Manchester United have always relied on having strong squad depth to compete at the highest level in all competitions, whether that be the famous 2008/09 squad that featured the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Luis Nani, or squads from the past that featured legends such as Jaap Stam, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Phil and Gary Neville. However, in the past seven years or so United have arguably had little quality squad depth, and this is something that is important in every position on the field if trophies are the target.
Defensively, United have lacked two top class centre-backs since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s formidable partnership, but the signing of Raphael Varane alongside existing club captain Harry Maguire looks to have changed this.
Varane arrives at United boasting an impressive trophy haul from his time with Real Madrid, which includesfour Champions League trophies and three La Liga titles. Add this to his impressive international career, which includes a World Cup and being the youngest ever French captain, it’s clear Varane brings a winning mentality to United that is so desperately needed. United are without a league title since 2013 and haven’t lifted the coveted Champions League trophy since that fantastic night in Moscow in 2008, Varane could be the addition that finally ends the eight-year league drought.
Highly respected and revered at Los Blancos, Varane boasts an impressive defensive and disciplinary record. In his time with Real Madrid, the defender has only picked up 25 yellow cards, and impressively, two red cards. Bearing in mind that’s across 360 matches played for Madrid, his overall record is exemplary. This in itself is testament to the Frenchman’s maturity and level-headed approach to the game, something that is very evident from the interviews he’s given throughout his career, once stating to Real Madrid TV “I always want to play clean”. All of these factors combined paints a picture of a mature top-class player, a quiet leader, and more importantly- a winner.
It’s clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to quickly integrate a player of Varane’s quality into the starting XI, and naturally he will be paired with club captain Harry Maguire. The captain status and Maguire’s impressive run of form throughout last season practically makes him untouchable within the line-up. This new pairing of Maguire and Varane subsequently means that trusted starter Victor Lindelof will lose his place, and he may have a case for being frustrated.
Throughout his four-year tenure at United, Lindelof has never fully convinced the Old Trafford faithful of his ability to be a first-choice centre-back option. However, as of late Lindelöf looks to have had an upturn in form, perhaps personified by his excellent pin point ball to Bruno Fernandes in the opening game against Leeds, which led to Fernandes’s hat-trick.
Nicknamed the ‘The Iceman’, Lindelof has been mostly reliable amongst United’s back four, which is in dire contrast to fellow defender Eric Bailly. If Lindelöf is ‘the iceman’, Bailly is a firecracker- erratic, rash but possessing an undeniable level of quality. Bailly is a tenacious defender, stronger and much quicker than Lindelöf, at the surface level he seems to be the perfect partner for Maguire.
However, dig a little deeper and you see the awful injury record that Bailly has, missing several stretches of games at a time. A lack of consistency means Bailly cannot be considered as a starter, albeit seemingly possessing a high level of talent. A mix of Lindelöf’s reliability and coolness with Bailly’s speed and strength is what United need, and it seems Varane may be just that.
While Varane is nailed on to be a starter, improving United’s starting back four, his potential impact on Lindelof and Bailly could be one of the greatest effects. Solskjaer will hope the arrival of Varane may spur on the other defenders within the United contingent to up their game, which would benefit the quality in squad depth that the team possesses. United will be hoping that they may be able to replicate ‘the Alex Telles’ effect, a signing which almost certainly contributed to Luke Shaw’s incredible campaign last season. Genuine quality breeds even more quality, as the bar is raised so is the level required to stay in contention, and the presence of having a World Cup winner will hopefully bolster the performances of Lindelof and Bailly when selected.
This is vital if United are looking to win on all fronts, squad rotation will be key to avoiding injuries and keeping players fresh. In the past when United have shuffled around defensively, whether that be in cup games or as a matter of necessity, the backline has always seemed somewhat frail or unsure of itself. Solskjaer will hope that this will no longer be the case, with both Lindelof and Bailly having the extra motivation of needing to prove their quality if they want to have a chance of getting back into the starting line-up.
Conversely, one potential issue that could arise is if either Lindelof or Bailly become disgruntled with being delegated to the bench. While it’s unlikely Lindelöf will grow frustrated, given all indications seem to point to a happy player, Bailly may look to leave the club if he is unable to get many opportunities this season. Bailly penned a new deal back in April this year, keeping him at the club until June 2024, however the international may not be all that happy if he’s denied game time. Signing the contract Bailly made it clear he had intentions of an injury free stint, claiming that he “loved the club”.
The 27-year-old also said he viewed the new contract as “a fresh challenge”, perhaps alluding to his troublesome injury history and how he is trying to move on from that. While Bailly has clear affections for the club, he may just find the signing of Varane less than four months after his contract renewal as a bit of a kick in the teeth. At 27, Bailly needs to be playing regular football if he is to stay at the top of his game, unfortunately United may not be the best place for that.
Away from more experienced players, United still have both Axel Tuanzebe and Teden Mengi within their ranks to consider. Both English centre-backs are still relatively young, Tuanzebe being 23 and Mengi 19, and the pair are touted as having a very high ceiling of talent. While Tuanzebe will be unavailable for selection this year, having just secured a third loan move to Aston Villa, it’s clear that United see a future at the club for Tuanzebe having also just signed a contract extension. While not starting in many games last season, Tuanzebe really impressed in the away win against Paris Saint-Germain, managing to deal with Kylian Mbappe’s blistering pace effectively.
In contrast, Mengi has spent most of his career so far impressing for the under 23’s, although did move to Derby County on loan in the second half of last season. The Manchester born academy graduate had put in a string of good performances before unfortunately having his loan move cut short due to a hamstring injury. Mengi’s future for this season is still undecided as of the time of writing this article, however it’s highly likely that the impressive youngster will go back out on loan to the Championship for this season.
A loan move playing regular Championship football will surely prove more beneficial than simply playing in the under 23’s for Mengi, likely exposing him to adversity and the realities of playing week in week out in front of a large crowd. United will hope both players will gain more valuable experience and playing time this season, so when the pair do return to United, they will provide fresh competition.Overall, the future looks bright for United defensively, and for the centre-back position, in particular.
The squad has gained a born winner with valuable experience in this window, and the hope is this will ignite a competitive spirit amongst the defensive ranks. The addition of more valuable loan experience for the likes of Tuanzebe also bodes well for the future, and with the quality of the current overall United team, United could finally be setup with a high quality, experienced backline for years to come.
Written by Sam Wilson