They say the best central defenders are those you barely notice, unfussy in their interventions, their most cherished applause a clean sheet. Raphael Varane, who hopes to complete a transfer from Real Madrid to Manchester United by the end of this week, is of that type, discreet, unostentatious.
But then, if you have spent the bulk of your senior career playing alongside Sergio Ramos, the quieter role in the partnership is obligatory. For much of the last decade, Ramos and Varane were the alpha and omega in the heart of the back four of the most successful team in the most prestigious club competition in the world. One of them would noisily display his warrior credentials, the other, Varane, went coolly about his work.
Madrid are now readying themselves to say goodbye to both players in the same summer, Ramos having joined Paris Saint-Germain. That represents a major overhaul of the furniture at the 13-times European champions.
Varane owns four of those winners’ medals. He has a World Cup and has been a fixture at the heart of the France defence, apart from one period of injury, for the last seven years. He has three La Liga titles, four Club World Cups, a Copa del Rey and a trio each of European and Spanish Super Cups. United, a club eager to recover a trophy-winning habit, are on the brink of recruiting an absolute specialist in silverware.
Varane believes United are on the rise, and he encouraged Madrid to speed up negotiations for his move after Jadon Sancho, signed from Borussia Dortmund last week, had completed his €80m transfer. Madrid are confident of United agreeing a fee of around €50m for Varane, who has entered the last year of his contract with the Spanish club.
In the current economic climate and given that Varane was unwilling to sign a new deal at the Bernabeu, that sounds like good business for the sellers. The buyers also believe they have made a sound investment. Varane is only 28, quick and mobile enough to suggest he has many years left as one of the game’s finest central defenders.
He is a close contemporary of Harry Maguire, with whom Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the United manager, envisages Varane building a long and productive relationship. Solskjaer will not mind comparisons with Ramos and Varane, a protective shield that was one of the principal reasons for Madrid winning la Liga in 2019-2020. Like Ramos, Maguire - the United captain - is from the demonstrative school of central defenders; Varane knows how to dovetail with that sort.
He has had a decade to imagine himself in a United jersey, too. In 2011, when Alex Ferguson was still United’s manager, Ferguson personally sought out the teenager Varane at Lens, to try to lure him to Manchester.
Madrid stepped into the bidding and won, thanks largely to the persuasion of Zinedine Zidane, Varane’s French compatriot who was then working with Madrid’s technical department.
Well before Zidane was appointed head coach at Madrid, in 2016, Varane was being called ‘Zidane’s adopted son’, so well known was Zidane’s admiration of the player’s ease on the ball and his authority as a marker.
Madrid had also learnt that beneath the smooth demeanour is a fierce competitor, not shy of confrontation. At the end of his first winning Champions League final, in Lisbon, Varane and the losing Atletico Madrid coach, Diego Simeone, had to be separated lest they come to blows.
He has had his disappointments in Europe, the most conspicuous of them a year ago, in Madrid’s last-16 tie against Manchester City, where two errors of judgment cost goals in what finished as a 4-2 aggregate defeat to City. That night, Varane’s lapses in concentration made him anything but a discrete presence. If there is a criticism, it has been that when Ramos was absent from the Madrid defence, Varane seemed more prone to mistakes.
Zidane’s departure as Madrid head coach, announced in May, is not believed to be a deciding factor in Varane’s desire for a new challenge. Rather, his push for a move to United, the club making the biggest splash so far in the summer transfer market, signals a shift in power from Spain to England. The Premier League has sent four clubs to Champions League finals since Madrid, their spending capacity reduced because of the pandemic, won the last of their three back-to-back European Cups in 2018. A farewell to Varane will sever a direct link to that golden run.