But for their horrendous start to the season, in which summer optimism turned to resigned pessimism in the space of a week, Manchester United could find themselves in a title race.
But Erik ten Hag’s first two games at Old Trafford saw a dismal defeat to Brighton on the opening day, before a historic low, losing 4-0 at Brentford, as their relegation odds crashed to 25/1, and top two odds drifted to 33/1 (now ). They were even 10/3 to finish in the bottom half, and despite the transfer window still being open at the time, it was hard to see where such a turnaround would come from.
While the uptick in form can be credited to a number of elements – the partnership between Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane at the back, the rejuvenation of Marcus Rashford in attack and of course the manager himself – it’s hard to look past a certain five-time Champions League winner sitting in the middle of midfield.
To be blunt, the signing of Casemiro looked desperate at the time. But United were desperate.
With a move for Frenkie de Jong not forthcoming, United had turned to a 30-year-old player who Real Madrid didn’t seem to have major reservations about letting go, for the princely sum of £60m.
It was a huge gamble, but it appears to have been a gamble that’s paid off.
The league table since Casemiro's first Manchester United start:
The only surprising thing about the move was how long it took for Casemiro to be introduced to the team. He was given 10 minutes off the bench against Southampton and Arsenal, and half an hour against Leicester and Manchester City.
But, to credit of Scott McTominay, there wasn’t a space readily available. Despite his detractors, the academy graduate had a fine start to the season and was keeping the five-time Champions League winner out on merit, but the 6-3 defeat to Manchester City forced a change.
And the change has been startling.
While Ten Hag’s men had stopped the rot with four straight wins, prior to the defeat the Etihad, United were allowing an average of more than 25 shot-creating actions (SCA) per game, rivalling the likes of Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth and Everton, while averaging fewer than 20 themselves. The balance needed shifting, and Casemiro has played a huge part in that.
Over their last 10 games, they’ve allowed an average of just 16.2 SCAs. For context, over the course of the season, only title challengers Manchester City and Arsenal have allowed fewer (12.06 and 13.24 respectively).
Every defensive stat seems to further prove just how influential Casemiro has been. In the games before Caseimiro’s first start, Manchester United were allowing 10 passes within 20 yards of goal per game; that’s dropped to 4.8 since.
Their xGA per game was 1.57, down to 0.82 in games since Casemiro started.
Even on an individual level, only Fulham’s Joao Palhinha is making more combined tackles and interceptions per90 amongst Premier League midfielders this season.
Teams are scoring fewer and creating fewer chances because they simply can’t get as close to United’s goal.
There’s no doubt Manchester United have been aided by having such a talented technician alongside Casemiro in the form of Christian Eriksen, with the pair a huge step up on the much-maligned McFred pairing.
While much of the criticism Fred and McTominay got was harsh, the difference it’s made having Casemiro and Eriksen is clear to see.
There is certainly a question mark over how long the two can continue to operate at such a high level; they’re both the wrong side of 30 and have around 1,300 career appearances between them.
But for as long as they stay fit and motivated, United have two top-class operators in the middle of the park, and could well become a force to be reckoned with once more.