Erik Ten Hag says the captain’s armband does not guarantee Harry Maguire a starting role as Manchester United’s manager spoke enthusiastically about the “immense” stature of Raphael Varane.
Last season was one to forget for all connected to Old Trafford, where a porous defence shipped 57 goals – the club’s worst-ever tally for a single Premier League campaign.
Maguire came in for particular criticism but Ten Hag threw his support behind the under-fire England centre-back, confirming at the start of United’s pre-season tour that he would retain the captaincy.
But the 29-year-old dropped to the bench on Monday following the defeats to Brighton and Brentford, with summer signing Lisandro Martinez instead partnered by Varane in the 2-1 win against rivals Liverpool.
“We have options and, as you already said, Varane his stature is immense,” Ten Hag said. “In pre-season, we had to build him physically so a bit slower start.
“He was fit in the first games but in the first period of the pre-season he wasn’t always, so we’re happy we built him in that way and you see when the team needed him he was really there.
“His profile, his stature or what he won already in the past shows he can really contribute to this team.
“For the team there’s competition and we need that. We have to cover so many games and we can do that in several constructions and we can see from game to game what we need.
“That can be the construction from Liverpool but also as in the second half in Brentford, we play with Varane and Maguire in the centre so there are many options.
“I forget now about injuries. Victor Lindelof did really well in pre-season so I am happy that he will be back in the squad so we will have another option.
“Also internal we have competition and that’s good and I think top teams need that.”
Put to Ten Hag that it is an awkward situation when his captain is not playing, he said: “Yeah, but what I say that doesn’t mean when you are captain that you are established to play always, especially not when you also have Varane in your squad.”
Ten Hag appears to have his four preferred centre-back options and is building a leadership group that includes Bruno Fernandes, who captained the side in Maguire’s absence on Monday.
“I am looking not so far,” he said when asked about changing captain. “We’re only one game.
“We have a leader group and Harry, quite clear, (is one of them). Bruno is one of them.
“What I think Bruno did quite well in his role as captain, he was really the captain by example and he brings so much energy to the team in and out of possession, so I was really happy with his role and his performance.”
Ten Hag’s selection will be interesting on Saturday as United look to build a sense of momentum against Southampton, where new boy Casemiro could make his debut.
The Old Trafford giants pursued Barcelona’s Frenkie De Jong all summer but ended up with a different type of midfielder in the £70milion acquisition from Real Madrid.
“We have a list so we have options,” Ten Hag said. “He was always on but we didn’t know that he’d get available.
“So, in the moment, we get the signals, we get proactive and we get it done and we’re really happy about that of course.
“He is the cement between the stones and he can lead other players really well because he is a leader.
“He is a really good strategist and he can play a ball as well and he’s winning challenges, so he brings a lot into a game and he will help us.
“In-between he will be the link, a really important role and I am really happy to have that role now occupied in our squad.”
Ten Hag believes United have “many options” now that “can balance the midfield” but the hunger for improvements means he did not extinguish talk of another midfielder arriving before Thursday’s deadline.
“I know at this moment we are not the world top, clear, but the intention always has to be for Man United to look for better,” he added.
“So good is not good enough. Always go for better and that has to be the culture in all the club.
“Of course there on the pitch that is what the demand is on the players, but also throughout in every department of the club.”