Manchester United fans are understandably delighted with Raphael Varane’s imminent arrival from Real Madrid, although the club would not have needed to spend £43m on the defender had Sir Alex Ferguson managed to lure the Frenchman to Old Trafford a decade ago.
A young Varane was starting to grab people’s attention in what was his debut campaign with Lens in 2010/11, including that of United’s then French scout David Friio, who became a regular attendee during the player’s final few months at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.
Varane, just turned 18, may not have been able to save Lens from relegation from Ligue 1 that season, but that did not bother Ferguson, who knew a future world star when he saw one.
Unfortunately for the Scot, he was not the only one running his eye over Varane and with the United manager en route to northern France to sign the centre-back, Real Madrid’s new special adviser learned of the meeting and quickly intervened.
One phone call from Zinedine Zidane was all it needed for Varane to end up in Madrid, not Manchester that summer, with United instead buying Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers for £16.5m.
During 10 trophy-laden seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu, Varane formed a formidable partnership at the back with Real captain Sergio Ramos, eventually ending Pepe’s career at the club in 2017.
Varane worked with Jose Mourinho in his first two seasons in the Spanish capital, developing his defensive game under the Portuguese, who was then at the peak of his powers, as Real prevented Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from winning a fourth straight La Liga title in his debut campaign in Spain.
Mourinho has coached some of the very best centre-backs in the world during the last 20 years, so it says something when he puts Varane at the very top of that list.
“Varane is the best central defender in the world. He is still young, but I think he’s the best. Already, yes. I think he’s the best defender,” he said a year after leaving Real, which probably explains why he was so keen to make him his first signing as United boss in the summer of 2016.
However, unlike in 2011, this time Mourinho could not persuade Varane to team up with him as United once again missed out on the France international’s signature.
Varane’s Real Madrid Career in Numbers (2011-2021):
|Games Played (in all comps)||360|
It proved a good decision as Varane racked up over 350 appearances for Real, winning 18 major honours in the process, including four Champions League and three La Liga titles.
So it is that type of pedigree United are bringing to Old Trafford – someone who not only knows how to win, but also expects to.
Not just with Madrid either, but France too, who he became world champion with in 2018. In Russia, Varane played a key role off the field with his dressing-room leadership skills as well as on it, where he featured in every minute of their victorious campaign as he joined a select band of players to have won the European Cup/Champions League and World Cup in the same year.
Now it is a case of third time lucky for United, who a decade after first trying to bring him to Old Trafford, have finally got their man.
Varane – at 28 the ideal age for a defender – could prove to be the missing piece in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United jigsaw.
Man Utd are buying one of the best central defenders in Europe. He has been fantastic at Real since day one, he has all the attributes you need and in terms of quality, I do not think there are many better than Varane.
The graceful Frenchman is as close to the complete central defender as you will find in European football right now – pacy, calm under pressure, composed on the ball, strong in the air and a good organiser and leader at the back who also reads the game well.
While it is true Varane has not always garnered the attention Ramos has at times at the Bernabeu, as Spanish football expert Terry Gibson says, that should not mask the quality of centre-back United are signing.
“Man Utd are buying one of the best central defenders in Europe,” he told Sky Sports News.
“He has been fantastic at Real since day one, he has all the attributes you need and he has been slightly overlooked because of Sergio Ramos.
“But in terms of quality, I do not think there are many better than Varane.”
Varane will line up alongside Harry Maguire at the heart of United’s defence next season in a partnership that should complement both men perfectly, while also meaning a watching brief from the bench for Victor Lindelof, who fairly or unfairly, has struggled to win over supporters since his arrival at the club in 2017.
With Atletico Madrid right-back Kieran Trippier also reportedly on his way this summer, and his England team-mate Luke Shaw at left-back, United’s defence could all of a sudden take on an imposing look.
Certainly, if Solskjaer is to make that jump from second to first in the Premier League, then an improved defensive showing is a must next season.
That is because last time out, United conceded 44 league goals – the most in the top four and even more than Liverpool, who struggled horribly at the back. United let in an eyebrow-raising 14 goals via set plays – goals which had an Expected Goals Against figure of just 8.9.
Solskjaer clearly recognised this susceptibility from free-kicks and corners, observing recently: “In big games against good players and good teams we lose that bit of focus. It’s a big part of football – so many goals are conceded from set plays.
“We do have a good record of winning the first ball, but when we don’t it seems like it goes in every time.”
The arrival of the 6ft 3in Varane, though, will mean goals like Villarreal’s headed winner from a set-piece in last season’s Europa League final should now hopefully be a thing of the past at United.
That in turn could ultimately prove to be the difference between top spot and a runner-up berth next season for Solskjaer’s team, which would have made the decade-long wait for the France defender worth it.
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