“Sometimes quality is not enough,” said Raphael Varane. Manchester United can testify to that. They have spent much of the last decade pursuing quality. Yet arguably it was not big names they needed but big characters. Varane, a World Cup winner with four medals from successful Champions League campaigns, had the profile and the pedigree. But as he seeks to end his second season at Old Trafford with the sheen of a second trophy, it may be because of personality as much as talent.
“You need the motivation, character, passion on the pitch, because in the top level in the Premier League, there are good players in any team,” the Frenchman said. “But to play in this kind of club you need something else… something different, that character to fight, to assume the responsibility, to never hide on the pitch, be ready to face every challenge you can.”
Varane touched on something: that playing for United can necessitate more than just natural ability. The global attention and the size of the club can confer pressure. For years, when winning was a self-perpetuating phenomenon, when United had Sir Alex Ferguson and a dressing room packed with players with sizeable medal collections, perhaps it mattered less if newcomers arrived furnished with the appropriate mentality. They simply picked it up.
Now there has been the sense United have had to import big personalities. Not for the first time, either: Eric Cantona proved a difference maker three decades ago. Three years ago, Bruno Fernandes walked into a demoralised team, relished the opportunity and the limelight. The former Real Madrid pair of Varane and Casemiro feel dominant figures now; Lisandro Martinez is injured but projects a boldness and a belief. Marcus Rashford has led by example in front of goal. Erik ten Hag’s revival is based in part on the attitude of his key players.
For much of United’s wilderness years, it was tempting to wonder if some had the unity of purpose and strength of character required. United’s enduring obsession with the rich and famous did not always bring the right kind of leaders: Angel di Maria did not want to be in Manchester, Radamel Falcao was hardly fit, Bastian Schweinsteiger may have had the mentality but not the legs, Paul Pogba was long accused of flakiness, Harry Maguire seemed to shrink in the spotlight during a harrowing time with the armband and Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to think the club should be subservient to him.
Over the last decade, meanwhile, a host of senior figures, from Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand under David Moyes through to Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, have lost some of their powers as they have aged and decayed. Varane’s injury-hit first year in Manchester brought the risk he would join their ranks. “Last season was more a season to adapt and to better understand how to manage the intensity,” he said. “This season I’ve been much better, I’ve been very happy with how it’s gone, it’s been positive.”
His experience renders him fearless. He is not afraid of facing a treble-chasing Manchester City at Wembley. “No. Why? Every game is a challenge, and I like to challenge myself,” he countered. United beat City, and Erling Haaland, at Old Trafford in January. “I like to face big challenges, especially when something looks impossible,” Varane reflected. “We have to accept the challenge and to assume the responsibility. The pressure is something we are used to play with and we need the pressure in our top; it’s not that kind of pressure that limits you. When the pressure is higher I’m more talking and shouting on the pitch: you are more connected.”
United have only lost nine of their last 59 games and if leadership has felt lacking at times in chastening defeats, particularly the 7-0 at Anfield, that is they only match they have lost when both Varane and Casemiro have started. There were questions if each dropped down by trading the Bernabeu, and the ever-present prospect of Champions League glory, for Old Trafford. For Varane, it was partly about finding a new challenge. “The Premier League is special,” said the centre-back. “The level is very high and I think the physicality and intensity of the games are different. It was much more under our control in LaLiga with Madrid. Here you can win and lose against any team.”
But swapping countries has brought a familiar battle. When Varane joined Real in 2011, the dominant force was a side coached by Pep Guardiola to pass the ball beautifully. Real duly won La Liga in his first year in Spain; Varane went on to claim four Champions Leagues in a decade there. That experience at a super-club could stand him in good stead now.
“I learned a lot from that period in Madrid,” he said. “It was first step at the top level. I learned how to fight, developed that winning mentality. We want to develop and be on the top at Manchester United as well. When you start winning you can change the mentality and be more prepared to win more and the biggest trophies. The most important thing is to believe. Even when it’s difficult, we know how important Manchester United are around the world. There’s a lot of pressure, so when the results are not good you have to stay calm and composed.” And, over a career spent at the top with Real, United and France, few defenders have shown more composure under pressure than Varane.