Raphael Varane’s Man United exit is chance to show youth is answer to long-term problems

“Despite the fact we had a difficult season, I’m very positive for the future. The new owners are coming with a clear plan and great strategy. I’ll see you at Old Trafford to say goodbye for the last game of the season and it’s going to be very emotional.”

Raphael Varane, speaking there in his departure video, will leave Manchester United this summer and, despite a welcome reception in 2021, his time at United can be considered a mixed bag.

Signed from Real Madrid for an initial £34million ($43m at today’s rates), his unveiling at Old Trafford led to compliments from Rio Ferdinand in what felt like a passing of the defensive torch, coming several years after Sir Alex Ferguson first attempted to bring him to the club.

A long-term knee issue highlighted by his medical took some gloss off the move but fans were excited; here was a talented central defender who could bring defensive nous to a team in need of extra cunning.

It wasn’t to be. He made 93 appearances across three seasons, missing 44 games through injury, and there were other team-wide inconsistencies that left the centre-back looking like a short-term fix for a long-term issue. He was unavailable for important sections of United’s dismal 2021-22 season due to groin and hamstring injuries before a cleaner bill of health in 2022-23 under Erik ten Hag helped him to form an impressive partnership with Lisandro Martinez. But both picked up injuries in a Europa League game in April 2023, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

A promising defensive trio combining the two with Casemiro in defensive midfield never became the foundational bedrock of a winning United side. All three have suffered injuries this season, and the United manager’s specific defensive preferences meant Varane spent a section of the season behind Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire in the pecking order.


Across three seasons, there were times when the defender felt like an abstract bonus to United’s squad options, rather than an asset. At 31, he remains a talented and well-respected player, both for his actions on the field and his willingness to speak about the physical and mental demands of playing so many games in a congested calendar.

“The last seasons (after 2019-20) we have always finished later and started earlier. We didn’t have time to work physically and we just recovered when we weren’t playing. So you can do this for a few seasons,” the Frenchman told GQ a month after retiring from international football with France last year.

“But after a while, either you have a crash and you are no longer recognised for six months or a year in the field, or you get injured. That’s what happens to all great players and that’s what I want to avoid.”

United signed Varane believing he was one of the best centre-backs in the world; an experienced winner who still had plenty to offer the team at 28. They might have been better served if they had purchased a younger defender looking to rise through the ranks and contribute to the United project over a longer period. In the summer of 2021 when he joined, 21-year-old Marc Guehi moved to Crystal Palace and 23-year-old Fikayo Tomori signed for AC Milan on a permanent basis (both from Chelsea).

Liverpool signed a 22-year-old Ibrahima Konate, while Tottenham Hotspur brought in 22-year-old Cristian Romero on loan. At a time when several Premier League clubs were investing in younger centre-backs, United bucked the trend. Three seasons later, they will now have to follow the lead of others. Ten Hag’s squad requires youthful prospects this summer. They need individuals who can raise the athletic ability of the starting XI. They need more hungry young wolves ready for the many fights ahead.

The Frenchman’s departure can be seen as a sensible business decision from the club’s new hierarchy. In the past, United might have exercised the option of a further year of his contract and deferred the situation to a later date, but here a definitive decision has been made.

His wages — close to £250,000 per week ($315,000) depending on appearances — will be removed from the bulky wage bill. Factor in the wages of the soon-to-be-departing Anthony Martial and United will have freed up a substantial figure that can be reinvested. The “clear plan and great strategy” Varane discussed in his leaving video is yet to take shape at United but it is likely to see the club prioritise signing emerging – and cheaper – talents than the already decorated Varane and Casemiro.

Last summer, they were linked with the 24-year-old Jean-Clair Todibo, one member of an impressive, sometimes inconsistent defence at Nice. Given the French side is already owned by United’s part-owners INEOS, one can expect further links between the two to come.

“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient,” said Canadian doctor William Osler. United’s acquisition of Varane was an attempt to heal the malaise of United’s defensive mediocrity. They will need to try something different to cure the problem long-term.

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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