How do you replace Casemiro? Manchester United must find answer after frustrating draw
In March, as in February, gloved hands were put to his face in disappointment. He lingered on the pitch before making the solitary trudge to the tunnel in the corner. For the second time in as many months at Old Trafford, Casemiro was sent off.
Manchester United managed to beat Crystal Palace without their talisman. His absence, and altogether earlier departure, cost them against Southampton. Two points were dropped in a stalemate, though there was little stale about a game of such drama. But, after being talked of as title contenders, United could slip to fourth before they next kick off in the Premier League.
Their quest for Champions League football could suffer without Casemiro. A four-game ban beckons for the Brazilian after a lunge at Carlos Alcaraz; he caught the top of the ball and then the Argentinian. Anthony Taylor initially booked him and, for the second time in a few weeks, a VAR review resulted in red for Casemiro.
The complexion of the game was changed. United’s unbeaten run at Old Trafford stretched to 22 matches but it has rarely been closer to ending: it needed a combination of a goal-line clearance, the woodwork and some fine saves for David de Gea to keep a clean sheet.
At least a team stripped of Casemiro showed more heart than a side with him had at Anfield seven days earlier. United could have won, with Gavin Bazunu pushing Bruno Fernandes’ 20-yard shot on to the post. Culpable so often in a season when he has cost Southampton too many goals, the Manchester City academy product Bazunu was terrific against United. He made a brilliant save from Raphael Varane and a fine one from Marcus Rashford when each was found by Fernandes. This felt his best day of a difficult spell at Southampton.
It could be deemed a bonus point for Southampton in their battle to escape the drop although, on a weekend when Bournemouth and Everton both won and Leeds and West Ham drew, the table scarcely suggests they are better off. At least a team beaten 9-0 at Old Trafford two years ago could enjoy a return rather more. A side embarrassed by League Two Grimsby in the FA Cup regained a little pride, even if they could not quite follow up Ruben Selles’ debut victory at Stamford Bridge with another notable scalp.
But they came agonisingly close. Scott McTominay was brought on to take over from Casemiro and United almost suffered a second self-inflicted wound: Aaron Wan-Bissaka was required to make a clearance on the line to spare McTominay an own goal after he met Kyle Walker-Peters’ cross with a touch that flew past David de Gea.
Then James Ward-Prowse flicked the bar with a free kick. He was inches from equalling David Beckham’s record of 18 goals from direct free kicks in the Premier League; there may have been no more fitting venue to do so and United, by carrying on conceding free kicks in Ward-Prowse territory, gave him the opportunity to do so.
While Ward-Prowse grazed the woodwork, Kyle Walker-Peters thumped it, with a ferocious shot with his less favoured left foot. Walker-Peters was outstanding, relentless in attack and dogged in defence. He made a terrific challenge on the substitute Alejandro Garnacho in his own box and crossed well at the opposite end.
But with United ragged as they chased a goal and left gaps, Southampton’s best chance came on the counter-attack. Theo Walcott, sprinting clear into space as the United defence went missing, tried to chip De Gea. The goalkeeper clawed it away, just as he blocked the winger’s point-blank header earlier. His footwork had been questioned this week but De Gea’s handling was excellent when it needed to be.
Their plans had required a rapid rethink. This was arguably Erik ten Hag’s most attacking line-up to date, with Fernandes in the centre of midfield, behind a front four. When Casemiro was sent off, Fernandes was briefly a one-man midfield until McTominay came on for Wout Weghorst. Jadon Sancho, who had started as the No. 10, became a lone striker. Then, in the second half, Rashford did. Three very different centre-forwards produced no goal. Fernandes was United’s best hope. When Casemiro was on the pitch, he had the freedom to get forward and supply Rashford with a lovely pass. When he lost his sidekick, he almost scored himself.
Meanwhile, United appealed for penalties, for Walker-Peters’ challenge on Fernandes, Armel Bella-Kotchap’s apparent handball and Rashford’s seeming trip on himself when he passed Bazunu. None was given but the pivotal decision was the dismissal of Casemiro. Once again, United face a question of how to replace the irreplaceable.