Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cut a frustrated figure on Sunday
While journalists were sitting around waiting for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to attend his post-match press conference on Sunday, nearly an hour and a half after the final whistle had sounded on a humiliation of historic proportions against Liverpool, Manchester United’s managing director Richard Arnold walked briskly and purposefully through Old Trafford’s media room, making a beeline for the executive suite.
It is rare to see a United official of Arnold’s level occupy the same corridors as the press on a matchday and rarer still, at critical moments like these, to see one move so quickly.
The ambiguity around Arnold’s own position is evidence of that. He is expected to succeed Ed Woodward as United’s executive vice-chairman and most senior executive outside of the Glazer family, though six months after the Super League debacle and the subsequent announcement that Woodward would step down from his role at the end of the year, a definitive date for the succession is yet to be confirmed.
Given how slowly things can move at Old Trafford, Solskjaer could have been confident of outlasting Woodward and working under his successor, even if the new campaign started sluggishly with new signings taking time to settle in. The new three-year contract signed during the summer suggested as much, as did Mike Phelan’s new deal and proposed extensions for coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna.
Sunday’s result, however, was the type which can move things along and move them along quickly. Solskjaer is clinging on. Club sources played down talk of any managerial change on Monday evening, suggesting that he will be given time and take charge against Tottenham this weekend, though admitted that the defeat to Liverpool meant there is much to do to turn the season around.
It is easy to forget that United went 28 years without sacking a manager within recent memory and it can at times appear as if they are willing to give an incumbent every chance. David Moyes’ doomed succession of Sir Alex Ferguson was only brought to an end once a top-four finish and Champions League qualification became impossible. The same was true with Louis van Gaal.
Jose Mourinho is the exception, dismissed mid-season but only as the environment inside the club had become toxic to the point of no return. Today, the atmosphere is nothing like as poisonous as during Mourinho’s final hours. On the contrary, even during his most difficult days in charge, it has always been remarked how popular Solskjaer is with the players. Some feel as though they owe him for helping to turn their careers around.
And yet, there is dressing room disquiet once more. Concerns regarding Solskjaer’s tactical acumen and selections are understood to have grown after Sunday’s defeat. Though there is no animosity towards the United manager, a number of players have felt exposed by Solskjaer’s questionable tactical set-ups in games while others feel those on the fringes like Jesse Lingard and Donny van de Beek have not been offered opportunities to improve a struggling team.
Whether or not that would be enough to force United’s hand was an open question until the show of support on Monday evening. If Solskjaer is dismissed in the coming weeks or months, Antonio Conte would be interested in replacing him. The former Internazionale manager – renowned for delivering success quickly – would require assurances about his role within the structure at Old Trafford and the vision behind the scenes. As of Monday, no formal discussions had taken place.
Conte is a superb coach, with a reputation that surpasses that of the other available and elite-level name linked with the job, the three-time Champions League winning manager Zinedine Zidane. Not only does Conte have Premier League and Serie A titles from his two-year spells at Stamford Bridge and the San Siro, he is also the only manager in the last decade other than Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp to break the English top-flight’s 90-point barrier, the mark true title contenders now seemingly must pass.
It could be argued that Conte’s 93-point 2016-17 title came at a point of relative weakness at the top of the Premier League. Guardiola and Klopp were in their first full seasons at City and Liverpool, so too was Mourinho at United. The defending champions, Leicester City, finished 12th. Chelsea’s closest challengers were a Tottenham Hotspur side managed by Mauricio Pochettino, who appears off-limits as a potential Solskjaer successor.
Even with Conte’s record of delivering immediate success, beating Guardiola, Klopp and Thomas Tuchel to a title in double-quick time would be a different proposition, especially if his tenure had a typically short lifespan. His demanding and at times abrasive relationships with his employers is the antithesis of the collegial dynamic between Solskjaer, United’s newly-restructured football department and Old Trafford’s key decision-makers.
Whether United would be willing to undo two-and-a-half years work on a trumpeted ‘cultural reset’ in exchange for a short-term bet on success with Conte is unclear. It is the type of gamble that goes against a lot of what the Solskjaer era was meant to represent: steady, gradual progress aligned with the club’s core principles, with a view to achieving sustainable, long-term success.
That there is said to be reticence regarding the prospect of appointing Conte among the United board is perhaps no surprise, in that respect. Things can change, though, even at United, where it can sometimes feel as though after years where nothing happens, there are weeks where years happen. Solskjaer is still in a job and may well turn this season around, surviving beyond Tottenham, but his position is more vulnerable than ever.
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