Amid the chaos at Manchester United in recent weeks, Erik ten Hag could not have been clearer to the Old Trafford board in July about the importance of signing a holding midfielder for his team.
“We are looking for a player who can play in the holding midfield position but it has to be the right one,” he said. “There are not many in that position capable of the level we demand. When we can’t find him, we have to deal with the players in our squad now and we will develop one in that position.
“I will not react on a certain player. We need the right player. We have a list and we qualify as the player who has the competence to play that role. We will strike the moment the player is available.”
Ten Hag’s primary target for the role was Frenkie de Jong but talks with Barcelona stalled and attention has now switched to Real Madrid’s Casemiro, who is close to joining.
Despite the scattergun approach, the Brazil international would be an instant upgrade on the current options for United of Fred and Scott McTominay, possessing the quality and, most importantly for Ten Hag, the ‘competence’ to play at the base of the midfield.
The end of ‘McFred’
For too long, United fans have watched Fred and McTominay carelessly give the ball way, occupy the same space and leave an already fragile defence exposed.
While they cannot be blamed for three consecutive managers picking them, they are at fault for simply not being good enough.
But there are no such worries with Casemiro. At Madrid, he ably assisted midfield conductors Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and with his national team, he keeps out Liverpool’s Fabinho, who is widely considered to be one of the Premier League’s best in his position.
Against Eintracht Frankfurt in the UEFA Super Cup victory, Casemiro made nine tackles, which was the most by a Madrid player in a single match since October 2019, when he made 10 against Leganes. Since 2016-’17 in La Liga, Casemiro has made 1,338 ball recoveries, 554 tackles, 323 inceptions and won 1,456 duels.
Last season, he won 101 aerial duels, which given United’s struggles at set-pieces and lack of height, should make a big difference defensively.
“Fred gives the ball away all the time and McTominay is trying to run with the ball constantly and then gives it away,” Paul Scholes bemoaned after United’s opening weekend defeat to Brighton. “Pass it to your best players. It’s not that difficult. It’s criminal on a day like today.”
With Casemiro in the midfield, Ten Hag won’t have to worry about his holding midfielder abandoning their station and it means Christian Eriksen will not be pressed into collecting the ball off David de Gea like he was against Brentford. The Denmark midfielder is at his best in the final third and it was a mistake by Ten Hag is expose him to the relentless high press from Thomas Frank’s men.
Casemiro can anchor the midfield on his own, allowing Ten Hag to play Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes on either side of him. If Fernandes continues to struggle, the United manager can also play Eriksen in the No 10 position with Casemiro combining with Fred, as they do for Brazil.
In his two appearances so far for United, Eriksen has failed to create a big chance and provided no through balls to the attackers despite averaging 64.5 passes.
Between his debut for Tottenham in September 2013 and his exit in January 2020, Eriksen had the most assists (62), created the most chances (571), scored the most goals from outside the box (23) and from direct free-kicks (8) in the Premier League.
Although his passing is not expansive and game-changing, Casemiro always makes himself available to receive the ball and distribute it quickly. If he can move the ball onto Eriksen and Fernandes in space, it could unlock United’s stuttering attack.
Champions League masterclass
Thibaut Courtois quite rightly earned many plaudits for his performance in the Champions League final win over Liverpool in May.
But in his typically unassuming but combative style, Casemiro was just as impressive in snuffing out the threat of Luis Diaz, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah and the numbers reflect that.
Five out of five aerial duels won, six recoveries, won three tackles and made three clearances. Every time Liverpool tried to create combinations through the middle, Casemiro was there to see out the danger time and time again. It was a complete performance in the most pressurised environment.
Casemiro is by no means a flashy player but he is effective, disciplined, diligent and a team player. He has played in every minute of Madrid’s last four Champions League wins and it is possible to make the argument that they do not win them without him.
Casemiro won’t solve all of United’s problems and signing a 30-year-old for €70 million is a legitimate concern but he can be the first step towards Ten Hag imposing his vision and philosophy on a squad in desperate need of leadership.
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