In the build-up to FA Cup third round weekend, the message from Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa was clear in showing nothing but respect for the competition itself and their opponents, League Two outfit Crawley Town. The way in which Bielsa operates and analyses every detail with a fine comb surely told us that the history and prestige of the FA Cup would not be lost on him. Whilst changes to the starting XI were expected, Bielsa hinted the team would be strong and few seemed to be in disagreement when the team was announced at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon.
If the team selected seemed to back up Bielsa’s pre match words, his substitutions surely did not. The pre-planned nature and execution of the triple substitution at half time raised eyebrows at the time and the result of the match was always going to guide the narrative regarding this decision. Bringing off 3 first team players likely to start Leeds United’s next premier league game in place of a makeshift number 9 in Jack Harrison and two players yet to experience any meaningful first team action was bold and a large sense of control and calmness in the Leeds backline seemed to evaporate as the second half unfolded.
As much as these substitutions have been, and will continue to be, scrutinised by media and fans this week, one other takeaway from the match will undoubtedly be the performance of Kiko Casilla. If you are going to rest players and make changes for a game against lower ranked opponents, then surely a 34-year-old Spanish International with 3 Champions League medals is perfectly placed to come in and maintain a level of calmness and authority you’d expect from a Premier League outfit?
The flow of the game in the first half was as close to being on script as you could hope for; Leeds struggling to break down a stubborn and organised Crawley side who themselves were feeding off scraps and set pieces. The one chance which did fall Crawley’s way in the first half was predictably from a corner which Casilla did well to push away from danger. It was in the second half, after the previously mentioned substitutions, where the game was wrestled out of Leeds’ control as Crawley ran all over the youthful naivety and physical weakness in the Leeds side and began to sense their chance for a memorable upset had arrived.
What Leeds needed in the second half was their goalkeeper to show his quality and experience with a youthful backline in front of him. It was this quality and authority that seemed to desert Casilla as the game fell apart for the Whites, not for the first time in his Leeds career. The first goal was poor defending in front of the goalkeeper, most notably from Kalvin Phillips in allowing Nicholas Tsaroulla to stroll past him so easily. However, it was a shot that was surely close enough to the goalkeeper, taking into the account from where and how hard the shot was executed, for him to palm away. The second goal was a relatively tame strike that seemed to totally go through Casilla, much to Ashley Nadesan’s delight as he wheeled off in celebration at the realisation as to what was happening to him and his Crawley team mates. Whether the third goal was tucked home after a good save or poor push out from Casilla is up for debate but the nature of the goals left fans in no doubt as to where Casilla currently is in his Leeds United career. His confidence looked shattered and his position below Illan Meslier in the pecking order was vindicated by his own performance. On his day Casilla is a goalkeeper capable of fantastic saves and an ability to play out from the back with assurance, but he is unfortunately also prone to errors and seems to lose confidence and form far too quickly for someone with his illustrious CV.
Ever since Meslier came into the Leeds starting XI, making his league debut in a 4-0 win against Hull, there has been a calmness to his play which defies his youthfulness (20 going on 12). Meslier was thrown in to the team at a vital point in Leeds’ promotion campaign due to the 8-game ban issued to Casilla for being found guilty by the FA of directing racist language towards Jonathan Leko away at Charlton earlier on in the season. The way Bielsa shows loyalty to players, and stuck by Casilla in the media following the FA Hearing and subsequent punishment, meant that a tough decision was there to be made upon the completion of Casilla’s ban. His fierce loyalty to his players was divided, the experienced pro he had brought into the club and backed after the previous year’s play-off disappointment or the young man thrown in to the pressure cooker environment of a promotion push who had not let the Argentine or the team down? In the end Bielsa opted with the ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach and retained Meslier in the team as Leeds powered to the Championship title. The selection of Casilla in the penultimate game of the season against Derby County, when promotion was already secured and many starting players were rested, felt like his way of demonstrating trust and faith in Casilla. Trust in him as a person as much as a goalkeeper following his ban and the subsequent criticism of his character that inevitably followed.
Bielsa resisted any outside noise to look at bringing in a new number 1 last summer and stuck with his experienced pro and young apprentice competing with one another, with Meslier retaining the starting spot. His performances since that point have involved both understandable mistakes given his age and also some brilliant moments and matches. Meslier has been instrumental in positive results picked up by Leeds against Man City, Arsenal., Burnley and most notably Sheffield United. The saves against Sheffield United, denying John Lundstram in the first half especially, led to Meslier deservedly collecting the man of the match award. His ability to make big saves in clutch moments has helped him pick up 6 clean sheets in the Premier league so far this season, which places him joint 4th on the list despite Leeds having come in for criticism at times due to the nature of their gung-ho approach and subsequent lack of defensive stability.
Strangely for a goalkeeper 4th in the Golden Glove standings, Meslier is also 2nd in terms of saves made this season in the league which shows how often he is called upon and required to help his team mates out. Furthermore, according to official Premier League stats Meslier has only been responsible for one error leading directly to a goal, with notable company on this figure including Nick Pope and Hugo Lloris. Despite these strong stats to back up some eye-catching performances, there have undoubtedly been some shaky moments for the young Frenchman to go alongside the camera reel of saves. There was the weak hand whilst moving across his goal line for Thomas Soucek’s equaliser against West Ham, the falling backwards into his goal whilst unsuccessfully attempting to keep out headers from both Virgil Van Dijk and Toby Alderweireld, and recently a poor pass out from the back which led directly to Tottenham’s penalty for the opening goal in London last weekend.
The inconsistencies in performances highlighted above has at times divided the Leeds fanbase in relation to Meslier this season. His ability to make saves and play the way Bielsa demands his goalkeeper to play at such a young age demonstrate enormous potential which is recognised by most (Bielsa visibly remonstrating with the young French man for going long with his clearances at West Brom, moments after gifting West Brom a goalscoring chance with a short pass inside his penalty area, demonstrated this perfectly). It is whether this potential is ready for the Premier League on a weekly basis which has been up for debate. The experience of Casilla was something some fans were calling for, with those calls becoming slightly louder after the game against Spurs earlier this month.
The FA Cup game against Crawley was an opportunity for Casilla to remind people of his qualities and why he was brought to the club on big money and retains his status as one of the club’s highest earners despite the club’s promotion and the new signings that followed.
If Casilla and Meslier both share an ability to sometimes shine and sometimes struggle, it was a reminder of Casilla’s ability to do the latter against Crawley that will be a big takeaway from the game for many Leeds fans. Whilst their playing styles seem fairly comparable on the eye, there are some noticeable differences between the two men competing for the goalkeeping position at Leeds which perhaps illustrate why is the young Frenchman currently in possession of the number 1 jersey.
The first difference is the obvious; the age of the 2 players. Meslier is nearly 14 years younger than Casilla and surely the player with capacity to grow and develop as a number 1 goalkeeper. Learning on the job at the age of 20 is surely more acceptable in the eyes of the public and coaching staff than a 34-year-old seemingly incapable of learning from his mistakes. Mistakes from one are to be expected, the other less so. The fact there are so few goalkeepers of Meslier’s age performing on the stage he is demonstrates his quality and the potential seen in him by all and his exposure to this level of football will surely be of benefit to him and the team in the long term. In comparison it is now approaching 6 years since Casilla left Espanyol for Real Madrid and during those 6 years he has accumulated just 101 appearances in all competitive games. Their career graphs seem to be heading in different directions at an ever-increasing speed.
The second big difference from an outsider looking in seems to be the way in which both players react to their own mistakes. Despite Casilla having the upper hand from an experience point of view, one mistake often seems to lead to a second and a third. The Spaniard can look imperious for 6 consecutive games and then one mistake can lead to a run of poor form and games where he looks alarmingly short of confidence. Not only does this confidence greatly affect his game, it also has a worrying impact on the back 3 or 4 in front of him, especially the way in which he deals with crosses and long/through balls in behind the defence. In comparison to this, Meslier seems to be able to shrug off a mistake as part and parcel of the game and is able to reassert his composure and quality within matches after making an error. This has happened several times this season, with the obvious example being a poor pass out against West Brom aimed for Kalvin Phillips inside his own box in a central area. Despite the pass being picked off, Meslier recovered and composed himself to make a brilliant save to preserve his clean sheet in a game Leeds dominated. There have been other examples, such as restricting Tottenham with some fine saves despite contributing to their first and possibly third goal. It is this resilience that is so valuable and something that Casilla has often lacked throughout his time in Yorkshire.
Leeds return to the real crux of their season on Saturday against Brighton in the Premier League, which is said without meaning any disregard to their poor performance and result against Crawley. The success or failure of this season will be determined by their league finish even if some will argue the FA Cup was something that could have been attacked and at least respected more. One thing that is certain is the goalkeeper that will be selected against Brighton and the Crawley debacle has only reinforced Meslier’s position in the eyes of everyone. Bielsa knows as well as anyone that his tactics are demanding and they don’t fall down when mistakes are made; they fall down when players lack the physical attributes or mental strength to carry them out. The mental strength mentioned involves bravery and the players continuing to take risks regardless of the situation the game is in or the quality of the opposition. It is this bravery and resilience that Meslier possesses that has enabled him to overtake Casilla and establish himself, in Bielas’s eyes and surely the Leeds fans too, as Leeds United’s number 1 for both present and future.
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After Casilla makes an error there is an expectation he'll make another, it weights on his mind. After Meslier has made an error he shrugs it off and gets on with it.
Thanks for the feedback. Is much appreciated. Looking to potentially write semi regularly and see how it goes. Any sharing of the article, either privately or on Twitter/Facebook etc would be much appreciated. My twitter handle is @SLadley17 as well MOT
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mothbanquet wrote: ↑Thu Jan 14, 2021 8:43 am Good read, that. I've defended Kiko in the past and won't get involved in off-the-pitch issues that have no bearing on his ability, but it was quite clear after that game that his Leeds days are finally numbered. I've been happy with Mes since he first started and my opinion of him's only grown with time. We've potentially got a world class keeper for life.
Bielsa with a stong devence of Kiko today!
I fully trust in Kiko and I will do the utmost possible to help him. I think that the treatment he suffered ignores the fact that he played 40 games for Real Madrid. Apart from whether his performances were good or bad, we forget all the things he has done to get the team promoted. People also don’t consider how he’s been treated publicly given the situation that he had to go through when he was suspended for eight games.
I believe in him, his team-mates believe in him and we are close to him because we value him as a person and a footballer. We accept what people think of him in the media or people, but we know his past and we know his conditions and we care about him a lot as a human being.