Former Manchester United striker Louis Saha spoke exclusively with Compare.bet, ahead of United’s return to Premier League action against Liverpool at Anfield this weekend. The former Red spoke about the lack of competition at United and why Rashford shouldn’t be in this position of responsibility, and that United need a genuine goal scorer like van Nistelrooy. Saha mentioned that he would have broken the bank for Mbappe and likes the look of Zapata, who could fit the bill for United.
The former France international also spoke highly of his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo and of his dedication before and after training every day, and what United would give now to have him as a role model at the club for a youth-filled squad to aspire to.
Did you get the chance to watch the game against Newcastle and how did you assess the game?
I only saw glimpses and highlights but I wasn’t in a good mood about it. It was very painful and I saw the interviews after the game, and the statements after the game were pretty painful from pundits like Gary Neville. There is a lack of an explanation in how we can get back, yet I’m still very hopeful that things can get sorted when a few players come back, and there are big players coming back. It’s a very young squad with a lack of senior players and they are having to have a bigger impact than before, and the last few games have been really hard.
Harry Maguire had more touches in the opposition box and had more shots on goal than any other Manchester United player. Does that show that United are having trouble getting into scoring areas at the moment?
I don’t think it’s just struggling to create the chances, but it’s that there is a tendency in this era of football that football is played on the sides, and the strikers themselves tend to wait for the perfect ball so they don’t commit that much in the box. When the ball is in that area you need to have three or four players committing. You have to commit whether it is a corner or anything else, you just have to be consistently hitting that box as a striker. You can’t have that luxury of waiting for balls that are not targeted for you. As a forward you have to think how can a defender touch the ball before me; it doesn’t work!
What Manchester United would give to have Ruud van Nistelrooy right now?
Oh my god! I heard Rio Ferdinand say that to be a leader you need to be surrounded by leaders and that you learn from the best. And as a striker, it’s pretty much the same. When you have that feeling that someone next to you is absolutely obsessed like van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo, all those players, when I saw Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord training, they were obsessed; they wanted to touch the ball in the box and they want to score as many as they can, and that gives you the competition.
Lukaku and Sanchez have moved on so there is more focus on Rashford. How do you think that Solskjaer can get the best out of Rashford this season?
I think he’s a terrific player but it comes back to what I just said; I think he’s been trying to figure out how to get luck rather than have a role model. There are other youngsters in the team who look at Rashford as the man they need to displace. We had Solskjaer, Tevez, Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Giggsy; all those players could put me in the stands, so I had to work 10 times harder than what I thought was normal to get a place because those guys are that good and already proved that they are immense players because they had won trophies, whereas the current players have not yet proved themselves by winning trophies. It’s too much and I feel for Rashford because he should not be in this situation right now.
Do you think there’s a lack of competition if anything?
Yes, competition is healthy. The potential to work harder is not there because there are no visual challengers. These guys can’t see anyone that is going to put them in the stands.
With the lack of goals at the moment, a lot of pundits have been talking about United’s decision to let Lukaku and Sanchez go. In hindsight, how do you think United will feel about those decisions?
I think they were right to let the players leave. Definitely if they had expressed that they don’t want to remain there so you have to understand that it’s not just about economics but the main management, and if those guys don’t want to be there it’s not right for the spirit where they’re trying to build something new. This is really hard because those players are not small players. They were very useful players so I think they are right in their actual decision to get the move that they wanted and they are happy, but the situation right now is obviously to replace those guys. You have to have replacements for competition. You have to have replacements because we want to score goals. The players that we have right now you could see that they could realistically score 10 to 15 goals, but is that enough?
Has the international break come at a good time for United? The next Premier League game will be away at Anfield; how tough is that going to be?
Yes it’s going to be massive. Paul (Pogba) will be back but then there are maybe other injuries when players come back, but they’re not at a place to challenge Liverpool right now. It would be dramatic after several bad results in a row were they get to get a result. On the international break, a lot of players won’t be there so it’s hard to implement any strategy, because the main players are not there.
A lot of pundits say that United should be strengthening their attack in January, Louis. Who do you think is the most complete striker in the world at the moment and is there anyone that you would like to see join United?
If you ask me I would break the bank for Mbappe, but now it’s too late. But when you look at strikers it’s a dying breed, Lewandowski a rare example of someone who is left, and I don’t see many players that can easily fit up front. I had views on some strikers like Zapata who I think is a decent player, very strong. There is a need for somebody up front who is strong enough to hold the ball and to give time and space to the players like Paul Pogba and McTominay to create something in midfield to put passes together. You’re asking a lot from young players because passing the ball around and having nice touches, it just looks too nice and it doesn’t work. This football is really down to possession, but hard on young players especially when they don’t have confidence. You need a couple of big strong characters to talk to people, to do the dirty jobs, winning duels, and to help the fans react. I think that’s what we want to see. When we lose we have that challenge that nobody likes. Passing is nice but you don’t hurt anybody.
Talking of complete strikers, Louis, I read an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson who described you as the most complete striker that he had ever worked with. What does it mean to hear something like that from the most successful manager of all-time?
It is an honour but for once I will say that he is a bit wrong. It’s van Nistelrooy for me as a striker. I consider myself more as a forward, and I had a mentality that I could score two or three goals and I would be happy with this. A striker has the mentality that he wants to score five goals if he gets six chances. I was a bit more like Wayne Rooney. Wazza is a bit more complete in the way that he wants to score goals, he wants to be at the end of attacking situations and he could also recover the ball inside midfield or give an assist, and he would be happy about it. A striker is a different mentality and that is what we are lacking right now. I’m sorry but when I look at the attack right now, there is no striker. There are forwards. Forwards are good, they can score goals, but they don’t score 30 goals. Van Nistelrooy would. I’m sure that Sir Alex Ferguson would recognise what I’m saying.
I just remember Ruud scoring tap in after tap in when I was growing up. He didn’t care if he scored from 20 yards or 1 yard; a goal was a goal.
Exactly. And that’s what we need to see. Going into the box you need someone who is actually upset when he doesn’t get the ball. If you have someone in the box who is upset when he doesn’t get the ball when there is a situation, I’m telling you that this team will score goals.
United may strengthen in attack, but is there anywhere else that you’d like to see them get some reinforcements in?
I think in midfield with the Pogba situation. I have said it before but I feel for him because he is the only one who has been asked to do two jobs. He has to be strong and recover balls, and also score goals. He has to be more than just a good player; he has to be influential. He is the only one who has been asked to do more. He needs some players around him to take that burden away from him.
Is the key to getting the best out of Paul Pogba to buy another midfielder to take the pressure off him?
Yes and pressure is all about competition, and because he has a big ego he wants to be the best. When he see someone as good as him, he wants to be challenged and that’s human. He wants to be winning within the best team. If he is playing against the top teams he will play better.
Do you think that is why he plays so well for France, having Kante, Matuidi and Griezmann around him?
It definitely does help because when those guys do things he knows about it and there is that guarantee that when you pass the ball, you can go forward because you know that Griezmann can hold that ball and do something with it, you have that guarantee. And they breed a lot of confidence to each other. And sometimes that (guarantee) is what he’s missing, because the split seconds have a big impact on communication to the team.
United teams that you played in had the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs who consistently scored goals. Are United lacking contributions in terms of goals from their midfield?
Yes, you have to go and do more than what you are expected to do. This is why you play in a big club like United. You have to do more than what’s considered normal. There’s a lack of confidence at the moment, which is understandable. It is easy for me to judge because I am not playing and I am comparing two different eras and two different squads. This squad is probably too young to be able to compete with the teams that we want them to compete with.
Many Manchester United fans would dream of seeing Ronaldo back in a Manchester United shirt. What was it like to play with Ronaldo and just what impact could he have on a team?]
All I can say to you frankly that I appreciate Cristiano even more today seeing him play with Juventus, because the guy is way older than when I first met him and played with him. What he does right now as a football player; it is insane. The physicality that he has still got, that drive. Imagine the impact he would have on the forwards that we have right now. They would see the obsession that this guy has got and that would be a great example. He is more obsessed than anybody I have seen. Even van Nistelrooy was not in his league in the way that he is acting in front of goal. He wants every ball over the 90 minutes and it is a joy to see. His dedication is unbelievable so to see him back at United would be more than a dream, because I’m sure that he would have a massive impact. Maybe less goals, but it would be amazing.
Did you physically see the amount of hours that Ronaldo put in at the gym, or doing extra training with shooting and free kicks when you played with him at United?
It was insane. He was always early doing his prevention work to make sure that his body was super fit. Then after the session I remember we would run a few full lengths of the pitch, and he was dribbling at full pace. When you think it is all natural, it is hard work. People think that he could just dribble but it was hard work building that control of the ball. It is amazing because the most important element of his hard work is his belief. He knows how good he is because he worked hard, and when you work hard you don’t have any doubts. It’s like working for an exam when you know that you have worked hard, you will get the result.
Following Manchester United you moved to Everton. Do you still have a big love for Everton after your time playing there?
Yes of course I do. I didn’t have the opportunity to win a trophy with them and this was one of my regrets because I play to win trophies and I really wanted that to happen with the club, and it left something incomplete for me. I loved the club in the way that they made me feel very welcomed and I have great memories from my time there.
Everton have spent a lot of money in recent transfer windows, but they find themselves in the relegation zone at the moment. What do you think is going wrong for Everton so far this season?
This is the Premier League. Sometimes you feel very confident and you’re scoring goals and you can upset the big teams, but the Premier League is all about consistency. That’s what many fans have said about the Everton teams, that sometimes they are inconsistent, where they could defend well for 70 minutes but then they could make a mistake. Now in the Premier League every team has two or three players who can do something unpredictable. It’s very difficult because it’s not just about the transfer market but it’s all about the links and consistency and that every player understands their job and their duty. It’s not a formula that you can just find so I think it is a combination of things that have gone wrong.
Having played for both Manchester United and Everton What do you think about to Liverpool being favourites for the premier league title?
It is painful, but the way that they are doing it is a joy to see. If you all winning with dirty football you could say it, but I love football more than being a fan of any one team. When I see them play I’m sorry and it is painful to say, but it is a joy to watch because it is attacking football and they play with heart. It’s more than just about a region whether it’s Manchester or Liverpool. It is dedication, desire, they work hard, play attacking football and they want to communicate that with the fans. I enjoy it and I hope that Manchester United and Everton can replicate it, because that identity is there with Liverpool.
Sadio Mane is playing incredibly at the moment do you think he is the best player in the Premier League at the moment?
To me he is definitely one of the best players in the world. I think he is underrated. He is a big part of the attacking football over the last two years at Liverpool and he is very consistent. When I want to play football, I want to play football like Mane. As simple as that.
Can anyone stop Liverpool or will they finally win the Premier League?
I think that the only team that can beat Liverpool is Liverpool, if they don’t play the way that they are playing. I think that they were very unlucky last year and they are very consistent. It’s about working hard and they are ready to do the hard stuff. You need to do more than people expect and I look at three-quarters of the players are very talented but they work harder than anybody. That’s it. You look at Chelsea when they were unplayable, the old Arsenal sides, you look at Thierry Henry – he worked harder than anyone!
Was it very similar when you were at Manchester United? There were players like Keane, Beckham, Butt, Giggs who were obviously talented footballers but also worked incredibly hard?
Yes. Trust me, you felt bad if you didn’t work hard. You cannot come into training and just say you were having a bad day. It doesn’t work.
You obviously suffered with several injuries during your career, which led to you missing the Champions League final In Moscow. You also missed out on playing in the World Cup final in 2006 due to a yellow card. How hard is it to accept things like that as a professional footballer and how do you manage to deal with those things?
I think it is really hard on the mind. When your mind is into football in the way that it is your life it is really, really hard. For a day or two it is unbearable, because it is what I worked really hard for. But physically it is not like I’m going to war or a bullet has hit me and nobody died, I’m just talking about football. The thing that I say is that I am very privileged whether I’m talking about the World Cup or about the Champions League final. How many people get to play football at this level? So that’s how easy it is. I really enjoyed my time as a football player and I have met a lot of people that watched me, so I feel very blessed and really appreciate all the times whether good or bad, I really enjoyed it.