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Erik ten Hag can solve Man United problem with one position change



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Credit: IMAGO

If seven years of anchoring maybe the most successful midfield in Champions League history weren’t enough proof, Casemiro is very good at football.

United return next season to a competition that the Brazilian has won on four separate occasions, a three-peat from 2016-18 and again in 2022 – where he was one of the best players on the pitch in the final, and he was probably the signing that impacted this the most.

He has brought the kind of steel to United’s midfield that has been missing for a long time, while also chipping in with crucial goal contributions. In fact, only Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford racked up more goals and assists in all competitions for United last term.

There were many moments where Casemiro’s quality really hit United fans last season. His first goal for the club against Chelsea, his lockdown job against Spurs at Old Trafford, the run of games following the World Cup, a Man of the Match performance in the Carabao Cup final, the bicycle kick at Bournemouth, we can go on. But there was one game, differing in stature to the ones mentioned, where Casemiro showcased a different type of quality.

In the Carabao Cup fourth round, Manchester United played host to Burnley, and a 2-0 United win didn’t shock anyone. But with United’s main centre backs on a post-World Cup break, Casemiro slotted in as a right-sided centre back in a four and (as with most games last season) looked one of the best players on the pitch.

United fans have seen this season how Erik ten Hag has rotated players positionally and used them in unorthodox places – the centre back position included, with Luke Shaw playing there in Lisandro Martinez’s absence. United need a player who can reliably back up Raphaël Varane, who needs his minutes managed. They also need to think about the future of the number six position, with Casemiro now 31 years old.

Mason Mount is undergoing his medical at Carrington today, with a £55 million deal that could rise to £60 million being agreed with Chelsea. With David De Gea unlikely to be re-signed and Dean Henderson most likely on the market, a new goalkeeper is a necessity with Andre Onana looking likely right now. A striker is considered a priority by Ten Hag, and whether it is a younger, project signing like Rasmus Højlund, a proven world-class option like Harry Kane, or somewhere in the middle like Gonçalo Ramos, it is not going to be cheap.

Fans often love to dream up summers with six or seven major signings, filling every hole and being ready to go out and win the league the following season. Reality is often different. Those aforementioned positions are the priorities, and it is likely that United will have to choose between getting a second midfielder or a rotation centre back. Some may think that Casemiro having longer left at the highest level than Varane would mean we go for the centre back. But United’s midfield is still lacking high-quality depth, the kind that can execute Ten Hag’s instructions well.

So what if bringing in someone like Alan Varela, one of the most promising holding midfielders on the planet with just a £12.8 million release clause, to be the understudy to Casemiro, but then having Casemiro occasionally drop to centre back to rest Varane whilst giving this understudy midfielder some game time is the solution here?

Casemiro filled in at centre back on a few occasions for Real Madrid, he looked more than comfortable playing in the position for United and as his career progresses and his legs wear out slightly, the move to centre back permanently could be an option later down the line to elongate his career, a rotation role in this position could ease that transition. This would benefit United too, getting even more return on an investment that has already more than paid its dividends.

Some fans have raised concerns over Casemiro not being the most natural ball player as a number six, believing he has a shorter shelf life in Ten Hag’s side due to this. As a centre back, Casemiro would always be facing the play, where he genuinely thrives in possession. In this regard he would actually upgrade on Varane as a centre back, he is able to break lines, switch play, progress the ball and even find runners in behind with his passing. Defensively we know that no questions need to be asked with United’s number 18.

United need to be smart with their business this summer, and if it comes down to one or the other between a centre back and another midfielder, then signing the midfielder and occasionally using Casemiro at centre back to rotate with Varane – and Victor Lindelöf – would see United able to kill two transfer birds with one stone.

It would give a new number six more of a chance to develop in the position at the highest level, Varane more opportunity to rest, and Casemiro the chance to elongate his career and provide even more value to United than he already has.

Most of all, it would be another example of Erik ten Hag finding a novel internal solution to a positional conundrum in his team, and we’ve seen how that story goes before.