Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford last month will be recognised as the turning point in Erik ten Hag’s tenure.

After watching his side lose their opening two Premier League matches, conceding six goals in the process, the United manager made the brave decision to mix things up for the visit of their fiercest rivals. He made four changes to the starting line-up that had started the 4-0 embarrassment at Brentford nine days earlier, opting to hook the likes of Luke Shaw and Cristiano Ronaldo.

They were brave calls, even if the duo had failed to pull up any trees against Brentford. Shaw was replaced at left-back by the unproven Tyrell Malacia and fellow youngster Anthony Elanga came in to replace Ronaldo, forcing a slight tactical rejig up front.

As well as those two dropping out, captain Harry Maguire also made way, but that was at the expense of the experienced Raphael Varane, who had stepped off the bench at Brentford at half-time with damage already done. Varane joined summer signing Lisandro Martinez in the heart of the defence and the duo, ever since, have formed a reliable and exciting partnership.

Following Thursday night’s 2-0 win over Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League, United have won all five matches that Varane has started this season, compared to the three defeats they have suffered in the three games that he hasn’t started. His importance is telling and United’s fans are finally starting to see exactly why former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was so intent on adding him to his squad just over a year ago.

United were desperate to add a world-class centre-back to their ranks and find a suitable partner for Maguire. They failed to strike up the bond that was hoped for last season, largely because Varane was constantly in and out of the team because of injury woes.

However, he is, so far, proving his fitness this term, highlighted by his run of five starts in United’s last six matches in all competitions. He has become a stalwart member of Ten Hag’s team and he is giving the Reds the leadership they desperately lacked last season – something which Solskjaer expected the Frenchman to offer last term.

Solskjaer, reflecting on the signing of Varane in August last year, said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we have managed to secure one of the best defenders in the world over the last ten years. Raphael is a proven winner who we have tracked over a long period of time and we know just how much of a dedicated professional he is.

“We have great depth of international defenders and he will add his immense skill set and leadership to that group. He is a unique defender with a rare combination of top-level attributes that I know will rub off on our younger players.

“He has won everything there is to win but I know that he is still determined to succeed, I can’t wait to welcome him into the squad.”

Had Varane not experienced such bad luck on the injury front last season, he might have displayed the leadership qualities he has shown off so far this season more often. United were far better at the back last season when Varane was on the pitch, just as they proving to be this term.

Last season, the Reds conceded 33 goals in 29 games in all competitions with Varane, compared to the 29 they shipped in 19 games without him. His importance, comparing the goals to games ratios, cannot be understated.

And his importance was hailed by Ten Hag after Thursday’s victory in Moldova, with the Dutchman saying: “The reason (for another clean sheet) is we were good in possession and we defended very well. “With Rapha Varane there as the leader, he puts everyone in the right position, he fits really good together with Licha Martinez and also the two full-backs did their job really good.”


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