Nobody exemplifies Real Madrid more than Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman was the chief architect of the first ‘Galactico’ era, the playmaker around which the team revolved, and the player who scored that sublime winning goal in the 2001 Champions League final win over Bayer Leverkusen.
Arriving for a world record transfer fee, he departed a symbol of excellence. Thus, when he was appointed the team’s manager in January 2016, the belief was he would implement football to match the elegance, excitement and success of his playing days.
However, the most intriguing facet of Zidane’s managerial spell with Real Madrid has not been the goals scored, but the goals not conceded. He has brought a stability to the team that, on frequent occasions over the last two decades, has not been present. And Casemiro is the rock upon which that stability has been built.
Casemiro is not your ordinary Brazilian footballer. Born and raised in a country where football has historically been associated with beauty, the 25-year-old has an unprepossessing appearance on the pitch. While not without flicks and tricks, his career has been based on a willingness and ability to do the ugly things. And he does them well. It is because of this that he has defied expectation to become an integral member of Zidane’s Real Madrid over the past year.
On 21 November 2015, an image was circulated on social media highlighting one of the major flaws in Real Madrid’s tactics. Rafa Benitez’s side had just been humiliated at home by loathed rivals Barcelona, losing 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu courtesy of a double from Luis Suárez and one goal apiece from Neymar and Andrés Iniesta. The image doing the rounds depicted a Real Madrid side completely lacking in structure. It showed a huge open space visible between their defence and attack, where their midfield should have been.
Within months Benitez was gone. Zidane replaced him in the dugout, and his first objective was to redress the above issue. In a bid to ensure a lack of compactness no longer dogged the team, he gradually brought Casemiro into the fold. By the end of the 2015-16 campaign, the Brazilian was a key player. He had filled the gap between defence and attack, providing the balance that had been absent beforehand.
Defensive midfielders have not always received the correct appreciation at Real Madrid. The most famous case of this was seen in 2003, when, having asked for a pay rise, Claude Makélélé – who earned nowhere near the amount that the club’s stars at that time, including Zidane – was sold to Chelsea.
But, while he wasn’t given the appropriate recognition, Makélélé’s influence was missed. In his three years at Real Madrid, the club won two league titles and one Champions League. In the three years after his exit, the club failed to win La Liga, while they were unable to progress beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the next eight seasons.
— Casemiro (@Casemiro) March 19, 2017
In the same summer as Makélélé’s departure, David Beckham signed for Madrid. Beckham was a Galactico, just like Zidane, but Zidane didn’t understand the logic behind the deals, saying: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Zidane watched a number of prospective midfield shields come and go after his compatriot Makélélé was sold, none of them possessing the requisite nous to adequately pull of the role. Thomas Gravesen and Pablo Garcia came in 2005, but the pair played a combined 56 league games for the club before leaving. Emerson and Mahamadou Diarra represented classier additions in 2006, though the former left after one season and the latter suffered with injuries. Meanwhile Fernando Gago, signed in the same season, never quite fulfilled his potential.
Indeed it wasn’t until Jose Mourinho was appointed manager in 2010 and the Portuguese installed a midfield duet of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira that Real Madrid achieved something even close to tactical stability. But, when Alonso was offloaded to Bayern Munich in 2014 while Toni Kroos went the other way it seemed the Spanish giants hadn’t learned the important lessons of their past.
This was evidenced by the November 2015 capitulation at home to Barcelona, but Zidane would not entertain notions of such heavy defeats. Seeking to shore up the midfield upon his confirmation as boss, he turned to a player who had struggled to make an impact since joining from Sao Paulo in 2013 in an initial loan deal which became permanent for around £5million.
In 2014-15, Casemiro had made a strong case for inclusion at Real Madrid while playing for another team. He spent that season on loan in Portugal with Porto, where he played 40 games in all competitions and was part of the team that scared Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals with a 3-1 win at the Estádio do Dragao.
Upon returning to Madrid, the player was keen to assert himself upon the first team.
“I was gone for a year but I was always thinking about being at Real Madrid,” he said in an interview with the club’s official website.
“[My objectives are] the same as the objectives I had on my first day with Castilla [the club’s B team]. Work hard and eagerly try to win with Real Madrid, which is my dream. I'm home.”
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And while Benitez didn’t see the value of Casemiro, Zidane did. Having experienced first-hand the importance of having balance in midfield playing with and without Makélélé, he saw promise in the Brazilian. His faith in the player has been rewarded with exceptional performances.
Nobody in La Liga has averaged more tackles than Casemiro’s 4.8 per game. Forceful yet intelligent in the challenge, the 25-year-old used his physique and sound positional awareness to dispossess opponents before releasing the ball to more refined passers, such as Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić, to create.
Every now and then, Casemiro reminds people that he is Brazilian. There is the occasional back-heeled pass, or a rocket shot. Sometimes those shots, like his one at home to Napoli in the Champions League second round, go in. But such moments are uncharacteristic.
In a team associated primarily with the spectacle, Casemiro is the subtle enforcer that allows others to shine.