After a desultory performance against arch-rivals Liverpool that saw the Reds concede five goals in 50 minutes and score none in 90, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time as Manchester United manager should be up. There’s a case to be made that this was arguably the most mortifying defeat for any side in Premier League history and United’s greatest humbling in its long storied history.
But there aren’t a bevy of suitors and Manchester United’s bumbling board did not anticipate the implosion despite the warning signs. Latest reports suggest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will take the wheel for the game on the weekend against Tottenham Hotspur despite the whirring reports that players have lost faith in his methods.
The feeling is that they’re sounding out candidates and will trundle to a decision before the next international break.
In this series, we’re going to look at potential replacements for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Let’s start by looking at the current favourite on SkyBet at 8/11.
Let’s first debunk the myth that Antonio Conte is like Jose Mourinho. That’s everyone’s big fear and let’s use that template to explain who he is and who he isn’t.
The Italian’s teams don’t play like Jose Mourinho. Jose Mourinho is a reactive coach. Antonio Conte’s side are popular for their defensive nous — something Jose Mourinho’s sides haven’t been for a while —but he’s not a reactive coach.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are also good defensive coaches. Like them, his sides are quite identifiable. There’s an argument to be made that his sides are even more popular for the automatisms that they showcase in possession than his contemporaries. In a different sense, he’s closer to Louis van Gaal.
So why does it not feel that way and why are there greater comparisons to the Portuguese? Why do his teams not have the reputation of others?
Well, this is mostly because Antonio Conte’s sides are unlikely to press high up the pitch in every game like the sides of Guardiola and Klopp. They press in most games and should set up a little higher in home games but will make adjustments if needed and drop to the middle or defensive third.
Now, United fans might say that this would go against the attacking ideals at the club but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is also a reactive manager and his methods have been received well from the majority.
Antonio Conte’s title-winning Chelsea team scored more goals than all but two of United’s teams under Sir Alex. United were also on the receiving end of a 4-0 mauling at the Bridge in the same year.
Sir Alex’s sides under Carlos Quieroz were also reactive but it wasn’t felt at the time because most of the top managers at the time were reactive. Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, and Carlo Ancelotti were some of the leading figures in management at the time. Arsene Wenger was the poster boy for attacking football. Things have changed since.
Does he not play only one formation?
That isn’t the only recognizable pattern with Antonio Conte’s sides. He seemingly prefers formations that involve a back 3. But if you look a bit closer into his career, he’s never really been wedded to any formation. In fact, his thesis at Coverciano (the fabled coaching school in Italy) was titled “Considerations on the 4-3-1-2 and the didactic use of video”. However, it’s true that the back 3 formations have brought him a lot of success.
When Conte gained popularity around the continent for the undefeated season at Juventus in 2011/12, large parts of that season involved a 4-3-3 formation. During his first stint as a manager at Arezzo, he used a 4-2-4 formation. Conte has also been seen celebrating this formation on his Instagram account when posting a clip of Inter recently, who famously played under a back 3 under him for the last two seasons.
This gives credence to the idea that formations on paper don’t really matter much. Phases in and out of possession and in attacking and defensive transition are never the same.
How’s he as a man manager?
His management techniques have also been compared to Jose Mourinho. Jose Mourinho in his best years commanded a loyalty that few managers have ever had. However, in recent years, his confrontational style has turned quite sour. Antonio Conte doesn’t want to be your friend. He’s going to rule with an iron fist from day one.
Conte’s closer to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket than the snarky Machiavelian figure of Jose Mourinho. In a sense, he’s more like a Ferguson or Clough figure but he’s unlikely to partake in mind games with opposition managers or his players.
When Antonio Conte says he wants to kill you, he means it. If a manager takes a sly dig at him, he won’t respond with a witty remark. He’ll call you senile.
What about the youth and what if he doesn’t play the players we’ve come to love?
This will be a bit of a predicament. He’s not that bad with young players. Just ask a teenage Paul Pogba. Achraf Hakimi was outstanding under him last season and Alessandro Bastoni ousted Diego Godin as well.
The bigger issue that United fans might have to confront with Conte is that a lot of players that fans have grown to like might not be a part of his plans if they don’t fit his system. He’s a manager who’s almost always going to have a fixed 11 with a few regulars coming off the bench.
But those who fit that system are likely to play some of their best football under him. Antonio Conte is a master at masking a player’s weakness and highlighting their strengths.
Paul Pogba always played as a left midfielder under Conte in those years, dovetailing nicely with left wing-back Kwadwo Asamoah. Eden Hazard was used in a similar manner. Speaking of wing-backs, Ashley Young saw a late renaissance in his career as a left wing-back.
Romelu Lukaku was used to great effect in a front two on his preferred right side during his two years at Inter. Andrea Pirlo’s reputation saw a massive bump as a deep-lying playmaker after working under Conte.
When Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante got overrun in midfield by Arsenal in a famous 3-0 loss in his first season at Chelsea, he switched things up half-time. That switch led to a title-winning run and the Serbian’s lack of legs were long forgotten.
Nemanja Matic’s legs might not matter if he comes in now. Now, it isn’t necessary that Conte will still find a use for his former players. They might’ve changed since he’s managed them and the same can be said for him.
United have a bloated squad and some probably need selling, anyway. United might have to navigate this by sending players that aren’t part of his plans on loan to get valuable minutes.
Does he have the players to play a back 3 formation?
If he is to play any variant of a back 3 formation, the right wing-back option stands out like a sore thumb. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot are the current right-back options and neither seem to have the quality to play that role effectively.
But Antonio Conte sees something in players that many others fail to. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he uses Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, or Bruno Fernandes in that role. This seems evidently bizarre but will it matter if United are a good team again?
All of them have some attributes that can be helpful in a wider role since wing-backs are primarily in the side as two of the wide attackers. Perhaps Ethan Laird will get called up in January.
Champions League hoodoo
His record in the Champions League isn’t great. It’s hard to explain why this is the case. The argument can be made that his sides play in one way and a flexible opponent with similar quality might take advantage of that but Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have mostly been a similar outfit for years and with mostly the same 11 with a few variations depending on personnel.
Klopp’s teams seem to have a fixture proof nature until they face Diego Simeone’s side and that’s always felt like the ceiling for a Conte side. Conte is well capable of building sides that are good in and out of possession and good in attacking and defensive transition. That’s what the best sides do.
If he wants to overcome some of the margins that have eluded him, it’ll mostly be a matter of having that extra quality that some of his former teams might’ve lacked. This United side has loads of quality and he could maybe break that hoodoo with this squad. Champions League games like most cup competitions are too random for reason, anyway.
The board and long-term affects
We now know Antonio Conte is a great manager and that his celebrations will endear him to even his greatest doubters but there are concerns that it’ll never work with the Glazers.
He’s not a diplomat. He won’t adhere to the boardroom politics at the club. Now, that doesn’t have much to do with United. He’s like that at every club. He did sue Chelsea and did have a fractious relationship with the Juventus board before resigning but that didn’t really affect the first team.
Some might highlight the game against City in his second season in London, where it looked like his players were walking about in the final minutes of the game but he still got a tune out of them in the FA Cup final in that very season to leave on a high.
There’s a sense that he leaves a mess at each club but that’s far from the truth. Juventus were winning titles during his time in charge and for a while later. Maurizio Sarri didn’t inherit a mess at Chelsea either. Inter Milan might not win the Scudetto this year but that’s got more to do with financial issues at the club. They’re sitting comfortably in 3rd place after losing their talisman. It’s never really been a disaster.
So, what exactly will United be hiring him for?
Winning isn’t guaranteed when a club is eight points behind the table-toppers with a goal difference of 1 and competing in the league against some of the best sides in Europe.
An 18-month contract wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino signed contracts of similar length at their current clubs before signing extensions. Conte might even leave of his own volition.
It’ll allow United to look at someone else if the targets aren’t met. The urge to get someone more pleasing on the eye will be difficult to resist when that time comes but that’s where United’s new set-up with John Murtough and Darren Fletcher will have come in and prove that the set-up isn’t just a gimmick.
United have mired themselves in a strange situation where there are some players for the now like Cristiano Ronaldo, some players in their peak like Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernades, and some players who the club should ideally be building the future around like Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood.
Something will have to give and it’s impossible to predict who will be most affected if he were to arrive but Ole Gunnar Soslkjaer hasn’t helped some of these players in recent weeks either. United need to show some direction now cause the weight of some of these players is sinking a ship that was steady for two years.
Antonio Conte might just be capable of throwing a few into the sea and help United get closer to competing for silverware this season and the next.
Disclaimer: These are the views of the author