Manchester United will no doubt be relieved to see the international break bring an end to their hectic and relentless run of recent fixtures, though Erik ten Hag will be fully aware that this brief respite will be followed by another breathless run in April.
With the Red Devils still competing on three fronts despite having already won the Carabao Cup, the depths of the first-team squad will be thoroughly tested in the coming weeks, with options already rather limited due to a slew of injury concerns.
The hope is that players like Alejandro Garnacho, Christian Eriksen, and Anthony Martial will be able to return sooner rather than later, but one man who will definitely be missing from Premier League action is influential midfielder Casemiro, who still has three games left on his current four-match ban.
The 31-year-old received the lengthy suspension after receiving a red card in the draw with Southampton just over a week ago, having previously been dismissed for an off-the-ball brawl in the win over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
The loss of the former Real Madrid man, who arrived in Manchester on a £70 million deal during the summer, was felt keenly in the FA Cup quarter-final win over Fulham at the weekend, with United lacking “control” without the experienced presence of Casemiro in the midfield, according to Manchester Evening News reporter Rich Fay.
It was not the first time this season that Ten Hag’s men suffered as a result of the £300,000-per-week maestro’s absence, with the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates in January coming amid a one-game suspension for the 69-cap titan, who also missed the frantic double-header against rivals Leeds United – as well as the victory over Leicester City.
Although the top-four hopefuls have managed to get by without having that solid foundation or “cement” in front of the back four – as hailed by his manager – the weekend win against the Cottagers demonstrated that Scott McTominay is not the ideal replacement for the one-time Porto ace, with the Scotland international being hooked early in the first half after struggling to make an impact.
With the likes of Fred and Marcel Sabitzer potentially better suited in a more advanced berth, there is a distinct lack of options for Ten Hag to choose from to fill Casemiro’s void, implying that the Dutchman may have to consider a more left-field approach in the coming games by turning to usual center-back, Lisandro Martinez.
Lisandro Martinez, could you play in midfield?
There may be a desire to see the Argentine “animal,” as described by his journalist Lautaro Chade, deployed in front of the back four, with the 25-year-old having previously been used in that role at Ajax.
Although Ten Hag stated in 2021 that the 5’10” machine lacks the “running capacity” to play in midfield, the 53-year-old did admit earlier this season that it is an option to consider:
“He has done it before [for Ajax].” This is also something that I, as a manager, have to be creative in certain situations when there are players in other departments who cannot be starting XI players because I can only play one player in that position, so maybe we can move the departments and be creative to form the team.”
Martinez, hailed by Patrice Evra as “one of the best signings” the club has made in years, has made a stunning impact during his time in England thus far, with the World Cup winner’s quality in possession being particularly notable.
According to FBref, the tough-tackling ace is so “clean and composed” when on the ball, having regularly demonstrated his knack for playing incisive, forward passes from deep, averaging 3.95 progressive passes per game.
With United in need of a deep-lying, ball-playing figure who can attempt to replicate Casemiro’s influence, the £120k-per-week man should be a suitable midfield asset.
After another “excellent” performance last time out, according to MEN’s Samuel Luckhurst, there will be concerns about taking Martinez out of the backline, especially given Ten Hag’s preference for a left-footed option at centre-back.
If the 15-cap ace moves slightly further forward, Luke Shaw could move into a central role, with Tyrell Malacia filling in at left-back, with that change unlikely to be detrimental to the defensive unit.
It would be a bold move to replace the likes of Sabitzer and McTominay with the makeshift Martinez, but on the evidence of Sunday’s sluggish performance against Marco Silva’s men, a change is required when league action resumes next month.