It has been only four games but, after eight years and £260million, we dare say that Manchester United might have replaced one of the best-ever defensive partnerships…
Finally, after eight expensive, calamity-ridden years, Manchester United appear to have found a partnership with the potential to belatedly replace one of the best pairings the Premier League has ever seen.
Of course, four games is not evidence enough to crown Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez as the new Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic. But the early signs for Erik ten Hag look very encouraging indeed.
It’s a simple formula, one that has served United extremely well when the blend has been perfected in the past. One attacks what moves; the other drops off. Vidic did the first job; Steve Bruce too. Rio, similar to Gary Pallister even if he was also peerless in the air, swept around.
With Martinez emerging as a modern-day Vidic and Varane bringing the kind of serenity and security that made him one of the world’s most highly-regarded defenders at Real Madrid, United now have a foundation they can build upon.
It’s taken them too long and too much money has been squandered along the way. Ed Woodward spent £180million on furnishing Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with Eric Bailly (whose problem was never his nationality), Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Varane. Louis van Gaal was presented with Marcos Rojo but in the end, shunted Daley Blind in alongside Chris Smalling.
That’s almost £260million spent on specialist centre-backs since Ferdinand and Vidic departed in 2014 – but the last lump sum appears to be the key spend.
Varane said in May that “I am waiting for next season, I have big wishes”. Chief among them, presumably, a partner with whom to build a functional relationship. The signing of Martinez seems to have granted the Frenchman that wish.
United needed to do something to tease some form from Varane; his first year in the Premier League was pretty wretched. He walked into a failing team which, compared to the sides he graced at Real, must have been a hell of a shock. That United team dragged all of its individuals down with it.
That isn’t to absolve Varane of all responsibility for his performances. On the rare occasions he was fit, he often cruised through matches, which isn’t the compliment it usually is when it comes to the World Cup winner. His longest streak of starts totalled six amid a series of knocks and niggles that left David De Gea to clean up behind Maguire and Lindelof.
Varane specified one of his big wishes: “I want a complete pre-season. I didn’t have that last season and everything else which follows is not the same. I need the friendly games, the double training sessions.” When his hamstring twanged again in July, the fear was that the 29-year-old would miss the grass time he craved, but belatedly, and thanks to a specific individual programme, Varane seems to be building some momentum.
It will doubtless do wonders for Varane’s physical and mental state that Ten Hag has found him a partner to dovetail with. That ought to have been Maguire last season, but his own struggles and Martinez’s fine start to life in the Premier League have left the United captain staring at an even bleaker personal outlook.
Many United fans already prefer Martinez’s combative style, coupled with Varane’s composure, to however you might describe Maguire’s style of leadership. All of which would count for nothing if they weren’t performing their core functions: protecting De Gea and his goal.
Martinez relishes defending and his enthusiasm for stopping and spoiling seems to be contagious. The whole back four are thriving in their duels – Varane and Martinez have won 76 and 75% of their aerial battles respectively, which is good going since it was said with absolute certainty that United would struggle in the air with Lickle Lisandro – and celebrating the little victories along the way. It’s a far cry from this time last year, when United’s defence seemed not to know their function. It was neither reactive nor proactive. It just…existed. More often than not for the amusement of opposition forwards.
Making United defensively sound is Ten Hag’s biggest accomplishment so far. Firming up a failing side is, or it ought to be, any new manager’s first priority upon taking over because often it is the simplest and quickest fix for a coach to organise and impact units. It is hardly a coincidence that United have tightened up since Varane and Martinez were teamed up, but the pair have already imposed their personality on a unit previously devoid of any redeeming characteristics.
Their quality in possession also adds a new dimension to United’s rearguard. It helps that Ten Hag is developing patterns of play and they have in Christian Eriksen a midfielder willing to take the ball on the back foot. But Martinez especially has demonstrated a willingness and capability to play through lines rather than just across them.
It is too early to get too giddy about what a Martinez-Varane partnership can achieve in the long term while they are yet to put a run together longer than a fortnight. But their potential, especially in the light of their predecessors’ failings, make this one of the most exciting pairings of the post-Fergie era.