Raphaël Varane has signed for Manchester United. Yes, I did just say that. 19 trophies and 360 appearances for Real Madrid, the French defender has been one of the best defenders in the world for a number of years. Alongside Harry Maguire, he will be a part of one of the best centre-back partnerships in Europe.
Centre-backs. A dog, or a cat
Centre-back partnerships are all about complimenting your partner. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were completely different in profiles, but together they worked brilliantly, that is just one example of how centre-back partnerships usually work.
A simple way of looking at it is that you want one of your centre-backs to be a dog, and one to be a cat. The former is an energetic presence that is constantly looking to be involved, usually stepping out of their defensive line in order to intercept their opponent and spearhead attacks.
Meanwhile a cat is more cautious and clever, they’ll use their know-how and positioning in order to get an advantage on the opposition and will often be in the right place at the right time in order to foil the opposition attacks.
Harry Maguire is clearly a dog with his aggressive style on the left side. The United captain constantly looks to turnover possession with well-timed interceptions when stepping out of his defensive line and then drives up the pitch with comfort.
While Victor Lindelöf fits the mould of a cat, where he looks to delay attacks and has impressive positioning, he falls short in the physical side of the game too often with a poor aerial presence and the inability to cover large spaces. The Swede is a solid defender but the acquisition of Raphaël Varane would be a perfect fit next to Maguire.
The Real Madrid defender is as described when talking about a cat in footballing terms. He has very impressive positioning and looks to sweep in behind the defensive line, partnering Sergio Ramos for the most part of his career – a very similar stylistic defender to Maguire.
What Varane brings to the table
Alongside this, Varane possesses immense physical attributes. He has great acceleration and recovery pace which is important when playing next to Maguire, who isn’t the fastest defender in the world, this is because Varane can often keep up with the speedy forwards who look to break in behind backlines and he then has the strength and game knowledge to be a brilliant ‘sweeper’ at times. He also has great aerial ability, winning 75.3% of his aerial duels in La Liga last season. The centre-backs athleticism mixed with his great reading of the game helps him to be a very good defender of large spaces, most usually in defensive transitions.
This clip below shows a fairly simple example of these attributes at work for the French defender. With Atletico Madrid attacking on their left, Real Madrid’s full-back is out of position and the ball is being played into the space on the flank. Varane firstly reads this play and adjusts his body shape and begins to move towards the flank early, before the pass is even made. He then closes the angle down quickly so that the receiver could not cut inside at all and ends up forcing a mistake – it was incredibly simple to watch, but it was impressive play and a showcase of both his athletic ability but also his reading of the game.
When defending in deeper areas, or from crosses, United have sometimes lacked intensity. This is something that the French defender brings in excess. Varane has a great mixture of composure and intensity and knows when to hold up the opposition attacker, but also when to apply pressure and look to force a mistake or make a tackle.
The clip below shows this from Varane in the Champions League against Borussia Mönchengladbach. The pass is played to Marcus Thuram on the left wing, a great one-on-one dribbler. Firstly, Varane sprints out towards his fellow Frenchman, this is so he does not enter the box – where it would be more difficult for Varane to stand him up. After that he slows down and starts to jockey the opposition and when the opportunity arises, he steps out and tackles him. Putting out a potential fire with ease thanks to a great mix of aggression/intensity and composure.
Great ability in the air, something already touched on, is another factor which Varane will provide a significant upgrade on Lindelöf. This will mean that opposition teams will not be able to target a particular side of United’s defence when looking to play long into their strikers, which is something that occurred often when Lindelöf operates as the right centre-back. It is not only from long balls where Varane is strong aerially, but also defending his box – Varane is great at positioning himself well and winning headers from crosses into his area.
Perhaps the best attribute that Varane will bring to United, and what will benefit Harry Maguire, is his anticipation and reading of the game. He is a cat, but his physicality will mean that he’s able to cover his defence and put out fires. While Maguire is a great defender and very impressive at stepping out of the defence and making interceptions, he won’t be able to succeed every time and he needs a partner who compliments him. Varane does.
This clip below shows exactly what he offers in this aspect. With Ferland Mendy out of position at left-back, Ramos has shifted across and Casemiro has dropped into left centre-back. However, a good exchange between two Inter players has led to a player having space in a central area – Casemiro steps out of the defence to try and tackle or intercept the ball, but has left a lot of space to be exploited with a through ball for an Inter forward. Varane reads this danger early, steps across and is able to get to the ball first and clear the danger. However, even though he has the know-how to step across, even if he saw it slightly late, his pace and physical ability helps him in situations like that.
Varane specialising in these type of situations would help United in their attempts to play in a higher line and in turn, look to create more pressure on the opposition, create more turnovers and ultimately have higher amounts of territory throughout the match. After United’s pre-season friendly against Brentford, Solskjær mentioned that the centre-backs abilities would help United play differently – suggesting in a higher line, and/or in a 4-3-3.
“Very happy that we’ve managed to get a deal with Real Madrid. [The] medical should hopefully be okay. He’s a proven winner, a player we’ve followed for many years.” Solskjær stated.
“Sir Alex [Ferguson] was very close to signing him. With him, we have different ways of playing,” he concluded.
On the ball, Varane is good. He uses both feet and can be trusted in the build-up mostly. However, he is not a progressor, he looks to play the simple pass for the most part and that was fine at Real Madrid with the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric constantly looking to receive in deeper areas to progress the ball themselves.
However, United don’t really have this privilege of a great progressor on the right side of the field, with Scott McTominay and Aaron Wan-Bissaka having smaller roles in the build-up for United. This might be one area where Lindelöf trumps the Frenchman, but with reports that United are looking to bring in a midfielder next, this could solve this potential issue.
With his strengths, Varane won’t only be a great addition to the team, but he should also slot nicely alongside the United captain and they should be able to strike up quite the partnership.
This article has not even mentioned the different intangibles of having the Frenchman in the squad. A proven winner with tons and tons of experience. That’ll be great for the squad. He wanted United and only United, he is in the peak of his career. And then you have his ability and it’s a question of how we managed to get the deal done for such a low price.
Raphaël Varane will be a perfect partner for Harry Maguire, but he will also be a very very good player for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team and will hopefully help propel them to the next level.