1. Will Harry Kane shed his 'slow starter' label?
For the many who have been thrilled and enamoured by the rise and rise of Harry Kane over the last two years, this summer has offered a strong dose of ice-cold reality.
First came the Euros, in which he was deployed foolishly, performed shambolically and was the unfortunate soul at the heart of Cornergate. None of that was wholly his fault, of course, but it was a shabby look nonetheless.
Two games into the new season, he’s picking up from where he left off in France: last season’s shot count has dropped by 30 per cent, he’s making fewer important passes, attempting one-third as many dribbles and drawing fewer fouls. Simply put, Kane's not been as involved: not ideal for the team’s talisman and focal point.
It’s not entirely surprising. Two years ago – though not always first choice at the season's start – it took Kane until November to get his first league goal; by May, he had 21. And at this stage last term he underwent a dry spell which comprised one in 13 before a hat-trick at Bournemouth in late October kick-started what became a 28-goal campaign.
Clearly, Kane’s last two years can be marked as proof of the idiocy of writing a good thing off too soon. And there’s little chance of that happening now after a handful of forgivably rusty showings. But given how spectacularly those two seasons have turned out, it’s legitimate to wonder just what’s been holding him back in those late-summer weeks. If he’s able to overcome this weird snag, England’s best striker since Alan Shearer might just become Spurs’ favourite son since Danny Blanchflower. But the start of the season only lasts so long; time is running out.
2. Will United's unlikely heroes continue their renaissance?
Paul Pogba's much-anticipated debut last week was a masterclass in understated dominance, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has taken a mere two games to fire himself to the top of the scorers chart. On the touchline, their manager is, predictably enough, the subject of much fetishisation from all corners of the media, and he's yet to put a foot wrong. It's so far, so good for FC Hollywood of Manchester.
Yet look closely, and perhaps the greatest difference to the team this season may not be the eye-catching exploits of their new megastars, but the incremental improvements offered by the team's more limited players.
Ibrahimovic scores against Southampton
One feature of United's nascent season has been the newfound competence of Marouane Fellaini in the engine room – no longer a lumbering magnet for his own fans' ire but an imposing and assured midfield presence. Similarly, Antonio Valencia looks to have rediscovered his long-lost mojo and has spent the season's opening games scooting down the flank with gay abandon, suddenly looking like a very decent option at right-back as opposed to the least awful one. It's early days, but so far that's two weak links transformed into nothing of the sort – and not a penny spent in the process.
And that isn’t all. Just ahead of Valencia, Juan Mata - whose Old Trafford career most had written off the second Mourinho signed on the dotted line - has been busily creative and well worth his place in the side over Henrikh Mkhitaryan. On Friday he even got a high five from his boss on the way off the pitch – could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
3. When will England's players shake off their post-Euros hangover?
One of the many, many gripes with England's infamous Golden Generation was how they would shame themselves at a major tournament every other summer before showing up back in Blighty a few short weeks later displaying effortlessly resplendent form, making the previous month seem like a weird nightmare and casting their summer’s work in an even more maddening and mystifying light.
At least the English public have been spared that particular torment this time around; England's new cohort may fail just as miserably as their predecessors, but at least they have the decency to carry their misery into the new season.
Kane's troubles, documented above, can be filed alongside similar ropiness in last year's bat-outta-hell tyros Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy, while the post-Euros weeks have offered precisely nothing to banish the injury angst that dominates any discussion about Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere.
Up in the northwest, Joe Hart's summer of despair has continued apace with a damning ousting from first-team duties, Raheem Sterling's worryingly fruitless wingplay has been overshadowed by goalscoring newcomer Nolito, and Chris Smalling has been relegated from first-choice centre-back to third – though his five competitive minutes so far are five more than Marcus Rashford can claim.
And while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has so far acted as Wayne Rooney’s partner rather than his replacement - and their pairing has even clanked into something vaguely dangerous at times - the England man has also looked cumbersome and clown-footed on more than a few occasions.
Welcome back chaps. It's like you were never away. Of course, there's little doubt that all of these players will come good again – well, most of them – the question is simply: how soon?
4. Can Mike Phelan prove his pedigree?
In the lead-up to this season, all the hype centred around the glittering array of managerial talent that's been drawn into the gravity field (the obscenely lucrative gravity field) of England's top flight. Safe to say, little of that hype involved Mike Phelan.
And yet Phelan currently stands among a quartet of managers who have elicited maximum points from their opening fixtures, his Hull City team sitting just below Pep Guardiola's and Mourinho's in the table, and one spot ahead of Antonio Conte's. So far, no side has a more watertight defence than Hull and only the Manchester juggernauts have scored more, while Phelan's career win percentage (a tidy 100) has left Pep and pals - and even the out-of-work Tim Sherwood - eating their managerial dust.
Taking the helm of a club mired deep in crisis before a ball's been kicked is a miserable task; the fact that Hull had only 13 senior players available for their opening game has been well-aired, but is no less staggering a fact for it. Leading his side to two wins from two – one of those over the reigning champions – can be counted as a minor miracle, and one deserving of proper acclaim.
Hull beat Swansea 2-0 last weekend
Two games into his career, it's difficult to separate untapped managerial excellence from simple pot luck, but some of Phelan's manoeuvres – not least his deployment of Jake Livermore as a forward-striding, ball-playing centre-back – make a sound case for the former. Alongside him, Curtis Davies has been the outstanding player of the first two weeks of the season.
Phelan takes on his former employers this Saturday for a match in which Hull boast almost no obvious advantages. Except, of course, that no one in their right mind is expecting a home win.
5. Will Sean Dyche stem his tide of tedium?
"I saw Nasri talking about the diet Pep Guardiola has brought in. He's stopped pizza – he's a genius already! We've been doing that since I got here. I did it at Watford, so do other English managers.
"There's a bit of spin. There's a thirst from the populace for foreign managers and foreign players. They're more snazzy. 'Let's see what this Belgian manager or this Argentinian manager can do'."
So parped Sean Dyche on the eve of the new season, conveniently overlooking the fact that the world's press may take a keener interest in his own nutritional policies had he too constructed one of the most beautiful and all-conquering teams in sporting history.
With Big Sam’s big ambitions now fully realised and there being no cause for his Little Englander routine these days, Dyche has snatched the baton and is chugging along as fast his legs will take him. Cast a glance at happenings outside football, and you could say that Dyche is simply the voice of the British people in 2016. You could also say that it's his exact brand of boorish, self-involved insularity that’s ushered English football along the path to five decades of chronic failure.
That said, Burnley's win over Liverpool last weekend didn't just encompass a dethroning of one of his much-loathed peers, but, in Allardician parlance, a comprehensive out-tacticking, too. Dyche's win came with the lowest proportion of possession since such numbers were first recorded on these shores. It's these things, rather than belching out narrow-minded nonsense, that might one day get Dyche a seat at the top table. And next up: Stamford Bridge, and another focus of his misdirected ire.
"If you see us doing running drills you'd say, 'An English dinosaur manager. Doesn't know what he's doing'. Under Conte everyone thinks it's amazing," he rambled earlier this month. Despite what he might like to think, at this stage it's only really the blinkered persecution complex than Dyche has in common with his elite-level counterparts. But if he tacticks his way to another big result on Saturday, the difference will at least be marginally less marked.
6. Is Daryl Janmaat actually any good?
One of the oddities about a football club in a state of top-down catastrophe is that, when the inevitable crapness presents itself on the pitch, it’s always tricky to know how to attribute blame.
So when Daryl Janmaat, a highly-rated full-back of decent pedigree, joined Newcastle United and promptly looked like one of the most wretched defenders in the league, it was impossible to know whether his new club had cast their spell of desolation upon another talented and undeserving professional, or whether he was, quite simply, no good.
We may soon have an answer. Watford, heroically undeterred by a season in which Janmaat’s outstanding contribution was to injure his groin falling over in the lead-up to conceding a goal before breaking two fingers punching a wall at half-time, have splashed out £7m on his services.
He’s a lucky boy. And on paper, Walter Mazzari’s 3-5-2 set-up, with all its emphasis on the wide men zooming forward and servicing the front two, should suit the forward-raiding full-back to a tee. He’s already played twice for Newcastle this season, so should be ready to be thrown straight into the side as Arsenal make their way up the M1 on Saturday. It could go either way.
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.