“There are lots of poets in football, but they don’t win many titles”Jose Mourinho, after beating Ajax in the Europa League final
One of Jose Mourinho’s deep catalogue of quips. It came after defeating a young Ajax team under Peter Bosz. Playing football the ‘right way’, as many would regard and they had a lot of admirers. The trajectory of both teams since that final has been differing, to say the least. Neither have those managers incumbent. It was the last trophy that Man Utd have won. Presently, the dark cloud that sits atop Old Trafford is thicker than anyone can remember for quite some time.
The man that came after Bosz is now the one who seeks to lift that cloud – Erik ten Hag. He brought back the dominance that the Amsterdam club once had over the Netherlands. In one of the best stories in the Champions League since Porto in 2004, he managed a fleeting Ajax team to within a kick of the Champions League final, if not for the boot of Lucas Moura. The 3 later seasons were not as successful in the premier European competition but the strongarm of the Eredivisie remained. Enough to convince The Red Devils to give him the job.
A tumultuous start to the Dutchman’s reign seemed to make the dark cloud thicker. Two defeats in a row to Brighton and Brentford, the latter particularly distressing, put him under immense pressure already. This couple with the lack of signings, it was looking more and more difficult.
Prior to the win over the arch rivals of Liverpool, a new signing auditioned in front of the crowd. From the reigning European Champions of Real Madrid, Carlos Henrique Casimiro, more commonally Casemiro, came out in his all black suit and tie attire. To the tune of £60 million, potentially reaching £70 million, with a bunker wage packet. When asked to describe the Brazilian, Ten Hag called him “the cement between the stones” A poetic way to describe a defensive midfielder steeped in the history of the most decorated and renowned football club in the land. So how exactly does Casemiro cement the Man Utd midfield?
A Misconception – Erik ten Hag’s Defensive Midfielder
It would be remiss to start with Casemiro when the summer has been steeped in a saga for another midfielder. One that is fully done now. Frenkie de Jong, once under the stewardship of Ten Hag, has been subject to an aggressive pursuit from Man Utd. An unsuccessful one.
De Jong is an archetypal Ajax player, technically assured and capable of not only playing multiple positions, but also roles. However, his time at Barcelona has been less than impressive. Assimilating into any midfield role has been quite difficult. Perhaps as De Jong’s best comes quite in contrast to what the philosophy of Barcelona is.
“He is a wanderer, an adventurer, he’s always on the move, like a shark. With the ball, often, but also without the ball.” ~ Erik Ten Hag, 2019Erik Ten Hag, describing Frenkie de Jong’s playing style in 2019
That above description is not one of a defensive midfielder. As much as De Jong does like the opportunity to pick up off the back line, there is more to that role. The positional sense and discipline to be employed when you are holding, for not only your other midfielders but your team mates, is integral. In that same interview where he called De Jong a shark, he said he decided to play with two 6s to compensate for De Jong’s proclivities. Weirdly enough, he tried De Jong alongside Donny Van de Beek, currently unable to get meaningful game time since he came to Man Utd. Both of them were earmarked to play the holding role funnily enough. Van De Beek was actually the one touted as being the best fit. It did not go in that way though because based on Ten Hag’s opinion…
“This goes to show that plans are just plans, the reality needs to want it as well. And in reality, Donny is also a player who likes to be on the move. For both Donny and Frenkie it is a strength.”
A grip of the midfield
It is quote that not only shines a light on the potential plans of Ten Hag with De Jong. It references his adaptability and pragmatism in changing tack when he feels something isn’t working, evident in the win over Liverpool. In my opinion, Ten Hag wanted De Jong next to Fred, mimicking the role of Lassa Schone in 2018/19. Would this have worked? I don’t believe so and Ten Hag would have likely pivoted away from this, as he did with Van de Beek and De Jong. He was lucky to have solutions in house at Ajax but would not have found that same comfort at United. How he would have worked this out is unbeknownst to me, working off the assumption that they would not have struck up a partnership.
Ten Hag also said that Schone would not be the ideal No.6 by himself as he needs someone dynamic next to him. But he was more complementary than Van de Beek was. Furthemore, even with the departure of all three, the composition of Ten Hag’s midfield has not changed much. Regularly cited as a disciple of Cruyffian and Guardiola football, the ex-Go Ahead Eagles and Utrecht man actually departs from the ideals of this playing style for more agricultural ways of playing.
His selection of defensive midfielders attests to that as much as anything. Schone, as mentioned before. Lisandro Martinez, a new signing for Man Utd this summer as a centre back, played there majorly in 2019/20. Edson Alvarez, another by trade centre back, took his role and stayed there for the duration of Ten Hag’s tenure. The Mexican and Argentine were even paired together at times in beginning of the 2019/20 season.
The Deception – Man Utd’s Midfield
They are not the defensive midfielders you would expect of a manager of his calibre. They are more focused on being able to break up play and play the ball simply. Perhaps Ten Hag saw Fred’s quote about his own style of play.
“I know I’m not the best player, not the most technical, but I give my blood and my life every time I’m on the pitch. As we say in Brazil, I carry the piano for the artists to play.”Fred, February 2022
But Fred’s negative penchants means he isn’t capable of playing that role. Fred works better pressing the ball carrier than he does holding position. Brighton’s second goal showed Fred’s capability in not knowing when to dive in. Alike De Jong, he is a wanderer and adventurer but more so in his play off the ball when the team is without possession.
Fred being chosen as the one to potentially be the holding midfielder shows more about the current options. Nemanja Matic left, meaning the departure of only natural defensive midfielder at the club for the last 5 seasons. Van de Beek’s lack of presence there has already been discussed. Eriksen, after the trial by fire at Brentford, confirmed as many would know, that he is not a number 6. The only other viable option is Scott McTominay. While Fred has his faults, his uses can come in handy.
The Scotsman on the other hand, has no redeemable qualities to play midfield at this level. All he is kicking the ball very hard towards goal and running with the ball into open space. He too would be best in box to box role. The pairing of himself and Fred was more to do with the team being unable to keep a defensive shape. Their energy allowed them to get across the big spaces we left on the pitch.
For the last three or so seasons, the aging of Matic’s legs meant that he was unable to provide the requisite cover as he once did. This alongside with the conundrum of Paul Pogba meant that picking a regular combination was always going to be difficult. The midfield area has seldom ceased to be a problem area at Old Trafford. From 2011 onwards, the club has wilfully ignored it and even when addressed, it has been done so poorly. In the cases where they manage to get close, they have failed to find that last piece. Since 2015, that missing piece has been a defensive midfielder and they have failed to address it. Until this summer at least.
The Solution – Casemiro
Plenty of false dawns have been cast on Old Trafford. However, the pedigree in which Casemiro has accrued with Real Madrid, surely this can’t be another. Funnily enough, Casemiro fits the mould of a defensive midfielder we have seen under Ten Hag than De Jong does.
Casemiro started out his career in Sao Paulo and came through the ranks at the same time as Lucas Moura, once chased by Man Utd and now of Tottenham Hotspur. In his formative years, he would frequent between centre back and defensive midfield, gaining valuable experience from playing in the backline but mainly patrolling the middle of the park. As so happens with younger players, form oscillates.
It did so negatively for Casemiro, criticised for attitude problems when benched again. Some managers even questioned his professionalism to keep himself in tip top shape. So, it was quite the surprise when the Madrid Castilla, then managed by the one and only Zinedine Zidane, came calling to take him on loan. He played well under the Frenchman and it earned him a move into the senior team. Such was his performance levels, Real Madrid made the deal permanent for £5m that summer. He continued in an understudy role during 2013/14 as Madrid would finally go on to win La Decima but he needed to play.
He would go to Porto on loan in the subsequent year and he performed extremely well, gaining even more admirers back home in Madrid. By the time he would get back, there would be a new boss. Carlo Ancelotti was replaced by Rafa Benitez. This did not stop the Brazilian from making waves to make himself a starter. Even so, Benitez erred on the side of caution by trying to fit in all the stars.
Having signed a season earlier, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos’ crude fit together made it difficult in a team with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric. Something had to give. It took an embarrassing defeat to Barcelona for the Benitez to realise that Modric and Kroos in a midfield two was not going to work. Benitez would lose his job but a mere month later and in stepped Zidane, the man who initially managed the man born in São José dos Campos.
Zidane knows all too well about how a defensive midfielder can be the lynchpin. His quote about Makelele being the engine of the gold layered Bentley almost seems tailor made for Casemiro. He not only allowed Kroos and Modric the freedom to focus more on the retention and progression side of the game, the protection he afforded to the backline was irrefutable. He became a staple of the 3peat Champions League winning Madrid side, with him scoring a goal in the 2016/17 final against Juventus.
The Brazilian is everything you want in a defensive midfielder: incredible in the duels; intelligently positioned to cut out passes; tremendous at cutting off teams in transition; competent enough on the ball to not be a pressing trigger. He is not the most couth on the ball as he looks to keep things simple. When you are able to provide such defensive benefits, concessions can be made. He has the ability to make those around him play better. Fred at international level is able to keep out the likes of Fabinho when he is alongside Casemiro. It now looks like a partnership Erik Ten Hag may lean upon for the majority of this season.
Of course, someone more progression in their carrying and passing would be better alongside Casemiro. United no longer have Pogba and even when they did have him, injuries saw to it that they saw far less of him. Someone of that ilk would be perfect and complete the defensive/central midfielder part of Man Utd. Ironically, De Jong would be the perfect dovetail. Ten Hag has shown a preference of defend first defensive midfielders and progressive partners. More with their dribbling than their range of passing though. De Jong’s ability to not only take it past people but speed effectively into open space is the crown jewel in his repertoire of ball playing.
Ryan Gravenberch’s integration into the team filled that hole. Slightly ahead of Alvarez, he would often take the ball and jinx past his opponents to commit more opponents to him and leave others in open space. He too could shift through the gears, with his height and build, and even had more of an eye for goal. Unfortunately, Bayern were already first on the scene for him.
It looks unlikely that another midfield signing will come alongside Casemiro. But it is imperative that United do not make the mistakes of yesteryear and rest on their laurels. The 4 time Champions League winner is 30 years of age and will eventually tail off. Making the best of these years are as important as anything else in the team. A complementary piece next to him must be paramount if Erik Ten Hag’s Red Devils want to see success in this near future.
Cement Between The Stones
This ending is quite poetic because by not getting De Jong and having to get Casemiro instead, we are more likely to see a rendition of Ten Hag that we saw before. The lack of resistance our midfield could provide against the likes of Brighton and Brentford clearly shocked him. So he sought to address this issue and perhaps rely on ball players in his backline, like with his Ajax 2020-22, to progress play that way.
In a way, defensive midfielders can be the managers of the pitch. It is the manager’s job to make 11 individual players function as a unit and often, you see the completion of a team when they put in the right defensive midfielder into their system. Fernandinho at Man City, Matic at Chelsea, Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich, Makelele at Chelsea, Mascherano at Liverpool, Kante at Leicester and Chelsea (in some way) and of course Casemiro at Madrid. They all connected the team together in their own way.
This team is not one piece away from completion, though. This is a task more than that. For both Ten Hag and Casemiro. They both have intimated they are ready for it and it is this that attracted them to Manchester. To restore the glory to Man Utd. This is one step to that restoration however. In getting Casemiro, Ten Hag is that bit closer to lifting the dark cloud off the club. Hopefully cementing them both in this history books of Manchester United.