COMMENT: Erik ten Hag saw it. But very few others did. This version of Casemiro. The Manchester United version of Casemiro. The leader. The boss. Whatever moniker you ascribe. Casemiro is fulfilling everything his manager told us he would do upon arrival...
It was Reading. A Championship team. But you can only beat what's put in front of you. And Casemiro obliged with a masterclass in midfield. A performance even the most ardent Madridistas would be hard-pressed to recall. Not due to quality or dominance. But this is a different Casemiro. The Manchester United version. Encouraged by Ten Hag. Freed by the circumstances and demands of his new club. The Brazilian is utilising every weapon in his armory. And nothing is being held back.
Tomas Roncero, AS'sReal Madrid-mad senior editor, dubbed Casemiro the 'shadow captain' when paying tribute as his sale to United was confirmed. This was no knock on the 30 year-old. It was simply how Casemiro performed in the Los Merengues shirt given those aforementioned circumstances and demands of his club at the time. He was the player who helped Luka Modric win a Ballon d'Or. The one who sacrificed his own attacking game for Toni Kroos to make the most of his ability in the final third. As Roncero said, Casemiro was Real Madrid's 'shadow captain'. Always there. Always available. And always making others perform better.
But at United. The demands are different. Circumstances too. Casemiro entered a broken dressing room. At least in comparison to the one he'd left. Ten Hag needed his leadership. The club needed it. And when it came to matters on the pitch, being a sitter. A holding midfielder as he was in Madrid. Well, that was never going to be enough for United. Particularly this United. They needed a box-to-box player. A boss in the middle of the pitch. And with Ten Hag's encouragement, Casemiro is fulfilling that role.
The conversion was on full display on Saturday night. On the scoresheet, Casemiro's two goals in this fourth round FA Cup win will remain forever in the history books. But the performance was much, much more than this brace.
As we say, it was a masterclass. Tackles were won. Intercepts made. And a range of passing was produced from short to long that dominated the game. Casemiro's first goal was Karim Benzema at his best. Getting a nod from Antony. Darting into the box. Getting onto his teammate's inside pass and clipping the ball over Joe Lumley to open the scoring. A goal seen regularly on the pitches of Valdebebas. But on Real Madrid matchday? Never...
The second came courtesy of a slight deflection. But it still told a story. Casemiro taking on the responsibility to shoot from distance. It all comes through him. The tempo. The drive. From one box to the other. Casemiro has been unleashed. He is everything that Ten Hag saw when his name was first raised back in August.
"I said it from the beginning, this team needed a number 6, a containment midfielder," Ten Hag, describing Casemiro, stated to foreign press members earlier this season. "He is very important, he is the cement that joins the bricks.
"He defends, he knows his position, directs his teammates, wins balls and tackles. In possession he can speed up the game. We are very happy to have him with us."
That was some months ago. Cycle through to today and it's clear Casemiro has been encouraged by Ten Hag to be a much more than a "containment midfielder". Dare we say it, Casemiro is bettering anything Ten Hag had planned for Frenkie de Jong this season...
If circumstances had been different. If De Jong had agreed to leave Barcelona during that fateful August week in Madrid. If it had been the Dutchman who arrived at Old Trafford and not the Brazilian. Would Ten Hag's project had been as well down the road as it is today? For this column, that answer is a clear, 'NO'.
Different players, of course. At least at LaLiga level. But Casemiro is now fulfilling the role that Ten Hag had etched out for De Jong. The one he'd spent hours discussing on multiple calls to his former Ajax protégé before Frenkie's final decision was made. Casemiro does it differently. But he's also doing it successfully. And nothing De Jong has produced this season suggests he could've matched the impact of Casemiro.
And that's on the pitch. Off it. Inside the dressing room. On the training grounds of Carrington. Casemiro's leadership rings just as loud. Indeed, sources at Valdebebas lament the loss Vinicius Junior has felt from his Brazil teammate's departure. There's agreement amongst Carlo Ancelotti's staff that Vini Jr would not be falling for so much of the provocation he's endured this season if Casemiro was still around.
Instead, that's now for the benefit of United's young players and the dressing room overall. But this version of Casemiro is much more than that. He's much more than a crutch. A shadow captain.
Casemiro is the leader of this Manchester United. The boss. And it took Erik ten Hag to see it.