If this really is sink-or-swim territory at Manchester United for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there may only be one way to keep his head above water. Winning, ultimately, will keep him afloat but finding the formula to deliver results has proven difficult.
Solskjaer has tweaked, tinkered and changed but failed to strike the right balance when his squad is concerned after arguably the club’s most successful summer ever in the transfer market following the captures of Tom Heaton, Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In many ways, the arrival of CR7 has complicated the method and thinking behind team selections with competition for places now fiercer than ever. This United team has become worth less than the sum of its parts.
There are huge similarities between the current state of affairs at United and life at Chelsea in the first half of last season before Marina Granovskaia pulled the trigger on Frank Lampard.
Although Thomas Tuchel is evidently the superior coach after masterminding the club’s Champions League success, Lampard was arguably a formation change away from staying in the job.
His stubbornness and loyalty towards his unconvincing and flawed 4-2-3-1 system proved to be his downfall and eventually cost him his job as the constant shuffling of his first XI failed to bear fruit.
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While Conte could prove to be United’s very own Tuchel, the club’s hierarchy are refusing to give up on Solskjaer just yet and that was proven by their decision to hand his assistant Mike Phelan a new long-term contract earlier this week.
But there is something Solskjaer could learn from the Italian tactician, who is undeniably capable of turning this United team into a real force under his own leadership.
During Conte’s early Chelsea days, things did not always go entirely to plan and it wasn’t always a walk in the park.
Back in September 2016, the Blues were blown away by Arsenal at the Emirates as the Gunners stormed to a 3-0 half-time lead.
While the embarrassing defeat did not live long in the memory of Chelsea supporters, it was still of huge significance when reflecting on Conte’s tenure.
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In the 55th minute of the match, Marcos Alonso was brought on from the bench, replacing Cesc Fabregas and he could be seen holding up three fingers as he entered the field.
Conte wanted additional solidity at the back and moved to 3-4-3 after leaking three goals. It proved to be his eureka moment. There was no looking back.
Chelsea stormed their way to the title, collecting 93 points and backed it up with FA Cup success the following season before Conte’s departure. Their tactical superiority and system set a new benchmark across Europe.
Solskjaer has already flirted with change, having had relative success operating with a back-three during various stages of his United tenure.
However, given his current side is built around Bruno Fernandes’ qualities at No 10, Solskjaer has been reluctant to permanently jump ship.
Had United signed Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid this summer, that could have been very different.
While the Red Devils were looking to sign Trippier as competition for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, there was talk from United quarters that the England international could slot straight into a wing-back role with the £50million man dropped back into right centre-back.
Wan-Bissaka’s tackling, speed across the ground and ball recovery ability would make him the perfect fit for a back-three alongside Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane.
It still could too and United could also profit from their decision to keep Diogo Dalot, who is arguably better at wing-back than full-back.
Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly also give United some additional luxury when designing a potentially new-look defence, while Luke Shaw has already flourished at left-wing-back for England at Euro 2020.
Scott McTominay and Fred’s limitations would no longer prove to be a major issue within the new system and Fernandes could even drop back into central-midfield now the defence has extra protection.
Going forward, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood could provide support for Ronaldo in advanced forward roles, in a similar fashion to Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian behind Diego Costa for Chelsea in 2016/17.
Solskjaer must now be bold and brave if he is to prove he has not reached his ceiling at United, with many now calling for his head.
His favoured 4-2-3-1 system has been the one constant throughout his tenure, bar the odd experiment and now would be the time to showcase he has more strings to his bow in a division where tactics win matches.
Rather than be replaced by Conte, who is waiting in the wings for his phone to ring, Solskjaer must instead learn from the Italian’s craft if he wants to taste success at Old Trafford.
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