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 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.

When Javi Lopez sat down to speak to Stats Perform News, Adelaide United's star recruit could not hide his smile as the interview shifted to a familiar face – Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was the man who gave Lopez his senior debut with Espanyol in 2009.

Lopez never looked back as he went on to captain Espanyol and, until 2020, spent his entire senior career with the Periquitos before their shock relegation from LaLiga last season.

As Lopez settles in Australia and Pochettino takes charge of Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, the impact of the former Espanyol head coach is not lost on the versatile 34-year-old.

"What can I tell you about my experience with Mauricio Pochettino? He was the coach that made me debut in the first division, thanks to him afterwards I could have a great career in Espanyol for 11 years. I am thankful and I only have good words for him," Lopez told Stats Perform News.

"His evolution hasn't surprised me because I could see that he was going to be a top coach because his way of coaching, because he surrounded himself with great staff. He has no limits, he will coach the best teams in the world for sure."

Like former Espanyol team-mate and skipper Victor Sanchez – who is now playing for A-League outfit Western United – Lopez finds himself playing out of Europe for the first time and in Australia.

Adelaide have a rich history with Spaniards – Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor led a Reds team boasting countrymen Isaias, Pablo Sanchez and Sergio Cirio to the club's first A-League championship almost five years ago.

Lopez is the latest Spaniard to call Adelaide home, thanks to some help from ex-Reds captain Isaias.

"After many years of my career, I wanted to change, a big one. When the opportunity of coming here aroused I talked to Isaias, with Juande, who was playing for Perth Glory and is a great friend of mine," Lopez said. "I talked to my family and we decided to come here."

"I think that the A-League is a very strong league physically, quite unknown in Spain but people would be surprised of its great level, the matches are very entertaining, dynamic, physical," he continued. "From what I could see here, the club and the coach [Carl Veart] are doing a great job, the team is very good."

While Adelaide have won back-to-back FFA Cup titles, the club have fallen short in the A-League since reigning supreme in 2016.

Adelaide missed out on the finals last season, and that is something Lopez wants to change in 2020-21 – the veteran buoyed by four points from two games to start to the coronavirus-interrupted campaign.

"Expectations are clear: to be in the top six, to play play-offs and to finish as high as possible. Why not? I have said that before, the team is very well compensated and very competitive," Lopez said. "On the first match of the league against Western United I could confirm how well we work together thanks to the job of the coach.

"I loved the team's proposal, how they played, the intensity, how they fought for every ball, the pressure after losing the ball, I really liked it. Like [Atletico Madrid head coach] Diego Simeone says, his now worldwide famous sentence: 'We need to go match by match'. But the expectations are to finish in the top six, probably something difficult because in football all teams compete. If we keep performing at the previous level I think that is possible."

Lopez brings a wealth of experience to Adelaide – he ranks third for most Espanyol appearances across all competitions, only behind Raul Tamudo and Pochettino following 11 years at RCDE Stadium.

Wearing the captain's armband, Lopez featured in 17 LaLiga matches in 2019-20 as Espanyol were painfully condemned to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993-94.

"To talk about Espanyol makes me feel emotional, they are an historic club of LaLiga," Lopez said. "I might sound too romantic, but for me Espanyol is everything: my club, my house… I was there 13 years. I gained a feeling that will remain with me forever. If I say it is an honour I might be short, if I say that I am proud I might be short.

"It was a dream to play for Espanyol and to be able to take the captain's armband during many years. Even if I say that it was a dream, I am being short in the description, it has been more than a dream. I had to work really hard to reach that point. I always gave my best, my conscious is very peaceful on this regard. I cannot tell much more, except for that I would love that we would return to the first division at the end of this season."

Lopez also experienced the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Lionel Messi's Barcelona – and he added: "Sincerely it was one of the games that we wait with hunger. For all of us it was our game, we lived in a city where there is much difference in term of repercussion and media. Barcelona always gathers much more attention than Espanyol, so it was always a chance to reclaim ourselves as a great club.

"We are weapons, with our feelings to our colours, which allow us to compete with anyone. It's true that in the last decade there were very unbalanced derbies because of their great team, but still it was our chance to reclaim how proud we feel about us, our unique feeling. Our pride to be 'Pericos'." 

Sunday's FA Cup encounter between Marine and Tottenham is the kind of clash that really captures the imaginations of supporters, as non-league meets Premier League.

Ordinarily such an occasion would mean a potentially vital cash influx for the smaller side, with match tickets selling out quicker than ever and TV crews descending on a modest ground in their droves.

While it won't be quite the same this time given the coronavirus pandemic, it still promises to be a special day for Marine, who have sold over 5,000 virtual tickets.

Playing in the Northern Premier League Division One North West, the eighth tier of the English football pyramid, Liverpool-based Marine will host a Spurs team that is used to competing in the Champions League.

It represents a whole new kind of challenge for the non-league side, though it is also an opportunity for the unlikeliest of 'giant killings'.

Ahead of the match, we looked at the Opta data behind contests between non-league sides and the titans of the Premier League.

THE SIZE OF THE TASK

'The magic of the cup' is that on a given day, any team could potentially beat any other, and that's surely the attitude Marine will want to take into the weekend.

Though, obviously the reality is rather more stark.

Since the Premier League's inception in 1992, only twice have non-league sides defeated top-tier opposition.

The first was in 2013 in the fourth round, as Luton Town claimed a 1-0 win over Norwich City.

It ended a run of 27 years since top-tier opposition had lost to a non-league side, with Altrincham having eliminated Birmingham City in 1986.

The only other occasion since then occurred in 2017, as Burnley lost 1-0 to Lincoln City, who made it as far as the quarter-finals.

There is also a coincidental link to that Norwich defeat with Sunday's contest – Spurs star Harry Kane was in the Canaries' side that day during an unsuccessful loan period at the start of his career.

Those two wins for non-league teams have come from 52 matches, with 42 unsurprisingly ending in victories for the top-flight sides.

SPURS EYE A HATFUL?

It won't come as a shock to learn there have been plenty of one-sided scorelines between non-league and Premier League sides.

West Brom have claimed the biggest win, as they defeated Gateshead 7-0 at this stage of the competition in January 2015 – the Baggies clearly weren't complacent on that occasion.

Manchester United and Arsenal have beaten non-league opposition heavily as well, the Red Devils winning 5-0 against Burton Albion in a 2006 replay, and the Gunners crushed Lincoln by the same score a month after their surprise win over Burnley four years ago.

Spurs' most straightforward win against a non-league side came in 1993, as they eased past Marlow 5-1.

Throughout the club's history, Spurs have met such lowly opposition 26 times in the FA Cup, losing five times.

Could Marine do the unthinkable and make it six? Assuming he features, that would make Kane the first player to lose to non-league opposition on two different occasions with Premier League clubs.

Things are moving very quickly for Pedri.

This time last year he was 17 years old and preparing for a Copa del Rey clash against Badajoz with Las Palmas, now he is playing for Barcelona and his coach is fielding questions about the possibility of him representing Spain at the delayed Euro 2020.

Calls for him to be considered by Luis Enrique intensified after he produced a fine display in Barca's 3-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday, becoming the youngest player in LaLiga history to score and assist in a single game.

At 18 years and 42 days old he headed home an equaliser after Inaki Williams' opener at San Mames and then produced a lovely backheel that Messi steered home to put the Blaugrana on the path to a 3-2 win.

Asked on Friday if Pedri is deserving of a first call-up to the senior Spain squad, Barca boss Ronald Koeman said: "It's not my decision.

"We can say a lot of positive things about Pedri's career so far. Nobody expected a boy of his age to play almost every game. He deserves it.

"It seems like he's been at the club for years, but young players always have ups and downs, you have to see how he continues to evolve, but I have no doubts that he will continue to improve.

"He has to show this level for a longer time, but you don't have to rush."

But how does Pedri stack up against the other options available to Luis Enrique?

A FINE PLAYMAKER

Among Spanish midfielders and attackers playing in the top five European leagues to have featured in at least 10 games in all competitions this season, Pedri ranks sixth in terms of chances created with 26 – 11 shy of Iago Aspas at the top of the list.

Only Isco (31.4) and Cesc Fabregas (30.9) have attempted more passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes than Pedri (30.6), though the Barca star averages more successful ones (24.6) than Fabregas (21.2). Isco leads the way with 25.6 successful passes ending in the final third each game.

AT THE HEART OF THINGS

When looking at the performances of Spanish midfielders in the top five European leagues, only Napoli's Fabian Ruiz (93) has been involved in more unique open play sequences ending with a shot than Pedri (79). Nine of the sequences featuring Pedri have ended in a goal, a tally that only Denis Suarez (10) and Marcos Llorente (13) can better.

The overall expected goals value of the open play sequences ending with a shot or goal that Pedri has been involved in is 10.5, putting him top of the list. It means that not only is the 18-year-old involved in a many passages of play compared to his contemporaries, he is involved in dangerous ones.

Pedri has initiated 16 open play sequences that ended with a shot this season, enough for joint-fourth alongside Dani Parejo. Rodri is top on 22 but his role at Manchester City means he is relied upon to regain possession and start moves from there. Barca would not expect breaking up the opposition's play to be a huge part of Pedri's game, but he is still able to get them moving forward.

Of the shot-ending sequences in open play that Pedri has been involved in, he created the chance and was also involved in the build-up on eight occasions. Luis Alberto (9) of Lazio is the only player with more multi chance involvements.

VERDICT

Spain have an abundance of attacking midfield options, but Pedri is already showing a level of involvement in Barca's build-up play that must surely put him in Luis Enrique's thinking. He has also proved versatile, with Koeman using him out wide, behind the striker and also in a deeper midfield role at times this season. Regardless of where he plays, Pedri is regularly involved in sequences that lead to goalscoring opportunities and looks set to continue doing so for years to come.

Copious injuries, late positive COVID-19 tests and a suspension; a highly anticipated clash between Serie A leaders Milan and defending champions Juventus at San Siro on Wednesday threatened to seriously underwhelm.

There was no Alvaro Morata for the Juve, while full-backs Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado were forced to sit out after returning positive coronavirus results.

Milan were without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and their midfield was decimated by the absences of Sandro Tonali (suspension), Ismael Bennacer (injury) and Rade Krunic (coronavirus). The dire situation forced Stefano Pioli to start right-back Davide Calabria alongside Franck Kessie in the central pivot.

Yet despite the difficulties faced by both teams, a thriller was served up in Milan, and Federico Chiesa took centre stage as Milan's unbeaten streak in Serie A was ended at 27 by a 3-1 loss to Juve.

ACT ONE

The last time Milan held a superior position to Juve heading into a meeting of the sides was in November 2015, and on that occasion the Bianconeri emerged triumphant thanks to a goal from Paulo Dybala.

While the Argentina international, who has been struggling for consistency and dealing with a fever, was not the man to open the scoring on this occasion, he still played a pivotal role.

After drifting across the pitch to offer support to Chiesa, he held up a pass from the winger before returning it by dragging the ball back behind his standing leg and flicking it around Alessio Romagnoli.

It was weighted perfectly for Chiesa's dart into the box, which was not tracked adequately by Theo Hernandez, and he drilled a shot across Gianluigi Donnarumma into the bottom-left corner.

ACT TWO

A thoroughly entertaining first half saw Juve control possession but Milan get more shots away. There were 21 in total during the opening 45 minutes, 12 for the Rossoneri and nine for Juve, a number only two Serie A games this season have exceeded (Sassuolo v Cagliari – 22, Cagliari v Napoli – 23).

Wojciech Szczesny kept out Samu Castillejo, Rafael Leao and Hakan Calhanoglu, as well as stopping Aaron Ramsey from scoring what would have been an incredible own goal, before he was finally beaten by the unlikely source of Calabria.

Juve did not appear happy the goal was allowed to stand, with Calhanoglu putting in a contentious challenge on Adrien Rabiot to launch the counter-attack from which Leao fed Calabria to guide a fine finish into the top-right corner.

It ensured Milan found the back of the net for a 36th consecutive Serie A game – a run only bettered by Juve (43 in 2014 and 44 in 2017) – with Leao involved in an eighth goal in 12 league appearances this season, one more than he managed across the entirety of the previous campaign.

ACT THREE

Unsurprisingly the game was far less open after the interval, but Chiesa was able to separate the teams once more.

Again it was Dybala leading the supporting cast, spotting his team-mate in space on the right and drilling a pass across for him to attack Hernandez once more.

Just as in the first half, Chiesa's feet proved too quick as he shifted the ball to his left and threaded a curling shot between Hernandez and Romagnoli and into the bottom-left corner. It was his sixth goal involvement (three scored, three assisted) against Milan in Serie A, which is more than he has managed against any other side.

The 23-year-old is proving himself to be a man for the big occasion. Since the start of last season, he has been thoroughly impressive against the best teams in the league. In that time, he has had a hand in three goals against Milan (two scored, one assisted) and Atalanta (two scored, one assisted) and also scored in meetings with Inter, Napoli and Lazio.

THE UNDERSTUDIES

While Cristiano Ronaldo was arguably the quietest of Juve's forward-thinking players, Chiesa made way for Dejan Kulusevski a minute after his goal, as Weston McKennie entered for Dybala.

The pair combined to put the game to bed in the 76th minute, McKennie sweeping in after a fine run down the right from Kulusevski.

The sole consolation for the Rossoneri was that they remained top of the league due to Inter's defeat to Sampdoria earlier on Tuesday, but Chiesa's blockbuster display proved Juve will not be content with solely being extras in the title race this season.

During Fred's early months in the Premier League, it would be fair to say many Manchester City fans will have felt their team had dodged a bullet.

Prior to his move to the red side of Manchester, speculation was rife that Pep Guardiola had identified Fred – at Shakhtar Donetsk back then – as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho in midfield.

Fred had made a reputation for himself as an effective box-to-box midfielder who could have an impact on the ball as well as off it.

But it was difficult to see what possessed Manchester United to pip City to his reported £55million signing during the 2018-19 season, as he struggled with the tempo of the game and didn't appear to offer anything particularly outstanding to any part of the United unit.

However, as the past year or so – especially this season – highlights, Fred has become one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's most-trusted individuals.

As United welcome City to Old Trafford in Wednesday's EFL Cup semi-final, Fred has another chance to show why that is the case.

MR DEPENDABLE?

Fred may have only started 10 of United's 16 Premier League games this term, but a telling pattern emerges when you look at which matches they were.

Among those games, he was in Solskjaer's line-up for outings against Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Southampton, City, Leeds United, Leicester City and Aston Villa.

All of those are, of course, either 'big six' rivals or teams pushing to be in the upper echelons of the Premier League this term. He was brought on at half-time in the 6-1 demolition by Tottenham, and while he hardly held Spurs at bay, they were at the very least less rampant in the second half.

It cannot be a coincidence that these are the type of matches Fred has been used in most often, with Solskjaer clearly valuing the midfielder's off-the-ball qualities as United regularly look to absorb pressure and spring counter-attacks.

That will likely be the tactic again as United host EFL Cup holders City in Wednesday's semi-final, a one-legged repeat of last season's two-match tie in the same round.

A year on from the 2019-20 first leg, Solskjaer will be hoping for a rather different outcome, as City – opting to go with a false nine – overran United's midfield and battered them at Old Trafford that day, deservedly winning 3-1.

There will likely be just four players from the United starting XI of the game a year ago who line up on Wednesday, with Fred one of them. The upheaval in the squad has been significant, but it's telling that the Brazilian is one of those still playing a role, and an important one at that.

He may have let himself down again with a red card against Paris Saint-Germain, but it seems Solskjaer accepted responsibility over that incident.

FRED THE FACILITATOR

It seems highly unlikely Fred will ever be in the running for any of the Premier League's end-of-season individual awards – he doesn't score or create enough, and you cannot say his influence is anything like that of N'Golo Kante in the title-winning Leicester City side.

But, one player who surely will be a candidate for individual gongs is Bruno Fernandes, and players like him need colleagues like Fred in order to thrive.

The Brazil international is well-rounded and has the technical ability to lend support in offensive situations, such as his neat interchanges with Paul Pogba against Aston Villa last time out.

But Fred is undoubtedly at his most effective when his side are not in possession, with his 49 tackles more than any other United or City midfielder in all competitions this term.

It's a similar story with his interceptions count. Fred has made 30 in 2020-21, five more than Rodrigo, who ranks second among the United and City engine room players. That is despite Fred despite playing over 400 minutes less than City's Spain international. Of course, City generally have more of the ball than United, but it still highlights Fred's awareness.

Critics might point out his 12 key passes is a rather meagre total, but with Bruno Fernandes (69) creating chances with such frequency, one could argue it doesn't matter – after all, Fred isn't being put in the team to be a creator.

Curiously, in the league since January 1 last year, United actually have a worse win percentage (50) with Fred in the starting XI than they do without him (71.4), though this is clearly skewed by the fact he is often reserved for games against better opposition.

But what is notable from this time period is United concede fewer shots - 10.3 per game - on average when Fred starts. That goes up to 12.1 shots per 90 minutes when he's not in the first XI – while the team's own shots count increases from 12.4 to 15 each game with the Internacional youth product in the side.

Opta's advanced passing data also reflects favourably on Fred, particularly with respect to starting three open-play sequences that ended in a goal, which is the joint second highest in the Premier League this term.

He has also initiated four open-play passing sequences that led to a shot, which only Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Fernandes can better in the Red Devils' squad.

UNNOTICED, UNDER-APPRECIATED, BUT NOT USELESS

Fred is perhaps the sort of player many would consider dispensable, and maybe he is in certain matches. Rarely does he stand out as an individual, certainly not to the extent of say Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, and much of his work can go unnoticed.

But many of us inadvertently analyse players in isolation and by their individual numbers, rather than how they fit into the collective. Sure, Fred doesn't create many chances, but what he offers United off the ball is seemingly vital for Solskjaer.

Fred may not be the player a lot of United fans expected two and a half years ago, but he has certainly proven himself to be no dud.

Lionel Messi's days at Barcelona appear to be numbered, with the club captain and talisman heading into the final six months of his contract. 

As such, he can begin discussions with other clubs ahead of a potential free transfer once his contract expires on June 30. 

Messi, 33, set things in motion back in August when he rocked world football by publicly confirming his desire to leave the only club he has ever represented as a professional, and with whom he has won everything. 

Barca's surrender to Real Madrid in LaLiga's title race and the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League appeared to be the final straw for Messi earlier this year, though the departure of president Josep Maria Bartomeu might have improved the club's chances of keeping him. 

Additionally, Joan Laporta is the favourite to succeed Bartomeu in next month's election, but if he cannot persuade Messi to stay then football looks set to see a move that will rank as one of the most seismic in the history of the sport. 

So, where could Messi end up next?

Newell's Old Boys

Messi's relationship with the public in Argentina has often been strained due to the fact he moved to Barca at the age of 13 and developed in their famous La Masia academy. But he started out at Newell's five years prior to that and a return to his hometown of Rosario would be an understandable move as he enters the latter stages of his career. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but it's a move all football romanticists would love to see.

Manchester City

While his form this term may have been somewhat disappointing by his usual standards, Messi undoubtedly still has the quality to play at the highest level. City, managed by former Barca boss Pep Guardiola, are said to have been looking into the feasibility of bringing the Argentina superstar to the Etihad Stadium. Media reports have suggested he could spend a few years in Manchester before then being sent to sister club New York City FC in MLS for the final seasons of his career. City are certainly one of a handful of clubs that could match Messi's huge wages, and there is a strong lure given the Blaugrana alumni running the show at City.

Paris Saint-Germain

PSG have been right at the forefront of this saga since the very start in August. Thomas Tuchel, since sacked of course, was asked about the possibility of signing Messi as early as his Champions League final post-match media duties. The Ligue 1 champions have never shied away from splashing the cash – they paid Barca a world record €222million for Neymar and shelled out €180m on Kylian Mbappe. If Messi wants to win another European crown before retiring, few clubs are better positioned to help him achieve that, and the chance to link up with Neymar again might be too good an opportunity to turn down.

Inter

Even before there was any doubt about Messi's future at Barca, Inter were the main club linked with an audacious attempt to sign the 33-year-old. The Suning Holdings Group ownership makes them one of the few clubs alongside City and PSG that have the financial capacity to offer him a sizeable contract, and they do appear to be getting back to the level expected of them since the arrival of Antonio Conte as coach. Links with Inter have cooled in recent months, but they cannot be ruled out yet. The chance to battle old foe Cristiano Ronaldo in Serie A may prove an enticing prospect, too.

Al-Sadd

Things could have gone very differently for Barca had club legend Xavi been handed the reins in January instead of Quique Setien. As it happened, the iconic former midfielder felt it was not the right time to return to Camp Nou and chose to remain at Al-Sadd. A link-up with his former team-mate in Qatar could be an option for Messi, though there is every chance Xavi finds himself back in Catalonia in the not-too-distant future.

Diego Costa has reportedly asked Atletico Madrid to terminate his contract six months early in order to find a new club in the January transfer window. 

The Spain international - who agreed a return to Atleti in September 2017, though was not able to play for them until January the following year - has endured an injury plagued 2020-21 that has restricted him to just seven appearances. 

Atletico are said to be open to the possibility of offloading Costa should they find suitable cover, with Luis Suarez their only recognised out-and-out striker. 

But how much of a loss would Costa actually be? Using Opta data, the time feels right to take a look at his attacking output in closer detail.

SCORING FEATS AND HELPING OUT

Costa does not exactly boast the best scoring record for a player with his reputation, netting only 12 times in 61 LaLiga appearances since the start of 2018.

Among those to have played at least 38 times during that period - the equivalent of a whole season - he ranks way down in 46th place for goals per 90 minutes (0.29). That is below the likes of Joselu (0.3), Lucas Perez (0.32), Juanmi (0.34) and Pablo Sarabia (0.37) across a similar number of matches.

The 32-year-old has often been praised for getting the most out of others, though that is not exactly reflected in terms of his number of assists.

He has set up a team-mate on only nine occasions across those 61 outings - an average of 0.22 assists per 90 minutes.

For context, former team-mate Antoine Griezmann (0.23) and current colleague Suarez (0.33) rank higher, with Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi (0.45) top by distance in that particular metric.

IMPACT ON THE TEAM

Eight of Costa's 12 LaLiga goals since returning to LaLiga have come via his right boot - including three penalties - plus three with his head. All but one of those goals came inside the box, with exactly half from open play.

But does Costa's presence in the side, as suggested by boss Diego Simeone in the past, have a positive impact on Atletico and the way they function?

In terms of average LaLiga goals scored per game it does, rising from 1.4 in the 67 matches Costa has not started, compared to 1.6 with him in the line-up.

However, Atletico win fewer matches when Costa is involved, with their 61.2 per cent success rate dropping to 51.2 per cent - or 2.1 points per game to 1.9 on average.

A STUTTERING SEASON SO FAR

Costa is no stranger to spending time on the sidelines, not least this season; he initially contracted coronavirus before then being ruled out with deep vein thrombosis.

That has restricted him to seven LaLiga appearances. Only two of those have been from the start, as he was named in the XI for wins over Granada and Celta Vigo.

He may only have netted twice but still boasts an average of 0.87 goals per 90 minutes in the Spanish top flight this term, second only to Suarez (0.94) among Atleti players.

Joao Felix is next on the list (0.58) having scored five goals in 12 outings, though the Portuguese has also chipped in with a couple of assists, something Costa has yet to do in 2020-21.

Costa also ranks highly in terms of shot conversion rate, having scored from half of his four shots this term, not including those to have been blocked.

Another metric he tops is touches in the opposition box, averaging 8.7 per 90 minutes. That is not only the most for any Atleti player but also the third highest in the league - after Barcelona pair Trincao (10.2) and Ansu Fati (9.08) - for those to have featured at least seven times in the competition this term. 

Ultimately, though, Simeone is after a player who can not only combine all of these attacking aspects but also stay fit for a sustained period of time. For that reason, it could be that Costa's time with the club is drawing towards an end.

It appears there is still life in Arsenal, as Mikel Arteta oversaw a potentially season-changing 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day.

The Gunners had been on a dreadful run, but with the odds against them they produced their most complete performance in a while, with some of the youngsters playing important roles.

Leicester City and Manchester United began the day's action with an entertaining draw that doubled as a microcosm for the Red Devils' season.

Using Opta data, we have looked at the pick of the action on a busy Saturday.

Leicester City 2-2 Manchester United: Red Devils clicking in attack but let down by defence

Manchester United's unbeaten run away from home continued in Saturday's early kick-off, as their draw at Leicester City saw them go 14 without defeat on the road in the Premier League, their longest such streak since January 2011 (16).

They were all business in attack, with Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and substitute Edinson Cavani all effective.

Rashford opened the scoring to become the third-youngest United player to reach 50 Premier League goals (23 years, 56 days) behind only Wayne Rooney (22y, 157d) and Cristiano Ronaldo (22y, 341d).

Fernandes set him up and then got United's second, taking his goal involvement tally to 31 since joining the club – that's more than 50 percent of the club's 60 goals in that time.

Cavani's clever run and throughball released Fernandes, with the Uruguayan reaching five goal involvements from the bench in the league this term, two more than any other player.

But a late Axel Tuanzebe own goal – brought about by Jamie Vardy's shot – saw United pegged back.

It was the 11th successive away league game in which they have conceded at least twice, the worst such run since the Red Devils went 13 matches in 1959.

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Young Gunners reinvigorate Mikel Arteta's men

Mikel Arteta was in an unenviable position before kick-off – he had lost three important senior players (Willian, David Luiz and Gabriel) at short notice, while Pablo Mari, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli earned their first starts of the season.

As such, there was an unfamiliar and inexperienced look to the Arsenal starting XI, which for the first time since January 2013 did not include a player over the age of 30.

Nevertheless, two of their more experienced players did find the net – Granit Xhaka's free-kick was the seventh time he has scored from outside the area, amounting to 79 per cent of nine goals. That's the highest ratio of Gunners players to have scored at least five times in the division.

Alexandre Lacazette's penalty was his 39th at the Emirates Stadium, 72 per cent of his club total, while it also made him Arsenal's top scorer this term with six across all competitions.

But it was a day to forget for Chelsea, and particularly Timo Werner. The German was withdrawn at half-time, thus extending his goal drought to 10 matches on all fronts, his worst goalless run since 12 games between March and September 2016.

Aston Villa 3-0 Crystal Palace: Resolute Villans make light of numerical disadvantage

When Tyrone Mings was sent off just before half-time with Villa 1-0 up, one expected the worst for the hosts in the second period.

But if anything, that red – a record-setting fourth for the club on Boxing Day – seemed to spur Villa on, Dean Smith's side going on to score twice more and claim an eighth clean sheet of the season, more than any other side in the league.

Palace could only wish for such defensive solidity – they are without a shutout in their past 14 Premier League matches, their longest such streak since November 2017.

Bertrand Traore got the ball rolling early on, netting in successive matches after only managing two in his previous 19 league outings.

Kortney Hause made it 2-0 before Anwar El Ghazi finished Palace off in style with his fourth goal in as many Premier League appearances – a fine accomplishment for a player who, only a few weeks ago, was being targeted for criticism from some supporters on social media.

Jack Grealish may not have been on the scoresheet, but he was yet again crucial for Villa – Palace's only answer was to foul him. The England international's fouls won per game since the start of last season was boosted to 4.7, which is by far the most of any player to have played more than 100 minutes in that time.

Manchester City 2-0 Newcastle United: Defence provides solid platform again for Guardiola

Pep Guardiola has received his fair share of criticism this season, but if there's one area in which City are excelling, it's at the back.

Saturday's routine victory over Steve Bruce's lacklustre Magpies was their 13th clean sheet of the season across all competitions, more than any other team in Europe's top five leagues.

The omens weren't great for Newcastle coming into the game, and this was their 15th Premier League defeat on Boxing Day – a record – and their sixth in succession on this day.

On top of that, it's now 12 straight home wins over Newcastle for City, who've scored 41 times and conceded just seven in that run.

Raheem Sterling reached a milestone when he set up Ilkay Gundogan's opener, as it was his 150th goal involvement (96 goals, 54 assists) in all competitions since Pep Guardiola became coach, more than anyone else. Sergio Aguero has 146 (120 goals, 26 assists).

Ferran Torres got City's second, as the pre-season signing from Valencia continued his very promising debut campaign, this time leading the line in place of the injured Gabriel Jesus with Aguero only fit enough for a place on the bench.

Torres' goal was his seventh for City, and all seven games in which he has scored for the club have ended in victories, with five of them coming at the Etihad Stadium.

The Christmas Day quintuple-header is the NBA showcase that brims with compelling matchups between powerhouse teams and the league's biggest and brightest stars.

Even for casual fans, Friday's slate is enticing with five games spaced throughout the day and night featuring 26 All-Stars, including four MVP winners.

While Christmas is a time to celebrate and be merry, playing on December 25 hasn't been full of cheer for one of the game's premier players of the last decade.

The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry is a future Hall of Famer and will go down as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, but you would have a hard time convincing that to the casual fan who tunes in at Christmas.

In seven career Christmas games, Curry is averaging 9.6 points on 29.3 per cent shooting and 20.5 per cent shooting from three-point range.

Not exactly numbers that scream two-time league MVP.

In fact, since the three-point line was adopted in 1979-80, no player has shot less than 30 per cent and averaged more than 6.0 points per game over the course of a career - the kind of numbers Curry puts up on Christmas.

While many count down the days until Christmas, you'll have to forgive Curry if he's not one of them considering December 25 has been his worst shooting day of the season.

Of the dates when he has played a minimum three games, December 15 has been his second worst on the calendar, with 33.3 per cent shooting over four games.

Christmas Day has also been one of Curry's most dismal days for three-point shooting, making just 20.5 per cent of his attempts. Of the dates when he has played at least three games, his three-point record has only been worse on April 21 (12.5 per cent) and December 16 (17.6 per cent).

Given his shooting woes on Christmas it should be no big surprise he's never had a 20-point game on December 25. It marks just one of three calendar dates where he's played at least three games and not reached the 20-point mark. On the other two dates of February 15 and April 19, he's only played three games apiece on those days - four fewer opportunities than his appearances on Christmas.

Not only has December 25 been one of Curry's most dreadful days of the season for making shots, his struggles with shooting on that particular day go down among the worst for anyone who has played on Christmas in more than 35 years.

Since 1983-84, of players who have taken a minimum 50 attempts, Curry has the lowest Christmas Day shooting success percentage, worse than Ron Harper and Michael Finley (both 32.7 per cent), Derek Fisher (33.8 per cent) and Paul Pierce (35 per cent).

Part of Curry's struggles on Christmas could have something to do with the fact his Warriors are typically facing stiff competition in either a Finals rematch or potential playoff preview, so he's matching up against the best of the best.

However, he's faced the same teams he's gone up against on Christmas at other times in the same season and his numbers in those matchups are more in line with his career averages of 23.5 points per game on 47.6 per cent shooting and 43.5 per cent from three-point range.

Curry's points per game perk up from 9.6 to an average of 18.9 when he faces Christmas Day opponents on other occasions in the same season, with his field goal percentage soaring to 47.1 per cent and three-point shooting jumping from to 47.2 per cent.

So maybe late December is when Curry typically goes through a cold spell. However, taking a look at the games he's played immediately before his Christmas contests and immediately after, his shooting stats are again more of what you would expect from him on any given night.

When he has played in a game immediately prior to Christmas, Curry averages 23.2 points on 45.5 per cent overall shooting and 37.3 per cent three-point success, while in the first post-Christmas game he has scored 22.4 points on average (44.2 per cent overall shooting, 43.1 per cent from three-point range).

This will be the eighth straight year the Warriors are playing on December 25 and many eyes will be on Curry given the six-time All-Star will be playing for just the third time since October 2019, after missing much of last season with a broken left hand.

He looked like his old self in the preseason and played well in spurts in Tuesday's opener before sitting out the fourth quarter when the outcome was in little doubt with Golden State on the wrong end of a blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

So maybe after all these years he'll finally be able to put together a memorable Christmas performance. At least he doesn't again have to face a Los Angeles Lakers team that's given him problems in the past and gets - gulp, the Milwaukee Bucks.

And there's the big festive plot twist. Curry averages just 19.9 points against the Bucks across his career - his lowest scoring average against any team.

After eight years and almost 300 appearances for Espanyol, Victor Sanchez is embarking on his first journey outside of Europe.

Sanchez now calls Australia's Western United home following Espanyol's relegation from LaLiga in 2019-20, having spent 14 years in Spain and a brief stint with Neuchatel Xamax.

The versatile 33-year-old had not envisaged packing up and relocating his family 16,816km away to Melbourne, but the coronavirus pandemic changed his plans as Western United came calling.

"It is a league that wasn't in my plans and I hadn't thought about it because it is a very far country as well," Sanchez, who ranks fourth for most Espanyol appearances behind Raul Tamudo, Mauricio Pochettino and Javi Lopez, told Stats Perform News.

"But when I had the chance, looking a little to everything and this league's level, because it is very well organised league, serious league and serious country also regarding coronavirus, I thought it was a great opportunity for me and the family as well."

Sanchez is among the growing number of Spaniards moving to Australia after former Espanyol team-mate Lopez also joined Adelaide United.

Former Athletic Bilbao pair Markel Susaeta and Benat have reunited at Macarthur FC for their inaugural season, while ex-Getafe attacker Diego Castro continues to star with Perth Glory.

"I didn't know much about the A-League," Sanchez said. "When I had the chance to come here I started looking at it and I also spoke with people that had played here: with Juande that was in Perth, with Markel Susaeta that was in Melbourne City last year, [former Western Sydney Wanderers striker] Oriol Riera and [former Melbourne Victory midfielder] Raul Baena.

"Footballers that have played here and everyone was telling me the same thing, that it is a spectacular experience, a great, great experience and life level, family level, and then because it is a league that, even though doesn't have the level of the Spanish league, is still a league physically strong and above all very well organised. Very serious league and I believe that at my age, with my career, I don't want surprises and I wanted to come to a league where things were properly done."

Sanchez brings a wealth of experience to Mark Rudan's Western United, who reached the A-League semi-finals in their first season in the competition.

The Catalonia-born midfielder – also adaptable in all defensive positions – emerged from Barcelona's youth system in 2005 and eventually made his debut for the first team in 2008.

Under the leadership of Pep Guardiola, Sanchez was part of the star-studded Barca squad that won the Champions League, LaLiga and Copa del Rey in 2008-09 – playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Yaya Toure, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Samuel Eto'o.

"My relationship with him was very good," Sanchez said as he discussed working with Guardiola at Camp Nou. "I was with him in the second team, Barca B, and were promoted from the third division to the Second B Division, from the fourth league to the third league in Spain and it was truly a beautiful year, the first one of him as a coach.

"He then moved to the first team and he promoted Sergio Busquets and me to the first team as well, even though we still belonged to the youth team, but to be within the first team dynamic. That year was truly incredible, the season 2008-09 when we won Liga, Copa and Champions League, a fantasy year. Afterwards I have kept relation with him when I have played against him and we have talked quite a lot.

"Now I haven't talked to him for a long time, but he is very innovative in everything he does. He is a genius, there isn't many like him. I was lucky enough to share a locker room with Guardiola."

Sanchez made seven LaLiga appearances in 2008-09, and 12 across all competitions, before being loaned out to Xerex and Getafe in 2009-10 and 2010-11. A six-month stint in Switzerland followed, but after 16 games the Barcelona native returned home.

However, this time, Sanchez – among a select few to play for both clubs – crossed the divide to link up with neighbours Espanyol in 2012.

"It's different to play for Barcelona than to play for Espanyol. The rivalry of the derbies. I think it is lived differently from Barcelona than from Espanyol," Sanchez said. "From the Barcelona perspective, rivalry exists, but nothing compares from the Espanyol perspective towards Barca.

"At Espanyol, for you it's like a final or a title to be able to win against Barcelona. Nowadays the economic differences are huge, so it is very difficult to win a match against Barcelona playing for Espanyol. I was there like nine years and was lucky to win one derby, in the Copa del Rey, in the first leg. When that happens it's when you realise how difficult it is. You also notice how they want to win too even though they see the rivalry differently."

Sanchez joined forces with Pochettino as the Argentine coach made a name for himself at Espanyol before moving on to Southampton and Tottenham.

"He is a great coach," Sanchez, who backed the former Spurs boss to make the move to Real Madrid, added. "I was with him a short time. I arrived at Espanyol when he was there and it can be said that he bought me for the club. You could already see that he had what it takes to be a great coach with his ideas, how he worked with the team, he was very demanding.

"I think it was clear he would reach the top. I had a very good relationship with him. I was like six or eight months with him and it was a great coach in my career."

While Pochettino eventually departed for Premier League side Southampton less than a year later, Sanchez continued to help fly the flag for Espanyol.

Sanchez went to battle in the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Barca – renewing acquaintances with ex-Blaugrana team-mates Messi and Pique in heated showdowns – the rivalry coming to a head in a fiercely contested 1-1 draw at RCDE Stadium in February 2018.

Espanyol's Sanchez went head-to-head with six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi in wet conditions, and he added: "Messi is a very special player, different than the rest. I think he particularly likes to play against Espanyol.

"It is true that we played a very hot derby that ended up in a tie with Pique's goal around minute 80. It was raining, a hard match, beautiful, sentimental. Messi is the best player of the world, above the rest. To win against him, to steal the ball off him or make things difficult for him is a personal triumph. Because as I said, he is very above from the rest."

Fast forward to December 2020 and Sanchez is determined to taste success with Western United after experiencing Espanyol's painful relegation to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993.

"I want to win, be on the top and make the team to be as high as possible. The A-League is economically very equal between teams, a bit similar to MLS where budget is close," said Sanchez, who had a passing accuracy of 80.5 per cent in 25 LaLiga appearances last season.

"If you make a good team, a good year and if you have confidence, you can fight for anything. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to come back to the play-offs and this time be able to be in semi-finals or the final and can be champions."

Sanchez, who registered 116 recoveries and 27 interceptions, while he won possession on 116 occasions in 2019-20, added: "I have signed for two years but my plan is to stay more and hopefully that will be possible. After my experience in Spain having played quite a lot of matches, a long career, I was looking for a change. It will be also positive for us to learn the language. My English is basic at the moment.

"After 13 or 14 years playing in LaLiga it was a bit exhausting."

Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson said in the wake of their dramatic loss to the Arizona Cardinals that he would wait until Monday to name a starting quarterback for Week 16. 

The delay in doing so could hardly seem more pointless after Jalen Hurts gave a previously moribund offense a spark for the third successive week, helping them push a playoff contender to the wire in an absorbing encounter. 

He hasn't even played two and a half games yet, but this was another contest that gave rise to the notion that Hurts, despite the huge contract handed to Carson Wentz in June of last year, is the future at the quarterback position in Philadelphia. 

His back-and-forth duel with dual-threat superstar and fellow former Oklahoma Sooner Kyler Murray also served as further compelling evidence of the ever-expanding merits of investing in athleticism at quarterback. 

Murray, who has dipped in and out of the MVP conversation this season, may have prevailed - a last-gasp heave into the endzone from Hurts falling incomplete - but the Eagles' second-round pick emerged with his reputation significantly enhanced. 

Hurts finished the 33-26 loss with 338 yards passing, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, and ran for 63 yards and another score on the ground.

Posting a passer rating of 102.3, Hurts is the first rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to throw at least three touchdown passes and rush for a touchdown in his first road start. 

After putting up 106 rushing yards against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14, he also joins Randall Cunningham (1985) and Lamar Jackson (2018) as the only first-year quarterbacks with at least 50 yards on the ground in their first two starts. 

Following in the footsteps of fellow 2020 draft picks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, Hurts is now one of just three rookie quarterbacks to record at least 300 passing yards, three touchdown throws and a rushing score in a single game since 1970. 

His efforts on the ground are in stark contrast to those of Wentz, who has five rushing touchdowns this season but just one game of over 50 yards. While Hurts has yet to throw an interception in two starts - though he did commit one in Week 13 against the Green Bay Packers - Wentz leads the league with 15 picks. 

Therein lies the rub. Entering the NFL in 2016, Wentz had athletic upside. However, he has since been limited by a devastating 2017 knee injury that ruined an MVP-calibre season. With the additional speed Hurts - the second-fastest quarterback at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine – offers, the Eagles can utilise a new dimension on offense that they did not have with an increasingly statuesque former first-round pick under center. 

Defenses must pay significant respect to the threat of a quarterback run on zone-read plays, while Hurts' ability to scramble decreases the odds of him staying in a muddied pocket and risking a turnover by taking a sack or forcing a throw into a non-existent window. 

It also raises the potential for the spectacular, which arrived in spades on Sunday, most notably on the failed game-tying drive as Hurts fumbled the ball only to regather it, roll to his right and deliver a first-down pass to Dallas Goedert.

 

The composure Hurts showed on that completion is illustrative of a player quickly settling into life at the pro level, and his late-season emergence comes on the heels of an MVP year for Jackson in a campaign during which his dual-threat contemporaries further demonstrated that, with the right coaching, the time needed for young, mobile quarterbacks to adapt to the league is getting shorter. 

Herbert, who is being allowed to use his legs much more than he did at Oregon, is in the midst of one of the best rookie quarterback seasons ever. Josh Allen's third-year transition from athletically gifted wild card to a versatile and supremely accurate field general has the Buffalo Bills at the sharp end of the AFC playoff race, while Murray keeps writing his name in the record books as the Cardinals push towards the postseason. 

Murray had 406 yards passing with three touchdowns and an interception on Sunday, while he too found the endzone on the ground, marking his ninth game with both a passing touchdown and rushing score this season, the most by a quarterback in a single campaign in NFL history. 

He is the fourth quarterback, alongside Allen (10), Steve Grogan (10) and Cam Newton (14), with 10 such games in his first two seasons. Only he and Newton (2015) can claim to have thrown for 25 touchdowns and rushed for 10 in a single season, Murray replicating the feat of Newton's MVP year by taking his passing tally to 26 and his rushing mark to 11.

The rapid rise of Murray, Allen, Herbert and now seemingly Hurts should give confidence to quarterback-needy teams that the 2021 crop of dual-threat signal-callers can start early and be successful. 

Presumptive number one pick Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Zach Wilson of BYU all possess the skills to do significant damage through the air and also with their legs. 

Murray and Hurts' bewitching battle encapsulated the impact a quarterback with such diversity to their game can have on the modern NFL when they land in the right environment. 

There is still a place for the traditional drop-back quarterback, of course, but they are increasingly being shunned in favour of more unpredictable and seemingly more influential counterparts. 

At least four more possible success stories are on the horizon in the next draft and franchises requiring change under center need to heed one of the many lessons of a year where nothing has been normal. It is past time to cast aside previous convention. Get a quarterback who can do both, and get them on the field.

Mats Hummels let out a laugh of indignation as Stuttgart scored their fifth and final goal in Saturday's 5-1 trouncing of Borussia Dortmund, the defender left at a loss as the visitors claimed a remarkable victory.

But there was no such reaction from Lucien Favre, as Dortmund's coach half-heartedly greeted a couple of his players and coaching staff before disappearing down the tunnel in sheepish fashion, wearing an almost gaunt expression.

Perhaps he knew what was coming – at the very least he will have had a suspicion given he called the loss a "disaster" in his post-match news conference.

It proved to be Favre's final match in charge as a run of three successive Bundesliga home defeats proved the final straw for the club's hierarchy, who dismissed the Swiss manager on Sunday after two and a half years in charge.

But while Favre's spell ends on a sour note, he helped build a team with great potential, one that his former assistant Edin Terzic – appointed as interim head coach until the end of the season – will feel he can mould into a real force with time.

With Favre at the helm, Dortmund signed or brought through an impressive array of youth stars, as we have explored…

Erling Haaland, 20

The current holder of the Golden Boy award, Haaland has established himself as one of the world's most lethal strikers over the past 18 months, first impressing with Salzburg before joining up with Dortmund late last December.

He has scored 23 goals in as many Bundesliga appearances this year, just five strikes fewer than the favourite for the Best FIFA Men's Player award, Robert Lewandowski. Haaland's 46 per cent conversion rate (excluding blocks) is significantly better than the Pole's 35 per cent, however, while he also last month became the quickest to reach 15 Champions League goals in the competition's history.

It remains to be seen how long Dortmund can keep hold of him, but there's no doubt he flourished under Favre and will be key for Terzic once he returns from injury in the New Year.

 

Jadon Sancho, 20

Sancho was signed by Dortmund pre-Favre and enjoyed his initial breakthrough under Peter Stoger, but it was in 2018-19 – under the club's new Swiss coach – when he truly announced himself, winning his first Bundesliga Player of the Month award in the October thanks to a haul of three goals and an assist in three games.

In February this year, when still only 19, Sancho became the first teenager to reach 25 Bundesliga goals, while he made 29 open-play assists in the competition during Favre's reign.

As with Haaland, it seems unlikely Sancho will be with Dortmund in the long term, but in the right conditions, they could be a pair capable of inspiring teams to European success.

For now, though, Terzic will be focused on getting the best out of the England international – he's not scored once in nine Bundesliga outings this term.

 

Giovanni Reyna, 18

A real gem – anyone who has watched Reyna in action will surely be filled with excitement. The 18-year-old attacking midfielder has a playing style and demeanour that resembles Brazil and Milan great Kaka, and he is already having an impact at first-team level having been given his debut by Favre in January.

The American then became the first 17-year-old to record three assists in a single Bundesliga match since records began in 1992 during Dortmund's 4-0 victory over Freiburg in October – two were well-weighted throughballs for Erling Haaland, the other a pinpoint set-piece delivery.

Reyna signed a new five-year deal recently and looks set to torment Bundesliga defences for many seasons to come.

Jude Bellingham, 17

A classy attack-minded midfielder, Bellingham was a sizeable investment in pre-season, arriving from Birmingham City where he had become a key player despite his age. Some still expected him to initially move into Dortmund's second team, but Favre's belief in the teenager was made clear.

He has already featured nine times in the Bundesliga and became Dortmund's youngest ever goalscorer (17 years, 77 days) when netting a fine debut effort against Duisburg in the DFB-Pokal earlier this season.

Already an England international, Bellingham is another talent who appears capable of defining an era at Dortmund if they can keep hold of him.

Youssoufa Moukoko, 16

The jewel in the crown? Perhaps it's too early to make such judgements, but it's fair to say Favre had been excited about Moukoko long before making him the Bundesliga's youngest ever player a day after his 16th birthday in November. He then broke the same record in the Champions League.

A Germany youth international, Moukoko smashed all sorts of records in Dortmund's youth teams, such as netting 34 times in 20 games in the Bundesliga's youth division and scoring in the UEFA Youth League when he was just 14.

Moukoko has looked lively in his four Bundesliga cameos this season and might even be entrusted with a first start by Terzic in the absence of Haaland.

Given the ease he took to every other level he has played at, few would bet against Moukoko continuing that trend in the top tier.

Borussia Dortmund dismissed head coach Lucien Favre on Sunday, with unheralded assistant Edin Terzic promoted to take charge until the end of the campaign.

Favre's sacking came on the back of a humiliating 5-1 loss to Stuttgart on Saturday - BVB suffering a third straight home loss in the Bundesliga for the first time since 2013-14, and their heaviest at the Westfalenstadion in over a decade.

Rather than turn to a big-name replacement, Dortmund followed the blueprint of title rivals Bayern Munich in promoting from within by placing Terzic in charge of first-team affairs.

Following the treble-winning success of Hansi Flick at Bayern upon replacing Niko Kovac in November 2019, Dortmund will now be hoping for a positive outcome themselves over the coming months.

But exactly who is Terzic and what are his strong ties to another Champions League winning boss in Jurgen Klopp?

Getting the breaks

Terzic represented four different clubs across a seven-year playing career, none of those teams plying their trade higher than the fourth tier of German football at the time.

His coaching breakthrough came during a three-year spell at Dortmund from 2010 when working as assistant for several of the youth sides up to under-19s level.

He also spent time working as a scout during Klopp's time in charge, a similar position to the one previously held by David Wagner, most recently in charge of Schalke.

Terzic later said of Klopp, when his appointment was announced by Liverpool: "He is very intelligent, he is funny and he is very successful."

The 38-year-old Terzic, looking to advance his own career, took the decision to work abroad and spent four years outside Germany, first at Super Lig side Besiktas and then with West Ham in the Premier League.

Terzic worked as assistant to Slaven Bilic in both of those jobs, having previously been approached to join the Croatian at Lokomotiv Moscow.

Hammer blow leads to new opportunities

Bilic's sacking as West Ham boss in November 2017 subsequently left Terzic without a job but he used the time wisely, completing the English FA's highest coaching qualification badge the following year.

Among others to graduate from the 18-month course that year were Nicky Butt, Nigel Clough, David James, Graham Potter and Nemanja Vidic.

Terzic was back at Dortmund in 2018, this time as assistant first-team coach to Favre, the man he would go on to succeed in a caretaker basis two and a half years later.

Tuesday's trip to Werder Bremen will not be the German's first match as BVB head coach, having stood in for a game in February 2019 alongside fellow assists Michael Stefes after Favre fell ill. Dortmund squandered a three-goal lead to draw 3-3.

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