Kiko Casilla: Fall From Grace

In 2015, Kiko Casilla signed for Real Madrid. In 2021, he conceded three goals against Crawley Town.

It’s been some fall from grace for the Spaniard, once capped by his national team. Kiko Casilla was the first choice at Espanyol for a number of years, keeping 38 clean sheets in 115 La Liga appearances. Such form earned him a move to his boyhood club, Real Madrid, where he served as backup to Kaylor Navas and eventually Thibaut Courtois upon the Belgian’s arrival. With a desire for first-team football, it was no surprise that Casilla was looking to leave the club. It was surprising, however, when Leeds United emerged as his destination. The free signing of Kiko Casilla to a Championship club was, at the time, viewed as a coup by fans and neutrals alike. A league winner, a Champions League winner, a veteran at Elland Road whose January 2019 arrival was, to many, the final piece needed in Leeds United’s promotion push. Two years later, in January 2021, Casilla is the second, some would say third, choice for the Leeds goal, behind Meslier (and Elia Caprile, depending who you ask), his two appearances of the 2020/21 season coming in defeats to League One Hull and League Two Crawley in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup respectively. The question surrounding Kiko Casilla is clear, what happened?

When Leeds signed Kiko Casilla, it was clear that he would compete with Bailey Peacock-Farrell for the number one spot.

There too was no doubt amongst fans that he would eventually usurp it from the Northern Irish international. He showed the value he could offer the club in his debut, a 2-1 win away at Rotherham, where Casilla made numerous solid saves, combining his acrobatics with his fundamentals as he did with Espanyol and Madrid. Even in his early games, however, there were some issues surrounding Kiko Casilla at Leeds United. It was only his seventh game for Leeds that would see him keep his first clean sheet, surprising for a keeper of his calibre. It was too in these early days, the first few months, that several red flags in his game would appear. Casilla was a very theatrical keeper, but overall a good, acrobatic shot-stopper. Other aspects of his playstyle lacked the same flair and ability. Kiko never seemed truly in command of his box, with fans often grimacing at an opposing set piece in fear of what their goalkeeper would try and conjure up to stop it resulting in a goal. Still, the first six months or so of Casilla at Leeds were okay. It’s hard to say they were particularly impressive, but they certainly weren’t woeful. A late drop off in form from the team as a whole saw Leeds go winless in their last four fixtures of the season, with a 3rd place finish confirming that the Whites would have to win the playoffs to go up.

Unsurprisingly, Bielsa made no changes to his side going into the playoff semi-finals with Derby County. Leeds as a side looked confident in the first match, coming away from Pride Park with a 1-0 victory, setting a prematurely triumphant mood amongst fans and, no doubt, players to an extent. The first of Kiko Casilla’s severe falters came in the second leg of the playoff tie with the Rams. A Stuart Dallas opening goal all but confirmed the feeling of glory at Elland Road, the ground exploding with passion when Dallas found the net. A 2-0 score on aggregate, with an away goal, all Leeds had to do was defend. The ball was headed on for Jack Marriott to chase in the 45th minute, overhit by mere inches. As the ball was being chased down by skipper Liam Cooper, Kiko Casilla emerged from his line, seeming to lack communication with his centre-back. Amidst the confusion, both Casilla and Cooper went to clear the ball, by launching it and sliding for it respectively, and missed it entirely, allowing Marriott to pounce and equalise the tie before halftime. In the second half, Casilla would go on to be lobbed by Mason Mount, bested at the penalty spot by Harry Wilson, and beaten to the ball once more by Jack Marriott in an embarrassing 4-2 defeat to Derby at Elland Road.

The defeat to Derby epitomised in Casilla what many fans had inklings of for months.

A lack of confidence, communication, and concentration had let his side down and had massively impacted his game. The mistake was a one-off, but that doesn’t make it excusable. Casilla had played in the Champions League for one of the biggest teams in world football and so was no stranger to games of high stakes. Still, Bielsa kept faith in his Spanish shot-stopper. Upon Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s departure to Burnley, Leeds brought in Illan Meslier on loan from FC Lorient, the second choice for the season and an understudy to Casilla.

Casilla started the 2019-20 season in the same way as his side, strong.

The first 21 games of the season saw Casilla concede only ten goals, his side only losing three games, and keeping 12 clean sheets as his side aimed for the top spot. His 22nd game, the 3-3 draw against Cardiff, is often viewed as the turning point of the season. The start of the season saw Casilla play as if he were a new man, one completely unphased by the events of last season. He was confident on the ball; his saves were strong and frequent and he had more control over the Leeds box than he had ever shown. Going into the match against Cardiff, Leeds had won seven on the bounce and had kept four successive clean sheets. Many were expecting an easy Leeds win, expectations furthered by the Whites taking a three-goal lead against the Welsh side. In the 60th minute of the game, Bennett floated a ball into the Leeds United box. What should have been a simple punch away was completely misconstrued by Casilla, his efforts missing the ball completely, knocking him to the ground, allowing Lee Tomlin to score for Cardiff. Casilla then saw the ball put past him a second time by Sean Morrison before Robert Glatzel slotted a fairly tame effort home for Cardiff’s third.

Leeds had let a three-goal lead slip at home, their defensive solidity crumbling from the Casilla error that resulted in the first goal. The backline had been reminded of the erratic style that Kiko Casilla had demonstrated in the past and it was from this game that, whilst the Leeds defence would slip, more so would their goalkeeper. What worsened this situation for Casilla personally was the ongoing investigations into Jonathan Leko’s claims that Casilla had used racist language towards him in a clash with Charlton earlier in the season. The Spaniard would appear increasingly worse in games from the Cardiff match, making five errors in the next ten games that would result in goals for the opposing side, including two in the frenzy that was the 5-4 win at St. Andrews against Birmingham (fumbling a fairly simple attempt on goal, then later completely missing the ball from a free-kick), missing a punch away from a corner in a 1-0 defeat against Wigan, being beaten at a tight angle at his near post in a 2-0 defeat against Forest and, perhaps the most noticeable, a poor first touch on a simple back pass that rolled under his foot in a 1-1 draw at Brentford. There too were instances in which he was perhaps beaten too easily, such as in the 1-1 draw with Preston and the 2-0 home loss to Sheffield Wednesday.

Through a string of poor performances, the pressure was rising on Kiko Casilla.

As well as his form, he too had pressure from the incident with Leko, with a verdict nearing. Kiko, to his credit, was present for a three-game streak of 1-0 wins after the draw at Brentford before he was given an eight-match ban for racism towards Jonathan Leko in that game against Charlton. In his place came Illan Meslier who, whilst he had looked solid against Arsenal in the cup in January, was coming into the first team at a crucial time in the season. Leeds were 2nd, hunting the title, and would be without their first-choice goalkeeper for eight of the final eleven matches. Meslier’s performances following his induction into the first team truly reminded fans what they were missing from their goalkeeper. Meslier was young but commanded his box with authority. He confidently claimed any cross that neared him and was an efficient shot-stopper when he was called upon, whilst too maintaining a noticeably calm demeanour when he had the ball at his feet. The young Frenchman reintroduced every goalkeeping essential that had been hidden by the Spaniard who was, by this point, more calamitous more often than not.

By the start of the 2020/21 season, Meslier had truly made his staple with his opportunity.

The Frenchman would be keeping his number 1 spot for Leeds’ first season back in the Premier League. In turn, Kiko Casilla would once more be relegated to a backup role. Through a combination of the racism suspension, poor performances, and the rise of Illan Meslier, fans are content with the idea of Kiko remaining outside of the starting eleven. Certain mistakes from Meslier, stemming from his age and lack of experience as opposed to lack of ability, have resulted in certain fans calling for Casilla’s return to the first team. Kiko has played two games this season, the EFL Cup defeat against Hull and the FA Cup defeat against Crawley, his (lack of) goalkeeping for the second Crawley goal being a staunch reminder to Leeds fans of his erroneous nature in between the sticks. Casilla seems a shell of the Espanyol keeper he once was, and it is hard to imagine that many Leeds fans will be particularly distraught upon his exit from the club, which grows more likely by the day.