Man United are in desperate need to add some younger legs to their midfield options.
If Manchester United weren’t already aware of just how good Casemiro is, they are now.
His absence during Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium was as obvious as it was painful. United sorely lacked his defensive presence in midfield, his bite, his tidiness on the ball, his excellent passing range and his energy.
It was a compelling advert to show just how big an impact he has had at Old Trafford since his £60million arrival from Real Madrid. As soon as his fifth yellow card of the season was whipped out of referee Robert Jones’ pocket against Crystal Palace last Wednesday night, United’s supporters shared a collective sigh and probably the odd expletive or two. That is how important he is.
But even though Casemiro was absent against the Gunners, who denied United a respectable point right at the death, you could also argue that Christian Eriksen, who has also played his role in the Reds’ resurrection under Erik ten Hag this season, was also missing. The only difference was, however, that he started and completed the full 95 minutes of the contest.
The Dane, who has been exceptional for the most part this season, was a passenger at the Emirates, particularly in the second half. He struggled to keep up with the intensity of the contest and failed to cover himself in glory when he half-heartedly attempted to close down Bukayo Saka ahead of him rifling a low shot into the bottom corner to put the home side 2-1 up just eight minutes into the start of the second 45.
Eriksen, in his defence, is not a player you associate with sitting deep in midfield and carrying out defensive duties; he is a seasoned attacking-midfielder, renowned for his ability to conjure something up out of nothing. He has, of course, played much deeper than he has previously in his career this season, for the most part working brilliantly in tandem with Casemiro. However, without the Brazilian alongside him, and against an opponent who wanted to have the bulk of possession, it was a difficult afternoon.
The former Brentford man looked lost as the second half wore on, struggling to get on the ball, not that United, in fairness, got it all that often. His energy levels seemed to quickly drain, suggesting that he is possibly struggling to start every single game, particularly in a season where the schedule is non-stop.
Although United have the likes of Scott McTominay, who filled in for Casemiro against Arsenal, and Fred in reserve, they are not midfielders who you associate with being able to control and dictate games, nor are they players, with respect, you expect to feature prominently in Ten Hag’s long-term plans to take the club forward. It is why they desperately need to recruit a younger midfielder in the summer.
Jude Bellingham is the name on just about everybody’s lips, while the club have refused to rule out the prospect of rekindling their interest in Frenkie de Jong, who Ten Hag was so desperate to be reunited with last summer. But if United are unable to land either of those two aforementioned figures, they could do worse than turning to Ten Hag’s former protégé, Ryan Gravenberch.
The Netherlands international, 20, rose through the youth ranks at Ajax and quickly cemented his place as a first-team regular under Ten Hag. His development at Ajax was so impressive that he, like Ten Hag, left the Johan Cruyff Arena last summer, joining Bayern Munich on a five-year deal.
However, he has struggled to earn the game time he would have expected in Germany, so much so he has not started a single Bundesliga fixture this season. He has made just ten appearances from the bench, amounting to 177 minutes. He has also struggled for opportunities in cup competitions.
Though the Bundesliga is a step up from the Eredivisie, Gravenberch would have expected better. He set the world alight with some eye-catching and dazzling performances at Ajax, so much so that he was a regular starter under Ten Hag by the age of just 18. His tall and physical frame, as well as his ability to link the play and operate as a box-to-box midfielder, make him a useful operator in the centre of midfield.
He is an excellent orchestrator on the ball and would certainly offer United a new dimension and some much-needed younger legs in the middle. Gravenberch, last summer, hinted that he would have liked to have joined Ten Hag at United, saying he had already “given his word” to Bayern instead.
But with opportunities having proven increasingly limited in Germany, he might now be wishing he’d have continued his development under Ten Hag’s watchful eye. He may have struggled at Bayern, but being reunited with Ten Hag, who knows him inside out, could bring the best out of him again.