"Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"
This widely repeated quote from Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane was made in 2003 when the club agreed to sell Claude Makelele to Chelsea. The decision coincided with the ignominious departure of Vicente del Bosque, who was sacked 24 hours after delivering the 2002-03 La Liga title. Zidane would not add another major trophy to his collection over the course of the next three seasons at the Bernabeu before his retirement in 2006. It would not be until the following season, four years and seven coaches after Makalele and Del Bosque were shown the door, that the trophy room at Real's stadium would be adorned again.
As a replacement for Makalele, Florentino Perez brought in David Beckham, that summer's Galactico signing, alongside a few Castilla cadets including a young defensive midfielder named Borja Fernandez, who would go on to make a respectable 24 appearances for the first team in 2003-04.
Perez has since acquired a reputation as a man willing to forego any notion of defensive stability in favour of stacking his side with attacking talent and it is a deserved one. However, the Real president did make a small admission of culpability for the loss of Makalele in the summer of 2004, when he tried and narrowly failed to sign Patrick Vieira. Real's Bentley continued to shine the following season but it wasn't designed to go over anything other than the smoothest of roads.
Subsequent attempts to fill the void left by Makelele took in such disparate figures as Thomas Gravesen, Pablo Garcia, Mahamadou Diarra, Fernando Gago and Javi Garcia until Xabi Alonso arrived in 2009 to make the anchor role his own. But the Spaniard was hardly comparable to Makelele in the purely defensive element the Frenchman perfected.
It has taken until the arrival of his former teammate in the dugout at Real Madrid for the qualities of a pure defensive midfielder to be recognised as essential to the functioning of the team as a whole: Zidane has found his Makalale in Casemiro.
It is hardly surprising that arguably France's greatest footballer should value the role so highly. In Les Bleus' World Cup and European Championship-winning teams of 1998 and 2000 the original water carrier, who could be considered the template for what came to be known as "the Makalele role," was current France manager Didier Deschamps.
Casemiro did not immediately catch Zidane's eye. In his first eight matches in charge of the side after succeeding Rafa Benitez in January 2016, the Real boss gave his Brazilian midfielder a total of 20 minutes in the league and a one-minute cameo in Europe. By mid-March, Casemiro was an undisputed starter, appearing in the first XI in every game he was available for until the end of the season and playing the full 90 minutes 11 times, including in the quarterfinals, semifinals (missing the second leg against Manchester City through injury) and final of the Champions League as Real lifted the Undecima.
The catalyst was defeat against Atletico in the Madrid derby, Zidane's only Liga loss in 2015-16. With Casemiro in the side for the remainder of the season, other than for two games against Getafe and Rayo Vallecano -- who would be relegated at the end of the campaign -- Real won every match.
This season the Brazilian's absence with a string of injury problems has been keenly felt. Madrid have drawn 10 games in all cometitions, six of which Casemiro was unavailable for. Across Europe's top five leagues, no player with more than one appearance in 2016-17 puts in more tackles per game than Casemiro, who averages five per 90 minutes in La Liga. In Europe that figure jumps to 5.3, ranking the Brazilian second overall behind CSKA Moscow's Pontus Wernbloom. In terms of interceptions, he rates fourth in the Champions League with four per game on the back of just 360 minutes in this season's competition.
What makes Casemiro even better at what he does, which is an art form in itself, is his control. Not only off his boot, which is capable of the sublime from deep positions, but also in his self-management during the most heated of games. The Brazilian administers his own brand of measured brutality and is a master of the subtle dig, the surreptitious trip and more visible winding up the opposition, yet he has never once in his career been sent off. He is also exactly what Real Madrid have been lacking for the best part of a decade and a half.
In his news conference before last December's Clasico, Zidane strayed from his habitual straight-bat approach to confirm that Casemiro was available after injury and would "be with the side" in Barcelona. The defensive midfielder did not start but was brought on for Isco with Real 1-0 down in Camp Nou to shore up the back. Barcelona did not score again and Sergio Ramos grabbed a stoppage-time equaliser to secure a point. With the return fixture on the horizon, Casemiro will be among the first names on the team sheet as Real seek to land a knockout blow in the title race.
Now 25, Casemiro arrived at the Bernabeu in January 2013 as a virtual unknown on loan from Sao Paulo for what was essentially an extended trial at Castilla; he eventually cost Real Madrid just €6 million. Today his value to the side today is almost immeasurable. As Zidane said in the same news conference: '"We know how much he can give us."
The Real boss knows better than most: as a player he suffered after losing the security behind him offered by Makalele. As long as he remains in charge at the Bernabeu, there is no chance of his favourite four-by-four being sacrificed for a fancier model.