The style of play may not be to everyone’s taste, but Real Madrid deserve credit for their defensive record since Rafael Benitez took charge in the summer. Nolito’s fine strike in Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Celta Vigo on Saturday was only the third goal they have conceded in La Liga this term, the best record of any team in Europe’s five major divisions.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been in inspired form between the sticks – the Costa Rica international has recovered admirably from being lined up as a makeweight for Manchester United’s David de Gea in the summer transfer window – and the overall organisation of the team has been impressive, but defensive midfielder Casemiro deserves a huge amount of credit for his contributions to Madrid’s watertight rearguard in recent weeks.
Casemiro first moved to the Spanish capital in January 2013, signing for Real Madrid’s B side from Sao Paulo, the club he had joined 11 years previously as a 10-year-old boy. He made his senior debut for Los Blancos towards the end of his first campaign, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 defeat of Real Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu. 25 appearances in all competitions followed in 2013-14, before Casemiro spent the following season on loan at Porto.
With Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Mateo Kovacic also at the club, it was unclear how often Casemiro would be given a chance after returning to Madrid this term. He has, however, taken full advantage of his recent inclusion in the XI and Benitez’s commitment to squad rotation: having performed well against neighbours Atletico and Levante domestically and Malmo and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, the Brazilian was excellent again in the weekend’s top-of-the-table clash with Celta.
Madrid lined up in a rather conservative 4-3-3, with Jese and Lucas Vazquez routinely tracking back on the flanks so that the shape resembled more of a 4-1-4-1 out of possession. The man tasked with sitting in front of the back four was Casemiro, who did an unglamorous job with the minimum of fuss.
Within the first 90 seconds, the 23-year-old had already snapped into his first tackle of the afternoon. It was to prove a running theme: Casemiro broke up play expertly, making blocks, interceptions and tackles and then sensibly recycling the ball to one of his colleagues close by. As a result of his disciplined positioning – Casemiro rarely moved ahead of the line of the ball – Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were able to shuttle forward and join the attack without worrying about leaving huge swathes of space behind them.
Madrid, in truth, were rather fortunate to concede only once at Balaidos, with Celta missing some fabulous chances and Navas making a couple of wonderful stops.
Their approach in general, meanwhile, will only have served to divide supporters further: some will praise the team’s organisation, commitment and discipline against an outfit who have started the season magnificently, but many more will not be happy at seeing arguably the world’s biggest club cede possession and territory to such an extent.
That debate, however, should not preclude Casemiro’s showings from being recognised or appreciated, who has done brilliantly since coming into the team. The Brazilian may find himself on the bench again when the injuries subside, while the merits of deploying him as a midfield anchor decrease when it comes to home games that Madrid are expected to dominate, but he has certainly played his way into contention with his recent performances and could become a permanent fixture in the XI for tough away trips to places like Celta.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.