hunter had each impressed from beyond the arc in the early weeks of the campaign, making 2.4 and 2.1 threes per game respectively. But a remarkable drop-off saw both make just two across three games - two of which were defeats - to each average 0.7. It meant the team as a whole made just five threes in the loss to the Utah Jazz and six as they went down to the Portland Trail Blazers.

George Hill

The Oklahoma City Thunder again traded assets for picks ahead of this season but have still managed to operate at .500 so far, beating the Bulls after defeats to the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers. However, Hill's outstanding early form is showing signs of tailing off. A new arrival this year, the 34-year-old point guard was outperforming his career average of 1.2 threes made per game heading into the week (1.9) but did not make a single one of his seven attempts from beyond the arc against the Spurs, Lakers or Bulls.

Terrence Ross

After a strong start to the season with the Orlando Magic, Ross went into last week averaging 17.9 points and 2.44 three-pointers made per game. However, in meetings with the Nets, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, he shot 3-of-15 from beyond the arc – an average of just one make per game. It's therefore unsurprising he also suffered one of the biggest decreases in points per game to 11, with 23 of his 33 total points coming against Brooklyn.

Lamar Jackson got his playoff win last week, but six days on from their revenge over the Tennessee Titans, the Baltimore Ravens were left to reflect on a year in which they will feel they fell short of expectations.

Their season came to a meek end on Saturday with a 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional Round, the Ravens bowing out at that stage for the second successive season.

Baltimore's offense failed to really get going and the turning point in a close contest came when Jackson tossed a red-zone interception to Bills defensive back Taron Jackson.

The 2019 MVP's namesake promptly returned it 101 yards for a Bills touchdown that left the Ravens with what proved an insurmountable deficit.

Jackson then left a chastening game with a concussion, and wide receiver Willie Snead afterwards gave a frank assessment of how the Ravens' signal-caller will respond to this setback.

"I just think he’ll look back at the whole season — not just this game, the whole season — and he'll make those adjustments that he needs to do to be an elite quarterback; an even more elite quarterback," Snead said.

"He is an elite runner, an elite passer, but there are steps he can take, better strides that he can take, and he knows that. That's the competitor in him to want to get better each and every offseason, to fix the little things that his game needs improvement on and continue to get better as a passer.

"I think if he knuckles down on that part of his game and really reaches his full potential in that area, then the sky is the limit for Lamar, man. It's just a matter of time. So, it's really on him. I think this game is going to be a wake-up call for him, hopefully this offseason. So, we'll see what he does next year."

Yet there is a case to be made that it is Baltimore's front office that needs the wake-up call, with key issues on the offensive side of the ball exposed once more by the Bills.

If the Ravens are to climb the mountain with Jackson, they must address two key problem areas.

Interior issues

Jackson's concussion was suffered as he scrambled to recover a snap way over his head from center Patrick Mekari.

Mekari was off target with four snaps in a dismal performance indicative of the Ravens' struggles on the interior of the offensive line following the retirement of future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda.

Yanda has understandably proved tough to replace, and the numbers reflect that.

Jackson was pressured on 16.2 per cent of his dropbacks in 2019 as the Ravens compiled a league-best 14-2 record.

In the 2020 regular season, that number rose to 21.4 per cent, and Jackson and backup Tyler Huntley were pressured on 36.6 per cent of dropbacks against the Bills, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats.

There has been a clear drop-off in Jackson's protection, which has been compounded by a lack of difference-making options at wide receiver.

Wideout woes

The Ravens did invest a first-round pick in a wide receiver in Marquise Brown in 2018. 

Brown made strides in 2020 but the fact tight end Mark Andrews led the team with 50.1 receiving yards per game is illustrative of the lack of a consistent impact from the wideouts.

Snead, an experienced slot receiver set for free agency this offseason, led the Ravens in percentage of catches that went for a first down with 69.7 and yards after catch per reception with 5.9.

The latter stat is particularly telling. So many of the league's best offenses boast playmakers who can make things happen with the ball in their hands but the Ravens, with Snead a potential departure, are severely lacking in that regard, Brown having averaged just 4.3 YAC per reception.

To his credit, speedster Brown was the Ravens' best receiver in terms of plays of 25 yards or more (nine) and touchdowns (eight).

Yet 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin has delivered only sporadic spurts of production, and while Devin Duvernay showed signs of promise, he and fellow 2020 selection James Proche will need to become significantly bigger parts of the offense if the Ravens do not add to their receiving corps in the offseason.

Even if Snead stays, the Ravens require a more dynamic wideout who can take over the chain-moving burden and provide Baltimore with a legitimate YAC threat in 2021.

Jackson is not without his flaws, as his crushing turnover showed. However, too often in 2020 he had the look of a quarterback not properly protected by the heart of his line and not properly supported by his receivers.

If the Ravens are to make the most of his incredible dual-threat skill set, that has to change.

It is December 16, 2018 – Liverpool have just beaten Manchester United 3-1 at Anfield in Jose Mourinho's final match in charge of the Red Devils.

Victory sends Liverpool to the top of the Premier League, and while they ultimately narrowly missed out on the title that season, hindsight shows it was a signpost for their potential and depths United have plumbed.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in soon after on an interim basis and, despite there being critics who consistently call his abilities into question, there can be no doubt of the impact he has had.

Sunday January 17, 2020 – United go to Anfield top of the Premier League, three clear of their bitter rivals. It is an achievement in itself, though Solskjaer has taken every opportunity to play it down – his terse response when asked in his pre-match news conference if he had received messages of congratulations from former team-mates highlighted his indifference.

After all, in an ideal world for United, this is just the start – they must now look to make the summit their permanent residence in the table and continue to develop.

While Solskjaer would surely not say so publicly, there is one area in particular where United should seek inspiration from their old nemesis.

 

FULL-ON FULL-BACKS

One of the Liverpool's greatest strengths over the past few years on their ascension back to the top of the pile in English football has been their first-choice full-backs.

Generally speaking, it is quite rare for a side to have a right-back and left-back who are both effective at either end of the pitch, yet Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are just that, and especially so from an offensive perspective.

They can help to create overloads in attack, with their presence in the final third still ensuring they carry a threat out wide even if the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have tucked inside, as they frequently do.

It's difficult to say United find themselves in a similar situation, however.

Luke Shaw has demonstrably improved as an attacking presence, suggesting the signing of Alex Telles motivated him to work harder.

The left-back is producing more crosses, successful crosses, key passes and passes into the box than he was last season, whereas Aaron Wan-Bissaka has regressed in each of those areas.

A reported £50million signing from Crystal Palace in 2019, Wan-Bissaka was billed as potentially United's right-back for the next decade, but at the moment he looks out of place in a team that generally attacks with speed, precision and commitment.

 

WAN-BISSAKA'S REGRESSION

Of course, a full-back's primary function is – for the most part – to defend, but as champions Liverpool prove, having players comfortable with both sides of the game provides a real advantage.

Wan-Bissaka certainly did not look to be a lost cause last season – his tally of three open-play crosses per game, while not outstanding, at least showed a desire to get forward. This season, there are only 13 players who have featured at least 10 times in the league to have averaged more than three.

But in 2020-21, Wan-Bissaka's numbers have shot down. Now he is delivering just 1.1 crosses per 90 minutes and his overall key passes total of eight only puts him level with United's back-up left-back Telles, who has played just six games.

Robertson leads the way among defenders with 32, while Alexander-Arnold, Joao Cancelo and Aaron Cresswell have 25 each, and next is the improved Shaw on 22.

 

UNBALANCED UNITED

So, what does this mean for United?

Above all it contributes to them being lopsided. It's no secret that they have issues on the right side of their attack, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both preferring to operate from the left if not through the middle, while Mason Greenwood simply hasn't managed to recapture his form from last term yet.

This arguably makes it even more important to have a presence on the right, but seemingly Wan-Bissaka's team-mates do not have the same kind of trust in him as they do Shaw and Telles on the left.

Just 33 per cent of United's passes from the wing into the box this season have come from the right flank, which means they go down the left about twice as often.

There is no such disparity for Liverpool, though.

Even in a season when Alexander-Arnold's level is being criticised, Liverpool still frequently look to try their luck down the right.

In fact, 52 per cent of their passes from the wing into the opposing penalty area have been from his side of the pitch. They have much greater balance, and therefore this ensures they are less predictable.

Of course, this isn't just on Wan-Bissaka. As mentioned, it highlights an overriding issue with United's right wing, but it does also raise questions about whether they feel he is their best bet long-term at right-back.

In Wan-Bissaka's first season, his remarkable tackling numbers – which do remain impressive this term – and effort to get forward fairly frequently showed promise, even if some fans expected more from a £50m full-back.

But with United hoping this is the start of them establishing themselves among the leading powers of English football once again, there's little doubt a right-back with greater attacking presence would offer them another dimension.

Chelsea needed a late intervention from Mason Mount to overcome Fulham 1-0 on Saturday, relieving the pressure on boss Frank Lampard. 

Brendan Rodgers - a man tipped to take over at Stamford Bridge if Lampard is removed as boss - saw his Leicester City side climb up to second in the table with a 2-0 win over Southampton. 

There were also wins for Brighton and Hove Albion, West Ham and struggling West Brom. 

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

 

Fulham 0-1 Chelsea: Mount settles west London derby

Chelsea left it late to overcome Fulham at Craven Cottage, Mason Mount scoring with 12 minutes remaining to end the Blues' run of three straight away Premier League defeats. 

The scoreline perhaps should not come as a surprise, given Chelsea have won 131 Premier League games by that margin - the most common winning score for a single team in the competition's history. 

The result also marked Chelsea's fourth away clean sheet of the season - a feat they managed just once last season. 

It could have been a different outcome had Antonee Robinson not seen red shortly before half-time for a wild lunge on Cesar Azpilicueta. That dismissal was Fulham's third in the Premier League this season - no side has had more so far this term. 

Defeat for Scott Parker's side means they are winless in their last 19 top-flight London derby matches since a 2-1 win over West Ham in January 2014.

Leicester City 2-0 Southampton: Maddison and Barnes on target for flying Foxes

Leicester moved up to second in the Premier League after earning their first home league win against Southampton since April 2016, ending a run of four without a win against the Saints at the King Power Stadium. 

They were set on their way by James Maddison, who has now scored in consecutive top-flight games for the Foxes for the first time since October 2019, matching his goal tally at the King Power Stadium from each of the previous two campaigns.

Harvey Barnes' 10th goal of the season sealed all three points, the winger equalling his best ever goals return in a single campaign. 

Southampton, meanwhile, have now failed to score in four of their last five Premier League games, as many as they had in their previous 34 in the competition.

The Saints' first 12 Premier League games this season saw 41 goals scored (F24 A17), at an average of 3.4 per game, while their last six games have seen just six goals scored (F2 A4).

Wolves 2-3 West Brom: Pereira brace gives Allardyce lift off

Sam Allardyce got off the mark with his first win as West Brom boss to revive his side's survival hopes against out-of-form Wolves.

The veteran manager, previously without a win in five matches in all competitions since taking over, is now without defeat in six Premier League games against Wolves - his best unbeaten return against any side in the division.

Matheus Pereira gave West Brom the lead from the penalty spot early on - the ninth league game in a row Wolves have conceded first - before Fabio Silva and Willy Boly turned the game in the home side's favour.

In doing so, Boly became the first Wolves player to concede a penalty, assist and score a goal in the same Premier League game since Adlene Guedioura in May 2011 - also against West Brom at Molineux.

Semi Ajayi levelled the game up with his ninth headed goal since the start of 2018-19 - no defender in England's top four tiers has scored more, level with Virgil van Dijk and Aaron Pierre - and Pereira scored the winner with another spot-kick.

Wolves, who last lost successive home league games against West Brom between 1929 and 1931, are without a clean sheet in 12 Premier League matches - the longest ongoing run among sides in the division.

Leeds 0-1 Brighton: Maupay haunts Bielsa's men again

Brighton ended a nine-game winless run in the Premier League with a narrow victory at Leeds thanks to Neal Maupay's close-range finish after 17 minutes.

Maupay rounded off a slick team move for his 10th away goal for Albion in the competition, making him just the second player to reach that tally for the Seagulls after Glenn Murray (11).

It was the striker's fourth goal in five league appearances against Leeds and ensured a first ever away top-flight victory in this fixture for his side at the fourth attempt.

Leeds, whose two shots on target was their second fewest in a home match under Marcelo Bielsa, have lost their first three games in a calendar year for the first time since 2014.

West Ham 1-0 Burnley: Antonio hits milestone goal in narrow win

Michail Antonio made the difference as Burnley fired another blank, the versatile forward becoming the fourth West Ham player to reach the 40-goal mark for the club after Paolo Di Canio (47), Mark Noble (46) and Carlton Cole (41).

All 40 of those goals have been scored inside the penalty area - only Tim Cahill (56), Javier Hernandez (53), Gabriel Jesus (43) and John Terry (41) have netted more with 100 per cent coming inside the box.

No team has failed to score in more different Premier League games than Burnley this season (10), while no team has netted in more different games than West Ham (15).

It was also a third successive clean sheet in the league for David Moyes' men for the first time since September 2019 as they picked up an eighth win of the campaign in their 18th game, a tally it took them 32 games to reach last time around.

Urban Meyer's coaching career looked to be over when he bid farewell to Ohio State following victory on arguably college football's grandest stage, the Rose Bowl, on New Year's Day in 2019.

It appeared to be the perfect send-off for one of the most successful and influential coaches in the college game.

Yet despite health concerns that forced his apparent retirement, Meyer clearly still had a thirst for a new challenge during his brief stint as a TV analyst.

That has been quenched with a step up to the professional ranks nobody had seen coming, Meyer on Wednesday appointed the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It is a splash move from the Jaguars that comes with a clear risk, with Meyer never having coached in the NFL during his storied career.

His first job at the highest level will likely see him get the chance to coach Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback considered a lock for the number one overall pick, who is widely regarded as the best prospect at the sport's most important position since Andrew Luck.

But will Meyer be able to get the best out of Lawrence and overcome his lack of NFL experience to succeed in turning the Jaguars around? There's a lot of evidence to suggest his achievements in college should translate to the pros.

A natural winner

Though all Meyer's experience has come in college, the first obvious sign for Jaguars fans is his track record of success.

In 17 seasons in the college ranks, Meyer never had a losing season.

His career record of 187-32 puts him third all-time in winning percentage (.854), with only Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864) ahead of him.

Meyer's two-season stint at Utah ended with the Utes ranked as a top-five team, while he won two National Championships at Florida.

A third national title came during his time with Ohio State, the Buckeyes consistently excelling under Meyer on the back of some excellent recruiting.

Constructing success

The Jaguars have a nice collection of talent at receiver and some intriguing young pieces on defense but, after a 1-15 season, the Jacksonville job is one that will largely require building from the ground up.

Thankfully in Meyer, they have hired a renowned program builder, whose talent for having his colleges near the top of the high school recruiting rankings was crucial to his consistency at that level.

Indeed, only once in his tenure at Ohio State did the Buckeyes fail to have a recruiting class in the top five in the country.

The challenge of luring free agents and drafting players is a very different one and the Jaguars still need to hire a general manager who will likely oversee most of those duties.

But Meyer will unquestionably have some influence on those proceedings and, having regularly lured the best high school athletes to Columbus, there is reason to believe those skills will translate and he will prosper at evaluating draft prospects and convincing free agents to join the Jags.

Tailor-made for Lawrence?

Before last season's College Football Playoff, Meyer labelled Lawrence the best college quarterback ever.

The expectation is he will now get to work with Lawrence, but will he get the best out of the Clemson phenom?

Judging Meyer by what he did in the college ranks, the indication is he will.

Meyer had a top-five offense at least once in each of his stops at Bowling Green State, Utah, Florida and Ohio State.

At Utah, his option-based attack had the Utes ranked third in total offense in 2004, and helped Alex Smith blossom into a prospect picked first overall in the 2005 draft.

His two National Championships at Florida saw him turn Chris Leak, who never played an NFL snap, into MVP of the 2007 title game before he then built the offense around the athletic abilities of Tim Tebow, whose deficiencies as a signal-caller were exposed at the highest level.

Meyer's lone National Championship triumph at Ohio State came with Cardale Jones replacing an injured J.T. Barrett at quarterback for the final three games. Both Barrett and Jones failed to make the grade in the NFL.

The Buckeyes were eighth in total offense in 2018, Meyer's final year, with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. Haskins was picked in the first round but was cut by the Washington Football Team this season.

In other words, Meyer has consistently gotten excellent production out of quarterbacks nowhere close to Lawrence's level.

It will be a very different challenge in the NFL, where the speed of the game and the standard of defense is significantly higher and there is much greater parity than in the college ranks.

Yet Meyer's acumen as a talent developer is illustrated by the fact Ohio State had multiple players taken as first-round picks in all but one draft from 2014 to 2019. They had three in 2020 after successor Ryan Day's first season as coach.

Meyer has proven himself an outstanding coach who can attract players to his teams, get the best out of his players and tailor systems around the strengths of his quarterbacks.

There are few areas that are not considered strengths for Lawrence. There may be growing pains for both Meyer and Lawrence, however, the combination of their respective talents should win out as they adapt to the increased level of competition. Meyer is a risk, but he has what it takes to turn the Jags into a force in the AFC.

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.

Cast your mind back to May 2, 2010. Exactly 200 Liverpool Premier League games before Jurgen Klopp took charge of the club.

The Reds, led by Rafael Benítez, fell to a 2-0 home defeat against eventual champions Chelsea to leave themselves seventh in the table and confirm that they had failed to earn qualification for the Champions League for the first time since the 2002-03 season, when they finished fifth.

Klopp is now set to lead Liverpool for the 200th time in the Premier League. And it comes against fierce rivals Manchester United on Sunday.

The transformation in the club's fortunes under the German has been dramatic. In their 200 league games before his arrival, a spell that encompassed Benítez’s final two matches in charge as well as the reigns of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish's second spell and Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool picked up 94 wins, 48 draws and 58 defeats.

By contrast, Klopp has already won 127 of his 199 league matches in charge, drawn 47 and lost just 25. That is 33 more wins and 33 fewer defeats than the 200 games before he joined. And 98 more points earned.

Even before his 200th match, Klopp's 127 wins stack up remarkably well among the most in any manager's first 200 Premier League games.

Only Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho, who took former club Chelsea to the title in both of his first two seasons in charge, won more times in his first 200 Premier League outings (137) than Klopp with Liverpool.

That output is made all the more remarkable given Liverpool's record before Klopp arrived at the club. Just compare it to his rivals in the above table.

Mourinho took over a Chelsea side that had finished the previous season second in the Premier League.

Alex Ferguson was six years into his Manchester United tenure when the Premier League began, while Pep Guardiola took over a Manchester City side that had won two league titles in five seasons prior to this arrival, only finishing below second once in that spell.

Even the Liverpool side that Benitez took charge of had finished in the top four in eight of the previous 10 seasons before the Spaniard's reign.

But when Klopp joined Liverpool, the club could boast just one top four finish in the last six seasons. His starting point with Liverpool was significantly tougher than that of his counterparts with the most wins in their opening 200 Premier League matches.

His impact has been exceptional. He has guided the Reds to Champions League qualification in all four of his full seasons in charge, ultimately securing their first league title in 30 years last season.

Indeed, Klopp's success has been such that in Liverpool's history, a history that boasts 19 First Division/Premier League titles, his win ratio is comfortably the best of any Reds manager in the top-flight.

Over seven per cent above Dalglish, who won three league titles as Liverpool boss, and over seven better than Bob Paisley, who won six in just nine years in charge.

Klopp arrived at Liverpool with a reputation of success against the odds. A promotion to the Bundesliga with Mainz in 2004, two consecutive Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund in 2011 and 2012. The job he did at both clubs stood him in good stead for turning around Liverpool's fortunes.

His progress as a manager is clear. In his first 200 Bundesliga matches (102 of which were with Mainz, 98 with Dortmund), Klopp won 81, drew 57 and lost 62. In his first 200 league games in charge at Dortmund alone, he won 117, drew 48 and lost 35.

Impressive figures, but he has reached new heights with his 127 wins as Liverpool manager in the Premier League – already the most by any Reds boss in the competition since it began in 1992.

But what of his players? Tellingly, three of the five who have made the most Premier League appearances for Liverpool under Klopp were at the club before the German arrived in October 2015.

Klopp's most used Premier League players

Roberto Firmino, a signing made under Rodgers, has been Klopp's go-to man ever since he joined the Reds, featuring in 93 per cent of Liverpool's league matches under the German.

Then there is captain, Jordan Henderson and vice-captain James Milner.

Signed for Liverpool by Dalglish and Rodgers respectively, both players have made more Premier League appearances under Klopp than with any of their previous managers, with Henderson having debuted in the competition with Sunderland in 2008 and Milner with Leeds United in 2002.

How Klopp has brought on and developed the players he inherited in 2015 has been crucial to the success of his Liverpool side. Henderson won the FWA Footballer of the Year award in 2019-20 having captained the club to a first league title in 30 years. Few would have tipped him for such success when he replaced Steven Gerrard as permanent club captain.

But the German's record in the transfer market has also been impeccable. Key signings such as Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have propelled Liverpool's fortunes.

Along with Firmino, they have formed a triumvirate that boast 183 league goals since they first played together in August 2017. In Europe's top five leagues, no other club's top-scoring three players have scored more than Mane, Firmino and Salah have for the Reds since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

Joint-top with Liverpool's front three for the top-scoring trios since 2017-18 are Barcelona's Lionel Messi (106 goals), Luis Suarez (62) and Philippe Coutinho (15) – also netting 183 goals combined. The latter of which, Coutinho, is the most significant departure for Liverpool under Klopp, leaving for the Spanish giants in 2018.

Still fourth for most Premier League goal involvements by Liverpool players under Klopp, Coutinho's sale paved the way for Klopp to make two hugely influential signings at the other end of the field: centre-back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

Before Van Dijk's Premier League debut for Liverpool in January 2018, the Reds had shipped 110 goals in 91 league matches with Klopp at the helm, or 1.2 per game. Since his debut, that figure has fallen to 0.8 goals conceded per match (86 in 108 games).

Alisson arrived slightly later, in the summer of 2018. He has conceded an even lower 0.7 goals per Premier League match he has played (57 in 81 appearances). In fact, Alisson's rate of conceding every 127 minutes he plays in the Premier League is the best ratio of any goalkeeper with 5,000 or more minutes to their name in Premier League history.

Then there is Klopp's full-back pairing, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The former was signed from a relegated Hull City side, while the latter is a product of Liverpool's academy. The duo have reinvented the full-back role.

Robertson has 33 Premier League assists for Liverpool and Alexander-Arnold has 28. Since they first lined up in the same side in September 2017, that ranks both of them in the top four for most Premier League assists, keeping company with Kevin De Bruyne (45) and team-mate Salah (30). Not bad for two defenders.

Put all of this together, and it is clear how Klopp has struck a balance in each area of the field. A fierce front three, leadership in midfield, the creativity of the full-backs and a strong core to piece it all together.

It is fitting that Klopp’s 200th Premier League game comes against United. The only club with more English top-flight crowns than Liverpool. The club Liverpool have lost to more than any other in the Premier League.

Indeed, Klopp's Liverpool side average just 1.22 points per game against their rivals – fewer than they do against any other opponent.

The winner of their meeting at Anfield on Sunday is guaranteed to finish the day top of the table. As if Klopp needed any more motivation for his 200th Premier League game.

Over the past couple of seasons, Trent Alexander-Arnold has essentially set the standard for full-backs in the Premier League.

Not only has he been a dependable part of a generally mean defence, but his effectiveness in the final third has helped mark him out from the rest.

A dead-ball specialist, comfortable on the ball and a fine passer, many have even suggested his long-term future could be further up the pitch in midfield – comparisons in this regard with the likes of Philipp Lahm are understandable.

But the adulation has been rather quieter this season. Indeed, he has even been the target of criticism on occasion, which is an awkward position to be in ahead of a huge top-of-the-table clash with bitter rivals and league leaders Manchester United on Sunday.

So, is Alexander-Arnold genuinely having a poor season? Or is he just the victim of his own high standards?

THE KNIVES ARE OUT

With Liverpool not running away with the Premier League title this term, perhaps it was inevitable that certain players were going to start being targeted with harsh words.

The focus on Alexander-Arnold seemingly became most intense after the Reds' 1-0 defeat to Southampton at the start of January.

Many sections of the British media zoned in on the fact Alexander-Arnold lost possession 38 times in the match, more than anyone else, yet virtually all coverage neglected to mention that such statistics are heavily skewed when relating to creative players who are far more likely to lose the ball due to the greater risk involved in their roles.

In isolation, such a statistic proves little. For example, Kevin De Bruyne lost possession 34 times in a game against Watford last season, yet he also had a telling impact with an assist from six chances created. In his entire Premier League career, the Belgian has only ever made more key passes in a single match eight times.

Although focusing on that part of his game may have been unfair, former Liverpool full-back Jose Enrique acknowledged Alexander-Arnold does appear to be a little short of his best, though he is adamant dips in form are normal and could even be explained by fatigue in a packed schedule.

"All of us are humans, you all have up and downs, we don't know what's going on in his life," Jose Enrique told Stats Perform News. "It's probably going amazing for him but at some point, your performance goes up and down. It's very difficult to do what [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo have done [in terms of consistency], it's just them, no one else [can be at such a level for so long].

"At some point in the season, you always underperform. It's normal. At the end [of games] you are more tired, you have many games under your legs. We are talking about international players, players playing at international level as well, Champions League, so it's many games."

STATS SUGGEST A SLUMP

The fact is, Alexander-Arnold has been less effective for Liverpool this season, and the stats back it up.

 

Across all competitions, the England international has four assists in 19 games at a rate of one every 392.8 minutes. Last term, he laid on 15 in 49 games, or one every 266.1 minutes.

In the Premier League, his frequency drops to 609.5 minutes per goal involvement, having been at 186.8 last term. On the opposite side of Liverpool's defence, Andy Robertson is proving a greater threat (one assist or goal every 255 minutes).

If we look a bit deeper, Opta data tells us Alexander-Arnold is playing fewer passes into the box per 90 minutes (12) than last term (14.4), while his open-play crosses are also down to 5.2 each game from 6.7 despite average position maps showing very little change in his role or the areas he operates in this term.

 

But, when considering his attacking output, it is worth noting that seven of his 13 Premier League assists last season came from set-pieces – this could partly explain his shortfall in productivity.

After all, he is taking almost 50 per cent fewer corners per game (down from 4.6 to 2.7) in 2020-21, while his key passes from set-pieces is 0.9 per 90 minutes after being 1.1 in 2019-20.

One might expect this to be a reflection of Liverpool simply having fewer corners, but that isn't the case – in fact, their average of 6.7 per game is identical to last season, he just is not taking them as often.

SUFFERING FROM A LACK OF COMPETITION?

Remember, though, this is comparing Alexander-Arnold to a time when he was in an almost unstoppable side that scored for fun and did not have something of a defensive injury crisis.

If we look at his form in the context of his Premier League contemporaries this term, his critics might be a little surprised.

Indeed, his 25 chances created and 162 passes into the box are second only to Robertson (32 and 169 respectively) among defenders, while Harry Maguire is the sole defensive player with more efforts on goal (21) than Alexander-Arnold (20).

 

It's a similar story with respect to crosses, as his tally of 70 is the fourth highest for a defender. Again, Robertson – who seems to be thriving even more this season – tops the list with 92.

Clearly Alexander-Arnold is still performing at a high standard, though Jose Enrique suggests a lack of competition in the right-back role could be another factor in his slight dip in form.

"I believe he's 22 now, he's won everything he can win as a player but maybe he needs more competition," the Spaniard added. "I believe Neco Williams is a good player, but obviously you can't compare. That's the reality. Neco is still growing, we don't know in the future how he's going to be. That's why he [Jurgen Klopp] puts [James] Milner there sometimes, I believe, to make a point.

"Sometimes it happens as well in players, and he will come back to his best. He's so important for us. Apart from De Bruyne, I don't see any other right foot like his. He puts the ball wherever he wants with his right foot, he's incredible. But like I said, he's a human being and he's not his best right now, but I'm sure against United he will sort out everyone, I'm sure."

There's no time like the present.

The Premier League's relentless schedule continues with matchday 19 this weekend.

Keeping on top of your fantasy teams has been tough with the intense fixture list and increasingly regular postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic.

To make things a little bit easier, we have used Opta data to highlight a few candidates for selection in your side.
 

NICK POPE

Burnley may only be four points clear of the drop zone, but when Pope is in the team they are difficult to beat.

Since the start of November, no goalkeeper to have featured at least four times has conceded fewer than Pope (four).

He has kept five clean sheets during that run and has the best save percentage in the Premier League at 90 per cent.


JOHN STONES

Manchester City are starting to look like Premier League title contenders once again, and a resurgent Stones has played a key role in that.

He has helped his side keep six clean sheets in his eight Premier League appearances this season, the highest percentage among defenders to play more than four games in 2020-21.
 

MARCUS RASHFORD

A mouthwatering top-of-the-table clash between Liverpool and Manchester United is scheduled to take place on Sunday and Rashford will again hope to prove influential in this fixture.

He has scored three goals in his past four Premier League appearances against Liverpool, earning his team four points in the process.

Only Wayne Rooney (six), Andy Cole (four) and Ryan Giggs (four) have found the back of the net against Liverpool more times for United in the Premier League than Rashford.


PEDRO NETO

Wolves host second-bottom West Brom in a West Midlands derby on Saturday.

With Raul Jimenez out due to a fractured skull, Neto has done his best to keep Nuno Espirito Santo's side pushing for a place in the top six.

He has the most Premier League goal involvements (four scored, three assisted) this season of any player aged 21 or younger, while his 32 chances created are twice as many as Bukayo Saka in second.

TOMAS SOUCEK

There is no doubting that Soucek has made himself an important part of David Moyes' West Ham side.

The Czech Republic international is the Hammers' highest-scoring player with five goals. He has also been involved in the most goal-ending open play sequences (seven) for the team this season.

CHRIS WOOD

Burnley may not be the most prolific team in the Premier League but Wood does not find it hard to score against West Ham.

The New Zealand striker has scored six goals in as many top-flight appearances against the Hammers, averaging a goal every 58 minutes.

He has not scored more than four against any other Premier League opponent.

LaMelo Ball's NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets got off to a subpar start. 

In fact that might just be a generous description of his NBA debut. It was downright brutal. 

The third overall pick of this year's draft played a scoreless 15 minutes in his first game, missing all five of his field-goal attempts in Charlotte’s 121-114 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 23. 

Not only did he fail to score, the highly-touted playmaker also turned the ball over three times, becoming only the second player in the last 35 years to finish without a point while taking at least five shots with three or more turnovers in 15-plus minutes in their NBA debut, joining the Golden State Warriors' Brandon Williams in 1998. 

While he got off to a shaky start, things have since gone much better. 

Better actually might not be kind enough in describing his recent play. He's been outstanding. 

On the onset of the 2020 draft, the 6-foot-7 point guard was widely considered to have the highest ceiling of all the prospects. An adept ball-handler, scouts marvelled at his passing, court vision and his ability to push the ball up the court. 

Though Ball possesses an immense skillset and has a comprehensive understanding of the game, making the jump from Australia's National Basketball League to the NBA would admittedly take time. 

It took him all of one week. 

With 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists in a win over the Dallas Mavericks on December 30, he became the first player in the last 35 years to reach those numbers in just his fourth game, and he's continued to stuff the stat sheet with impressive numbers. 

Since then, he's had two more games with 15 or more points, eight or more rebounds and five or more assists. Only four other players have had more such games in that span – the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (six), Mavericks' Luka Doncic (five), New York Knicks' Julius Randle (five) and Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (four). 

Over the course of three games from January 8-11, he racked up 42 points, 36 rebounds and 27 assists, joining Ben Simmons in 2017 and Lamar Odom in 2000 as the only rookies in the last 35 years with at least 40 points, 35 boards and 25 assists over a three-game span. 

In the middle game of that three-match stretch, Ball made history. At 19 years and 140 days, he became the youngest player ever to record a triple-double by notching 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in Saturday's win over the Atlanta Hawks. 

Despite stumbling out of the gate with his forgettable debut, he still reached the 10-game mark with 131 points, 63 rebounds and 59 assists. In the last 35 seasons, only two other rookies have reached those numbers after 10 games – James in 2003 and Simmons in 2017. 

Ball's passing has been as advertised. He's finding his open team-mates and setting them up for success. 

Among the 100 players with at least 30 assists, he has the league's 10-best assist rate – the estimation of percentage of field goals made by team-mates while he's on the floor. At 36.8 per cent, Ball sits just a bit back of James, whose eighth at 37.6. 

With 71 assists on the season, Ball has eight fewer assists than Devonte' Graham for the most on the Hornets. He does, however, lead Charlotte with 84 rebounds, and if he does surpass Graham and finish the season leading the team in both rebounds and assists, he'll join Michael Jordan in 1984-85 and Blake Griffin in 2010-11, as the only rookies in the last 40 years to lead their team in both categories. 

Not only is Ball flourishing in the part of his game many thought he would eventually excel in, he is also finding success in areas that were believed to be some of his biggest weaknesses – shooting and defense. 

After shooting a dreadful 24 per cent from 3-point range in Australia's NBL, Ball is making a respectable 33.9 per cent of his 3s. Nothing outstanding, but the league average on 3s is 36.6 per cent. 

He’s also showing a proficiency at knocking down shots just inside the arc. His 50 per cent shooting on mid-range jumpers is tied with seven others for 17th in the NBA among those with at least 100 field-goal attempts. 

Defense was another area that many expected would take Ball time to grasp and be competent in, but he’s already proven to be up to speed, leading all rookies with 22 defensive stops. 

Not only does he lead all first-year players in defensive stops, he also leads all rookies in points (143), rebounds (84), assists (71), as well as steals (18). 

If Ball continues to thrive on the court and finishes the season leading all rookies in points, rebounds and assists, he’ll become just the seventh player in NBA history to accomplish that feat, joining Elgin Baylor (1958-59), Wilt Chamberlain (1959-60), Oscar Robertson (1960-61), Walt Bellamy (1961-62), Alvin Adams (1975-76) and Michael Carter-Williams (2013-14). 

Not surprising, but each of the previous six won the Rookie of the Year Award. 

Playing at a level few rookies have before him, Ball is the early frontrunner to win this season's award. 

Good thing for him the trophy isn't handed out after one game. 

After nine and a half years, three first-team appearances and loan spells at seven different clubs, Lucas Piazon's time at Chelsea has finally come to an end.

Piazon, 26, on Thursday put pen to paper on a four-and-a-half-year contract with Primeira Liga side Braga, whose coach Carlos Carvalhal he played under at Rio Ave last season.

His name has been linked to Chelsea for so long, since signing as a promising 17-year-old in 2011, but few fans could tell you what he has done during his career.

With the help of Opta data, we look back at Piazon's loan spells to analyse an unusual career that finally appears set for some normality.

MALAGA

Piazon's first loan switch saw him head to Malaga in January 2013 and he began well, setting up two goals across his first three starts. However, he only started one more game and did not register another goal involvement.

VITESSE

Things ramped up a few gears the next season at Vitesse, where Piazon found the back of the net 11 times in his first 1,331 minutes for Vitesse. He scored or assisted a goal every 73 minutes before the mid-season break but did not have a single goal involvement in 727 minutes across the second half of the season as they slipped from second – level on points with leaders Ajax – to a sixth-place finish.

EINTRACHT FRANKFURT

Piazon spent the 2014-15 season with Frankfurt and only scored twice, though one was an incredible free-kick winner against Hamburg, across 22 appearances and 11 starts in the Bundesliga. However, he created 1.7 chances per 90 minutes in Germany's top flight, second only to Takashi Inui (2.3) among Frankfurt players.

READING

A return to England followed and the first of three years in the Championship. Piazon had three goals and two assists in 23 league appearances for Reading. Among players to feature for the club at least 10 times, he ranked second for passing accuracy (84.3 per cent) and fifth for chances created per 90 (1.9).

FULHAM

Piazon spent the next two seasons down the road from Stamford Bridge at Craven Cottage. In his first season with Fulham he had 2.2 chances created per 90 minutes, behind only Tom Cairney (2.7) and Stefan Johansen (2.3) among players to feature at least 10 times.

In 2017-18 he scored five goals and four assists as the Cottagers secured promotion to the top flight. His 18 goal involvements (10 goals, eight assists) across his two seasons with Fulham was the fifth most for the club during that time frame.

CHIEVO

A first venture in Serie A followed in the second half of 2018-19, but Piazon only played 81 minutes across four appearances for Chievo. He created one chance and hit the target with his only shot.

RIO AVE

Piazon became an important squad player during an 18-month loan at Rio Ave, contributing two goals and an assist as they qualified for the preliminary stages of the Europa League by finishing fifth in the 2019-20 Primeira Liga. His two goals from seven shots (including blocks) in the top flight this season gave him a team-high conversion rate of 28.57. Among Primeira Liga players to have taken at least as many shots as Piazon this season, only five have a better conversion rate.

The James Harden saga is set to end.

Harden will reportedly swap the Houston Rockets for the Brooklyn Nets in a mega trade, reuniting with Kevin Durant and teaming up with Kyrie Irving.

The Philadelphia 76ers were reportedly frontrunners to prise the former NBA MVP to the 'City of Brotherly Love', but Daryl Morey refused to part with franchise pillar Ben Simmons and others.

Instead, the Nets reportedly sent Caris LeVert – later traded to the Indiana Pacers as Victor Oladipo was dealt to the Rockets – and four first-round draft picks, plus four pick swaps, to Houston, in a deal also involving the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Nets also gave up Taurean Prince and talented center Jarrett Allen, who were sent to the Cavaliers, and Rockets-bound forward Rodions Kurucs.

It puts an end to a messy divorce between Harden and Rockets, after the disgruntled eight-time All-Star made no secret of his desire to depart as his frustrations boiled over post-game on Tuesday – sparking criticism from team-mates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

Attention now turns to Brooklyn's new super team and how Harden fits alongside Durant and Irving – if and when he returns from his personal absence – in first-year head coach Steve Nash's quest to deliver a championship to the Nets.

Harden, who is eyeing a maiden NBA title, had called Houston home since 2012, guiding the Rockets to two Western Conference Finals and three semi-final appearances after his acquisition from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 31-year-old sharpshooter – team-mates with Durant at the Thunder between 2009 and 2012 – brings a high volume of three-point and free-throw attempts to Brooklyn, not to mention a dominant scorer, which the Nets have rarely had.

Harden attempted the most three-pointers in 2019-20 with 843, and he also topped the free-throw attempts category at 800. Prince topped Brooklyn's 3PA list with 431, while Spencer Dinwiddie stepped to the line on 446 occasions.

In terms of individual seasons averaging 30.0-plus points, Harden boasts three seasons, while Durant has two. The Nets? 0. John Williamson's high of 29.5 points per game in 1977-78 (in just 33 games) is the closest.

In each of the past three seasons heading into the 2020-21 campaign, Harden had earned the NBA scoring title. Durant has claimed four honours, compared to the Nets' all-time haul of 0 after Keith Van Horn finished fifth in 1998-99. Harden and Durant have won seven of the past 11 scoring crowns.

Harden brings a resume with a lot of wins and postseason experience, as did Irving and Durant as former NBA champions with the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors respectively. The Nets have lost in the first round in back-to-back seasons, while not since 2003 have they featured in the Finals.

Harden boasts a team win percentage of 64.9 in regular-season games in which he has played, while he has amassed 128 playoff appearances.

The issue of Harden signing for the Nets is centred on possession and distribution, given he, Durant and Irving are ball carriers.

Looking at the highest usage percentage – an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor – since 2014-15 to get an idea of how the Nets could make it work with the trio, and Harden (second, 35.3 per cent), Durant (eighth, 29.6 per cent) and Irving (ninth, 29.4 per cent) rank in the top 10. The NBA average is 20.0 per cent.

In 2019-20, points scored by Harden and points scored off his assists averaged 52.4 per game. It followed 53.9 in 2018-19, 51.3 in 2017-18 and 56 the season previous.

That marked four successive seasons with 50-plus points per game created, tying Oscar Robertson (1963-64 to 1966-67) for the longest streak in NBA history.

Harden averaged 34.3 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds per regular-season game for the Rockets, who lost in the Western Conference semi-finals at Walt Disney World Resort, in 2019-20.

Page 1 of 42
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.