With the Jadon Sancho transfer saga finally nearing the finish line, rumours have begun to circulate about what looks to be Manchester United’s next move in the summer transfer market: the signing of a top-quality centre-back.
Two names have been repeatedly linked with a potential move to United, these two names being 24-year-old Villarreal centre-back and Spanish international, Pau Torres and 28-year-old Real Madrid centre-back and French international, Raphael Varane. But which is more suited to Solskjaer’s side?
Desire for a left-footed centre-back
It was reported back in February by ESPN that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer desired a left-footed centre-back to partner Harry Maguire in the heart of the defence and this resulted in the Reds deciding not to rival Bayern Munich for the signing of Dayot Upamecano.
This desire of Solskjaer may be partly due to the fact Harry Maguire is right-footed and would therefore feel more comfortable playing as a right-sided centre-back. Pau Torres’ is left-footed and therefore arguably better suited to playing on the left side of central defence, although Varane would also be able to play in this position. Nevertheless, it could be argued that Maguire has settled well into his position as a left-sided centre-back, having built an excellent partnership with Luke Shaw. Therefore, the importance of this attribute could be called into question.
The need for speed
Another key attribute Solskjaer should be looking for when choosing a centre-back is pace. United like to play with a high line meaning it is imperative at least one of the centre-backs is quick enough to compete with the pace of a striker if United are ever hit on the break. This is an attribute that the Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof partnership lacks and is, therefore, a weakness within United’s setup.
So far during the Euros, Torres has clocked a top speed of 28.1 km/h (17.5 mph), whilst Varane has clocked a top speed of 28.8 km/h (17.9 mph). Therefore, both players seem similarly matched for pace, making either well-suited to partnering Maguire and solving this current weakness.
As one of these two players will be sitting in the heart of United’s back line, the need for strong defensive attributes is vital. In the 2020/21 season, Raphael Varane out-ranked Pau Torres in most defensive attributes.
It is well-known that one of Varane’s greatest strengths is his ariel ability and proof of this can be seen in the fact he ranked 34th in La Liga for Ariel duels. Torres on the other hand ranked 52nd. Victor Lindelof has often been beaten in Ariel duels – resulting in United conceding goals – therefore Varane’s strength in the air should be a particularly important consideration for United.
The remaining defensive statistics are relatively similar between the two centre-backs, with Varane holding a slight edge over Torres. The only defensive statistic in which Torres outranked Varane was in total blocks as Torres ranked 3rd best for blocks in La Liga last season, whilst Varane ranked 11th.
During the 2020/21 season, Torres racked up some impressive playmaking statistics. One of these being his expected goal build-up, in which he ranked 10th best in La Liga, with Varane ranking 34th. Torres also made 9 key passes last season, ranking at 153rd, with 2 assists to his name. Varane on the other hand made 4 key passes last season, ranking at 232nd, with 0 assists to his name. These attacking attributes are likely to make Torres more attractive in the eyes of Solskjaer as United have struggled to find those key passes through opposition lines of defence, getting the ball from back to front with speed and intensity.
Torres also outranked Varane in all passing statistics. Torres made 1321 passes into the final third last season, ranking him 30th best in La Liga, whilst Varane ranked in at 40th. Torres also made 34 passes into the box, whilst Varane only made 17. This playmaking ability and attacking mentality will suit a United side who struggle to break down low blocks and get the ball forward into those threatening areas.
So, who should United sign?
The desire for a left-footed centre-back cannot be ignored as this is reportedly something Solskjaer has admitted he wants and something which stopped him from signing Upamecano at the beginning of the year. Therefore, it would be naïve to presume this attribute is not still in the back of Solskjaer’s mind. Nevertheless, Maguire’s consistent performances as a left-sided centre-back may have shown the manager that a left-footed signing is not as important as he originally believed.
In terms of defensive attributes, Varane outweighed Torres only slightly in most statistics. The most noticeable difference being Ariel duels where Varane ranked 34th and Torres 52nd. The ability for a defender to be strong in the air should be strongly considered by Solskjaer, particularly as this is one of Lindelofs’ biggest weaknesses and therefore something which needs rectifying with the next signing. Whereas, in attacking attributes, Torres outweighed Varane with more key passes and assists as well as more passes into the final third and oppositions box.
So far the statistics would suggest both players balance each other out, with each owning certain strengths which would make them the best signing for United. However, there is still one attribute left to consider which will ultimately fall in Varane’s favour and this is experience.
Varane is 28 years old and has been playing in one of the world’s best football teams since 2011. This depth of experience cannot be overlooked by United who – apart from Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and more recently Harry Maguire – lack leaders within their squad.
Varane could not only help improve United’s overall team performance, pushing the team higher up the pitch and allowing a more offensive style of play. But he would also help to improve individual players performance, beginning with Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It cannot be underestimated how important Harry Maguire has been in improving Luke Shaw’s overall game, as Maguire provides that sense of security Shaw needs to be able to express himself and venture higher up the left-side.
Arguably, Victor Lindelof has not been able to provide the same sense of security to Wan-Bissaka who has often been seen losing his positional sense during a game, leaving the right side open to attacks and tucking into the centre of defence. If Varane was to come into the team as a right-sided centre-back, he would provide that same sense of security for Wan-Bissaka, giving him the confidence to get forward, as well as improving his positional sense by ensuring he stays wide and protects the right-wing, knowing that the central right side of defence is covered.
Therefore, even though both players have shown they can quite confidently compete with each other for a Man United shirt, Varane’s experience and overall contributions to the team would make him the better signing for United.
Note: All statistics taken from one-versus-one.com.