Manchester United supporters celebrated Raphaël Varane’s transfer from Real Madrid as their answer to Virgil van Dijk and Rúben Dias – a defender capable of leading them to silverware. Varane was joined at United that summer by Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho and, after finishing second the season before, a title challenge was talked up. Things didn’t quite pan out that way.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær didn’t even make it to December and Ralf Rangnick’s disastrous tenure ended with United finishing sixth in the Premier League, with five defeats in their last eight matches. Ronaldo was criticised, but at least he weighed in with 18 league goals, while Sancho struggled to make the transition from the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Varane’s season, however, was particularly disappointing. He arrived as a World Cup winner with four Champions League medals. Injuries limited Varane to just 20 starts in the Premier League last term, his lowest return in a league campaign since 2012-13.
Varane was far from his best when he did play. He looked strangely uncomfortable with the pace and nowhere near as athletic or mobile as he had been at Real Madrid. Yet, United still looked more competent with him on the pitch. Their goals conceded soared from 1.1 per game when Varane started to 1.94 without him. United lost 12 league matches last season, eight of which came when Varane did not start. His absence was particularly frustrating when the big games rolled around. United conceded 15 goals over their four league games against Manchester City and Liverpool. Varane missed them all.
Real Madrid are masters of knowing when to move players on and United supporters were beginning to fear the wool had been pulled over their eyes yet again. Varane had started more than 30 league games in each of his final three seasons in Spain, only to succumb to his injury-ravaged past in his first year in Manchester.
The trend looked like it might continue. Varane only started two of United’s six pre-season matches over the summer and he was on the bench for their first two league games. However, it seems that was by design. Erik Ten Hag quickly realised how significant Varane could be for his team and put the defender on a special training program to build his strength and fitness over the summer. “In pre-season we took a decision to build him physically, so that he had a bit of a slow start,” said the United manager.
United prioritised conditioning over gametime before unleashing him against Liverpool in their third game of the season. The plan has worked. “I had a complete pre-season,” says Varane. “I was able to work well on the physical level I feel better and it shows on the ground.”
It’s no coincidence that United have won all five of the matches Varane has started this season and lost the three he hasn’t. United are not the only ones benefiting from a fully fit Varane. He captained France to a 2-0 win over Austria during the international break before sitting out their defeat to Denmark over the weekend.
His relationship with summer signing Lisandro Martínez has been a key pillar to United’s success so far this season. Ten Hag believes they complement each other well. Their playing styles resemble a good cop, bad cop partnership. Martínez brings the heat and Varane brings the extinguisher. The Argentinian prefers to get physical with his marker and Varane places a great emphasis on positioning. He knows when to push and when to drop.
Varane’s leadership qualities are also shining through. United’s back four is unrecognisable to last season, with Diogo Dalot promoted above Aaron Wan-Bissaka and new signings Tyrell Malacia and Martínez establishing themselves as first choice. United’s attitude to defending has changed beyond belief. Every tackle, every block and every clearance is celebrated like a goal by the United defenders, with Varane playing a key part in building that chemistry at the back.
“The reason [for another clean sheet] is we were good in possession and we defended very well,” said Ten Hag after their 2-0 win away to FC Sheriff before the international break. “With Rapha Varane there as the leader, he puts everyone in the right position.”
It’s not the first time Ten Hag has praised Varane. He did the same after United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool in August, when the Dutchman also warned Harry Maguire that he wouldn’t get in the team just by having the captain’s armband. “I don’t think it means that when you are captain, you are established to play always, especially when you also have Varane in your squad,” said the manager. “There is competition and we need that. Varane’s stature is immense. When the team needed him, he was there.”
Compare that to Maguire, who has played just 10 minutes of football across United’s last four Premier League matches and was dropped for their second group game in the Europa League. England manager Gareth Southgate gave Maguire a lifeline during the international break but it backfired. Maguire conceded a penalty for Germany’s first goal and lost possession for their second. He finished the game injured.
While Ten Hag can afford to be without Maguire at the moment, the same cannot be said of Varane. Perhaps the Frenchman would be United’s permanent captain if the decision would not cause such a storm. Glowing appraisals of Varane are becoming a weekly occurrence from his manager and that will continue if he helps United climb the table.
A top-four finish did not seem realistic when Ten Hag took over and looked even more unlikely after their first two results, but they have a chance, especially with Liverpool and Chelsea struggling to repeat their form from the previous campaign. The season is young but United’s chances of breaching the top four hinge, in part, on Varane’s ability to stay injury free, particularly for the big games.
So far he has helped United to wins over Liverpool and Arsenal. Next up is the Manchester derby on Sunday, when he will come head-to-head with Erling Haaland for the first time in his career. A statement performance from Varane at the Etihad and United supporters can finally get excited about the 29-year-old.