When Manchester United confirmed the €70 million signing of Casemiro from Real Madrid, he was hailed as “one of the best midfielders in world football” by football director John Murtough. Manager Erik ten Hag hinted he was some kind of missing jigsaw piece — “the cement between the stones” — and, unveiled ahead of the 2-1 win over rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford on Aug. 22, the Brazil international was given a hero’s welcome.
But more than six weeks on, Casemiro has played just 82 minutes of Premier League football. He is yet to start a league game for his new club and when Ten Hag picked the team to face Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, the 30-year-old was left on the bench.
As Pep Guardiola’s team tore through United with frightening ease to race into a 4-0 lead by half-time, the television cameras panned to the substitutes’ bench to show Casemiro and former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo wearing looks of bewilderment. There was some disbelief among United supporters, too, about how one of the most experienced defensive midfielders in the world could be allowed to watch such an important game — one that, in theory, would suit his strengths — from the sidelines.
Explaining his decision after the 6-3 defeat, Ten Hag said he wanted to keep faith with the team which had won four league games in a row following the disastrous start to the campaign against Brighton and Brentford, but the manner of the defeat implied he had got it wrong.
“On the day we signed him, we started to win and it’s about the team,” said the Dutchman. “The team is doing really well, it’s not against Casemiro. It’s for, in this case, Scott McTominay, he performed great in the team and then we get into a run. But I’m sure it will be important for us in the long and short-term. He [Casemiro] will find himself in the team but it has to come in a natural way.”
Ten Hag is set to make changes following the humiliating defeat to City and Casemiro is likely to start against Omonia FC for the Europa League tie in Cyprus on Thursday. But questions remain about why a five-time Champions League winner is having to wait for opportunities in the Europa League and is not already a regular in the first-choice XI.
It has led former Man United defender Rio Ferdinand to suggest Casemiro might already be regretting his decision to swap Madrid for Manchester.
“I wonder the impact it’s having on someone like him,” Ferdinand told his Five YouTube channel. “Yes, he’s experienced and whatnot, but he must be sitting there thinking, ‘wow, I’m feeling a little bit disrespected here, given what I’ve done.’ I’d be surprised if he’s not feeling like that.”
Some fans believe that Casemiro was never Ten Hag’s choice. It doesn’t help that of United’s five main summer signings, he is the odd one out in that he doesn’t have links to either Ajax or the Dutch Eredivisie. Lisandro Martinez and Antony played under Ten Hag at Ajax; Christian Eriksen, a former Ajax player, trained with the Dutch giants while he recovered from his cardiac arrest; Tyrell Malacia was signed from Feyenoord and would have been on Ajax’s radar last summer had Ten Hag stayed in Amsterdam.
Ten Hag was desperate for a No. 6-style midfielder and wanted another of his former Ajax players, Frenkie de Jong, but when the proposed €85m deal with Barcelona became too complicated, United turned their attention to Casemiro.
Sources have told ESPN that Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher were impressed with Casemiro’s desire to move, particularly set against De Jong’s reluctance to leave Barcelona, but while Ten Hag agreed to pursue Casemiro — United managers can veto any transfer they don’t agree with — the Brazilian is a very different player to De Jong, who wants to pick passes and carry the ball.
Moving between players with very different profiles has raised more questions about United’s transfer strategy and, more importantly, it suggests Ten Hag is still trying to work out what to do with his new midfielder.
“Every other club is really precise, you don’t see them pinging around like a pinball in the transfer market, from one to the other,” former United defender Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “It’s De Jong, to [PSG’s Adrien] Rabiot and then it ends up being Casemiro on a phenomenal contract that will cost the club £160m. When you’re desperate you pay over the odds, I suppose.”
Gab Marcotti and Don Hutchison debate whether Casemiro will suit Erik ten Hag’s style of play.
Those close to Casemiro insist his move to United was nothing to do with money and that he will only earn more than he was doing at Real Madrid if he can help the club get back into the Champions League. For that, though, he needs to be in the team and while Ten Hag says openly that it’s down to the player to prove he should be playing in the biggest games, Ferdinand believes his continued absence will also become an issue for the manager as well as the player.
“These are the subplots to what Ten Hag has to deal with,” the former England defender said. “This is what management is about, he’s got to manage that type of player, that type of ego, the pride that comes with these types of players.
“If you’re not playing, you’ll see a difference in the way they look at you now, and that’s what you’ve got to manage. He [Ten Hag] didn’t have those problems at Ajax with the players he had, he was very much in control, the master of the universe there. Here you’ve got big egos to deal with and this is the task when you come to a top club.”
Alongside Ronaldo and other players in need of a game, Casemiro is set to get a rare chance to impress in Nicosia this week, but the real test of his status will come when Ten Hag names his team to face Everton on Sunday.
It’s the type of game — fast and fierce, played in a hostile atmosphere at Goodison Park — that should suit a player with his experience and composure. But that was also true of the Manchester derby and Casemiro was forced to watch most of it from the bench.