Ever since Xabi Alonso left Real Madrid on short notice last season, the club has struggled to find a true midfield general - an anchor to organize the spine of the team. While the boots of Toni Kroos are laced with unique talents, being a defensive anchor is not one of them, and Real Madrid have had issues with stabilizing their midfield.
Enter Carlos Henrique Casemiro
When Casemiro returned to Real Madrid from his successful loan spell from Porto, there was cautious optimism met with relatively low expectations. Here was a young player with a towering stature, strong as an ox, could score free-kicks, and position himself to stop opposing attacks with crunching tackles. Seemingly, those were all traits to earn himself a spot in Rafa Benitez’s rotation - one that shed the fat of Sami Khedira, Asier Illaramendi, and Lucas Silva over the Summer.
Casemiro was a destroyer - a dying breed in a sport where midfielders are, for the most part, two-way players. At the very least, a defensive anchor needs to have the ability to hold onto possession and ignite counter attacks - he needs to distribute the ball with fluidity.
Casemiro didn’t have the grace of a Xabi Alonso, who ultimately, apart from having a high football IQ, was also a deep-lying playmaker which was so conducive to Real Madrid’s champions league run in 2014.
But when Casemiro packed his bags for Porto, he matured three-fold, and returned as a crucial piece - one that has merited a starting role with Real Madrid.
It’s a shame there is no ‘most improved player’ award in football, but if there was one, Casemiro’s name would surely be among the top improved players in the past year.
Casemiro attributes his maturity in European Football to Julen Lopetegui who was his coach at Porto. Under Lopetegui, Casemiro’s positioning improved tremendously, he covered ground more efficiently, cut down on his clumsiness in committing unnecessary fouls, and his passing improved too.
He had also developed a lethal shot.
All of the above traits which were developed under Lopetegui were all conducive to Casemiro becoming a key component - and fan favorite - at the Bernabeu.
Finding a place in the starting line-up for Casemiro is tricky, because the squad is riddled with household names.
By default, Casemiro has played ample minutes this season due to the plethora of injuries to Benitez’s squad.
But at some point in April, Real Madrid may find themselves playing a massive KO match in the champions league with a full squad. Does Benitez drop Casemiro and risk the tactical balance of the team?
You get the best out of Toni Kroos in a more advanced role where the defensive load is taken off his shoulders. In this sense, Kroos is very similar to Xavi - they’re both maestros who thrive in a CM role with a defensive midfielder behind them. This is why Kroos thrives in Germany and was so lethal in Bayern.
De facto, it’s the same reason Xavi’s role in Spain was wasted in Del Bosque’s double-pivot. I use the term wasted loosely, as Spain still managed to win a World Cup and Euro Cup despite playing a system which masked Xavi’s dissective abilities as a midfielder.
It applies here too. Real Madrid will continue to waste the talented Toni Kroos if they play him in a deep-lying anchoring position consistently.
To be fair, a system with Toni Kroos can work, sometimes. If James and Modric are healthy and sharing the load of duties, offensive channels open up and Real Madrid become a rabid high-pressure, high-octane, suffocative machine with passing outlets promptly opening up when possession is obtained. It’s quite beautiful to watch.
But, it appears to be an unsustainable scheme, and it eventually led Kroos to be overplayed and exhausted by the time Juventus knocked Real Madrid out of the champions league last season.
The void left by Xabi Alonso is not hidden - it’s an issue the club was aware of already, hence the recall of Casemiro from Porto. But Casemiro ended up being the only playable defensive midfielder in the squad this season, and there was skepticism as to whether or not the 23-year old Casemiro was refined enough to be Real Madrid’s anchor.
The skeptics have surely started to believe now, though.
Casemiro provides incredible balance to Real Madrid’s midfield, and his new found offensive skill-set has him fitting in perfectly with a team that requires a smooth transition from defense to attack.
By necessity - due to various injuries to Real Madrid’s midfield - Casemiro started the first high-profile match of the season at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico. It was there that Casemiro truly arrived on the map and proved his value. Atletico is an aggressive team which has given Real Madrid some truly difficult matches in the Diego Simeone era due to their ability to close down channels and disrupt Real Madrid’s free-flowing football. But Casemiro’s combative nature was key to giving Real Madrid an upper-hand in the physical battle in that match.
Casemiro’s tactical awareness and ability to impede Atletico’s attack was impressive - nine balls recovered, six interceptions, three clearances, and five successful tackles. But it wasn’t just his defensive astuteness that won over Real Madrid fans that night, it was also his offensive distribution which saw him complete 61 of 72 passes - many of which were Xabi Alonsoesque cross-field switches which gave Real Madrid the chance to kick-start an attack and force Atletico’s shape to stretch to the other side of the field.
Casemiro is 23, so there’s plenty of room to dream of what he might become in two to five years if he continues to improve. He’s a unique player who might turn into a hybrid of Yaya Toure and Sergi Busquets. If Rafa can continue to develop this promising young player, Real Madrid could have the next best defensive anchor in World Football on their hands, and Casemiro can fill the void left by Xabi Alonso, who in turn, filled the long-left void once left by Claude Makelele.