Meet Raphael Varane: Manchester United's Long-Term Replacement For Rio Ferdinand

Raphael Varane has impressed for Lens this year, with his positional sense receiving rave reviews, but he's got to finish his exams before he heads to Manchester United..
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Raphael Varane has impressed for Lens this year, with his positional sense receiving rave reviews, but he's got to finish his exams before he heads to Manchester United..

Raphael Varane has impressed for Lens this year, with his positional sense receiving rave reviews, but he's got to finish his exams before he heads to Manchester United..

Raphaël Varane knows the next few weeks are going to be important. Indeed, the defender’s entire future could hinge on his ability to stay calm and make the right choices under pressure. Manchester United are understood to be close to signing the precocious youngster from Lens, but Varane is not thinking about football for the moment.

The highly-rated teenager is focusing on a matter he considers far more important: he begins his Baccalaureate exams (the French equivalent of A-levels) on June 16 and is determined to succeed in subjects that include economics, philosophy and German.

The brainy teenager has been a cut above the rest on the pitch and in the classroom this season. Having been rapidly promoted from the youth team to the seniors by crisis club Lens in November at the age of 17 earlier, the tall, composed centre-back admits his studies have taken a back seat in recent months. But with Les Sang et Or now condemned to relegation he is dusting off those textbooks once more.

Varane made quite an impact during his first six months as a professional, impressing with his athleticism and maturity on the field as well as his polite, down-to-earth manner off it.

His youth academy coach Georges Tournay describes the Frenchman as “an ideal boy to work with” and “a reference for the other kids”, while the compliments have continued to flow since his arrival in the first team. “He really listens to advice,” notes the former Middlesbrough defender Franck Queudrue, who has been Varane’s centre-back partner. “I’ve come across a lot of excellent youngsters but Raphaël has something extra.”

That something extra has caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson among others.

The Manchester United boss sees Varane as a risk-free recruit who will not cost the earth and may well turn in to a superstar. The gamble has not worked with another French youngster Gabriel Obertan, yet Ferguson is keen to freshen up an aging squad and is ready to role the dice again.

The trouble is, unlike most wide-eyed foreign kids, Varane is not prepared up sticks at the click of Fergie’s fingers and has asked for certain guarantees. He is aware of he has little chance of displacing Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic and wants to continue playing regularly having made just 21 appearances in Ligue 1.

In January, Varane expertly marked Ligue 1 top-scorer Moussa Sow out of the big derby clash with Lille; he then stole Claude Makelele’s thunder at the Parc des Princes the following month

“I believe a player should only go to England when he is ready,” the 18-year-old said earlier this month. “There are plenty of examples of players who have left France too young. If I leave Lens I will be leaving with the objective of playing at my future club. But in order to do that I need experience.”

Varane’s sensible attitude poses a problem to Ferguson, who has two obvious ways of persuading the player to sign. Either Varane is granted his wish to return on loan to France next year – in which case both PSG and Lille would jump at the chance to sign him – or the Scot convinces him he will be involved in enough cup games and the occasional league match.

Currently the youngest member of France’s Under-21 squad, Varane also realises his transfer would be frowned upon by Laurent Blanc should he spend most of his time on the bench next term. The France coach has made it clear he wants youngsters to gain significant experience before moving abroad and could easily hold the decision against him.

Any Manchester United fan reading this may wonder if Varane is worth all the fuss.

It is of course difficult to know just how good a player is when he has played so little. Yet the ease at which Varane has settled and even shone in France’s top flight suggests he is special.

At 6 foot 3, he cuts a tall, commanding figure but it is his composure on the ball that really stands out. Ex-Lens coach Jean-Guy Wallemme was so impressed by Varane’s calmness in possession he decided to move him from centre-back to central midfield after only a handful of matches. Not that Varane sees himself as a future Patrick Vieira: “I’m a centre-half by trade,” the Frenchman has stated. “That’s where I have been trained to play and that’s where I am most effective. I was surprised to have been moved in to midfield.”

Still, he has the speed, poise and intelligence to excel in both roles and has already shown he is good enough to cope with the best France has to throw at him. In January, Varane expertly marked Ligue 1 top-scorer Moussa Sow out of the big derby clash with Lille; he then stole Claude Makelele’s thunder at the Parc des Princes the following month by turning in a masterful midfield display to help Lens frustrate PSG in a goalless draw.

With Lens going down there is no way the cash-strapped club will be able to hold on to Varane if a good offer comes in. But wherever he ends up the conscientious stopper will keep on working hard to improve his game.

“I still a lot of work to do,” he said. “I need to be more aggressive, my positioning can also get better, and I have to work on my keeping my concentration.” And as he well knows, staying focused on fiscal policy, Jean-Paul Sartre and German grammar could get increasingly difficult if Ferguson steps up his interest.

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