If Real Madrid could be boiled down to a single tactical role, that role would probably be goal poacher. The Spanish giants are not always pretty or effective, but are almost always proudly central and visible at the important moments. They are usually the centre of attention.
Arguably the position that least embodies Los Blancos, however, is defensive midfielder. At the Santiago Bernabéu, the defensive midfielder sticks out like a sore thumb. He does his dirty work directly adjacent to dribblers, passers and fantasists of iconic vision and beauty.
Currently, this dirty work his undertaken by Casemiro.
The Brazilian has made the role his own over the past two years, establishing himself at the base of a three-man midfield. To his left usually stands Toni Kroos, a majestic string-puller; to his right is Luka Modrić, who is the definition of elegant playmaking.
Casemiro is Real Madrid’s present-day destroyer, and he looks decidedly unsubtle alongside his nimbler, more attack-minded team-mates. But, in spite of this, he is carrying on a vital task and has emerged as Manchester United transfer target.
The club’s ‘Galactico’ nickname may be associated primarily with strikers, wingers, attacking midfielders and forward-thinking full-backs, but several defensive midfielders in Real Madrid’s recent history have managed to successfully bridge the gap between luxury and necessity.
REAL'S DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD TRADITION
Jose Mourinho’s time in Spain’s capital was punctuated by the theme of good versus evil, ultra-pragmatism versus idealism.
Generally, during this period, the Portuguese’s side were bested by Barcelona for both style and substance, but he nonetheless managed to win one La Liga title.
Xabi Alonso was pivotal to the success, operating at the base of midfield where his ability to break the lines from deep and orchestrate moves, as well as his canniness regarding how and when to intercept and break up opposition attacks, was well utilised.
The Spanish midfielder’s time at Real Madrid coincided with a continental breakthrough: in 2011, they made it past the Champions League’s second round stage for the first time in seven years. And it could be argued that the missing link in this spell was a world-class defensive midfielder.
Casemiro’s introduction to Zinedine Zidane's starting lineup last year perhaps had something to do with the Frenchman’s having witnessed the decline in the club’s fortunes that immediately followed the controversial sale of Claude Makélélé in 2003.
A ball-winner par excellence and an efficient distributor, Makelele lacked the global appeal of his team-mates at the time. Along with Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham were the stars of the show as Real Madrid became as much a circus as a football club.
Joining from Celta Vigo in 2000, he won two La Liga titles and one Champions League during his three years at the Santiago Bernabeu before leaving for Chelsea after a pay dispute. It was an impeccable period of achievement, one that would not be repeated after his departure.
Indeed, in the three years following Makelele’s move, Real Madrid failed to win a single trophy. Evidently, his tactical intelligence, positional discipline, unfussy passing and defensive reliability was missed in the team’s midfield.
Yet, his predecessor in the famous white kit was one of the most whimsical and sublime defensive midfielders ever to have played the game.
Fernando Redondo, in his pomp, was part-destroyer, part-creator. He could take and make in equal measure, and was at once a savvy protector and a conjuror of enviable skill.
For six years prior to Makelele’s arrival at Real Madrid, he had the responsibility of setting things up from deep. This he did with steel and sophistication.
Between the three and their combined 14 years at the Santiago Bernabeu, Redondo, Makelele and Alonso won five league titles, four Champions Leagues and two Spanish Cups.
And in their individual performances, they built on a historic legacy laid down by the likes of Miguel Munoz, Uli Stielike and Vicente del Bosque.
CASEMIRO: BUILDING FROM ALONSO, MAKELELE AND REDONDO
That legacy is being furthered today by Casemiro.
In La Liga this season, only Leganés' Rubén Pérez has completed more tackles per game than the 25-year-old’s 3.7. The Brazilian is also in the top 100 players in the league in terms of interceptions made, and is top for fouls committed.
These defensive numbers only appear more remarkable when considering the fact Casemiro is playing for Real Madrid, a side who enjoy the second-highest average ball possession percentage in the Spanish top flight.
Essentially, in a fundamentally offensive team, albeit one more pragmatic than previous versions, Casemiro has brought some much-needed nous to the space between the back line and the more creative midfielders.
But he is found lacking when compared to his positional antecedents.
He doesn’t possess the flair or artistry of Redondo, who embarrassed Manchester United’s Henning Berg so ruthlessly in a Champions League quarter-final meeting with a mesmerising back-heeled flick.
He doesn’t have the incision of Alonso, whose crisp passing allowed him to play beyond his physical peak. And he is yet to match the consistency of Makélélé, who was so good he has a position named after him.
However, in his dogged tackling, harrying and intercepting, his calculated and disruptive fouling, and his simple yet effective passing, Casemiro is continuing an important Real Madrid tradition. And one whose value is finally be recognised.