TUESDAY’S BIG STORIES
He's clinging on...
The fuel gauge is empty. The windscreen’s been kicked in. Someone’s jacked up the bus and nabbed a tyre. But Ole’s still at the wheel.
‘We’re scared,’ says Conte as Spurs’ Covid outbreak worsens
For now anyway. After surviving another brutal day of jeers and taunts from everyone except Gary Neville, new revelations from The Telegraph have laid bare Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s nightmare at Old Trafford. Some of their key findings:
- Cristiano Ronaldo is “exasperated” – a word you only here in football crises – with Mason Greenwood
- Eric Bailly took a swipe at Solskjaer after the 4-2 defeat to Leicester, asking “why he picked a centre-half who was not fit” in Harry Maguire. Which we must admit is a rather polite take given what happened
- One player is wondering why Donny van de Beek isn’t playing more, with others campaigning for the returns of Jesse Lingard and Nemanja Matic
But before we get the crowbar out and begin plucking Solskjaer’s fingers off his chariot, it's worth double-checking he’s not being unfairly treated.
Firstly, the Cristiano Ronaldo dilemma. With five Ballon d’Ors and many more goals than Greenwood, he’s probably more entitled to have his say than the Warm-Up. But what did he expect? Greenwood was banging them in as a striker for months, then was unceremoniously shunted out to the right wing, rendering the signing of Jadon Sancho rather crazy.
Deep down, we all know Ronaldo wasn’t the signing United needed. Fred and McSauce are a glorious double-act, but not against Liverpool and not really on a football pitch, meaning the hunt for a CDM was imperative in the summer. United’s leadership failed, rolling out a Greatest Hits CD when everyone craved a new smash hit. The ‘Ronaldo doesn’t press’ argument is a bit simplistic, given United haven’t really run around in a long time, but seeing him, Greenwood and crew jog up to the ball against Liverpool, and then stare at it, exposed a big flaw under Solskjaer and his predecessors.
Then there’s the personnel who believe they should be playing, or who others are backing for a revival. There's Eric Bailly, a player who gets better when he doesn’t play (it can’t be a coincidence he hasn’t completed 20+ games for United in a season since 2017). And there's Donny van de Beek, who was magnificent at Ajax but doesn’t play Solskjaer’s brand of football – kick it to the fast player and hope for the best if they lose it.
And that’s the problem. Despite all the caveats you can throw at it, the sad truth is that this United team have not moved on from their chaotic gameplan. They've masked Solskjaer’s flaws with an incredible run of escape acts, but it does make you wonder what would happen if a team didn't fold after taking the lead. Against Liverpool, we found out.
Solskjaer seems like a good bloke, but it's hard to reach any other conclusion than his time being up at Old Trafford.
Which is good news because…
United have made “first contact” with Antonio Conte, reports Di Marzio.
Before anyone gets too excited, we should add that this one will inevitably end in flames. It just depends whether the bonfire comes before or after a title parade. We’re voting for option ‘a’: before.
Not even reincarnating Alex Telles and Jesse Lingard as prime-time Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses in an electric 3-5-2 system can haul them out of this mess. United have a terrible defence shielded by an arguably more terrible central midfield. This one will take time.
Conte’s CV might promise trophies, but he’s been suspiciously smart at timing his arrival at clubs. He joined Chelsea when Leicester fans were still belting out Nessun Dorma, with Tottenham emerging as his closest challengers in his immediate title-winning season. He also benefitted from a non-existent challenge from Juventus as his Inter side swept to the Serie A trophy last season.
Does that mean we should write him off already, based on the failings of others? Of course not. But if you’re expecting him to come in, bash Harry Maguire’s skull into a wall and start outplaying Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City… well, don’t.
His longest stint at any club is three years. That might be enough to build a team capable of upsetting the league’s runaway trio – but more than likely, it won’t and we’ll be ready to douse some more petrol on the blaze when he starts texting players that they're no longer welcome.
IN THE CHANNELS
We’ve just re-read our above gambit to check we haven’t fallen into “This is Manchester United Football Club we’re talking about here” territory. This is poetry:
And yet another reminder of why supporters connecting with players is a wonderful, wonderful thing, courtesy of the Swedish top-flight:
We admit this can be filed under ‘scraping the barrel’, but these top five goals from birthday boy Jefferson Farfan at Schalke are actually rather good. Worth three minutes of your day, even if you only enjoy the terrific commentary.
It’s Carabao Cup night! Which is usually code for letting someone else have the remote and an early bedtime. Still, if you fancy it, join us for live coverage of Arsenal v Leeds United. Kick-off at 19:45.
No early bedtime for you, Marcus Foley. 800 words on QPR v Sunderland by tomorrow morning please.
Arsenal fluff their lines at Old Trafford - The Warm-Up
'I am not worried about Kane' – Conte defends striker after Brentford win