Raphael Varane was named as a substitute again yesterday for Manchester United’s Premier League clash with Fulham at Craven Cottage.
It was the latest in a series of strange decisions involving the World Cup winner that have left United fans asking what is going on, if anything, between him and manager Erik ten Hag.
In this article we review how Varane’s season has unfolded so far as we search for clues as to the reason for his persistent absences from the starting XI.
Start of season
The season began normally enough, with Varane at the heart of United’s defence alongside Lisandro Martinez in the first two matches.
The first sign of trouble game in match three against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford. United had been rocked when unfancied Forest put two past them in the first ten minutes of the match. United pulled one back before Varane was substituted at half-time by Ten Hag.
Ten Hag reported Varane as having “complaints” and that “we didn’t want to risk him”, meaning an injury, but interestingly, transfermarkt.com recorded his replacement by Victor Lindelof as “tactical”.
Sky’s Kaveh Solhekol then reported that Varane could be missing for six weeks. In fact, he was then missing from the team for the next 27 days with what transfermarkt records as an “unknown injury”.
During this August period, rumours were flying that Saudi Pro-League club Al-Ittihad were trying to sign the 30 year old, but it was reported that he had turned them down flat.
In his first game after returning from the mysterious injury, Varane came off the bench for 11 minutes as United beat Burnley 1-0. He then captained the side in their impressive EFL Cup win over Crystal Palace and was taken off after an hour, presumably to rest him.
He then played 87 minutes of the next game, a 0-1 home defeat to the same side, Palace. His performance had appeared solid.
Varane then formed part of the disastrous defence that allowed Turkish side Galatasaray to record a memorable 3-2 win at Old Trafford.
Then came another absence, in United’s loss to Brentford. Ten Hag explained that “He couldn’t make the game, he had a minor issue.
“If it was two or three days longer [between matches], he could have made it but now it was too short.”
Once again, transfermarkt.com did not record an injury, simply registering Varane as “not in the squad”.
With more time to recover due to an international break, everyone then expected the 5-times Champions League winner to return against Sheffield United on the 21st October. But again, to everyone’s surprise, he was left on the bench as Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans occupied the centre back positions.
Again, fans put this down to Ten Hag keeping him in cotton wool for the Champions League tie against Copenhagen 3 days later, when he played for 90 minutes and acquitted himself well.
Next up was the Manchester derby. As in the Sheffield United game, Varane was named on the bench. But this time there could be no explanation of cotton wool.
Ten Hag said the reason was “tactics.” When pressed to offer an explanation, he said “When you face City, they will go up to press and then to play with Rapha [Varane, on the right] and Maguire over the left, that can give problems and then you end up only kicking long balls.”
“He is, for me, better on the right, Harry, especially against teams pressing high and, second, is you have to step in over that side and that was our tactic – to step in over [Julian] Alvarez and get Sofyan [Amrabat] higher to get [the] press on their build-up and that’s why.”
It seemed like an odd explanation: you drop your best centre back because you think an inferior centre back is poor on the left.
According to The Athletic, dressing room sources said there were “raised eyebrows” at the decision.
He was then omitted from the Carabao Cup squad against Newcastle. United lost both of those games 3-0.
By this point the Saudi rumours were back, with Teamtalk.com claiming the player now wants a January move to the Pro League to reunite with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr.
“It is also said that the promises made to Varane when he signed have not been fulfilled, with Man Utd falling further behind the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal,” reporter Fraser Fletcher claims.
Ten Hag seemed to stamp out the rumours at Friday’s press conference ahead of yesterday’s match with Fulham, saying “Varane is ready to play. He will travel with the squad.”
Yet once again, the Frenchman was consigned to the bench and was brought on for just one minute of the game.
What happens next?
No United fan – nor possibly even Ten Hag, for that matter – could have imagined that the manager would be regularly benching a fit Raphael Varane in favour of a Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans partnership this season. But that is precisely what seems to have happened.
There is enough evidence to suggest that there could be an attitude problem. The “injuries” and absences seem to follow poor performances by United, which could have involved dressings down from Ten Hag. But if a poor attitude or dissent is the case, why would Varane have been made captain against Palace?
On the other hand, if there is an ongoing injury issue, why does Ten Hag not explain that to the press to end the speculation that he and Varane are at odds?
The most likely explanation is that the Frenchman does have a recurrent problem that will not allow him to play 50 games a season. He himself said at the start of the season that “there are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for players’ physical and mental well-being.”
Ten Hag may be using his best judgement to pick the 20-25 games a season that he needs Varane most. As for the Manchester derby, shocking as it might sound, rather than see that as a big game, the manager might have pragmatically written it off rather than waste one of his chips.
If there is a physical weakness, if Ten Hag admitted it publicly could allow opposition teams to target it. For instance, there are certain types of tackle that are hard on the knee, or the back.
If it is an ongoing physical issue, another big question is whether it will resolve in time or whether it is something that will need to be managed for the rest of Varane’s career. If it’s the latter, then United will have to move as soon as they can to bolster the defence and start to think about life beyond Raphael Varane.