When Rio Ferdinand left Manchester United, it left a particular kind of void in their defense that has never been filled since. It’s because part of what made him such an elite central defender was his playing style, his ability to be dominant in defensive duels while simultaneously being composed and elegant in possession.
That duality is more than an aesthetic nicety. Players that have that combination command a unique authority and give their teams an unparalleled sense of calm and control throughout a match, which is invaluable at the highest level of the sport. Few defenders in the world have that presence, and as a consequence, United have been devoid of that intangible trait for some time.
If they sign Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, Man United would find a player who can fill that void and, in general, upgrade their defensive line. His CV gives an indication as to why he’s so highly regarded — his 300 appearances for Los Blancos has yielded three La Ligas, four champions leagues, and some ten other major honours, not to mention a World Cup with France in 2018.
What’s allowed Varane to remain such an integral component of both Real Madrid and France’s success has been his completeness as a defender and his suitability to the modern game. His foremost strength is his ability to defend in transition.
Under Zinedine Zidane, Madrid usually played a high line and tried to press high, but were usually ineffective at actually winning the ball through their press. The result was that Madrid’s deepest midfielder and centre-backs regularly had to cope with defending large amounts of space and dealing with numerical mismatches.
Part of the reason this strategy still worked for Madrid, though, was because of Varane’s combination of supreme athleticism and his reading of the game. The caricature of a defender who excels at defending counter-attacks is someone who can stay with or make up ground on an advancing forward and intervene with sliding tackles and last-ditch challenges in the nick of time. Varane certainly can do this — he has the required physical attributes. But he rarely has to rely on them to stop an opposition team from defending in transition.
Instead, he aims to defend the space just ahead of the Madrid backline by using his reading of the game. Varane’s first instinct isn’t to pressure the man on the ball, but instead, to constrict the space he can run and pass into. Particularly when a team wins the ball back in central areas and has runners out wide on the break, the Frenchman excels at cutting off passes before they reach their target.
He is capable of being more proactive and pushing up to challenge the man in possession too, though, and generally has good instincts about when and how to do this. Still, he prefers to hold his defensive position until it’s absolutely necessary to step out.
This same passivity and patience is seen when Varane defends deeper in his own half as well. If his fullback is dragged out of position and there’s space down the flanks, he prefers to position himself towards the edge of the box to try and block the cross as opposed to pushing all the way wide to engage the opposite man. The benefit of this is that Madrid’s backline doesn’t become too spaced out horizontally and leave gaps for the opposition to exploit.
Again, when Varane needs to push wider he will and tends to be quite successful at retrieving the ball. He’s physically imposing and has good footwork to ensure he can maintain balance when an opposition player is running at him. However, his priority is to hold his position, use his positional acumen and anticipation to defend space, and intervene with challenges only when necessary.
That means his defensive contributions may not translate to eye-catching statistics, he doesn’t register a high number of tackles and interceptions because he so carefully picks and chooses his moments to step out of the defensive line. But his technical traits enable Varane to flourish with that style and contribute to that unique elegance and dominance with which he defends.
It’s worth noting that part of the reason Varane’s more passive style of defending worked at Real Madrid is because his centre-back partner, Sergio Ramos, was far more aggressive in his defending. Harry Maguire is similarly assertive for Manchester United, so Varane should be able to translate his defensive style effectively in England. His aerial dominance will also be useful for United when defending crosses and set-pieces, the latter of which has been a significant weakness during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure.
Varane’s dominance in defending transitions will probably become even more prominent given the faster pace of the Premier League and the nature of United’s midfield pivot. Fred and Scott McTominay tend to push up too high when pressing or trying to quell counters, leaving large swaths of space between them and the defensive line.
The club should be looking to buy players who could fill those midfield positions, but even if they don’t, Varane will help mitigate their midfield’s current defensive weaknesses through his positional awareness and anticipation.
Given that United’s defence is already quite strong, he may not be a transformative signing in the same way Virgil Van Dijk was for Liverpool. But it’s unquestionable that Raphael Varane will improve Manchester United, both through his physical and technical qualities and his calming defensive presence that will finally fill the void Rio Ferdinand left all those years ago.