From one angle it looked like Casemiro had throttled Will Hughes by the neck. From another, it looked like he was doing him a favour by stopping him joining the melee.
The flashpoint that saw the Manchester United midfielder sent off in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace was forensically analysed by fans and pundits alike all weekend.
But two things are clear. First, the Brazilian is experienced enough to know better given how any raising of the hands or arms to an opposition player can easily be interpreted as violent conduct.
Second, Erik ten Hag will have to find yet another midfield fix – a successful appeal of the sending off notwithstanding – for the upcoming double-header with Leeds United and the home fixture against Leicester City.
It’s a nuisance given how influential Casemiro has been since his £70million summer arrival from Real Madrid. The last two Premier League games he didn’t start resulted in a 6-3 drubbing at Manchester City and a 3-2 loss at Arsenal that ended United’s title hopes before they had really got going.
Manchester United midfielder Casemiro was sent off for grabbing Will Hughes by the neck
The Brazilian lost his temper and grabbed Hughes during the incident that was spotted by VAR
United will now be without the suspended midfielder for three Premier League matches
For that game at the Emirates, Casemiro was serving a one-match suspension for accumulating five yellow cards before the halfway point of the season and we can only speculate on whether the outcome in that tight affair might have been different had he played.
A further headache for Ten Hag comes from injuries in the midfield area. Christian Eriksen is out until early May with the ankle injury suffered when Reading’s Andy Carroll crashed through him in last weekend’s FA Cup tie.
Donny van de Beek is sidelined until the end of the season with a serious knee injury and Scott McTominay has a muscle problem and may be out for another week or two.
It’s possible McTominay will make at least one of the games for which Casemiro is suspended for but Ten Hag will be considering a number of different midfield options.
Trust in new boy Sabitzer
The most obvious solution would be to pair Fred with loan signing Marcel Sabitzer in the midfield two.
The Austrian, a deadline day signing from Bayern Munich in the wake of Eriksen’s injury diagnosis, was introduced for Antony in the 81st minute on Saturday, not long after Jeffrey Schlupp halved the deficit and set up a grandstand finale.
Considering the circumstances, Sabitzer looked assured enough and his presence guarding the back line also seemed to provide Fred with a fresh burst of energy.
It was less than 20 minutes of action but nonetheless a positive start. Ten Hag was quick to dismiss concerns about Sabitzer’s match sharpness given he’d only played a few minutes for Bayern since the World Cup, a tournament Austria weren’t at.
Marcel Sabitzer came off the bench for his United debut late on against Crystal Palace
Ten Hag has no concerns about Sabitzer’s fitness levels despite a lack of game time at Bayern
Sabitzer could be teamed up with Fred in midfield with the Brazilian almost certain to play
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
*Games Casemiro will miss
Wednesday Leeds United (H)*
Sunday Leeds United (A)*
February 16 Barcelona (A)
Europa League play-off, first leg
February 19 Leicester City (H)*
February 23 Barcelona (H)
Europa League play-off, second leg
One of Sabitzer’s reasons for accepting the loan move was a lack of game time at Bayern. You suspect he won’t be complaining now if Ten Hag starts him at least until McTominay returns.
Even then, with talk about the Austrian actually being an upgrade on Eriksen because of his box-to-box dynamism, shooting ability and hatred of losing, Sabitzer should be above McTominay in the pecking order anyway.
The early evidence is that United will be in safe hands with Sabitzer, who should relish a ding-dong with bitter rivals Leeds not once, but twice in the space of four days.
Move Martinez into midfield
There was already chatter about Lisandro Martinez potentially slotting into midfield following Eriksen’s injury.
Ten Hag said in an interview with MUTV: ‘He did it before. This is also one thing that me as a manager, you have to be creative in certain situations.’
Martinez did indeed play regularly as a defensive midfielder in his first season under Ten Hag at Ajax in 2019-20, before being moved back into defence.
The Argentine is already much admired among United fans for his warrior qualities at the back and many attributes are directly transferrable to the midfield role.
He could fit in there alongside Fred or Sabitzer if needed and you sense do a more than adequate job.
However, given that Martinez has formed such an effective central defensive partnership with Raphael Varane this season, Ten Hag may be loathe to change that.
Lisandro Martinez has played in midfield under Ten Hag before at Ajax and can easily adapt
Lindelof as the wildcard
Victor Lindelof has spent plenty of time warming the United bench this season after slipping further down the defensive pecking order.
So the prospect of him solving this midfield conundrum is pretty far-fetched, right?
Not necessarily. Lindelof came off the bench in last week’s Carabao Cup semi-final, second leg against Nottingham Forest and played in midfield rather than at centre-back.
Afterwards, Ten Hag said: ‘Lindelof was educated as a six, as a controlling holding midfielder at Benfica, so I know he can do that and we already tried it before in training and maybe in one game.
Victor Lindelof has played in midfield before and presents another option to Erik ten Hag
‘But also, there I also want my centre-halves playing sometimes in midfield positions so that we create different dynamics. It’s just to construct more dynamics in the team.’
So Ten Hag clearly believes Lindelof is more than capable of playing there and it does offer another alternative if push comes to shove in the next fortnight.
Give youngsters Mainoo and Iqbal their chance
Ten Hag has tried to stick to his strongest XI as much as possible this season – to the point where fans began to worry about star players burning out.
Now he is being forced to make changes, perhaps he could turn to a couple of young academy graduates hoping to make a name for themselves.
17-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, part of the United side that won the FA Youth Cup last season, has regularly been among the substitutes in recent weeks.
Youngster Kobbie Mainoo started United’s Carabao Cup quarter-final against Charlton
19-year-old midfielder Zidane Iqbal in action for United’s under-21 team last month
He also started the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Charlton and came off the bench in the FA Cup tie against Reading.
Judging by his performances for the under-21 side, Mainoo is capable of playing either as a defensive midfielder or further forward as required.
Zidane Iqbal, 19, made his senior United debut last season and has been an unused sub on several occasions in the current campaign.
He made a couple of eye-catching cameos on United’s pre-season tour of the Far East and Australia, with supporters keen to see a little bit more of him.
With United’s midfield options depleted and their winning momentum to maintain, they could well get their opportunity.