Prior to Manchester United’s Europa League opener against Real Sociedad tonight, former Red Devils striker Louis Saha spoke exclusively with Compare.bet. The former French international, who also played for Everton, Spurs and Fulham, spoke about the goalscoring debut of new signing Antony, as well as his thoughts on the blossoming partnership between Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez. Saha also discussed the depth of the United squad, highlighting the tough task ahead for the likes of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to regain their places in the starting eleven.
- In-form Fernandes unlocked by ‘pass-master’ Eriksen
- Casemiro will have to “work hard” to displace McTominay
- Rashford is United’s most dangerous player: “He has that deadly look in his eyes”
- Spell on the sidelines could benefit Maguire: ‘He has to show that he’s still captain’
- Shaw should be concerned by ‘Evra-like’ Malacia
- Liverpool have hit a plateau without Mane, their run “could be over”
DB: After the game against Arsenal that’s four wins in a row for United under Erik ten Hag – what did you think of the performance on the weekend?
LS: I think it was a great performance, something we [United fans] have been asking for, for quite a while. We’ve been looking for consistency, a good team spirit, a good foundation to build on. Having the players we do, if we have these things then we have all the chance in the world to get results. Sometimes you’re not playing well and you feel like you can get a result because of these things. Even against a good Arsenal, who maybe deserved more in certain parts of the game. It was a professional performance and an entertaining one too. We’re seeing basic things that we haven’t seen for a while, like running forward! We’re seeing Rashford able to energise the forward line with his runs. There’s definitely more space for the midfield to operate when you have that kind of threat up front. All this was really great to watch.
DB: It definitely was an entertaining game, and we saw Arsenal and United playing a more entertaining brand of football than they have in seasons past. Do you think we also saw a return of intensity around this fixture, similar to your playing days against Arsenal?
LS: Yeah, I always remember the physicality of those Arsenal sides first. We knew we had to match Arsenal [physically]. We knew they were going to dominate possession and have a nice, slick style of very technical football. At the same time, we had that ammunition, where physically we could provide something different – something that Arsenal at that time could not respond to, at times. All this was on show again against Arsenal. I remember in my time, we had to struggle with Thierry Henry’s physicality, with Vieira in midfield. But we matched them, we had Roy Keane, for example. That’s what we saw, it was a brilliant tactical game. It’s all about details. I saw good intensity, I saw people going into challenges, especially Martinez. I see three, four or five instances where he’s pressing, and he seems very aware of what’s going on around him. I like his intensity. They definitely deserved the result.
DB: A lot of the talk has been about the big-money signings like Martinez and Antony, but it was Eriksen who won the man of the match award against Arsenal. What do you think he’s added to this United side?
LS: I think it adds directness. It’s a different formula and it allows Bruno Fernandes to be a bit more deadly going forward with more freedom. He’s a very very smart player. He has great quality on the ball and dictates the rhythm of the team and the midfield with his passing range. He has legs too, he can run! You see him pressing high and a minute later making a run down the middle to assist Rashford… For anyone to defend against that, where he’s a bit of a box-to-box player, but also a master passer, it’s tough. He’s a very very special player. The manager has said that these players need to play a lot of games together to really understand the capacity of certain players. We are seeing that the team is starting to gel, and that is going to make things really tough for the opposition. The mentality is right, the level of aggression is right, and we’re also starting to see enjoyment from the players. We’re starting to see combinations on the pitch in the last four games that we’ve been asking for. Even on the bench, we’re seeing players come on and impact the game, immediately doing what they’ve been asked to do. They are not losing a second or half a second because they’re not thinking, they’re not wondering ‘where do I need to press, where do I need to run forward?’. All this is amazing to see.
DB: At 2-1, Arteta made a triple change, seemingly going all-out attack with five forward players on the pitch. Do you think cost his side a chance at getting a draw?
LS: Yeah, he may have thought that after many times not getting a result at Old Trafford, where they haven’t had much success over the years, that he should try something to see if this United side is still fragile. It’s a tactical game – it’s something he tried, but it just didn’t work out. United had the right approach and were able to punish Arsenal. To be fair to Mikel, I think he did the right things to test the United side, to see if these three games were not just a fluke, but United responded well.
DB: United have won all of the games Varane and Martinez have started together – what do you make of them as a defensive partnership?
LS: I really like it! Since the Brentford game, where Martinez was taken off at halftime, he has responded really well. He’s had back-to-back performances where you say ‘oh, hang on a minute, this guy is special’. His ability to read the game is so good, and he has a partner who has won everything. I can see this partnership growing as their understanding and communication gets stronger. Varane is quick, and Martinez has great anticipation, they could be a brilliant pair.
DB: Scott McTominay has been a constant feature in ten Hag’s starting lineups so far. With the way he’s playing, do you think Casemiro will find it difficult to break into the first eleven?
LS: It’s important to know as a player at Manchester United that no matter who you are you have to work hard to play, and Scott is playing really well. He has youth on his side and he’s done well. I do think that Casemiro’s experience will help him and the squad. I’m sure about that. It’s a very long season and there will be injuries and resting, players will dip in and out of form, so everyone in the squad has to be ready. And this squad for Manchester United is amazing.
DB: Antony featured for just under 60 minutes and scored on his debut. What do you think he will bring to this United side?
LS: It’s great that he scored on his debut, it’s very helpful for your confidence especially when you’ve come in from abroad, the level of intensity. We’ve seen Sancho struggle for six months to a year. Fitness is where Antony will need a couple of months, but yes to start this way is great because he’s a technical player with a lot of confidence and will have to show that as quick as possible. He has been boosted by the fact the manager wanted him and this is clear, it seems he’s the missing link. It’s good motivation for those not in the squad at the moment to do more, to score more, to assist more, to defend better. All those players now have a target to get in the team, to do that you have to do what we saw Sunday from every player, and that’s good. When you have those standouts, buying quality players, it’s brilliant.
DB: Marcus Rashford is ten Hag’s preferred option as a number nine and he scored a brace against Arsenal. He was long positioned as a left winger, but that’s clearly not how ten Hag sees things. Do you think he’s at his best as a number nine?
LS: He has that deadly look in his eyes, like ‘ok I have to be selfish and very focused on hurting the opposition’, not to come too close to the ball all the time and say ‘I’m good technically and can do flip flaps and tricks’. We know Rashford can do that, the main threat he has is pace and deadly runs without thinking. When you have this power in you, you are the most dangerous player and have the biggest potential in Europe because of that. By getting those basics, running at players with full pace without thinking too much, this is where I think Rashford is great. It doesn’t matter if it’s left-wing, right-wing, striker, he can play everywhere. It’s just about the approach and simplicity, not trying to prove the wrong stuff on the field. You have to be deadly and concentrate on hurting the opposition, whether a right back or centre back it doesn’t matter. Sometimes those guys are asking too many questions about tactics and everything that’s needed to perform. I think it’s the wrong approach because when you have that much quality, pace, stamina, skills, the height and body shape that he’s got, the guy can do everything. It’s just a matter of focusing on the situation and doing it at full pace, intensity and with aggression, and you’re going to be fine.
DB: Ronaldo started his fourth consecutive game on the bench. What advice would you give to Ronaldo during this spell outside of the starting eleven?
LS: No one can give advice to Cristiano Ronaldo. The only thing he’s got is his confidence and what he’s done for many years which is to keep working hard, that’s what he’s done, that’s what he’s doing. I’m sure that he’s waiting for his opportunity. You’ve seen him be frustrated because he’s been unlucky in certain situations, but it’s going to come. He’ll keep working hard and getting those chances and into situations, he has the body language and desire to score, that’s what you need. It’s just time, it’s going to come. He won’t face this situation all season I’m sure.
DB: We saw the cameras cut to Ronaldo applauding as United celebrated Antony’s goal. It’s a small detail, but does that perhaps tell you that Ronaldo’s attitude has changed?
LS: It was a difficult situation. You are a player known to be the best player in the world for the past 10 to 15 years. So it’s really hard in terms of accepting personally you’re going to be on the bench and not in the Champions League. The situation now is like ‘Ok, I will still show you that in any situation I will still be the best I can be’. That’s what he has been doing. Maybe he hasn’t scored, but he understands that situations and parameters are changing, the window isn’t open anymore. The agent hasn’t made the right moves, communicating too early or not being precise enough. All those things are situations he hasn’t been accustomed to. But the man is a professional, he adapts and is an amble guy because you can’t have all this success in 15 years without working hard when you are still at the top. I’m sure in this situation he will work hard and still show everyone he’s one of the best players if not the best player on the field. He can score goals, that’s for sure. And he will energise Rashford, energise anyone going forward because they think ‘Ok we have Ronaldo sitting on the bench and if I don’t score this weekend or next weekend he’s going to come and score three and put me on the bench for I don’t know how long.’ That’s the type of pressure he’s getting, it’s just a matter of time until Cristiano finds his way.
DB: Club captain Harry Maguire has only started two of six games in the Premier League this season. He’s received a lot of criticism from the media over the last year or so. He came on and got booked almost instantly. Of course, no one wants to sit on the bench, but do you think some time out of the spotlight will be good for him?
LS: Yes it could be. He was under pressure to perform even better than normal as club captain, you have to lead and show body language that you’re confident and efficient because you’re someone people are taking as an example. So it’s a tough situation, really difficult one, I just hope that he finds his way. Again, as a top professional player, his attitude is right. He’s not complaining, he hasn’t said a word, he has to show in training that he’s still club captain in some way, motivating the lads in the dressing room and during games until he gets his chance. We can only hope, but it’s a tough situation because maybe with respect to Cristiano, he doesn’t have anything to prove. He did brilliantly last year. But Maguire has suffered and had a poor season and the memes don’t help at all. I do feel for him, I really do. But he’s going to show that he’s a quality defender and when asked to defend he will do it.
DB: It’s been reported that Southgate has reassured Maguire his place in the team is safe despite being dropped. Luke Shaw is another player who seems to have lost his spot in the starting eleven. The left-back position is perhaps more competitive for England, with Southgate having played Chilwell and even Kieran Trippier there in the past. Would you be concerned if you were Luke Shaw?
LS: Of course. Anyone in the squad who is not concerned about their spot is not professional is not a competitor. You have to be concerned, you have to work hard because nothing is guaranteed or taken for granted here and Luke Shaw will have to work hard because Manchester United is a big club. You will bring players, everyone in the world wants to play for United, wants to come to the Premier League. You have competition every day. So you have to maintain quality, don’t think that what you have done is enough. So I hope that he understands the message, the left-back playing instead of him at the moment is a good one. He’s got the potential to put you on the bench for quite a while. He’s been consistent playing four in a row, hasn’t made a mistake, and showed real commitment and focus that’s going to help him do more going forward. It reminds me a bit of Patrice Evra for sure. Patrice has said it’s a bit too early to compare, it is, but he’s got the same type of body shape, and can definitely go forward, but the main thing at first when Patrice arrived was he had to defend well. He had to really understand his mission on the left flank. I think he’s done well, and hasn’t made mistakes. So Luke Shaw has big competition which is good for Manchester United.
DB: Bruno Fernandes has been in good form as of late, even setting up one of Rashford’s goals against Arsenal. He’s been wearing the armband too, have you noticed anything particularly different about his play since ten Hag’s arrival?
LS: I think that in terms of his energy and body language, nothing has really changed. Mostly when we think about his performances, the problem that Bruno had was making the right choices. Scoring goals is a really important element of his game, but it would hit the post or get saved, and people would criticise him in some ways, so his confidence level dropped a bit. But his energy and dedication on the field has never dropped, he’s one of those guys that runs 11km every game and he wants to be the first one to press when something wrong happens to the team. I really like the guy and its all about consistency for him, because when he hits form, he can do it for 30 games – we saw that when he arrived. With Bruno, Eriksen and Rashford back to a certain level it’s going to be amazing. With Anthony Martial to come back as well, if Manchester United can maintain this level, particularly what they showed against Arsenal, where we saw the foundations of what they want to be with the ball and the spirit they showed, it was very very impressive, and Bruno was at the core of that.
DB: Last time we spoke, you said there’s no reason why Manchester United can’t qualify for the Champions League. Given how teams at the top are dropping points, do you think this team can get involved in a title race?
LS: They have now played two potential teams in the top four, and beaten them both. So it’s just about consistency, in the Premier League, nothing else matters. It’s about having aggression in your approach, and you have to do that every game. To qualify for the Champions League you have to do that every game, week in, week out. Sometimes you will lose but if you do that you will be successful. Qualifying for the Champions League is what the manager wants, what the club needs, and what the fans deserve. That’s it. There is nothing more to say because this club is too big to not be competing for everything – Premier League, Champions League, Cups. If they continue to show confidence and aggression as their foundation they can achieve.
DB: Your former club Everton held Liverpool to a draw. Liverpool have only won 2 of their 6 league matches and lost to Napoli last night. They’ve had a great run over the last five years or so, but with some key players ageing, do you think that run is coming to an end?
LS: The run could be over, it would be alright for me! The transfer window is closed and they do have a lot of very good players, but they underestimated the impact Sadio Mané had. He is someone that can create something even when the team is not playing well. I don’t think they have a player as good as Mané who can do that. Their ageing squad is one thing, but it’s all about mentality. Maybe their intensity is lacking a bit, and this is where I say Sadio had a kind of key element, he would do things nobody would expect, and some of the Liverpool players have plateaued. It seems like the other teams now know where they are going, and Liverpool needs to find a solution as quick as possible.