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Tactical Analysis: Casemiro gives Erik Ten Hag tactical flexibility

The Brazilian midfielder can’t do it all, but he can do most things...


This past summer The Busby Babe staff were asked to write what Manchester United needed to address in the summer transfer market. My first four needs were all various different types of central midfielders to compensate for what United just lost (in Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba), the skillsets their current players lacked, the fact that various combinations just didn’t work, and that they would need some depth. My priority was they needed not so much a defensive midfielder, but a player who could move the ball from deep and stay home in his position to protect the back four.

United responded by signing Christian Eriksen and Casemiro. The latter of which is a defensive midfielder extraordinaire, but not so much a deep ball mover. We’ve all seen that picture of Real Madrid pushing Casemiro high up the pitch to get him out of buildup while Toni Kroos and Luka Modric dropped deep to handle those responsibilities. Eriksen is an attacking midfielder who can play deeper, but lacks the long-range passing Pogba had in that spot while still bringing the defensive liability of sometimes just not tracking runners the way Pogba would(n’t). Add in the fact that both players are on the wrong side of 30 (one of whom with a massive health condition) and you’d be forgiven for thinking United still seemed a little... light in midfield.

After spending six seasons watching two different managers (Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - it’s still unclear if Ralf Rangnick was asking anyone to do anything) ask Pogba essentially ‘do everything,’ take the ball off the center backs and be their long range midfield passer ala Michael Carrick, be their box to box number 8, be the midfielder who makes late runs into the box, and judge him based on statistics you would expect from a number 10, I ask for forgiveness in making the naive assumption that Erik Ten Hag did not adequately replace those traits, let alone add more of them.

Erik Ten Hag is a smart man. He knows that one midfielder should not be tasked with having to do all these different things. He knows that most midfielders can’t do most of these things, but he also knows that they don’t have to. If a midfielder struggles at what is traditionally a ‘midfielder’s task’ you can have someone else, like a fullback, do it! Put players in roles where they’re tasked to do the things that they’re good at, get others to help in other areas, and good things will follow.

Manchester United have only played 10 Premier League games this season, and their tactics have already varied wildly, but we’re now starting to see what Ten Hag is building. Ten Hag’s system that is taking root comes from United being able to be a lot more tactically flexible, and that tactical flexibility is all coming from Casemiro.

Prior to Casemiro’s arrival Erik Ten Hag was setting Manchester United up in the 4-2-3-1 with very similar roles to what you were used to seeing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The midfield was made up of Scott McTominay in the more box-to-box role with Christian Eriksen being the one tasked pushing the ball forward and progressing it to the attacking players. Bruno Fernandes played as a number 10 who was in charge of creating further up the pitch. The basic idea was, defense moves the ball to Eriksen, who pushes it forward to Bruno in positions where the forwards can be their most dangerous. It’s a combination that set up United’s winner against Arsenal.

As expected, this setup put way too much responsibility on Christian Eriksen. Not that Eriksen couldn’t handle it, but it’s hard for a team to be successful if you’re so reliant on one player. If Eriksen didn’t have a good game, neither did United. What would happen if Eriksen wasn’t available? United don’t have anyone else with his skillset that could play in that role. Not to mention an Eriksen-McTominay pair is not the most defensively solid pair with both players having the tendency to not track runners among some other poor defensive traits.

Enter Casemiro. A player who does one thing (that United were lacking) extremely well, but also has elements of the two midfielders who departed United last summer baked into his game.

To put it politely, the Brazilian got off to a slow start at Old Trafford. To be more blunt, he was flat out bad in his first five or so appearances. Plenty of factors go into that, learning a new league, new language, new coach, setting in a new country, etc. All those reasons are fair, but there’s another more simple explanation. His first few appearances he was being used interestingly.

Casemiro’s first four Premier League appearances came off the bench and in three of them he partnered Scott McTominay in midfield while Christian Eriksen pushed up higher. In possession, Casemiro seemed to be taking on the role of the player taking the ball off the back four and moving it forward. This isn’t his game and he greatly struggled.

Similar to Nemanja Matic, Casemiro is a player who can make a pass and passes through the lines quite well. He’s also not a good enough passer for you to want to rely on him to be a passer. This needs to be mitigated as you still want Casemiro to be your deepest midfielder.

You don’t need to be a high level coach to figure out United’s structure when building up from the back. They do the same thing every time and everyone and their mother has figured it out. We’ve seen Brighton,


and Newcastle (among others) all sitting on that ball out to the deepest midfielder.

It was no surprise that right from the jump against Chelsea Graham Potter had Pierre Emerick Aubameyang sticking to Casemiro like glue to cut off that pass.

With your deepest midfielder not being particularly great in this area of the game, and opposing teams sitting on him, you have to figure out another way to move the ball up the pitch. Enter the fullbacks.

As the season has progressed, United have put more and more of ball progression responsibility onto their fullbacks. It starts with Lisandro Martinez, who has many great on ball qualities but none might be more important than his patience. If a pass isn’t there, he doesn’t force it. He’ll take his time, he’ll walk with it a bit. That allows the fullbacks to tuck inside and find of pockets of space to receive passes, turn, and progress the ball up the pitch.

Against Newcastle United’s best chance of the match came from a Martinez pass to Luke Shaw who had tucked inside to find a pocket of space to receive a pass.

Against Chelsea, Shaw and Dalot had the second and third most progressive passes with six and five respectfully. Last week against Spurs Dalot lead the team with five progressive passes.

Just like that the biggest question mark regarding Casemiro has been taken care of, leaving Ten Hag free to now use Casemiro to his most effectiveness.

For years United fans have been crying out for a defensive midfielder so they could effectively play a 4-3-3 formation (I’m still not sure why United are so desperate for this. Why would you want Bruno as a no. 8?).

Casemiro’s introduction to the starting XI has allowed United to change their shape, not to a 4-3-3 but to a 4-1-4-1.

There’s multiple benefits to this. The first is that - in possession - it allows Bruno Fernandes to continue playing as more of a number 10 off the shoulder of the striker, his most effective position.

As United are building play up, the 4-1-4-1 formation allows the second midfielder, Eriksen or Fred, to push higher up the pitch and eliminate any buildup responsibilities they had. That’s important as Eriksen is an attacking midfielder at heart, you want him on the ball further up the pitch. Meanwhile Fred is awful in the buildup phase, you want him nowhere near that.

More importantly is it lessens the importance of each individual player, giving United the ability to rotate between Fred, Bruno, and Eriksen. Any combination of those players in the second midfield and number 10 spot can be effective. In other words, United are finally equipped to rest Bruno for a game or so, and now can be less reliant on a 31 year old with a heart condition.

There are more added benefits to the 4-1-4-1. The formation allows United’s forward line to push up higher when defending. Much higher. So much higher that United’s formation almost looks more like a 4-1-0-4-1 with a massive gap between the back five and the front five.

As you can see here Casemiro isn’t even in the frame.

And when Chelsea finally hoof the ball long and United take over, just look at how far back Casemiro was.

Usually you would not want your team to play with such a gap in the middle of the pitch. United can get away with it because, as some would say, Casemiro is “a cheat code.”

Casemiro is an engine that does not stop moving and can cover a ton of ground. Players that manage to dribble past Casemiro should savor the memory, because it’s unlikely to happen again.

More importantly than any of that is Casemiro’s feel for the match. He knows when to charge in to win the ball back.

but he also knows when to sit back and just delay things, to allow your teammate to track back and win the ball back.

Casemiro is more than happy to let United’s front five do all the hard work before swooping in to recover the ball and start United’s next attack.

A few weeks ago we spoke about the purpose of pressing is to win the ball back within five seconds of losing it, as this is when you catch the opposing team out of their shape. Casemiro is a bit weaker against a set defense, but he absolutely shines in those first few seconds after a turnover - making that first pass to launch United’s attack. When you can quickly push the ball forward, you catch your opponents out of position and leave them vulnerable. If you take a few seconds to gather yourself and play a safe pass, you let the defense reset and negate the advantage you just gained.

Casemiro’s ability to read the game is what lead to perhaps my favorite Casemiro sequence so far. It’s a sequence that immediately reminded me of something Pogba did against Liverpool in 2019 in the way they both started the sequence and ended it with a header in the box, without doing anything extraordinary. They each do very simple things very well, then recognize an opportunity and take advantage of it.

It starts with Casemiro recognizing how Everton are closing down Christian Eriksen and immediately makes a small move to present himself for a short pass but crucially right between the lines. Once he gets the ball he turns to face the goal, but instead of quickly playing it out wide, he takes a touch towards the defender, just enough to put him on his heels and open up a better angle to play it wide to Rashford.

Once he plays the ball he continues to move forward. He quickly realizes that the central midfielder is going over towards the flank and Alex Iwobi on the back side isn’t picking him up. No one is marking him so he simply continues his run right into the box!

Casemiro knows when to make these runs into the box. In a limited amount of games, he’s already gotten on the end of about three of these types of chances. He’s going to miss most of them because he’s a midfielder and headers are difficult but he’s already scored on one. That’s already a pretty good return!

That’s not the only thing Casemiro has done this season that’s made me think of Pogba. Remember Pogba making a first touch pass from midfield to pick out a run from Martial out of nowhere?

Casemiro has that vision too!

Casemiro brings all those lovely skills to the table but his introduction to the starting XI has already had a quantifiable benefit for United.

Now of course we have to start with the obvious disclaimer. United have played four games with Casemiro in the starting XI and six without him. These are VERY small sample sizes, so there’s no definitive takeaways here. However, given that the matches he’s started in came against Everton, Newcastle, Spurs, and Chelsea - three of whom are not just in the top five in the table but in the top five in xG differential aka very good teams, it’s hard not to get the sense that there’s *something* here.

There are already tangible measuring points to how United are playing differently since Casemiro entered the starting XI. After the horrors of the first two games this season, Erik Ten Hag had United dropping deeper defensively than they had over the past six years. United were letting teams freely get into their penalty area before making a barrage of tackles, blocks, and all kinds of defensive actions to prevent you from scoring.

Now I’m going to throw a bunch of numbers at you. Per MarkStats Since Casemiro entered the starting XI United’s defensive line height has jumped from 38.17 in the first six games, to 42.5. The amount deep completions (passes completed within 20 yards of the opponents goal) they’ve allowed has dropped from 10 per game to 9. The field tilt has jumped from 46.07 to 60.13. Over the first six games of the season 60.19 percent of United’s tackles came in their own third, over the last four games that number is 48.61. They went from making 38.37 percent of their pressures in their own third to 26.84. They’ve gone from allowing 15.86 shots per match to 8.5 and are now blocking 32.35 percent of those shots compared to 27.93 percent.

Here’s the biggest number, the amount of “high turnovers” United force has only jumped from 4.29 to 5 but the amount of high turnovers that lead to a shot has risen from 0.43 to 1.75! Whether a turnover leads to a shot or not is heavily influenced by the first pass made after that turnover.

These numbers tell us a pretty clear story. United are now playing higher up the pitch. They’re moving from deep and very reactionary defending to much more preventive defending. It’s almost as if United have gone from defending their goal to defending their box.

Passes into the box have dropped from 11.29 to 7.50. Overall successful box entires have dropped from 18.57 to a much more respectable 12 (Fbref). United haven’t had splits like that since 2019-20 when Nemanja Matic played vs when he didn’t. What a coincidence, that’s the last true defensive midfielder United have had!

When you have a defensive midfielder who sits in front and protects the back four, the direct highway into your box disappears. Players can’t freely pick out passes between your center backs, it’s easier to support your fullbacks to prevent players from dribbling into the box. Most importantly, farther up the pitch your able to stop transitions that have easy box entries before they even start.

If there’s one issue here it’s that rather than United being too reliant on Christian Eriksen, they might now be too reliant on Casemiro. Whereas Ten Hag can rotate between Eriksen, Fred, and Bruno, who can come in and play Casemiro’s role?

Ten Hag used Scott McTominay as the deepest midfielder in the final minutes against Spurs.

But he also used him as a striker the next match against Chelsea.

Not to mention, we already know McTominay can’t do what Casemiro does. The question is, when Casemiro needs a break will Ten Hag simply try to plug someone into his role or will he tinker with the tactics to adapt to the players he has on the pitch? I asked this question the other day to The Busby Babe’s resident Ten Hag expert, Suwaid Fazal, and all he could muster up was “that’s a good question.”

The other risk of course, what if Casemiro’s legs start to go? He’s 30 years old with a lot of miles on him. That’s not a good recipe for a player who’s job is to cover a lot of ground. If that happens in the next few years his financial cost could become a big burden.

That if may always be in the back of your mind, but for now, United are greatly benefitting from getting exactly the player they needed.