There was a candidate, even though there was not yet a vacancy. Manchester United had suffered the historic humiliation of a 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s long, drawn-out goodbye continued, some close to Antonio Conte let it be known he was interested in replacing the beleaguered Norwegian. It soon became apparent the attraction was not mutual. United were not keen on the serial Serie A winner.
Solskjaer limped on to instead shape Conte’s future by finishing off Nuno Espirito Santo, whose final Tottenham game was a 3-0 defeat to United. Conte instead succeeded him. And so Saturday's meeting is between the manager United did appoint against the one they could have done.
Ralf Rangnick was only ever an interim; Conte, with his combustibility and his 18-month contract, scarcely exudes long-termism either. That formed part of United’s reservations: they have always wanted a manager with longevity, though results have dictated otherwise.
Yet Conte arrives at Old Trafford with a far better track record of winning trophies than Rangnick. There is an immediate comparison that seems to emphasise a gulf: the Italian masterminded Tottenham’s 3-2 win at Manchester City whereas the German’s side were a rabble by the end of their 4-1 defeat at the Etihad.
Another measure suggests there is less difference: since Conte’s appointment, both clubs have 30 points, albeit with United having played two games more and with a dramatically worse goal difference. Since Rangnick took over from Michael Carrick, United are three points better off than Spurs, but after a rather easier fixture list and having played one match more.
United may survey the drama at Tottenham and feel they were vindicated. Conte threatened to quit after defeat to Burnley. He criticised Spurs’ past record in the transfer market and said their January window left them weaker. He has called Tottenham a mid-table team, questioned his players’ mentality, said the level at the club is “not so high” and generally shown a blunt lack of diplomacy.
It all seemed entirely predictable. United’s reservations may have stemmed from their status as a dysfunctional club. Their transfer-market record is abject, their players are often accused – not least by some of their former greats – of giving up and they have become a byword for underachievement. Conte would have found plenty to condemn.
Burnley 1 Tottenham 0 – player ratings
Perhaps he would have sounded out of control at Old Trafford, too; certainly, the Glazers and Ed Woodward would not have appreciated an unflattering interpretation of their record. Conte might have appeared Jose Mourinho in overdrive, lashing out at everyone. It seemed a risk United were not prepared to take.
Moreover, Conte was deemed an imperfect footballing fit. He does not come from the German school of thought, though time will tell if Rangnick’s reign forms part of a smooth transition to a manager with pressing principles.
United cherish their historic image as inveterate attackers. Conte’s reputation as a pragmatist precedes him, though it may be inaccurate. Tottenham have outscored United during his reign. A pragmatic attacker has drawn more from a flagship forward: since Rangnick took over, Cristiano Ronaldo has three league goals and one assist. Harry Kane has scored nine and created two for Tottenham.
And perhaps Conte’s tactical nous and coaching prowess might have revived United. In the battle for fourth place, United have the greatest resources and the most talent in their squad, but Tottenham have the difference-maker in the dugout.
Perhaps Arsenal will pip both. If not, however, tomorrow offers an examination of whether United made the right decision. The perennially driven Conte will probably have still more motivation than usual to win.
Lose, however, and it may suggest Spurs was his rebound job, taken in haste and then regretted.