Antonio Conte was too demanding, ambitious and good for Manchester United, says MARTIN SAMUEL


Now we know why Manchester United overlooked Antonio Conte. He was too good for a squad assembled at a cost of £877million. Too precise, too demanding, too ambitious.

‘If Conte tells a player to do six things, then he wants to see them do all six immediately,’ explained an executive at Old Trafford. It is almost as if he’s in a hurry, as if there is a finite end to a campaign or competition, as if there is a day on which, if Manchester United are not inside the top four, roughly £50m goes down the tubes.

We are about to find out if there was any point at all in Tottenham recruiting one of the finest managers in Europe, because the club is in need of a drastic rebuild. 

The Italian instead went to Tottenham but needs the club to back him to succeed

Antonio Conte was too good for a Manchester United squad assembled at a cost of £877m

Either they support his overhaul of the squad in the coming transfer windows, or they might as well have stuck with Nuno Espirito Santo and hoped he could bore Tottenham into a position of relative strength.

So there is no real surprise that, two months in, Conte believes Tottenham’s squad requires reconstruction. We could all see trouble ahead. Yet United’s rationale is close to astonishing. 

It is as if they feared he would be equally damning of them and couldn’t handle it. As if he would look at a squad accumulated for close to £1billion — Tottenham’s is less than half that — and pronounce them unfit for purpose. Simply, United could not meet Conte’s standards. How incriminating of recent regimes is that?

No wonder Ed Woodward is leaving, if this is what remains of his recruitment strategy. How can a club spend so much on players and be left with a squad who cannot be trusted to follow simple instructions, or be motivated by improvement?

Conte won the league at Chelsea — and rewrote the record books — with Victor Moses at right wing-back. Are Manchester United admitting that they do not possess any players with Moses’ football intelligence? That they have no one who can adapt to a system like Marcos Alonso?

Conte has made a promising start at Tottenham but the club are in need of a drastic rebuild

Conte has made a promising start at Tottenham but the club are in need of a drastic rebuild

That year, Gary Cahill started 36 matches, David Luiz 33, Alonso and Nemanja Matic 30, Moses 29, Pedro 26. These were very good players, but not superstars. And they understood Conte in his first season. 

Yet, seemingly, the stellar names at Old Trafford are incapable. What have they been doing in the recruitment department? Where have those hundreds of millions gone?

On the touchline at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Conte appeared withdrawn. His team were showing little, his defence were hopelessly inept. Later, he even rejected the transfer market as a failsafe solution, as if he knew Tottenham did not have the money necessary for such a giant short-term project.

Yet would he have had it any easier at Manchester United? And where can the club go if the squad are considered beyond basic coaching?

It is not that Tottenham are without mistakes. The arrival of Kieran Trippier at Newcastle only highlights that Tottenham have never replaced him since his sale in 2019. Serge Aurier, Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal, Japhet Tanganga, none of them are in Trippier’s class.

Tottenham should have challenged Newcastle for his signature if it wouldn’t have been an embarrassment.

Yet, equally, a place in the Champions League, maybe even the Europa League for now, and Conte will be making progress at Tottenham. Expectations are lower there, which is why Manchester United’s stunted aspirations make little sense. The club of Cristiano Ronaldo, of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, is settling.

Ralf Rangnick has struggled to improve United's performances since becoming interim boss

Ralf Rangnick has struggled to improve United’s performances since becoming interim boss

A club who see themselves as equal to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, have looked beyond the best available manager in case he gives their players too much to think about. It’s preposterous.

The January transfer window is often best avoided in all but dire emergencies, yet there is no point Tottenham recruiting Conte unless they give him more to work with. As for Manchester United, one wonders where they go from here.

‘Conte wants to be able to programme players to the minute details, we were not sure that was a great fit for us,’ continued the executive.

As that would appear to rule out Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp, too, one wonders what is.

AFCON host cities could be deadly – have we learned nothing from Togo attack?

Watford lost their battle to keep Ismaila Sarr at home for the Africa Cup of Nations, so he left this week to join up with Senegal. He hasn’t played since November 20, which rather undermines Senegal’s claim that his knee ligament injury is no more than a ‘spurious’ excuse.

Then again, routine orthopaedic procedures could be the least of it for participants, given the location of the tournament.

By the second round there is the potential for Senegal to play matches in Garoua, in north-west Cameroon, where six countries will face games during the group stage. A further six will play in Limbe in the south-west.

The foreign office currently advises against all but essential travel to both cities, due to domestic conflicts. There have been 80 bombs go off in western Cameroon in the past year, due to unrest between the French-speaking centre and the Anglophone regions. Garoua and Limbe are both in Anglophone areas.

And, yes, there is a lot of unreasonable resistance to the tournament in Europe; many managers and employers whose attitudes appear colonialist. 

However, the Confederation of African Football do not have a great record for prioritising safety. In 2010, Togo’s team bus was attacked in the disputed Angolan province Cabinda, leaving three dead and nine injured. It was a wholly predictable tragedy, given the terrorist activity in the region.

The Angolan government wanted games in Cabinda, however, to demonstrate its safety for investors because it is oil-rich. Coincidentally, troubled Limbe is the centre of Cameroon’s oil industry, too. 

An Angolan Police officer walks by the Togo team coach two days after an attack on their bus

An Angolan Police officer walks by the Togo team coach two days after an attack on their bus 

When tournament mascot Mola the Lion — so a human in a lion costume — toured there recently he was flanked by more than a dozen armed soldiers and wore a bullet-proof vest. 

Yet Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea all have group matches in Limbe, which is also slated for two fixtures in the round of 16. Garoua is due to host a quarter-final. 

This country let itself down as host of the European Championship in the summer, but there is a difference between drunken hooliganism and murder. Yet 12 years on from Cabinda, the CAF have not learned. We remain in a world of ‘let’s pretend’ in which all host nations or venues are equally challenged, and every region or nation deserves its chance.

Nobody should argue against the right of African players to represent their country in a competition that pre-dates the European Championship, at a time that best suits the African continent.

Let us hope, though, that there is no human price for the airbrushing of Cameroon’s domestic turmoil.

Giles is a man without a vision… beyond self preservation

Systemic change. That is what Ashley Giles wants. He won’t say how English cricket gets it, he can’t say how he intends to deliver it. But he does know he should be in the top job while the floundering continues.

Giles is the ECB’s director of cricket and bafflingly proud of his record. ‘When I came in we were fifth in the world in Tests, third in T20 and No 1 in ODIs,’ he said. ‘We’re now fourth in Tests, first in T20 and second in ODIs.’ 

That’s one better in Tests, one worse in ODIs and as for T20, maybe Australia, the world champions, or New Zealand, the runners-up, might have something to say about England’s exalted status.

Anyway, Giles knows change won’t happen short-term. Next season’s fixtures are already out and the red-ball game is the undercard once more. 

Ashley Giles is the ECB’s director of cricket and bafflingly proud of his record in charge

Ashley Giles is the ECB’s director of cricket and bafflingly proud of his record in charge 

Tom Harrison, ECB chief executive and effectively Giles’ boss, is due a bonus in the millions for the successful implementation of the Hundred, a branch of the game that contains little benefit for international cricket at all.

It is not enough for Giles to continue blaming Covid, or random misfortune, or historic failures. 

Speaking prior to the Sydney Test this week, he seemed a man without a vision beyond self-preservation. It isn’t good enough. If he’s the director of cricket he needs to direct cricket; if he doesn’t know how, the ECB must find someone who does.

Finish the Ashes if the urn is claimed

Baseball’s World Series is the best of seven matches, so the first team to record four victories wins. And then they stop, because it’s over. It doesn’t matter if you have bought tickets for the seventh game, or in some seasons the sixth or even fifth. It’s done.

There’s a winner. Why continue?

This century the World Series has been completed in four games on four occasions, in five games on six and in six games on five. Only seven of the last 22 have gone the distance.

It is unfortunate for fans, who cancel travel plans and receive refunds where the thrill of a season finale should be, but it’s honest. Once the prize has been awarded, where’s the beef?

Maybe if the Ashes was like that, England might show more mettle in Australia. Maybe if there was no pretence around redemption for the losers, the early Tests would not be surrendered cheaply.

Cricket should look to baseball and bring the Ashes to an end when the urn is claimed

Cricket should look to baseball and bring the Ashes to an end when the urn is claimed 

What is going on in Sydney right now is the antithesis of elite, competitive sport. Joe Root may talk of an inspiring finish for England, but we all know the reality. And if players were on the plane home, they would too.

Dead rubbers skew the numbers. England have only won a single series in Australia since 1987 and in that time, when Australia have won the Ashes at home, England have not claimed a single Test with the urn at stake. Australia’s record in those live Tests is 18 wins and three draws, but once the result is in, England improve. Dead rubbers show eight Australian wins, three to England and two draws.

England start playing once the final whistle has blown, but sadly dead rubbers are so ingrained in Test cricket’s culture we see nothing wrong. Baseball’s way is better — it only matters if it matters.

Selling Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a thankless task 

As thankless tasks go, the poor soul charged with extracting top dollar for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Arsenal is right up there with Novak Djokovic’s travel agent.

Aubameyang’s latest contribution to the cause is stopping off in Dubai for a night out, while on his way to the Africa

Cup of Nations. He met up with the Gabon squad and promptly tested positive for Covid.

So having let down his club, he’s let down his country. Given his extortionate wages — in the region of £350,000 a week — anyone who welcomes this troublesome pest must be desperate. It would appear Arsenal are stuck with him, much as they were with Mesut Ozil.

FIA cares more for banqueting protocols than racing  

Unsurprisingly, Lewis Hamilton has not been replying to messages from FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem over his no-show at the company gala. Maybe he’s still a trifle displeased over the drivers’ championship he would have won had FIA race director Michael Masi decided it wasn’t in the script.

Strangely, since then, it has emerged the FIA cares more for regulations around banqueting protocols than it does the actual racing.

Lewis Hamilton has not been replying to messages to the new president of the FIA

Lewis Hamilton has not been replying to messages to the new president of the FIA

‘We have to respect the rules and we have to respect the integrity of the FIA,’ announced Ben Sulayem, as if the soiree, not the final race, is the most important event of the year.

No doubt the star will be back in time for next season; but we wish Formula 1 and the FIA all the best with their precious Netflix show if he isn’t.

Djokovic shouldn’t be in Australia 

Novak Djokovic shouldn’t be in some halfway house in Melbourne until Monday — he shouldn’t be in Australia at all. Several weeks ago, when Djokovic was still playing is-he-isn’t-he and will-he-won’t-he with the authorities over his vaccination status and participation in the Australian Open, his tournament credentials should have been withdrawn.

The Australian government could have explained to Craig Tiley, as tournament director, that in the midst of a serious global health crisis, it was counter-productive to entertain and celebrate a man who has become the public face of anti-vaccination.

Djokovic has made himself a divisive figure and what society needs now is unity and a collective sense of social responsibility. 

We really haven’t time for people who think polluted water can be healed with positive thought or that vaccination, whether against smallpox, TB, polio or Covid, hasn’t been among the greatest gifts to the human race.

Novak Djokovic has made himself a divisive figure at a time when unity is very much needed

Novak Djokovic has made himself a divisive figure at a time when unity is very much needed


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