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With Solskjaer in Limbo, Manchester United's Options Are Clear, If Not Risky

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is safe as manager, for now at least. But would the most likely candidates to replace him be the right fit for the job?

The word from Manchester United is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will remain in his position as manager—for at least another week. Although his future was discussed in a Monday video call between club CEO Ed Woodward, his designated successor Richard Arnold and co-owner Joel Glazer, no decision to oust him has been taken. There is nothing like the toxicity of the end of José Mourinho’s time in charge, but, with players now openly doubting the manager and the loss of discipline in Sunday’s 5–0 defeat to Liverpool, the sense remains that his departure is only a matter of time.

Solskjaer himself has spoken of the importance of the next three games: away at Tottenham in the Premier League, away at Atalanta in the Champions League and at home against Manchester City in the Premier League. Within Old Trafford, there seems little sense that a change is imminent. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were dismissed only after finishing out of the top four and so qualifying for the Champions League had become impossible. Mourinho went because the environment had become toxic. The atmosphere is nowhere near that bad at the moment, but United lies seventh in the table having lost five of its last nine games in all competitions.

But outside Old Trafford, there is a widespread expectation that Solskjaer cannot survive. He had previously remained in the job because he was adept at having his side sit deep against high-class opposition. Last season, United lost only one of the six games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. But playing in that way has become impossible after the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, who lacks the mobility to operate as a split striker in the way Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Dan James or Jesse Lingard had in previous seasons.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

United has twice failed to act before when outstanding candidates were available. With greater decisiveness—the sort of ruthlessness Liverpool showed in replacing Brendan Rodgers with Jürgen Klopp—United could have gotten Mauricio Pochettino or Thomas Tuchel. It’s not entirely impossible if it waits long enough that Pochettino, now at PSG, could become available again, but realistically there are probably three outstanding candidates who are available now.

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Antonio Conte, who has won a total of five league titles with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, is probably the most obvious contender and has already let it be known that he would be interested. He has been out of work since leaving Inter at the end of last season when the club's financial difficulties and the cuts to his budget that would entail became clear. He is a dynamic figure with a history of making an instant positive impact, but he also tends to depart clubs in chaos after falling out with the directors, normally after he’s demanded more signings than the board was prepared to give him.

From that point of view, a certain trepidation is understandable but, frankly, after eight years without a league title and with a palpable sense of drift, a shock may not be a bad thing for Man United. But there is also an issue of his tactical approach. Conte has historically favored a back three and a high press, usually in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1. Could Ronaldo be accommodated into that? Could Jadon Sancho? Who could play at right wingback? Even Bruno Fernandes may have to adapt his role.

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On the other hand, Paul Pogba has worked successfully under Conte before. If the tradeoff is between keeping Ronaldo and Pogba happy, Pogba is eight years younger, and from a financial point of view, persuading him to sign a new contract so he doesn’t leave for free next summer would seem like a priority.

Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane are candidates to manage Manchester United

Ronaldo is known to favor Zinedine Zidane, with whom he won three successive Champions Leagues at Real Madrid. Zidane has only ever managed at Madrid, though, and has no experience in English football. His managerial style was based around giving the players their freedom, which worked fine with a midfield of Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos to offer control, but that may be less effective with Fred, Scott McTominay and Pogba.

And then there is Erik ten Hag. The Ajax manager has been strongly linked with Newcastle, and it’s hard to see how he could fit Ronaldo into his pressing style. Appointing him would be a long-term decision and would probably require changes to the club’s academy and recruitment, possibly with the appointment of Marc Overmars as a sporting director. None of that would be unwelcome, but it would require the sort of long-term vision that has been notably absent under the Glazers' ownership.

Solskjaer called the defeat to Liverpool "rock bottom" but added that he believed in what he's cultivating at the club. He has at least one more match to restore the board's belief in him to stave off getting sacked while keeping his potential successors at bay. For now, though, Solskjaer limps on.

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