Erik ten Hag has discovered his most important Manchester United undroppable – George Smith

Since being embarrassed by Brentford, losing 4-0 in the sweltering west London heat on August 13, United have played four Premier League matches and won all four. It has marked their first run of four consecutive league victories since April 2021, which tells you just how encouraging this recent revival has been.

It is somewhat unfortunate, therefore, that United have seen their last two league matches ahead of the international break postponed, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. After seeing Sunday's trip to Crystal Palace called off as a mark of respect, this coming Sunday's showdown with Leeds United at Old Trafford has also been postponed, this time because of insufficient policing being available.

These are extraordinary times we are currently living in and it cannot be helped, but it has robbed United of the chance to try and maintain their recent momentum, even though Thursday's trip to Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League will go ahead as planned. Since the defeat to Brentford, United have been on an upward curve, beating Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester City and Arsenal to climb to within three points of the top of the table.

The platform for this revival was provided by the performance and victory over Liverpool. After being humbled by Brentford nine days earlier, resulting in the players being forced to report to Carrington less than 24 hours later on a scheduled day off, Ten Hag made the decision to make four changes for the visit of the Merseysiders.

He dropped big names including Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, opting to hand starts to the likes of youngsters Tyrell Malacia and Anthony Elanga instead. They were considered brave and bold calls, but they were ones that paid off.

Raphael Varane also bagged his first start of the season that evening and you could say that the rest is history. The Frenchman, who joined United just over a year ago from Real Madrid, was left out of the starting line-up for the Reds' opening two fixtures, with summer signing Lisandro Martinez and Maguire, perhaps because of his status as captain, preferred.

But considering United had shipped six goals in their opening two games and Liverpool, who had won last season's two league meetings by an aggregate score of nine goals to nil, were arriving at Old Trafford, Ten Hag had to do something to stop the rot. Varane came in and has started in every league game since, forming a promising-looking partnership with Martinez to his left.

United's recent run of four consecutive victories has seen them score seven goals and concede just two. They have looked far more comfortable and defensively sound with Varane present, which, in truth, should be no great surprise to anybody who studies United's numbers closely.

The Reds, last season, conceded 32 goals in the 16 Premier League matches Varane missed, compared to the 25 they conceded in the 22 games he featured in. As well as that, the Frenchman missed five of the six matches in which United conceded four or more goals in last season.

It is clear that a regular pattern is emerging and that United are far better defensively with Varane in the heart of the backline than when they are without him. He is the best central-defender at the club and is quickly becoming indispensable in Ten Hag's plans.

While Ten Hag continues to reiterate that a long season lies ahead, and that everyone, at some point, will get their chance to prove their worth, it is almost impossible to imagine either Victor Lindelof or Maguire dislodging Varane from the team. The former Madrid man has installed himself as the bedrock and Ten Hag and United are reaping the rewards of his excellence and experience.

Injury problems hampered Varane's chances of getting into any sort of rhythm last season, meaning his longest sequence of consecutive starts in the league stood at just six matches. It is little wonder United lacked consistency at the back.

But if Varane can stay fit this and continue to avoid the treatment table, Ten Hag might have found the solution to solve the Reds' defensive woes. On current evidence, it is little wonder that the Dutchman described him as “immense” a few weeks ago.


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