Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Luton Town on Saturday raised more questions than answers.
- How was it that United struggled to create chances against a newly promoted team that plays in a stadium that seats fewer fans than the Stretford End?
- How is it possible that Victor Lindelof, who scored the lone goal on Saturday, has more goals this season than Mason Mount, Antony and Jadon Sancho and as many as Alejandro Garnacho, Anthony Martial, Christian Eriksen and Marcus Rashford? He also has more league goals than Rasmus Højlund.
- Speaking of Højlund, why did it take so long for him to get substituted? Clearly hurt, at one point, he limped past the United bench and flashed the universal “what the hell?” gesture. Now he’s probably out until the end of the month.
- Was this the last match with the Glazers in full control of the club? Reportedly, Jim Ratcliffe’s minority bid could go through after the international break and there are already indications that things are changing. On Wednesday, the club announced that embattled CEO Richard Arnold would leave his post with an interim CEO taking his place. Will there be more to come?
- Is it possible that Harry Maguire has been one of our best players this season? The much-maligned former skipper looked like a goner over the summer with the only question being how much of a pay cut would he be willing to take to get regular playing time for a mid-table team?
- And on a related note… what the hell is going on with Raphael Varane? Last year’s undroppable center half was relegated to the bench against Luton Town, making it his fourth straight match in all competitions where he came in as a substitute. Curiously, Erik ten Hag has denied the move is health or discipline related, instead citing “tactical reasons.”
So, how did Champions League Varane turn into Substitutes’ Bench Varane?
It’s probably a combination of factors. Maguire really has improved this season and his current form makes him one of the first names on the team sheet. Because Varane doesn’t seem to play well with Maguire, something most United fans and pundits know and ten Hag has acknowledged, it’s natural that Varane would be the one to sit.
They were forced into action together against Copenhagen in the Champions League in midweek after Jonny Evans got injured early in the match and United leaked goals as a result, including two late in the match to seal a 4-3 defeat that, more or less, rules them out of advancing. It wasn’t entirely their fault — Marcus Rashford’s red card in the 42nd minute really put United behind the 8-ball. But it didn’t help their cause. And since ten Hag really can’t bench them both because of all of United’s injuries in defense, it’s Varane’s turn in the barrel, given Maguire’s overall rise in form.
Additionally, Lisandro Martinez’s long-term injury may be a factor. Last season, he and Varane developed a fantastic partnership and carried United during their best run of form. The two complemented each other well, with Martinez’s passing and aggression and Varane’s positional awareness and size masking each other’s weaknesses. With Martinez looking at another extended injury layoff, it’s possible Varane could be on the outside looking in for the foreseeable future.
Injuries may also be catching up to him. According to transfermarkt.us, Varane has missed 38 games for club and country since joining United in 2021. By contrast, he missed only 13 matches in his last three seasons at Real Madrid.
His recent injuries have been leg and foot related, making it natural to wonder whether he’s lost some mobility and pace. He definitely seems a step slow this season — whether it’s a dip in form or the start of his inevitable decline remains to be seen.
Or maybe he’s tired. Between the pandemic interruptions, the winter World Cup and last year’s ridiculous fixture congestion, it’s been a long few years — especially for elite internationals like him.
Varane has long been outspoken about players being forced to play too many matches, inevitably resulting in more injuries and burnout.
“The calendar is already more than full; the players are over-worked, and it will get even worse,” Varane said in June. “I’m afraid that we will witness much shorter careers and that players will have to give up the France team very early because, physically or mentally, what we are asking for today is simply beyond limits.”
He went even further in August, after the FA announced it would force refs to keep track of exactly how much time was expended during stoppages in play so that it could be added back during stoppage time — a move that would have the effect of significantly lengthening matches.
“From the managers and players, we have shared our concerns for many years now that there are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for players physical and mental well-being,” he said on Twitter. “Despite our previous feedbacks, they have now recommended for next season: longer games, more intensity, and less emotions to be shown by players.”
So maybe that’s why he is said to be somewhat zen about his current situation at United. Clearly, he felt like he was about to burn out, so maybe a trip to the bench is what he needs to clear his head and reinvigorate his desire to play at the top level.
Plus, he’s been around long enough to know that, while he may be out of favor now, he’ll inevitably get his chance to reclaim his starting job.
After all, it’s a long season.