With one of the frontrunners to replace him now at Spurs, Solskjaer’s shaky ground at United feels a little more stable ahead of a decisive week
What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hanging onto his job after hours of deliberation among Old Trafford’s key decision-makers resulted in a stay of execution. Solskjaer would remain in place even though, as senior United sources admitted, he had plenty of work to do to turn the season around. By the time that lukewarm show of support arrived late on Monday evening, Antonio Conte’s interest in the role was already no secret.
Then, Manchester United beat Tottenham. Conte is now set to replace not Solskjaer but Nuno Espirito Santo, dismissed just 124 days after his appointment at Tottenham, with the wheels set in motion less than 24 hours after “El Sackio”. Saturday’s result has therefore strengthened Solskjaer’s position in two ways: first, by easing the monumental pressure which had built up on his shoulders over the course of last week; second, by taking the man most qualified to be his successor off the market.
It is suddenly a little harder for United to adequately replace Solskjaer at short notice than it was this time last week, which is not to say that Conte would necessarily have been appointed at Old Trafford if United had taken a different direction. The former Chelsea manager’s name was touted around more than that of any other candidate in the aftermath of the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool last Sunday week, but there were plenty of reservations among the United hierarchy over whether he was the right fit.
Conte is the subject of several inaccurate myths and a good deal of effort has gone into debunking them over the past week. It is nevertheless true that he is a demanding, single-minded coach who is not afraid to bend a club to his will. He is usually right to do so, delivering success quickly, but that success comes in his image. Whether you believe the ‘cultural reset’ which has guided the Solskjaer era is worth persevering with or not, it is hard to argue with those in key positions at United who felt Conte would want to do things his own way and therefore represent a significant departure.
And given that he tends not to last long in a job, it is worth asking whether he would be such a guarantee of success. The only trophies that truly count anymore at clubs of United’s size are domestic titles and the Champions League. Conte’s 2016-17 title win at Chelsea came during a period of relative flux, before Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had emerged as the dominant forces of the late 2010s. Could United really be sure of winning meaningful silverware with Conte in a short time frame when Guardiola, Klopp and Thomas Tuchel already have their feet under the table?
Then again, those managers also show why Tottenham may have been wise to act so decisively in moving quickly for Conte and why United’s inaction could prove to be a misstep. The Italian is, to put it simply, an elite coach and elite coaches only come around so often.
It is no coincidence that Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel were appointed to their current positions while essentially out of work. Klopp arrived at Anfield five months after a seven-year spell at Borussia Dortmund which came to a natural end. Tuchel left Paris Saint-Germain amid bickering with the ownership, yet with his reputation intact and a recent Champions League final appearance on his CV. Liverpool and Chelsea could have shown the same loyalty to their respective incumbents as United have shown to Solskjaer. Instead, they saw a rare opportunity and decided to seize it.
Guardiola was different, with him joining City immediately after three years at Bayern Munich, but in some ways it was the exception that proves the rule. At the time, three seasons was thought to be the maximum Guardiola would spend at any one club. His contract at Bayern was up. Yet even then, coaxing him to the Etihad had involved restructuring the club from top to bottom, a costly process which was years in the making, and it never carried any guarantee of success. City did everything they could to appoint Guardiola, and eventually did, but had to wait.
All three appointments support the notion that nowadays, elite-level managers do not simply swap one super club for another at the drop of a hat when jobs become available. Look around Europe and you see the same pattern. Mauricio Pochettino had been without a job for 18 months before accepting Paris Saint-Germain’s advances. Max Allegri is back at Juventus two years after leaving, without working elsewhere in between. There are only ever a handful of established candidates available. Those already in work are usually off-limits.
If managers are poached from other clubs, they are taken from outside the elite. Until last week, Real Madrid and Barcelona both employed managers whose previous job in club football had been at Everton. There is an element of risk inherent in these appointments, whether they involve a young and upcoming coach like Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann or an old hand like Carlo Ancelotti, now in his second spell at Real Madrid, with doubts over whether they can take the next step or if they are past their very best.
This all makes managerial succession planning a fraught and difficult process. There is an element of waiting for the planets to align. If the right candidate becomes available, clubs have to be ruthless. That should be the lesson of Chelsea’s transformation from also-rans for major honours under Frank Lampard to champions of Europe under Tuchel last season. At United, this past week could prove to be a sliding doors moment.
Sudden, drastic change has never really been the way at Old Trafford, though. Other clubs may have moved quicker but Solskjaer has survived several “kings over the water” now, primarily Pochettino. Conte is the latest. For now, before an important Champions League trip to Atalanta and Saturday’s Manchester derby, Solskjaer’s position feels a little more secure than it did a week ago. United may even feel that Saturday’s result alone justified their patience. But as we have seen, a lot can change in a week.