Manchester United set a unique measure of 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 the 2009 and 2011 final schoolings by Barcelona.
Ferdinand was a centre-back without peer between 2006 and 2008, a run halted by a problematic back injury. His partnership with Vidic was unrivalled but Vidic ironically improved without Ferdinand in 2008-09, when he accepted the Sir Matt Busby Player of the year award, a statue as hard as the Serbian. “He comes from Serbia, he’ll f—–g murder ya,” the chant went
The second half of Evra’s eight-year United career did not reach the heights of his first but he was a throwback bargain to the era of Schmeichel, Kanchelskis, Cantona, and Keane. United paid £12.5million for Evra and Vidic (Phil Jones alone cost £4m more) and both wore the armband with distinction.
Louis van Gaal had wanted to keep Evra to mentor Luke Shaw and, seven years on from Evra’s farewell to his United teammates in Beverly Hills, Shaw has reached the level Evra operated at for several years. Harry Maguire is United’s first world-class centre-back since Vidic a decade ago and Raphael Varane is expected to be the second.
Maguire-Varane is just about the complete partnership. No chinks in the armour and Maguire’s resurgence last term began next to the more athletic Eric Bailly. It is not a coincidence United are pursuing Varane, having considered Pau Torres – clocked as the speediest centre-back in La Liga – after two years of Victor Lindelof plodding.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer assembled a clear and obvious back four with the £130million investments in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in 2019. Manchester City and Liverpool had already significantly spent at full-back and centre-back and United sprung into action a year too late. They were not in a strong buying position and the summer was transitional.
United suffered their worst top-flight defensive season in 2018-19 and Maguire was always bound to have an impact, but that bounce lasted just a season. United shipped eight more goals in the league in 2020-21 – more than eighth-placed Arsenal.
Solskjaer has a potential world-class right-back in Wan-Bissaka but he was afflicted with a mild case of second season syndrome. Opponents targeted his dithering defending at the far post and, although the attacking numbers were up, they were not a reliable gauge of his reticence.
Bury-born Kieran Trippier is hopeful of joining his boyhood club in a cinematic one last job: a Manchester homecoming to make United champions again. Trippier is a La Liga title-winner and a Champions League and European Championship finalist who has comfortably kept his place in the England squad. Little wonder he has no intention of playing back-up to the uncapped Wan-Bissaka.
Mauricio Pochettino was sanguine with letting Kyle Walker leave for City in 2017 as he already had Trippier. Before that, Trippier was popular among players and staff at Burnley, where his character was widely lauded. As personalities go, Trippier is the polar opposite to the quiet Wan-Bissaka, one of the few footballers who was inaudible with turnstiles locked.
United’s defensive cover is stable, if not stellar, and they could end the window with two back fours of internationals. They would have the expertise to switch to a back three with Trippier, a more natural wing-back than the limited Wan-Bissaka. The peak of Alex Telles’s short United career was with Luke Shaw tucked inside next to him on his debut at Paris Saint-Germain.
During United’s three-peat in the late 2000s, they sieved 27 goals in 2006-07, 22 in 2007-08 and 24 in 2008-09. Since then, they have only come in under 30 for goals against in 2009-10 and Jose Mourinho’s two full campaigns.
Mourinho would have loved Varane and coveted Maguire.