Casemiro is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, the bull who brings his own china shop with him to every match. At Real Madrid, he has become one of the most important members of the squad, as reflected by the fact he played the most minutes of everyone in 2019/20 with 4,081 minutes and the most of all outfielders in 2020/21 with 3,940 minutes. So, it’s hard to imagine the Brazilian being anything other than an important player next season too.
Yet, the return of Carlo Ancelotti has led to some to wonder if Casemiro could struggle for minutes. Why do people think that? Well, it’s based on some misreading of the tea leaves left behind from the Italian coach’s first stint at the club.
in the first of Ancelotti’s two Real Madrid seasons, in 2013/14, Casemiro earned just 657 first-team minutes and then, in 2014/15, he was loaned to Porto. But, some caveats must be kept in mind. The reason Casemiro hardly played isn’t that Ancelotti didn’t like him. It’s that he was just 21 at the time. And he wasn’t “sent out” on loan, either. Let’s spool back…
Coming through the youth categories at São Paulo, Casemiro quickly stood out and was the captain for almost every team he played on. Ramón Martínez, of Real Madrid’s academy, realised the potential Casemiro possessed and brought him to the Spanish club, first of all on a loan to Castilla for the second half of the 2012/13 campaign.
There, Casemiro stood out played at a very good level. Castilla were in Spain’s second division that season, so the young Brazilian was testing himself good teams and he helped Castilla finished eighth, five places higher than they were when he arrived. That even earned Casemiro his first-team debut under Jose Mourinho, in a 3-1 Matchday 32 victory over Real Betis.
In the summer of 2013, Mourinho was out, Ancelotti was in and Casemiro was staying. The club executed the purchase option they’d had with São Paulo and, after a sensational pre-season in which he even scored goals, the Brazilian was promoted by Ancelotti to the first-team squad. Remember, though, he was just 21 and Ancelotti explicitly stated that he was “a player for the future”. It made sense. In that same squad, Real Madrid had midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Asier Illarramendi, Sami Khedira, Luka Modrić and Isco. There weren’t many minutes to go around and few could realistically expect Casemiro to be given many minutes.
Early season injuries to Alonso and Illarramendi gave Casemiro some opportunities in Ancelotti’s first few games, as the Brazilian came off the bench to help close out victories over Real Betis, Granada and Athletic Club across the first three matchdays of the league season. Then, as was to be expected, he was mothballed once the starters returned and didn’t play again until the 14th matchday. This was all completely normal.
It was when Khedira suffered a long-term injury in November that Casemiro was back in the squads and coming off the bench, which had been the plan all along. “We’ll find a solution as we have players who haven’t played much but who are good players, such as Casemiro,” Ancelotti said when Khedira went down. The Italian even dismissed the suggestion that Real Madrid would look for a replacement for the German in the winter market, again pointing to Casemiro.
And so, after just three appearances in the first three months of Ancelotti’s first season at Real Madrid, Casemiro enjoyed 22 more outings over the second half of that campaign. He even played in seven of the nine matches of Real Madrid’s triumphant Copa del Rey run, including a few minutes at the end of the final against Barcelona. Plus, the Brazilian was the safety pin Ancelotti turned to in the Champions League quarter-final second leg when the team were suffering a shellacking at Signal Iduna Park and the tie seemed to be slipping away from Los Blancos. The defensive midfielder was brought on to protect a stuttering back line and he did exactly that. “Casemiro has proved that sometimes players can have important roles to play even if they’re not playing all the time, which is something he has understood very well,” Ancelotti said after that passage to the semi-finals.
But, then came the loan. Despite his strong end to the 2013/14 season, Casemiro joined Porto on a loan deal that had a purchase option. Considering he wrote a letter that felt like a goodbye, it didn’t seem that Casemiro would be back at Real Madrid after just one year. “I wanted to play more minutes and also to play minutes in big matches, so that’s why I wanted to come to Porto,” he said in an interview with MARCA shortly after departing.
Casemiro had words of praise for Ancelotti, in his letter and in an interview with Globo Esporte when he called the Italian “a coach who needs no introduction and who only added positive things to my career”. But, the fact that Italian couldn’t guarantee him quality minutes in 2014/15 was what led him towards the exit door.
In hindsight, especially considering the injury problems suffered by Modrić in that 2014/15 campaign, it was a mistake from Ancelotti that he couldn’t convince Casemiro to stay and that he signed off on the loan. It has to be kept in mind, though, that the summer of 2014 was also the transfer window when Toni Kroos was signed to replace Xabi Alonso and that Kroos was expected to play a lot of minutes, more than Alonso had managed in his final campaign.
At Porto, under Julen Lopetegui, Casemiro really developed into the ballhawk he is today, as well as becoming a leader for the Portuguese side. So impressive was the Brazilian at the Estádio do Dragão that Porto first of all activated his purchase option, before Real Madrid then triggered a buy-back clause that they’d kept in the deal, ensuring they could keep Casemiro.
When Casemiro returned to Real Madrid, in the first week of June 2015, Ancelotti had already been sacked after a season with no major trophies. From there, Casemiro started playing regularly for Rafael Benítez and, after initially starting the Zinedine Zidane era as a backup, the Brazilian became the centrepiece of the midfield that steered Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League titles.
Now that Ancelotti is back, there are some who have wondered how secure Casemiro’s place in the team is. Those who think he might lose prominence point to the fact that he played so little for Ancelotti in 2013/14 and that he “was sent out on loan” to Porto in 2014/15. But, two points really should be kept in mind. The first is that Casemiro was a 21-year-old in a stacked midfield in the 2013/14 squad and that, despite this, he still played 25 times for the Italian. The second is that the loan wasn’t a case of Ancelotti ordering the player out the club. There was more nuance to the situation than that and it was Casemiro who wanted to leave to develop and play as a starter.
Now that Casemiro is 29 years of age and in his prime, Ancelotti will view him very differently to his first stint at the Bernabéu. It obviously remains to be seen what system the Italian wants to play and if this will be a system that is optimal for Casemiro, but the Brazilian will still be one of the first names on most team sheets in 2021/22.