The last line

Writer and goalkeeping coach Ian Watson continues our new column 'The Last Line' by looking at Real Madrid's supposed interest in replacements for Iker Casillas. Each week we'll focus on a topic of debate between the posts as our fully paid-up member of the goalkeepers' union has his say.

By Ian Watson - @ianwatson1.   Last Updated: 26/10/12 2:08pm

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Our weekly feature dissects the loneliest position in football

Our weekly feature dissects the loneliest position in football

Perhaps keen to learn from Manchester United's mistakes, Real Madrid are reported to already be putting succession plans in place for the day Iker Casillas vacates the Bernabeu goal.

United's David De Gea has been linked with a return to the Spanish capital this week, while the La Liga champions are also understood to have been looking at Real Zaragoza stopper Roberto, Andres Fernandez of Osasuna and Leicester City's Kasper Schmeichel.

Filling Saint Iker's huge gloves will be an unenviable task for the club hierarchy and the poor individual who steps in to his goal. Despite thirteen years having passed since John Toshack handed Casillas his debut, that day cannot already be on the horizon, can it?

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The Spain number one has been in a poor run of form of late. A sloppy punch on Wednesday led to Borussia Dortmund's winner in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, while the 3-2 win over Manchester City was achieved in spite of Casillas, rather than thanks to him. Casillas unusually gambled against Edin Dzeko and unsurprisingly lost when the Bosnian opened the scoring, before Aleksandar Kolarov's free-kick from deep on the right found its way past everyone, including the keeper.

Lionel Messi's free-kick in the recent Clasico at the Nou Camp also brought criticism for Casillas, which illustrates the high expectations the Spanish have of their captain. Messi's goal - a sublime 25-yard curler - said more about the problems that lie in defending with a traditional wall, more than it reflected badly on Casillas. The Real keeper's view was hampered by the three Barca players stood directly in his line of sight alongside the five white bodies positioned 10 yards from the ball. The eight-man obstacle proved more of an obstruction for Casillas than it did for Messi.

Casillas insisted only last week that, as a 142-cap veteran, he now viewed constructive criticism as 'a positive thing' and takes it with 'a sense of humour'. The statistics, though, lend credence to critics' view that his performances are not currently up to scratch.

SeasonGames PlayedSave PercentageSave Percentage (in box)
2005/20063777.78%63.44%
2008/20093870.62%61.06%
2009/20103875.00%66.30%
2010/20113570.64%63.41%
2011/20123772.81%63.38%
2012/2013865.00%53.85%

Casillas' saves-to-shots ratio had averaged a consistently excellent 75 per cent over the seven seasons up to the start of the current campaign, while 65 per cent of attempts from inside the box were kept out over the same period.

This season's figures make far more underwhelming reading.

The only consolation for Casillas - however unlikely it may be that he chooses to view it that way - is that, statistically, he is still out-performing his rivals for the Spain jersey. Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina are also finding their form under severe scrutiny and neither have seized the opportunity to enhance their prospects of dislodging the record caps holder.

While Casillas' performances might be a concern for Jose Mourinho, the goalkeeper does not appear worried: "When you've been at the top and in a club like Real Madrid this long you know that in two or three matches things can change."

Casillas has already spent a footballer's lifetime at the highest level, but do not let that fool you into thinking that age is catching up with the two-time Champions League winner - he is still only 31-years-old. That, in goalkeeping years, is barely even middle age. The skipper has a contract with Real for a further five years, which is still three years short of his target retirement age of 39.

Far more likely than this being the start of Casillas' gradual fall from goalkeeping grace, in the perception of the fans and media, it seems that he is merely a victim of his own exceptionally high standards.

Since Oliver Kahn retired, only Gianluigi Buffon has rivalled Casillas as the world's best goalkeeper over the last five years. He may not be as demonstrative as Kahn and Buffon, but Casillas brings an air of calm to his all-conquering teams as well as the assurance that, should he be needed, he's always on hand with a match-winning save.

Edwin van der Sar, the man who left such a gaping hole in the Manchester United goal, summed up Casillas as well as anyone could.

"He's a steadying influence and that's what I like in a goalkeeper, someone who does their job without a fuss and makes sure that the team works in front of them. He's got good reaction saves, he's brave and he makes the right saves at the right moments."

High praise, indeed, coming from the ultimate steady Eddie. But as the role of the goalkeeper has evolved from the last line of defence to the first line of attack, perhaps Casillas is also paying for the unassuming way he goes about keeping his goal.

His competitors for the Spain jersey - Reina, Valdes and, to a lesser extent, De Gea - all play the role of showman better than Casillas. Getting involved in the attack appears to excite his understudies as much as marshalling the defence. The number one, while extremely capable in his distribution, appears more content in concentrating on what he's brilliant at.

Those eyeing Iker Casillas' crown at Real Madrid should not get excited too soon

And that covers almost everything else. Casillas, like many young keepers, had to grow into his penalty area but the high ball is no longer the weakness it once was, nor does he think anymore that he has to come for anything within reasonable reach. His reflexes remain lightning quick, and where he leads, others follow. Joe Hart recently revealed that he is working hard to emulate Casillas in the way the Spaniard chooses to rely on the speed of his reactions, rather than anticipate a striker's intention. As routes to the top go, copying the men already in situ - Casillas and Buffon - may be the quickest way to get there.

There would be no better learning experience than to work with Casillas on a daily basis and, if recent reports are to be believed, it seems Real Madrid want the great man to help groom his successor. More than any genuine interest in the goalkeeping market, however, the links with emerging shot-stoppers may simply be Mourinho's way of nudging Casillas out of his slump.

Flattering though it may be to see their names linked with mighty Real Madrid, before they start dreaming of the Bernabeu, the young subjects of Real's supposed interest should consider that the king is not dead. There might be a vacancy on the bench, but Casillas' throne is likely to remain occupied for several years yet.

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