Manchester United target Casemiro treats recoveries like goals and interceptions like assists

“The first thing I want to see after a game is how many recoveries or interceptions I have made,” Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro told Spanish magazine Panenka last February. “These are my numbers, my goals, my assists. Of course, everyone likes to score, to make a nice play, but my happiness comes in recovering the ball. That shows how much I have helped the team.”

Such a dedication to the trade of holding midfielder helps explain why the Brazil international moved to the top of Manchester United’s list of targets this summer after their unsuccessful attempts to sign Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona and Adrien Rabiot from Juventus.

Progress has been made in recent days and United are set to sign Casemiro in a deal worth an initial €60million (£50.8m, $60.5m), rising to €70m if all clauses and conditions are met.

If United are looking for a “No 6” who can protect the defense and also get moves started, there are few better in world football at reacting to danger and getting in the right position to thwart it.

That is not all Casemiro can do, but it is what he specializes in, and what he enjoys more than anything else…

At Real, Casemiro has generally played as the holder in a midfield three, with converted No 10s in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric either side. Their full-backs also often push on, and centre-backs from Sergio Ramos to David Alaba have liked to join the attack.

That system has worked pretty well. Casemiro has won 18 trophies at Real, including five Champions Leagues, most recently last season. But whoever has been holding the fort while attackers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Vinicius Junior have dazzled up top generally has had plenty of work to do — as a look at Casemiro’s smarterscout pizza chart shows.

Smarterscout gives players’ games a series of ratings from zero and 99. These ratings relate to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action (for example, volume of shots per touch), or how effective they are at it (for example, how well they progress the ball upfield) compared with others playing in their position.

The numbers show just how destructive Casemiro is — frequently hoovering up loose balls and blocking passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 92 out of 99), and regularly making defensive actions (eg tackles, blocks, clearances) per minute out of possession (disrupting opposition moves, 92 out of 99).

His defending intensity of 97 out of 99 is an extra feat while playing in a team as prone to occasional lapses in concentration as Madrid, and shows he is a very enthusiastic presser when the opposition have possession, often venturing deep into the opposition half in an attempt to win the ball quickly.

On his way to that fifth Champions League title last year, UEFA statistics had Casemiro joint-top for ball recoveries in the competition (76) and second for tackles attempted (31). A classic sight from Madrid games through recent years has been their No 14 sprinting back towards his own goal to dispossess an opponent who had broken between Madrid’s lines. Sometimes he wins the ball cleanly, sometimes not.

Of those 31 tackles in the Champions League, Casemiro won only 13 of them. This tallies with the smarterscout numbers suggesting he is not that effective in preventing the opposition from progressing further (defending impact, 44 out of 99). His duel ratings — which gives a rating of a player’s ability in a 1v1, adjusted for the strength of the opponent faced in those duels — also suggest a less than perfect tackling technique (38 out of 99). Often though, the point was getting there, and at least temporarily disrupting an opposition attack, rather than coming away cleanly with the ball.

“Most people don’t realize that games last 97 minutes, and a Real Madrid player is on the ball for an average of two and a half minutes,” Casemiro told Panenka. “Often we focus on those minutes and say — what quality, how well he played. The other 95 he is running, covering gaps, sprinting off the ball, helping. But people forget about the rest — if a crowd is needed to stop a counter-attack, cover a space, or oblige a team to play backwards. Sometimes this off-the-ball work is the most important.”

UEFA’s statistics also showed Casemiro suffered more fouls (18) than he committed (17) over the season. This points to another of his key skills — rubbing along well with referees. Fans of both his own team and opponents have often marveled at an almost supernatural ability to avoid yellow and red cards. It is a credit to his game intelligence and diplomatic skills that he has only been sent off twice (both times for double yellows) in 521 senior games of flying into tackles for club and country.

The one big blot on his disciplinary copybook is missing the 2018 World Cup quarter-final for accumulating yellow cards. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard revealed in the space as Belgium won that game 2-1. But that only underlined his importance to his national team and he will be a key lieutenant for Brazil coach Tite at this year’s World Cup.

It was perceived doubts over his technical qualities that meant it took Casemiro a while to really come to the fore for both club and country.

For a long period after arriving at Madrid in 2013 to play for their Castilla youth side, he was not really seen as a likely long-time successor to Xabi Alonso in the holding spot in the first-team’s midfield.

Carlo Ancelotti was happy for him to spend the 2014-15 campaign on loan at Porto. Rafa Benitez probably still regrets picking James Rodriguez alongside Kroos and Modric in a midfield three for an October 2015 Clasico that Madrid lost 4-0. It was only when Zinedine Zidane took charge of the first team in January 2016 that Casemiro finally got a regular starting spot.

Zidane saw the need for his physical and destructive qualities but did not encourage him to begin moves from the back. Casemiro is a different type of No 6 to De Jong, who thrived under Ten Hag at Ajax where he got the team moving, either by carrying the ball or setting off moves. Successive Madrid coaches have instead asked Casemiro to get out of the way so others like Kroos or Modric can do the playmaking.

“It’s true I do not feel like a Brazilian player,” Casemiro told El Pais in 2017. “Some players have quality, others magic, others hard work. No doubt I am the latter, maybe I look more like a European footballer than a Brazilian.”

Not being as good a playmaker as Kroos or Modric is no shame. The smarterscout numbers show that, on the ball, Casemiro will play it simple (link-up play volume, 70 out of 99) and also advance the play (progressive passing, 68 out of 99) with the attacking touches he has — keeping possession well (ball retention ability, 76 out of 99). In terms of advancing the ball into dangerous areas, his numbers show him to be about average for a defensive midfielder (xG from ball progression, 53 out of 99).

A rating of 73 out of 99 for shot volume shows he likes to have a pop from distance when given the opportunity. He scored in the 2017 Champions League final, with a deflected long-range effort which put Madrid 2-1 ahead and sent them on the way to victory.

He is also a big threat at set pieces — as shown by his duel rating of 62 out of 99 at set-play headers.

Thirty-one goals in 336 games in total for Madrid means he has found the net more times than either Kroos or Modric, having played fewer matches than either.

Madrid did not dismiss United’s interest in Casemiro earlier this week and it has not taken long for United to feel confident about signing the player.

Instead, Madrid have been thinking strategically about how the team will evolve. They have seen how the departures of Ramos and Raphael Varane 12 months ago did not cause any problems, instead allowing for the development of Alaba and Eder Militao as an excellent new partnership at the back.

The Bernabeu hierarchy’s midfield planning has been going on for a while now. Uruguay international Fede Valverde, now 24, has found a role as a player who covers huge areas of the pitch, not someone who holds the centre. Eduardo Camavinga, still just 19, showed tremendous promise during his first season at the Bernabeu but was not positionally or emotionally reliable enough to anchor the midfield.

Tchouameni before the weekend game against Almeria (Photo: Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Hence this summer’s decision to spend €80million on 22-year-old Aurelien Tchouameni, who many at the Bernabeu see as the team’s long-term future in front of the defence. Tchouameni has impressed a lot since his arrival, in pre-season games and especially at training.

The France international’s physical qualities have been as impressive as expected, but his technical ability has surprised. Inside observers have been especially taken with how quickly he has tuned into the same technical wavelength as Kroos, Alaba and Modric in the team’s creative hub. “Tchouameni could replace Casemiro, and offer them a bit more because as well as his great physical capabilities he has excellent technique too,” one source, who asked to remain anonymous due to his position at the club, tells The Athletic.

That may or may not have spurred Casemiro on during last week’s European Super Cup against Eintracht Frankfurt, where he was UEFA’s man of the match after an incredibly energetic performance, especially for a pre-season exhibition game. He made numerous eye-catching recovery tackles, while also rattling the Frankfurt crossbar with a shot from 20 yards.

A photo of Ancelotti chatting with Casemiro after that game was interpreted as the astute Italian being aware of all the talk about the Brazilian’s long-term future. This came while United were still looking at Rabiot, again a very different type of player and character, and well before they turned their attention to Casemiro.

Casemiro will also be well aware of the complexities of the situation. His primary duties on the pitch may be destructive, but he is a deep and innovative thinker about the game and his own role. He watches lots of games at home, where he uses the Wyscout analysis platform to study both rival teams and his own performances — including how many of his own type of goals and assists he has managed over this most recent 90 minutes. When asked before last season’s Champions League final which of his players he saw as future coaches, Ancelotti’s first response was “Casemiro”.

Ancelotti speaks to Casemiro after the Super Cup final (Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

This professionalism extends to looking after himself. At 30, he may have kept his cherubic chubby cheeks but he is among the fittest players at Madrid. His house also has a 100-metre square gym, fitted out with a hyperbaric chamber where he takes his siestas as part of a regime designed with his own personal fitness coach. This behavior was learned from other fitness freaks like Ronaldo and Ramos in previous Madrid dressing rooms, while more recently Casemiro himself has been a role model for younger players, especially fellow countrymen Vinicius Junior, Militao and Rodrygo.

“Casemiro has helped to change the image of the Brazilian player as lazy,” Rodrygo told Esporte Interativo in 2019. “He is always saying to me, ‘let’s go to the gym’, or ‘let’s use the ice chamber’. He’s a great inspiration.”

Such a positive influence on younger players will be of interest to United’s hierarchy, and also to Casemiro’s fellow Portuguese speakers currently at Old Trafford.

Casemiro may not be an exact fit for what Ten Hag wants from his No 6, and maybe an ideal solution for United would have been to get both him and De Jong this summer. But that is very unlikely to happen, and the Brazilian’s mix of ball-winning ability, tactical nous and professionalism — plus his relationship and partnership at international level with Fred — would make him a hugely valuable addition to the Old Trafford dressing room.

(Photo: Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


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