Much has been made of Manchester United’s need to sign an entirely new defence in this summer’s transfer window – but the Red Devils’ defensive record when Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane start together is actually very respectable.
The 2021-22 season was supposed to be the one when Manchester United pushed on to another level under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and mounted a serious title challenge.
Last summer, they signed Cristiano Ronaldo to bolster their attacking options and, just as importantly, brought in Varane from Real Madrid to marshall the backline.
The arrival of the towering French centre-half was billed as being potentially transformative. At Madrid, he had played over 350 times, winning four European Cups and three La Liga titles. With France, he had been magnificent as they won the 2018 World Cup.
In reality, however, United struggled – in defence especially – in 2021-22. Solskjaer was sacked after a 4-1 defeat to Watford in November and things did not improve after the arrival of interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
Harry Maguire, who had starred for England at the Euros last summer, often acted as a lightning rod for criticism of United, his performances pointed to as a reason for their defence offering all the resistance of a damp cloth.
Varane, meanwhile, struggled for fitness and form, missing 17 games through illness or injury in his first campaign at Old Trafford.
When the dust settled, United had achieved their lowest points total in Premier League history and conceded 57 league goals, four more than relegated Burnley.
So new manager Erik ten Hag needs to rip up their entire defensive structure and change all of the personnel, right? Well, that might be a bit drastic.
On the 15 occasions that Maguire and Varane – United’s first-choice centre-back pairing – actually started together in 2021-22, their defensive record was very sound.
With them both on the pitch from the start, United conceded at less than a goal a game and lost just twice. And one of those two losses came at Aston Villa in September when the only goal of the game came after Maguire had gone off injured.
When other combinations of centre-backs started – one of Maguire or Varane plus Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Phil Jones or Nemanja Matic, or neither Varane nor Maguire – United were far less secure.
In games where they were not paired together, United conceded at almost double the rate and lost at nearly two in every five games.
We’re not saying United don’t have work to do in the transfer market to help Ten Hag, but the stats below will certainly make interesting reading for their fans and give pause for thought. If they could just keep them both fit…
With Varane and Maguire starting together
Points per game: 1.67
Win rate: 40%
Loss rate: 13%
Goals per game: 1.47
Goals against: 13
Goals against per game: 0.87
Without Varane and Maguire starting together
Points per game: 1.44
Win rate: 41%
Loss rate: 38%
Goals per game: 1.44
Goals against: 55
Goals against per game: 1.62