Raphael Varane is already one of the greats
Real Madrid center back Raphael Varane may sometimes be in the shadow of captain Sergio Ramos when the spotlight is flashed on Los Blancos’ back four, but the France international is unmistakably a living legend in his own right.
Raphael Varane found the back of the net again in Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey Round of 16 blowout win over Real Zaragoza, scoring a clean-up goal with the positional awareness and calmness that would have made a seasoned striker proud.
But Varane is no striker. He may have the confidence on the ball of one, but Varane is a defender through and through. With his commanding but tranquil demeanor, calculated movements, effortless closing speed, steely nerves, and teasing passing, Varane is one of the most complete center backs in world football.
Although Varane is 26, he’s already been at this level for years.
Varane joined Real Madrid in 2011 from RC Lens for mere 10 million euros. By 2014-2015, he was playing at least 2,000 minutes in a single La Liga season for Los Blancos. Since then, he has become France captain, won a World Cup Final, and held the Champions League trophy three times.
It’s often said that the hallmark of a great defender lies in their anonymity. The logic is that whereas you want to hear about attacking midfielders springing killer passes, forward, banging home goals, and wingers putting defenders on skates, you’d prefer not to hear your center back’s name on the broadcast. Because that means they probably made a massive error.
While lauded players like Sergio Ramos and, most recently, Ballon d’Or candidate Virgil van Dijk have turned this logic on its head, Varane is still the epitome of the overlooked center back. This season, if he isn’t scoring a goal – and he already has three in all competitions – he’s often a mere footnote.
Part of that may be because of the legend of Ramos, who is probably the best all-around defender of his generation as a world-class right back and then center back.
But when looking at what Varane has accomplished at the age of 26, it’s clear that he’s just as much of a legend.
Van Dijk’s 2019 was legendary and deserved Ballon d’Or love, but it’s often surprising that Varane’s 2018 didn’t get nearly as much attention. That’s not to say Varane, as an individual, was as good as van Dijk. But it’s interesting that he received disproportionately fewer Ballon d’Or claims. He won the World Cup and the Champions League, was named in the FIFPro World 11 for the first time in his career, the Champions League Squad of the Season, and would have won more awards if voters weren’t picking his teammate Ramos over him.
Ramos scores more goals and is the more dynamic of the two, regularly aggressively attacking the attackers themselves. His speed, strength, tenacity, experience, and anticipation make him perfectly suited for this role.
While Varane would have all the qualities to do this, too, Ramos’ presence means that Varane must play an equally important, but less glamorous role, as the man who indeed sweeps up the messes. He’s entrusted with providing timely clearances, quick outlet passes to stop counterattacks, confident dribbles out of danger, and the type of subtle reading of the game and speedy covering necessary from the “last man standing”.
Therefore, it’s entirely simple for observers to gloss over Raphael Varane. He plays on a wonderful team that is usually stocked with world-class attackers and midfielders, and they just happen to have one of the most gifted defenders of our era playing next to him.
Varane is, likewise, one of the most gifted defenders of our era. It’s time to appreciate the fact that he’s already “Great” with a capital “G” on an all-time scale, given his accomplishments thus far. A leader with tactical, technical, and emotional qualities that surpass what most could achieve in an entire career, Varane is already a near-perfect center back at the age of 26.
And he isn’t done racking up trophies and individual awards yet. If everything works out in 2020, Varane can add a fourth Champions League title, a third La Liga trophy, a second Copa del Rey, and the European Title-winning performance that evaded him (injury) in 2016.