Former United striker Louis Saha did something he hadn’t done for the best part of a year on Wednesday night. The 32-year-old’s goal for Everton against Spurs was his first in the league since 10th February 2010.
On that occasion he struck twice against Chelsea to earn the Toffees a 2-1 home win, and that was the margin of victory against Harry Redknapp’s side at Goodison Park on Wednesday too.
Despite enduring such a barren run in front of goal, however, Saha’s goal average for Everton still stands at one in three. With Wayne Rooney having only recently ended his own ten-month gap between goals in a red shirt (from open play), the occasionally goal-shy Frenchman’s time at Old Trafford deserves a little reassessment.
Saha was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson for £12.8m in January 2004 on the back of the striker’s brilliant form for Fulham. A far from prolific goal scorer as a youth player at Metz, nor during a loan spell at Newcastle in 1999 when he was 20, Saha was a revelation during his three-and-a-half years at Craven Cottage. Saha’s goals fired Fulham into the Premier League in 2001 and he went on to score 65 times in 142 games for the club before earning his move to Old Trafford.
Tall but graceful with it, Saha arrived in Manchester to relieve Ruud van Nistelrooy of some of the scoring burden. He succeeded immediately, bagging seven goals in a dozen league appearances by May. Although it wasn’t enough to prevent United from finishing third behind Chelsea and champions Arsenal, Saha undoubtedly gave the team a different dimension in attack. He was more accomplished on the ball than van Nistelrooy and did more work outside the box than his new strike partner too. Van Nistelrooy was still United’s main man up front and scored 30 goals in all competitions himself – including two in the FA Cup final, for which Saha was ineligible – but the contrasting styles of the two forwards would eventually leave Ferguson with a decision to make over who was his preferred player.
After his bright start a couple of injury-interrupted campaigns followed for Saha. He was restricted to 33 league appearances during the two seasons in which United struggled to match the fluency of Arsenal and the efficiency of José Mourinho’s Chelsea. There was suddenly more competition for places at Old Trafford too.
The 18-year-old Wayne Rooney arrived at the beginning of the 2004/2005 season and promptly scored a hat-trick on his debut. As improbable as it might sound now, Alan Smith was another attacking option following his move from Leeds just a few weeks before the acquisition of Rooney. Diego Forlán did depart in the summer of 2004 but Ole Gunnar Solskjær was still at the club, although the Norwegian was a long-term injury casualty throughout Saha’s first full season, in which he scored just twice.
While Saha battled knee and hamstring problems on-and-off for a little over twelve months, injury also beset not only Solskjær but Smith and van Nistelrooy too. Rooney was United’s only consistently fit striker during 2004/2005 as the club again finished third in the league. However, although Saha missed the first three months of the following season too, he was ready to make another comeback in November 2005. It was between this point and the end of the season that Saha enjoyed his most prolonged spell of fitness as a United player. The forward seized his opportunity.
Saha’s form upon his return was so good that it contributed to the sale of the previously untouchable van Nistelrooy at the end of the season. The prolific Dutchman, who increased his goal tally for United to a mighty 150 in 219 games by the end of 2005/2006, was nonetheless left on the bench for the League Cup final against Wigan. Saha played instead and scored the third in a 4-0 win. It was his sixth goal in the tournament and by the season’s end he had amassed 15 in all competitions. With rumours circulating that van Nistelrooy had been involved in separate fallouts with both Ferguson and the increasingly influential Cristiano Ronaldo, the striker’s eventual transfer to Real Madrid was precipitated by Saha’s selection ahead of him for a number of league games.
Usurping van Nistelrooy was probably the high-water mark of Saha’s United career. His technical ability, pace and prowess in the air were all major assets at a time when single-striker formations were becoming ubiquitous. Saha could have been one of the finest centre-forwards of the decade but, although he contributed valuable goals in United’s next two triumphant Premier League campaigns, injury again made him an intermittent presence on the pitch.
The Frenchman struck 12 times before Christmas 2006 but then made just 12 appearances after the turn of the year, adding a solitary goal to his tally. Before enduring groin and hamstring troubles in the second half of the season, however, his two goals against Celtic in the Champions League preceded a fine winner against Benfica in Lisbon – United’s first away victory in Europe for almost three years. Saha also scored four in four games going into December, including the opener in a 1-1 draw against title rivals Chelsea.
When United began the 2007/2008 season in decidedly sluggish fashion, winning just one of the their first four league games and scoring only twice, a fit-again Saha emerged from the bench to rapturous applause against Sunderland with the game goalless. He scored the winner. Later that month, Saha won and converted a penalty against Chelsea in a 2-0 win that reaffirmed United’s supremacy over the Londoners in a campaign that would end in a famous match between the two sides in Moscow. Even though he chipped in with a mere three further goals that season, succumbing to injury after Christmas once again, Saha’s early impact upon what was a tremendous year for the club should be acknowledged.
With the first-choice attacking trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevéz about to be augmented by the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov from Spurs, Saha was quietly sold to Everton in the summer of 2008 for an undisclosed fee. He was fragile and injury-prone, certainly, but the Frenchman left with a decent record of 42 goals from 124 games – only just over half of which he started – after making a telling contribution to United’s recent resurgence.
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