Stall is away on vacation with his family for the next couple weeks, so I'm filling in for his weekly preview piece. Let's take a look at some of the stories developing as we head into Week 10:
1. Can Chelsea become the next 'Invincibles'?
The 9-10 match point of the season is typically a good indication of how the remainder of the season will shape up, with the clubs near the top of the table likely to claim spots in the top half of the table, and vice versa for the clubs sitting in the relegation zone. As of right now, it's beginning to look like a one-club race at the top of the table as Chelsea have been dominant in the early stages of this season. Only two teams in English League history have completed a campaign without losing: Preston North End in the 1880s, and Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles' team from 2003-2004. Chelsea have yet to suffer a defeat in their opening 9 matches, including games against both Manchester clubs. The additions of Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa appear to have been the final pieces of Jose Mourinho's puzzle, and if the trio can stay on the pitch together it's not difficult to see the West London club cruising to the title. The question is, can they be beaten?
2. At what point do we stop considering Southampton's form surprising?
Our resident Saints fan 1998jjb posted an astounding statistic in the live chat thread from this weekend: In exactly 5 years, Southampton have ascended from the bottom of the table in League One in 2009 to second place in the Premier League in 2014. It's a truly miraculous climb up one of the most difficult systems in all of sports, and to achieve such an impressive position in such a short space of time is beyond impressive. This season in particular has been a big surprise, with many pundits and casual fans tipping the Saints to struggle after losing quite a few of their big-name players from last season, including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, along with manager Mauricio Pochettino. Ronald Koeman and new additions like Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Fraser Forster have led the Saints to reaching distance of the top of the table and have rightly attracted a lot of attention for their "amazing start" to the season. Now that a quarter of the season is gone, however, is it time to start considering them true contenders for a Champions League spot?
3. Can West Ham mount a challenge for European football next season?
Another surprise team near the top of the league, Sam Allardyce's new-look Hammers side have felled last season's top two teams in Liverpool and Manchester City on their way to their 4th place spot in the table heading into Week 10. Attacking additions like Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho, along with a new role for Stewart Downing, have changed the way the London club approach the game, and to great effect. With a fairly welcoming schedule heading into the new year, can West Ham keep their momentum going and put in a legitimate bid to be blowing bubbles in the Europa League heading into next season?
4. Does Wayne Rooney deserve to come straight back into the United starting lineup?
With his 3-match suspension for kicking Stewart Downing at its end ahead of Week 10, Manchester United's captain will be eager to get back onto the pitch and contribute more positively for the Red Devils. Louis van Gaal's men have been playing pretty good attacking football without the England striker, however, with Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria all contributing to United's undefeated run during Rooney's absence. With other players like Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata also stepping up, does Wayne deserve to play from the start in the Manchester Derby? Or, conversely, can van Gaal afford to leave the star striker on the bench in one of the season's biggest games?
5. Which manager will be the first to be sacked this season?
The advent of a new Premier League season brings with it the never-ending media maelstrom around the League's most under-pressure men: the managers. Early indications this season pointed to Alan Pardew getting the sack after his Newcastle side sat at the bottom of the table after the first 7 weeks of the season, but consecutive victories may have spared the Geordies boss for the time being. Burnley's struggles are apparent for everyone to see, but does 'The Ginger Mourinho' Sean Dyche have any culpability for the lack of goals that is so obviously due to a lack of investment in the squad? Can Gus Poyet survive the Black Cats' 8-0 defeat to Southampton if Sunderland don't add to their points tally in the next few weeks? Finally, after his Aston Villa side suffered a fifth consecutive defeat without scoring a goal, is Paul Lambert on the proverbial hot seat at the moment?
6. Who has been the best newcomer to the Premier League so far this season?
When I first wrote this question, I thought the answer might be too simple. Diego Costa's goalscoring form has been transformative for Chelsea, but would he be the powerhouse he has been without the service he's received from Cesc Fabregas? Has Angel Di Maria's arrival saved a faltering Manchester United side's hopes at a Champion's League place? Has Dusan Tadic made you forget about how important Adam Lallana was for Southampton last season? Does Diafra Sakho deserve to be spoken about with the same respect given to Chelsea's Brazilian-Spaniard striker? Is there another player who gets your vote as the best player in his first season in the top flight of English football?