Raphael Varane: The Final Piece of the Defensive Jigsaw Puzzle?


“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”

This is one of the most memorable quotes by Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United and arguably one of the finest managers the sport of football has ever seen.

While this may seem like a counterintuitive statement considering that the objective of the game is to score more goals than one’s opponent, it is widely known that football is historically a low scoring game with the vast majority of matches ending up with score lines of 0-0, 1-1 or 2-1. What this really means is that a moment of individual brilliance from a striker, or conversely, a mistake by a defender, can often settle a very tight game, can be the difference between victory and defeat, between jubilation and heartbreak, between wearing a gold medal or a silver medal around one’s neck.

The bedrock of most successful teams is a formidable defensive unit, especially the central defensive pairing. Looking just at Manchester United, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were integral to Manchester United winning their first league title in 26 years in 1993 while Wes Brown and Jaap Stam were crucial to the treble winning season of 1998/99. More recent viewers would remember Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic who won five league titles and a Champions League (and reached two other Champions League finals) in eight seasons together at the club.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire with goalkeeper Dean Henderson and midfielder Nemanja Matic.

Having secured the signing of Jadon Sancho to address the lack of a genuine right winger at the club, United have now turned their attention to a central defender, with multiple reliable sources saying that a move for Real Madrid and France international Raphael Varane is quite close to completion, the club having agreed personal terms with Varane, while a fee with Real Madrid remains to be negotiated. (which seemingly appears to be a formality)

This is not the first time United have tried to sign him with then manager Ferguson having come close to signing an 18 year old Varane from French club Lens in 2011, before eventually deciding upon Phil Jones. While Jones did show early promise, winning a league title in 2013 and an FA Cup in 2016, a string of injuries and a propensity towards making reckless errors when he has played has wrecked his career and he has never truly lived up to the hype of his teenage years.

Varane on the other hand signed for Real Madrid instead and has enjoyed a trophy laden stint at the club, winning 18 trophies including three La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, including three straight titles between 2016 to 2018 as well as the 2018 World Cup for France, a tournament where he played every minute. Having formed a very successful partnership with Sergio Ramos, Varane, at the age of 28 is already one of the greatest defenders of his generation.

Now, it is worth looking at how Varane could fit into Manchester United’s set up. As of this article being published, Manchester United have not been strongly linked with a defensive midfielder and while Fred and Scott McTominay can do an adequate job, they are not capable of dictating play to the extent that is required to dominate games. The other option is to use Paul Pogba with either of the aforementioned midfielders though the Frenchman’s future at the club is uncertain with links of a move to Paris Saint-Germain a possibility. This means that the burden of ball progression falls to the central defenders to a considerable extent. 

Raphaël Varane playing for Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.

As discussed in a previous article, the function of ball progression and playing out from the back is largely fulfilled by club captain Harry Maguire, but the weakness in this system is that the other defender, the so-called “cover defender” must be dominant and agile enough to anticipate and thwart potential opposition attacks on his own in some cases. While Victor Lindelof is undoubtedly a decent defender with good anticipation, he is decidedly average in duels especially aerial duels, often getting outmuscled in the air and sometimes on the ground too.

This is where Varane comes into his own and should, in theory at least, fit in at United like a glove. He has played the role of the cover defender throughout his entire career at Real Madrid acting as a perfect foil to the more aggressive and dominant Sergio Ramos. 

He is an excellent reader of the game, anticipating potential danger early and intercepting it by virtue of his positioning. While he is not a very prolific tackler in terms of volume, he is a proficient one and knows when and where to tackle in order to minimise the possibilities of giving away fouls. He is significantly more dominant aerially than Lindelof and is also a physical threat at set pieces, capable of scoring the odd important goal.

His technical ability on the ball is also quite underrated with a pass completion rate of around 91% while averaging 62 passes per game. The other attribute he brings to the United backline is something which cannot be measured in statistics, an experienced professional who rarely makes mistakes and a winner’s mentality who knows what it takes to get over the line on the biggest stages.Varane comes to Manchester United at the age of 28, a player in his prime, someone who has won it all at one club and is eager to prove his worth in a slightly different environment. With the ever improving Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan Bissaka already at the club, it would appear that Varane is the final piece of the defensive puzzle that provides Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the solidity he has craved to launch sustained assaults on the Premier League and Champions League trophies for the next five to seven years.

Written by Avitaj Mitra

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