Antonio Conte can show Manchester United what they’re missing

Antonio Conte can show Manchester United what they’re missing

When Manchester United were thrashed 5-0 by Liverpool in October at Old Trafford, the clamor to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and replace Antonio Conte was appalling.

sports postMartin Samuel, head sportswriter, our columnist Micah Richards and Richards’ Sky Sports colleague Jamie Carragher led calls for United to turn to series winner Conte to save their season and ultimately get them back battling for trophies.

Solskjaer would go on for another month, thanks in large part to a 3-0 win over Tottenham a week after Liverpool’s defeat, a result that had a knock-on effect meaning Conte will be in the Spurs dugout and not United’s when the two teams meet on Saturday night at Old Trafford in the Premier League.

While United hesitated, the Spurs acted quickly, sacking Nuno Espirito Santo after just a few months and appointing Conte just three days after United’s defeat on November 2.

Antonio Conte celebrates a goal as Tottenham beat Everton 5-0 on Monday night

 

Antonio Conte celebrates a goal as Tottenham beat Everton 5-0 on Monday night

Eighteen days later, United were embarrassingly beaten 4-1 to relegation fighter Watford and Solskjaer’s time was over when he was sacked the following day. After United appointed a caretaker, Michael Carrick, and then an interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, the question was raised again: Why didn’t they catch Conte weeks earlier?

Carragher wrote in his Telegraph column at the time: ‘Spurs were smart by moving a little early for the excellent Antonio Conte. We will never know if Conte could have been tempted to go to United instead, had they expressed an interest.

“Some say Conte was not the right match for United. Talk to those at the highest football level and there is general bewilderment.

‘What exactly do United want? Are they naive enough to believe that there is another Sir Alex Ferguson who will lead the club in his image for the next 25 years? Wake up! The football world has changed. Those managers no longer exist.”

Jamie Carragher thought Manchester United should have hired Conte in October

 

Jamie Carragher thought Manchester United should have hired Conte in October

When Carragher says that ‘some say Conte was not the right match for United’, he clearly points his words to Sky colleague and sparring partner Gary Neville, who insisted the Italian was not the right match for United.

Neville echoed that stance when he was challenged by Richards after United’s 4-1 derby smashed into Manchester City on Sunday.

“They should have gone for Conte,” Richards said in a heated debate. “Conte was available before he went to Spurs and he was the best manager available at the time.

“Just because he doesn’t fit in the ‘Man United way’, he didn’t get in? The “Man United way” no longer exists; they don’t win trophies.

“Conte is a winner. He comes over from Inter Milan. Does United not want winners now? He wins. He wins!’

Micah Richards (second from right) and Gary Neville (far left) had a heated argument over Conte

 

Micah Richards (second from right) and Gary Neville (far left) had a heated argument over Conte

Neville shot back: ‘United didn’t want Conte. Conte is not a manager of Manchester United, he comes in for a year or two and leaves.

United have been there with Jose Mourinho. They want to name [Mauricio] pochettino or [Erik] Ten Hag working on a long-term project, but needed someone to get them until the end of the season.’

Ralf Rangnick struggles to impose a new style on Manchester United

 

Ralf Rangnick struggles to impose a new style on Manchester United

So, several months after Conte and Rangnick were in charge of Spurs and United, who was right?

There is little to divide between the two records in the Premier League. Conte have taken the Spurs from eighth to seventh with 30 points from 16 games in the lead, while Rangnick has moved United from seventh to fifth with 26 points from 14 games.

Off to a brilliant start in the Premier League, Conte only lost in his 10th game in charge, but since then the Spurs have lost four out of seven, prompting the emotional Italian to retire after losing to Burnley last month. That defeat came just three days after the pinnacle of his reign so far, a 3-2 win over champions Manchester City, and rather summed up the up and down nature of Conte’s Spurs thus far.

Rangnick’s United, on the other hand, was consistently average. He has not let United outperform Solskjaer, but the results have improved. The hallmark of his interim administration, however, was too many draws – five in the league – in games United were expected to win.

However, where Conte and Tottenham are ahead of Rangnick and United is the development of a long-term project. The Spurs are settled in his trademark 3-4-2-1 formation, which landed him the title at Chelsea in 2017, while new signings Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur are beginning to sleep well. The Spurs only look a few good defensive signings to fight for the title again.

United, on the other hand, have been on hiatus since Solskjaer left. The players are usually the same and the football usually looks the same. Rangnick has tried to implement a very urgent game to clear the way for a new manager in the form of Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel, but most players have not responded well. Whoever replaces Rangnick in the summer will be back to square one, with a much-needed overhaul of the squad.

Tottenham must qualify for the Champions League to keep Harry Kane (right) happy

 

Tottenham must qualify for the Champions League to keep Harry Kane (right) happy

The Spurs are just two points behind United in the table with two games in hand and the symbolism of usurping them in their own stadium on Saturday would not be lost to Conte. He would certainly have taken United’s job if he had been offered it in October, and United fans would certainly have adopted his counterattack style from a half-baked urgent philosophy if it produced results.

The challenge for Conte now is to bring consistency to Tottenham from Saturday. Given their games in hand, a draw wouldn’t be a bad result, but a loss would be a huge blow to their top four hopes with Arsenal in ominous form.

If the Spurs don’t make it to the Champions League next season, Conte can expect Harry Kane to knock on his door and ask for a summer transfer, and suddenly the progress he’s made since November begins to fade.

 

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