Man United: Erik ten Hag’s midfield dilemma as his side aims to see off Real Betis in Europa League
Erik ten Hag has been juggling with team selections all season and things are being made even more complicated for the Manchester United manager because of Casemiro’s disciplinary record, with his role in Thursday night’s Europa League tie against Real Betis a matter for debate.
Casemiro’s second red card in 39 days against Southampton means the 31-year-old Brazilian is suspended for United’s next four domestic games.
Ordinarily, you would think that makes the midfielder even more of a certainty to start in Spain given he’s guaranteed the weekend off, but it’s not as straightforward as well.
In Europe too, Casemiro has been something of a card-collector. Bookings in each leg of the Barcelona tie which United won means if he picks up another yellow against Betis, he’s suspended for the first leg of United’s quarter-final, should they get there.
Sounds simple? With United 4-1 up for the first leg, why doesn’t the United boss simply rest his £70million talisman so he’s definitely available for the last eight.
Casemiro faces a four-game ban in domestic competition after yet another red card
The midfielder was sent off for the second time in a month against Southampton on Sunday
United manager Erik ten Hag must come to a decision on who to play in midfield in his absence
The chief issue is the lack of alternatives Ten Hag faces. With Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek definitely ruled out with long-term injuries and Marcel Sabitzer having missed out last weekend with a knock, the manager would have to turn to the McFred combination – Scott McTominay and Fred – if Casemiro is to sit it out.
McTominay and Fred have had their successes in the past, but their critics too. Paul Scholes has been unhappy with the technical limitations as a pairing with neither natural at receiving the ball on the half-turn so they are able to make a smooth transition in getting the ball forward.
Though McFred have energy to burn, the only chance Betis will have of a comeback is to build possession, pen United in and get a breakthrough. In that respect, ten Hag would like to have someone of his own in midfield who can keep the ball.
Another alternative is to play Bruno Fernandes in a deeper-lying role and continue with Jadon Sancho as a 10. That didn’t really work against Southampton in terms of offence. Against Betis, Bruno’s vulnerability about sensing danger may be a risk too far for United.
Scott McTominay (left) and Fred (right) – McFred – could be reintroduced as a partnership
Bruno Fernandes (right) could be deployed in a deeper role as he was at St Mary’s
The dilemma wouldn’t arise if Casemiro could be fully trusted to get through 90 minutes without a rash challenge and potential caution.
But at the moment, there is no guarantee. Ten Hag is angry about the decision to give his former Real Madrid man red cards – ‘he is a fair player,’ insists the United boss – but that overlooks the frequency with which he picks up bookings.
Ten Hag branded Casemiro a ‘fair player’ despite his poor disciplinary record
Since the start of last season, Casemiro has been shown a remarkable 28 yellow cards in club football for Madrid and United, quite separate from his two reds. He’s also been booked twice for Brazil, including against Croatia at the World Cup.
Casemiro’s combative qualities have been a huge plus for United and helped them challenge deep into four different competitions but whether he gets across the ground as quickly as he did five years ago is open to question.
Former Arsenal star Martin Keown thinks Casemiro should also change the technique in his tackling to reduce the amount of punishment from officials coming his way.
‘If you look at Casemiro against Southampton, he went in on his backside. Your foot has to come up, his studs are showing, foot comes up above the ball and catches the opponent.
‘If he tries to slide in on his side with a different technique he can pinch that ball and not injure his opponent.’
It leaves Ten Hag in a quandry. He won’t want to give Betis any encouragement with United having built up a healthy advantage from the first leg. But neither will he want to go into a tough quarter-final, potentially against Juventus or Roma, without Casemiro.
Casemiro will be suspended for the first leg of a potential quarter-final if he is booked against Betis on Thursday
it’s unclear if Ten Hag will start the Brazilian because of the fact he cannot be trusted not to pick up a booking
It may be prudent to put Casemiro on the bench and bring him on if United find themselves a goal or two behind and in danger of exiting. A lot will depend on how much ten Hag trusts McTominay and Fred as a partnership. This time they don’t have to be creative, just restrict Betis.
Fred has done well since coming in for Eriksen but of course he’s benefited from having Casemiro alongside him. The question is whether he can be as reliable alongside McTominay who has been used more sparingly this season.
Ten Hag has started McFred only once this calendar year – an EFL Cup win against League One Charlton – and he’ll be aware that among the four matches Casemiro has already missed through suspension, United conceded three at Arsenal and two at home to Leeds.
It’s a conundrum that United fans travelling to Seville will hope their manager gets right.