Raphaël Varane has been one of the best center backs in the world for the better part of a decade now, ever since moving to Real Madrid from Lens at the age of 18. Why, then, does it not feel like a bigger deal that Manchester United just signed the 28-year-old Frenchman? Sure, the fee—about £40 million—is not all that high, even in this COVID-afflicted market, but Varane is not quite the player that he was when Real was winning four of five Champions League trophies in the middle of last decade. It makes sense, then, that his addition to the Red Devil roster raises almost as many questions as it answers.
Varane is, of course, still an extremely gifted player. He is one of the fastest center backs in the world, a fact made all the more impressive by his 6-foot-3 height. He also is skilled with the ball at his feet, which should pair nicely with Harry Maguire to help United play out from the back. Alongside the defensively sound Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right, the ascendent Luke Shaw on the left, and Maguire, who’s grown into one of the very best defenders in the league, playing next to Varane in the center, United will be scary to score against … as long as the club doesn’t expect Varane to be a savior.
That’s because the Frenchman has begun to make more mistakes than one should accept from a player of his reputation. His tackling, which has never been a strength, has declined, and so Varane ends up trying to make riskier plays than he needs to. He does have the pace to cover some of his own positional mistakes, but he is still capable of some downright tragic errors without someone next to him organizing things. With Sergio Ramos next to him calling all the shots at Real Madrid, Varane erupted, looking at times like the single best center back in the sport. But away from Ramos’s influence, it remains to be seen if Varane can get the best out of himself.
If there’s one game that perfectly exemplifies Varane’s shakiness in recent time, it was Real’s shocking 2–0 defeat to Shaktar Donetsk last December. First, he luclily avoided a red card for body-checking Júnior Moraes during a breakaway in the first half. He also had a brain fart on Shaktar’s first goal in the second half, letting the ball just slide by him in the box. After that mistake, Real shut down mentally.
Though that was just one game, last season was full of those kinds of “just one game” performances from Varane, who clearly missed Ramos while the former captain missed a total of 33 matches due to injuries. It’s not exactly a coincidence that Varane’s terrible showings in both Shaktar matches came with Ramos sidelined. For the season, Varane had fewer tackles, interceptions, blocks, and clearances than his career averages, which captures how ineffective he was last season without Ramos for the majority of the campaign.
Now the big Frenchman is off to Manchester, away from his long-time partner Ramos’s assistance and leadership. Maybe getting away from the comfort of Ramos and Madrid is just what he needed to take the next step in his career. Maguire did an incredible job at the center of England’s defense this summer, and for all of United’s faults last season, the back four wasn’t a huge one. If anything, the bigger cause for United’s relatively high amount of goals allowed—44, which was the highest of any of the league’s top-four teams—was the team’s inability to field a reliable defensive midfielder, random star performances from Scott McTominay aside. Varane won’t solve that problem on his own, even if he plays at his peak. At Real Madrid, he had Casemiro roaming around in front of him, and there was a similar drop in Varane’s performance whenever the Brazilian wasn’t on the field.
None of that means Varane won’t thrive in Manchester, or that United is making a bad bet that the Frenchman’s future will look more like his best self and less like the most recent version. But it does mean that Varane alone won’t guarantee that the Red Devils’ defense will be great. Luckily, United won’t be pinning all its hopes of an imminent return to the Premier League summit on Varane, not when the club already has an elite center back to pair him with, a strong possibility of signing a defensive midfielder to protect him, and a new true superstar in Jadon Sancho to get the goals necessary to get wins. United has had a dream of a summer transfer window, principally due to Sancho but also because of Varane. Still, it is worth noting that United’s ultimate fate will depend as much on what it can do for its newest defensive stud as it will what that stud can do for the team.