Mid-July and Manchester United are spending a week of their pre-season in Surrey, west of London and Saturday’s friendly at QPR, rather than Singapore, San Francisco or Shanghai as had been the norm.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had long hoped for a pre-season and change of scenery for his players with some sunshine. He just didn’t expect it to start in England, which is enjoying a heatwave after miserable weather during Euro 2020.
Covid-19 uncertainty meant a planned friendly game in Malta was postponed, but at least there is a pre-season. A lack of one a year ago cost United at the start of the 2020-21 season. Instead of the usual 25 or 26 days together, Solskjaer’s squad had only five and – and that was a factor in three defeats in United’s opening six games including a 6-1 hammering by Spurs.
United’s pre-season games started at Derby, winning 2-1 – and using 23 mostly young players. The pre-season squad will strengthen as players who were involved in the Euros or Copa America return from their holidays, plus any new additions.
Jadon Sancho will be the latest Londoner from south of the river to join United following Aaron Wan Bissaka and Luke Shaw. At €85 million, Sancho, 21, is by a distance the most expensive signing of the transfer window so far. He has completed his medical and is expected to wear the No 16 when he finally plays for United after a pursuit which started over a year ago. United were never going to pay the €120m demanded by Dortmund then and feel that decision was vindicated.
United fans hope that Sancho, who can operate in several attacking positions but is most likely to be on the right, isn’t the only signing. The club have been looking closely at central defenders, three of whom played in La Liga last season: Jules Kounde at Sevilla, Pau Torres at Villarreal and Rafael Varane at Real Madrid.
Varane didn’t have his two best games when United scouted him in person in the spring but was always seen as the best option of the trio by United’s coaches and those in recruitment. The Frenchman, a four-time Champions League winner and a central component to France's World Cup triumph in 2018, is a proven winner and has been a key player for the most successful team of the last decade, Real Madrid.
Though there have been no direct talks between United and Madrid, United have long been of the understanding that Varane wants to join them. This was welcomed at Old Trafford, but the club proceeded with cautious optimism, more so after Varane’s partner Sergio Ramos communicated exactly the same in 2015.
United were ready to sign Ramos, agreed personal terms in principle and even had a lawyer on hand in China, where Madrid were playing pre-season, to complete the deal. All Ramos had to do was tell Madrid president Florentino Perez that he was going to leave and United understood that was exactly what he was going to do. Ramos went into the meeting – and came out having agreed a new deal with Madrid.
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It’s a little different now. Varane is out of contract in 2022 and Madrid want his future resolved either way as they don’t want him to leave for free next year given they estimate his current value above €50m.
United have been in talks with Varane’s representatives, talks that have gone back and forth regarding the Frenchman’s personal terms. They have not yet been agreed. Varane, 28, has an offer from Madrid to extend his contract and United will be able to compete or even improve on that offer, complete with a signing-on fee.
Despite his obvious quality, there had been no clamour in the Spanish media for Varane to stay at the Bernabeu, more a sense of if he’s to be sold then Madrid would be right to get a significant transfer fee now. Though Madrid’s financial situation is not as problematic as at rivals Barcelona, the club have been hit hard by the pandemic and have to complete the vast redevelopment of their Bernabeu stadium.
Varane was a world class player alongside Ramos and needs the right, steady partner. That would be Harry Maguire, recently described by Nemanja Vidic as: “I see a defender who is good at everything, 8/10 at everything. He’s not as good on the ball or as fast as Rio Ferdinand was for example, or he doesn’t tackle or head like I did, but Maguire has quality across his game. He’s fast enough, he’s strong enough, he can jump and play the ball, his positioning is fine.”
Varane can complement Maguire. United consider him technically excellent and exceptional in the air. They think he has the rare combination of being tall, fast and skilful. He covered for the occasional poor positioning of Ramos yet needed Ramos alongside him to cover for his own mistakes.
But why would he want to leave Madrid, a club who usually have the pick of the players they want, where players live in one of Europe’s best cities?
A new challenge in the Premier League, and in all probability more money, are the likely reasons, plus a greater sense of self-worth. Despite being one of their most important players, Varane, who has averaged over 40 Madrid games per season for the last seven seasons, has never been viewed as one of Madrid’s biggest stars.
United signed Paul Pogba in 2016, when he wanted to go to Madrid, by explaining that he would be a bigger star at Old Trafford than in Madrid, where he would be the fifth biggest star, backing it up with details of thousands more social media interactions linking him to United compared to Madrid. That worked for United.
When Varane, 28, was linked with Paris Saint-Germain, United felt they would be unlikely to compete with their financial might and the pull of returning to France, but PSG signed Ramos and have enough central defenders. The Premier League is more attractive to players than Ligue 1. Madrid also signed defender David Alaba on a free transfer from Bayern Munich.
Not with the same priority as a central defender, but United are interested in another player who lives in Madrid, though Kieran Trippier is from Greater Manchester.
United have long understood that Trippier would be amenable to a move back to Manchester after a successful spell in Spain where he won La Liga, but Atletico Madrid and their manager Diego Simeone rate the versatile England full-back highly and Atletico are not under the same pressure to sell players as when they let Sergio Aguero and David de Gea leave 10 years ago.
When United and then manager Jose Mourinho enquired about their Uruguayan central defender Jose Gimenez, Simeone laughed the interest off. United hope for better fortune this time in their pursuit of defenders from Madrid.