So it looks like Antonio Conte has been and gone. Passed Manchester United by like a ship in the night.
The Italian was there and available. Open to the job, too. But instead of pouncing for the elite-level coach in the aftermath of United’s humiliating 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, they have instead opted to stick with Ole Gunnar Solskaer.
The Norwegian responded well against Tottenham. Reverting back to a more solid back three formation that has served him well in the past, which alleviated the team’s issues in defence and midfield.
But will it last?
Atalanta and Manchester City are to come. United may well win both those games, too. But they have had good results against the big sides under Solskjaer before, they have gone on lengthy winning streaks before, yet the cycle continues. Eventually, there will be another bad run, another heavy defeat and we’ll be back here once again.
Solskjaer will be on the chopping block and the players, owed to his great man-management — will fight for him, pull out a result when he needs it most, and on we go.
Nothing will ever be won. No more progress will be made. It feels like purgatory. Limbo.
This is not to be overly critical of Solskjaer. He was the right man at the right time to reinstate United’s ethos and clear the dark clouds brought by Jose Mourinho. But that time has ended. He has taken them as far as he can. There is no shame in that.
In a bit of a masterstroke on his own part, though, Solskjaer masterminded such a resounding victory over Tottenham that two days later they have sacked Nuno Espirito Santo and now appear to be on the verge of hiring the man who looked likely to take his place.
It may not serve him too well, though, if Conte quickly gets Spurs’ act together and earns them a top-four spot instead of United.
Failing to qualify for the Champions League, and losing the money that brings, seems like the only thing that may actually see the Norwegian lose his job.
With Conte now seemingly off the table — whether you think he would be the right fit or not — the best option United would have to bring in as a new manager is no longer available. As a result, there would be little point in United sacking Solskjaer this season.
All the other prime candidates are already in work and the only one who isn’t, Zinedine Zidane, looks intent on taking a break from the game.
It may leave United’s board in a sticky situation if City give them a hiding at Old Trafford next week, but they’ve made their bed now.
The only real option, other than continuing to back Solskjaer even into next season, would be to wait for the summer and see if a certain Mauricio Pochettino becomes available.
United could have had him in 2019 but hired Solskjaer permanently instead, and again in the summer of 2020. That time they made an approach, but that interest wasn’t followed up on as the club stuck with Solskjaer.
A few months later he joined Paris Saint-Germain, perhaps one of the most exciting, but thankless tasks in football.
The former Spurs boss couldn’t wrestle back the title off Lille in his first half-season after the poor start PSG made under Thomas Tuchel. Hardly his fault but it has left a stain — even though he did win the French Cup — which has been difficult to shake off.
PSG currently have an eight-point lead in Ligue 1 and are top of their Champions League group, above City.
Yet the pressure seems to be, for some reason, mounting on Pochettino. It’s not enough to just win in Paris, it seems, he must win in style. Not having to rely on last-minute winners, even against the reigning champions.
PSG brought in a wealth of talent in the summer, Lionel Messi being the headliner, but things haven’t clicked yet. It’s perhaps unsurprising given Pochettino’s top-heavy squad, full of attackers who don’t want to know about pressing, has made his preferred style impossible.
With the spectre of Zidane hanging above him, it doesn’t seem like Pochettino is long for Les Parc des Princes.
If he becomes available again at the end of the season, United shouldn’t hesitate this time around.
Having Cristiano Ronaldo to work with may offer a similar problem to the one he has at PSG, but just one player who doesn’t press but politically must start most games is much easier to deal with than three — Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. At United, he would also have a cast of willing runners, who also happen to be extremely talented forwards, at his disposal to make a team much better suited to his tastes.
Missing out on Conte may backfire, but not as much if United can finally get their next long-term manager in Pochettino.