I am a bit late to all this Casemiro goodbye stuff. Despite writing some thoughts on social media, there was definitely a need to go much deeper. An article was needed.
Every time a departure happens, everyone talks about how it is ‘time to move forward’. So, obviously, I’m going to do the opposite. I will go back in time to write about one of the most influential and important performances by Casemiro in his Real Madrid career. The one that 100% solidified his spot in the lineup – The 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou – because even though Casemiro had Zinedine Zidane’s faith before then, having started a few games on the trot for his French manager, this was the game that he won the fans over with.
Also, this was not my only incentive to watch that game in particular — almost any game would’ve worked, really. The stakes were just so high in this one. Real Madrid were on a huge winning streak, but still far behind Barcelona in the title race. Winning this game would see Barcelona embark on a six-game winless streak, which would lead to the title being decided on the final matchday. It was an incredible turnaround.
Casemiro started the game off occupying zone 14 more often than not, and seeing him move off the ball was interesting as Real Madrid just didn’t have possession of the ball for the majority of the first 10 or so minutes. Barcelona did try to build a lot on Real’s inability to swiftly move past their press, but Casemiro didn’t give any space to their main creators. Each time Lionel Messi touched the ball, Casemiro would hound him, like a cold-blooded animal smelling blood. He’d look for him aggressively, close him down instantly, giving no space at all, and sometimes forcing him to play the ball backwards. I can guarantee that especially after how the first Clasico of the season had gone, Messi was not expecting that.
In fact, it was not just Messi. The famed trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr. – dubbed ‘MSN’ – was struggling to build any sort of momentum because of Casemiro’s elite ability to track the runners as well as close down the passer at the same time.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Casemiro game with some classic Casemiro stuff – the man really knew how to be in the referee’s good books, as he did not get booked for any of his fouls.
Speaking of fouls, Clasicos were really intense back then, huh? I mean, they still are, don’t get me wrong. But the number of fouls and cards I saw in the first 20 minutes of that game showed how physical and aggressive these games were. I hadn’t forgotten about it, but it took a re-watch of a game from 2016 for me to remember this.
It was also hard to focus on just Casemiro’s performance, because so much has changed in terms of playing style, the literal players that featured in that game, the coaches, and the position of the two teams. Seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, and Gareth Bale play again was very fun. I enjoyed that.
One thing Casemiro did really, really well was to be around one of Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. You would see that, without exception, Casemiro occupied the space near one of those two elite creators, sometimes, if they were close enough, trying to track both of them at the same time. The things I mentioned about him hounding Messi happened to Neymar at times as well.In one such sequence, he was being bullied off the ball near the edge of the box, but instead of doing a back pass, he tried a really tough one to Messi across Real Madrid’s box, a pass that was intercepted.
This game really shows the defensive IQ that Casemiro boasts, and it is scary to think just how much of that he did in every single game, and how it was overlooked at times. Casemiro is incredible at many, many things.
More on the way Casemiro was man-marking Messi / Neymar; it wasn’t actually full-fledged, follow-the-man-to-death man-marking, the way Mateo Kovacic was asked to do in the Clasico of December 2017. Casemiro, at times, marked both of these players, but he did so while staying in position, so that there is no space left behind. He didn’t follow them around aimlessly. The Brazilian stayed calm, and pounced when he saw the opportunity. Really, really smart play.
He’d also close down the already under-pressure ball carriers even when he wasn’t technically marking them. For example, Whenever one of Kroos and Modric tried to win the ball, Casemiro would close them down to cut off any passing options for the player. Elite help-defense.
It always seems like Casemiro does a quick scan of every single passing lane around him, and tries to cover the one which makes the most sense. Casemiro’s always had this in him, and back then, my little brain was not able to decipher all this. It’s fun to look back and say, wow, the man really was incredible even in his first season as a starter at Real. That’s what he did to Messi in the 37th minute, covering every single passing lane that Messi could use, while also closing him down and making sure he wins the ball cleanly. Incredible:
Toni Kroos’ passing has improved so much as the years have gone by. His passing was already great during this time but he took continuous leaps after this season, and his passing was so vital against teams that press high, which Real Madrid struggled with against Barca here.
I think Zidane focused on that, which is why it became so apparent to everyone from next season, that Real Madrid really have some of the most press-resistant players in the world. Before that, especially in this game, Real Madrid tried to play so many long balls instead of building out from the back. The team learned lessons from this season, even if it was an overall success. Ramos’ passing improved with time as well.
Of course, it was not a perfect Casemiro game. He was beaten on many occasions. Iniesta and Messi tried to slice past him, and sometimes they were successful. But Casemiro kept going, which is what separates him from his peers. He kept going up against the world’s best dribblers regardless of how many times he was beaten. The man never backs down from a fight.
In the second half, similar themes followed. Some of Casemiro’s interceptions turned out to be the start of some good counter-attacks. Casemiro played through balls to the forwards many times in those sequences, and was influential, but when Real actually built from the back, Casemiro didn’t do much to involve himself in the build-up play.
Casemiro’s monstrous game was shown in numbers. Eight tackles, three interceptions, one clearance, two blocks and just a whole lotta runnin’.
His offensive numbers weren’t great, but they didn’t need to be. Real Madrid already had enough players on their roster to carry a big offensive load. Casemiro certainly needed to improve a lot in terms of passing and stuff – which he did in subsequent seasons – but in general, this was a near-perfect defensive masterclass from the Brazilian.
In the second half, Casemiro had to switch to playing as a pseudo-centre-back due to Sergio Ramos’ sending-off. He didn’t really do anything noteworthy, but changing positions mid-game in a match of this much importance, and playing well in both positions is something not many players can do.
Casemiro helped in holding Barcelona to an xG of just 0.88, per understat, even though Barcelona had nearly the same amount of shots (14) as Real Madrid (15), and had more possession than their eternal rivals in white.
I am going to miss Casemiro’s presence, I will miss the way he was so focused when it was time for him to perform as well as he can, in the games that matter most. His ‘hitman’ mentality was there at the start of his Real Madrid career, when he faced a really, really good Barcelona team, and the same thing exists to this day. It’s absolutely incredible to think about just how much he loves the big stage, and even though he used to do the dirty work that usually went under the radar, Casemiro was so very appreciated. I will miss him.