How Casemiro turned Manchester United around

    The new manager did not like the attitude that his team were showing at the beginning of his second match in charge, which took place in 32C heat in August. “It’s way too hot to play football,” one of the players moaned. The new United manager was unimpressed. “Stop whining,” he yelled back at the player from the touchline.Everything that happened that day – from the episode with the moaning player to the way in which his team collapsed to a 4-0 defeat – reinforced what Ten Hag had suspected about United when he was asked for his observations on the squad during discussions with the chief executive Richard Arnold, the football director John Murtough, the technical director Darren Fletcher and club owners the Glazer family before he was offered the manager’s job.“The mental toughness was very low,” Ten Hag said of United last season, in a recent interview with Voetbal International. “The fighting spirit wasn’t there. To get that in the dressing room, you need personalities.“That’s why the purchase of Casemiro was so important.”The Brazil midfielder joined United in a pounds 60 million transfer from Real Madrid ten days after the Brentford defeat. In the 14 matches he has started since then, United have lost only twice, to Real Sociedad in the Europa League group stage and to Aston Villa in the Premier League.That winner’s mentality, the one Casemiro developed after winning five Champions League titles, was evident on Tuesday against Nottingham Forest when he sprinted to the left-back position, tackled Taiwo Awoniyi and started the move that led to United’s second goal.It was also evident when the 30-year-old was named man of the match for his performances against Newcastle United and Chelsea. “It’s a pleasure to work with him. The levels he brings to this team are huge,” Ten Hag said after the 3-0 win over Forest.In the nine seasons before Ten Hag took over, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, there have been some grim moments for United fans. Some poor performances in that time stick in your mind more than others, and one of those came during Louis van Gaal’s second season in charge, when he took his team to Arsenal.The Dutchman picked Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger, then 34 and 31 respectively, at the base of United’s midfield, and within 19 minutes, Van Gaal’s team were 3-0 down. All three goals came through the middle of the pitch. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez cut through United’s midfield with ease to inflict an embarrassing defeat on the visiting team.In fairness to Carrick, that would not have happened during his prime years, when he was surrounded by top-class midfielders such as Paul Scholes. After spending so much money on poor imitations like Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Nemanja Matic, United have, for the first time in the post-Ferguson era, a strong, combative midfielder who can protect the back four.In the eight Premier League matches that Casemiro has started, United have conceded only six goals. That is partly due to the performances of Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and David de Gea, but it is also clear that United’s defence is being tested less often thanks to the impact of Casemiro. On average, when the Brazilian starts, De Gea faces almost two fewer shots per game.United have conceded an average of 0.75 goals per league game when Casemiro has started this season. That number rises to two per game when he does not start. It would be wrong to highlight his impact purely in defensive terms, though. Much like his compatriot Fernandinho, the former Manchester City captain, Casemiro does not get enough credit for his passing ability. He is excellent at picking out the United full backs in the first phase of an attack and he moves the ball quickly, one of the edicts made by Ten Hag soon after his appointment.Casemiro has scored one goal, set up two – one more than Bruno Fernandes – and created 11 chances in 12 league appearances. His ability to create chances is admired by his midfield partner, Christian Eriksen.“I think people who watch football and play football know he can pass,” Eriksen said. “He has come here and really taken to the league in his own way. We are happy with that. It has been nice playing next to him. He gets you that extra space. If you lose the ball he will get it back, and he is very good on the ball as well.”It is fair to say that United probably paid over the odds for Casemiro – the fee could rise to pounds 70 million – and in an ideal world, they would have signed him five years ago, but for the next couple of seasons at least, they know that they will finally have one of the world’s best holding midfielders in their team. In terms of mentality, technical ability and physicality, there are few better players in his position.

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