Manchester United’s Carabao Cup exit at home to West Ham on Wednesday means there is one fewer trophy for the Red Devils to pursue this season.
For a club as desperate for silverware as United, that’s a big deal. Yes, it’s only September, but the familiar baseball cliché, "it’s still early," does not apply here. At all.
Given the summer additions of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, it was reasonable to believe the club could improve on last season’s second-place finish in the Premier League and perhaps make a run in the Champions League as well.
Regarding the latter, United lost 2-1 to Young Boys in Bern on Matchday One. And while they remain joint top of the English top flight, they’ve yet to play a serious opponent. That’ll happen when they face Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in succession a month from now —a stretch that will be make or break for manager Ole Gunner Solskjaer.
But the Manchester United board shouldn’t wait until then. They need to be brave and part ways with Solskjaer now, before that definitive run of matches and the two Champions League encounters interspersed within it.
They need to appoint Antonio Conte.
United have an impressive stable of footballers, and it’s fascinating to imagine what a proper manager could do with it. That’s not to disrespect Solskjaer, but the club legend, whose heroics helped deliver the European Cup in 1999, was only hired as caretaker manager when Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 and should never have been handed the role on a permanent basis.
It was a decision made on the heels of a brief uptick in form and, understandably, due to no shortage of nostalgia. Now, United haven’t exactly floundered in the nearly three years since, as last term’s showing demonstrates, but they’ve also won absolutely nothing.
The ongoing campaign was always going to be crucial for the 48-year-old, but the sudden return of Ronaldo changed everything. Winning trophies is no longer a happy outcome but a matter of urgency. Solksjaer, no matter his historic and sentimental value to the club, is not the figure to deliver them.
To watch the current United team is to witness the contributions of a collection of individuals, however impressive.
There is Ronaldo, who can make something out of nothing and might score in every game he plays this season; there is Bruno Fernandes, dribbling and passing and tackling with intensity; there is Mason Greenwood, perhaps the best finisher of the lot; there is Paul Pogba, desperate for another midfielder of quality to combine with; there is Sancho, who scored 16 goals and assisted 11 for Borussia Dortmund last season and who will surely come good at Old Trafford.
But there is nothing unifying them, no combined purpose, organization or identity. They’re last season’s LA Lakers, only without the recent championship.
They’re also a defensive mess, despite, again, an impressive group of individuals. And they’re woefully lacking in the centre of the park — something they won’t be able to meaningfully address until January at the earliest.
When the Italian joined Inter Milan in 2019 he was taking over an outfit that had finished fourth the previous season and 21 points off the top. Nine months later the Nerazzurri were second in Serie A, just a point back of champions Juventus. A year after that they had won the Scudetto.
The addition of Romelu Lukaku — signed from Manchester United, incidentally — obviously gave them a presence in the attacking third, but it was Inter’s ability to find him with the ball that made him, and them, dangerous. They also allowed the fewest goals in the division. They were compact, co-ordinated and relentless. Man for man, Juventus had the better squad, but Conte’s was the better team.
But it’s the 52-year-old’s experience in English football that should really sell United on his qualities.
Chelsea were coming off a 10th-place finish in the Premier League when Conte was appointed, and they’d conceded an embarrassing 53 goals in the 2016-17 season. David Luiz was brought back from Paris Saint-Germain — perhaps subtraction by addition — and yet the Blues gave up just 33 goals the following season and finished as champions.
A demanding manager — he famously used the word "work" 32 times in his introductory press conference at Stamford Bridge — Conte tends to grate on his players after a few years. He lasted only two at Chelsea and another two at Inter. But he won titles at both.
Winning takes courage, and the Manchester United board should locate its reservoir and give Conte control of its squad. They have the sort of attacking players every manager dreams about, but the midfield and defense require attention. It’s an assignment made for Conte, who is already reported to want to take on a project in the Premier League.
United may have one fewer trophy to pursue this season, but they can still contend for three more. Conte is the manager to make it happen, but he needs to get started before it’s too late.