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AUTHOR: Marcus Lawrence · Updated: 18th Jun 2021

Louis Saha Exclusive: Kanté deserves to win the Ballon d’Or

Copyright: imago/PanoramiC


Following France’s opening Euro 2020 match victory over Germany, former Manchester United striker Louis Saha spoke exclusively with The former French international, who also played for Fulham and Everton, spoke about Paul Pogba’s future, what Jadon Sancho would bring to Manchester United, and also tipped N’Golo Kanté to win the Ballon d’Or. Saha also shared his admiration for Harry Kane, claiming that United need the England captain to bridge the gap to rivals Manchester City.







DB: What did you think of France’s opening game against Germany?

LS: It was very professional and pragmatic. There were some very encouraging performances individually from Pogba, Benzema on his return to official competition, so it was a very important start to win against a massive team. Germany are still one of the favourites with the experience they have. Considering it’s the first game of the competition and we’re coming off a season played during the pandemic, it’s a strong message to the rest of the competition that France are going to be right there – I’m not guaranteeing they’ll win but it brings a lot of confidence. I was enjoying the link-up play going forward that was sometimes missing, but the front three offer a combination that’s really hard to defend against. 

DB: The game featured an outstanding performance from Paul Pogba, who was the man of the match. He seems to receive more adulation for his performances in a France shirt than a United one. Do you see a difference in his performances for club and country?

LS: Yeah, they are two different environments and two different positions. I don’t think he has been praised that much in France because he’s had some great performances that’s for sure, but he’s not praised as if he’s fulfilled his full potential. It obviously goes back to your club’s success. If your club is not playing well or not doing enough, you are struggling. So he’s been asked to play several roles for United, which is not the case with France because you can definitely see everyone has their role and it can sometimes be scrappy when defending and that’s fine. If you do that with United, people will want to see more, expect him to bomb forward and be creative all the time. There are other players to do that in the French side, so when you have the quality of Mbappe, Benzema and Griezmann, that is also their job, not just Paul’s. He’s got that ‘yellow jersey’ off, compared to his situation at United, especially in previous years. Because when Bruno Fernandes arrived he simplified the situation. I think sometimes the criticism towards Pogba has been unfair, but he possibly hasn’t been helped because of the way he handles the media or the pressure of agents, so he’s not been at his absolute best, but I don’t think he’s been helped by external factors.

DB: He’s set to enter the final year of his Man Utd contract and will be able to negotiate with clubs outside the Premier League from January. Do you think staying at Manchester United would be the best move for Pogba’s career?

LS: As a fan, yes [laughs]. I’m a fan of him and a fan of United and wherever this guy [Pogba] will go, he can definitely help a team win the Champions League which I’m sure is what he’s looking for. When you remain in this situation of arriving into the final year of your contract, there of course is some uncertainty about his future. As things stand, he remains at United and maybe he didn’t expect that and maybe discussions over his future would be done very quietly and discreetly. This hasn’t been the case which I think is maybe a mistake by the club — I don’t know how they’ve handled that. But it’s really hard for me on the outside to judge when I don’t have the information. But as a fan that’s how I’m seeing it, I’m like, ‘why all the speculation’? I’m sure that any player wants to know where he’s going to go. As fans we want to see him playing well and having stability with his performances. 

DB: Alongside Pogba in the midfield, Kante also had a great game, following a man of the match performance in the Champions League final. The two seem to complement each other really well. Do you think United can learn anything from France’s midfield setup?

LS: It’s always nice to compare, but at the same time, it’s two different environments. There is one, where you’re playing week in week out, whereas the other one, you’re only playing occasionally, so the capacity to train and do stuff there involves less pressure. When you represent your country, you feel like you’re in a configuration that is snappy, so in terms of concentration and the ability to make mistakes, you don’t have that luxury.  So when you look at Kante’s game, obviously for me he’s a top player in his position, allowing Pogba to do way more offensively. Or even having the role that Deschamps is asking him because they should be releasing the ball straight away for Mbappe or Griezmann. Kind of like a playmaker or Benzema when he drops deep. So they have that link that is very interesting and very balanced in the transition.  You know exactly the role, you don’t make mistakes in positioning yourself left, right or centre because you feel you are the playmaker or the box-to-box player or you are the one to defend. I don’t think that for the last year or two his role was ever set, so he didn’t know exactly his position. Some identified his quality technically and asked him to bomb forwards and have been asking him to score more goals and get more assists. That’s not totally his role, but maybe it should be to break up the defence because he can hold onto the pressure from the position and release the ball like he’s done in that game [against Germany]. He’s been immense because he was able to be more professional and less fancy. 

DB: We’ve become accustomed to seeing Ronaldo and Messi dominate the competition for the Ballon d’Or, but the bookies have slashed odds on Kante. He’s now the third favourite, ahead of Messi, Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Kevin de Bruyne. Do you think he can win the award this year? 

LS: If he did, I believe he would deserve it. There is no player, not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi, that has been man of the match in both legs of the Champions League semi-final and final. Dominating the midfield alone whilst at the same time helping players moving forward. Going forward he was just a force. I haven’t seen anyone do anything like that. I do remember some other winners of the Ballon d’Or, no disrespect to them and I won’t name names, but earning this prize, this amazing prize without those types of performances. So it would not be a scandal at all if Kante gets his hands on the trophy, he’s been unreal. He plays as two players, playing outside of his role, moving forward and doing things that he’s not supposed to do. Those aren’t the characteristics of Messi or Ronaldo, where they stick to their job, scoring goals and amazing individual things, but it’s also about being able to do both. He’s unbelievable.

DB: Behind Kante and Pogba, we saw France’s defence hold strong against Germany, keeping a clean sheet, thanks in no small part to Raphael Varane’s performance. He’s been tipped to move on from Real Madrid this summer, with Manchester United allegedly among his suitors. With Maguire and Lindelof established as regular starters under Ole, what kind of impact do you think Varane would have on this United side if he was to make a move to Old Trafford?

LS: He’s an amazing player. He may have been overshadowed by Ramos because he gets fewer goals and headlines, but he has that tendency to remain calm and very focused on his job, which is the defensive role and part of why he’s recognised as one of the top defenders. The move could help him improve again and have that more aggressive manner and Man United for sure would be a perfect fit to help the squad catch up with Manchester City and Liverpool, and a signing to help the core of the team. The challenge is having a defender who has to play all the games, like Maguire and have the confidence that they can restart play, or be the figurehead who reads the game. But his injury has shown the lack of competition behind him in the team, and makes you think ‘Hang on a minute they need to be doing way more’. This club [United] needs to win trophies whatever the best formula and players are for that. Varane would not be prepared to start on the bench and would be pushing every player to perform at their maximum.

DB: You mentioned Sergio Ramos, and it was announced last night that he will be leaving Real Madrid, with it being reported that his preferred destination is either London or Paris. Could you see him joining a London club, and what sort of impact would he have in the Premier League?

LS: If you see the impact of Thiago Silva at Chelsea, the impact of Sergio Ramos would be the same, or maybe even bigger. The guy is known for that type of leadership, has the ability to step up and score a lot of goals, he’s one of the best ever goalscoring defenders. He’s a big player on the big stage. If you want to win trophies, he’s as strong a signing as Thiago Silva, and there are few players who can galvanise a club like this. So whether it’s London or Paris, I think he’ll be an amazing signing.

DB: Looking at this France side compared to the 2018 World Cup winners, Presnel Kimpembe, Adrien Rabiot and Karim Benzema have come into the starting lineup for Samuel Umtiti, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud, respectively. Do you think this team is better than the World Cup-winning side?

LS: Yes, I can understand that it looks like it’s more balanced, but what also stands out is the experience and confidence of these guys. They know they are winners who can go on and win it all. So it’s about where they can improve and be better. What I think is interesting is the manager – he still has the same hunger and drive and this is what makes them better because he’s very focused and very pragmatic but also still very humble in how he approaches games and that’s what makes him very important in the side. The ability to assess but also put pressure on everybody, to ask everyone to look at the situation as if they haven’t won or achieved anything. This is the same drive that I see in Sir Alex Ferguson. That’s why those guys win, win, win all the time. As a manager and player, you need that drive, and this is what makes them better. Obviously, Benzema coming back is like a new signing, he’s the best striker the French have by far, no doubt about it. He hasn’t played for the national team for six years but now he’s looking more motivated than ever and helping the boys, and is capable of showing that he has nothing wrong with his attitude or behaviour, he is gelling well and it’s like he never left, this is what makes him a great player, and makes France a great team. I wouldn’t say that one team is definitely better, but this team does look to have evolved with time. 

DB: Benzema’s controversies have been well-documented, including his social media comments about Olivier Giroud. We’ve seen conflict destabilise France’s teams before, such as Nicolas Anelka’s feud with Raymond Domenech in 2010. Do you think it was a risk to bring Benzema into a squad that showed such unity in recent years?

LS: Absolutely zero risk. It was a thing that happened and escalated because people have egos and histories and sometimes it can get mixed up. When the media gets involved as well, it’s really bad. When politicians get in the mix, it’s a disaster. So, basically, that’s what I think. It was just a discussion or maybe two that allowed Benzema’s return. It’s to do with his performances, nothing to do with his attitude towards the players or the squad. It’s ridiculous, the guy’s played with the most difficult side in the world in terms of egos and characters. Human errors happen, but nothing that you couldn’t understand if you look at things logically. You know that the guy can help you win trophies, he’s not there to disrupt any other players. Things like this happen all the time, you can fight and then the next day you play in the squad together and relax together. It happens. 

DB: Olivier Giroud is only six goals away from being France’s all-time goalscorer, but it seems much of the focus will be on Benzema’s return to the fold after a six-year absence. How would you sum up Giroud’s international career for France?

LS: Absolutely amazing. Incredible. Top player – it’s nothing to do with replacement here because Giroud’s in the squad. He’s here, he’s going to contribute, he’s going to come into games and maybe score, hopefully be decisive. He’s always been asked to perform with Les Bleus, he’s always delivered. The guy is a machine, he’s very professional, a really nice guy to be around within a group. He’s dedicated to the cause of winning trophies and he’s up there with the best in terms of goal tallies because… you have to have the focus, but the guy has to actually deliver those numbers against the odds. Everyone seems to be against him, or doesn’t like his style, or doesn’t really give him the credit he deserves. Mentally, he has been really strong. So it’s like he’s already passed the record because, for me, it has been harder for him to score those goals than the players he’s trying to catch because those guys were more respected. Giroud has never been the full first choice, that’s why it’s a massive achievement. From knowing him personally, he’s a good guy and he definitely should have more praise.

DB: Both strikers will be looking to emulate all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry in firing the country to a Euros win. He’s currently with Belgium and has worked closely with Romelu Lukaku. Why do you think Lukaku is enjoying so much success now for club and country after his spell with United?

LS: I think he’s grown as a player, matured, mixed with other players and especially other mentors like Thierry Henry. It definitely helps. As an individual you try to improve and you’ve got everyone turning their heads left and right to look at some players to deliver or help them, and sometimes you feel like they’re wearing the yellow jersey and everyone’s looking to blame you if the team doesn’t perform. It wasn’t helpful, trying to develop as a striker. I think he now better understands his role, and he’s in an environment where he’s been loved. He’s the type of player who doesn’t need critics, he needs to be loved, he needs to be in a position where he’s ‘the guy’. When you do that, when you deliver that kind of environment for him, he will deliver. He’s the type of player who’s unplayable on his day, but you have to accept that you have to have a certain setup for him. It will definitely help to have a mentor like Thierry Henry who will not let him say or do anything that doesn’t make sense. Thierry doesn’t take any rubbish, he’ll say it to your face, exactly how it is. You need to work harder, you need to do this, you need to do that – he will tell you. And I think it’s always helpful when you have that kind of talent and you have someone who is able to tell you that, and I think he will listen to Thierry more than he might with someone who doesn’t have the character or ability or the credence to do that. It’s really helpful for Lukaku to have those kinds of figures around.

DB: He’s off to a strong start with two goals in his first game but will have to compete with the likes of Ronaldo, Mbappe and Harry Kane for top scorer. Do you think Lukaku can win the Euros Golden Boot?

LS: Yeah. This is where he will dream of being recognised as the top scorer. The aim of any striker is to score goals and to help the team to win trophies, and he definitely has the right team to do that. He has a lot of opportunities, and now he’s getting better at creating his own chances, so yes he definitely has the ability to do that. With all the names in the mix, it’s really good for motivation to have top strikers, top players, and be right there from the start. It’s good.

DB: Mbappe, at just 22, will be looking to add the Euros to his collection of trophies including the World Cup and Ligue 1. He said he joined PSG to win the Champions League but it hasn’t worked out yet. He’s often linked with a move away, particularly Real Madrid and Liverpool – do you see him eventually leaving France for La Liga or the Premier League?

LS: Yes, that’s a possible eventuality because of his talent, that a move like that would be earned. He’s one of the most valuable players in the world so speculation is inevitable. What’s more important for him at a young age is to recognise that he has time to win and time to do it in other countries. I think he’s been very close to winning the Champions League. Reaching the semi-finals two times in a row, showing that PSG can be respected. Is it enough to win it? I’m not sure. But it definitely can be the choice of his life because, yes, you can go to Real Madrid and you may be the star, or maybe not. You may be in your comfort zone or maybe not, and all these things are the duty of a professional player, but he’s a very smart lad. Since he started his career he’s known where to go and how to do it. I don’t need to tell him how to think, he’s an amazing individual and he can definitely look at more trophies, he has no limit for that.

DB: If he does leave Ligue 1 for the Premier League, which club would be the best fit for Mbappe? 

LS: I’m never going to promote any club other than Man United! He’s a terrific player who will need to look at the team that fits his dream. There is no guarantee when you join the Premier League that you’ll be winning. There are several teams competing for the top of the table and the Champions League positions. It’s not like the French league where you have perhaps two teams expected to win the league, or the Spanish league with three strong teams that compete. It’s not the same setup. There is no guarantee of being even in the Champions League in England, it’s really tough.

DB: Deschamps has enjoyed a successful spell as the France manager. His contract expires in 2022. Do you think Zidane could be a contender for the France job after he left Real Madrid?

LS: I think he’s looking at it, I’m sure. He’s the type of player who’s won everything and wants to win everything. I don’t see why he’d be looking to compete for the Champions League again – maybe to consolidate that he’s a great manager who can win with any team. Yes, possibly. But when you look at the guy and especially his press conferences, he likes to be in a certain kind of environment, and I think the national team can give him that comfort. I’m not saying France will be his next target, but I think it will fit his profile really well and I think he will be respected by the players as much as Didier Deschamps. I think he definitely has the ability to win more trophies with the national team. I think he could be waiting for this position for one or two years without going to any club until he finds out what’s going on with Didier Deschamps. But if Deschamps wins the Euros, I don’t see why he would leave.

DB: England are right up there with France as bookmakers’ favourites and won their first game against Croatia. Jadon Sancho was a notable absence as he didn’t make the bench. What do you think of Southgate’s decision to leave him out of the matchday squad?

LS: To be honest I haven’t understood some of Gareth Southgate’s selections. But he’s the one who trains them, talks to them, who has a vision of how they’re going to play and upset the opposition. Maybe against certain opposition you need certain types of players, but to not have him on the bench is a surprise. He is a true talent… I wasn’t sure, but Gareth’s done a good job, they won. No one can complain. But of course there are always 70 to 80 million ‘managers’ in England who will say “he should have done this, he should have done that”. He’s the manager, he knows his team, his players, but Sancho is such a talent that provides so many chances in this regard – yeah, he means a lot. It shows that the England side has got so many options if you aren’t managing to put Sancho on the bench. My God, what a statement.

DB: There were some surprising inclusions in the starting lineup for England’s first game, particularly Kieran Trippier at left-back. Why do you think Southgate has opted for the right-footed player here over Luke Shaw, who’s playing arguably the best football of his career?

LS: I don’t know, I just don’t know. I’m not going to say I understand. The guy has shown to the English people that he’s reliable as a manager and he knows what he’s doing. He may not want to put Luke in for some reason that we don’t know, you’d have to ask him. I do think that overall, some choices were strange, but we’ll see later on if he remains in his position. 

DB: Sancho has been linked to United yet again this summer. If United do sign Sancho, he’d join Rashford, Martial, Greenwood, Dan James and Amad Diallo as United’s options in wide forward positions. What do you think he would bring to the club that they don’t already have?

LS: I think the profile of Sancho is a bit different, where he is not looking for the goal himself. The other players that you mentioned do. Sometimes they do it at speed and don’t have the ability to pick the pass. This is what Sancho is doing. He’s been able to diversify his game and really pick the right passes. He has an attacking flow that I really like, because you have a sense that you don’t know what he’s going to do, but you know another player is going to receive the ball. This is really hard to do. If he links up with a proper striker in this United side, they’ll be unstoppable. United have Bruno Fernandes, who can create, but sometimes force the passes, because he’s not quick enough. He has to stop, and then everyone can see that he’s going to pass the ball. Sancho is doing it by dribbling and driving forward and then picking the pass. This is what is missing sometimes. Sometimes, United need this unpredictability and that’s what Sancho is giving you.

DB: Rashford is a player United leaned on heavily last season. He racked up 57 appearances and admitted after the Europa League final that he played through pain last year. How do you assess how the club managed him through the season?

LS: Yeah, it’s a difficult season. When you have a player that’s as important as Rashford, who’s had to be a leader at such a young age as well, it’s difficult. After a pandemic where there’s a lot of restrictions and the calendar is horrible for everybody. I’m a fan, but I seem to see United playing every two days. I was like ‘hang on a minute, what’s going on?’ – it was just ridiculous. UEFA and the [Premier] League have not protected the players, I don’t understand. They’ve protected the competitions, way more than the players. Not to blame the institutions, but when players are saying this, players that are young and fit want to play. But they have to be stopped sometimes, to protect them. Sometimes it’s unfair to put that on the players, because they may say ‘I was really struggling’ but they can’t stop. If they say that during the season, they look weak. Some people in the media will say ‘they earn that much money so they shouldn’t complain. So [as a player] you have no ability to complain at all. That’s really unfair and it’s good that you asked the question. I’m working hard to develop AxisStars to support players and give them a unified voice so they can’t be singled out. It’s really to help them understand that those guys aren’t as supported or protected as they should be.

DB: Playing through pain, Rashford certainly wasn’t at his goalscoring best as the season came to an end, scoring four Premier League goals in 2021. At full health, do you think Rashford should be starting for England? 

LS: Again, this is what I was saying about the choices of Gareth Southgate. He’s the one that knows the state of the players, physically, if they’re tired. If you want to win this competition, it’s not about the first two games. It’s about building form in the long run and maybe players will be in better shape in two weeks. It’s about management, not about pleasing the fans or media. It’s to get the best momentum going, to be in the best shape for the final games. What happened in previous tournaments was that England were shot, physically. People have thought about introducing a break during the winter [in the Premier League].  It’s been documented that it [fatigue] is something that can affect players physicality and creativity. It’s all about managing the players’ fitness, as much as you want to win the games coming, you have to think mid to long-term and it’s not easy for those not in the camp to understand that. 

DB: England’s captain Harry Kane has spoken of a desire to win trophies and many feel a move away is inevitable. Chelsea, United and Manchester City are touted as his options. What do you think the best move for Kane would be this summer? I know you’re probably going to say United!

LS: [Laughs] you got me! He’s been the most reliable player in the league, for England. You definitely look at your opportunity in life and you only have one career. There’s only one Harry Kane, he’s a top player, he deserves the best. I don’t think that he has been at the team in the best position to win the league and I think this has been proven. They haven’t competed enough with at least Manchester City and Liverpool. I think the best move for him is to find the team with the best project that will guarantee him better prospects. When you look at moving to another country where maybe there is the need to adapt, United, like any team in England, would be the perfect fit. He knows the Premier League, so he will adapt very quickly and it feels as if he’ll guarantee 30 goals a season, or at least 30 goal involvements because he’s going to score 20 and assist 10, easily. If you’ve got that to add to some already great players, I can see United as the best fit for him. Not because I’m a United fan, but because of the way he plays as well. The player we need more than ever is an out and out striker, which is why United went to Cavani who is 34. The type of striker where he has that ability to be very reliable in his position, a core figure in the United team. Some have performed in this role very well, but not regularly. There have been patches of games where they [United’s strikers] were not there, but this guy [Kane] doesn’t underperform, so it would be very good.

DB: Looking ahead to France’s next fixture, we’ll see Pogba go head to head with his clubmate Bruno Fernandes. It seems Pogba thrived on the big stage this week. However, Fernandes has been criticised for his performances against the big six, with no assists and one goal, a penalty, in seven games. Do you think his drop off in production in these big games is a concern?

LS: I understand that. I look at his level of energy towards the end and I could see that he had now taken the ‘yellow jersey’ again, where everyone was waiting for him, thinking he should be the one to always perform. When you look at Pogba in the French side, for example, everyone is doing their job. So it makes it easy for anyone to remain within their comfort zone, and maybe sometimes step outside of it to help the team. This is what Bruno needs, to remain in his attacking role, making sure he’s alert of the movement of the strikers. Sometimes, he was doing the leadership things, he was tracking back. It’s good for the young players to see that, but he was losing energy and towards the end of the season I felt like he had done too much and he was exhausted. It’s important to have the right setup for these players, or they end up losing their creativity and focus at some point and that’s the problem with Bruno in some games, where he wants to do too much. He’s able to do it, but on a regular basis, it’s really demanding. It will be good to see those two facing each other. They will be close to each other during the game and I can’t wait for that.

DB: ESPN’s journalist Mark Ogden discussed Pogba’s contract situation and suggested he could be used as a bargaining chip in a swap deal with Juventus for Cristiano Ronaldo. Do you think this would be a win-win situation for both clubs and both players?

LS: I don’t see it. For Paul, Juve is not the same Juve that he left. They are usually the favourites to win the Scudetto, but I don’t think it’s as strong a squad anymore that’s going to compete for the Champions League that he dreams to win. So I don’t know there. And then when you look at Ronaldo to United? Yes, he is an icon, he is an unbelievable player, he can teach a lot of youngsters how to stay fit, how to stay at the top of their game. Definitely, a good signing. From a marketing perspective, it would be amazing. That said, when you look at the future, when you look at how to gel with those players who will I think will be asked to let him play his style now, because he’s not the Cristiano he was when he started at United, he’s a proper number nine in some ways. I don’t think he’s a perfect fit, but who knows? I might be wrong. 

DB: We’ve discussed several players who have been linked with moves to United, what do you think United need to bridge the gap between them and Manchester City next season?

LS: I think they need Harry Kane, they need an in-form Rashford and Martial, a Bruno Fernandes playing at the top of his game and a still improving Greenwood. They need all those players to be better, to be more consistent through the year. They need a few less goalkeeping mistakes and they’ll be fine. There was a five or six game period where they just weren’t themselves earlier in the season and it meant they exited the Champions League at the Group Stages. I don’t know what happened. When you build that momentum, when you’re still in the Champions League it’s a different season. In those five or six games, they lost their chance to remain in contention for the Premier League title. So all of this – consistency, leadership, and at the same time having competition within the club. It’s a feeling of ‘no, if I don’t perform, someone on another weekend is going to do better, so I’m not going to be the starter and they will take my place.’ That level of competition and all their players performing is what United need.

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