Raphael Varane: Does defender mean Man Utd are Premier League title contenders?

Raphael Varane in action for France against Germany
Raphael Varane has 79 caps for France, making his debut in 2013

Raphael Varane has been described as being a “Rolls-Royce” and “an absolute bargain” after his £34m move from Real Madrid to Manchester United was agreed.

He will join fellow new arrivals Jadon Sancho, signed from Borussia Dortmund for £73m, and free transfer Tom Heaton at Old Trafford as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer builds a squad to try to improve on the second place they achieved in the Premier League last season.

As long as his medical is successful and personal terms are finalised, Varane would take United’s spending on players to just short of £400m since Solskjaer was appointed on a permanent basis in March 2019, eclipsing the outlay of Manchester City (£298m), Chelsea (£262m), Tottenham (£255m) Arsenal (£243m) and Liverpool (£119m) in the same period, according to Transfermarkt.

But can Varane help the 13-time Premier League winners bridge last season’s 12-point gap to their local rivals Manchester City? Should we now class them as genuine title contenders as they look to end their eight-year wait to be English champions?

‘Defence wins you titles’

Sir Alex Ferguson always used to say: “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”

Most Premier League champions have been built from the foundation of a strong back line, and as Liverpool and Manchester City can attest, signing the right centre-back can have an almost instant impact on your chances of success.

In 2016-17, the year before Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk, the Reds conceded 42 goals in 38 league games. By 2018-19, the Dutchman’s first full season, that total was down to 22. Having finished second, a year later they were champions for the first time in 30 years.

While Ruben Dias’ impact wasn’t quite so stark in that sense – City only let in four fewer goals in his debut campaign than they did in 2019-20 – the Portuguese made a huge difference alongside John Stones. With him in the team, Pep Guardiola’s men won 38 of 50 matches – a rate of 76% – and kept 25 clean sheets as they eased to a fifth Premier League title, a fourth successive Carabao Cup success and reached the Champions League final.

Before (16-17) 42 Before (19-20) 36
After (18-19) 22 After (20-21) 32
Liverpool league shots on target against in full seasons before and after signing Van Dijk Man City league shots on target against in full seasons before and after signing Dias
Before (16-17) 114 Before (19-20) 107
After (18-19) 96 After (20-21) 89

Solskjaer will be hoping the signing of Varane can be similarly transformative. The pacey centre-back, 28, is expected to partner Harry Maguire in the heart of the defence.

Ex-Everton midfielder Don Hutchinson told BBC Radio Live’s Football Daily: “He is an absolute bargain. He is in his prime, is a multiple league winner, multiple Champions League winner, and is coming in as a finished article and one of the quickest centre-backs out there.

“You imagine his partnership with Harry Maguire would be very good. We have questioned the signings for quite a few years at Manchester United, but this one alongside Sancho shows where they are heading. This is a brilliant signing.”

Former Crystal Palace striker Clinton Morrison added: “Sancho is an exciting signing, but Varane is a hell of a signing. He is a Rolls Royce. Lindelof did well but he doesn’t have the pace to cover Maguire. “

Aerial prowess and flexibility – what will Varane bring?

Going on last season’s stats, Varane is a proven upgrade on new team-mates Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in a number of key areas, particularly tackles won and aerial duels. The Frenchman won an average of 0.8 of the former per 90 minutes compared with Lindelof’s 0.6 and Bailly’s 0.3 – and 2.4 of the latter on average, which is 0.1 more efficient than Lindelof and 0.3 than Bailly.

His strength in the air will be crucial in both boxes. United scored just seven set-piece goals last term, the joint-third fewest in the league. And Varane’s pace will allow them to defend with a higher line, enabling Solskjaer to make his team more tactically flexible.

A World Cup winner with France in 2018, Varane recorded similar numbers of tackles and interceptions last season as Maguire did for United, and the hope is they could bring the best out of one another – like Dias did for Stones on the blue side of the city.

League games 31 34 29 12
Tackles per 90 min 0.7 0.9 0.8 0.4
Interceptions per 90 min 1.2 1.8 1.1 1.1
Clearances per 90 min 3.5 3.6 3 3
Blocks per 90 min 0.6 0.7 0.6 0.9

‘They look like real title contenders’

Stats don’t tell the full story though. Becoming a great defender is as much about mentality – and Varane is a winner. He has played in 10 finals, including three in the Champions League and one in the World Cup, and won them all.

In contrast, Solskjaer has not yet won a trophy since taking over in December 2018, with defeat by Villarreal in the Europa League final in Gdansk extending his frustrating wait.

And, together with the earlier signing of Sancho, ex-Everton midfielder Leon Osman believes they now can’t be ruled out of the title race this season.

He told the Football Daily podcast: “We were all looking at Manchester United and thinking they were two players away – a centre-back and right-sided player. And they have gone and got them, like a top club does. They look like they are having a real good go and look like they could be real title contenders next season.

“Their issue is Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are looking strong. Do I think they will win the title? No, I don’t. But you can only ask a team to improve and Manchester United are doing that.”

Hutchinson added: “I think they are slightly behind Manchester City still. Liverpool will be back – [Ibrahima] Konate is a brilliant signing, although Jurgen [Klopp] could do with one or two players still.

“They are the teams to beat – and I wouldn’t discount Chelsea, if they make signings. If they get that number nine I think they will scare the others and Manchester United are in the hunt as well.

“We are in for a brilliant Premier League – it is a four-horse race.”

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