Successful World Cup sides are often partially based on successful club sides.
In 2010, Spain’s starting XI bore a striking resemblance to Barcelona, while Germany’s class of 2014 was dominated by Bayern Munich players. It doesn’t have to be about a whole team, either. Italy’s triumphant side of 2006 featured Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo in the middle, bringing their successful Milan relationship to the Azzurri.
Can it work in reverse, with club sides leaning on international partnerships? Manchester United will certainly be hoping so. Their signing of Real Madrid holding midfielder Casemiro means Erik ten Hag will be able to deploy the first-choice central midfield partnership Brazil boss Tite has fielded over the past couple of years. This was — supposedly — a key reason United suddenly moved for Casemiro, having spent the summer flirting with Frenkie de Jong, a very different type of deep midfielder.
It’s difficult to find much precedent for this type of move in the Premier League. Chelsea’s signing of Marcel Desailly in 1998 meant they could field the World Cup-winning centre-back partnership of Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, although that signing was completed before the tournament and Leboeuf was only a deputy for the suspended Laurent Blanc. Tottenham’s signing of Toby Alderweireld meant they reunited him with his Belgium colleague Jan Vertonghen, although they didn’t always play together at centre-back for their national side, and their time together at Ajax was probably more relevant.
Casemiro and Fred, though, have regularly played together for Brazil in recent years. They started five of Brazil’s seven games, including the final defeat to Argentina, in last year’s Copa America. They’ve started together another five times since, including World Cup qualification games against Chile, Ecuador and Colombia, as well as summer friendlies away in Japan and South Korea.
On paper, the move for Casemiro makes sense, bringing some much-needed quality in front of the United defense, while also allowing Fred to feel more at home. But how does it actually work on the pitch?
Well, the answer to that question is that it depends on which game you watch. In Casemiro and Fred’s three most recent competitive games together, their partnership has worked in different ways.
There are a couple of consistent features of their partnership. Tite’s Brazil generally play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Fred and Casemiro playing as a typical midfield partnership without possession.
Fred always has a more advanced role than Casemiro, but the extent of that has varied. In this 1-0 victory over Colombia in November, Fred often held his position alongside Casemiro, so Brazil were using a double pivot when they had possession.
Fred did sporadically push forward into attack. Here, as Brazil are trying to progress the ball, Casemiro and Fred are initially in the same position…
… before Fred pushes into a more advanced role. Dani Alves, still going at 39, often looks more like a deep playmaker rather than an overlapping full-back and offers an option for a square ball from midfield.
In a scrappy 1-1 draw in Ecuador — famously a tough place to go because of the altitude — Tite was even more cautious with his use of Fred. He sat solidly alongside Casemiro (who opened the scoring by bundling home in the second phase of a corner) in possession.
However, they didn’t work particularly well as a partnership without possession in this game. Fred doesn’t seem particularly diligent in terms of covering when Casemiro pushes forward to close down — here, Casemiro gets bypassed and Ecuador can easily poke the ball past him into a position between the lines. This is typical of the way Brazil play in midfield, often with a surprisingly large distance between their two central midfielders.
A more interesting approach featured in the 4-0 thrashing of Chile in March. Here, while again Fred was theoretically playing alongside Casemiro — and did so in the defensive phase — in possession he consistently pushed much higher up the pitch, effectively turning Brazil into a 4-1-4-1. This is typical of how they played — Casemiro is standing still and directing others, while Fred is pushing on.
And the extent to which Fred pushed forward is remarkable — this shows him 20 yards ahead of his midfield colleague Casemiro. To emphasize the point, the other players highlighted here are the two central attackers, Neymar and Lucas Paqueta, who were coming deep to receive the ball at feet, essentially leaving Fred as the side’s temporary striker.
And perhaps those attackers came so deep because Casemiro found it very difficult to advance the ball when left alone in midfield. On two occasions in the first half, he tried to play forward passes into Fred but failed miserably, first seeing his pass intercepted by an opponent…
… and then not noticing Fred’s run infield, and passing it beyond him.
Again, Casemiro looked more comfortable when Alves pushed infield to become a safer passing option — it’s notable that Fred isn’t even in the shot here.
Fred actually played his more advanced role well, particularly when Neymar or Paqueta came deep to provide some inspiration on the ball. Here, he responds to Neymar’s forward pass with a neat backheel to allow Neymar to drive towards goal…
But there’s no getting around it — Casemiro and Fred are a somewhat functional midfield duo at international level. That’s in keeping with the way Brazil almost always plays: the No 5 stays deep to the left and protects the defense without ever advancing, while the No 8 pushes forward a little to the right when appropriate. Fred and Casemiro aren’t overwhelmingly cohesive in the defensive phase, and there isn’t a lot of passing quality from this combination, with that problem generally solved when an attacker drops deep.
Their relationship is likely to improve after playing together for United, though, and therefore the big winner here is surely Tite. He was seemingly already set on fielding Casemiro and Fred together in Qatar, and three months of playing alongside each other at club level won’t do any harm.
Granted, given United’s malaise, by November they’re unlikely to be at the level of Milan’s Pirlo and Gattuso in 2006, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in 2010, or Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos in 2014. But Brazil , already the bookmaker’s favorites for the World Cup, have just become slightly stronger.