Manchester United are on the verge of signing Raphael Varane for £42.7m from Real Madrid

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It was in early March, shortly before Raphael Varane rebuffed what would prove to be Real Madrid’s final bid to keep him, that a move to Manchester United began to crystallise. Varane had bought into the idea of Premier League football with United some time before then but now serious questions were being asked as the France defender began to visualise a life in Manchester after a decade in Madrid.

What, for example, was the perception of him in England? Would his game suit the competition? What is the British mentality? How do the media operate? Are there differences to the way medical departments are structured compared to Spain? Was there a reasonable expectation of privacy for him and his family, wife Camille and their two young children, Ruben and Anais? What do the suburbs around Manchester have to offer? Are there international schools? Varane, it became clear, wanted as many angles covered as possible. He was not going to be leaving much to chance. Not with what was likely to be the final big decision of his playing career at stake.

United, still scarred by their previous attempts to prise a coveted centre-half away from the Bernabeu six years earlier, when Sergio Ramos used their interest as leverage to extract a money-spinning new contract out of Real, would continue to tread cautiously. Perhaps only when Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, returned from a short break to close the deal with his counterpart at Real, Jose Angel Sanchez, on Monday morning for an initial fee of £34.2 million rising to £42.7 million did the club truly breathe easy. One too many missed deals can do that to you.

But Varane, in his own mind, was perhaps more convinced about the transfer than was always apparent during what can be the cat and mouse process of negotiations, particularly where such large contracts are involved.

In truth, Varane had been eyeing a move to Old Trafford as far back as last summer when, with two years left on his deal with Real, he and his brother and confidante, Anthony, were looking seriously at his options and had joined the respected CAA Base agency around that time in anticipation of big decisions to come. A four-time Champions League and Club World Cup winner for Real, with whom he had also won three La Liga titles, there was a sense that Varane had achieved everything he could in Madrid and that, at his age, it was a case of now or never to embrace a new challenge and experience somewhere else at the top end of the game.

Varane has spent a decade at Real Madrid, winning three league titles and four Champions League trophies

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Interest levels were gauged across Europe. Manchester City had other plans despite expressing their admiration for the player, who turned 28 in April. Liverpool were targeting a younger profile of centre-half and had RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate in mind. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain liked him and wanted an open dialogue but it was United who came to the forefront.

They had other targets under consideration, including Villarreal’s Pau Torres and Jules Kounde, of Seville, but it was Varane who ticked all their boxes as they sought a top quality partner for captain Harry Maguire that could form the bedrock of a future Premier League title winning team. United have one of the youngest squads in England’s top flight and generally target a younger age profile with resale value. Yet manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club’s recruitment division knew the 6ft3in defender would bring experience, medals, leadership and ultra professionalism into the dressing room at the same time as addressing some of the team’s notable weak spots on the pitch. A strong and determined if understated character in the Maguire mould, Varane is a popular figure in the France national set-up around whom other players would gravitate.

He offers the pace Maguire and Victor Lindelof lack at the same time as providing quality on the ball and composure in difficult moments. He speaks good English, he is good in the air – all that time trying to suppress Cristiano Ronaldo in training has to count for something – and his timing and sense of anticipation are excellent. As one source put it: “Varane’s so good at taking pressure off team-mates.”

He perhaps does not have the pace of a peak Rio Ferdinand, with whom he has drawn comparisons, or Liverpool’s frighteningly quick Virgil van Dijk but his speed will be a vital addition, particularly given Solskjaer’s wish to play with a more adventurous midfield set up.  

Real did make a considerable play to keep Varane, whatever claims to the contrary and there had even been some talk around the captaincy in the longer-term. A new deal was presented to him in November and other offers followed before a final bid to get him to stay in March was rebuffed, around which time Telegraph Sport reported United’s interest. That proposal was worth more than the four-year contract he eventually agreed with United, which is understood to be worth around £20 million annually including image rights and bonuses. It was a similar story when Varane left Nike for a less lucrative boot deal with Puma earlier in the year.

By the end of the January transfer window, United’s interest in Varane had hardened to the point where there was frequent dialogue between the parties and the belief a deal could be done. Communication channels with other clubs remained open but Varane was targeting United. He had purportedly grown up in France with an affection for the club and, 10 years earlier, had almost moved to Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson had hopped on a train from Euston to Lille in expectation of signing an 18-year-old Varane from Lens as David Gill, United’s chief executive at the time, went over the finer points of the contract only for Real to gazump them. “Zinedine Zidane got wind of this and somehow scooped him up for Madrid from under our noses,” Ferguson later recalled.

United have been criticised in the past for their approach to complex negotiations but their handling of the Varane situation has been described by sources as “pretty slick” from start to finish and an endorsement for the new structure in place. Matt Judge, United’s director of football negotiations, drove the process with a keen, sharp eye and a presentation to the Varane camp by football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher about the culture and philosophy of the club, their plans and what they could offer the player was said to be persuasive and impressive. 

By April, Real, conscious Varane wanted a new challenge, were committed to cashing in on the defender, rather than losing him for nothing the following year when his contract expired. Carlo Ancelotti returned to the club as head coach the following month and the Italian, who is represented by the same agency as Varane, knew from early on that he would have to plan for life after the Frenchman.  

Still, United were not getting carried away. They had been burnt too many times before and, at that stage, were focused on concluding a deal with Borussia Dortmund for the England winger, Jadon Sancho, their other leading summer target. The shock departure for PSG of Ramos, Varane’s long-standing centre-half partner, was another potential curveball but concerns that Real would not allow both players to leave in the same summer were soon allayed. Even a week before a deal was finally struck, with Varane still on holiday in Sardinia in Italy following the Euros with France and after several rounds of negotiations over personal terms, United harboured concerns the transfer could come unstuck. Those fears would prove unfounded, though. They had got their man.