Casemiro at Manchester United – what happened?

Carl Anka

In the late summer of 2022, Manchester United needed a midfield hero.

Casemiro answered the call.

“Tell them, I’ll fix this,” was the message the Brazilian sent to his agent having watched United’s 4-0 defeat to Brentford on August 13, and after confirming a deal worth up to £70million ($87m) with Real Madrid a week later, he became integral to Erik ten Hag’s first season in England. The following January, United manager Ten Hag described Casemiro as “the cement between the stones”, highlighting the importance of his defensive work, organisational skills and leadership.

Suspensions took some gloss off an impressive debut campaign, but the five-times Champions League winner with Madrid became a cheerful and beloved fighter at the heart of United’s retooled midfield along with fellow summer 2022 signing Christian Eriksen.

Going into this season, the assumption was that Casemiro would continue to be one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League. Here was a player who rarely got injured, offered his team something in both penalty areas, and worked well at shuttling the ball between those boxes.

Yet Casemiro’s second year in English football has been confounding, and marred by injury and institutional dysfunction. The cement between the stones is struggling to hold together a structure that is crumbling around Ten Hag.

I think Casemiro’s legs have gone,” said leading Sky Sports pundit and former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher of the 32-year-old Casemiro to the Covering Liverpool podcast in October.

One way to illustrate the changes in Casemiro’s form and function is to chart his in-possession and defensive metrics for the past five seasons.

Here’s what the above smarterscout image is telling you:

  • Since joining United, Casemiro has been more of a progressive passer, taking it upon himself to launch attacks, whereas at Madrid he delegated to Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. According to data from Opta, the proportion of his passes that go forward has risen from 27.6 per cent in his final season in Spain (2021-22) to 38.5 per cent in this one — although his progressive passing this season is not as accurate as in 2022-23.
  • A byproduct of this increase in progressive passing is a drop-off in his link-up play — the short five-yard passes to Madrid team-mates have been replaced by 10-yard switch passes out wide to Marcus Rashford or adventurous through balls for Bruno Fernandes to chase.
  • Casemiro’s more aggressive passing style in England comes at the cost of his previously above-average ball-retention skills. His long passing accuracy has reduced this season, from 76.1 per cent in his final year in La Liga down to 52.9 per cent in 2023-24. Last season, the Brazilian’s below-average ball retention was a necessary evil; while Casemiro was entrusted to collect the ball from the centre-backs, he had difficulties turning to face the opposition goal when pressured and could lose possession easily. He would make up for this through his impressive counter-pressing (winning the ball back quickly after the opposition has taken it away) and long passes to set up lucrative counter-attacks for United.
  • This season, however, Casemiro doesn’t have the tackling success to bail him out, and he is losing possession more with overambitious, erratic long passes in an attempt to create more counter-attacking situations. The 2-0 victory against Everton in early March saw him lose possession six times in the opening 20 minutes out of a desire to make things happen. Kobbie Mainoo, then 18, eventually asked his midfield colleague to slow things down and take greater care of the ball.
  • Casemiro’s defensive responsibilities have remained high across the five seasons (look at his scores for ‘defensive intensity’ in the bottom left). Whether for Madrid or United, he is entrusted with applying pressure and doing the majority of his side’s defensive actions in midfield.
  • However, the result of all this effort has dropped significantly this season (look at the sharp drop in defensive impact), as he struggles to stop players from progressing past him as well as he used to.
  • The drop in the number of tackles, fouls, interceptions, and blocks he makes (the bottom right graph) demonstrates this more clearly. Casemiro has been dribbled past this season and exploited more by opponents. This is a problem for the side’s defence and attack. As he is no longer an effective counter-presser, United are leakier in and around their penalty area and less likely to work the ball towards the opposition’s one.

So that’s the data side. But what about the context?

All iterations of Casemiro — even the savvy defensive operator from the 2021-22 Champions League final against Liverpool in Paris — would find it difficult to thrive in the maddening midfield of present-day United. 

One of the reasons behind these difficulties can be found in Ten Hag’s intention to turn them into a transition-based team. Mason Mount was signed last summer from Chelsea to play ahead of Casemiro and operate as a “free No 8” in what would be a 4-1-4-1 shape when United looked to attack or regain possession high up the field.

But United’s opening Premier League game of the season, against Wolverhampton Wanderers, revealed some design flaws in that plan. Mount’s forays into the final third left too much space for Casemiro to cover as a single defensive pivot. The South American appeared caught in two minds on numerous plays, unsure whether to join Mount in an ambitious (but largely ineffective) front press or to hold his position shielding the back four. Sky Sports’ Gary Neville said Casemiro was “absolutely torn to shreds” by the runs of Matheus Cunha, Mario Lemina and other Wolves players through central areas.

This indecision worsened throughout games during the first half of the season, with Casemiro attempting to take up more advanced positions only to find himself unmoored when United lost possession. His defensive positioning — so important to helping United defend against cutbacks in 2022-23 — had gone awry and he lacked the physicality and intensity that made him so formidable in previous seasons.

Yet, he remained a deceptively dangerous goalscoring threat — as seen in his two late goals against Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage in September.

The most memorable Casemiro image from that game, however, came during a seven-minute period in which he was outmanoeuvred by Jamal Musiala on three occasions…

The midfield trio of Fernandes, Eriksen and Casemiro — who had been so important to Ten Hag’s first season — were ill-equipped for the physical and tactical challenge of facing Bayern. Casemiro spent much of the game in Munich lurching from one defensive crisis to another, attempting to plug too many holes in a porous middle.

If Casemiro was to continue in Ten Hag’s first-choice XI, he would need greater support from team-mates.

Unfortunately, a continued United injury crisis and an ill-suiting deputy in late-summer loan signing Sofyan Amrabat have limited Ten Hag’s abilities/appetite — delete as you see fit — to make drastic changes to the midfield.  As such, Casemiro’s erratic form continued into early October — his red card in the Champions League home game against Galatasaray offered another example of the problems he and United encountered as a group.

The fateful sequence starts with goalkeeper Andre Onana receiving a pass from defender Victor Lindelof.

Onana fires a hospital pass up the middle of the pitch towards Casemiro, rather than play to the available Raphael Varane (the free United player at the top of the above screenshot).

The pass is intercepted by Dries Mertens, gifting him a presentable chance on goal.

Casemiro retreats in an effort to spare Onana’s blushes, but is too rash in his challenge, giving away a penalty and getting himself sent off. Galatasaray scored against the 10 men to win the game, 3-2.

A younger Casemiro might get to Mertens in time to make a cleaner tackle. A less-panicked Casemiro surely opts against making a tackle and tries his best to put the forward off. Or perhaps a better-constructed and more confident United team don’t have their goalkeeper attempting dangerous passes to the defensive midfielder when other options are available.

Four days after Casemiro’s dismissal in the Champions League, Ten Hag removed him at half-time for Eriksen in a 2-1 home victory over Brentford, citing a need for “more football”. A muscular injury sustained a week later then saw him miss over two months and 17 games as United went out of the Champions League after the group stage and slid down the Premier League table.

But while Ten Hag spent much of December urging patience from fans, believing the Brazilian’s return would bring some stability to United’s midfield, no one player can remedy a tactical system content to give up so many shots per game.

Teams can easily bypass United’s narrow front press, while an overambitious midfield set-up based on man-marking opposition players has been exploited multiple times. Casemiro’s midfield partners have lacked either the physicality to dominate their defensive duels (Eriksen, Mount, Amrabat and, to a lesser extent, Mainoo) or the technical ability to receive and pass the ball under pressure (Scott McTominay). United’s lack of intensity when retreating on the defensive transition also increases the amount of space Casemiro has to cover.

In the screenshot below, Mainoo (No 37) and others are so far advanced that Casemiro (No 18) has too big an area to cover if the ball is played in behind…

His diminished physical capacity due to age/injury also means he has greater difficulty when executing the steadily increasing list of duties asked from a modern No 6, his poorer-than-previous ball retention exacerbates United’s problems when building out from the back and his lack of tackling and counter-pressing mean he does not contribute in the most important transitional moments.

Last season’s Casemiro had the defensive skills to bail out team-mates in the event of careless errors; this season’s Casemiro needs greater protection from those around him to help him recover from his own mistakes. In 2023-24, there have been repeated instances of him coming onto the ball in advanced areas — only to panic upon realising he is being pressured by opponents.

Take this instance against Everton last month, where Casemiro finds himself the target of James Garner (seen immediately left in the picture) and Abdoulaye Doucoure (on the right).

He attempts an unconventional pass to avoid Doucoure, but he is off-balance in shape and team-mates are unsure of who he is trying to get the ball to.

This inadvertently sets up Beto on a breakaway, carrying the ball into United’s half against two centre-backs.

This is not to say Casemiro is United’s biggest problem.

He has spent the majority of the season either injured himself or playing in a starting XI affected by injuries. Seven yellow cards and one red (across 27 appearances in all competitions) suggest a man struggling to cover the space he’s been assigned to patrol, with limited help from the attackers ahead of him and the rotating cast of defenders behind.

The “invisibility cloak” Spanish newspapers claimed Casemiro wore to do football’s dirty work no longer works. As has his previously robust bill of health: he was unable to play for Brazil in the March international break due to another hamstring injury, with reporters in his homeland concerned their national-team captain is struggling to maintain form and fitness.

“It’s difficult. This is the point that bothers me most about not fighting for titles,” he told ESPN Brazil after United’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool on April 7. “Being 20 points behind first place. Sometimes, I can’t even sleep.”

This season will be the first in Casemiro’s 11-year career in Europe when his club will not finish in the top four of their domestic league. He is no longer the axe that clears the forest but a blunt tool unable to control the outgrowth.

But before the FA Cup semi-final against Coventry City last weekend, Ten Hag was again supportive of Casemiro.

“I think we needed the (No) 6 when I arrived here, and last season Casemiro was fantastic. I don’t think he ever scored so many goals as well but as a No 6, as a holding midfielder, as a strategist, he was so important,” Ten Hag said.

“This season, he struggled with some bad injuries, which he never had in his career, but I know he is such a winner. I trust he will give us also this success and I know he will need games — he will be better and I’m very confident about him. He is a fighter, a personality, and a very important player.”

Casemiro is indeed a winner, but he — and others — are likely to find it difficult to meaningfully contribute to United’s six games between now and the end of the season. Ten Hag’s much-talked-about principles and routines have come undone by an injury crisis that has forced many square pegs into round holes. This includes Casemiro, who had to play that Wembley semi-final and Wednesday’s 4-2 league win against Sheffield United at centre-back due to five defenders being unavailable.

The central midfield Ten Hag has attempted to revamp in back-to-back summers will need further work in the next window. And if United decide to move on from the Brazilian, it will be at a financial loss: they are unlikely to find a suitor to match the money they paid Madrid for his services, while his wages – thought to make him one of the highest-paid players at the club – make him prohibitively expensive.

If Casemiro remains at the club, Ten Hag will have to adapt his tactical approach. It would mean a less aggressive and chaotic counter-attacking style to reduce the amount of space he has to cover — or they’d need to buy a younger, more mobile midfield partner who can play with or instead of him.  

Casemiro has tried his hardest to live up to his vow to fix things at United but only managed a year of high performance in strenuous circumstances. The next season cannot be a repeat of this one.

(Top image: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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