Sometimes a loss can be so traumatizing that it is burned into your memory and you’ll never forget it as long as you live.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of our rented Peugeot 206, listening to the radio as my friend Carl raced down the Autobahn on our road trip from Berlin to Paris.
To stay on our travel schedule and ensure that Carl -- who did all the driving because I can’t drive a manual -- would not have to make the trip in the middle of the night, I traded watching the first matchup of the 2016-17 season between Chelsea and Manchester United for listening to it on the radio instead.
I’m sure that last sentence elicited an overhanging feeling of darkness as you remember that four goal slaughter at Stamford Bridge. I know I listened in horror as José Mourinho’s return to Chelsea was immediately met with a first minute goal from Pedro before Gary Cahill, Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté all stuck it to the Red Devils.
My reasoning for making us all relive the single worst loss of that season -- and possibly of Mourinho’s tenure at United -- is the man who orchestrated that defeat is also the man who is second on the bettor’s odds to succeed Mourinho.
That’s right. The oddsmakers anticipate that Antonio Conte will take the helm of United if Zinedine Zidane turns down Ed Woodward.
The obvious narrative that the masses will latch on to is Manchester United switching out a former title-winning former Chelsea manager who grinds down his players and never stays at a club for more than a few years for the Italian iteration of that same manager.
However, storyline aside, Conte is a proven winner who may earn silverware, if only in a stopgap capacity.
The aforementioned 4-0 demolition of United was made possible by Conte’s 3-4-3 system that was responsible for Chelsea’s scorched earth march to the Premier League title during the 2016-17 season.
Conte utilized a three man backline and two center midfielders to win individual matchups and immediately play the ball out to the wingbacks or forwards. The attack was built around overloading certain areas of the pitch to open up room for one-on-one matchups for either the lone striker at the top or the other forwards.
When Chelsea lost the ball, the formation would quickly transition to a 5-4-1 as the wingbacks dropped back to cover the centerbacks while the two center midfielders patrolled the defensive half to turnover the opponent and reinitiate the attack.
The system’s success was predicated on the formation’s spine and aggressive hustle plays. David Luiz often played the middle centerback role who would push the ball up to the midfield while César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill covered his flanks. Kanté and current Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matić played specific roles in the midfield with Matić capable of playing creative passes around the field while Kanté could erase any player using his world class man-marking abilities.
Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses moved the ball up the wings and linked up with the forwards for overlapping runs, but they were both capable of also making inside runs. A combination of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro acted as supporting forwards for lone striker Diego Costa. They would combine with Alonso and Moses in the the build-up play, or they could press the opposing backlines on the counter while receiving the ball quickly from the center or the wings.
At Old Trafford, Conte would have to navigate personnel deficiencies at key positions if he employed this system with the current Manchester United roster.
As explored in the first piece of this series that highlighted Zidane, Manchester United’s backline is adequate at best and flirting with relegation zone quality at worst.
Victor Lindelöf has the potential to take over the Luiz role in the middle as he may have the best ball skills of the current centerbacks. However, he has yet to prove that he is a consistent and capable Premier League level defender and he will need to improve considerably as an individual defender. Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones are Conte’s other options as centerbacks and he will likely want to upgrade.
Unfortunately for United’s war chest, the market for competent defenders capable of aiding in build-up play through passing and dribbling is considerably inflated following transfers like Virgil Van Dijk’s £75 million move to Liverpool.
If we operate in fantasy land, maybe the best player to run the middle of the defense would be 25 year-old Raphaël Varane from Real Madrid. However, a transfer fee nearing nine figures would probably be required to pilfer the French international from the Santiago Bernabéu. United could show up its direct spending rivals across town with the ultimate flex and pay Varane’s reported €200 million transfer fee.
It would be more financially palatable for United to resume its pursuit of summer 2018 transfer target, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld. The Belgian veteran is capable as a defender and can mimic the skills of a defensive midfielder when he’s required to play up in the formation. Since the 29 year-old still appears to be out of favor with his current manager, he is an attainable player that wouldn’t require the Glazer family to sell the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to afford the move.
Luke Shaw has the talent ceiling to become a reliable defender on the wing like Alonso but he hasn’t showcased comparable consistency. We’ve seen Shaw employed in a wingback role this season and his performance in the season opener against Leicester City showed that he could potentially operate the left wing for Conte. However, Shaw’s partner on the right, would be a pair of 33 year-old fullbacks in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young -- both experienced extreme variance of form over the calendar year.
Conte may want to attempt bringing on Alonso as an unlikely solution on the wing for United after the Spaniard appeared to defend Conte late last season. While the precedent was set that Chelsea could sell players to United after Matić joined the Red Devils before last season, Chelsea are primed for a deep title challenge under new manager Maurizio Sarri and Alonso admitted contract extension talks this week.
Manchester United’s crop of midfielders is more adaptable to Conte’s system than the current defenders. Matić already knows the system after helping Conte win the Premier League while Pogba played under Conte when the manager was at the helm of Juventus -- Pogba racked up nine goals and 16 assists across all competitions for Conte during the 2013-14 season. Kanté’s motor in the midfield is irreplaceable, but the combination of Pogba and newcomer Fred could cover the surface area that Kanté normally dominates.
While we’d all like to see Alexis Sánchez and Anthony Martial thrive in the roles previously dominated by Hazard and Willian, the two players’ inability to mesh with Mourinho will likely resurface under Conte. If the two can’t coalesce with Conte, offloading Sánchez and Martial’s sour dispositions in the transfer market could open up new financial possibilities as United look to make replacements.
Of course, replacing Hazard is virtually impossible and replacing Willian is a difficult proposition too. Conte will instead need to rely on United’s home-grown, young attackers to grow into similar roles.
Jesse Lingard’s work ethic will afford plenty of favor from Conte on the training pitch and during matches. The versatile attacking midfielder could fill one of the forward positions because of his ability to shoot from range or combine with the other forwards during build-up play.
Marcus Rashford can replicate the pace that Hazard brings to the left side but will need to vastly improve his finishing abilities to make the same impact as the Belgian attacker. Ultimately, Rashford needs more playing time to work on his consistency and grow. The question will be: does Conte have the patience to facilitate that growth?
Romelu Lukaku will occupy the top of Conte’s attack like Costa before him. The Belgian striker has a similar build and can bully opposing defenders when he feels like it. Lukaku will need to improve on his first touch to keep the ball closer to his body and beat the one on one matchups opened up by the overloading forward play of his teammates.
A thread that will continue to crop up during this series of managerial ponderings is United’s need to make some personnel changes. Between aging veterans and disillusioned talents, the Red Devils will likely be on the hook to spend more money in the upcoming transfer windows.
The best way to justify the expense of another round of roster revamping is to make sure the next manager is the one to take on the project and see it through. With this in mind, along with the realization that United is choosing its fourth manager since 2013, it seems unrealistic that Woodward and the United board would approve the signing of Conte.
The likelihood of Conte lasting more than two or three years is simply not a fact that can be gleaned from his managerial history. Therefore, it would be an act of negligence by club leadership to hire Conte when continuity and a lack thereof has defined the Fergie and post-Fergie eras. If Conte is brought on as the next manager of Manchester United, someone will be writing another series of articles like this one as soon as 2020, and we’ll all watch a parody press conference with the United crest on the backdrop and updated subtitles.