The £51m release clause Manchester United could trigger to finally fix their defence

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Manchester United may be about to trigger the release clause of one of Europe’s most talented defenders - but would it be worth it?

The long-promised summer clearout has begun at Old Trafford – centre-half Raphaël Varane, fresh off the back of his best performance for Manchester United in the FA Cup final, has been released to free agency and the first of many holes that must be filled has been dug.

Given Varane’s departure, it’s no great shock to see that the rumours surrounding United’s search for new defenders has cranked up yet another gear. Among the many reports drifting around the media right now, one of the most eye-catching was the report from The Daily Mail, based on sources in the Portuguese press, which claimed that the club were stepping up their interest in Sporting centre-back Gonçalo Inácio. A lavishly gifted player, signing Inácio would be a substantial investment not just in the current squad, but in the club’s long-term future.

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He is unlikely to come cheap. Sporting, who won the Primera Liga last season, would prefer not to sell at all but he has a release clause worth €60m (£51m) in his contract – any club wanting to secure his services will most likely be obliged to pay the full amount, especially with other clubs keen. Inácio has been linked, if only tentatively, with practically every major club in Europe over the last six months, although Liverpool’s name has come up particularly often.

So would a £51m investment of this kind come good? Very likely, yes. At the age of 22, Inácio has already proven himself to be a fine defender not just at the level required for the Portuguese top flight but for the national side, too – he has two goals in seven games, albeit that both goals came in a 9-0 trouncing of Luxembourg. But the level of technique, skill and composure he has shown so far suggests a player who is already good enough for the Premier League and whose ceiling is far higher still.

Inácio is a ball-playing defender who has operated typically as a wide centre-back on the left of Sporting’s back three, although he has played as a left wing-back on occasion as well, and he stands out most for his skill with the ball and his outstanding distribution of it – he is a precise passer with the vision to break an opposing press with quick, vertical balls. Any team looking to play a possession-based game or who wants to spring quick counter-attacks would value having someone with his impressive passing range.

He's also an exceptional tackler with good judgement of when to press and when to drop back, a good tight marker who is hard to bully on or off the ball and an assured presence at the back who makes few mistakes. Really, the only weakness in his game – other than his relative inexperience – is that he isn’t especially physically gifted, lacking a burst of genuine pace and, at 6’1”, not particularly tall, although he is still surprisingly effective in the air with a good jump on him.

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The chart below shows how Inácio’s numbers stack up compared to United’s main centre-halves going forward. His numbers may be inflated by the fact he is playing at a higher level, but the penetrative quality of his passing is immediately apparent – progressive passes being defined as completed passes which move play forward either into the opposing box or at least 10 yards upfield. He is less dominant aerially than Harry Maguire, who also leads in interceptions, which implies he has superior reading of the game, but otherwise stands tall compared to his potential team-mates.


One of the problems United currently have with their summer recruitment is that they have little clarity on who their manager will be next year. Reports ahead of the FA Cup final suggested that the decision had already been taken to sack Erik ten Hag – but the impressive performance against Manchester City in winning that trophy seems to have earned the Dutchman a temporary stay of execution as new minority owners Ineos take stock once again, or at least wait on his removal in the hope of avoiding uproar from the fans.

But Inácio is the kind of defender who looks capable of complementing any manager’s system. In Ten Hag’s back four, his passing would help to bolster last season’s unsuccessful gameplan which focused on quick passes through the middle to the front line. In other systems, he would be excellent in a back four or three, as a complement to an attacking wing-back or as part of a high press. He’s versatile and well-rounded enough to be a safe enough bet regardless of what United decide to do in the dugout.

Is £51m a considerable amount? Yes, even for Manchester United – but with Varane gone and others liable to follow, they need to gamble on at least one potential superstar who could, all going well, underpin the defence for a decade to come. Of all the gifted young defenders on the market, Inácio seems to be the best bet of the lot for the long term.

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