Manchester United means business in 2021. After finishing 2nd in the Premier League 12 points adrift of Manchester City, United wasted no time in upgrading their starting XI by signing Jadon Sancho for €85 million from Borussia Dortmund. The Red Devils followed that up by giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a new long-term contract to reward his efforts before showing faith in their manager by signing Raphael Varane from Real Madrid for a reported €50 million.
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Make no mistake, this is an incredible coup for Manchester United, and the signing of Varane significantly raises their floor and puts them in the conversation for next season’s Premier League title fight alongside Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Varane’s CV speaks for itself. The Frenchman has already won four Champions League titles, three La Liga trophies as well as a World Cup in 2018. The 28-year-old signed for Real Madrid from RC Lens as one of the top-rated centre-back prospects in Europe in 2011 for €10 million, and has since gone on to make over 350 appearances for Los Blancos in his 10 seasons in the Spanish capital.
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Standing at 6’4, one of the primary strengths of Varane is his outstanding physical profile. Varane has a massive frame which helps him dominate aerially – winning 75% of his aerial duels in La Liga last season. His aerial prowess addresses an immediate need for Manchester United, as the Red Devils were particularly weak at defending set-pieces last season, conceding nine league goals from corners.
Furthermore, Varane is blessed with a lightning recovery pace which is greatly beneficial for Manchester United considering he will partner the slightly less mobile Harry Maguire in defence. The Frenchman is also much better on the ball than all of Manchester United’s defenders bar Maguire and will provide a secondary ball progressor in Manchester United’s backline along with the Englishman.
Raphaël Varane’s aerial success rates over the last 3 La Liga seasons:
🔘 18/19 — 77%
🔘 19/20 — 71%
🔘 20/21 — 75%
Unbelievable athlete. 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/G2StMsVWZT
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) July 27, 2021
His inclusion in the XI also benefits Maguire, with the ex-Leicester man afforded more freedom to go on one of those marauding runs into midfield with the security of a world-class defender such as Varane alongside him.
Signing Varane fixes plenty of problems for Manchester United, but mainly, it helps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer transition from their current mid-block to a much higher defensive line. Reports coming out of Manchester suggest that Ole would like to switch to a 4-3-3 formation this season and play a more aggressive high-pressing style of football compared to the more counter-attacking system currently employed.
To transition to a 4-3-3 and use the high-press, Manchester United would need to defend much higher up the pitch, and the acquisition of Varane helps accommodate that shift. Varane is incredibly quick for someone his size and has brilliant positional awareness and experience of playing in a 4-3-3. His signing helps make that tactical shift easier while also providing extra leadership and ‘winning-mentality’ to the Manchester United backline.
However, despite signing Varane, Manchester United are still one piece away from becoming the complete team and don’t belong in the title favourites category alongside City or Liverpool as of yet.
That is because there is still a gaping hole in the centre of Manchester United’s midfield that needs to be filled. The combination of Fred and McTominay provide defensive solidity and bite but struggle to progress the ball up the pitch and break down low-blocks. When Paul Pogba plays in the double pivot alongside either of the two, it leaves Manchester United vulnerable defensively, with the Frenchman tending to empty midfield and being less disciplined with his positioning.
Just like how Liverpool required Alisson and Fabinho to complete the puzzle in 2018 and how Chelsea require Haaland or Lukaku right now, Manchester United need a central midfielder who possesses the technical ability to progress the ball along with the athleticism and physicality to compete with the best attackers in the Premier League. There aren’t plenty of those players around in the world at the moment, but if Manchester United can sign someone with this profile – Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni or Declan Rice – before the 31st of August, title number 21 may not be too far ahead in the future.
[Image Credit: Raphael Varane]