Football Features

Why Raphael Varane to Man Utd would be a truly a rare ‘heavyweight’ signing

By Muhammad Butt

Varane to Man Utd

Published: 14:27, 23 July 2021

Raphael Varane appears to be on the verge of signing for Manchester United.

There have been rumours brewing all summer and now there are strong suggestions in both the English and Spanish press that Varane’s 10-year spell with Real Madrid is finally at an end. As recently as Friday, he spent just a few hours at Real Madrid’s training ground to undergo his pre-season medical before being filmed leaving, reportedly without taking part in the day’s session.

With one year left on his contract, Madrid are rumoured to be looking for a deal in the region of £50m, a bargain for a player of Varane’s staggering ability, consistency and trophy cabinet.

United have long been linked with centre-backs as they have looked to replace the featherweight Victor Lindelof. This summer alone there were stories about moves for welterweights like Ben White or middleweight players with untapped potential such as Jules Koundé. And who could forget the endless links to the perpetually super-middleweight Kalidou Koulibaly?

But United have blown by all of those players, talented though they are, and appear to have bagged themselves a genuine heavyweight talent in Varane. It’s hard to understate just how colossal of a deal this is. Players as “big” as Varane don’t usually come to the Premier League. Sure, England’s top flight has made more than its fair share of heavyweights over the years but how many arrived that way?

When true world-class players with massive profiles in the game move clubs, it tends to be in one of only two directions: Barcelona or Real Madrid. There are occasions when Bayern Munich and PSG involve themselves in these deals and obviously at the end of the last century Serie A was the go-to place for elite talent, but they don’t come to England.

The thing is, Varane has just done a decade at one of those juggernauts, joining Real Madrid as a teenager in 2011. He’s played more Champions League games for Los Blancos than Harry Maguire has played Premier League games for United. He’s also won the Champions League more times (four) than United have as an entire club (three).

Of course, his whole story could have been very different, as United actually tried to sign Varane back when he first moved to Madrid.

I hurtled down on the train from Euston to Lille to sign the young French defender Raphael Varane,” then-United manager Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his second book, “[former Chief Executive] David Gill was getting into the finer points of the contract with Lens when Zinedine Zidane got wind of this and somehow scooped him up for Real Madrid from under our noses.”

Zidane’s influence was key to Varane going to Madrid and prospering there, too. The young Frenchman began impressing almost immediately under José Mourinho, then Carlo Ancelotti. He was constantly forcing himself into the team despite Pepe and Sergio Ramos being supremely talented starters ahead of him. Varane went on to become one of the leaders in defence under Zidane’s management, winning countless trophies including the now-legendary Champions League ‘threepeat’ and then, off the back of that, the 2018 World Cup.

Back in 2016, Zinedine Zidane said he felt Varane would “stay here all his life, he embodies the future of Real Madrid.” But now in 2021, Zidane is no longer at Real Madrid to keep his compatriot tied to the Santiago Bernabeu. And given all that Varane has won for Los Blancos, it makes sense for him to seek out a new challenge at this stage in his career.

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Varane is basically a mythic figure. An almost perfect footballing being, possessing absurd athletic abilities and a magnificent tactical mind. His understanding and anticipation of danger is matched only by his frightening ability to get there on time. Someone being both as big and as quick as Varane shouldn’t be possible, and yet he is very, very real.

Obviously there are mistakes, some high-profile blips (namely in the Champions League against Manchester City). But this is a man with an impeccable record of performance. Three La Ligas and four Champions Leagues would make him one of the most decorated players in the Premier League. Only Thiago Silva (eight) has won more top-five league titles and no one playing in England has won more than a single Champions League title as a starter (Thiago Alcantara has two but he played just once for Barcelona in 2010/11, while Mateo Kovacic was never a regular during his three wins with Real Madrid nor was Xherdan Shaqiri at Bayern Munich and Liverpool).

Obviously the yardstick by which all Premier League defenders are measured is Virgil van Dijk, the Dutch centre-back who basically turned Liverpool from a rock n’ roll side that were fun to watch but not a serious threat, into a team that made two straight Champions League finals (winning one) and racked up a mammoth 196 points across two consecutive Premier League seasons (winning one).

And yet back in April 2020 when Sky Sports were doing a fantasy football draft, Gary Neville chose Varane over Van Dijk. “I think we’ve got an amazing group of young players in England, but we have to think about the other players that exist. We are not the only country in the world,” said Neville. “That’s why I put Raphael Varane ahead of Virgil van Dijk. He’s won so many European Cups, a World Cup, he’s an amazing player.”

And Neville’s not wrong. Varane won his first league title in his debut season with Real Madrid in 2011/12. Back then Van Dijk, who bear in mind is two years older than Varane, was still playing for Groningen. By the time the Dutch defender won his first title, with Celtic in 2014, Varane was picking up his first Champions League.

The Frenchman has been dominating and winning for an entire decade in a way that no one, not Van Dijk nor any other Premier League player, can say they have been. And he will bring that winning mentality, that hunger and demand for trophies, to an Old Trafford dressing room crying out for that kind of mental strength.

This is not to say it is guaranteed Varane will be a success, let alone have a Van Dijk-like impact on Manchester United. But all the signs are positive.

This is a player who, aged 18, calmly turned down a call from Real Madrid so he could continue studying for exams.

Zidane called me and I asked him to call me back because I was studying for my baccalaureate,” he said. Imagine being a French teenager and staying that cool in the presence of Zinedine Zidane. It’s not ice in Raphael Varane’s veins, it’s liquid hydrogen.

That cool mentality translates onto the pitch, too. Varane’s positional sense and timing should allow United to push higher up the field and play more aggressively while his recovery pace will certainly allow him to get back and track runners in a way that Harry Maguire simply isn’t able to do. Having Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Varane on one side of the field will be making left-wingers league-wide very sad.

Varane and Maguire are an incredibly complementary pairing, and will be the league’s most formidable defensive duo on paper (providing United with yet another way to cover for not actually signing a world-class defensive midfielder) and should give this United side, that will also be welcoming another world-class talent with Jadon Sancho’s imminent arrival, a phenomenal boost in their pursuit for honours.

Will it be a Van Dijk-like boost? Will he make the Red Devils genuine contenders for top honours again? Time will tell, of course, and anything can happen in football, but should they get this move over the line then it would be a truly heavyweight signing for Manchester United and should give them the power to punch their way to the Premier League title and maybe even beyond.