What does Raphaël Varane bring to Manchester United tactically? How much of their issues does he solve?

Image 1: Raphaël Varane in United’s kit. (Fabrizio Romano’s edit)

Manchester United are set to reveal Raphaël Varane as their second major signing of the summer this week. This is a transfer that has shocked many not only in stature but in fee. One of the most decorated and talented center backs in world football, and Real Madrid sold him to Manchester United for as little as £34.2m + Add Ons. Now, that is a bargain. In this article, we will look at how Varane affects Manchester United’s current team and What are his attributes. How much of their problems does he solve?

How does Varane help or change the way Solskjær’s United play? What problems does he fix?

Pressing and recovering

Problem 1: Currently, United play in a mid block most of their matches. This has several reasons. One, season 20/21 was compressed and players had less time recover. Even the most aggressive teams (i.e. Liverpool, Bayern) have toned down their pressing blocks from high to mid. Second, I believe this is they way football is heading due to the reamplifications on player’s longevity from constant high pressing throughout 50–60 games a season. Third, Manchester United’s captain, Harry Maguire, has a low acceleration and thus if United’s backline pushed up high enough, they won’t be able to recover. Victor Lindelöf is fast but he is no fast enough in comparison to some of the rapid wingers in the Premier League. Fourth, United don’t currently have a sweeper keeper like a Manuel Neuer or Alisson Becker. Dean Henderson is showing signs but he has not fully perfected it yet.

Left: United before Varane. Right: United with Varane.
Left: Sweeping behind Maguire from long balls. Right: Recovery pace from balls through channels.

Varane solves this issue. He’s extremely — Underlined — fast for a center back. This not only provides United a platform to push their backline higher and be more aggressive, it also leads to another problem being avoided.

Problem 2: A dysfunctional pressing block. If you, already, have read my latest article about Football philosophy, you notice we talked a lot about creating and denying space. Sometimes when United’s midfield push up to keeping their pressing shape compact, the last line doesn’t push up with them. This results in United’s shape being broken in half and affording opposition a lot of space to penetrate with simple passes. Having Varane will give the entire backline confidence to push as high as needed to keep the shape compact.

Left: United without Varane. Right: United with Varane.

Furthermore, Varane is very good at 1v1s, and with the knowledge of his pace, attackers are reluctant to getting into a foot race with him. This, in turn, helps him avoiding getting into ground (tackles) often. Thus, he delays attackers until his backline recovers or guides them away from goal and wins the ball off of them.

He is a proactive defender. He can move higher up to intercept the ball or intercept an attacker or attack the ball aerially but since Maguire already does this job for United, Varane most likely will be tasked with sweeping and recovering more.

Conceding from Set Pieces

The 20/21 season showed that Solskjær’s United have a particular weakness from set-pieces (i.e. corners, freekicks), they have conceded 14 goals in total from set pieces from an expected 8.9.

Figure 1: Worst 5 teams in PL from set-pieces.

As you can see from the figure above, United are the second worst team that concedes from set-pieces. That is over 30% of the goals United conceded last season. Now add Varane to the setup, who not only has a strong aerial presence but he is also a 6foot and 2inches (191cm) tall, he should definitely help reduce this number just by being added to the back four. Of course, United hired a set-piece coach to help with the setup and routines of set-pieces.

Ball Playing

Varane is very competent on the ball. He is also (almost) two footed, which makes him a great partner for Maguire. At Madrid, he used to use his good passing range to reach the wingers behind opposition backline.

Figure 2: Varane long passing range.

He, usually, attempted 6 long passes per game and completes about 60% of them. Though, he is fairly okay in this aspect, it is definitely not his greatest strength. Which, at Madrid, and probably United, he will not be relied on to deliver these long range passes often. Madrid had Ramos doing that and United have Maguire. Ramos was the main man on the ball at Madrid and Maguire is the same, so Varane’s role most likely won’t change much. This is a positive as it means Varane will adapt fast to United.

Unfortunately, though, this means Varane will not ease the load on Maguire in terms of ball progression. This is where a competent on the ball defensive midfielder comes in. Drops between the CBs and progress the ball or provide cover for Maguire and Maguire steps into the midfield. Varane solves a lot of United’s issues out-of-possession but not all. In addition, he doesn’t solve many of the in-possession issues that United have. This doesn’t mean that United didn’t need a Varane like signing.

Conclusion

Raphaël Varane is a great signing despite his slight dip in form since the end of 2018, he is undoubtedly one of the best defenders around. His dip in form have many reasons behind it. He has been hit with a couple of injuries and also the change of partners due to Sergio Ramos and Samuel Umtiti’s long spells of injuries' have not helped him both with Madrid and France.

Varane relied on Ramos being the leader in Madrid but he also got his spell being the senior CB in the backline with France. He has an all encompassing experience at the highest level of football being the leader and the follower. This will complement Maguire well as despite being the leader at United, he has yet to gain the experience of being in UCL finals and semi finals.

Raphaël Varane fits United both as a person and as a player. He can not be the last piece though. United, unfortunately, will still have the same issues they had last season in possession if they don’t sign a defensive midfielder.

In the next article, we will discuss why signing a defensive midfielder solves a lot more issues for United.

Hope you enjoyed this article. :)

Abdel Rahman

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Just a guy interested in football.

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Abdel Rahman El Beheri

Abdel Rahman El Beheri

Just a guy interested in football.

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