Manchester United have found their best partnership in a decade

In Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez, Man United have their best defensive partnership since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Varane gives Martinez a lift

Varane gives Martinez a lift

Louis van Gaal would doubtless disagree and he has compelling evidence, but Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez are the best centre-back partnership Manchester United have had since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Van Gaal stumbled upon Chris Smalling and Daley Blind as an unlikely yet miserly duo in the 2015-16 season, having prepared for it with Phil Jones alongside Blind during pre-season. Then Jones succumbed to injury.

United sieved only 35 goals in their 38 Premier League games. Blind, dubbed Van Gaal’s “footballing son” by the man himself in a fascinating documentary, and Smalling each started in 35 of the fixtures.

It is typical of the previous United regime that Smalling, a more secure defender than Jones, and Blind, as multi-functional as Jones but fitter and more skilful, were jettisoned and Jones still occupies the number four shirt.

When Jones and Blind appeared at the United Adidas kit launch at Texture Bar in the Northern Quarter in 2015, they were positioned where they had played during the pre-season tour. Jones was perhaps so programmed he even sat on the far right when he attended a screening of Spectre at the Great Northern cinema.

Ten Hag advises Martinez as they arrive at Goodison

Ten Hag advises Martinez as they arrive at Goodison

Another Dutch manager who is a stickler for right and left-footed centre-backs has settled on a more formidable axis. The Ajax defender initially prioritised by United was Jurrien Timber until Ten Hag was contacted by Martinez and informed of Arsenal’s interest.

“I shouldn’t shoot myself and United in the foot either,” Ten Hag recalled. The £55.3million fee for Martinez seemed excessive at the time but he is worth double that now.

Whenever Crystal Palace had a sniff at Old Trafford, Martinez snuffed it out. He has changed the culture of the United defence, a back four that now celebrates blocks, tackles and goal kicks. Varane, ordinarily placid, turned cheerleader as United clung to their one-goal advantage on Saturday.

Ten Hag communicates with Martinez in English. On the pitch, Martinez converses with Varane in Spanish and their understanding is just as fluent. Ten Hag has plumped for the Italian term girinta – grit – in his flattering appraisals of Martinez.

Varane and Martinez are softly spoken but the latter is an unmistakably Argentinian defender. What sets Martinez apart from his inferior peers in the World Cup-winning squad is he masters controlled aggression and is yet to cross the line. Martinez unsettled Mohamed Salah with a mere barge.

United's recovery began with Varane's recall against Liverpool

United’s recovery began with Varane’s recall against Liverpool

United’s recovery this season came with Varane’s recall against Liverpool. At one stage during pre-season, he was the fourth-choice centre-back and there have not been three centre-backs better than Varane all season. Varane, Martinez and William Saliba of Arsenal are vying for the two spots in the Premier League team of the season.

Varane has enough accolades and medals to open his own museum but remains driven. Fortunately for United, he has brought the curtain down on his international career at the age of 29. Paul Scholes was the same age when he last played for England and played for nine more years..

“For United, I think it’s good news,” Ten Hag said. “Rapha achieved everything in terms of football club wise but also with his nation it is incredible what he achieved, big respect and I am happy he puts all his energy and experience into the team.

“I can only express my deep respect for his career until now. But still there is a lot to come, he is ambitious, he wants to win at Manchester United.”

“There’s something really special going on here, a real buzz about the place and emotions are running high,” Varane commented. “I’m really glad that I’ve integrated so well into the team and to my life over here.

“It is a big plus to have won some trophies and one tries to spread that tranquility, that calm serenity among the team, in the knowledge that there will be difficult moments to navigate, not to panic, safe in the knowledge too that chances will come our way as well.”

Ferdinand and Vidic reached heights that objectively commanded world-class status: three Champions League final appearances in four years and four Premier League team of the season inclusions apiece. Ferdinand was the world’s best defender between 2006-08 and there was a Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award for Vidic in the season Ferdinand’s back problem hastened a gradual decline.

Varane was greeted by Ferdinand on his unveiling by United 18 months ago. “Win, win, win,” Ferdinand urged.

That is what United are doing.




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