Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is on the precipice at Manchester United and needs a miraculous recovery to avoid losing his job before the New Year.
Particularly with some daunting fixtures to come in the next month after facing Tottenham this weekend that include Atalanta, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Antonio Conte is being lined up as the most likely successor to Solskjaer at United should the current manager indeed be dismissed, with Express Sport learning the Italian is keen on the job and ready to talk to the Premier League heavyweights.
It’s understood the former Chelsea and Inter Milan manager would consider taking the Old Trafford role immediately even though he prefers taking over clubs at the end of a season so he has a summer window and a pre-season to get the team more accustomed to his methods.
Conte is a world-class manager and would be a thrilling appointment given his success with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He won league titles at all three despite, prior to his arrival, Juve recording back-to-back seventh-placed finishes, Chelsea finishing 10th and Inter ending no higher than fourth in nine seasons since last winning Serie A.
The 52-year-old is arguably the best in the world at turning around a club’s fortunes in rapid time. Yet there are some problems Conte would inherit from Solskjaer at United that despite his superior tactical nous, he would not find easy to solve immediately.
United’s uncoordinated pressing has been widely scrutinised after their 4-2 loss to Leicester and their subsequent 5-0 hammering by bitter rivals Liverpool. Under the current management there is no real structure to the Red Devils’ efforts to win the ball high up the pitch.
Conte is famed, much like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, for wanting to employ a high-pressing approach and for doing so incredibly effectively. But there is one figure who could be problematic to him doing so at United – Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The idea that Manchester United can become a pressing team with Cristiano up front is never going to happen. He wasn’t pressing 10-15 years ago,” was club icon Gary Neville’s succinct summary.
At Inter, Conte had a pair of dynamic forwards leading the line in a 3-5-2 formation in Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez. Ronaldo is not as mobile or as willing as either and certainly not as effective defensively. He is a penalty-box poacher who conserves energy for when United are on the attack or for when he has the ball at his feet.
The new United manager would have to find a way to negate the Portuguese’s lack of defensive commitment and to do so might have to face dropping him altogether. That option, given Ronaldo’s status and especially at United where he is a club legend, would create a huge storyline in itself that Conte could do without in a new job.
The reaction to Solskjaer benching Ronaldo in a 1-1 draw with Everton, with the player later throwing a strop and walking straight down the tunnel at full-time, is evidence that CR7 near has his own cult of personality. Even United legend Sir Alex Ferguson was caught on camera being critical of Solskjaer’s decision to bench the striker.
Speaking to UFC icon Khabib Nurmagomedov in the Old Trafford directors’ lounge after the Everton draw, he said: “I also think that when they saw Ronaldo wasn’t playing…” Khabib replied: “He came on in the second half.”
The legendary Scot, who won 38 trophies in 26 years as United boss and has apparently requested Solskjaer is given more time as manager, then added: “I know but you should always start with your best players.”
The Norwegian coach, very reasonably, responded: “We all want to see Cristiano. But the plain fact of it is he cannot play every single game that we play, that’s just physical nature, human nature.”
Indeed, while Ronaldo will never be completely dropped from the first XI by Solskjaer, the concerns harboured about his return are being realised.
The only time United have produced an impressive 90-minute performance this term came on the opening weekend against Leeds when Mason Greenwood started through the middle. Even when they have won with Ronaldo in the team, they have played poorly for at least 45 minutes of matches.
It’s important to note Ronaldo is United’s top scorer this season with six goals in nine games across all competitions, including late Champions League winners over Villarreal and Atalanta.
He also scored the first and second goals in the 4-1 win over Newcastle on his second debut for the club before making it 1-1 in an eventual 2-1 win away at West Ham in United’s next match.
The Portugal captain is scoring goals but as a team, United are playing worse. That is not solely his fault of course, but it is fair to say he is a significant reason for why United are so disjointed, though they would look better under a manager capable of introducing a better structure such as Conte.
Conte is better equipped to tackle the issue than Solskjaer because is a higher quality manager and a bigger personality. Perhaps Edinson Cavani and Ronaldo as a two-man partnership with Bruno Fernandes behind could work, though that then means wide players would have to be shoehorned into the side as wing-backs or left on the bench.
United also do not have a world-class defensive midfielder to repeat the 3-1-4-2 Conte used at Juve while a 3-4-2-1 set-up similar to his time at Chelsea would surely see the same problems Solskjaer has suffered if it is Ronaldo, and not Cavani, Greenwood or Marcus Rashford, leading the line.
Certainly it is a conundrum but if Conte comes in and wants to employ a high press at United, how to do so with Ronaldo leading the line is one of the biggest problems he must find a fix for. Don’t bet against him working it out though.