1) Pochettino’s quiet revolution can step up a gear
Last December’s 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool proved the point of no return for André Villas-Boas and set the scene for what ended up being more a pitch-black fumble towards a new era for Tottenham Hotspur than a slick transition. But they seem to be in a better place now and, while a lack of early transfer activity contributed to their being widely overlooked as contenders for the top four, a rousing display against Brendan Rodgers’ team would point to the narrowing of what looked like a gaping chasm between the two a few months back. A late win against a West Ham side whose own sands are shifting and a stroll against ragged QPR should not be overstated, but Mauricio Pochettino appears to have invigorated some of last season’s underperformers and the signs are encouraging. Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and – crucially, you suspect – Erik Lamela were all incisive, intelligent movers in a balanced attacking midfield three last weekend and showed signs of commitment to their manager’s high-pressing philosophy. Etienne Capoue, too, looked confident in his deep-lying midfield position. More work is needed, and Federico Fazio was certainly a necessary signing from Sevilla this week at centre-back, but Pochettino – whether from desire or necessity – has eked impressive early form out of players it might have been tempting to give up on. Make it three wins from three against last season’s title chasers, and questions over the value of last year’s incomings might be superseded by a feeling that they just needed to be in the right hands. NA
2) Everton will be a truer test for Fábregas
On the evidence of his first two games, Cesc Fábregas has slotted back into life in the Premier League with all the ease of Cinderella into that slipper. Against Burnley, he was sensational, setting up two of Chelsea’s three goals. Against Leicester, less so, but he still had a hand in one of the goals, still created a number of chances for his team-mates and still drove his team forward. But with all due respect to Burnley and Leicester, those two performances came against two promoted sides still groping their way around the Premier League. This weekend the Spanish international faces a much stiffer test in the shape of Everton and James McCarthy and Gareth Barry. The duo were arguably one of the best midfield partnerships of last season. Barry’s intelligence dovetailed perfectly with McCarthy’s work-rate as the two frustrated opposition attacks and helped Everton to the third best defence. The trip to Goodison Park will thus be a much tougher and truer test of Fábregas’ talents and should he find a way past the pair, Chelsea should be able to find to three points. IM
3) Arsenal must show they can click without Giroud
In a slightly wackier parallel universe, Nikola Zigic makes his Arsenal debut at Leicester on Sunday and knocks in an important second-half equaliser – just as he did when Birmingham visited the King Power Stadium for a Championship fixture in April 2013. Those preferring their strikers drenched in ice-bucket cold reality will have to go with what Arsène Wenger has got, and the problem is that, barring what is now a traditional deadline-day trolley dash in north London, there is not that much. It was important for Alexis Sánchez to get off the mark – and play well all round – against Besiktas in midweek, but the way in which Olivier Giroud stood strong and firm for his late equaliser at Everton last Saturday highlighted that, top-drawer or not, his are gifts that Arsenal could not afford to lose for a long period. Sánchez will surely be given the chance to make that central spot his own on a longer-term basis, a reprieved Lukas Podolski rarely having convinced up front, but if his driftier, false-nine style is to work domestically then everything around him – particularly the midfield runners – will need to be in perfect fettle too. A lively Leicester side should not be the most stifling of opponents and chances should arise; a clinical showing from Sánchez and company might postpone questions as to whether Arsenal are sufficiently battle-hardened up top to challenge between now and Giroud’s January return. And if not, Zigic is still very much available. NA
4) Di María’s debut can’t come soon enough
£400,200,000. It’s a heck of a lot of money. For that amount you could probably buy a small European nation, proclaim yourself supreme eternal ruler, declare every day that ends in a Y national burger day and shower in Cristal at least once a week. Or you could assemble the most expensive squad in the history of English football, which is exactly what Manchester United have done with it. But what a hodgepodge squad it is. A serious lack of cover in defence and defending midfielders contrasts with an abundant amount of talent going forward. Despite this abundance, Louis van Gaal’s side have looked short of creativity in their first two games of the season. Here is where Ángel di María comes to the rescue. The Argentinian is a wonderful player. He has the pace and skill to beat his man, he can create chances (he has 11 assists in his last 11 league appearances and his crossing is more accurate than any other player in the United squad) and he is more versatile than others in that he can in the play in the middle or on the wing. With one point and an ignominious League Cup exit to their name, United need him, just as much as they need another centre-back and another central midfielder. IM
5) Promoted sides desperate to reverse winless start
Not since 1993-94, when Newcastle, Swindon and West Ham could not muster a single point between them, have sides promoted to the Premier League endured this fallow an opening two games. Leicester’s draw against Everton is all that they, Burnley and QPR have to show for their early efforts, making this only the third time in 21 years that newcomers have failed to chalk up a win this early on. Nobody will be too concerned at this stage, but this weekend would be a useful time to break the duck – particularly with an international break in the offing. There is usually at least one “statement” victory from a promoted team in the season’s opening month, typically against an unwitting title favourite: witness Cardiff’s dramatic win against Manchester City last season or, indeed, Burnley’s humbling of Manchester United in 2009. And perhaps it is the Clarets who hold the best hope of an early scalp in Saturday’s edition of that fixture, particularly if Louis van Gaal’s early tenure has further depths to plumb. QPR’s outlook will not be encouraging if they follow defeat in their first home match, against Hull, with similar against Sunderland; Leicester will feel they can take something from a stretched Arsenal squad if they can replicate their showing against Roberto Martínez’s side and can point to a baptism of fire handed out by the fixture list. Places among the division’s mid-table also-rans seem readily up for grabs these days, but such a jump would be all the easier without carrying an early monkey on the back. NA
6) Varela can give West Brom the element of surprise
Alan Irvine stressed after West Brom’s goalless draw at Southampton that he was looking for “creative players at the top end of the pitch”, with the Baggies looking steady enough but unspectacular in the season’s early-morning light. True to his word, he brought one in the following day: Silvestre Varela, the FC Porto winger, signed on a year-long loan and is a promising addition to a squad that has taken some time to finesse. Varela scored six goals for Porto last season and had a record of better than one in every four games overall; he also equalised for Portugal with a thumping late header in their World Cup draw against the USA, an achievement that provides a clue as to what he can bring. Direct, tall and powerful, he provides the kind of orthodox threat from wide that West Brom lack and has a degree of top-level experience – his Champions League pursuits include an admittedly fortunate winner against Arsenal in 2010 – that has been lacking among a fairly raw front line. It might be too much to ask for him to make an immediate impact at Swansea on Saturday, but the 29-year-old Varela arrives at the Hawthorns at an opportune time for all parties and will certainly help his side force the agenda in tight contests. NA
7) Southampton need to find a cutting edge
There has been slightly less noise around the subject of Southampton’s summer exodus in the last few weeks, partly because newer stories naturally take greater prominence and partly because the Saints have looked perfectly competent in the Premier League’s opening skirmishes. They deserved a point at Liverpool and would have gained one if either Morgan Schneiderlin or Shane Long had scored at the end; they were not bad against West Bromwich Albion last weekend, either, but could not make their possession count and did not click sufficiently in the final third to merit three points that may have answered a question or two.
Those combinations will doubtless improve with time, and in Dusan Tadic Southampton have a player who will tirelessly seek to invent. The biggest concern is at centre-forward. Graziano Pelle needs time to adapt to the increased physicality of the Premier League, but there seemed a small element of frustration in Koeman’s assertion last week that “Sometimes I think he could be a little bit more aggressive”. At 29, you wonder how easy it will be for Pelle to make the necessary changes; you also question whether 27-year-old Shane Long, for all that his industry matches that of anyone in the league, has ever really shown that he can score the goals that justify his £12m fee. Southampton have had a huge shock to the system this summer and will most likely have to chalk this season off as one of transition; it is to Koeman’s credit that there are few doubts about their technical level remaining high, but it is hard not to look around and wonder who will score the goals they need unless another forward signing is waiting in the wings. West Ham, confident from a win at Palace, are unlikely to give away too many gifts at Upton Park. NA
8) Warnock is ready to heal old wounds
Nobody present at Neil Warnock’s second unveiling as Crystal Palace manager could mistake the glint in his eyes. Cutting a sprightlier figure than you might expect of a 65-year-old who, by his own admission, had already retired four times, Warnock was full of fun – clearly invigorated by his return to a club where, by his own admission, things could have ended more happily first time around. Warnock could not have appeared more relaxed in such familiar surroundings, but there is no doubt that the old fire still burns and that the thought of parting in more upbeat circumstances this time is motivation enough.
A trip to Newcastle will be difficult and not without some bad memories – he recounted at length the story of touching down for a match at St James’ Park in 2010 and discovering that Palace had entered administration, a state of affairs that led to his departure. But Warnock had clearly relished his first day back on the training field, and his excitement about getting his hands on Wilfried Zaha again was obvious. They make an unlikely returning pair but know each other of old – Paul Hart, caretaker manager after Warnock’s exit, gave Zaha his debut – and as Palace look to shake off the upset caused by Tony Pulis’ untimely exit it is a combination that might just bring out the best in each other. Palace need reference points in these uncertain times, and how these two work together will have a big influence on their fortunes. NA
9) Jovetic shows the benefit of waiting
Steven Jovetic’s first season at Manchester City was hardly a disaster, but it would equally be fair to say that he never quite got going. His signing from Fiorentina was hailed as a coup, but injury complicated his early months at the Etihad and, although he still contributed six goals, none bar an important opener against Chelsea did much more than put the gloss on a scoreline.
The Montenegrin has been linked with moves away during the summer, but it appears that he is in Manchester to stay and the manner of his brace against Liverpool on Monday – it was only his fourth league start for City – showed little rustiness. Perhaps it hints at what is possible when players from other leagues are given time to settle in the Premier League environment – something Jovetic certainly did not afford Alberto Moreno when he swiped the ball away from him to open the scoring. He is probably first understudy to Sergio Agüero when the Argentinian is fit to start a game, but further evidence against Stoke on Saturday that he is back in the groove of his Serie A days may persuade Manuel Pellegrini that his talent is too big to be sidelined – and could remind us all that judging newcomers after a matter of weeks or even months is not always wise. NA
10) How will Hull react to Europa League disappointment?
Although the Europa League tends to be treated with thinly-veiled contempt by Premier League managers, who are all too aware these days that a few more mid-table rungs up the top-flight ladder mean millions more pounds, it was a surprise to see Hull falter against modest opposition in the Belgian side Lokeren on Thursday. A reliable unit last season, Hull seemed nervous throughout their first tilt at Europe and promptly became the first English side not to reach the group stage.
Steve Bruce will live with it: for one thing, he will not have been blind to the fact that Swansea’s own historic presence in the competition last season did little to accelerate the progress that had led to their qualification. Fixture congestion will be little concern now, unless the domestic cups prove fruitful again, which will give a thin squad room to breathe.
But clubs of Hull’s size feed on newness and momentum, and it will be important that things do not fall flat now. A late equaliser by Stoke at the KC Stadium on Saturday had not been ideal preparation for the Lokeren tie and defeat at solid-starting Aston Villa – whose League Cup defeat to Leyton Orient felt more like par for the course – might lead some to wonder whether Bruce’s team has the variety to get results if its tightly-wound setup is unpicked. The presence of the Uruguay striker Abel Hernandez, even if only in the stands, may be timely as the Tigers look for a quick pick-me-up. NA