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Since his arrival at Real Madrid, Rafa Benítez has implemented a number of tactical changes that, for the most part, have not looked very productive. The inclusion of Casemiro into the starting eleven, however, has been an exception to that trend.
Coming back from a loan spell away at Porto, Casemiro has become a solid piece in Madrid’s midfield this season, often starting in place of Isco or an injured James Rodríguez. Before last week, he had started in eight consecutive games, becoming somewhat of a talismanic symbol of Benítez’s mark at Santiago Bernabéu.
Therefore, last week, as Los Blancos’ midfield was overrun during the 4-0 defeat against Barcelona, many were baffled by the fact that Benítez had left Casemiro out of his starting side.
The surprise among fans and pundits was such, that former-player Jamie Carragher, who played under Benítez at Liverpool, went as far as saying that it was likely that the manager had not even picked the team himself.
“That’s not a team Rafa would pick. I can’t believe [he did]… either the people above him have got involved, or he’s bowed to media pressure, the players, I don’t know,” said Carragher on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football.
As Real Madrid faced Shakhtar this Wednesday in the Champions League, however, Benítez returned to his original plan. He decided to return Casemiro to his initial line-up, forming a 4-3-3, in which the Brazilian occupied the central midfield role – with interesting results.
Now, it is obviously impossible to draw exact comparisons between Madrid’s games against Barcelona and Shakhtar, especially due to the palpable differences between both rivals. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Madrid is different with and without Casemiro.
One of the most obvious discrepancies is, of course, the increased marking and tackling capacity in midfield that Madrid enjoy when the former Porto man finds himself in the holding role. Casemiro is quick to anticipate and very technical when intercepting and stealing the ball, which allows him to continue play for his team immediately after recovering possession.
This skill particularly shone in the match against Shakhtar, during which the Brazilian made an outstanding seven successful tackles – more than twice as much as any other player on the pitch. In fact, with an average of 3.2 tackles per game in la Liga and an amazing 4.2 tackles per match in Champions League, Casemiro is by far Real Madrid’s most prolific tackler in both competitions.
But, the 23-year-old’s game comprises more than that. Against Shakhtar, for instance, Casemiro completed more passes (89) than any other player, including Luka Modric, and had a similar completion rate to that of the Croatian (92.3 percent). In other words, the Brazilian is not only a better at tackling than his center-field counter parts, but he is also adept at continuing play for them.
In fact, both Modric and Mateo Kovacic, Real Madrid’s two other midfielders against Shakhtar seemed extremely comfortable on the ball with Casemiro sitting behind him. Modric, in particular, was able to drift freely over the pitch releasing an insane amount of incredible passes, and even managing to score his first inside-the-box goal ever for Real Madrid.
So why didn’t Benítez trust Casemiro for El Clásico? Some say he gave into the pressure from the press to use a line-up similar to that preferred by Carlo Ancelotti. Yet, the final minutes of the Brazilian midfielder’s game might illustrate a different reason.
In the 76th minute, when it seemed like Madrid had the game in the bag, Casemiro made a silly mistake when he knocked down a marked attacker in the edge of the box. The action was uncharacteristic, yes; probably a result of nervousness and lack of concentration – but that is a problem in and of itself.
After Shakhtar scored from the penalty spot, they almost mounted one of the most impressive come-backs in Champions League history. Propelled by the goal they obtained through Casemiro’s mistake, they managed to pull back 4-3 despite Madrid’s 4-0 lead up to that point, and almost looked like they could tie the game toward the dying minutes of the match.
The Brazilian clearly gave in to the pressure. After the goal, he looked shaky at the time of marking, losing his position several times and allowing the likes of Alex Teixeira to run freely through the midfield. And while the other two central midfielders at the time, Kovacic and Toni Kroos, were able to maintain a 90 percent pass-completion rate in spite of Shakhtar’s pressure, Casemiro’s rate went down to 78 percent.
“They nearly turned things around at the end, we need to be more careful in future,” Casemiro admitted in front of reporters after the match.
As Real Madrid reach the halfway point of their season, Rafa Benítez must make sure that the can shape a team that he can hold as evidence of his work, if he hopes to have a chance of staying for one more season at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Should Casemiro form a part of that ideal side? It is certainly a gamble. However, for now, it looks like the positive factors that the Brazilian brings to the team outweigh the negative ones – especially as he continues to develop his composure.
“I’m here to do what Benítez tells me, he’s a great manager. We’re standing by him, the president, the fans and Real Madrid. By standing together we’re certain to win,” added Casemiro.