Manchester United set a unique goal for what constitutes a world-class footballer with their 2008 Champions League winners. Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, starters in Moscow, also lined up in Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
Ferdinand was a midfielder without peers between 2006 and 2008, a race stopped by a problematic back injury. His partnership with Vidic was unsurpassed, but Vidic ironically improved without Ferdinand in 2008-09 when he accepted the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, a statue as tough as the Serbian. “He comes from Serbia, he murders you,” said the chant.
The second half of Euras’ eight-year United career did not reach the heights of his first, but he was a buyback for Schmeichel, Kanchelskis, Cantona and Keane. United paid £ 12.5 million for Evra and Vidic (Phil Jones alone cost £ 4 million more) and both wore the bracelet with difference.
Louis van Gaal had wanted to keep Evra mentor Luke Shaw, and seven years after Evra’s farewell to his United teammates at Beverly Hills, Shaw has reached the level at which Evra operated for several years. Harry Maguire is United’s first world – class center-back since Vidic a decade ago, and Raphael Varane is expected to be the second.
Maguire-Varane is almost about the complete partnership. No crack in the armor and Maguire’s revival last period began alongside the more athletic Eric Bailly. It is no coincidence that United are pursuing Varane, after considering Pau Torres – clocked as the fastest center-back in La Liga – after two years of Victor Lindelof chatter.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer collected a clear and obvious back-up with the investments of £ 130 million in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in 2019. Manchester City and Liverpool had already spent significantly on back and center-back and United also jumped into action a year late. They were not in a strong buying position and the summer was a transition period.
United suffered their worst top-flight defensive season in 2018-19 and Maguire always had to make an impact, but this rejection lasted only one season. United sent eight more goals in the league in 2020-21 – more than the 8th-placed Arsenal.
Solskjaer has a potential world-class right-back in Wan-Bissaka, but he was hit by a mild case of second-season syndrome. Opponents targeted his dithering defender at the far post, and although the attacking numbers were up, they were not a reliable measure of his restraint.
The buried Kieran Trippier is hoping to join his boys club in a cinematic final job: a return from Manchester to make United champions again. Trippier is a winner of the La Liga title and a finalist in the Champions League and European Championships, who has comfortably retained his place in the English team. No wonder he does not intend to play back-up to the uneven Wan-Bissaka.
Mauricio Pochettino was sanguin about letting Kyle Walker travel to City in 2017 when he already had Trippier. Before that, Trippier was popular with players and staff at Burnley, where his character was highly praised. As the personalities go, Trippier is polar opposite to the quiet Wan-Bissaka, one of the few football players who was inaudible with knobs locked.
United’s defensive coverage is stable, if not stellar, and they could end the window with two back fours of international. They wanted the expertise to switch to a back-back with Trippier, a more natural wing-back than the limited Wan-Bissaka. The pinnacle of Alex Telle’s short United career was with Luke Shaw tucked inside next to him on his debut at Paris Saint-Germain.
During United’s three-turf in the late 2000s, they scored 27 goals in 2006-07, 22 in 2007-08 and 24 in 2008-09. Since then, they have only come under 30 to goal against in 2009-10 and Jose Mourinho’s two full campaigns.
Mourinho would have loved Varane and coveted Maguire.