Defensive midfielders aren't sexy. It's hard to appreciate what they do and many teams try to find reasons to leave them out of their teams. That's doubly true at Real Madrid, where sex appeal, big names and the desire to play with as many attacking players as possible trumps all. But as the Merengues celebrate their record 11th Champions League title, they have their defensive midfielder to thank for it.
Casemiro was magnificent in the final. And he's been magnificent ever since Zinedine Zidane put him into the starting XI. Without him, Real Madrid aren't the champions of Europe.
The Brazilian put on a masterclass with the entire world watching. Going up against an Atletico Madrid team that boasts one of the best counterattacks in the world, Casemiro was up to the task of slowing them down and he did it almost singlehandedly. No matter how many players the Merengues pushed forward, Casemiro was sitting in the midfield ready to turn back whatever came his way.
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Sometimes he did it by winning the ball, like his inch-perfect tackle on Antoine Griezmann. Other times he simply redirected Atleti's players to the wings, which allowed his teammates to recover. There were instances when his presence forced Atleti to play the ball back, neutering the threat, and sometimes he was so quick to take away passing options that Atleti couldn't even get the counter going.
With Casemiro at the base of the midfield, Atleti had trouble hitting Real Madrid quickly. They had to be much more deliberate and the frantic pace that they excel in was missing. By the time they could get their attack going, Real Madrid had defenders back and the space was gone. Almost all of that was Casemiro's doing.
It's not as if Casemiro is the best defensive midfielder in the world either. He's not close. He's a nice one, who understand the needs from the position. It's to read the game, cut out the counterattack, shield the back line and, when he's on the ball, get it to better players as quickly as possible. Nobody would call that spectacular, but the difference it makes in the team is immense. Just look at Real Madrid before Casemiro became their out-and-out defensive midfielder.
When Rafa Benitez was the manager, Casemiro was used with some regularity, but he was expected to push forward more often. He was a central midfielder more than a defensive midfielder. Without a true defensive midfielder, teams torched them on the counterattack.
Real Madrid had played without a defensive midfielder for years. It was the result of president Florentino Perez's bizarre transfer policy and while they did win the Champions League two years ago without anyone to break up play in the middle, that was largely due to Carlo Ancelotti's brilliant tactics and Luka Modric's passing, which kept them from being exploited too often defensively. But it wasn't sustainable, and that was made evident by their play in La Liga, where they haven't won the title in four years.
Their spectacular attacking talent could win them most matches, but they had a giant fault and that left them vulnerable. Teams like Real Madrid, who want to be the best and spend the type of money they spend, don't have much of an excuse to be vulnerable.
One of the first changes Zidane made when he became manager in January was to insert Casemiro into the starting lineup. He knew the team needed a defensive midfielder and he tabbed Casemiro to play the role. The result was a defense that could stand up to most any team, and Real Madrid allowed just nine goals in 17 matches with Casemiro on the pitch under Zidane. Their attack was just as good too, knowing that they had more freedom to get forward without having to worry about getting burned on the counter for their forays forward.
Casemiro made all the difference for Real Madrid, as defensive midfielders usually do.
Of course, finding capable defensive midfielders isn't always so easy. The combination of mobility, strength and, most importantly, reading of the game is not something that most players have. It takes so much discipline, on top of all that, and a willingness to never be the star. There are only a handful who can do the job at a high level, which is why you teams like Manchester United and Arsenal have struggled to fill the role for years. But Real Madrid found theirs in Casemiro and he was on full display in the final.
Sergio Ramos scored Real Madrid's goal, Cristiano Ronaldo got the winning penalty, Gareth Bale was a menace all night and Modric's passing was second-to-none. But while they all did the things most people notice, Casemiro was bossing the center of the pitch and neutering one of the best counterattacks in the world.
Casemiro was the key to Real Madrid's Champions League title, sexy or not.
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