Casemiro’s absence amid chaos underlines his enormous importance to Manchester United

Casemiro’s absence amid chaos underlines his enormous importance to Manchester United

The defensive midfielder’s job is supposed to entail preventing drama. Casemiro had been at the heart of it of late. His last four appearances have brought two goals, an assist and a red card. His last seven have included three assists and three bookings. Once of those cautions brought a ban.

And so Casemiro has missed two league matches through suspension in 2023 and they have finished 3-2 and 2-2. The last one he did not start in 2022 ended 6-3. If he offers entertainment on the pitch, perhaps he facilitates still more by not being on it.

Manchester United against Leeds United was chaos; wonderful, ultimately inconclusive chaos, ultimately ending in a 2-2 draw. It is easy to say that Erik ten Hag’s team would have won with Casemiro there to offer control and altogether harder to prove: but probably they would have started either half in such a way that they did not concede inside one and three minutes respectively.

“We lose all the battles in the first minutes of each half,” Ten Hag said. For him, they were a litany of errors; the sort, perhaps, that would have been avoided with a midfield enforcer. “First take your responsibility, deal with the ball,” lamented the manager.

“The first goal we are playing in the wrong formation, a wrong decision by one player and the second win your battles. It is not possible we concede the goals we did.”

Not with Casemiro, anyway. The problem of having a midfielder of such authority, arguably, is when United don’t have him.

Maybe not since Roy Keane have they had a presence with such an aura in front of their defence. If Keane’s United career was pockmarked by red cards and Casemiro arrived at Old Trafford with a remarkable record of ensuring one yellow card did not turn into two, the sending off for grabbing Will Hughes around the throat, or collar, may have already come at a cost.

A theory was that United could negotiate Leeds, a rematch with Leeds and Leicester without the Brazilian. An evening later, both Ten Hag and Bruno Fernandes had concluded United had dropped two points.

The statistical proof of Casemiro’s importance arrived after the whistle. When he starts a league game, United average 2.3 points per game and concede just 0.7. Take him out and they procure 1.4 while letting in 2.1. And if that may have been distorted by their troubled start under Ten Hag, it is nonetheless the case that United have lost five league games. Casemiro has only begun one of them, at Aston Villa.

The years before Casemiro was the era of McFred. United may now in the brief interegnum of Frabitzer, Fred and Marcel Sabitzer. That the Austrian’s first start for United came in Casemiro’s stead as the deepest midfielder made his a particularly unenviable task.

He was signed as the deputy for Christian Eriksen and the potential sidekick for Casemiro: tallies of 16 goals and 11 assists for Leipzig in 2019/20 show he has a more attacking bent. There were glimpses of such quality as his full debut brought three shots and no tackles, which may be instructive in itself. Casemiro, meanwhile, has made the fourth most in the division, despite not being a regular until October.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It is inherently unfair to compare Sabitzer to Casemiro, and not least because he was pressed into service as a No. 6 as Ten Hag does not seem to trust Fred there. The newcomer seemed to be caught ahead of the ball for Wilfried Gnonto’s first-minute opener but the secondary problem for United was the absence of Scott McTominay, the past scourge of Leeds and a man whose running power could have proved useful in the most breathless of games. Fred brought wayward running, wayward passing and a general propensity to contribute to the chaos. This was one of his almost inexplicably bad performances.

The compelling midfield double act was the American alliance of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams for Leeds. It helped that, while another loanee was also making his first start, they have experience together in the stars and stripes. They are two ball-winners, if perhaps neither with the class in possession of Sabitzer.

And given United have a rematch with Leeds on Sunday, perhaps they will have further reasons to rue Casemiro’s decision to grab Hughes and lament a red card Ten Hag still feels was wrong. Rather than being a spell when they could afford to lose the catalyst, it may prove a time when they cannot. These are games that call for his qualities.

“If you play a derby you need a different attitude,” Ten Hag said. “You have to start and be ready and take responsibility, win your battles and be composed on the ball.” And while he did not name Casemiro, he might have been thinking of him.