Manchester United will no doubt be relieved to see their hectic and relentless run of recent fixtures brought to a halt by the international break, although 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 – having already wrapped up Carabao Cup glory – the depths of the first-team squad will be well and truly tested over the coming weeks, with options already rather depleted amid a string of injury concerns.
The hope will be that the likes of Alejandro Garnacho, Christian Eriksen and Anthony Martial will be in line to return to the fold sooner rather than later, although one man who is definitely set to be absent from Premier League action is influential midfielder, Casemiro, with the Brazil international still having three games left to serve from his current, four-match ban.
The 31-year-old suffered that lengthy suspension after picking up a red card in the draw with Southampton just over a week ago, having also been dismissed just a few weeks earlier following 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 £70m deal during the summer – was keenly felt in the narrow win over Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-final clash at the weekend, with United having lacked “control” without the experienced presence of Casemiro in the midfield, as per Manchester Evening News reporter, Rich Fay.
It was not the first time this season that Ten Hag’s men have suffered due to the absence of the £300k-per-week maestro, with the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates back in January having come amid a one-game suspension for the 69-cap titan, while he 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 on the whole without having that solid foundation or “cement” in front of the back four – as hailed by his manager – the weekend win against the Cottagers showcased that Scott McTominay is not the ideal solution to replace the one-time Porto ace, with the Scotland international having been hooked early in the first-half after struggling to make his mark.
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 the void of Casemiro, ensuring that the Dutchman may have to think of a more left-field approach in the coming games by turning to usual centre-back, Lisandro Martinez.
Could Lisandro Martinez play in midfield?
There may well be a clamour 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 utilised in that position on occasion during his time at Ajax.
Although Ten Hag suggested back in 2021 that the 5 foot 10 machine doesn’t have the “running capacity” to play in midfield, the 53-year-old did concede earlier this season that it could well be an option to consider:
“He did it before [for Ajax]. This is also one thing that me as a manager, you have to be creative in certain situations when in other departments you have players who can’t be starting XI players, because I can only play one player in that position, maybe we can move the departments and be creative to form the team.”
Lauded by Patrice Evra as “one of the best signings” that the club have made in years, Martinez has made a stunning impact during his time in England to date, with the World Cup winner’s quality in possession having been particularly noteworthy.
As Evra also noted, the tough-tackling ace is so “clean and composed” when on the ball, having regularly showcased his knack for playing incisive, forward passes from deep, averaging 3.95 progressives passes per game, as per FBref.
That trait should well make the £120k-per-week man a suitable midfield asset, with United in need of a deep-lying, ball-playing figure who can attempt to replicate Casemiro’s influence, with the latter man averaging 5.86 progressive passes per game.
After putting in another “excellent” display last time out – as per MEN’s Samuel Luckhurst – there will be fears regarding taking Martinez out of the backline, particularly due to Ten Hag’s preference to use a left-footed option at centre-back.
Should the 15-cap ace move slightly further forward, however, it could well see Luke Shaw move into a central role with Tyrell Malacia coming in at left-back, with that adjustment likely to not prove too detrimental to the defensive unit.
It would be a bold call to make to dislodge the likes of Sabitzer and McTominay by slotting in the makeshift Martinez, although on the evidence of Sunday’s limp showing in the first 70 minutes or so against Marco Silva’s men, a change does need to be made when league action resumes next month.