There are 13 days until Manchester United’s next game against Brighton at Old Trafford.
13 days to make the necessary adjustments to remedy a poor start. 13 days to implement tactical changes which will improve the team’s performance. 13 days to regain and rally the spirit which was carefully cultivated last season.
13 days to fix United’s season essentially.
Over the next 13 days, The Peoples Person will be looking at 13 areas United can look to improve upon before their next Premier League fixture. An article a day until Erik ten Hag’s issues have drifted away.
Our first port of call will be United’s Brazilian behemoth who has looked worringly long in the tooth over the last four games – Casemiro.
United’s Midfield Maesto
Signed from Real Madrid towards the tail end of last summer’s transfer window, Casemiro took a little while to adapt to life in Manchester. He didn’t make his debut in the league until a full fifty days after his deal had been agreed – a 2-1 win away to Everton.
And while his introduction may have been slow, Casemiro wasted no time in firmly establishing himself as an integral part of the team for the remainder of the season.
Paired with Christian Eriksen in a double pivot, United’s midfield was transformed from the previous year.
Casemiro was a force of nature at times, displaying a proficiency with the ball previously untapped in the star-studded Real Madrid team. In Spain, Casemiro was not required to contribute significantly on the ball. In England, he quickly demonstrated this was most likely a waste of his prodigious talents.
While providing the steel and solidity to United’s midfield with which he was most commonly associated – he ranked in the 99th percentiles for blocks, clearances and succcessful aerial duels, while clocking in at the 96th for tackles – Casemiro also returned seven goals and seven assists last season.
He was United’s fifth top goal scorer, scoring the opening goal against Newcastle in the Carabao Cup Final and producing a pivotal finish in the 1-0 win over Bournemouth in the final weeks of the season. Three points which were crucial in United securing Champions League qualification.
When Casemiro was unavailable – as he was through two long-term suspensions – the effect on United was tangible. It felt like they were operating with ten men at times during the Brazilian’s absence.
Overall, it was an undoubted masterclass in midfield from Manchester United’s maestro last year.
Which is what has made Casemiro’s performances this season such a concern.
From Maestro to Mediocrity
The midfielder looked every bit his 31 years of age in the opening fixture against Wolves. Gary O’Neil’s side were able to carve through United’s midfield with ease and created a wealth of opportunities as a result. Wolves’ twenty-three shots on target constituted the most by an away side at Old Trafford since 2005.
United were, ultimately, able to win the game 1-0, but it was a very lucky escape. Casemiro painted a lonely picture at the base of the midfield, with Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount operating high up the pitch.
United’s midfield unit was anything but in this game.
It was a comparable story a week later against Tottenham Hotspur. Though United demonstrated improvements in the first-half, and created a number of opportunities to score, they ran out of the steam in the second.
Tottenham would capitalise upon this and ran out two-nil winners, with Ten Hag’s side never looking like they had a hope of getting back into the game once they were behind. Casemiro was once again poor; defensively ineffective and offensively irrelevant.
In the opening four minutes of the next match – Nottingham Forest at home – it appeared United had regressed even further. Forest were two-nil up in the blink of an eye and United’s season appeared on the verge of collapse. To lose away to Spurs is worrying; to be two goals down to Forest at home is terminal.
United were able to endure this rough start, however, and recovered well.
A smart finish by Eriksen got his team back in the game, before Casemiro popped up with a well-taken finish from a smartly-worked free kick sequence to level things. A clinical penalty by Bruno Fernandes would seal the win and mark a hard-fought 3-2 comeback win for United.
It was a more promising display by Casemiro but he still displayed many of the same defensive and mobility issues which plagued the first two games. These problems persisted in this weekend’s defeat against Arsenal.
United ultimately lost 3-1 yesterday, but it was a spirited performance by Ten Hag’s side, who were missing several key members of the first-team. United could even have won had Alejandro Garnacho been 0.00004cm further back when running through on Arsenal’s goal in the final minutes of the game.
Casemiro looked slow in the face of Arsenal’s array of attacking talent but was able to hold his own. Just about. He was also able to play forward effectively at times, though often gave the ball away under pressure.
The Brazilian’s leadership and experience were undoubted sources of strength for his teammates, however.
Where Can Improvements Be Made?
Taking United’s opening four fixtures as a collective, it’s been an underwhelming start to the year for Casemiro.
Real Madrid fans have indicated the Brazilian is known to start seasons slowly, as he did for United in 2022.
Perhaps the only remedy required for Casemiro to improve is time. This feels like wishful thinking however.
Ten Hag has attempted to implement a different midfield structure this season.
The double pivot of Casemiro and Eriksen has been replaced by a 4-3-3 system, with Mount and Fernandes operating as advanced attacking midfielders. This has left Casemiro as the sole defensive pivot; a taxing role on a player’s legs, as well as one which requires excellent ball progression abilities.
At 31, it feels unreasonable to expect Casemiro to consistently cover the ground required to enable his midfield partners to push high up the pitch. The role of a deep-lying playmaker is also not one he has ever played, despite the promising signs last season.
Both of these factors are the ones underpinning Casemiro’s poor start to the season; not a lack of match-fitness. It is a structural issue more than a personnel one.
Ten Hag must utilise the next two weeks to make the necessary adjustments to improve the situation for his premier midfielder. As last season demonstrated, if Casemiro’s form improves so to will United’s.
The simplest option is Sofyan Amrabat.
The Moroccan international was signed from Fiorentina on the final day of the season and is a natural defensive midfielder. He offers both the legs off the ball, and abilities from deep on it, United have been lacking in their opening games.
With Mount set to be ruled out with injury for the next few weeks, Amrabat could be deployed next to Casemiro to provide immediate stability to United’s midfield. The match at the Emirates would have unfolded very differently with this double pivot on the pitch.
Long-term this choice is less simple however.
United, under the direct influence of Ten Hag, have gone all in on Mount.
He was signed from rivals Chelsea in a deal worth £60 million, despite only having a year left on his deal. He’s been given the coveted number seven shirt and is one of the club’s top earners.
It is not a viable solution to drop your star signing in favour of Amrabat, nor is it a sensible choice to play him (or Fernandes) out of position.
Ten Hag’s vision for this season was founded upon a three-man midfield with Casemiro at the base, and Mount and Fernandes further ahead of him. It would be a failure to abandon this plan after a rocky few games. Particularly when considering the quality of the triumvirate involved.
Instead, Ten Hag will have to implement slight tactical tweaks to enhance the idea, rather than moving away from it entirely.
The Inverted Fullback
The most effective method to buttress a midfield unit is simply to add another player to the equation.
Manchester City and Arsenal have found great success over the past few seasons by instructing one of their defenders to push into midfield when in possession. The existing attacking midfielders are then free to push forward, safe in the knowledge they have adequate midfield cover behind them.
This enables overloads to be created in the opposition’s half while simultaneously providing greater protection against counter-attacks. It’s an elegant solution borrowed from the annals of football’s history.
Arsenal utilise Oleksandr Zinchenko in this inverted midfield role, while City often use John Stones. The most suitable candidate in the United squad is Luke Shaw; a technically gifted footballer with powerful physical attributes.
Though Shaw is likely to be unavailable until November with injury, deploying him as an inverted left-back next to Casemiro would begin to address United’s porous midfield issues.
It would also allow Ten Hag to continue with his advanced midfield pairing of Mount and Fernandes. A choice seen as key to the Dutchman’s vision of United as the best transitional team in the world.
Short-Term Fixes VS Long-Term Solutions
There may be two choices required to improve this situation; one for the short-term and another for the long-term.
In the immediacy, with Mount and Shaw both ruled out with injury, Ten Hag must play Amrabat next to Casemiro. It will provide a much sterner test for the opposition’s attack and should enable the Brazilian to regain the excellent form he displayed last season.
In the longer-term, once Mount and Shaw have recovered, United’s manager should continue to work on his ideal three-man midfield unit, but only with the additional support of an inverted defender. This will require refining at the training ground and patience on the pitch, but it’s a tactic worth pursuing given the success it’s engendered for United’s rivals.
The commonality between these two options is a partner for Casemiro.
The Brazilian cannot be expected to be a one-man army. Instead, he must be treated as the Sheriff of Manchester. And every Sheriff needs a Deputy.
CONCLUSION – Sofyan Amrabat in the short-term, Luke Shaw in the long-term.