Antonio Conte: How United could look tactically if the Italian heads to Old Trafford – tactical analysis
Manchester United are owning the media headlines lately, after their disastrous 0-5 defeat by Liverpool in Premier League, which put Ole Gunna Solskjær’s job under question. But while many people expect that the Red Devils’ manager will be fired in the next few weeks, even more people are discussing the possibility of bringing one of the most successful managers in the last decade Antonio Conte at Old Trafford.
United have been performing under their potential and seeing the squad quality after an active summer window it seems that all comes down to the tactical side of their game and the man-management.
Despite making the United fans’ dreams come true by signing Cristiano Ronaldo, and paying 77 million for Jadon Sancho the team are still struggling to pull off impressive displays. While Ronaldo expectedly boosted the team’s performance, Sancho is yet to be given chance as it turned out that he doesn’t fit Solskjær’s plans.
The question now is – is Conte the quick fix and could he be the solution to United’s struggles? His distinguished tactical vision has brought all Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan to the league titles as he transformed them into well-balanced and consistent teams with high ambitions.
The Italian is often opinionated and wants things to go his way or no way, but on the flip side, he has proved as an absolute master of bringing out the players’ full potential.
Formation variations and possible starting XI
Conte has been known for his tactical vision and his smart use of the back three formations. He started using the 3-5-2 formation with Juve and after seeing its success he transmitted it to the Premier League with Chelsea, and then lastly with Inter, who won their first Scudetto in 11 years in this formation.
While the manager is very particular in his back-three use, he is actually rather flexible in his approach and is open for changes in the other two lines, switching between 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2 too. His teams are well-balanced focused on defensive stability but also smart attacking and counterattacking actions.
The use of the wing-backs has been extremely important in his strategy, focusing on developing his wide midfielders into efficient attackers who are among the main contributors in the final third. He has also relied on the players’ pace, especially on a counter, where his team have provided the biggest threat.
But is any of his set-ups suitable for Manchester United with their current available personnel? Looking at it generally – the answer is yes. But while the Italian is one of the greatest tacticians and player motivators, his arrival at Old Trafford won’t be problem-free. He will have to consider the players’ strengths and weaknesses and decide on a regular starting XI, which might not be the easiest task, especially in certain positions.
His goalkeeping options would be David de Gea and Dean Henderson, and despite De Gea’s inconsistent performance lately, he is still the most obvious choice to cover the goal. Moving into the back-three, though, things look a little blurrier.
Conte would have a few options for a centre-back. Possibly he could rely on Victor Lindelöf, Harry Maguire and Raphaël Varane in his defensive line. Picking these three could be successful for a few reasons.
Lindelöf is a good ball-playing defender who could be very suitable in Conte’s strategy. The Italian usually relies on his team to build up from the back with the goalkeeper, the centre-backs and the deep-lying midfielder using short pass combinations to bypass the press and progress the ball, breaking through the oppositions’ first lines of defence, especially when pressed high.
That’s why the Swede’s passing ability could be useful for the team in possession when they try to advance the ball through lots of movement and passing. His movement could be well supported by Varane, whose passing could provide Lindelöf with more options but also his defensive experience could give the team the defensive stability they need.
The combination of Maguire and Varane, on the other side, could be beneficial for the team in terms of air presence. Both players have been decent in the air which is crucial when defending both long balls and set-pieces, which could occur quite frequently against Conte’s team. Firstly, because his teams often defend in a full-on 5-4-1 or 5-3-2 in their own half. They often sit back and block the passing lanes and the spaces between the lines, forcing the opposition to play long balls. Secondly, due to the intense pressing that Conte insists on, the players could commit individual errors or be more aggressive and give away set-piece opportunities to their opponents.
It would be a surprise if his left wing-back choice differs from Luke Shaw. The Englishman has proved crucial for United in attack, as he constantly drives forward and supplies the attackers with crosses while he also cuts inside and combines with them. His movement would be perfect under Conte, as the manager relies on his wing-backs to provide width and support the attacking actions. His use of the wing-backs at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter has resulted in an increased goal contribution for each pair and in more chances in attack.
The right wing-back position, though, is one that could be controversial for the manager in terms of starting spot. Most probably, he will have to choose between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot. While Wan-Bissaka has been among the best performers in defence, many would agree that his contribution to the attacking actions isn’t as great as Shaw’s. While the right-back supports ball progression with his passing and ability to hold on to the ball, he is not involved in crossing that much. We have witnessed many players transform under Conte, and having in mind Wan-Bissaka’s experience from his Crystal Palace days and also his 2019/20 season with United, he could be much more active in the final third and increase his crossing contribution. While the RB only sends 1.86 crosses on average per 90 now, back in his first season in Manchester he averaged three crosses per game.
As mentioned, another option for the right wing-back position is Dalot. He tends to cross the ball often and even occasionally shoots providing an additional threat in front of the goal, while he has a balanced defensive performance. His pass completion rate, though, is way lower and he won’t be able to contribute to the build-up as well as his teammate, especially when it comes to ball control and progressive runs.
Conte might also struggle to find a player for the deep-lying role. Previously, he has relied on the likes of Andrea Pirlo, N’Golo Kante and Marcelo Brozovic. Although he might have a few options at United, he wouldn’t have players of this calibre.
The deep-lying playmaker in Conte’s teams needs to read the game well and to have strong spatial awareness. In possession, they need to support ball progression with smart passes and to be able to break through pressing structures by both providing passing options and by finding the best passing option when with the ball. The player also needs to provide defensive support at all times not only centrally but also out wide, supporting the RWB and the RB in closing out space and pressing the ball carrier.
He could choose between Fred, Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay and even Donny van de Beek if he wants to include him in his set-up.
Matić might be the most obvious choice due to his movement and passing abilities. The Serbian’s ability to scan the pitch allows him to anticipate the opposing players’ movement and also find the best option for a pass as he observes his teammates’ positioning constantly. His composure is crucial for retaining possession and for sending quality passes forward. Additionally, he has spatial awareness allows him the exploit spaces smartly, which combined with his passing could be suitable for Conte’s strategy, as he can contribute well to building up from the back and bypassing the opposing press.
He is also solid defensively and his work under pressure could be beneficial for the team. Speaking of that, although not the expected one, Fred is not a bad option either. While his numbers in possession are slightly lower than Matić’s, he could also spread the ball out well and often combines with his teammates upfront. Depending on Conte’s preferences, he could choose Fred for his defensive stability.
If the manager sticks to his 3-5-2, it is expected that Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes will partner as the central midfield pair. They are both great at supplying the attackers with passes and their movement and pace are what Conte needs in midfield. He tends to create overloads in the opposition half and especially in the wide areas, where the wing-backs would cross the ball, while the midfielders would cover the half-spaces and combine with the frontline.
As Fernandes has been performing well in an attacking midfield position behind the strikers, Conte might like to use that and switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Partnering Pogba with a more defensively solid midfielder and using Fernandes in front of them. His progressive runs and flair for quality through balls are a valuable asset in attack.
Looking at the squad, the manager would have a few options in attack. Although the obvious choice for an attacking pair would be Markus Rashford and Ronaldo, Conte could pick between Mark Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial too. In attack, the Italian looks for pace, spatial awareness and strong decision-making.
Rashford’s speed is something that the team could benefit from with Conte’s tactics, especially in cases of turnover. His teams would often defend in a 5-4-1 with one of the attackers staying upfront, while the other is slightly disjointed in the second line of defence and waiting for a turnover. This allows his teams to have security at the back but also to react quickly once they win the ball back through their intense pressing. And Rashford might flourish in this role and become crucial on a counter, with Ronaldo supporting his movement.
The manager likes to have balance in attack and would definitely go for the experienced Ronaldo, who not only has flair in front of the goal but also moves around and complements his teammates’ movement. His positional flair is very strong, which makes him the perfect candidate to lead United’s attack.
There are a few main traits that are typical for Conte’s teams.
The main one is defensive stability. Conte would definitely like to improve United’s defensive performance as this is where the team struggle the most lately. They commit a number of individual and collective errors that often lead to losing the ball and the opposition shooting.
The lack of concentration during transitions and when defending in their own half is expected to be improved. Additionally, the manager would look to improve the connection between the lines and to provide better support to the defenders, not only by committing more bodies but also by limiting the spaces between the lines. Last but not least, the coach would focus on press intensity and would insist from the players to recover the ball as much as possible.
The second one is their counter-attacking actions. United are pretty active on a counter now, executing 4.17 counterattacks per game on average. That is something that Conte will focus on enhancing even more as, despite their efforts, the team rarely gain an advantage from these situations. While 34.1% of their counters end up with shots, they have only scored once from these opportunities. Their efficiency is not high and if there is a person who can improve that, it is the Italian manager.
Another aspect of Conte’s coaching is discipline and motivation. Currently, it looks like Solskjær has lost control over the changing room, which affects their performance on the pitch and the Italian’s man-management could improve that. He manages to implement high discipline levels by motivating the players and getting the best out of them. Many players have played on their potential under the 52-year-old as his attention to detail and aim to develop their skills are impressive. That’s why it won’t be a surprise if he transforms any United player even with the cost of a positional change. Conte is great at utilizing the potential of the players and if someone is struggling in a certain position, he might quickly see where the problem is and transform him from mediocre to a key performer.
Under his guidance, players like Van de Beek, Sancho and Jesse Lingard might finally find their place in the team.
His reunion with Pogba is also highly anticipated. The Frenchman is proven to have difficulties in his communication with certain managers, which affect his motivation levels and his performance. But everyone knows, that when at his best, Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world and could make the difference for his teams in possession. That’s another reason why Conte could fit well at United. He managed Pogba in his early career at Juventus and it is safe to say that he managed to get the best out of him. It now looks that the player is looking for other options outside Manchester, but an eventual Conte arrival might change the narrative at least for a while.
While it might not all be nice and easy at the beginning, Conte seems like the right managerial option for the current Manchester United team. The Italian would come prepared with an action plan and won’t waste time in slow transitions. It is expected that he will implement his tactics straight away and try to save the Red Devils’ season by increasing their defensive efficiency and focusing on players’ strengths in attack. As our analysis showed, he has a distinguished tactical vision, which might actually be suitable for United with their current personnel.