The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

Offense

The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

Defense

One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

Offseason

Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

Brees has restructured his contract in advance of his expected retirement, helping the Saints significantly, yet their odds of keeping around defenders such as Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson - who was third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in 2020 - still look slim.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

Should Brees indeed ride off into the sunset, New Orleans will need to decide whether to gamble on Hill or bring back Jameis Winston on an affordable deal and make him the successor.

The draft could also be an avenue by which the Saints could find Brees' heir, however, it seems more likely they will use their draft capital to reinforce a defense that could lose talent at all three levels.

Their decision-making in resolving the issue at quarterback and minimising the impact of the potential departures on defense will define whether the Saints stay at the sharp end of the NFC in 2021.

Manchester United became the best "school" in Nani's life once he learned how to work with Alex Ferguson – but crossing that bridge was not easy for the former Portugal star.

Nani's United career was a curious one, for he constantly had to contend with comparisons to compatriot and fellow Sporting CP product Cristiano Ronaldo, and that seemingly impacted fan expectations of him at the start.

His first season had some memorable highs, as he highlighted his penchant for a spectacular goal or two with long-range strikes against Middlesbrough and Tottenham, while also helping United to a Premier League and Champions League double, scoring in the penalty shootout that secured European glory.

Yet, despite his 12 Premier League goal involvements that term, Nani was regularly decried for a lack of consistency in his performances – a talented winger who seemed to frustrate as much as he did delight, with a man-of-the-match display in a 4-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal in February 2008 evidence of the devastating ability that perhaps was not shown enough.

After playing only 13 games – partly due to injuries – in his second domestic season, some fans might have expected United to cut their losses with Nani, but the penny seemed to drop, as he had a hand in 10 goals (six assists and four goals) in 23 appearances in the subsequent campaign and that proved the launchpad he needed.

Nani's best individual season followed in 2010-11 as he claimed 14 assists and nine goals to earn himself a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) Team of the Year and win United's Players' Player of the Season award. The key for him? Finally understanding what made Ferguson tick.

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said of his time working with Ferguson: "I think the best moment is all the trophies we won together, because I think when you play for a coach like that, the way he managed the team and always continued to win, we are privileged, no?

"But obviously, I learned to understand how to work with Alex Ferguson, because at the beginning, I was not understanding very well, because I was too emotional.

"My background, you know, you need some lessons of life, and I was learning so fast with all my team-mates and the coaches helping in that way, and I was happy at the end because they made me mature so fast.

"I learned how to play the game with them and how to behave in a big club like Man United, and that's why today when I look back, I have so great memories.

"That was my best school in all my life because what I learned from the time I had, seven years in Man United, they gave me today the capacity to be who I am and to understand things the way I understand them."

Across his time in the Premier League, only five players made more assists than Nani (43), though that figure may have been even more impressive were he not restricted by injuries to just 11 league games each in Ferguson's final season and David Moyes' solitary campaign.

Louis van Gaal subsequently decided his time at Old Trafford was up, but Nani looks back fondly on his time in Manchester, and particularly under Ferguson, whom he shared a touching moment with as he walked down the steps of the Stade de France having helped Portugal to Euro 2016 glory.

"Nani!" came the shout from Ferguson.

"Boss!" replied a visibly shocked but joyous Nani, still seeing the Scot as a person of authority despite being out of the game for three years at this point. The pair hugged and exchanged a few words before Ferguson sent his former player on his way.

And it was this personable character – rather than the authoritative figure Ferguson is often perceived to be – that Nani remembers most, yet still took some time to get used to.

"I understood that he would always like the players to go and talk with him," Nani said. "But he appreciated more when the players opened up to him and were honest, and told him whatever the truth was or whatever you needed.

"If you had any problem, he would like to have this opportunity to hear from the players, and as soon as you do that one or two times, you are more confident to talk with him, and then you feel you closer to the manager.

"You understand and you feel like, 'Oh, now he understands me, it doesn't matter if I'm happy or not'.

"So, I knew I could count on him if I needed to talk or if I needed anything, or if I wasn't in good shape or good form, it doesn't matter because he sees me as part of the team."

Now 34 and in MLS with Orlando City as he approaches the end of an illustrious career, Nani may feel he could have achieved even more on a personal level at United.

But being shaped by a man as revered as Ferguson is a claim to fame in itself.

"Of course we have a certain history…but we don't know each other as well as everybody thinks."

So said Thomas Tuchel during a glowing assessment of his German compatriot Jurgen Klopp, not long after replacing club legend Frank Lampard in the Chelsea dugout in January.

You could be forgiven, though, for thinking there is a much stronger bond between two men from the same country, whose paths from young heavy-metal upstarts to coaching heavyweights have taken eerily similar paths.

There are striking facets in each man's style of play too. The high intensity pressing, the devastating speed of the counter-attack, the fluidity of the forwards.

Now, whether you are a believer in fate or coincidence, the two are set to battle in the Premier League for the first time on Thursday when Chelsea – unbeaten so far under Tuchel – visit Anfield to take on Klopp's Liverpool.

With that in mind, let's take a trip down memory lane.

BECOMING THE MAINZ MAN

"I had fourth-division feet and a first-division head".

Even as a player, Klopp always believed his talents were better suited to the touchline than inside the white lines and it was at second-tier Mainz – where he made over 300 league appearances as a player – where he would get the chance to cut his coaching teeth.

Appointed in February 2001, Klopp helped stave off the threat of relegation and then led the team to consecutive fourth-place finishes, narrowly missing out on promotion.

But the old adage proved true, as the third time proved a charm for Klopp as Mainz were promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.

Klopp had the smallest budget and the smallest stadium in the top flight, but in his first two campaigns among the elite, employing his now famed Gegenpress, he led Mainz to back-to-back 11th-place finishes and a first foray into European football – qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to the Fair Play draw.

Relegation followed in the next campaign, and in total Klopp enjoyed 29 wins from 102 Bundesliga games as Mainz boss, a win percentage of 28.43 in Germany's top flight – his side scoring 130 goals and conceding 159.

He had a points-per-game average of 1.13 with Mainz in the Bundesliga but, after failing to secure a return to the top tier the following campaign, Klopp departed for pastures new. More on that later.

So, what next for Mainz? Well, the original route was the appointment of Jorn Andersen, who successfully achieved promotion but was sacked before the 2009-10 top-flight campaign even started, with Mainz stating the aims of the club and the coach were no longer the same.

Enter Tuchel…

A knee injury curtailed Tuchel's playing career at the age of 25 and he worked in the youth team at Stuttgart before overseeing the second team at Augsburg – a club he previously played for.

It was here where Tuchel impressed Bundesliga teams, coaching a side including Julian Nagelsmann, and Mainz came calling after dismissing Andersen.

Despite limited funds and a supposedly inferior playing squad, a team including Andre Schurrle and Adam Szalai helped Mainz to a ninth-placed finish.

Better things were to come the following season. The likes of Lewis Holtby and future Premier League winner Christian Fuchs arrived and Tuchel led Mainz to their highest ever finish of fifth.

The difficulties of mixing domestic and European football were a struggle and the next two campaigns saw Mainz finish 13th before coming an impressive seventh in 2013-14, Tuchel's last season in charge.

By the end of his tenure, Tuchel had a win percentage of 38.24 in the Bundesliga – significantly higher than Klopp's and the best of any Mainz coach.

Under Tuchel, Mainz won 65 Bundesliga games, scored 229 goals, conceded 230 and finished with a points-per-game ratio of 1.41. After a year out of the game, another opportunity was to arise…

DELIGHTING IN DORTMUND

When Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, both parties could hardly have dreamed they would be a better match.

Earlier in the decade, Dortmund were a club on the brink of financial ruin after years of heavy spending.

It meant Klopp's remit was to work within a limited budget and develop youth talent. And boy did he succeed in his task – putting together a team that would mix it with the best of European football.

The early signs were promising as Dortmund finished sixth and fifth in Klopp's first two campaigns, an improvement on 13th in the season prior to him taking over.

But it was 2010-11 when things really clicked. A star-studded cast led by Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and Shinji Kagawa pressed, hassled and swashbuckled their way to Bundesliga glory.

Dortmund would repeat the trick a year later with their 81 points at the time a Bundesliga record, while they made it a domestic double in the process by adding the DFB-Pokal.

Bayern Munich regained top spot in the Bundesliga in the following season (and have not looked back since) but Klopp's reputation continued to grow as Dortmund reached the Champions League final – only to be denied as Arjen Robben's 89th-minute winner earned Bayern a famous treble.

Dortmund were runners-up in the league and cup in 2013-14, and a disappointing start to the next term that saw Dortmund initially in relegation trouble would mark the beginning of the end of a glorious chapter.

Still, a recovery to seventh in the table and a run to the Pokal final meant Klopp left with his head held high. In total, Dortmund won 133 of their 238 Bundesliga matches under Klopp – ending with a win percentage of 55.88 and an average of 1.91 points per game, with 469 goals scored and 248 conceded.

But life at Signal Iduna Park had to go on and, you guessed it… enter Tuchel.

It was a natural fit in many ways, with Dortmund keen to find someone who would fit a similar mould to Klopp when he first joined. Young, vibrant, a desire to press and attack at pace.

There was much to admire in Tuchel's first campaign, but Bayern's winning machine continued as they finished 10 points clear of their rivals.

Dortmund spent big to replenish a squad depleted by the departures of Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan ahead of the 2016-17 season, but they accumulated 14 fewer points to finish third in the league – a triumph in the Pokal proving Tuchel's only trophy at the club.

While there was plenty to admire on the pitch, off it Tuchel's reign was mired by disagreements with Dortmund's hierarchy – most notably CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke.

Tuchel left with a win percentage in the Bundesliga of 61.76 (beaten only by Lucien Favre's 63.29 among Dortmund coaches with at least 10 games in charge), accruing an impressive 2.09 points per game.

HEAD-TO-HEAD AND 'THAT' GAME AT ANFIELD

Similar paths, similarities in styles, contrasting fortunes then.

But Thursday's clash at Anfield is by no means the first time these two have gone head to head.

Indeed, there were 10 occasions when the two were in opposition dugouts in the Bundesliga – with Klopp winning seven of those and Tuchel only one.

When extending that to all competitions, Klopp has triumphed nine times from 14 games, while Tuchel bumps up only slightly to two victories.

Their most famous showdown, of course, came in the 2015-16 Europa League quarter-finals, where Klopp was handed a romantic return to the club he once considered his home.

A 1-1 draw in Dortmund preceded one of the greatest second-leg contests in the competition's history.

Goals from Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Dortmund 2-0 up inside 10 minutes to stun Anfield and, although Divock Origi's goal just after the break reduced the arrears, Marco Reus' effort before the hour had seemingly sewn things up.

Cue pandemonium. Philippe Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho were on target to level things on the night and Dejan Lovren's injury-time header completed the most memorable and emotional of comebacks, Liverpool celebrating a 4-3 victory.

Since that night, Klopp has become a Premier League and Champions League winner with the Reds, while Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge was preceded by a couple of Ligue 1 title triumphs with Paris Saint-Germain and a 1-0 loss to Bayern in last season's showpiece game in Europe's premier competition.

Klopp and Tuchel also had a win apiece when Liverpool and PSG met in the 2018-19 Champions League group stages.

Now their familiar paths have led to the Premier League for the latest showdown between two of the greatest coaching minds in football.

A permanent residency in Las Vegas. It's what so many performers around the world dream of getting, but in 2020 the Raiders were left delivering a mediocre performance to a non-existent audience in their first year in the desert. 

Their mammoth new Allegiant Stadium home was left empty due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Raiders again flattered to deceive, an exciting opening act giving way to an underwhelming finale that ended hopes of a postseason encore. 

Under normal circumstances, a third successive season in which the Raiders missed the playoffs would lead to pressure on Jon Gruden. 

But because the Raiders rolled the dice by giving Gruden a 10-year contract, the head coach is a long way from the hot seat during his second spell with the franchise. 

Playing in a division alongside Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, plus Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Raiders face a tough challenge to contend in the AFC West. 

The pressure on Gruden may finally come should they miss the postseason again in 2021, but what can the Raiders do to ensure their first season with fans in Vegas results in a playoff berth? 

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we reflect on the Raiders' 2020 season and assess what they can learn from an 8-8 year.

Offense

The Raiders failed in their pursuit of a Wild Card spot despite an impressive year from much-maligned quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for a career-high 4,103 passing yards and finished the season in a three-way tie for fifth in yards per attempt with an average of 7.94. 

Where Carr made clear and significant strides was as a deep-ball thrower. 

On passes of 21 air yards or more, Carr had a passer rating of 124.2, throwing for 10 touchdowns and one interception. Among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 such passes, his rating put him fourth in the league, behind only Daniel Jones, Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. 

The exciting thing for the Raiders is there is clear room for him to grow in that area. 

While Carr was much improved pushing the ball downfield, his rapport with Raiders speedster Henry Ruggs III still needs work. 

Carr had 54 completions of at least 20 yards but first-round pick Ruggs registered only eight receptions of 20 yards or more. 

The average distance on those Ruggs receptions was 40.4 yards, putting him fifth among receivers to have had at least five catches of 20-plus yards. 

If Carr and Ruggs can develop their downfield chemistry, opposing defenses will have more reason to fear the passing game, potentially opening things up further for Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller underneath and a running game that underwhelmed in 2020. 

Though Josh Jacobs scored 12 touchdowns, the Raiders averaged 4.19 yards per rush, the 19th-best mark in the NFL.

There will be onus on Jacobs and the offensive line to improve drastically in that regard but, should Carr make further progress going deep and force defenses to focus on the pass, everyone else's jobs will become a little bit easier.

Defense

Save for occasional flashes - the shackling of Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of their Week 5 win at Arrowhead Stadium being the most prominent example - the Raiders defense failed to live up to the significant investment in that side of the ball.

Indeed, the Raiders continued to struggle to contain opposing offenses in 2020, allowing 5.99 yards per play, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL.

They were one of just six teams to give up over seven yards per pass play, with the Raiders' issues on defense leading to the firing of coordinator Paul Guenther.

Las Vegas will hope that Gus Bradley - Guenther's replacement - will be the man to oversee a turnaround.

To do that, Bradley will need to help deliver a significant upturn in production from the Raiders' pass rush. They finished the season with 21 sacks - just three teams had fewer - with edge rusher Maxx Crosby seeing his numbers drop from 10 sacks as a rookie to seven in 2020.

A first-round pick in 2019, Clelin Ferrell had just 2.5 sacks, with the Raiders' inability to get consistent pressure a factor in them allowing a passer rating of 108.9 on opponent throws of 21 air yards or more.

That number also raises questions about a young and exploitable secondary that has found it difficult to produce turnovers.

Las Vegas ranked 30th in takeaways with a meagre 15, with their 10 interceptions tied for 23rd.

Having consistently failed to pressure quarterbacks and to take the ball away, there is significant room for improvement on defense, but the Raiders do not have the financial flexibility with which to add players who can aid their cause.

Offseason

Even after one of the best seasons of his career, there has again been talk about the Raiders trading Carr in the hope of finding an upgrade at quarterback. 

The more likely scenario is that the Raiders parlay Marcus Mariota's one appearance last season, in which he excelled in relief of the injured Carr, into a trade that can net them more draft capital. 

With the Raiders poised to be over $9million above an assumed salary cap of $185m, potentially limiting their options in free agency, those extra draft picks would be welcomed. 

Regardless of how many picks the Raiders end up with, the areas of need are obvious. 

Pass-rush help both on the edge and on the interior of the defensive line is a must, as is an infusion of athleticism at linebacker, last year's free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski proving ill-equipped to help the Raiders stop the threats posed by modern passing attacks. 

Making those additions to the front seven will be crucial to the progress Gruden and the Raiders hope they can make in the fourth year of his tenure. 

Should the Raiders fail to identify the correct players at those spots, the ceiling of this team may again be limited in 2021 irrespective of any further strides from Carr.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Super Bowl champions. So job done for Tom Brady and company, right?

Wrong.

In the aftermath of their crushing 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady was already speaking on the podium about running it back for another year.

And, having added a seventh Lombardi Trophy to his impressive collection, it's impossible to question the 43-year-old's confidence in pushing for number eight.

However, the reality is that, regardless of how dominant their playoff campaign was, the Bucs have significant issues to resolve if they are to emerge triumphant again next February.

Here we reflect on the season that delivered the Buccaneers' second Super Bowl title and examine the offseason challenges that will be critical to their hopes of successfully defending their crown. 

Offense

Though Brady's first season in Bruce Arians' offense was not without its growing pains, things eventually clicked for the Bucs through the air.

Brady was third in passing yards per game (289.6), behind only Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

Over the last four weeks of the regular season, however, Brady led the league in pass yards per game, racking up 333.3 as they surged into the postseason.

The move from New England to Tampa Bay also revived Brady's fortunes as a deep-ball thrower. Tampa had 67 completions of 20 yards or more, the third-most in the NFL behind the Houston Texans and the Chiefs.

Where they will hope to improve next year is in the explosiveness of the running game.

Leonard Fournette was the top running back in the postseason, rushing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, including one in the Super Bowl. 

He had five rushes of 10 yards or more in the playoffs but, in the regular season, it was a different story.

The Bucs ranked 29th in the NFL with an average of 94.9 yards per game, while their 34 runs of 10 yards or more were tied for second-last in the NFL.

If Tampa can improve in that regard in 2021, it will take a lot of the pressure off Brady's shoulders.

Defense

Brady may have won Super Bowl MVP for the fifth time, but it was the Bucs' defense that ensured the Chiefs had no way of coming back into the contest.

They pressured Mahomes 33 times in an effort that derailed the Chiefs' offensive game plan, with that performance reflective of the dominance the Bucs' defensive front produced throughout the season.

Indeed, Tampa Bay registered 48 sacks in the regular season, with the 366 negative yards those sacks produced second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers (-384).

Given the pressure they consistently generated, it is no surprise that the Bucs produced the fourth-most takeaways in the NFL (25).

A talented young secondary capitalised significantly on the disruption the front seven created, vindicating investment in the defensive backfield that had previously been questioned.

Safety Antoine Winfield enjoyed a stellar rookie year but the star of the show in the secondary was cornerback Carlton Davis, who had four interceptions and 18 pass breakups.

As a result of their ability to create pressure and turnovers, the Bucs ranked eighth in pass yards per play allowed (5.93).

The rush defense was even stronger, Tampa Bay leading the league as they gave up just 3.6 yards per run play.

Excelling at shutting teams down through the air and on the ground, the Bucs were sixth in opponent scoring efficiency and 10th in successful plays allowed.

Todd Bowles' defense was critical to the Bucs emerging from the 2020 season with the Lombardi in their possession, but difficult decisions loom as they attempt to keep the group together for another run in 2021.

The offseason

In a year where the salary cap could fall from $198million to, at the most optimistic estimate, $185m, the Bucs find themselves in a better position than most teams.

Assuming a $185m cap, the Bucs have nearly $28m to spend, yet the sheer number of free agents they have means Tampa will likely be bidding farewell to some key names from their championship team.

Shaquil Barrett, the edge rusher who had 13 pressures of Mahomes, is an unrestricted free agent in line for a monster payday. Veteran linebacker Lavonte David is also set to hit the open market, along with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Fournette.

Gronkowski has already vowed to return and, given that the Bucs triumphed over the Chiefs with Godwin making just two catches, Tampa may be willing to say goodbye to the former third-round pick to facilitate them paying others.

Barrett and David figure to be the toughest players to re-sign, with the former likely to command something at least in the region of Joey Bosa's market-setting contract for edge rushers, which has an average annual value of $27m.

David may be willing to take a discount after nine seasons with Tampa, but the Bucs might have to face up to the possibility of throwing rookies into the mix on the edge and at linebacker, meaning there could be more pressure on that talented defensive backfield to deliver without the same level of play in the front seven.

Having won it all, the Bucs are effectively playing with house money - at least to those outside the building - and have several options with the 32nd overall pick in the draft.

But edge, linebacker and wide receiver all stand as potential areas of focus for a champion team that may have to revise their expectations of keeping the core of the band together.

Jose Mourinho believes anyone wondering why it took Gareth Bale so long to hit top form for Tottenham would be better off asking Real Madrid.

Bale had a miserable start to his Tottenham return after coming back to the club on a season-long loan deal in September.

He struggled with his form and fitness, quickly falling out of favour with Mourinho.

Bale has been revitalised of late though, impressing in two Europa League games against Wolfsberger as well as Premier League clashes against West Ham and Burnley.

Mourinho recently said Bale was the happiest, fittest and most confident he has ever been at Tottenham.

The Spurs boss confirmed Bale had another good reaction to his 70-minute outing in the 4-0 win over Burnley on Sunday.

It means the Wales international is in contention to play at least some part when Spurs take on Fulham at Craven Cottage on Thursday.

"For the past two years, he had what he had in Madrid," said Mourinho. "Ask them [why it took Bale so long to find form]. 

"Maybe if they answer you, you can understand better why he took a while. 

"Maybe to be patient was the main reason for him to reach the level he showed in the last couple of weeks."

Asked if Bale would be involved in the Fulham game, he added: "I believe so. Starting or on the bench I don't know, we have to decide that.

"He is such an experienced guy so of course his opinion is very important. But he has had a good reaction [after the Burnley game], a good recovering session and he will be involved. 

"I repeat: [it could be] bench or starting, but he will be there."

Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso will not be rushed back despite returning to training.

"He is training with the team but it was a big injury," added Mourinho.

"We are not going to risk [him] yet. In fact, we don't want to risk [him at all], we want to bring him to the team and competition when there is no risk. One week, two more weeks. 

"Apart from that, everyone OK. One more training session after this but everyone OK."
 

BALE'S SWIFT IMPROVEMENT

Bale has registered four goals and three assists in his last four games for Tottenham.

In his first 16 matches since returning, he only recorded four goals and did not register a single assist.

The 31-year-old's minutes per goal involvement have impressively plummeted from 200.8 in his first 16 matches to one every 28.7 in this most recent four-match span.

Bale is having more of an active role in other areas too. His chances created per 90 minutes are up to 3.1 from just 1.1, while his shot conversion rate is 44.4 per cent, up from 10.5.

It is only a small sample size and two of the matches were against weaker opposition in Wolfsberger, but the signs are encouraging.

The amount of shots he is taking is similar (4 per game compared to 4.3 before), but notably more of Spurs' attacks are coming through Bale. 

He has accounted for 22 per cent of Spurs' shots in the last four matches, where before he was responsible for just nine per cent of their attempts in the time he was on the pitch.
 

HOW DO HIS STATS COMPARE TO REAL MADRID?

The recent burst from Bale means his statistics since returning to Spurs compare favourably to his successful Madrid tenure in a number of categories.

Again, it is worth noting his Spurs figures are from a comparatively small sample size making them more prone to fluctuations – 20 matches compared to 251 in the Spanish capital.

Bale has 11 goal involvements for Spurs (eight goals and three assists) in 1,004 minutes on the pitch, giving him an average of 91 minutes per contribution.

At Madrid, he averaged one every 111 minutes.

Bale also compares favourably when looking solely at minutes per goal (171 at Madrid v 126 at Spurs).

He did, however, win 65 per cent of the games he played in at Madrid, compared to 60 per cent since returning to Spurs, a sign of the difficult season experienced by the London club.

All eyes in the NBA will be trained on Houston on Wednesday as the Rockets host James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets.

Harden was an outstanding player with the Rockets, winning the 2018 MVP award and twice reaching the Western Conference Finals, but he is unlikely to receive a warm welcome.

The nine-time All-Star decided in the offseason he wanted to leave Houston and worked to force a trade.

Although the Rockets initially resisted, a blockbuster deal was eventually agreed with the Nets, who pipped the Philadelphia 76ers to the signing.

Harden, slow by his lofty standards in the first eight games of the season in Houston, has rediscovered his best form in the NBA's newest 'big three' with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Both the player and his former team, struggling badly at 11-22, will be determined to come out on top in this first meeting since they parted ways.


TOP PERFORMERS

Houston Rockets - John Wall

Even with Harden's numbers declining at the start of 2020-21, no Houston player has been able to match the 24.8 points he scored on average across those eight games.

Christian Wood (22.0) has come closest, yet an ankle injury has limited him to just 17 games. The Rockets have lost 12 in a row since he went down a month ago.

So, Wall, who missed the entirety of the Washington Wizards' 2019-20 campaign with a torn ACL, has had to step into the breach.

Although Houston's form is awful, Wall at least comes into this clash on somewhat of a roll, playing 10 straight games and scoring 32 points last time out against the Cleveland Cavaliers, his best return since December 2018.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Wall is not alone in being asked to do some heavy lifting, as Harden, the third man signed to the 'big three', has operated without either Irving or Durant due to injuries at times in the early stages of his Brooklyn career.

He has done so admirably, however, averaging 25.3 points, 11.3 assists and 8.7 rebounds since leaving the Rockets.

With Irving returning following a back issue against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, Harden scaled new heights, becoming the first player to post 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a game without a single turnover since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.

It was his seventh triple-double of the season already, a mark he only once passed in Houston colours (22 in 2016-17).
 

KEY BATTLE - CAN HOUSTON GET TO HARDEN?

Irving claimed after the Spurs game there would be "no animosity" and "no tension" in Houston "on the court or about James in my presence or anybody else's presence". That seemed optimistic.

Harden's parting shot at the Rockets, where he claimed to "have done everything that I can", prompted angry responses from Wall and the since-waived DeMarcus Cousins.

Given Wall and Cousins had each been team-mates of Harden for only eight games, it stands to reason that some of his long-standing colleagues might have been even more frustrated.

With the Nets a far superior outfit to the Rockets, the conversation around Harden on the court might prove as interesting as any matchup. The Brooklyn man will have to handle the heat.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Rockets have had the better of this series, boasting a 64-32 regular-season record, most recently winning in December 2019 when lifted by 44 points from Harden.

The 31-year-old has a 14-15 record against the Oklahoma City Thunder, his only other former team, averaging 28.2 points.

In Harden's three years with OKC, he was 6-6 against Houston.

India will hope England fail another trial by spin at the Narendra Modi Stadium when Virat Kohli's side attempt to secure their place in the ICC World Test Championship final.

The tourists won the first match of the series, but back-to-back victories have ended their hopes of facing New Zealand in another final at Lord's.

In-form India only need to avoid defeat in a fourth and final match of the series, which starts in Ahmedabad on Thursday, with Australia hoping England salvage a 2-2 draw to set up a trans-Tasman showdown.

India won the third Test at the same venue by 10 wickets inside two days to take a 2-1 lead, as England were unable to contend with huge turn generated by the spinners on a much-discussed playing surface.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel wrought havoc to put the side who sit second in the rankings on the verge of the final in London.

Root not thinking of Australia

Of course, the situation in the series leaves England in the unusual position of trying to do old rivals Australia a favour.

"I wouldn’t see it as that. I would see it as us ending the series as a draw and having done something special in India," captain Joe Root told reporters.

"Ultimately it is about not having any baggage going into this game. [Winning] would be a monumental effort from this group of players."

 

Rahane: India planning to turn the screw

England have kept quiet about the standard of the pitches in the second and third Tests, concentrating on trying to learn from their struggles in such tough conditions.

India vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane says the tourists can expect more of the same.

"The wicket will be similar to the third Test match and also the second Test in Chennai. Spinning track." the batsman said.

He added: "Talk [about the pitch] happening outside is not at all affecting Indian team. We are concentrating on what we have to do. When we tour we never complain about a pitch."

England to save their Bess for last?

The tourists went with just one frontline spinner in the third Test, with Jack Leach getting the nod ahead of Dom Bess.

Root showed he possibly ought to be more than just a part-time bowler, claiming a stunning maiden five-wicket Test haul with incredible figures of 5-8 as India collapsed to 145 in their first innings.

Bess could join Leach in the team for the last match of the series, having taken five wickets in a first Test that England won by 227 runs and impressed in Sri Lanka.

 

Key match facts

- India are yet to lose a Test at Narendra Modi Stadium versus England (W2, D1). They have only been beaten twice on the ground in the longest format, winning five and drawing six.

- England have failed to post totals of more than 178 in five of their six innings in the series. The 193 they made combined in two innings in the third Test is the fourth-fewest they have mustered in a Test match when they were bowled out in both knocks.

- Root has only been out twice when playing a conventional or reverse sweep since the start of the Sri Lanka Test tour, scoring 233 runs in the process. The other England batsmen have recorded 206 runs between them over the same period, being dismissed on 12 occasions when deploying those strokes.

- James Anderson has gone 454 deliveries without dismissing Virat Kohli in Test cricket; the India skipper has been dropped three times off his bowling in that time.

- Ashwin has dismissed Ben Stokes on 11 occasions in the longest format, almost twice the number of any other bowler The England all-rounder only averages 18 against the India spinner.

The Chicago Bears need a new quarterback.

One of the better all-round rosters in the NFL once again suffered frustration in 2020.

A second consecutive 8-8 season was enough to creep into the expanded playoffs, but a tame 21-9 Wild Card defeat to the New Orleans Saints soon followed.

Mitchell Trubisky started the season at QB, and later regained his place after being benched in place of trade arrival Nick Foles, who also underwhelmed.

Ultimately, despite a late flurry from Trubisky, neither QB could propel the Bears into contention in the NFC North, which was dominated by the Green Bay Packers. A meaningful postseason run never looked likely because of those limitations under center.

Head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace know their jobs likely hang in the balance based on how they fare in 2021, with their ability to find a solution at the game's most important position crucial to the Bears’ prospects of success next season.

Here we have looked at some of the best Stats Perform data from their 2020 season to determine whether taking that next step is possible.

Offense

Despite being a playoff team, only six teams had a worse yards per game total than the Bears on offense (331.4), while 23.3 points per game was better than just nine franchises.

The Bears’ rushing offense was 25th in the NFL (102.9 yards per game), while 228.4 net passing yards per game was good for the 22nd best mark and 5.62 yards per passing play had them ranked 26th.

Continuing the trend of bottom-half offensive statistics, Chicago averaged 27.4 yards in their big passing plays of 20+ yards – the worst in the NFL - and only seven teams produced fewer than their 42 in that category.

Any struggles in the passing game cannot really be put on the two quarterbacks’ supporting cast. Bears receivers only dropped 12 of 414 catchable passes this season, an impressive rate second only to the Arizona Cardinals (nine from 296) in the league.

Fifth-round draft pick Darnell Mooney looked a steal as he registered 61 catches in 631 yards in support of Allen Robinson, who passed 100 catches (102) for the first time in his NFL career.

But generally this was an offense lacking dynamism despite the past success of Nagy offenses.

Aside from their passing problems, more could have been expected from the rushing game and a once dominant offensive line.

Running back David Montgomery had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL (247) but just the 14th-most rushes of 10+ yards (24) and the 46th highest yards per carry (4.33) average.

Montgomery had a steady but unspectacular 1.8 yards after first contact, 34th in the league among rushers who had at least 50 attempts.

He also had 11 broken tackles, breaking a tackle on 4.4 per cent of plays (the 15th highest percentage in the league), though he did add 54 catches through the air. 

As a team, the 40 rushes of 10+ yards was only 25th in the league, so not much was working on this side of the ball.

Defense

The Bears still had a strong defense, though the unit fell short of the peak play it has produced in years gone by.

They ranked 11th in yardage (344.9), 14th in points allowed (23.1) and 12th in scoring efficiency, allowing 68 scoring drives out of 179.

Opponents tallied 5.41 yards per play (11th), while 18 takeaways put them in a tie for 15th, so they were in the top half of the league in all key metrics.

A sack total of 35, though, was 17th in the NFL.

Khalil Mack posted below 10 sacks (9.0) and 15 QB hits (13) for a second straight year, having not done so in either category in four years between 2015 and 2018.

But that is a reflection of the Bears front seven looking like it needs an infusion of youth, rather than an alarming drop off from Mack. Robert Quinn (2.0 sacks, 6 QB hits) had a quiet year rushing the passer opposite Mack.

The secondary, led by Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson, allowed 10 big play TDs (tied for 14th) and 59 total big plays (16th).

Offseason

Trubisky is out of contract and a return has not been ruled out, while Foles has two years left. But if either of those players are starting at QB then it is hard to see the Bears challenging.

Potential trade options Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have already found new teams. With the Bears picking in the bottom half of the draft and the cupboard relatively bare in terms of remaining free agent options, Pace is going to have to pull something special out of the bag at QB.

Beyond that critical position, number one wide receiver Robinson is set to hit free agency and is among the NFL's most interesting names to watch after racking up 200 catches and 2,397 receiving yards over the past two years.

The Bears have the franchise tag at their disposal, so could get extra time to work out a long-term deal or consider a tag-and-trade if Robinson expresses a desire to depart.

Chicago enter the offseason approximately $2million over the estimated cap ($185m), putting them around the middle of the league.

They will likely have some room for manoeuvre without being able to embark on a significant free agency splurge.

Having not picked in the first round since 2018, several areas of the roster are in need of attention in addition to the drama at QB. Despite the stellar play of Mack, trading for him has not produced the desired results.

With those issues to overcome at a time when Aaron Rodgers' play is putting divisional rivals Green Bay up there with the NFC's best, the Bears find themselves in an undesirable position.

It was a memorable season for the Green Bay Packers, but one that ultimately ended similarly to the last.

The Packers went down to a frustrating NFC Championship Game defeat to eventual champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one year on from losing at the same stage to the San Francisco 49ers.

In between those events, Aaron Rodgers put together a sensational season to be named NFL MVP for the third time.

Rodgers responded perfectly to the Packers trading up and drafting his potential replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round of the 2020 draft, puzzlingly eschewing the help at wide receiver he appeared to need.

Consecutive 13-3 seasons under Matt LaFleur are to be applauded.

But one Super Bowl ring seems an unfair return for a quarterback of Rodgers’ quality, so it is time for the Packers front office to do more to get him over the hump as his career enters its latter years.

We have used Stats Perform data to scrutinise how they might go about doing it on the evidence of their 2020 campaign.

Offense

Led by a remarkable season from Rodgers, who threw for a career-high 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions, the Green Bay offense was rolling.

There were calls ahead of the season for further receiving threats to be brought in to complement number one option Davante Adams.

While those did not arrive, passing to the first-team All-Pro was a cheat code in 2020, with Adams racking up 115 catches, 1,374 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns in 14 regular season games.

The Packers were ninth with 256.6 net passing yards per game, but that figure came with them having the least attempts (526) of any top-10 passing offense, suggesting they often had much more in the tank if it was needed.

Similar can be said for their 57 completions of 20+ yards, which ranked ninth in the league. When Rodgers did go deep, they were highly effective and the average yards gained on those throws was 33.1, third best in the NFL.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling emerged as an impressive deep threat, averaging 44.8 yards per catch on the 10 of those 20+ yard plays he accounted for. His overall record of 20.9 yards per reception from 33 catches was the NFL's best.

The Packers' run game was strong, with 134.2 yards per game good for eighth in the NFL, while they were 16th for runs of 10+ yards with 49 such plays. Running backs contributed in the pass game too, with only Adams and tight end Robert Tonyan having more catches for the team than Aaron Jones' 47.

There may still be calls for Rodgers to be handed a stronger supporting cast, but after such an impressive year they may not be as loud this offseason, with attention perhaps better focused on other areas of the roster.

Defense

The Packers' defense was better than average in 2020 and, with a rampant Rodgers leading the offense, a defensive unit like that is all you need to contend.

In terms of headline numbers, they were ninth in yards allowed (334) and 13th in points allowed (23.1). The pass defense was seventh in yards per game (221), while they were 13th against the run.

Green Bay registered 41 sacks (10th), allowed 5.49 yards per play (14th) and their opponents’ scoring efficiency was 16th in the NFL, so you need to dive deeper to before finding anything alarming.

One area for improvement is the need for more game-changing plays. The Packers had 18 takeaways, putting them in a tie for 25th, while they only forced 26 rushing plays to result in negative yardage (tied for 28th).

A bend but do not break defensive strategy appears to have largely fared well, but playmakers can change those one-off postseason games where the margins are so fine, and the Packers do not have too many of those.

On the plus side, the defense allowed just 48 big plays of 20+ yards (third in the NFL).

However, nine of those went for TDs and Green Bay fans will not forget cornerback Kevin King's struggles against the Bucs in a hurry.

Pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith was not as productive as last year but still registered team-leading figures of 12.5 sacks, 12 TFL and 23 QB hits.

He could do with improved support up front, while the spot opposite lockdown cornerback Jaire Alexander looks like one which could do with reinforcing.

On the whole, there is room for improvement but a solid base to build from.

Offseason

Green Bay are not flush with cash as they enter the offseason around $4.5million over the estimated cap ($185m).

On the plus side, they do not have too many top contributors hitting free agency.

Retaining or replacing one of the NFL's top centers, Corey Linsley, is a key priority.

Both running backs, Jones and Jamaal Williams, are also poised to hit the market, so it may be difficult to retain both of them, especially if they want to justify drafting AJ Dillon in round two a year ago. He only played 97 offensive snaps in the regular season.

King did his free agency hopes few favours in the playoffs, while offensive line may be an area of focus after the departure of tackle Rick Wagner, who played in every game and started nine.

In terms of incomings, with limited funds Green Bay will need to pick their spots but will know a star veteran could make all the difference.

With Rodgers in fine fettle and with LaFleur overseeing a team proven to be contenders, you can expect them to be connected with any high-profile free agents who hit the open market.

That has already been the case with recently released Houston Texans icon J. J. Watt, who ultimately joined the Arizona Cardinals.

After his heroics last year, Pack fans will think any impactful signings the front office can make will be a deserving reward for Rodgers, who is back at the top of his game.

Even in the wake of a devastating blowout loss on the biggest stage in football, there remains utmost confidence in the Kansas City Chiefs.

The 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV has not shaken faith in Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and company.

Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find many doubting their ability to get back to the same stage next season.

Their humbling defeat came as a combination of especially poorly timed bad luck on the injury front and the sheer dominance of a stacked Tampa Bay defense.

Being overwhelmed to that degree is not something the Chiefs have dealt with regularly.

But that does not mean they can ignore the lessons from their failure to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Kansas City's 2020 campaign was another in which they frequently produced the spectacular, yet their tumble at the final hurdle has left the Chiefs with some obvious holes to address in the offseason.

Offense

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That certainly was the case for Kansas City's explosive passing offense in 2020, the Chiefs continuing to shred teams through the air amid a backdrop of mostly empty stadiums.

Mahomes led the NFL in passing yards per game with 316.0, well clear of Deshaun Watson (301.4) in second.

Watson's Houston Texans were the only team in the league to produce more passing plays of 20 yards or more (70 to 69) and more touchdown throws of at least 20 yards (16 to 15).

Their efforts through the air were backed up by underrated production on the ground.

The Chiefs ranked 12th in rushing yards per attempt (4.46), but were in the top 10 for rushes of 10 yards or more with 57.

However, just 21 of those came from rookie first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Edwards-Helaire did not quite live up to his billing, averaging only 1.7 yards after contact with a defender per attempt.

Evading defenders and attempted tackles was an area in which he was expected to excel.

Yet the fact the Chiefs still finished fifth in offensive scoring efficiency despite his underwhelming efforts in that regard suggests Kansas City has scope to be even more potent if he makes the leap in his second season.

Defense

Going into Super Bowl week, there was plenty of chatter about Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo putting together a gameplan to stop Tom Brady, as he did twice for the New York Giants to help capture the Lombardi with wins over the New England Patriots.

Any plan Spagnuolo had did not bear fruits, with a talented and opportunistic defense failing to slow down a well-balanced Buccaneers' attack.

The fact Kansas City did not succeed in slowing down Tampa Bay is not entirely surprising.

Though they were tied-10th in takeaways with 22 and ranked ninth in opponent scoring efficiency, the Chiefs were often generous to opposing offenses in the regular season.

Kansas City's finished the year 18th in yards per play allowed with 5.61, that average inflated by their vulnerability against the run.

The Chiefs gave up 122.1 yards per game on the ground, putting them 21st in the NFL. Excluding kneeldowns, Kansas City stopped 19 run plays for negative yardage, the fewest in the league.

Reid's team does not appear to put too much emphasis on defending the run, treating giving up yardage on the ground as an occupational hazard of focusing on the pass.

But the flaws of that strategy were laid bare in the Super Bowl as they gave up 145 rushing yards, with Leonard Fournette's 27-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter the back-breaking play of the game.

Kansas City boasts talent on the defensive front and in the secondary but, for a team with few limitations, it may be prudent for those running the show to focus on minimising the factors that have held the Chiefs back in terms of shutting down the ground game.

Offseason

The elephant that made its presence in the room felt during the Super Bowl was the offensive line, which arguably stands as Kansas City's most pressing need going into the offseason.

Those looking to counter that suggestion will point to the absence of starting tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher against the Bucs and the Chiefs' insistence on sticking with five-man protection, the lack of help provided to the O-Line from running backs and tight ends helping doom them to a heavy defeat as Mahomes was left to try to evade 33 pressures.

There is a case to be made, therefore, that in 2021 a more flexible approach from the coaching staff is the key rather than personnel reinforcements up front.

But the interior of the line was just as much of a problem as the tackles in the Super Bowl and, with center Austin Reiter and guard Kelechi Osemele each set for unrestricted free agency, replacements may need to be found.

And, in a year where the Chiefs are scheduled to be $18million over the salary cap at the most optimistic estimate, those replacements may have to come in the draft rather than free agency, though the return of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from a year out fighting the pandemic in his native Canada will help fill the void.

Receivers Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson look unlikely to be re-signed, meaning younger weapons to supplement Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce may be on the way.

Linebacker Damien Wilson and strong safety Daniel Sorensen are also free agents, and the events of Super Bowl may lead to the Chiefs letting them go and attempting to find faster replacements who are less exploitable in coverage and whose speed can aid Kansas City's cause in run defense.

Whether it's improving the pass protection or adding more thump against the run, the offseason of one of the NFL's most expansive teams may be defined by them adding players who can restrict the space for their opponents.

The past week in the NBA saw the Brooklyn Nets do something they hadn't previously done since February 9... lose a game.

Brooklyn's defeat to the Dallas Mavericks gave a boost to their rivals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, headed by the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Milwaukee Bucks, another of those competitors, enjoyed a superb week with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo unsurprisingly coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, out west, Devin Booker strung together a series of performances that justified his place in the All-Star game.

By contrast, two players significantly more familiar with that contest suffered dips in form.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

 

RUNNING HOT...

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks are firmly back in contention for the top seed in the East after stretching their winning run to five games, with three of those victories coming in the past week.

Antetokounmpo was predictably pivotal to their success, tallying over 30 points in each matchup to extend his streak to four games in that regard.

He finished the week with back-to-back double-doubles against the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 36 points in the latter game.

His points per game average jumped from 28.37 to 37, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks sending a message that they are still very much a contender for the title.

Devin Booker

The All-Star snub who was later added as a replacement showed why he deserves his place in the showcase this past week.

Booker averaged 33 points across the Phoenix Suns' three games, an impressive improvement on his previous season-long average of 24.28.

He capped it in stunning fashion, dropping 43 in the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, which saw him go 15 for 26 from the field.

At 22-11, the Suns will loom as a dangerous playoff team should he continue that kind of form.

James Harden

Brooklyn may have finally seen their eight-game winning streak come to an end, but it was a positive week for Harden individually.

Absent the other two members of the Nets' big three, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Harden could not prevent them from falling to defeat to the Mavericks.

However, he was more prolific from beyond the arc this past week, averaging 4.67 made threes having entered the week putting up 3.08 per game.

Harden is converting threes at the highest rate of his career. He is shooting 39.7 per cent from beyond the arc and 41.8 per cent since his trade to Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets.

But he is attempting only 8.2 a game, the fewest since the 2015-16 season (8.0). If he continues to shoot more from deep and maintains his consistency in converting those attempts, a loaded Nets team will have yet another dimension.

GOING COLD...

Paul George

An up-and-down week for the Clippers started brilliantly for George, who racked up 30 points in a win over the Washington Wizards, going six of seven from three-point range.

But he tailed off thereafter, following up two 13-point efforts against the Memphis Grizzlies with a mediocre 16-point display in the loss to the Bucks.

His points per game average fell from 24.36 entering the week to 18 over the past seven days, and the Clippers will need a lot more from him if they are to earn a top-two seed in the West.

Terry Rozier

The man known as 'Scary Terry' did little to terrify opponents over the past week.

Rozier entered the week averaging a career-high 21.15 points per game but that dipped to 13.5 over the four games the Charlotte Hornets contested in the last seven days.

He put up 24 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors but could not manage more than 12 in his other three outings.

Still averaging 20.2 a game for the season, the Hornets will want Rozier to deliver the kind of performance he did against Golden State consistently as they seek a first playoff berth since 2015-16.

Stephen Curry

Among the players to suffer the biggest decline in three-point shooting this past week was the man most consider the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry had been converting 5.03 three-pointers a game for the season but hit on an average of 3.25 a game as the Warriors won three of four last week.

He still enjoyed a 37-point outing against the New York Knicks, scoring seven triples in that triumph, but was one for 11 from deep versus the Indiana Pacers and two for seven in Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, with Curry experiencing a season in which he is averaging his highest points per game tally (29.5) since his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16 (30.1), the smart money says he will soon return to form from beyond the arc.

Another one bites the dust, as Queen once sang, with the latest weekend of Premier League action coming and going in the seeming blink of an eye.

There was controversy involving Brighton and Hove Albion's goal that never was thanks to referee Lee Mason in West Brom's win against the Seagulls – the Baggies' past five home wins have now been overseen by five different managers (Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, Darren Moore, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis).

Liverpool finally returned to winning ways in the Premier League by triumphing 2-0 at Sheffield United, becoming just the second side to rack up 7,000 top-flight goals in English football along the way (Merseyside rivals Everton being the other team to reach such a landmark).

And there were convincing wins for Tottenham and Arsenal against Burnley and Leicester City respectively.

But here are a few of the quirkier bits you might not have spotted, with a little help from the folks at Opta.
 

Raise your bat, Pep – 200 not out for Guardiola

For those of you not paying attention at the back, Manchester City are looking pretty unstoppable right now.

Saturday's 2-1 triumph over a West Ham side in decent nick themselves means the runaway Premier League leaders have racked up a mind-boggling 20 straight wins in all competitions.

For boss Pep Guardiola, it represented a 200th victory across all comps in only his 273rd match in charge of the Citizens, comfortably the best record by a manager of an English top-flight side to reach that landmark.

Jose Mourinho (Chelsea - 309 games), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool - 333), Don Revie (Leeds United - 344), Bob Paisley (Liverpool - 351) make up the top five.

Fewer clean sheets than a one-star hotel in Newcastle-Wolves

Once upon a time, Newcastle United were the great entertainers of the Premier League – particularly in the revered 'Keegan years'. 

Nowadays, the goals don't flow quite as freely under Steve Bruce but their 1-1 draw against Wolves produced a fact more in keeping with the history of those Halcyon days. 

Both teams have scored in each of the 12 Premier League games they have played against each other - the most played fixture in the competition with neither side keeping a clean sheet.

Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo also oversaw his 102nd Premier League game at Wolves, overtaking Mick McCarthy (101) as the most matches in charge of the club in the competition.

Rare blanks in Chelsea-Man Utd but Red Devils' away-day joy continues

Chelsea' goalless draw at home to Manchester United on Sunday wasn't exactly one to remember.

The reverse clash also finished without a goal, marking only the second time this fixture had produced two 0-0 draws in a campaign – the other coming way back in 1921-22.

For the Red Devils, though, the draw means they are unbeaten in 20 away league matches (W13 D7), a run that coincidentally started in the corresponding fixture last term.

It is the joint-fifth longest run without an away defeat in top-flight history. Arsenal (27 and 23), Liverpool (21) and Nottingham Forest (21) have all boasted longer streaks.

Manchester United lost further ground to Premier League leaders Manchester City as they played out a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. 

The Red Devils are now 12 points behind Pep Guardiola's seemingly unstoppable side, who are well on their way to a third title in four seasons. 

Elsewhere, Liverpool returned to winning ways against Sheffield United and Arsenal came from behind to beat Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. 

A Gareth Bale-inspired Tottenham cruised past Burnley 4-0, while Crystal Palace and Fulham played out a dour 0-0 draw.

Chelsea 0-0 Manchester United: Red Devils' 'big six' struggles continue

While this result stretched United's unbeaten away run in the league to a whopping 20 matches – the joint-fifth-longest run in top-flight history – there was still a sense of disappointment at full-time. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have now failed to score in their last six league meetings with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Tottenham, with each of their last four such matches finishing goalless. 

This fixture has now finished 0-0 in both matches in a single league campaign for just the second time, the other occasion coming back in 1921-22. 

It marked the first time Chelsea have drawn 0-0 against an opponent home and away in the Premier League in the same season for the first time since 2008-09 against Everton, while United last did so against Aston Villa in 1996-97.

Thomas Tuchel can at least toast becoming just the second coach to not concede a single goal in his first four home matches in the Premier League after Brendan Rodgers in 2011-12 with Swansea City. Including his final two such matches in charge of Paris Saint-Germain, Tuchel has gone six games without conceding at home in league competition.

Sheffield United 0-2 Liverpool: Klopp's men get back on track

After four consecutive top-flight defeats champions Liverpool got their top-four bid back on track at Bramall Lane. 

Curtis Jones opened the scoring with his second goal for the Reds. In doing so, he became the youngest Liverpool player (20 years and 29 days) to score an away Premier League goal since Raheem Sterling in December 2014 against Burnley (20y 18d).

Their second – an own goal by Kean Bryan – was their 7,000th in the English top-flight, becoming only the second team to reach that tally after Merseyside rivals Everton (7,108).

Adrian was in goal for Jurgen Klopp's men and the Spaniard has now been on the winning side in 10 of his 12 Premier League starts for the club, although this was only his third clean sheet. 

The Blades, meanwhile, have now lost 21 games this season. They are the first side since Newport County in the fourth tier in 1970-71 to lose as many as 21 of their first 26 matches in an English Football League season.

Tottenham 4-0 Burnley: Brilliant Bale torments sorry Clarets

Bale was at his best as Tottenham registered their biggest Premier League home win since they thumped the Clarets 5-0 in December 2019. 

His first came after just 68 seconds, which was the fastest goal Burnley have ever conceded in a Premier League match. The previous quickest was a Yerry Mina effort after 99 seconds for Everton in December 2018.

Harry Kane doubled Spurs' advantage to continue his fine run against Sean Dyche's side. No player has scored more Premier League goals against Burnley than Kane (eight, level with Riyad Mahrez), with the England striker involved in 10 goals in his last six league appearances against them (seven goals, three assists).

Lucas Moura added a third before Bale wrapped up the scoring to take his goal involvements to seven in his last four appearances in all competitions. 

At the back, Hugo Lloris celebrated his 100th clean sheet in the competition. He became the 16th goalkeeper to reach that landmark, while he is the ninth quickest to reach it (285 games).

Burnley, meanwhile, have now lost 12 of their last 15 away top-flight matches against Spurs, shipping 48 goals and conceding at least four goals in seven games.

Leicester City 1-3 Arsenal: Gunners storm back to end 'top three' hoodoo

Arsenal ended a four-game winless run against the Foxes in the Premier League, securing their first victory against them in the competition since October 2018. 

It started poorly for Mikel Arteta's side, though, with Youri Tielemans scoring his sixth goal of the season early on. That is as many as he had scored in his first two seasons at the club combined. 

David Luiz pulled the Gunners level before Alexandre Lacazette put them ahead from the penalty spot. The France international has converted all five of his penalties for Arsenal across all competitions, while only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13) has now netted more goals for the Gunners than Lacazette (11) this term.

Nicolas Pepe sealed the three points and has now equalled his Premier League goal tally from last season, scoring five this campaign in 13 fewer appearances (18 this term, 31 last season).

The result marked Arsenal's first away victory against a team starting the day in the top three of the Premier League since January 2015 (2-0 v Manchester City) – they were winless in their last 14 such games ahead of this clash (D3 L11).

Crystal Palace 0-0 Fulham: Lucky Eagles escape with a point

It should come as no surprise that this game ended goalless given Fulham's penchant for draws this season. 

Just one of the Cottagers' first 21 Premier League games under Scott Parker ended level, but the stalemate at Selhurst Park was their 10th draw in their last 15 top-flight matches. 

They were comfortably the better side and attempted 16 shots. Fourteen of those came in the second period – the most they have had in the final 45 minutes of a Premier League away game since 2003-04 without scoring.

Palace, meanwhile, have somehow managed to pick up four points from their last two league games despite attempting just six shots (facing 41), having only nine touches in the opposition box (compared to 70 by their opponents), and completing just 442 passes (compared to their opponents' 1065).

Indeed, they managed just 33 attempts in their five Premier League matches in February – the lowest recorded by a team in a single month of at least five games since the start of the 2003-04 campaign.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could not hide his frustration at Manchester United's forwards after Sunday's 0-0 draw at Chelsea saw the club's disappointing run against the Premier League's other so-called "big six" sides continued.

The match was overshadowed by the controversial decision of referee Stuart Attwell not to award United a first-half penalty when Callum Hudson-Odoi handled in the area – the official sticking to his decision despite looking at the incident on the pitchside monitor.

While Solskjaer and Luke Shaw vented their anger at the situation in post-match interviews, the manager's news conference eventually turned to the other major talking point; United's inability to score against the league's better teams.

"We're not scoring enough goals, that's for sure," Solskjaer told reporters.

He is not wrong – the draw at Stamford Bridge was the fourth successive 0-0 draw United have played out against other "big six" opposition, while they have not scored in any of their past six meetings with teams of this calibre.

"We've come away with another good clean sheet, but as I said before this game, the next step for this team is to win these games, get the goal we need to get three points," he added.

"Of course, we should have got a penalty and I'd back Bruno [Fernandes] any day of the week, but we didn't have the right quality at the end in the four or five good breakaways in the second half."

While United did have 11 shots on Sunday, their xG (expected goals) rating was a poor 0.4 – Chelsea's was 1.16. While this suggests Thomas Tuchel's men were more wasteful, it also highlights the visitors struggled to craft quality chances.

This is by no means a new phenomenon in games of such magnitude either – United's overall xG in the matches in question is just 4.9, by no means a huge figure, yet they're still underperforming significantly in this area given their actual record of none scored.

"We haven't had the quality, fine margins or luck," Solskjaer said when asked to explain United's issues in these games.

"Today, it was mostly about the lack of quality in the last third. We had some moments when we were close, had some great counter opportunities, [but the] last pass or cross wasn't good enough.

"[We had] some near moments of course, Fred and Mason [Greenwood] had a few decent attempts, but we didn't have enough. That's the next step for us, and we will improve.

"Last season we had some great results but in a different manner. At the moment we try to develop this style and develop ourselves to win these games. Everything was really good defensively."

And that is perhaps the salient point – United have improved defensively in these games, with the solitary goal conceded in this run being a penalty against Arsenal.

But there's a chance this altered approach is impacting United's effectiveness going forward, with Solskjaer's men potentially preferring to play out a draw instead of going for it and risking defeat.

After all, United's shot count of 66 in the past six clashes with "big six" opposition is less than the 74 they've faced. While they may not be constantly sitting back, they're also not as threatening as the opponents.

The key to understanding this shift may lie with the game directly before the aforementioned run – it was the remarkable 6-1 defeat to Tottenham.

Only Solskjaer knows if that battering – which was obviously not helped by a sending off – has been playing on the minds of himself and his players, but it's also a thought former United captain Roy Keane has had.

"Maybe they are scarred from the Spurs game. I don't know the scoop, we're just guessing," Keane said. "But maybe their mindset is [impacted] going into these games. We've seen poor games.

"Sometimes you have a 0-0 and it's a fantastic game, the keepers are fantastic, missed penalties or whatever. But some of these games we've watched and covered have been really boring, considering there's some really good attacking players in the team."

For better or worse, United don't have to wait long for another opportunity to put this run right – the Manchester derby is less than a week away.

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