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‘Incredible’ Defender Must Adapt to Work His Way Back into Ten Hag’s Starting Lineup

Manchester United defense forms a wall to block a free kick

Erik ten Hag has recently left Raphael Varane out of the team and on the bench as he attempts to turn around his side’s fortunes and plug the gap in Manchester United’s leaky defence. Last Word on Football looks at the reasoning behind this decision and analyses if there is merit to the manager’s thinking.

Varane Must Recognise Limitations to Emerge From Man Utd Bench

Departing Spain as a Serial Winner

The right-footed central defender was almost an undroppable regular alongside Sergio Ramos in one of the most successful Real Madrid sides in the history of football. After leaving Lens in 2011, the France international was a key component in the Spanish giants picking up 19 major trophies in 10 seasons.

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The 30-year-old became a regular for club and country in the 2014/15 campaign and never looked back establishing himself as one of the most highly-regarded centre-backs in world football. It appeared in 2021 that Manchester United had pulled off a coup in convincing the World Cup winner to move to the Premier League to spearhead their pushback to the summit of English football.

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Injuries Begin to Catch Up After Successful Career

The 2021/22 season was plagued by injuries for the new signing. This has been a common occurrence ever since his arrival and has disrupted the defender’s progress. It is evident that every niggling recurring injury is affecting the defender’s capabilities and it does appear that his body is catching up with him after such a long period of being a part of successful teams. This is one of the key reasons behind Varane being left on the bench by Ten Hag as he has failed to be consistently fit and at 100%.

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Despite very few of his absences being for extended periods, it is the number of absences that are concerning. He announced his retirement from international football this year after 93 caps and five goals in a likely bid to extend his club career. There is nothing else to give after playing in two World Cup Finals for the French national team. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup final, former teammate Toni Kross spoke highly of Varane: ‘He’s really incredible. I haven’t seen anyone run away from him in the time here. He was a solid pillar with us alongside (Sergio) Ramos in the really big years. He did an outstanding job and a really complete package.’

Performance Levels Could Improve Despite Top Three Finish

Varane had built up a reasonably successful partnership with Lisandro Martinez in Manchester United’s defence last term and this stability guided them back into the top four. However, it must be noted that the French player did not perform at a high level throughout the campaign. His stat of being dribbled past 0.4 times per game on average was bettered by 13 centre-backs who made more than 20 appearances in 2022/23.

There is a statistic that illustrates the impact the first-choice central defenders had on the team that finished 3rd in the Premier League. Martinez averaged 1.4 interceptions per game which was ranked joint sixth among all central defenders, showing his ability to break up play while his partner Varane, ranked bottom of this list out of 34 players. He did not rank highly for blocks, interceptions or fouls among his peers that made a minimum of 20 appearances in the previous campaign.

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There is a consensus that the former Real Madrid man is cool and collected when in possession and while he is not caught in possession very often, there is a lack of progressiveness in his play. There are issues in midfield and up front in this United side and this may be affecting his confidence when progressing with the ball, but a player of his experience must be able to lead by example and bring the ball out of defence when the side is struggling.

Varane Must Work on His Game to Leave Bench Role Behind

The £41 million signing has lost some of his composure and speed due to injuries and has not been the world-class defender that fans thought he would be upon his arrival. However, he has not become a bad player over the last couple of years as displayed by his run to the World Cup final with France and with him just entering his thirties, he has time left at the top level. Martinez is the best central defender at the club and his return to the team will help to elevate Varane’s performances as they do work well as a pair but he must step up when the Argentina international is not available.

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Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are more of a physical presence that can step in while Martinez is absent and the manager has been looking to this in recent weeks to help solidify Manchester United’s defence. It has produced mixed results, meaning that there is still scope for Varane to emerge from the bench and become a fixture again if he can stay fit. He must first identify that his body is not as capable as it used to be, and work to adapt his game to his main strengths to offer the manager an option that he cannot continue to overlook.


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