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Manchester United’s Brazilian revolution is taking flight

Casemiro is the fulcrum upon which United’s success this season is built around

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 30 January 2023 10:33 GMT
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Erik Ten Hag post United's 3-1 FA Cup win over Reading

Erik ten Hag thought of the Manchester weather and shrugged. “It’s no Copacabana, eh?” he said. Definitely not, but, instead of the Rio de Janeiro beach, there was a Brazilian party of sorts on the more sodden turf of Old Trafford. Antony got his first assist for Manchester United. Fred scored with a backheel flick; for half a second of his career, if no more, he looked the heir to Ronaldinho. Casemiro scored a double that, for those who remember previous flagship South American signings, brought him level with Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria on four United goals.

Three days earlier, as Lisandro Martinez had defended with characteristic verve in the 3-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, United supporters had chorused “Argentina”. A few days later, perhaps they should have been singing the name of the other South American superpower. As Reading were beaten, all three United goals came from Brazilians, along with the first two assists. Even the other came from a native Portuguese speaker, in Bruno Fernandes. It would be an exaggeration to stay there is Samba-style in the shadow of Salford Quays when two are essentially defensive midfielders and one a winger who did not create a goal in his first 20 appearances for United.

But if a Brazilian influence feels more pronounced, it reflects the ubiquity of Casemiro. Antony still looks overpriced and Casemiro feels he is underappreciated. “I wanted to give him a bit of love as the pass was magic,” said the midfielder after the winger set up his first goal. Fred can be a cult hero, but is no longer a first choice. Casemiro is the cornerstone, at risk of either drowning in the Mancunian rain or praise.

Casemiro is leading the Baazilian revolution at Old Trafford (REUTERS)

“He had such a massive impact,” said Ten Hag. A manager who can qualify his praise of other players by invariably demanding more was happy to eulogise Casemiro. “If you see his performances in the last years for Real Madrid, that is magnificent. They play in such a high level, they win four or five Champions Leagues. The first one, I think, who was always in the starting 11 was always Casemiro for every manager at Real Madrid.”

Curiously, the caveats came from the beaten manager. Paul Ince occupied Casemiro’s role three decades ago. He was a stalwart of a transformative team who raised standards. “When you play for United you’re not based on what you do against Reading or Leicester or Southampton,” he said. “You base it on what you do against [Manchester] City, maybe Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea. Winning titles, that’s what you base it on. As much as he scores against us, it doesn’t mean anything as a midfield player. It’s important you have someone who can go against a big gun and perform the way he did today.”

Casemiro’s United career thus far – plus his efforts for Brazil and Real – suggest he will pass the Ince test. He could win their first trophy for six years within the next month. Unlike some of their other marquee buys, he seems to have bought into United. “I’m enjoying every moment like a 15-year-old kid,” he said. “When you arrive at a new club, you always dream of making history.”

Casemiro is lighting it up at Manchester United (PA Wire)

United’s recent history includes a summer-long pursuit of Frenkie de Jong. Casemiro proved the deluxe and very different alternative; less the purveyor of perpetual possession than the purposeful figure, the driving force. A rare area where he scores relatively lowly on the statistics is for pass completion rate. Predictably, he rates highly for defensive actions, and Joao Palhinha is the only regular to average more tackles per 90 minutes in the Premier League.

The surprising element may be his scoring and creating statistics. “We know he’s a great player,” Ten Hag said. “In Madrid’s midfield with [Toni] Kroos and [Luka] Modric it was great. I think he’s capable, you see offensively he enjoys it. What I like is dynamic football with variations, many position switches.”

That may be his version of total football. Clips have surfaced of a 13-year-old Ten Hag asking Johan Cruyff questions and the most celebrated Dutchman of all remains an influence. But Ten Hag’s United are less motivated by possession than the City of Cruyff’s disciple, Pep Guardiola. Casemiro feels more pragmatist than purist, the man who did the dirty work so Kroos and Modric could pass the ball, but he has been liberated with the licence to get forward more.

At United he has the air of a throwback to the era of tough midfield all-rounders who could do every aspect of the job. Ince had cited Roy Keane and Bryan Robson as the men who set the standards. “I felt that United had lost their presence,” he said, arguing United are regaining it under Ten Hag. “Go back to the Fergie years, that’s what it was, the presence of players.” And for now, Casemiro appears the biggest presence on the pitch for United.

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