Well-rounded Casemiro quickly becoming indispensable for Real Madrid
When the dust had settled on a frantic Clasico encounter on Sunday at Camp Nou, one player was left brushing the majority of the detritus from his shoulders, like a gunslinger stepping through the swinging doors of a recently demolished saloon.
Casemiro made his mark in the 20th minute, going through the back of Lionel Messi with considerable relish and then shrugging those shoulders at the referee, sporting a pained expression of innocence as a yellow was produced. There is something impudent about Casemiro that plays to his advantage when the match official decides what colour card to pull out. He is Spanish football's own baby-faced assassin.
Casemiro has never been sent off -- a remarkable fact given his position and his no-holds-barred style. Perhaps even more remarkable is that a 20-year-old few outside the Brasileiro had heard of when Real snapped him up on loan in January 2013 is now one of the most important players in Zinedine Zidane's squad, if not the most important.
Such are the guarantees Casemiro offers in his role that the Real boss has not felt the need to include his theoretical backup, Marcos Llorente, in either super cup squad to date. The Brazilian was walking a tight disciplinary line in last season's Liga Clasico in Madrid, snapping at the heels of a mesmerizing Messi. On Sunday, the duel was slightly more balanced. Against a player of Messi's ability, any progress is noteworthy.
It remains to be seen if Llorente will be included in Zidane's first-team plans this season or farmed out on loan again, but if the 22-year-old stays at the Bernabeu, his will be the hardest task of any player at the club, dislodging Casemiro, when fit, from his place.
Under Zidane, no player is afforded untouchable status, but few if any are jotted down on the team sheet earlier. The Frenchman admitted last season that drawing up his starting XI gave him a headache. When he needs to provide one for the opposition, the prescription is simple.
In a specialist position such as defensive midfield, few players truly excel, such is the range of demands placed upon them. At the moment, Casemiro is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world. His tackling is improving all the time, as he showed in the European Super Cup with a perfectly executed intervention on Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Casemiro's distribution is well above the basic competency required of an anchorman, and he has a fierce shot and awareness of space in the area that have reaped seven goals so far in 2017 -- one more than he managed in the previous four-and-a-half seasons since he arrived in Europe.
For that, Real's Latin American scouting network deserves considerable credit. The club's European branch veers between the expensive and obvious (see Galacticos) and the kneejerk, picking up on players after a handful of decent games have caused a bit of buzz. As Sergio Canales and Martin Odegaard can attest, it doesn't always work out well. Julien Faubert remains a footnote to the extraordinary in the annals of Real's transfer dealings, and Thomas Gravesen was an experiment that blew up in everyone's face, not least Robinho's.
Casemiro was brought in on loan initially and later signed for €6 million. Now valued at €30 million by transfermarkt, any club wishing to prise the Brazilian from the Bernabeu could reasonably expect to be quoted double that amount.
But it is his value to Zidane's tactical blueprint that makes Casemiro unique in La Liga.
Cristiano Ronaldo's eventful cameo and Marco Asensio's debut scoring record dominated the headlines in Spain on Monday morning, but the Brazilian, who didn't have the greatest game of his Madrid career in fairness, barely warranted a mention. Even so, a seven out of 10 Casemiro gives opponents pause, even if his coverage in front of the back four doesn't.
On Wednesday, Casemiro will be there again, flying under the radar even of Messi, a blip on the periphery of a player with almost 360-degree vision of the pitch. That uncertainty, coupled with subtlety in its execution that is a rare talent at the poker player's end of the pitch, gives Real an edge that they sorely lacked before the Brazilian's arrival.
His youth coach, Nilton Moreira, said in an interview that Casemiro could play anywhere: "In defence, defensive midfield, midfield, sometimes up front ... he always had a lovely touch, with both feet, and he had his head on straight."
Casemiro makes no apologies for his approach to the game, which is refreshing at a time in football when no player is "that sort of player." The Real midfielder very much is that kind of player, one with the ability and desire to get "stuck in" when needed and the craft that truly sets him apart. He can also play a bit, as is becoming increasingly clear.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.