The confidence is infectious
Manchester United are living again.
Four straight wins since returning from the World Cup, nine goals scored and none conceded with three different back four units. It wasn’t all pretty, but the team is vibing nonetheless with Erik ten Hag at the helm.
The standout performers over the recent wins are Marcus Rashford, Casemiro, and Luke Shaw, all three of whom found the net against Bournemouth. Rashford’s confidence stems from the good form he’s been in all season, expanding his game and reliably scoring important goals for club and country. Casemiro was finding form before the World Cup as well, but is truly established in his role now. As for Shaw, we’ve seen this level of play before, and he’s found it again at a really good time for United.
United have some tidying up to do after Tuesday’s win, with defensive errors nearly leading to goals for the Cherries, but for now they can delight in their wins as evidence of their progress. They’re beating teams they should beat, but they’re doing it without as much fuss or anxiety as we grew used to in 2022.
The new year is bringing new life, let’s hope it carries through these next cup ties against Everton and Charlton, and then the following big Premier League clashes with Manchester City and Arsenal respectively.
Good players do good things - Pauly Kwestel
When you take a step back and look at any season from a macro level, very quickly obvious segments of the season begin to form. There’s usually a moment that’s easy to mark as a bookend, an international break, a sacking, an injury, or a player returning from injury. After 17 games, it is now obvious there are two sections of this United season: “Before Casemiro” and “Since Casemiro.”
On the surface Casemiro’s inclusion in the starting XI doesn’t seem to be a major turning point. United weren’t doing too bad in the before Casemiro days, winning four and losing three - with the caveat being that sample includes those ‘first two games’ and the match against City. Things got a little rocky when Casemiro first came into the starting XI as United only won three of the next six.
We don’t need to take a deep dive - more of just a shallow dip - into the numbers to see why this was a turning point. Despite the four wins in a row, prior to Casemiro’s introduction to the starting XI, United’s non-penalty xG differential over that span was a very poor -0.27. Even if we take out the disastrous derby that number only goes up to +0.07, a number that is firmly mid table quality. United’s results weren’t exactly sustainable based on the performances they were putting out.
Suffice to say that has changed. It didn’t all happen at once, there are two noticeable waves in the numbers. You’re never going to believe this but the first thing that happened when United added a defensive midfielder - an elite one at that - was the defense suddenly got much better! In matches Casemiro has started United’s expected goals against has dropped from 1.3 per 90 to 0.73 while their actual goals against has dropped from 1.33 to 0.6. Almost all of the latter coming in the match against Aston Villa (you’ll never guess who started that match, and who captained the side! And they say forwards don’t matter for defense).
Fixing the defense is always an important step one. You can’t lose if you don’t concede goals. United have now kept eight clean sheets in the league this season (they kept a total of seven last year), and have used four different pairs of center backs in those eight games. It’s a lot easier to play center back when you have a defensive structure in front of you.
The next step is to fix the attack, United dropped points in three of Casemiro’s first six matches because they weren’t scoring enough goals. United’s xG in their first six games with Casemiro in the team was a paltry 1.03. Over the last four games that’s jumped to 2.28!
Of course all of these are very small sample sizes. That xG number is going to come down but overall things are trending in the right direction. It’s also not all down to Casemiro. Returning from the World Cup by playing the 15th, 18th, and 19th placed teams in the table has very much helped, as has Anthony Martial’s return to the starting XI.
When you see number discrepancies like that, the first question you should ask is, why? Are these numbers just noise (as they sometimes are) or is there something this player is doing - or not doing - that’s playing a major factor here.
Some of these things pop up in the numbers. The number of tackles and interceptions he’s making are already off the charts.
Far more important are the things that don’t pop up in the numbers. Like Casemiro’s ability to lay on the perfect tactical foul to not only prevent counter attacks, but also escape without a booking.
Then there’s the fact that defensively, the man is a cheat code. His ability to cover ground and be just about everywhere gives United so much more tactical flexibility then they’ve ever had. With Casemiro at the base of midfield, Christian Eriksen is able to push higher up the pitch than Paul Pogba ever could when he played in the pivot. Getting your creative attacking players closer to goal is always a benefit.
But the biggest asset Casemiro brings in possession is his ability to look forward right away. When United’s forwards and midfield press, the one who recovers the ball is typically Casemiro. Those first few seconds when winning the ball back are so crucial to a pressing team. Casemiro’s ability to not only see passes through tight angles but play those passes with his first touch after recovery is massive for getting the attacking players the ball in places where they could be dangerous.
Manchester United have a MAN in central midfield. Erik Ten Hag has put some great principles into this team, but none of it works without Casemiro. When they put him out there with the good attackers, this team cooks.