Brazilian Bedrock: Casemiro can be vital for United
Last month, the club stunned world football with the capture of Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro. With the help of South American and Spanish football experts, we assess the new arrival’s potential impact at Old Trafford...
Oscillating wildly from pre-season tour promise into one-two gut-punches against Brighton and Brentford, through a faith-affirming and richly deserved victory over Liverpool, the constant hum of transfer rumours linking Manchester United with so many footballers has droned away in the background in recent months. As with all the biggest clubs and players, certain rumours will linger all summer long. The August transfer of Carlos Casemiro to Old Trafford, however, was mooted, then agreed in the space of little more than 48 hours.
The breakneck speed of the transfer contributed to the sense of euphoria which enveloped it. An established world star leaving the reigning European champions – a team synonymous with hoovering up the club game’s biggest honours for the best part of a decade – to become a key figure in Erik ten Hag’s new-look United. No wonder the Brazilian’s parade before Liverpool’s visit aided the propulsion of the pre-match atmosphere at Old Trafford.
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Prising away a part of the well-oiled triumvirate of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric is a major coup, but what next? The 30-year-old has played a specific part in a legendary Real Madrid midfield, and will now take on new responsibilities in a United side at a different stage in its cycle. “Unique is a big word, but Real Madrid’s style is so unique that it’s impossible that Casemiro plays identically to how he’s done in his glory years with them,” says Spanish football expert Graham Hunter. “I don’t think that’s the way he’s going to be asked to play at United, though. I’m very hopeful that he will adapt to what’s around him. He’s proven to be a genuine winner. He has been central to a Real Madrid side which has been there or thereabouts in La Liga and the Champions League for a long time.
“He’s got a tremendous competitive character and football brain. He’s a footballer who understands when to take chances, when to take opportunities. He understands very quickly if he’s going to be beaten, if a team-mate’s going to be beaten, in terms of knowing in that split-second where everybody is in midfield. He makes a lot of challenges, not because he’s not quick enough, but because he’s very good in that streetwise way of evaluating whether or not the situation can cost his team a goal.
“He is a player who will unquestionably balance up making a foul and the wider cost, but it’s absolutely wrong to call him a dirty player. He’s been sent off twice – and once was for refusing to back up for a free-kick, so he’s not a dirty player. He brings street smarts and cojones in midfield midfields and midfielders, he’s got a good physique, he’s pretty damn good aerially at both ends, so he’s tremendously well equipped. The Premier League can be buzz-bomb relentless, so it takes any player time to adapt, whether they’re magical like Casemiro or not; but for aggression, mentality and character then United have definitely got the right guy.”
The transfer has caused a stir not only in the confines of the Premier League and La Liga, but also in the midfielder’s homeland. Rio de Janeiro-based journalist Tim Vickery, who has followed Casemiro’s career from day one with Sao Paulo and beyond his 2013 move to Spain, feels United have recruited a player who will bring guidance and leadership to his new surroundings.
“If you’re looking for someone to balance out the side, United couldn’t have done a great deal better,” says Vickery. “Five Champions League winner’s medals, all as a vital first-choice player... it’s not something that gets given away. This is a player with serious, serious virtues. He has terrific spatial awareness, he just knows what’s going on and plugs the gaps. He doesn’t rely on great pace, his speed is in his thinking and his positioning. In his own quiet way he transfers the ball quickly and efficiently to the more talented players ahead of him. For me, his two best virtues are this: one is that he balances out the side, something United clearly needed in those first two games of the season; the other is that in his own quiet way he is a leader of those around him.
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“Brazil’s head coach, Tite, refers to him as ‘my competitive leader’. That’s high praise. Brazil have lost two competitive games in six years, and the biggest one of them – to Belgium at the 2018 World Cup – came when Casemiro was suspended, Fernandinho came in and didn’t do very well. Everyone can look up and feel bolstered by the fact that Casemiro is on the team.
“I saw Graeme Souness have a bit of a pop and say that Casemiro has never been a great player, but football isn’t an individual sport. It’s not a beauty contest. He may not be a great individualist, but he’s been a part of great teams and that’s why he’s going to United. He’s played with and under some truly great midfielders and he’s been totally shaped by them. He’s an elite player who sees himself as an elite player. He carries himself – again, in his own quiet way – with an aura about him and I think that will have a terrific impact on his team-mates at United.”
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Among those likeliest to benefit most from Casemiro’s arrival is, in Vickery’s opinion, fellow Brazilian Fred. The pair were key components of the Selecao team which qualified for this year’s World Cup in Qatar and, within the usual caveat of squad rotation, United fans could be treated to the pair reprising their international roles on the domestic scene over the coming weeks and months.
“Fred really enjoys playing with him for Brazil,” says Vickery. “Fred has played very well for Brazil and can offer a lot more than he sometimes has at United. He’s maybe too unselfish for his own good. He can do a lot more but because United have been going through such transition, he’s had to do a lot of ‘carrying the piano’ and not a lot of playing it. With the lung power that he’s got, he could certainly be running forward more and I’d expect Casemiro to facilitate that. There could be some parallels with what Thomas Tuchel did with N’Golo Kante at Chelsea; rather than just holding in midfield, he had him running with the ball, committing defenders and then slipping passes through and creating space that way.
“I think United could do something similar with Fred. Casemiro has a good understanding with him already and you know which of the two will do what: Casemiro will hold, Fred can go up and back. They’ve played together a lot; we’ve just had 18 World Cup qualifiers and two Copa Americas in a three-year cycle, so they’re well used to each other.”
Whatever the composition and tactical approach of United’s midfield under Erik ten Hag, it seems certain that the Dutchman has secured a new core for the early years of his Old Trafford reign. With Casemiro at the foundation, the rebuild looks rock-solid.
This feature was first published in the Arsenal edition of United Review, our official matchday programme.