How Varane, Sancho and Ronaldo Change the way Manchester United play…

September 13th, 2021 | Football

How Varane, Sancho and Ronaldo Change the way Manchester United play…

Raphael Varane. What a fantastic signing he’s already looking like. In his opening two games he’s been brilliant and a contender for Man of the Match. He’s quick, strong, good in the air and composed on the ball; a world-class centre-back. So whilst he obviously improves Manchester United defensively, he also has a domino effect on the rest of the team and can improve the Red Devils style of play, something Solskjaer is now looking to do. Solskjaer has begun to change it slightly in the two games Varane has featured in.
It’s still a 4-2-3-1 system with a midfield double-pivot, but with alterations. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf were the first-choice centre-back partnership for the majority of last season. Lindelöf is a good centre-back, but he’s nowhere near the level of Varane. Varane’s defensive brilliance, pace and quality mean there is no longer any need to sit two players in front of the centre-backs to protect them. This change means United can play a more expressive player like Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek. Scott McTominay could be considered for a more attacking role as he’s a proven goal threat. However the player with the attacking license will still need to return to the double-pivot and help defensively without the ball, but can get forward to try and make things happen when the opportunity presents itself. At times if the opposition is defending really deep the double-pivot could advance as a pair and create even more overloads in the final third and take it in turns to get forwards. In the two games Varane has featured for United, 1-0 against Wolves and 4-1 against Newcastle, it was clear that Paul Pogba had that licence to get into pockets of space and try and make things happen from a deep position.

So how does one player change this? Well, it’s quite simple. Varane is better than Lindelöf or any other centre-back United have had over the last 5/10 years. He’s been partnered with United captain Harry Maguire, who’s also, in my opinion, a top-class centre-back. Maguire and Lindelöf never looked completely comfortable next to each other. While having a good leap, Lindelöf has been bullied in the air, and teams look to exploit this. Both centre-backs aren’t the quickest, which means runs in behind or counter attacks could pose a problem. I believe this is why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went for a hard-working and more defensively minded midfield duo of Scott McTominay and Fred. What seemed to happen most of the time, although there were exceptions, was Fred and McTominay would stay back with Maguire and Lindelöf and stay quite deep. Both are quite simple with their passing, although I believe McTominay is better on the ball and more progressive than Fred. But this defensive shield came at a cost. It meant there would be a lack of creativity in the final third and a heavy reliance on an inside-forward like Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood to do something individually brilliant. Or on the two creative threats, Luke Shaw bombing on from left-back and Bruno Fernandes at No.10. It also meant United couldn’t play that high up the pitch and struggled to create as the creative threats mentioned were easy to see and would be marked out of the game by the opposition. All of this meant the football could be quite slow, and the striker often starved of any real service.

There were times when Pogba was deployed in the midfield pivot but didn’t have the licence to really get forwards and could struggle defensively, limiting him to having to attempt a Hollywood pass from deep. Moving Pogba into the final third in an inside-left position helped the team massively create chances and score goals, but there was a lack of creativity and goal-threat from the midfield double-pivot.

Now we look at where the new signings come in…

Having Ronaldo and Sancho means United have an embarrassment of riches in the final third positions. This change means Pogba won’t realistically get the opportunity to play on the left anymore, meaning a move back to central midfield. He can now play in the double-pivot with freedom and an ability to express himself.

This freedom is possible due to the security of Varane at the back, along with the other midfield pivot player being slightly withdrawn from the attack to help recycle possession in attack and support the defence when the opposition begins to break. This means there’s more creativity from the midfield, and while that helps Ronaldo, it doesn’t necessarily get the best out of him. I’ve already written an article on how to get the best of Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United, so I will only touch on it briefly here. Varane’s recovery pace and quality mean more people can get forward without worrying about the counterattack. United can also play a much higher line and try to overwhelm and suffocate the opposition as Bayern Munich did in the 19/20 season when they won the treble. So with the ball, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka can play as wingers and create the width in the final third and cross the ball for Ronaldo. It also means, with the full-backs being so high, the wide players can drift into pockets and space on their side. They can use this space to create an opportunity for themselves or their teammates. This is perfect for Sancho, who likes to run at the opposition, create chances for teammates and chip in with a goal. The creativity of Sancho in the final third is what allows Paul Pogba to go back into midfield without it having a negative effect in terms of chances created for the striker. As he’s shown this season, Pogba can provide from deep. He got four assists on the opening day and while he was deployed as a left sided player in that game, three of the assists came from central midfield positions. The assist against Southampton also came from quite a central position, while the other two against Newcastle came from him getting forwards from the double-pivot into the final third. The first assist against Newcastle was a pass along the ground to Bruno, who finished spectacularly from distance. The other came from driving forwards, my favourite aspect of his game, exchanging a one-two with Donny van de Beek, before threading the ball into the danger area with the outside of his foot, which Martial let run through his legs before Lingard took a touch and finished.

Do I hope to see this continue? Yes. Would I like to see Pogba get forwards more often? Yes.

I believe if this high-line attacking football continues, although there will be times where they have to adapt, I can see Manchester United challenging for the Premier League and other titles. I think this is going to be a good season for the red devils.


Please note: The football articles that feature on this site are being written by Jack Dixon as part of his work experience. He is a teenager and looking for work experience within the football industry. He is currently studying for his media and art A-levels.