Is Varane The Missing Piece of Manchester United’s Puzzle?
There was a lot of excitement around Old Trafford when Manchester United signed Jadon Sancho a few weeks ago, and rightly so. The club was embarrassed last year when its lengthy pursuit of the young English winger ended in disappointment and ridicule from Borussia Dortmund, so it will have come as a relief to the United hierarchy to get the deal over the line. Even with a reported cost of £73m, though, it might not be the most important piece of business that Manchester United does this summer.
United’s forward line isn’t necessarily what stopped the team from picking up a trophy last season. Even without Sancho, United could call upon Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Most teams in the world could only dream of having such fearsome options to choose from. Sancho adds to that lineup and gives United arguably the most potent attacking threat in the world, but it’s in defence that the Red Devils have suffered. Last season, the team developed a habit of conceding first in games and then having to play catch-up. They came back to win more often than they didn’t, but not conceding first at all would be far preferable. They might be more likely to achieve that now they’ve secured the signature of French World Cup-winning centre-back Raphael Varane from Real Madrid. The question we now ask ourselves is the same one that many sports journalists are asking – is Varane the missing piece of the puzzle for Manchester United?
At face value, United have got incredible value for money from this signing. Two years ago, the defender would probably have commanded a price close to £100m. Now, with only a year left to run on his contract in Madrid and having made it clear to his employers that he wanted to take on a new challenge in the English Premier League, United got him for a steal. The price is reported to be lower than £40m. From Madrid’s point of view, it was better to get a below-the-odds fee than to let Varane walk away for nothing in summer 2022. At 28 years old, the player is at his physical peak and offers experience and class in the heart of United’s backline. From the reaction online, it’s clear that fans are thrilled to see him, but nobody will be happier to see him than United captain Harry Maguire.
Maguire has struggled so much with his defensive partners at Old Trafford that it’s caused his own reputation to suffer. It was only at this summer’s Euros tournament that he was able to remind people what a world-class defender he is with a competent partner. Through necessity, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has treated his defence like an online slots game, taking a chance on different lineups to see if he’s onto a winner or not. If things don’t work out, he simply “spins again” just like an online slots player would at Online Slots UK, hoping for better luck next time. The problem he’s had is that Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones aren’t up to Maguire’s standards. If they really were symbols on the reels at an online slots website, you’d struggle to make a winning combination out of them. Varane is a more cultured, gifted defender. Not only does he improve the quality of United’s defence, but he’ll also allow Maguire to play better because the Englishman will be less worried about the prospect of his partner making a costly mistake.
With this purchase, Manchester United have spent more on summer signings than any other club in Europe. Their neighbours Manchester City are yet to make any significant acquisitions despite being on the hunt for a striker and linked to both Harry Kane and Erling Haaland, and it’s been similarly quiet at Liverpool and Chelsea. Bringing in Sancho and Varane raises expectations for the team’s performance next summer – and they might not even be done yet. There are suggestions that they’re still keen to add England right-back Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid. The club has thus far been put off by Atletico’s £40m asking price for the 30-year-old Bury-born defender but are said to believe that his price will drop as the end of the transfer window looms. They could be right about that, but they had similar beliefs about Sancho last season and turned out to be wrong.
If Trippier moves to United, that could be taken as a bad sign for existing right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The former Crystal Palace player has largely been a success since moving to Old Trafford but finds himself behind not only Trippier but Kyle Walker, Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold and even Ben White when it comes to selection for England. Trippier coming in wouldn’t necessarily mean Wan-Bissaka is moving on, though. United could theoretically accommodate both of them by playing one as an orthodox right-back and one as a wing-back, with Luke Shaw and Alex Telles lining up the same way on the other side of the pitch. The drawback would be that with Shaw, Telles, Maguire, Varane, Wan-Bissaka, and Trippier in the starting eleven, there would only be four berths for forward players. At least two of those berths – presumably Pogba and Fernandes – would have to be in midfield, so Cavani, Sancho, Greenwood, Rashford, and Martial would be fighting it out for just two spots. Players like Juan Mata, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Fred would be lucky to see any game time at all.
All in all, it looks like an incoming selection headache for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who signed a three-year contract extension last week, but it’s a nice headache to have. It’s better to have too many options for a starting eleven than too few, and United’s squad – even without Trippier – looks better and more balanced than it has since the time of Sir Alex Ferguson. United’s board has backed Solskjaer strongly in the summer transfer market. It’s now down to him to deliver the league title that they and the fans so desperately want to reclaim.