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EPL TALK: Clumsy Casemiro leaves Man United with gaping hole

Influential midfielder's red card leaves Erik ten Hag hoping his side can hold it all together amid critical period

A distraught Manchester United midfielder Casemiro (left) is being consoled by teammate Antony after he was shown a straight red card against Southampton in the English Premier League.
A distraught Manchester United midfielder Casemiro (left) is being consoled by teammate Antony after he was shown a straight red card against Southampton in the English Premier League. (PHOTO: Reuters/Phil Noble)

ANFIELD was a freakish anomaly. Old Trafford was a stinking dose of cold reality. Remove Casemiro and there’s an unsightly, gaping hole, an obvious gap between title contenders and title bluffers.

Roy Keane was always fond of the term “bluffers”. Any teammate or opponent accused of falling short of his otherworldly standards were considered “bluffers”. Such an accusation cannot be levelled at Manchester United, who could recently be found masquerading as legitimate challengers to the throne. They generally give their all. It just isn’t enough.

Erik ten Hag dutifully pointed his criticisms towards the officiating, as he must, the loyal manager frantically gesticulating and distracting like the old man behind the curtain, eager to prove that the Wizard of Oz is real and more silverware lies somewhere over the rainbow. United would’ve been just fine, but for Casemiro’s red card.

The Brazilian’s early exit against Southampton did say many things, including the inconsistent decision-making from faceless bureaucrats inside a VAR booth, still determined to cut out chunks of joy from games as if they were malignant growths.

Casemiro’s red card erred on the side of dodginess, sure, giving officials the chance to play with their tech like the office IT geek eager to show off his modified keyboard. But the midfielder’s studs introduced themselves to Carlos Alcaraz’s shin. There was heavy contact. He made the decision easier.

Still, his sympathetic supporters are currently reminding detractors that he was only sent off twice in a decade at Real Madrid for two bookable offences and had never received a straight red before joining United. But his playing career mostly predated the introduction of VAR. Drawn the picture yet? Never mind if you haven’t. The VAR folks will draw one for you, with neat, straight lines and everything.

Like the new Oscar winner for Best Film, VAR is Everything Everywhere All At Once. Manchester United’s best Band-Aid may need to play catch up. Tackle better. Tackle smarter. Or Casemiro’s season will end up being All Quiet on the Western Front of England. (That’s the last Oscar pun, mostly because it’s impossible to find one for the Banshees of Inisherin and The Whale is obviously Gary Lineker.)

Two red cards in eight matches are not so much coincidences as a derailing of an otherwise promising season for Manchester United. Casemiro now misses four domestic matches, which means extra game time for Scott McTominay (and presumably less for Wout Weghorst, to the immense disappointment of irreverent neutrals everywhere, who’d be happy for the Dutch doorstop to turn out for United until he’s 40.)

But Casemiro’s presence, or lack of, is critical. In good times and bad, he’s the barometer for collective performance and temperament.

After the FA Cup win against West Ham, Gary Neville complimented the midfielder’s omnipresence. The five-time Champions League winner was either marshalling defenders or telling Bruno Fernandes where to place a free-kick. They all did as they were told.

After the 7-0 debacle at Liverpool, Jamie Carragher savaged the midfielder’s incompetence, claiming Casemiro was “miles off it”. His passing accuracy dropped to just 62 per cent, his lowest in the EPL to date. He failed to complete a single tackle or win a single ball in the defensive third. And even then, Carragher’s attack was a backhanded compliment.

Manchester United's Scott McTominay (centre) battles for the ball with Southampton's Che Adams (left) and Kamaldeen Sulemana during their English Premier League clash.
Manchester United's Scott McTominay (centre) battles for the ball with Southampton's Che Adams (left) and Kamaldeen Sulemana during their English Premier League clash. (PHOTO: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Will Casemiro's absence expose United?

When he’s off, they’re all off. Casemiro can carry his struggling teammates, but rarely the other way round. Against Southampton, he gifted possession to James Ward-Prowse and wasn’t dominating with that understated authority, even in a holding role against the worst team in the league. His wayward studs were either a by-product of a bad day at the office, an indication that a faster competition occasionally gets the better of the 31-year-old, or a sign of his frustration at all of the above.

But his loss is Tottenham’s gain, along with Newcastle, Liverpool and anyone else still harbouring secret ambitions of Champions League football after an upside-down season that’s only missing Alice dropping through the looking glass.

When Casemiro left in tears, his replacement McTominay almost made a name for himself immediately – on the opponents’ scoresheet. Only an Aaron Wan-Bissaka clearance spared McTominay an own goal as the game took on an erratic, scrappy urgency that was fun for anyone not sitting in United’s dugout.

Without Casemiro, United look a lot like the old United: unpredictable, feisty and occasionally clumsy. Imagine Batman being replaced by Robin. The heart is in the right place, but it’s all a bit messy and juvenile.

Of course, the Red Devils survived Casemiro’s last enforced absence, defeating both Leeds United and Leicester City, two clubs flirting with relegation. He returned, looking rusty, against Liverpool and left the pitch looking obsolete. They all did.

Barring a successful appeal against the punishment, United will be without their talisman for critical games against Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-finals, a six-pointer against Newcastle United and then a couple of banana skins against Brentford and Everton. Where they end up after that lot may come to define their season. It’s hard to tell at this stage.

Once Casemiro went off against Southampton, United's old topsy-turvy football put in a rare appearance, the frenzied, farcical stuff that once irritated followers and delighted enemies in equal measure. McTominay and Fred are industrious, but unable to assert a quiet control quite like the Brazilian. Fernandes loses his way. Marcus Rashford drifts off on the left. Antony is Antony.

It’s an eclectic mix of artistry and uncertainty, like an indie band trying to make a second album without their seasoned producer. The next four games really could go either way.

If nothing else, United are again reminding us that the twin sticking plasters of ten Hag and Casemiro have both done a remarkable job in stemming the flow and propping up the illusion that the patient is in full recovery.

Hardly. The rehabilitation work continues. Ten Hag must hope he can hold it all together, like a spluttering clown car, until his midfield force returns. He certainly won’t be raising any glasses. Still, he should probably have a word with Casemiro about raising those studs.

United are again reminding us that the twin sticking plasters of ten Hag and Casemiro have both done a remarkable job in stemming the flow and propping up the illusion that the patient is in full recovery.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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