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AUTHOR: Marcus Lawrence · Updated: 3rd Nov 2021

Louis Saha Exclusive: Ronaldo Pressing Criticism ‘Absolutely Ridiculous’

Copyright: IMAGO / PanoramiC

Following the last-gasp 2-2 draw against Atalanta in the Champions League, former Manchester United striker Louis Saha discusses the club’s recent performances, criticisms levied at Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba’s contract situation, Jadon Sancho’s start to life with the Red Devils, Antonio Conte’s appointment at Tottenham, the benefits of putting faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and much more.


DB: What was your opinion of United’s performance against Atalanta last night?

LS: It’s a good performance in coming away from home with a draw – a last minute equaliser always has the feel of a win and it shows character, especially after the last few weeks with a lot of attention on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s showed a lot of character and we’ve seen loyalty from the players. 

DB: The draw perhaps wasn’t the ideal result, but it leaves Man Utd top of Group F and in a strong position to progress. Do you think United are serious contenders for the Champions League? 

LS: The Champions League is always a special competition but it’s always up in the air and tough to predict – we’ve seen what happened with Chelsea, they weren’t favourites and weren’t in top form in the Premier League but had the right mentality in Europe. I definitely think with the squad United have that they can win any trophy, so I would view the Champions League as reachable. 

DB: Despite beating Spurs at White Hart Lane and a point at Atalanta, the jury is still out on this United side after the loss to Liverpool and previous run of form.  Do you think the season is back on track?

LS: The result against Liverpool was a sign that things needed to be changed. Maybe before the manager or players didn’t think that, but it’s an evolution. There are a lot of comments all the time – Manchester United gets so much attention, you and being at United comes with high expectations. The guys are focused and do try as hard as possible – sometimes they will miss targets and have bad games or face deadly opposition. They tried the tactic of pressing high, they didn’t organise it well enough to do it effectively and now they’ve hopefully learned from their mistakes. The Champions League and Premier League are very tough, you’re going to struggle in some positions – it’s no longer the time of Man United winning 30-32 games in the league, it’s now really tough because with every team you face the level is high. 

DB: Last week you told Sky Sports you wanted to see character and a reaction from this United side after the loss to Liverpool. Do you think you’ve seen that in the time since the game?

LS: I think so. They’ve shown a good attitude and scoring goals in a certain fashion is helping. In my experience, Ole sometimes may need more coming from the bench as well. The coaching staff are still young and managing world-class players and it’s not easy when the expectation is immediate results. You have all the attention and pressure on any choice you make tactically. So it’s hard to have your own formula whilst digesting information for many sources, it’s tough. 

DB: Ole implemented a new system against Spurs which saw Ronaldo play in a two up front with Cavani – how do you feel this benefitted the team/Ronaldo, and is it crucial for him to have a strike partner moving forward?

LS: I think it’s always easier and nice to have a striker that compliments your skills. Cavani is a very smart forward with a bunch of energy, he has great body language – he doesn’t need to talk but you can see he’s always thinking forward and about what he can sacrifice for others needs. This is good because when you have someone as deadly and dedicated to scoring goals as Cristiano Ronaldo, he can help. He also helps Ole with his defensive duties, with the way that we try to press high sometimes the team gets cut in two if the defenders aren’t well organised, or are caught on the counter-attack. If you have a striker like Cavani you have multiple options, both counter-attacking and to press straight away when you lose the ball – it’s a way to copy the really good football you see from Liverpool and Manchester City, and a lot of teams are also doing it in Europe like Bayern. So I think that’s the formula. 

DB: During the tricky run of form, critics have pointed to pressing stats that highlight Ronaldo has one of the lowest rates in the league. In this era of football, can United still be a successful team despite lacking the high press of a Liverpool or City?

LS: This stat, it’s just for people to talk. I’m against that kind of statistic being highlighted because it means nothing. Does it help if you don’t have the quality to create and score chances? You can always look at stats in a certain way to highlight this and that – are you going to be critical of the pressing stats of Messi when he scores 50 goals a season? It’s absolutely ridiculous, teams are different and you have to play your own style and suit your best players. I’m sorry, Cristiano is not there to press. I’m not going to judge a player on just his pressing. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Ask defenders about their passes forward and goals they score. It’s absolutely ridiculous to judge Cristiano Ronaldo on pressing high, it doesn’t make any sense!

DB: Do you think Ole has developed a definable style at United? Ole has been questioned before on United’s style of play and philosophy. Gegenpressing and tiki-taka, and various blends of the two, dominate top-flight football in Europe. Is there room for United to carve out a style that doesn’t fit these trends?

LS: I think he’s still looking at it. There are so many young players and fresh combinations to work on, and that takes time. Cristiano Ronaldo is a player that attracts so much attention and every player wants to give him the ball because he knows how to finish. It’s as simple as that, and he knows how to start attacks too. So the system itself has to be mobile, flexible and week-in week-out you have to determine the best formula. It doesn’t appear in just five games. People’s expectations are just too high. Yes it’s a massive club. But all of those potential combinations are hard to understand right away. They have a duty to defend better, to close down the opposition and give them minimal options. This can then help with the counter-attacks, as when you have quick players and deadly strikers like Cavani and Cristiano, you’re going to win games. 

DB: You mentioned young players there – one of the new young players at the club is Jadon Sancho. Is it unfair to judge Sancho and the other new signings given United’s poor run of form so far?

LS: I don’t think so because he’s a big player. He’s already tagged as one of the most exciting players on the planet. It’s part of being at a big club. You have these moments where it’s going to be tough, but you have to dig in and work hard and still believe in yourself. He’s a skilful player, so sometimes it’s a situation where one goal or one dribble can change things for you dramatically. There is a bit of luck needed sometimes. He’s well looked after at the club – so many players want him to succeed because when he’s on top form he’s unplayable. We want things to click for him and see the beauty of him linking with Pogba, Fernandes, Rashford, Greenwood, Cristiano and Cavani – look at the names I just gave, amazing combinations but it’s not easy to find. Everyone has their own tempos in the game, some like to keep it at their feet, some like running beyond defenders, and that takes timing – it would’ve been easier if he had someone like Paul Scholes in my day because he knew how to dictate the tempo of the game. When you have two sitting midfielders whose strengths are not that, it can be difficult when to know to play high tempo, slow tempo, counter-attack, it was something that Paul Scholes really mastered. 

DB: What do you make of Sancho’s start? Do you see a role for him in the system Ole has been testing since the Liverpool loss?

LS: I think there is a role. When you have the right understanding about the energy levels needed, in central positions pressing high and trying to recover the ball as quick as possible he’s one of the best counter attackers because he’s unpredictable and will produce assists. You need that foundation to be a complete player for Ole – knowing what you’re going to get from him, knowing how to open up teams, that’s the thing you need to look for. He needs to also really relax and feel confident in himself, confident in his teammates, getting the right balls in the right moments because it’s just a matter of time, the guy has too much talent. 

DB: Naby Keita and Timo Werner are players like Sancho who arrived from the Bundesliga with lots of goals and assists, but haven’t matched their output since joining the Premier League. Why do you think these players, Sancho in particular, have experienced a slow start in the Premier League?

LS: I really don’t know because the Bundesliga is probably the closest in terms of style to the premier league, so I don’t think it’s a fitness problem even though I remember that Werner has mentioned that – it’s a little bit tougher and the intensity is a bit higher. But still, I don’t think those guys have struggled to adapt physically, it’s just a matter of adapting to the teammates, the tempo – the tempo makes you feel tired and not really in a good position all the time. So those things are based on confidence, but I really believe that with Sancho it’s just a matter of time for him because he’s got too much quality. I really think that technically, it’s not a problem. In a way, he has to build his confidence back through hard work on how to get in the right spots, because there is a moment in the game to understand where and how to run, how to press, and all those things will bring confidence when he has understood the right formula for him. 

DB: Paul Pogba had a very brief cameo before his red card against Liverpool – he’s free to speak with other clubs from January as his contract expires in the summer. Should United go all out to extend his contract, or is it time to move on?

LS: I don’t know. I’m a big fan of him and I know that people have expressed a lot of frustration and I can understand some if that criticism in the past, but now I don’t think it’s fair. I see him working really hard, his attitude is right, as a human being you miss games and all that. But I think he showed, especially at the start of the season, he is a big player and can produce some amazing performances. And if the team understands and manages him correctly, then there are some amazing performances that will come. It’s a frustrating situation to not have that stability in your mind because of a contract situation and you know where you want to play and where you want to be playing and all that. So I feel for him, I feel for the team, I feel for the fans, because when you have such an asset in your side and the uncertainty is not what you want. And it’s a pity really because he’s such an asset, such an impactful player, and he hasn’t been used correctly in that sense because it could be that his mind is focused elsewhere, but when you know your contract is sorted, you can be fully committed. And there is need for focus in football, and it is a pity not to have that with him at the moment. 

DB: Pogba often flourishes alongside Kante when he plays for France, but it seems highly unlikely United could prise him away from Chelsea. Pogba has spoken about his admiration for his international teammate Aurelien Tchouameni at Monaco. If he stays, do you think there are any players of a similar ilk who could be brought in to capitalise on that potential? 

LS: I think that there are some frustrations, sometimes you need some players to help you reach the level you know you can reach. But it will be easy to reach the conclusion to say ‘I need this player alongside me to be good.’ I think he’s such a big player that I don’t think he needs anybody, he perhaps needs more understanding of his own role, but he can adapt and the players who are at the club at the moment are perhaps not at the level of N’golo Kante, but you can adapt and you can understand because you have so much quality in your game that you can do it. So I’m not sure about this formula, sometimes you have to look at your own performances and not think about what do you need from the outside. I would tend to focus on what I can provide and do my best and that’s it. When you look at N’golo Kante, he does the running of two players, so you have in terms of defensive duty way less to do. The cleverness of this guy – because he’s small – he’s a smart player rather than just a physical player that runs everywhere, he knows where to put to his body to be in the right pockets to help his teammates recover. So, sometimes in some moments, you feel like they are still looking for the best position, and then sometimes when United try to really press high they’ve got that little issue. But that’s timing, that’s working hard in training with the right attitude, with the right aggression, and then sometimes there is some lack of leadership where when you don’t do something good. From my experience, it is at these moments that you need instructions telling you that you how to react and I don’t think I’m seeing that enough on the field.

DB: People look at the United defence for criticism whilst the two defensive midfielders have also received a lot of criticism. Can United challenge for the league and trophies with the Fred/McTominay pairing? 

LS: Everyone in the team needs to improve defensively. Offensively, I think it’s a very exciting frontline, but defensively United have had issues. If maybe in some games we want to change our pressing mode, you need to be really, really, smart in how to do it, because nowadays every club has two or three players who are really hard to defend against. So for those reasons you need really smart players in those crucial positions to know where to press, where to maybe gamble in certain 50/50 challenges, where you have to show aggressiveness. So all that is very important, and they are good players and I can see them improving and if they do that it will stop the criticism. You know their attitude is not to be challenged, they work hard, they know it is more or less about the experience about how to do it.

DB: United have previously been linked with a move for Jude Bellingham, but he obviously opted for Dortmund and is now being linked with a move to Liverpool. Do you think United should be fighting for his signature?

LS: He’s a great player. Has he got the style for United? Yes, because he can pretty much do everything. He’s a very young player, but with such intelligence to know where to move around the midfield area, he’s a very impressive player. So I don’t know what more to say, because there are so many players who would like to come to United, so it’s a matter of who is making the decision in the club. 

DB: Harry Maguire has come under fire for some of his recent defensive displays. Many pointed to him being at fault for Duvan Zapata’s goal last night. What do you think of his performance last night, and his season till now?

LS: He’s a big professional, he’s a big player for United, he played a lot of games for us last year, trying to do as much to give us the consistency and foundation needed to improve last year. But his own performances, I think he told everyone in interviews, he knows, he doesn’t need anyone to tell him. I think he’s hurt and as a professional, you need to react, and the only way to do that is with good performances. Maybe, even if it’s not his strength, but in terms of character as a captain, I think he can improve his body language to drive his players, like really being vocal with his players. Maybe it’s out of his comfort zone, but it would definitely help other players because he’s such a big figure for the youngsters. I think this is where he can improve because when you have the right communication, this is where the team make fewer mistakes. You know as a striker, I always said that a good striker is looking for the moment where there is a need for communication between defenders, it’s like that split second when you get it right, that is when you score goals. As a striker, we are always trying to play in that moment, where the defenders have to think, where we have to get in their head. And this is where communication, aggression, being better with the body language, saying nothing is actually indicating something. And I think it is very important to see that week in week out from players who think they can do it. 

DB: Seeing Varane come in and impress, do you still see Harry Maguire as the leader of United’s backline? 

LS: I think so yes. Some combinations could be explored, I don’t know, Ole is the only one who sees those players in training every day, having the kind of discussions and knowing what is comfortable for them, knowing their qualities and their weaknesses. And all that needs to make sense from the goalkeeper to the striker, all these lines are very important to have the right communication. And Maguire definitely has the quality to do that, he’s proved that before. Yes, a few bad performances can challenge that and it’s important to just improve again. It’s not about going back to where you were before, it’s an opportunity to challenge yourself and be better than you were before, and this is the best moment in time that you can actually do that. It’s a strength to challenge yourself every day, to want to be better at what you do, that is crucial.

DB: Do you United need further strengthening in January or is the squad already good enough to challenge for the league and other trophies? 

LS: Yes, it’s a club where you have the possibility to focus on new transfer targets. There is always a decision on where to improve. A transfer makes people in the club nervous and think ‘I have competition’. We have seen it over the years and it’s always helpful. So whether it’s best to find someone who is better than what you have, there is always a question on everyone because those who are playing upfront – they are 33 and 36 – so you know you need strikers. Yes, you have Rashford and yes you have Greenwood. Could they play in that position in that style? You need to think about it. The midfield is the same, people are talking about a few names. So yes, definitely, if you want to improve and at some point challenge the players, in this market and in this industry, yes you need to invest. You need to invest in big players because United is a big club. Yes, you can invest in the youth, having a sense that the academy is doing well. Everyone has different opinions, different formulas, and different visions because most of the time it’s a mid-term to long-term strategy, and the short term is to just listen to critics to fix problems and that is not the way forward. 

DB: Solskjaer is being given a lot of time, money, and patience to build a title-challenging squad at United, whereas Moyes and van Gaal in particular were not. Why do you think this is? 

LS: I think this is in part definitely down to the style. Ole will still have respect after bad performances because there is some connection. He understands the fans, he understands what the expectation is, the culture, the style of play the player and club needs. So for that, he has improved the team and nobody can challenge that. It’s also definitely a better place to work under him. Those managers had different ways and were different characters, that’s fair to them with their success and pedigree, but it wasn’t working as much. The atmosphere at work is way better. So for that, the fans recognised that and gave him more time and respect. Same for the staff themselves. The board has recognised that, they have given time, then they have put money on the table to bring in some really top players, so all that is a strategy. And maybe one year ago people were challenging him because the transfer window was not good – but this window nobody can talk, nobody can say anything. The board has delivered, even with the dramatic story of the Super League, straight after they managed to do what was best for the club, so I think it was a good choice to remain loyal to Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t improve, he’s still a young manager, especially in regards to the size of the team he is managing. The team he had before is a different animal. It’s similar for David Moyes, with all his experience in the Premier League, you come to United and you can ask him it was a different animal. 

DB: After the Liverpool game, there was a lot of talk about Ole’s job security. Do you think the Manchester derby is a must-win for Solskjaer? 

LS: Every game is in some way, some aspect, a must-win. But I think it’s more about having the right attitude. They must have the right aggression wherever we feel they need the result. You can ask the fans. You don’t want to be humiliated like against Liverpool, it’s very painful, it’s like a double sentence of punishment and torture. For so many people who are passionate about not just coming to watch a football game, for those who really are passionate, it’s also about the attitude, the aggression, the desire to win, to be competitive. The attitude can be as important as a win.

DB: Arteta seems to have found an effective way of playing, after the poor start to this season they have seem to be a bit more compact defensively and more ruthless in attack. Do you think Arsenal will finish above United?

LS: I don’t think so. A patch of good form is great for any club, of course. He finally seems to have the formation that makes sense to them. But, until they face the best clubs, can they say ‘now we are in a good position’? I don’t think that’s the case. So yes, let’s how they react when things aren’t going well. It’s the same with United, Liverpool, City… the Premier League is a marathon and I don’t think we’ve seen enough this season to judge anyone and say they’re going to finish here or there. Without such depth in the squad Arteta can’t give some players time to recover. In my view, they don’t have the capacity to challenge for the top four.

DB: Spurs have brought Conte on board following the defeat to United at White Hart Lane. Can he bring out the best in Harry Kane and convince him to stay? 

LS: It will depend on the energy he is able to transfer to those players. I think he’s an amazing character with a lot of positive energy, and even knows how to use some negative energy. Sometimes it’s very important to make players uncomfortable, to put them on their toes, make sure they have the right respect forth rules and tactics. Conte will definitely bring that. Tactically, the formation, the way they are organised in attacking and defending, it’s really important. For Tottenham, it’s what they need. They have the talent, really strong attacking players in Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, and if the other players can click it will be great. Players like Tanguy Ndombele will benefit from that. If Conte can get the confidence from the players, he can have a real impact on the club.

DB: Do you think Conte can bring this squad back to their heights under Pochettino?

LS: That’s the challenge, that’s why he’s there. I think he has the confidence that he can do it. We’ve seen with Chelsea, with Tuchel, what he’s been able to do. Conte can have the same impact. There are great players already at the club, and in the January window he’ll probably bring in one or two players that he knows he can rely on. Bring his little touch. Anyone in the club at the moment will feel like they have a different animal now; he’s well-known as a success pretty much everywhere he’s been. I can definitely see some players being motivated by that.

DB: Lukaku is back and started like a train tormenting the Arsenal backline, however has struggled for goals more recently. Where do you rate Lukaku in comparison to other PL strikers?

LS: He’s a top striker, one of the best in the world. Why? Because he scores difficult goals, solo goals. He’s such a big figure, and he’s been using his physique way more than before. On his day, he’s unplayable. Of course as a striker you need some luck, a relaxed posture to score tap-ins, but he’s always finding himself in good positions. When you look at his record, in so many ways it’s not just a question of if he’ll score or not, he’s always in and around, providing some space and link-up play to the others. Obviously a striker is always judged by his numbers, but he’s bringing way more than that. He’s a top striker.

DB: He’s not an out and out striker, but he’s the Premier League’s top scorer – do you think Mo Salah is the best player in the world and your pick for Ballon d’Or?

LS: I really love his game. Whether he’s playing for Liverpool or not, I respect him and wish him luck. When you look at the Ballon d’Or, especially this year, people are saying Ronaldo and Messi are not the favourites in the same way as before. Anyone can win it. Mo Salah deserves it if he wins it, the stats speak for themselves. The dedication he has for the game, the consistency he’s had… yes, I can back him. 

There is another player whose chances have not been helped by the performance of his team but Karim Benzema, for me, has been unbelievable in a Real Madrid side that isn’t at its best. It shows how much finesse he needs in his game, that consistency in scoring goals. He helps his team alone almost. And I’m not just saying that be because he’s French! Don’t get me wrong, as a striker I’m blown away by Karim’s quality over the last two years. I’d really tip him. He’s been amazing. What he’s done for France… you can ask anyone, especially given the pressure is so high, there’s so much going on. And despite that, to have that quality and finesse… he plays like he’s making art. I’m so consistently impressed and he works so hard. But yes, any of those guys, if they win, they will deserve it. I wish them the best of luck. 

DB: We’ve spoken about some of the Premier League’s top clubs – at this stage of the season, who are you backing to win the Premier League? 

LS: It’s tough to say, but Liverpool. The way they play, the fact they have the best striker, a tremendous strike force, a very strong foundation at the back. They’ve always been tough in midfield too. They have the squad, definitely. Man City, when they hit the form… it’s tough to predict outside those two. I really hope United, and to some extent Chelsea, can compete. But, for me, Liverpool is at the top at the moment. 

DB: Looking at the other end of the table, Newcastle will be the richest club in the world come the January transfer window. Spending power aside, what does the club need to get right to become a force in world football?

LS: Pretty much every aspect of the club needs to improve. Communication with the fans is important. Just because you are the richest club it doesn’t mean that you need such high expectations early on. It’s going to be important that everyone understands it’ll be a long-term project, at least two years before fans may start to see any results. Then there’s the structure, the academy. Those young players now… the vision of the chairman will be to develop them and provide the quality the coach needs. A squad of players all challenging each other… it’s tough. Communication for what they really want from the first two years, what’s realistic, is very important. They need the right transfer strategy, not just breaking the bank because there are good players already at the club. It all needs to be well thought out, it’s a challenge. Some other clubs have done it in the wrong way and it has been damaging, so they need to get it right.

DB: Mbappe’s contract is running out at PSG and he seems destined for Real Madrid, to potentially play alongside Benzema – what do you think is the right move for his career?

LS: As a big fan of PSG, when I look at the summer I think there was some ego management going on. People have promised things, some of which did not materialise. My only concern, a selfish one, was that I wanted to see Neymar, Messi, and Mbappe playing together. It’s been amazing. For Mbappe, I totally understand that he can go wherever he wants. We want him to stay, obviously, because he’s such a talent for France. It’s great to have the best talent in France at PSG. I don’t want him to go, but I will respect his choice. In the summer I would have been extremely sad to see him go. But in the end I just wish for him that he keeps his form. He’s an amazing talent for everyone who loves football, so I just hope he stays on-form and does great things. That’s what we want to see.

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