With recent news emerging that Real Madrid will look to extend Pepe's contract, fans' hand-wringing and English press' chatter has grown immensely regarding the future of Raphael Varane, Madrid's centerback wonderkid. Fans' fears of Varane demanding an exit and the press' assurance that offers will trickle in for his services given Pepe's new deal will be sure to persist, but the club should have zero question about Varane's status as the defense's leader for years to come.
Varane burst on the scene under former manager Jose Mourinho as a pacey, composed defender who had a knack for committing picture perfect tackles no matter the quality of opposition. Unfortunately, a lingering knee issue sapped him of playing time following his breakout and he hasn't been the same since. That's not to say he's been poor, after all his composure under fire and speed alone ensures that he's one of the better CBs in the world, but his physicality and decision making with the ball in the air seems suspect and especially when going up against any kind of aggressive opposition. Despite this weakness in his game, the club's decision-makers still clearly value him as he was rewarded with a contract extension this past summer which would see him remain at the club until 2020 barring unforeseen changes, even though his starting minutes may not yet reflect this.
One doesn't have to look far to see how much rival clubs value their young CBs. Paris Saint-Germain just finalized a contract extension for Marquinhos, a rumored target of Barcelona while Chelsea has seen Kurt Zouma blossom into a future star. Manchester City, despite failing to nurture Matija Nastasic properly, has shown a willingness to splash big money on young talent in Eliaquim Mangala while Borussia Dortmund will be placing their faith in Matthias Ginter to lead their defense for years to come. Real Madrid must do the same and hold on to Varane at all costs and build the back four around him as talents of his kind and age do not come around very often.
However, a starting spot should not be a given for Varane at this point. Perhaps France's recent outing versus Brazil shows us why Varane needs to wait his turn. He showed great anticipation, positioning and athletic ability to put France up 1-0 via his head off a corner kick, but when it came to aerial defense he looked completely out of it, as seen in the Vine below.
It's staggering how good he is when it comes to attacking balls in the air on offense but how timid he is when it's time to defend them. This isn't the first time this problem has manifested itself as he's committed similar errors against Atletico Madrid and Valencia in the past. Of course, that's not to say that he should be sold and he's still young and his body will fill out to the point of net being bullied in the air, but when teams look to exploit Madrid they look to do it in the air and given his weakness in this department it's easy to see why Ancelotti would turn to Pepe and Ramos instead.
Fans can look at Pepe's contract extension one of two ways. First, panic that the club is choosing a 32-year-old defender over 21-year-old and is opening itself up to a rival poaching the latter away. Or, the club is covering all bases by ensuring that Pepe won't leave for cheap to a rival as his contract dwindles, all while maintaining its status as employer of three world-class centerbacks. Yes, in the short-term this does hurt Varane's development as game time is more valuable than training time and time and time spent in the classroom and yes, perhaps even a loan might serve him better than riding the bench. However, he's still young in a position where the best tend to peak in their late 20s, something that's we're seeing with Sergio Ramos and even Pepe who, in his age, has arguably been the best CB in the world for the past two seasons. One also has to take into consideration that rotation minutes could increase should Ancelotti's stay at Madrid end in the coming months and that injuries happen at all times. If the club were to sell him then what would be their next best option, Nacho at CB? Splashing enormous money for another CB when they have a starlet of their own?
The coaching staff could certainly afford him more minutes and especially as Ramos has shown signs of struggle this season, that is absolutely a valid criticism, but one needs to keep the big picture in mind as fielding the best in-form players while developing young talent is no easy task and unfortunately he seems to be a victim of this circumstance. Varane, to his credit, is not making any kind of notable public fuss over being third choice and the club itself hasn't showed any public hints of willingness to sell. He's stated that he prefers starting, which is natural as all players do, but that patience is needed. He and his handlers are surely aware of Pepe's age and the club's recent turn of placing trust into youngsters' hands so a worry that his playing time will be limited over multiple years shouldn't really manifest itself to a great degree. He'll have to be patient for the remainder of this season and possibly the next, but at a time when elite CBs are a rarity he should be able to live with the idea that the club values him as much as any other youngster on the roster. Hopefully this means seeing the young Frenchman in white for years to come.