The sight of Bruno Fernandes and Casemiro rowing full-time from Manchester United’s game against Aston Villa should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention this season.
There was a similar heat in their discussion after the Carabao Cup final when Casemiro felt Fernandes should have moved on to Jadon Sancho in a late attack. Casemiro also glared at Fernandes when he received a booking for a foul at Crystal Palace which earned him a suspension. Fernandes had pulled away from a tackle seconds before.
The origin of this latest exchange could be found by the halfway line in stoppage time. Fernandes had possession but rather than running or passing into the corner, he tried a skill to beat Villa midfielders and although he was semi-successful, he was eventually denied the ball. Casemiro dove to tackle Jacob Ramsey but Villa burst and eventually won a free-kick from a dangerous position outside the box.
United held on to become the first team to keep a clean sheet against Villa in the Premier League since Unai Emery took charge, but Casemiro felt compelled to underline his annoyance at Fernandes’ decision.
Fernandes, of course, gave his best, seeming to suggest he was turning the ball around to give Casemiro a chance to run over it. After airing their grievances, the couple ended with a hug.
You might call it a form of creative tension. They are two competitive players who can claim to be United’s best players this season. Their public arguments (both coming after victories) are a sign of their desire to be better.
Fernandes’ bloody approach can irritate his team-mates and Sancho was apparently seen telling him to ‘stop moaning’ during the first half against Villa. They appeared to be on better terms after the Portugal international surged to score the game’s only goal in the 39th minute.
Manager Erik ten Hag prefers his players to fight rather than simmer in silence.
“A few weeks ago there were questions about his captaincy, it’s crazy,” said Ten Hag of Fernandes. “He’s such a great leader, he gives so much energy to the team. His determination, his passion, his resilience, we need such players if you want to win games and make trophies.”
Ten Hag struck a similar tone with Casemiro, who had suffered a dip in performance in recent games but returned to his best against Villa. “Nobody always plays brilliantly. He plays at such a high level,” Ten Hag said. “Some games with suspension, his rhythm is broken and he had to come back. Today was the Casemiro we’ve seen all season.
“He brings so much organization, composure, determination and his leadership is so important. Others come with him. We saw a determined and passionate team in the second half who want to win more than the opposition.
Players hammering out those finer details in clutch moments will be instrumental in propelling United to higher achievements.
In Casemiro, Manchester United have a midfielder who can complete moves
Christian Eriksen is the third key cog in United’s midfield. The Fernandes-Casemiro-Eriksen triumvirate now have a record of 16 wins and four draws in 20 starts together, although this game had a slight amendment to the usual setup – Fernandes was on the right wing, with Marcel Sabitzer as the no. 10. He meant a different threat to Villa’s high line.
Fernandes repeatedly ran behind and while the ball didn’t always find its way to him, that move set Villa back.
Ten Hag has explained why he replaced Fernandes, who also played on the flank in the 4-2 Carabao Cup win over Villa.
“From the side, he’s a really good presser, he understands when to shut down, when to put an opponent in trouble,” Ten Hag said. “Even if our press is beaten, it is backtracking. He can play between the lines and then go behind the lines. He has so many skills, it’s a pleasure to work with players like him.
In the middle, Eriksen’s passes were crisp and he was successful with 50 out of 60 attempts (83% accuracy). Fans purred at a pass on the corner of Tyrell Malacia.
Casemiro was the standout, however. He completed 50 of 57 passes, the most accurate of the front six players (88%). He also had seven digs and two interceptions.
He started with determination, twice winning the ball from Ramsey, 10 years his junior, in the opening eight minutes. The first tackle in the final third earned United a throw-in. The second turned the ball over for United to break.
In the 15th minute, Casemiro delivered a pass from the back to the right for Fernandes, whose first cross was too far past Sabitzer at the far post.
Shortly after, with Fernandes claiming an injury, much to the delight of nearby Villa fans, Casemiro dove to commit a foul which stopped Villa’s counter. He managed to elude a warning on this occasion.
Casemiro hit the bar with a good shot, produced a backheel tackle on Douglas Luiz at a time when United looked vulnerable, then won the header from Emiliano Martinez’s goal kick that sent Marcus Rashford away for the winner from United. Fernandes pointedly stood in front of the Villa fans after scoring.
Casemiro is less of a provocateur for opposing supporters than for his own teammates.
He didn’t nail all of his long passes, but he accurately hit one to Sancho over the top, another to Rashford and a thread to Malacia on the left wing.
More than anything, it’s the ugliest side of the game that endeared him to fans. They chanted his name in the 72nd minute when he sprinted to put the ball into touch before deliberately playing it against Bertrand Traore to earn a United throw-in. In stoppage time, he ran out to block Lucas Digne’s cross.
Then there were those tackles in the last minute that tried to defuse Villa’s attacks. He had become a bit frayed for United by then and Casemiro didn’t hesitate to tell Fernandes as much.
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