5 Questions That Need to Be Answered in the Premier League This Weekend

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2017

Losing Alvara Morata is a body blow for Chelsea with the Spain international having proven an instant hit.
Losing Alvara Morata is a body blow for Chelsea with the Spain international having proven an instant hit.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

How Will Chelsea Cope Without Alvaro Morata and N'Golo Kante?

Having replaced the bull with the matador, it was all going pretty well for Chelsea post-Diego Costa, as Alvaro Morata settled seamlessly into the pace of the Premier League.

Despite a resume that houses trophy-laden stints at both Real Madrid and Juventus, reservations lingered over whether football's best supporting actor could cut it as a leading man. Six goals in as many league starts acted as swift, sharp slap to the chops for those who look upon the Premier League the way a mother does a newborn child.

Devotion can be blinding. As it transpires, the goals are the same shape and size over here as they are over there.

Morata's strike in Chelsea's immaculate away win at Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League took on even greater symbolism, as Costa sat in the stands with the classic rictus expression of a man who claims he wants his ex-wife to be happy (just not with another man). Think Larry David's incredulity when Ted Danson asks to date Cheryl in the latest series of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

With Morata looking like a star, the sight of him hobbling off against Manchester City prior to the international break, clutching his hamstring, was cruel. Spain's medical team said he had suffered a Grade 2 tear (h/t BBC Sport), which could mean as much as an eight-week lay-off.

Morata and Chelsea have since intimated the injury is not as serious as first feared, according to Dominic Fifield of the Guardian. Though what is not in dispute is just one fit senior striker will be available to Blues boss Antonio Conte for Saturday's game against Crystal Palace.

Having scored a goal every 62 minutes for Chelsea across his sparse Premier League and Champions League appearances, it's fair to say Michy Batshuayi etches his name on the scoresheet more often than he does his manager's thoughts. Conte will probably give Stamford the Lion a run sooner than he would the Belgian. Still, he must be sorely tempted to let Batshuayi loose against a Palace side low on confidence.

The alternative is letting Eden Hazard meander, which could be what he opts for on Wednesday when Chelsea take on AS Roma. Against Manchester City, when Hazard and Willian shared the burden up top as a composite centre-forward when Morata went off injured, it did not reflect well on the "tired of experts" brigade. False strikers are not always better than real ones.

Should Chelsea fail to pick up all three points at Selhurst Park, Conte will remind the press how his board failed to deliver for him over the summer in terms of recruitment before his players have finished in the shower. Rumour has it he still carries a photo of Fernando Llorente in his wallet.

A further blow to Chelsea is the indefatigable N'Golo Kante has suffered his first injury since moving to England two-and-a-bit seasons ago. One would have had money on an exploded lung being the reason for his absence. Alas, like Morata, he is more plainly hamstrung by his hamstring.

Though unprecedented, it hardly needs great prescience to predict the best player in his position for two seasons running will be sorely missed.


Will Spurs Finally Put Talk of a Wembley Curse to Bed?

The idea Tottenham Hotspur would win the Premier League if they had to play all their games away from home is decidedly less fanciful than it sounds. Mauricio Pochettino's side travel well but are pallid in comparison when stationed at their temporary Wembley Stadium residence. There has been more than the odd weird weekend under the arch for Spurs.

Conversely, they have won all five of their away games this season in all competitions, scoring three or more in four of them. It extends a winning run on their travels to seven games and counting, with a remarkable 27 goals scored and just four conceded.

Tottenham kicked off their Wembley campaign with a defeat to Chelsea in their second league game of the season before a 1-1 stalemate against Burnley had talk of a hoodoo resurfacing. A blistering 3-1 Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund in mid-September looked to be the signature performance everyone at the club craved. A 0-0 draw against Swansea City three days later was definitely not.

Saturday's game against Bournemouth is, on paper, the proverbial home banker. The past four meetings with the Cherries have seen Spurs rack up 12 goals, with Harry Kane probably quietly confident of nabbing at least half that amount for himself on Saturday.

Nine goals in his past five matches (he has 15 for club and country combined already this season) include one at Wembley for England against Slovenia, but he has yet to score in three Premier League games at the national stadium for Spurs this term. Having scored on average a goal every 72 minutes in 2017, it would take a braver person than me, or probably Asmir Begovic, to bet against him doing so again on Saturday.

In January last year, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said of his own team's temporary use of Wembley for European fixtures between 1998 and 2000, per James Olley of the Evening Standard: "It was a nightmare. In hindsight, it was the wrong decision.

"We decided to go to Wembley, but we didn't feel at home. The pitch was bigger, the ground was different and for the English players it was something completely unusual."

Given Spurs' success under Pochettino has largely been built on their ability to press sides into submission, there's little doubt such a huge pitch puts them at a disadvantage. White Hart Lane housed the second-smallest pitch in the Premier League. Wembley represents the second biggest.

Nothing seems to stoke the fire under Pochettino more than talk of a hoodoo or that his players are overwhelmed, but the numbers make for grim reading. Since 2007, Tottenham's record in matches played at Wembley reads thus: four wins, three draws and eight defeats.

You don't win the Premier League title with a home record like that.


Will Romelu Lukaku Prove His Big-Game Credentials?

First comes the disclaimer. Whatever the numbers may suggest, and there will be plenty dissected in due course, the accusation Romelu Lukaku is a flat-track bully is a misnomer. And even if he is, as a goalscorer, it's like trying to hurt a ballet dancer by decrying how light they are on their feet.

Last season, disregarding games against the top five, Jose Mourinho's side dropped points against Watford, Stoke City (twice), Burnley, West Ham United, Everton (twice), Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City and Southampton. Lukaku scored 10 goals against those clubs.

Last season, Bournemouth scored more than United in the league. This term, the Cherries have netted 17 fewer than Mourinho's men in just seven matches. At 24, Lukaku is six goals shy of becoming Belgium's all-time leading goalscorer.

He is as close as it gets to a guarantee of goals.

The only numbers that will interest Manchester United supporters are gloriously impressive. For club and country this season, the Belgian has scored 16 goals in just 13 appearances, with 11 in 10 his record for United. A man who, at the start of the summer, was seen by many to be a living, breathing embodiment of the game having gone is now a gentle reminder of a quainter time when it was still possible to bag a bargain.

Laughter is no longer heard at Mourinho's suggestion United were the early bird that caught the worm.

In his first 10 matches for United he has failed to score in just one of them, against Leicester City in a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. A goal against Liverpool on Saturday, as Mourinho takes his side to Anfield for the biggest and most widely anticipated game of the season, would see Lukaku make his own a record he shares with Andy Cole.

Both scored seven goals in their first seven league games for the club. It's probably not the record you would necessarily want etched on your gravestone, but it's impressive nonetheless.

The five goals Lukaku has scored in 11 previous appearances against Liverpool—encompassing stints at West Bromwich Albion and Everton—hardly screams flat-track bully. Though according to Opta, he has failed to land a shot on target in five of his past seven games against Liverpool.

Since making his debut in English football in 2011, Lukaku has scored 115 goals in 229 games. That would be a handy record if he played in a league where there is a bell in the ball. Sergio Aguero remains the only player to have outscored him over the past five years.

Still, that 21 of his 25 Premier League goals for Everton last season came against sides occupying the bottom 13 places leads many a pundit to wistfully ponder whether he is a "top, top player."

Another piece of evidence often proffered in the case for the prosecution denotes how prior to this season he had scored just 15 goals in 57 matches against the "top six." While it was unlikely to be a record brought up by his representatives in negotiations with Red Devils executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, thus far in a United shirt he has netted against Everton in the league and Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

Should it be a surprise his record against those that occupy the top echelons of the Premier League mirrors the respective struggles of West Brom and Everton in these matches? It's disputable whether Kane would have such an enviable tally in comparison had he been at either of the aforementioned clubs rather than Tottenham.

There's little doubt Manchester United will drag Lukaku up just as much as he will them. Prior to his £75 million move, he had played for clubs that finished eighth, fifth, 11th, 11th and seventh respectively in the past five Premier League seasons.

It's not just Lukaku who has had his credentials questioned against the big boys. On their travels last season, United scored just once against their main rivals, with a 2-1 defeat at Tottenham representing their solitary contribution to the scoresheet.

With Liverpool having no alternative way to play other than on the front foot, it should suit United to a T in being able to sit, soak and counter—that's if they can withstand an inevitable early onslaught.

A Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Anfield would be the perfect stage for both Lukaku and United to prove they may be bullies, just not of the flat-track variety.


Can Everton Ease Pressure on Ronald Koeman?

It's all gone a bit quiet on the Ronald Koeman-to-Barcelona front. Despite having spent the summer starring in a £145 million remake of Brewster's Millions Farhad Moshiri's billions, the Dutchman still found time to flex his cherubic dimples in the direction of Catalonia.

Should he fail to arrest Everton's slump in the next few weeks, he may find gaining independence on Merseyside is a lot easier than it is in his spiritual home.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Even withstanding Lukaku's departure, hefty investment should have been just the catalyst to build on last season's campaign of no little promise. But the Lukaku cash looks to have facilitated the worst shopping trip since Tottenham spent £110 million on the not-so-magnificent seven (Paulinho, Christian Eriksen—admittedly a magnificent buy at £11.5 million—Roberto Soldado, Nacer Chadli, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches and Erik Lamela) to offset Gareth Bale's £85.3 million switch to Real Madrid.

Last season, Koeman had a side with personality that lacked a little finesse. This term, hovering above the drop zone with just seven points from as many matches, they have a smidgen more finesse but no personality. That it all looks horribly confused is no surprise given their signings over the summer were clearly far too similar.

The club's record signing at £45 million, Gylfi Sigurdsson has yet to record either an assist or goal in the Premier League. In no small part it is down to his shunting out wider than he likes, just as he was during his time at Tottenham. With Wayne Rooney anointed as Koeman's chugger creator-in-chief, Sigurdsson is neat and peripheral. Davy Klaassen is just peripheral.

In assembling a new band Koeman has signed three lead guitarists and not bothered with a frontman. It might well cost him his job.

Finding a regular goalscorer is probably the hardest thing to do in the Premier League. Punting on Sandro Ramirez and Nikola Vlasic being adequate replacements for Lukaku is like losing a Michelin-starred chef and blindly hoping the guy from the chippy and lass with the kebab shop will be able to make the step up in class. They have managed a solitary goal between them.

Oumar Niasse is the club's joint-leading goalscorer, with three, having been found down the back of the sofa when Koeman was searching for his reputation.

In seven league games, they have managed just four goals. Koeman, in fairness, will point to the cruelest of fixture lists having pitted them against Manchester City, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea already. Disregarding for a minute how this is still a side in the early stages of transition, these are the type of teams Everton anticipated they would be able to compete with by spending handsomely. At the minute, they are as close to the big boys as they are the moon.

At the back they are not much cop, either, despite having spent over £50 million on Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane. Only Crystal Palace and West Ham United have conceded more than the 12 Everton have shipped.

Next up in the league are away days in Brighton and Leicester City, with a home date with Arsenal sandwiched between. At the end of that lot, maybe even before, Koeman and Everton supporters should have a better understanding of what kind of owner Mr Moshiri intends to be.


Can Anyone Slow the Manchester City Juggernaut?

Since the final month of last season, Manchester City have won 13 of 14 matches, with an aggregate score of 45-5. To date this term, they have scored more goals than any of their Premier League rivals and conceded the joint-fewest. A defence so porous every colander in the business bid to be their sleeve sponsor over the summer has kept four consecutive clean sheets in the league for the first time since September 2015.

That City have enjoyed the most possession (63.8 per cent) and have the best pass accuracy (88.6 per cent) is no surprise, but for a Pep Guardiola team to have won the most aerial duels shows perhaps he is adapting to English football just as English football is adapting to him.

In Europe, they have been no less impressive. Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk have been brushed aside, with City scoring six without reply.

The most ruthless performance of the season saw City vanquish Liverpool 5-0; the most measured resulted in a 1-0 win at Chelsea prior to the international break. None of Benjamin Mendy, Vincent Kompany or Sergio Aguero were fit for the game at Stamford Bridge. None of them were needed.

Ominously for the chasing pack, City's eight league fixtures between now and the Manchester derby at Old Trafford on December 9 sees them play only Arsenal (at home) of last season's top seven.

City went to Chelsea as the first top-flight side since 1958-59 to win three successive games by five goals or more. On Saturday, they chase another record as Stoke City head to the Etihad Stadium looking to avoid becoming the third successive side to leave Manchester with only a 5-0 defeat to show for their efforts.

Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea in 2010 were the only other Premier League side to achieve three successive home wins by at least five goals (winning 8-0, 6-0 and 6-0 across two seasons).

Guardiola will be mindful not to take too many chances with his lineup, even taking into account a delicious-looking dinner date with Napoli on Tuesday. Are there two more easy-on-the-eye sides in Europe?

Stoke boss Mark Hughes' record at the Etihad against the club he managed between 2008 and 2009 is quietly impressive. The Welshman was the architect of a 1-0 win there for Stoke back in 2014, and while they were thumped 4-0 the following year, last season saw his side execute a fine defensive display to grind out a goalless draw.

It is far from impossible Hughes will prove the measure of Guardiola again on Saturday. For betting purposes, however, it would be remiss not to advise the Welshman will in all likelihood end up behaving exactly like the gentleman below (contains profanity). Working out how to stop this Manchester City side in full bloom is not for the easily frustrated.


All stats worked out via WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.


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