Premier Questions: 6 queries that will define the weekend
1. Will any of England's established players unpick themselves?
Allardyce's captain and free-roaming talisman, has been grandly dropped by his club manager in a move that rubber-stamped the steady decline we've all been seeing for some years
As the dust settles on the briefest and most chastening England reign of all, there’s something of the young Michael Corleone about new interim boss Gareth Southgate: a wide-eyed kid, thus far uncorrupted by power, bundled into the top job with the patriarch having fallen on his sword.
Whether Southgate will take to his position with quite the same gusto remains to be seen, but he’ll be given little time to draw breath given that his first squad needs to be named on Sunday. And this task, as much as his predecessor's nosedive from beaming head honcho to shamed dunce, illustrates what difference a month can make in football.
Of the starting XI Sam Allardyce named for his first match in charge in Slovakia four weeks ago, two – Danny Rose and Harry Kane – have since picked up injuries. Kane's two obvious replacements at the team's spearhead are Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge; the latter only sometimes picked in Liverpool's starting XI this term, the former having seen last season’s unstoppable form dissolve like a Skittle in a bottle of cheap vodka. A third member of Allardyce's XI, his captain and free-roaming talisman, has been grandly dropped by his club manager in a move that rubber-stamped the steady decline we've all been seeing for some years.
Elsewhere, Gary Cahill, the setup’s senior centre-back, has mutated from dependable defender into careening liability, while Joe Hart has been publicly renounced by one of football's highest minds and bundled off to mainland Europe (an experience, minus the travel, also meted out to Luke Shaw in recent weeks).
All in all, plenty for Southgate to consider. And plenty to motivate the above names' potential deputies in Sunday's squad, too – something surely lurking in the minds of Troy Deeney, Jack Wilshere and Curtis Davies as kick-off approaches on Saturday.
Corleone proved his mettle early on with the cold-blooded assassination of a couple of city officials. A similar show of ruthlessness from Southgate might be an equally canny move – and perhaps even a necessary one.
Cahill's had a poor start to the season
2. Can Conte dodge crisis talk?
As Manchester United's nerve-wracking trip to East Yorkshire showed, theory doesn't always equate to practice. And besides, the flagrant expectation of three points brings its own pressure
Consecutive defeats by two of the division's better sides hardly constitutes a crisis, regardless of whatever lofty expectations exist from up high. But the past fortnight's rather conclusive beatings by Liverpool and Arsenal will have done plenty to remind Antonio Conte of the size of his task – and may just have planted a few doubts in the mind of his trigger-happy boss, too.
Saturday's trip to Hull should be the ideal fixture. Chelsea may think they fared badly over the past two weeks but Hull (who, oddly enough, have played the same opponents in the same period) have done rather worse, the aggregate score of their fixtures a rather grim 9-2 shellacking, and their optimistic start to the season suddenly seeming a distant memory.
In theory, then, Chelsea should be in for an easier assignment this week. But as Manchester United's nerve-wracking trip to East Yorkshire showed, theory doesn't always equate to practice. And besides, the flagrant expectation of three points brings its own pressure.
Conte is also faced with a number of head-scratchers brought on by the past two weeks. With Ivanovic and Cahill having both proved themselves hideously undependable, does he breach abiding Italian wisdom and carve up a settled back four? Does Cesc Fabregas keep his place for a game in which Chelsea will likely dominate the ball – is he worth his place? – or is a muscular midfield the best MO against physical opponents? And with Liverpool having blown Hull away by flooding the box last weekend compared to Diego Costa toiling in isolation up front, is it finally time to pair him with Michy Batshuayi from the start?
3. Can Slaven Bilic plug his defensive leaks?
A line-up containing both Manuel Lanzini and Dimitri Payet is never likely to offer its back four an impenetrable barrier of protection, but that was offset last year by their productivity at the other end
West Ham were hardly watertight at the back last term – their 51 goals conceded topped a good few of the sides that finished below them – but this season they've taken that generosity to an entirely new level, the 16 they’ve let in in their opening six games the most in the division.
The obvious explanation here would be to identify the culprits as a hapless back five – and that wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But it wouldn't be the entire truth, either.
Among the many things that have deserted West Ham over the course of the summer is the capacity to defend from the front, with Slaven Bilic's forward line and midfield providing his defence with no sort of safeguard.
A line-up containing both Manuel Lanzini and Dimitri Payet is never likely to offer its back four an impenetrable barrier of protection, but that was offset last year by their productivity at the other end. Like most flair players, that consistency has proven elusive this season – and with the presence of Lanzini especially reaping little reward, perhaps it's time for Bilic to bring in a more imposing, hard-running player such as Pedro Obiang, or even redeploy a full-back in wide midfield (Arthur Masuaku has played there for Olympiacos) to offer some much-needed steel.
That would require a reshuffle, though, and the sense of frenzied chaos that’s blighted Bilic's men so far this term may not be remedied by a new-look setup. Either way, he has decisions to make. With his position seemingly increasingly tenuous, Middlesbrough at home this Saturday looks like an ominously pivotal fixture.
4. Can we trust Walcott and Arsenal?
Arsenal’s next four fixtures – Burnley, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Sunderland – read like a who’s who of likely relegation candidates, and anything less than 12 points from them should be seen a failure
Almost a year ago to the week, Arsenal eviscerated Manchester United 3-0, Arsene Wenger’s men producing the sort of full-throttle, heavyweight display that periodically sparks second thoughts for those who routinely dismiss their title credentials.
The next six fixtures, however, saw all those doubts restored as missteps against Tottenham, West Brom and Norwich resulted in seven points dropped and second place turning into fourth. Arsenal’s title challenge never really recovered after that, and the belated arrival of St Totteringham’s Day did much to disguise what was an indefensible missed opportunity to reclaim their status as English champions.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that it would be dangerous to read too much into last week’s thrashing of Chelsea, and not just because Conte’s side provided such bizarrely acquiescent opposition.
Arsenal’s next four fixtures – Burnley, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Sunderland – read like a who’s who of likely relegation candidates, and anything less than 12 points from them should be seen a failure. It would be a familiar kind of failure, though: in the corresponding fixtures with Sunderland and Swansea alone last year, Arsenal managed two points from six.
Arsenal score a wonderful second against Chelsea
Microcosmic to Arsenal’s recent seesawing has been Theo Walcott. He led the line expertly in that win over United a year ago, threatening (although not for the first time) to become the decisive presence Arsenal fans have long been hoping for. But having scored seven goals for club and country by the start of October, he then didn’t score again until Christmas. By the end of the season, his total had only risen to 12, and both club and country had rendered him unworthy of selection. He watched the Euros from his sofa.
Last week’s win over Chelsea was also marked by a dashing performance from Walcott, and his brace in midweek cemented his status as a dangerous forward bang in form. But we’ve been here before.
The question over Walcott – as with Arsenal – has never been the ability to deliver the odd startling brilliant performance, it’s the ability to build on it, and to make it the norm rather than the exception. Saturday’s trip to Burnley may not be straightforward – it's where the otherwise imperious Liverpool slipped up badly – but it’s starkly, unambiguously winnable, and there’s goals there for a ruthless front four. Over to you, fellas.
5. Who is the division's true aesthetic abomination?
The Welshman brings his own band of unwavering flair-dodgers to the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon for what could well be the most turgidly unappealing match of football ever contested
David Moyes might not have enjoyed his team's donation of three gift-wrapped points to Crystal Palace last weekend, but at least Sunderland succeeded in exciting a few neutrals. Until then, Moyes had rendered Wearside a flair-free zone (something compounded horribly by this week’s loss of Adnan Januzaj to an ankle ligament injury), his side's other five fixtures – four losses and a draw – remarkable only for their unrelenting mundanity and the stark sense of existential bleakness they spawned in the soul of all onlookers.
Speaking of existential bleakness, Tony Pulis is still in charge of West Brom. For the time being, anyway, and the Welshman brings his own band of unwavering flair-dodgers to the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon for what could well be the most turgidly unappealing match of football ever contested.
Pulis's men did appear capable of the half-decent a couple of weeks ago, when they dispatched West Ham 4-2, but what looked at the time like a possible act of self-reinvention now looks a lot like a simple case of self-destruction by wretched opposition. Last week marked a reversion to the usual tedium for West Brom, as – in a perfect storm of Pulisian trademarks – a muscular target man bundled home a late set-piece to salvage an ugly point and lift the side into peril-free mid-table.
The question ahead of Saturday's clash, then, is not so much who will win, but who will watch?
When the debate around the so-called 'torture porn' film genre sprang up a few years ago, experts argued that these movies, which had no merit beyond their own startlingly unpleasant imagery, were socially harmful and should be banned from public availability. On those grounds, Saturday’s fixture should be called off immediately.
Or maybe that’s too presumptuous. Perhaps both teams can revive the flickering spirit of recent weeks and serve up an end-to-end cracker. Perhaps. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t bother tuning in to find out.
6. Can Yannick Bolasie prove to be the X factor Everton have been missing?
It’s early days, of course, but in his first couple of months on Merseyside Bolasie has looked like the real deal – that gold-dust combination of a flair-heavy winger who delivers quality and doesn’t go missing
When Everton willingly parted with a sum of up to thirty million British pounds in exchange for the employment of Yannick Bolasie, many (this correspondent included) decided that this was the moment football finally ate itself.
It’s an outlook that has had to be revised in the couple of months since – not just because that £30m figure has become commonplace, but because the winger has been thoroughly magnificent since his big move.
It’s early days, of course, but in his first couple of months on Merseyside Bolasie has looked like the real deal – that gold-dust combination of a flair-heavy winger who delivers quality and doesn’t go missing – and could be the missing ingredient to an already very decent Everton attack.
Gerard Delofeu and Kevin Mirallas have threatened to be that X factor in recent years but both have flickered rather than shone, demonstrating the common pitfall of the flair player: consistent end product is so hard to come by. That was precisely the suspicion about Bolasie when he signed – that he was the archetypal “highlights player” – but he’s since confounded those perceptions emphatically, with the quality of his crossing a particular delight.
His old club come to visit on Friday night, and with full-back anything but Palace’s strong spot and the TV cameras watching, it’s the perfect chance for the Premier League's leading showman to put his top-end credentials beyond doubt.