Both players in the midfield pivot that has been at the heart of Manchester United’s renaissance this season, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen, will be unavailable to manager Erik ten Hag for the next three games.
Eriksen was ruled out until late April or early May last week after a horror tackle from Reading’s Andy Carroll led to a serious ankle injury.
Casemiro has added insult to injury by being sent off against Crystal Palace today for holding Will Hughes by the neck during a group altercation.
He will be banned for three matches for violent conduct.
The Brazilian’s enforced absence will put paid to any plans the manager might have had of slowly integrating loan signing Marcel Sabitzer into the United side.
“While Sabitzer learns, United must navigate a compacted series of February fixtures,” The Athletic’s Carl Anka wrote before the Palace match.
“[Casemiro-Fred] is a partnership with history in the Brazil national team, but favours stability over creativity and left United looking flat for much of the first half [against Reading].
“For all of Fred’s improvements this season when coming off the substitute bench, his qualities are best focused on limiting the space the opposition can enjoy in midfield.”
However, Anka’s colleague at The Athletic, Mark Critchley, believes that Casemiro has been a good contributor going forward as well.
“[He] is even better value when you think of the added and largely unexpected bonus United are getting for their money.
“Casemiro was not brought to Old Trafford to score two past a mid-table Championship outfit in the FA Cup fourth round. But his goals against Reading last weekend were his third and fourth of the season, following two in the Premier League against Chelsea and Bournemouth.
“Add the four assists that Casemiro has registered since the post-World Cup restart, taking him up to five in total since joining, and a player who has helped shore things up at one end of the pitch is beginning to contribute at the other, too.
“In a season where United are relying heavily on Marcus Rashford to bear the scoring burden, only three other players have more goals than Casemiro and he is only three more away from surpassing them.”
So how can United keep the momentum going without both pistons of their midfield engine?
Ignoring promotions from the academy, on the surface of it there are just two options for midfield now, Fred and Sabitzer. But if that partnership doesn’t gel, there are other solutions.
Scott McTominay is probably out for two weeks but could be hurried back due to the emergency, depending on the nature of his injury.
Another player who could be drafted into the midfield is Lisandro Martinez, who played 22 times for Ten Hag as a holding midfielder at Ajax. His place in defence could be taken by Luke Shaw, who excelled there during his post-World Cup absence, with Tyrell Malacia coming in at left back.
Bruno Fernandes is also an experienced central midfielder and could be played further back. One option to then replace him in the number 10 position is Jadon Sancho, who played in that position for 25 minutes against Reading in the week.
One thing that may be an advantage is that two of the three games that Casemiro will miss are against the same opponents – Leeds United – allowing the manager to find a formula that can be applied consistently in his absence.
Whatever Ten Hag decides to do, there are quality alternatives at his disposal to minimise the impact of the duo’s absence.