Louis Saha was present in Mumbai at a special live screening of the Manchester United-Arsenal Premier League tie.
Ahead of the kickoff, he spoke with HT about the pressure on the team to live up to expectations and the quality of the youth players that have come through United’s famed academy to make their debuts this season.
Q There has been a lot of talk of players brought in by Louis van Gaal not performing to the level expected of them. Do you think there has been a scouting problem because of which the team has not brought in the right players since the departure of Alex Ferguson?
I think there may be an issue and there are people raising questions in terms of the academy but I’m sure that they are working really hard. The market has been harder than in previous years to look for players who can really bring something different and add value to the team. So it is a tough job but I think every club has the same problem. The amount of money spent on players now is ridiculous.
Q Wayne Rooney described you as one of his favourite teammates to play alongside in a Manchester United shirt. Could you explain how his role has changed with the club from when you played with him to now when he is captain? Is the added responsibility affecting his performance on the pitch?
I think not really. He is a very smart player. The players around him are not the same as when I was there (with the team). They had a different type of quality and experience like (Ruud) van Nistelrooy, (Paul Scholes) Scholesy, (Ryan Giggs) Giggsy. They were like mentors. Now Rooney has to do the job pretty much the same but he has to be a mentor as well which is why he is the captain. So it is a different world for him. In terms of movement and the position he now takes up is completely different so you can’t really compare. That’s why I think his ability to adapt himself to any position is what makes Wayne Rooney the best.
Q Anthony Martial and Rooney are currently the top scorers for United this season. Van Gaal has said Martial cannot be expected to perform to his best in his first season but you have praised him. Do you think there is a lot of pressure on Martial’s shoulders at a young age?
I think so, yeah. He is a player where maybe, his price tag has put a lot of pressure on him. But he has quality and has shown it. What you have to remember is that this is only his first season with the team. Just imagine that for a 19-year-old. Every player has gone through it. Cristiano Ronaldo came in and wasn’t scoring that many goals but you could see the quality. It is pretty much the same with Anthony (Martial). You have to give him time. The more experience he gains with the players playing alongside him will do him good. I think there is too much pressure on him because he is the only player (in the team) who is capable of breaking defensive lines, dribbling and doing the things that we would say are special. So he has a lot of pressure on him.
Q The other players brought in aren’t really shouldering the responsibilities. For example, Memphis Depay has a good game now and then but his form has been a bit of a hit-and-miss. Is that adding to the pressure on Rooney and Martial?
I think so. The thing is that when you have that quality, you are always asked to do a bit more. And obviously he has the quality. We ask him to produce it, and to do it week-in and week-out. That is the hard thing for Memphis. He has to really prove that he is not only capable of playing well just once in a while. He has to really produce the quality when we need it. And that is the quality expected of Manchester United players — they have to produce the quality when the team is struggling, not just in the easy games. But I think he has to remember as well that it is only his first season so hopefully next year he will build up on his fitness and understand more of the game and what is required of him.
Q United has suffered from an injury crisis and have had to rely on academy players to fill in the roles of the first team. Is it a case of the academy producing good players but having to rush them into the games?
You could say that but every player has the opportunity and they have to take it. If they are good players, they obviously show their quality and that is what they have done. They have all shown character, first of all, just by breaking in to be part of the squad. And being in a squad where the team is not playing as well as you would expect, makes it even harder. I’m impressed with what I have seen with (Marcus) Rashford for scoring two goals. But not just that, he got the team out of trouble because we were not favourites at some point of the game. He went and did what was asked of him by scoring goals and especially important ones.
Q The Europa Cup round of 32 second leg against FC Midtjylland saw academy players come to the fore. But the first leg saw young players like Paddy McNair and Donald Love get turned inside out which resulted in a loss for United. Could, being rushed into first team action before they are ready for it hamper their development?
No, I think they have to learn. I think sometimes bad experiences make better players. It’s not always scoring goals and not having bad performances that get you to improve yourself. I think by getting a shock and realising that European teams have better players, they realize that they really have to work harder. I think the academy players at some point, because they thought that they are in United, they thought they were successful. But now, that is not the way. Now, European football is really hard and the competition is really huge. Sometimes it is good for them to have a shock for them to realise and say, “Wait a minute, what I am doing is not enough.” So it is a good learning process.