Diego Forlán and his time at Manchester United

Diego Forlán is one of the best players that Uruguayan football has ever produced. His time in Spanish clubs Villarreal and Atletico Madrid and with his national team cemented his place as one of the finest strikers of the mid-2000s, but his first couple of years in Europe was certainly not the finest.

Diego Forlán
Back in the early 2000s, Forlán joined English giants Manchester United and started to gain notoriety in the European scene, and while he had some flashes of quality, the reality is that he never truly made an impact there. So what happened there? Let's find out.

The beginning

The early days of Forlán's career, before he joined Manchester United, were actually quite interesting. As a kid, he showed interest in both football and tennis, playing both sports vicariously and showing a decent amount of skills in both, although ultimately he decided to focus in football.

A lifelong Peñarol supporter, he played in their youth teams for a while and did the same for another of the big clubs in Uruguay, Danubio, but he ended trying his luck in France by doing a trial at AS Nancy when he was 16 years old, although he was not admitting. Ultimately, he was signed by Argentinian club Independiente and that is when his journey in professional football began.

Forlán, as most football fans know, was a very talented striker, capable of shooting and scoring with both feet with ease (something his father continuously challenged him to practice when he was younger), and all of this played a big role in his success with Independiente. He played there from 1998 to 2002, quickly becoming one of the most notorious strikers in Argentina.

Now, the Argentinian league has always very profitable in terms of selling talent to Europe, but it is very likely that a lot of people were not expecting Manchester United to sign him for 6.9 million pounds in January of 2002. He left Independiente with 40 goals in 91 games across all competitions.

At United

Back in the early 2000s, it was a rarity to see South American players in the Premier League, particularly in the biggest clubs, so it was even more of a shock when United signed an obscure Uruguayan talent from the Argentinian league. Forlán arrived to Old Trafford as a 22 year old and while there weren't a lot of expectations at the time from the media's perspective, legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson definitely saw talent in him.

Plus, Forlán arrived to a United team that was in the middle of a title charge against Arsenal and trying to compete in the UEFA Champions League. His first six months were difficult, playing 18 games across all competitions (mostly as a sub) and without scoring a goal, and was particularly highlighted due to his missed chances against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semifinals, which definitely didn't boost his confidence.

At the time, United were boasting a lot of attacking talent and it was very difficult for the likes of Forlán to get a lot of playing time. Starting striker Ruud van Nistelrooy was one of the best in the world in his position at the time, constantly challenging for the Golden Boot in the Premier League, and Ferguson's main substitute in that position, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, was excellent as a backup, so the Uruguayan sometimes had to play on the wings and get the most out of his chances.

Cult hero status

Forlán struggled in his early days, but one thing that has to be said during a couple of his seasons at the club was that he was learning to seize his chances. This was particularly proven during the 2002/03 season.

His first Premier League was an equalizer in October 26th of 2002 against Aston Villa after he came on as a sub. Back in those days, Villa were quite an interesting side and had some good players, so this result helped United during their title charge for a league trophy that they would eventually win by the end of the season.

These kinds of performances, where he would come off the bench and score vital goals, would be something that would eventually grant Forlán a bit of a cult hero status at Manchester United. Winning goals against the likes of Southampton and Chelsea (in the League Cup) were also very important, slowly showing to English football fans that Ferguson knew what he was doing with his signing.

Of course, when you talk about Diego Forlán at Manchester United, you need to bring up his two goals against Liverpool at Anfield Road. Gary Neville, one of the most important players at United at the time, told Forlán that he was always going to be remembered by the supporters after that performance and he was right as that has become his most iconic moment with a United shirt.


So, why ultimately led to the sale of Diego Forlán to Villarreal in the summer of 2004? Well, the reason is actually quite simple: playing time. That was going to be Forlán's fourth season at United and his situation hadn't improved-in fact, it could be argued that it only got worse.

Ferguson signed French striker Louis Saha from Fulham in the January transfer window of 2004 and English promise Wayne Rooney in the summer of 2004, who could also play as a striker. Coupled with the other options in that position, there wasn't a lot of room for Forlán and that summer was a very good moment to call it quits at Old Trafford.

Having said all that, Forlán fondly remembers his time at United and has been very vocal about it over the years, particularly after his retirement. It is understandable to see why: Manchester United was the first club that gave him a chance in European football and was given a lot of opportunities to cut his teeth in the Premier League, which would prove to be very important during his successful years in Spain.

Diego Forlán's years at Manchester United might not been the greatest of his career, but very essential for his development.
Nathan Annan is from South Africa and loves to write, and above all about his favorite sport, football. Nathan's interest in football was sparked late but after watching a few matches in his hometown of Johannesburg during the 2010 South Africa World Cup, he was hooked.