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Discussing Raphaël Varane: Why Manchester United and Erik ten Hag still need him



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Credit: IMAGO / Gonzales Photo

Intangible (/ɪnˈtan(d)ʒɪbl/): Not constituting or represented by a physical object and of a value not precisely measurable.

Whilst he may be considered an incredibly important member of the squad by Erik ten Hag, amongst the Manchester United fanbase, Raphaël Varane somewhat divides opinion.

For some, he is the next player who needs to be booted out of the door after David de Gea, due to his somewhat awkward nature on the ball and occasional struggles when playing through pressure. They would replace at the first possible opportunity.

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For others, he is the elder statesman who has seen it all and won the lot. He knows what it takes to be successful at the highest level, and this trumps anything else. He’s one of the last players who needs to go.

There is some level of merit to the argument of either side, but as usual, United fans live in extremes.

Varane will, at some point, need to be replaced for a variety of reasons. It is true that ball playing is not his greatest strength, and United will eventually need to do better.

He is also going to be turning 31 this season, having been playing top-flight football since the age of 17. He has a history of injuries and does need his minutes managed. The centre-back axis is something that works best with consistency, at the elite level of football.

But is Raphaël Varane the pressing problem that many believe he is?

Varane, from a defensive standpoint, is still one of the best players in his position in world football. Even as the game has evolved and become more possessional in nature, the ability to defend is still extremely valuable.

It was Varane’s introduction last season that saw United’s fortunes flip. He brought strength and solidity to the defence, and without him, United looked more vulnerable at the back.

An expert box defender who reads and covers spaces to an elite level, balances his aggression, kills off transitions through the art of delaying, and wins everything aerially, he is inarguably an all-time great centre-back.

But perhaps more importantly than any of these things: he is a leader. He is clearly Erik ten Hag’s appointed leader of the backline, a vocal organiser respected by his peers.

Fans have seen his bromance with Lisandro Martínez, together they form the best centre-back partnership Old Trafford has seen since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were the bedrock of five league titles and a Champions League in seven years.

But it is not just Lisandro Martínez who benefits from him. Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka look far more comfortable and assured playing next to Varane, younger players who benefit from the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable player.

He is also in constant communication with his goalkeeper and the midfield. The Frenchman transmits calm to the players around him, and this is crucial to guiding players through games. Emotional control is one of the biggest difference makers at the elite level, and Varane brings this to United.

With Lisandro Martínez’s aggressive tendencies, and new goalkeeper André Onana’s extreme, sometimes slightly too extreme, level of bravery, this calmness and control that Varane brings is essential to balance United’s mental profiles at the side’s foundation.

Off the field, this leadership continues. This may seem like a weak point to bring to defend a player, but its importance cannot be overstated. There is a reason that Varane is United’s vice-captain, and was probably the second favourite after Bruno Fernandes to take the armband recently.

Varane is a remarkably intelligent man who commands respect from his peers and has formed excellent relationships with his teammates and coaches. His connection with the fans is a strong one, making an effort to celebrate with the crowd after wins at home and regularly stopping to interact with fans.

When United were thrashed at Anfield in March, Varane reacted angrily to some players walking off without applauding fans and forced players to return and do this. These types of standard setters make a huge difference in winning teams.

It is these intangibles which make Varane so valuable to Ten Hag, on top of his defensive qualities. Winning does not make players great, and many are resistant to mention Varane’s success due to this notion. But he has been a key player in Champions League and World Cup winning teams for a reason, and through these experiences has developed many of these qualities that Ten Hag regards so highly.

With United taking the next step in their tactical progression under the Dutchman this season, his leadership and organisational qualities, along with his defensive strengths, will be needed to help United to adapt to defending higher up the field.

But, like with every player, United will need to move on at some point. As United adapt to playing higher, his aforementioned qualities will accelerate the process. But to stay there, they will need to control games better. This is where Varane has a shelf life.

Despite being a technically secure player, Varane has somewhat awkward biomechanics. He can look awkward on the ball at times and struggle to get the ball out of his feet, creating problems when playing against intense pressure.

He is also not the most progressive-minded passer of the ball, often choosing a safer option instead of switching play or breaking a line. He is capable of it and has shown this a few times in United’s pre-season games, but needs to add this to his game more consistently.

Erik ten Hag wants Manchester United to be a possession-based footballing team. Whilst Varane has many other qualities that help to actualise this control and dominance, it is imperative that players are comfortable playing in and controlling possession, often operating in unfamiliar zones when rotating.

The players who are weaker in this regard will, naturally, be looked to be upgraded on. Varane is one of United’s less comfortable players in possession, and this mixed with his age & availability makes it natural that he will be one of the players who United will want to replace at some point.

For this next season ahead, United still need many of Varane’s great qualities that he still possesses. Victor Lindelöf has more than proven him a capable backup, and for Varane’s weaknesses in possession, he is surrounded by players who can negate this.

André Onana is one of the three best goalkeepers in the world on the ball, Diogo Dalot is excellent in possession and has the potential to be a world-class right back, then with Lisandro Martínez and Luke Shaw it almost feels as though not much more needs to be said.

At some point, these players will need someone who matches their level in this regard, but without losing the other qualities Varane brings that benefit them so much. For this, United should not even consider looking away from Benfica’s António Silva.

Already a fantastic centre-half, the 19-year-old has the potential to be the world’s best player in his position and the mental profile of a future club captain. He profiles extremely similarly to Raphaël Varane but possesses more comfort in possession. Whilst he will not come cheap, it would be worth it for United to bring in a player to lead the backline for over a decade.

But as of right now Silva still would do well with another year in Lisbon, and United still would do well with another year of Varane leading the backline. He has two years left on his deal, if United can negotiate a lower salary in a year’s time then it would be nice to see Raphaël Varane see out what has been a beautiful career at the Theatre of Dreams.