CRISTIANO Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United has already begun to draw the kind of numbers the club envisaged upon agreeing to the £20m signing of the 36-year-old from Juventus last month.
Much aside from the goals he guarantees – of which he collected two against Newcastle United in his second Red Devils debut last Saturday and another in a Champions League defeat away to Young Boys – the Ronaldo homecoming has already set records for social-media engagement and shirt sales at the Old Trafford megastore.
The hype is omnipresent, the headlines are guaranteed, but in purely footballing terms, it might be the other multiple-time Champions League winner United signed this summer who ultimately has the greater impact on their ability to challenge for top honours.
Raphael Varane, a £45m signing from Real Madrid, has settled instantly. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a World Cup winner who, despite still being only 28 years old, has spent the last decade as one of the best defenders on the planet, he has immediately brought a degree of calm to United’s backline.
1x World Cup winner
4x CL winner
3x Laliga titles
3x Spanish supper cup winner
3x European Super cup winner
The greatest French defender
Regardless of what is to come this season, in the PL, there's Varane and the others! pic.twitter.com/g2BRBfhpqd
— Stanley (@UnittedStan) September 9, 2021
Throughout his debut, a 1-0 win away to Wolves, Varane’s impact was tangible. Not only did his invaluable recovery pace guard against one of the Premier League’s better counter-attacking sides, his effortless leadership and marshalling of the defensive unit gave United a rarely seen aura of impenetrability. What’s more, he even provided an assist for the game’s only goal, his crisp and confidant passing allowing him to find Mason Greenwood in space wide on the right.
And against Newcastle at Old Trafford, it was more of the same. This time United were caught on the counter, but with the added firepower Ronaldo brought, the defensive upgrade Varane represents meant the home side appeared in little danger en route to a 4-1 victory.
Already, Varane’s performances have begun to make a mockery of the debate that raged online and in the media upon his signing, over who of the former Real Madrid man and Ben White – the 23-year-old England defender Arsenal signed from Brighton for £50m this summer – represented the better purchase.
While White’s age and potential gives him every chance of a long and successful career with the Gunners, Varane operates on a different plane. United have acquired one of the very best centre-backs in the world, someone who has the experience of having won every major prize and the drive to want to repeat past successes with his new club.
“I’m absolutely delighted that we have managed to secure one of the best defenders in the world over the last 10 years,” United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gushed upon the confirmation of Varane’s signing. “Raphael is a proven winner who we have tracked over a long period of time and we know just how much of a dedicated professional he is.
️: "I’m absolutely delighted that we have managed to secure one of the best defenders in the world over the last 10 years. Raphaël is a proven winner who we have tracked over a long period of time and we know just how much of a dedicated professional he is."
— UnitedRevealed (@UnitedSourced) August 15, 2021
“We have great depth of international defenders and he will add his immense skill set and leadership to that group. He is a unique defender with a rare combination of top-level attributes that I know will rub off on our younger players.”
There was something decidedly old-school about United’s capture of Raphael Varane in August. In an era of drawn-out transfer saga – just look at the club’s year-long pursuit of Jadon Sancho – a deal for the defender was agreed with Real Madrid in relatively frictionless fashion, even if the rubber-stamping had to wait a few weeks while the remaining red tape was hurdled.
And when the time came to introduce their new arrival to the world, United, as media-conscious an institution as you’ll find in all of football, elected to shun the common trend toward flashy Twitter unveils and “like”-baiting Instagram posts in favour of simply having Varane walk on to the Old Trafford pitch, No.19 jersey in hand, to greet his new, instantly adoring faithful.
It is all in keeping with his effortless on-field style. He won’t garner as many headlines, column inches or social-media posts as some of United’s more eye-catching stars, but Varane might well be their best player.
Maguire and Varane in May. pic.twitter.com/pAXNk52AlY
— Lelantos (@LelantosX) September 7, 2021
He has few obvious weaknesses in his position and boasts a skill-set that dovetails perfectly with captain and defensive partner Harry Maguire –the Englishman is powerful in the air and a booming voice at the back yet lacks pace; Varane is rapid and understatedly cool. In combination, the two centre-backs – with the defensive protection they offer while both able forward passers – can even help mask United’s desperate need for a top-quality defensive midfielder.
The comparisons with White were unavoidable due to the fact both were signed in the same transfer window and for comparable fees. But a better parallel for Varane is with Virgil van Dijk, a fellow contender for the crown of the world’s finest centre-half.
Liverpool’s lengthy and expensive pursuit of Van Dijk paid quick dividends, a major factor in their ascension to Champions League and Premier League titles. Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign Varane 10 years ago. Now that United have got their man, they’ll be hoping he too can be an accelerant towards success.