Hard as it may be to believe now that he is a decorated club legend, for several years Michael Carrick was somewhat of an enigma at Manchester United. Carrick had joined the English titans in 2006 to fill the void left in defensive midfield months earlier by longtime United captain Roy Keane, whose rampaging performances imposing himself everywhere on the pitch had been the engine of the club’s successes for over a decade.
United fans anticipating similar showings from his direct replacement were left somewhat perplexed to find that the lanky, slow-moving Carrick’s game was based in anticipation and calm, economic distribution of the ball rather than Keane’s frenetic escalations at every stage of play. For years, fan opinions on Carrick ranged from quiet appreciation at best to a more common full-on disappointment, with even manager Alex Ferguson acquiring direct competition such as Owen Hargreaves and Anderson Oliveira. However after playing a key role in re-establishing United’s dominance in England and Europe, fans came to realize that the midfielder not only replaced Keane but represented an adaptation and evolution of the deep midfield role as United moved into a new era.
Cristian Cásseres Jr might not have been a direct replacement for now-RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams (and indeed they were teammates for a season and only a year apart in age) but comparisons beckoned soon after the Venezuelan moved to New York Red Bulls in early 2018. Jesse Marsch was even reported as stating that Cásseres was ahead of where Adams was at the same age, and it was the absence of Adams with injuries and internationals where Cásseres saw his first minutes with the first team.
Following Adams’ transfer to Germany after the Shield-winning 2018 season it was widely expected that Cásseres would take over the void in central midfield, especially after injury-prone veteran Marc Rzatkowski was also released at the end of the year. With Cásseres as well as with recently-acquired DC United academy prospect Jean-Christophe Koffi, Red Bulls manager Chris Armas appeared to have pieces in place to build a young aggressive midfield in the Red Bull mold in his first full season in charge. However 2019 ended up as a muddled mess for Cásseres and the Red Bulls as Armas’ indecision and tendency to revert to convention rather than seek to evolve the side led to inconsistent results and inscrutable progression of individual players.
Despite entering preseason camp in early 2019 with praise for Cásseres and Koffi, Armas and general manager Denis Hamlett made the last minute decision to re-sign the 29-year-old Rzatkowski after the rest of the squad had already convened in Arizona. With Sean Davis a first-choice starter under Armas, the additional midfield role became a musical chairs in which Cásseres was benched for Rzatkowski or left out of the squad entirely for multiple long stretches in the early part of the season.
In addition to the lack of general trust Cásseres was receiving from his manager, Cásseres was often ill-served by Armas’ tactical deployment of him as well. Cásseres first emerged as a global transfer prospect through his performances in the Venezuela youth national team program as a deep-lying holding midfielder, sitting behind his team’s attack and spraying deep diagonal passes not unlike Michael Carrick. But alongside Sean Davis, Cásseres took on a more mobile ball-carrying role in New York that seemed often like Armas’ attempt to facsimile the Roy Keane-esque all-action play of Tyler Adams in a player with a subtly different skillset. This more advanced deployment of Cásseres led to occasional highlight reel goals (usually showing off his strong striking technique historically deployed at the base of midfield) but more often indecisive passing and haphazard defensive positioning. Despite gaining a more consistent starting role as the season went on (he started 16 of the team’s last 17 league matches in 2019) the team’s results were well off the pace set in 2018 before Adams’ departure.
With the general acknowledgment that the squad as a whole had regressed, Cásseres has largely avoided intense scrutiny as the team slowly began a rebuild under new sporting chief Kevin Thelwell that eventually included the dismissal of Armas. Befitting a player whose father and namesake was an international-level striker, Cristian Junior has been a mature professional through the whole situation. He offered words of respect for Armas and his leadership just days before the manager was fired by the club in September, and his perseverance towards gaining a starting role in New York has led to an emergence with the senior Venezuela national team in recent months.
Cásseres is still only 20 years old and, given the muddled nature of his role in the Red Bulls midfield over the last two years, is yet to be fully coached at the senior level. Surely Thelwell and the club still see an upside or at the very least short-term utility in Cásseres. Newly-installed head coach Gerhard Struber’s tactical approach requires a larger-than-usual corps of well-rounded central midfielders, and one hopes the Austrian’s use of him will offer a final verdict on whether the Venezuelan ultimately is a deep-lying, backline-screening midfield anchor or a free-running box-to-box player as generally used by Armas. Like Carrick with United, it can be through Cristian Cásseres Jr that observers might more clearly see the evolution of the Red Bulls.