Ranking Manchester United's French players as Raphael Varane arrives
Cantona will always be ‘The King’ and Evra was brilliant but Pogba has never scaled the heights, Barthez flopped and do you even remember Prunier, Obertan and Bellion? Ranking Man United’s French players as £42m defender Raphael Varane checks in
- Raphael Varane is on the cusp of completing Man United move from Real Madrid
- The centre back will become the 13th French player to turn out at Old Trafford
- Eric Cantona is the best known and will forever be an icon to United supporters
- Patrice Evra and Mikael Silvestre did well during successful Ferguson era
- The jury remains out on current French stars Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial
- Likes of Prunier, Schneiderlin, Obertan and Bellion are more forgettable
Manchester United are making a real statement in the transfer market as they try and mount a genuine title challenge in the season ahead.
After finally landing Jadon Sancho to turbo-charge their attack, United moved swiftly to fix a long-standing weakness in central defence with the signing of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid.
United have shelled out £42million for the France centre half, who will partner their captain Harry Maguire in the heart of defence.
Manchester United are on the cusp of completing the signing of Frenchman Raphael Varane
It’s another statement signing by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team ahead of the new campaign
Varane will become the 13th French player to pull on the red of United and it’s fair to say the previous dozen have been a mixed bag.
A handful have made a real name for themselves at Old Trafford and will be fondly remembered in United’s history. The jury remains out on a pair of current French players while other names you’ll have completely forgotten about.
We rank the 12 French players to have turned out for United.
12. William Prunier
Two matches; 1995-96
The briefest of United careers but certainly one of the most extraordinary. Defender Punier had left Bordeaux and was signed by United on a trial basis in December 1995.
Alex Ferguson was on the look-out for a defender who could pass the ball well and he intended to play Prunier in a couple of reserve games for starters.
However, Prunier’s arrival at Old Trafford coincided with a defensive injury crisis with Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and David May all sidelined.
There was nothing for it but to thrust Prunier straight into first team action. His debut, a 2-1 home win over Queens Park Rangers, saw him partner Gary Neville in central defence and he even claimed an assist for Andy Cole’s goal.
Frenchman William Pruner endured an extraordinarily brief career at Old Trafford
His second game, against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, was an absolute disaster. United had also seen Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin succumb to injury, leaving their back line looking makeshift to say the least.
They lost 4-1 and Prunier became something of a scapegoat for the result. Despite that, Ferguson actually offered to extend his trial but Prunier decided to leave and went on to play for Copenhagen, Montpellier and Toulouse.
‘I played one game with the reserves, two in the Premier League, it was an extraordinary experience,’ Prunier told French outlet So Foot in 2017. ‘It’s a shame that it all turned to bulls***.’
11. Gabriel Obertan
28 matches, one goal; 2009-2011
It wasn’t the most auspicious start for winger Obertan when he arrived at Old Trafford in the same summer that superstar Cristiano Ronaldo departed to Real Madrid.
Signed for £3million from Bordeaux, Obertan suffered an immediate setback when a spinal injury delayed his United debut.
Gabriel Obertan (right) was no more than a bit-part player during two seasons for Man United
Obertan smashes home his one and only goal for United – against Bursaspor in November 2010
He was never more than a bit-part player in his two seasons with United with his highlight coming when he scored in a 3-0 Champions League win over Turkish club Bursaspor.
But it was a tale of Premier League cameos and outings in the League Cup most of the time for Obertan, who was sold on to Newcastle United in the summer of 2011.
10. David Bellion
40 matches, eight goals; 2003-2006
Bellion’s arrival in the summer of 2003 raised a few eyebrows given that Sunderland had just finished bottom of the Premier League.
But the striker, then 21, had been tipped for big things during his youth career at Cannes and was a France under-21 international.
French striker David Bellion fires home against Arsenal in a League Cup quarter-final in 2004
Bellion performed well given limited opportunities but never made a real United breakthrough
To his credit, Bellion scored eight goals in his two seasons at Old Trafford amid limited opportunities. He was never likely to usurp Ruud van Nistelrooy, Diego Forlan, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Louis Saha in the pecking order.
He did score in Premier League games against Everton and Tottenham during the 2003-04 season but was increasingly frozen out and he ultimately returned to his homeland with Nice.
9. Morgan Schneiderlin
47 matches, one goal; 2015-2017
It’s not really Schneiderlin’s fault but he came to symbolise the epic wastage of Louis van Gaal’s time as United manager.
Having built a strong reputation for himself at Southampton, whom he helped back to the Premier League from League One in successive seasons, United parted with £25m to sign him in 2015.
It was part of a considerable and expensive Van Gaal overhaul that summer, with Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Anthony Martial and Matteo Darmian also coming in.
Morgan Schneiderlin didn’t come cheap at about £20m but failed to make much impression
The French midfielder was very much a Van Gaal signing with Mourinho casting him aside
We all know how that ended. United continued to play turgid football and, despite winning the FA Cup, Van Gaal was unceremoniously sacked.
Midfielder Schneiderlin played 39 times in his first season at Old Trafford but whereas Van Gaal trusted him, his successor Jose Mourinho took one look and thought ‘nah’.
What was miraculous was that, despite largely warming the bench in 2016-17, United managed to claw back over £20m for Schneiderlin when they sold him to Everton in the January window.
8. Laurent Blanc
75 matches, four goals; 2001-2003
Ferguson was a long-standing admirer of Blanc, who’d helped organise the French back line when they won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship.
What nobody expected was that Ferguson would finally get his man when he was 35 and, worse still, that he was a replacement for Jaap Stam, booted out to Lazio after comments about the manager in his autobiography.
Laurent Blanc celebrates one of his four goals for United – against Boavista in December 2001
The French defender culminated his playing career by winning the Premier League title
Blanc, or ‘Larry White’ as United fans rechristened him, was unsurprisingly past his best yet brought his experience to bear in 75 outings for United.
His first season saw him play regularly but United were no match for Double-winners Arsenal.
His second saw fewer appearances after Rio Ferdinand was signed but Blanc concluded not only his time at United but his whole career on a high with a Premier League triumph.
7. Fabien Barthez
139 matches; 2000-2004
Fabien Barthez came with a reputation as being one of the world’s best keepers but his time at United was a mixed bag
After United’s search for a reliable goalkeeper post-Peter Schmeichel had chewed up and spat out Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi, they turned to Fabien Barthez in the summer of 2000.
Having won the World Cup and the Euros with France, Barthez rightly had a reputation as one of the world’s best keepers so the £7.8m United paid Monaco for him seemed a bargain.
It all started well. Barthez was known to be eccentric, enjoying dribbling past opposition players, and was capable of stunning reaction saves and the fans lapped it up as United won a third successive Premier League title in 2001.
However, there were some signs those idiosyncrasies could prove costly, such as when Barthez stood there with his arm raised appealing for offside to allow West Ham’s Paolo Di Canio to score and dump United out the FA Cup.
And the following season was marked by a series of high-profile blunders as his confidence slumped. United lost 3-1 at title rivals Arsenal after Barthez gifted two goals to his compatriot Thierry Henry.
Barthez stands and appeals for an offside that never came as Paolo Di Canio scores in 2001
He was guilty of two howlers to gift Thierry Henry a double in a November 2001 game
His third season ended with another Premier League medal but plenty of criticism too, not least when Ronaldo beat him too easily at his near post during United’s Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.
Fergie had seen enough and Barthez was sold to Marseille that summer having been dropped for the final three games of the campaign.
Amusingly, Barthez once played on the wing in the final 10 minutes of a pre-season tour match in Singapore.
6. Louis Saha
124 matches, 42 goals; 2004-2008
As United struggled to keep pace with Arsenal’s Invincibles, Saha was a January signing in 2004 after Ferguson had been impressed by his goalscoring for Fulham.
He certainly continued that form with seven goals in his first 10 starts for United and, indeed, Saha had a respectable scoring return throughout his four-and-a-half seasons there.
Striker Louis Saha had a very respectable goal return of 42 in 124 matches for Man United
The French striker pounces to score in a 3-1 win over Manchester City at Old Trafford in 2006
But for nagging fitness issues and strong competition in attack, Saha could have been an Old Trafford great but his return of 42 goals in 124 games is still fairly good.
He won two Premier League titles, a League Cup (scoring in the final against Wigan) and the 2008 Champions League before moving on to Everton.
His best goal in a United shirt arguably came when he completed a sweeping counter-attack with a curled finish against Benfica in a Champions League group game in 2006.
5. Anthony Martial
258 matches, 78 goals; 2015-present
You’d think a striker who has scored 78 times for Manchester United would be well on their way to being a club legend. But the jury remains very much out on Martial.
By equal turns magnificent and infuriating, the sense remains that there could have been – and could yet be – more to come from a player who is still only 25.
It appeared to be an enormous gamble when Van Gaal’s United paid out an initial £36m – potentially rising to almost £60m – to sign this teenage prodigy from Monaco in 2015.
Anthony Martial announces himself at Manchester United by scoring against Liverpool in 2015
The French striker tends to go through purple patches of scoring but can also frustrate
But Martial certainly announced himself with a classy goal on his debut against Liverpool.
Since then it’s been peaks and troughs. 2019-20 was his best season for United, scoring 23 times but then he wasn’t able to follow that up last season, netting just seven goals in 36 outings.
We’ll see how Martial returns from the ruptured knee ligament that curtailed his 2020-21 campaign and with competition for places stiff in United’s attack, he will need to be close to his best.
4. Paul Pogba
206 matches, 38 goals; 2011-12 and 2016-present
Another enigmatic figure who hasn’t scaled the heights at Old Trafford despite colossal expectations.
For several years, he was the one who got away, having been whisked off by Juventus after finding it difficult to properly break into Ferguson’s first team during his youth days between 2011-12.
His four seasons with Juventus were wildly successful and we were seduced by this image of Pogba as a marauding midfield player capable of doing everything and running games single-handedly.
Paul Pogba pictured during his first spell with United when he struggled to break through
There was enormous fanfare when United broke the world record to bring him back to the club
It was quite some statement by United to break the world transfer record and pay £89m to bring Pogba back to Manchester in the summer of 2016.
Nobody can claim Pogba has lived up to that price tag. While the impression many people had in their mind of ‘Juventus Pogba’ is undoubtedly exaggerated and embellished, his time at United, which could be about to end, has been a disappointment.
There have been glimpses of brilliance from him but overall it’s all been a bit underwhelming and many fans won’t be sorry to see him sold to PSG or elsewhere.
He clashed with Mourinho, helping bring about the manager’s departure, and though Pogba has performed better under Solskjaer, he has been unable to transform them into a trophy-winning force and has continuously been linked with a move away.
There has been reports that Pogba is in talks with PSG over a move this summer, with just one year left on his United deal. But Sky Sports have since claimed that the Frenchman sees a bright long-term future with the club after their blockbuster new signings. Whether he stays remains to be seen, but it is last chance saloon for him.
Midfielder Pogba clashed bitterly with Jose Mourinho when he was United manager
3. Mikael Silvestre
361 matches, 10 goals; 1999-2008
Silvestre must rank among the most under-rated United players with the defender enjoying a long and hugely successful career with the club.
Amassing 361 games, he was trusted by Ferguson in several of his teams and won four Premier League titles, the FA Cup, League Cup and the Champions League.
Signed from Inter Milan for just £4m in the summer of 1999, Silvestre was capable of playing as a central defender or a full-back and must be among United’s greatest-ever bargains.
Mikael Silvestre (right) was a stalwart for United over almost a decade, racking up 361 games
The French defender celebrates one of his four Premier League title wins in 2002-03
Despite stiff competition for places, Silvestre racked up over 50 appearances in three of his United seasons and 47, 46, and 48 in three more, showing how dependable and consistent he could be.
Injuries had taken their toll by the time he signed off by winning the Champions League in 2008 before joining Arsenal.
2. Patrice Evra
379 matches, 10 goals; 2006-2014
Unquestionably a Gallic success story at Old Trafford and one of the best defenders United have had in the last few decades.
Evra’s eight years there coincided with a tremendous period of success and he won five Premier Leagues, three League Cups and the Champions League in 2008.
The left-back cost only £5.5m from Monaco when he arrived in 2006 and overcame a shaky start to establish himself not only as a competent defender but a weapon pushing forward too.
Patrice Evra marks his fifth Premier League title during a highly successful time for United
Evra ranks as one of the best defenders United have had and played 379 times for the club
Gradually, Evra replaced Silvestre in the left-back position and his first season as first choice saw United succeed both in the Premier League and in Europe.
He would be the first choice in his position for the next five seasons, making 379 appearances in all for United before moving on to Juventus.
He returned to United as he completed his coaching badges a couple of years ago and keeps fans entertained with colourful antics on social media.
1. Eric Cantona
185 matches, 82 goals; 1992-1997
Indisputably the greatest French player to have pulled on the Manchester United shirt, Cantona is in the eye of many who enjoyed watching him the best player full stop.
‘The King’ was excellent and enigmatic in equal measure during five years with United that spanned the sublime, the ridiculous and everything in between.
Poached from rivals Leeds for just £1.2m in November 1992, Cantona’s natural arrogance backed up by incredible natural ability made him an instant favourite at Old Trafford.
That status was sealed as he inspired United to back-to-back titles at the beginning of the Premier League era, ending a long wait to be champions of England again.
The one and only Eric Cantona celebrates one of his 82 Manchester United goals
The French forward scores his famous chipped goal against Sunderland in December 1996
The infamous kung-fu kick incident in 1995, which saw Cantona banned for eight months, made him notorious but United stood by him.
It was no coincidence that United, who’d missed out on the title in his absence in 1995, won the Double of league and FA Cup the following season with Cantona to the fore.
One final title success followed for the French forward in 1997 before he stunned the football world by retiring at the age of 30 to pursue an acting career.
It left everyone with fond memories of one of the most extraordinary player to have graced the English game.
Cantona’s outrageous kung-fu kick on a fan almost killed his career stone dead in 1995
Cantona returned from his eight month ban to lead United to the league and cup Double
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