Tottenham Hotspur were struggling in ninth position, already five points adrift of a top-four spot in the Premier League, when Antonio Conte was charged with saving the club’s season last November. A month later, Ralf Rangnick started his role as interim manager at Manchester United with his team sitting in seventh and a three-point gap to fourth place.
With just over a month of the season left to play, it is clear that one of those appointments has worked and the other patently hasn’t. Spurs are now three points clear of the chasing pack in fourth, while United are still in seventh, but closer to eighth-placed Wolves than Tottenham, who are six points ahead of Rangnick’s faltering team.
The United hierarchy are probably too busy trying to finalise their move to hire Ajax coach Erik ten Hag to consider the irony of their decision to reject Conte and recruit a manager more in keeping with their so-called DNA following the dismissal of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last November, but the contrasting fortunes of Conte and Rangnick show that changing a manager midseason is not always a guarantee of a positive impact.
United sources told ESPN in January that they overlooked Conte — who was out of work at the time after his exit from Inter Milan — as Solskjaer’s replacement because he was too abrasive and demanding of his players. The view within the Old Trafford boardroom was that the United squad would not embrace Conte’s very particular approach of giving his players specific instructions, that he would “overload them with information,” and that the team needed a more cerebral coach — one who would treat them as the high-calibre players that they are deemed to be.
When you strip it back, that explanation of United’s decision not to hire Conte may actually mean that the former Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan coach was too abrasive and demanding of his bosses and that, in reality, was why United’s owners, the Glazer family, and the board chose to appoint the more personable Rangnick.
But as the season reaches its conclusion, it’s safe to say that United messed up and Spurs are now reaping the rewards of their decision to dismiss concerns over Conte’s challenging style by trusting him to make a squad of underperforming players achieve their potential.
Rangnick has won fewer than half of his 17 Premier League games in charge of United, with Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Everton extending the club’s dismal run to just one win in eight in all competitions — the win coming against Conte’s Tottenham last month.
Conte, meanwhile, has inspired Spurs to 13 league wins from 21 games, with only three defeats in that time. The Italian was also successful in persuading his board to make changes in January, allowing him to offload Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele, Bryan Gil and Giovani Lo Celso, and bring in Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski from Juventus. In just three months, Bentancur and Kulusevski have done more for Spurs this season than any of the outgoing players had managed during the first half of the campaign.
Rangnick, by contrast, allowed Donny van de Beek (Everton) and Anthony Martial (Sevilla) to leave on loan, but failed to persuade the board to sanction a move for Jesse Lingard. The former RB Leipzig coach did not push for incomings, despite the need for a striker and midfielder, and United are now reaping what they sowed during the transfer window.
Conte’s personality, rather than prove to be the negative that United believed it to be, has actually ignited Tottenham’s squad and driven the club to make crucial changes in January. The opposite has happened at United and a club whose so-called DNA is rooted in Champions League football are now in a battle with Wolves for qualification for the UEFA Conference League because they chose Rangnick rather than Conte.
Mark Ogden explains why Manchester United have chosen Erik ten Hag as their next manager.
Changing managers midseason is not an exact science, especially when the hiring club rules out the best candidates for reasons that others wouldn’t worry about.
Chelsea showed last season, when replacing Frank Lampard with Thomas Tuchel, that ignoring a negative reputation can deliver success. Tuchel, fired by Paris Saint-Germain, was viewed by many within the game as being as outspoken and difficult as Conte can be, but the German delivered Champions League glory six months after taking charge and sources have told ESPN that he is now so highly-regarded at Stamford Bridge that the team’s recent blip in form will not threaten his position.
Had Tuchel been available when United sacked Solskjaer, it is fair to ask whether the Glazers would have looked elsewhere considering that he may not have chimed with their particular requirements for a new coach.
This season, eight Premier League clubs have changed their manager — Watford have done it twice, replacing Xisco Munoz with Claudio Ranieri in October before dismissing Ranieri in favour of Roy Hodgson in January. Watford are odds-on to be relegated, as are Norwich, who have only seen a marginal upturn in fortunes since replacing Daniel Farke with Dean Smith in November.
Aston Villa enjoyed an early bounce under Steven Gerrard, following his arrival after Smith’s departure in November, but the former Rangers boss has now lost 10 of 20 Premier League games and Villa are on a run of four-straight defeats.
Everton are still waiting to see whether replacing Rafael Benitez with Lampard was worth it in January, with Lampard losing seven of 10 league games, but Jesse Marsch is already justifying his appointment in place of Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds in February having steered the team away from the relegation zone with three wins from six games.
Eddie Howe has also been a success at Newcastle, banishing relegation fears with eight wins from 20 since replacing Steve Bruce in November. But no new boss has done a better job than Conte — a fact that Spurs are relishing and United would rather forget.