Erik ten Hag

A year ago this week Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as Manchester United manager was unravelling at breakneck speed. This time 12 months ago United had lost to Leicester City and would finish the week beaten 5-0 by Liverpool at Old Trafford.

It still feels incredulous that Solskjaer could survive that humiliation, limping on another four weeks and four games, until his team were beaten 4-1 at Watford and the game was up.

Perhaps Tottenham are fitting opponents for United on the anniversary of the week when things began to spiral out of control. The reason Solskjaer survived that beating by Liverpool is that United were unconvinced about the candidacy of Antonio Conte, who was available and willing to step in.

While United prevaricated on the Italian’s suitability, Tottenham didn’t. Out went Nuno Espirito Santo and in came Conte, nearly a month before United settled on the disastrous Ralf Rangnick as a placeholder.

It sums up the mess that became of last season and one of the endless debates was over whether United were right to pass over Conte, a demanding, combustible manager who would have been the polar opposite to Solskjaer and probably unsuited to what the players needed. Gary Neville has certainly nailed his colours to the mast, convinced United were right not to pursue the former Chelsea manager.

He gets results, however. Since Tottenham appointed Conte on November 2 last year they have amassed 79 points across 38 Premier League games, compared to United’s haul of 57 in 37 games.

Even with United having settled on a long-term appointment this summer, Spurs are already seven points ahead of Ten Hag’s team, although United do have a game in hand.

It’s difficult to look at those results and think United made the right call in not opting for Conte a year ago, but there are reasons to believe he wouldn’t have had the same success at Old Trafford that he’s had in North London.

For starters, he took over a team who had been playing in a three-man defence under Nuno and had the personnel to suit his style. He added to that in the January transfer window with some shrewd business, but the conditions were ideal.

Not only did Tottenham have wing-backs, but they had a strong No. 9 in Harry Kane, always a feature in Conte’s best teams, as well as a second striker in Son Heung-Min. He had to fine-tune them tactically and bring their fitness levels up to his standard, but it’s been evolution rather than revolution really, especially in terms of the system.

That wouldn’t have been the case at United. While Solskjaer did sometimes use a back three, it had become rarer and this squad really didn’t have the players to suit Conte’s style.

They had just spent £73million on Jadon Sancho and while his progress has been a little slower than hoped for, it’s difficult to envisage an obvious role for him under Conte, who tends to use forwards who can play fairly narrow.

He would also have struggled to find three central defenders to rely on in terms of fitness, with Raphael Varane suffering fitness problems last season. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof might have featured, but the quality diminished after that.

But the biggest impediment of all was the lack of wing-backs. This is a vital role in a Conte system and United just don’t have the players for it. Alex Telles wasn’t good enough on the left and Aaron Wan-Bissaka was far too defensive on the right.

Maybe Conte would have played Diogo Dalot, but there’s no guarantee he would have been a success and he still has to prove himself at United. Luke Shaw has played the wing-back role for England, but was often used as a left-sided centre-back when Solskjaer moved to a three-man defence.

It feels like this United squad just didn’t have the players to make Conte’s tenure an immediate success. United opted to go for a short-term appointee in Rangnick and while that turned out badly, they believe they have the right man now in Ten Hag.

The Dutchman has a clear style of play and it is certainly more entertaining than Conte’s approach. Tottenham sit third in the league this season but their underlying numbers aren’t spectacular and they have been functional rather than spectacular.

United have plenty of room for growth under Ten Hag and they will have to improve this season, but there have been encouraging signs and some excellent passages of play.

One glance at the league table will tell you that the decision to ignore Conte was a mistake, but it’s not as simple as that.


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