Man United face Barcelona in the first leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off tie at the Camp Nou on Thursday evening…
In what has so far been a glittering career, Casemiro has not faced any other club as many times he has pitted himself against Barcelona.
The Manchester United ace has faced the Spanish heavyweights on 19 separate occasions, experiencing the buzz of beating one of world football’s greatest powerhouses nine times. He has also experienced the thrill of scoring against them, giving Real Madrid the lead in a thrilling El Clasico encounter back in 2017, even though they went on to lose 3-2.
But after lining up against Barcelona on 19 occasions in the famous white shirt of Madrid, Casemiro will find himself facing the La Liga giants in United colours this evening. After missing the Reds’ last two Premier League matches through suspension, the trip to Spain has presented the Brazilian with the chance to split his ban into two and return to the side, with the midfielder set to conclude his domestic ban against Leicester City at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Although United have avoided defeat in each of the last two games without their talismanic Brazilian, they have sorely missed him. His presence in midfield gives the whole team, as well as the supporters, a gigantic lift, such is the role he has played in transforming United’s fortunes this season.
After giving up in their pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, who is highly likely to start for Barcelona this evening, United switched their focus to Casemiroand acted swiftly to get a deal over the line. As sensible an addition as he was at the time, he was a different profile of midfielder to that of De Jong, though just about everyone who watched United last season knew a world-class defensive-midfielder was what the club needed most last summer.
But as good as the 30-year-old has been in giving United a destruction button in midfield this term, he has offered them so much more, most of which was unexpected. After the best part of a decade of sitting deep and giving the ball to either Luka Modric or Toni Kroos during his time at Madrid, allowing them to work their magic and carry the ball forwards, Casemiro has shown other sides to his game this season.
His ability to get on the ball and pick a pass has played a significant role in United’s transformation under Erik ten Hag. He has the ability to split defences wide open and he made that clear on his first Premier League start for the club, sticking out a long leg to win possession back off the toes of Alex Iwobi and then immediately play a through ball to send Cristiano Ronaldo through on goal to seal a 2-1 win over Everton at Goodison Park back in October.
As well as being capable of picking a pass, the Brazilian has also flexed his muscles in the attacking third of the pitch this season. He has nine direct goal contributions (goals and assists) to his name, a return that can only be bettered in the United squad this term by Marcus Rashford (28), Bruno Fernandes (13) and Christian Eriksen (11).
Therefore, the statistics prove that the former Madrid man, who is no stranger to experiencing the feeling of winning at the Camp Nou, is about much more than being just a defensive-midfielder who will mop up the danger and do the dirty side of the game. According to Xavi, however, Casemiro’s capabilities outside of that habitat are somewhat limited.
It was in 2018, at which time Xavi was playing for Qatari outfit Al-Sadd, when the Spaniard suggested that Casemiro was a limited player, implying that he is a defensive-minded midfielder and nothing else.
“Casemiro is super fast, but he has trouble with everything else as he has not worked on it,” Xavi told ESPN. “He has other characteristics, is more defensive, makes more tackles, covers more ground, but he does not dominate space-time. If you had started with Casemiro aged 12, 13, 15, then he would have that.”
Though players have the ability to show different sides to their individual game in different teams and different systems, Casemiro’s move to United has certainly proven he is not a limited operator. He has almost single-handedly transformed the Reds’ midfield and the way that they play as a collective.
While his main responsibility is to be the man that offers United grit and a defensive nous in midfield, he has shown that he is capable of offering so much more, certainly offensively with his wide range of passing and ability to chip in with a goal or two. And with that said, he will look to offer United some of that attacking thrust against Barcelona, opposed to just sitting deep and keeping a watchful eye on those running at him and the back-four behind him.
If he manages to impose himself on the game in an attacking sense, it will most certainly risk leaving Xavi with egg on his face.