For a number of soccer fans, especially those who grew up in the 21st century, former Real Madrid and Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas may be the greatest goalkeeper in the sport’s history. He’s certainly among the most decorated; three Champions League titles, two European Championships & a World Cup trophy are among the tens of team and individual accolades the Spanish goalkeeper has accumulated across his 21-year professional career.
And given all of those accomplishments, we’ve obviously come to expect the miracle save from Casillas every so often; how can you not with a nickname like Saint Iker?
But two miracles in a single game? Now we’re getting greedy.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened on October 4, 2009. It was week 6 of the 2009-10 La Liga season, and Casillas and his Real Madrid teammates were in Seville to take on Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
Real Madrid had won each of their opening five Spanish league games and had kept a clean sheet in four of them. Although it was early in the season, they were the current league leaders going into Seville, and given their off-season additions of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká, many expected them to stay there until the season’s end.
But as alluded to earlier, Sevilla was far from an easy opponent. The Seville-based club — who had won four of their opening five league games — held Los Blancos to just three shots on target across 90 minutes of play. They also took 24 total shots themselves, including 10 on target.
Casillas had to be on his best form that day. But even then, few could’ve foreseen the Super Saiyan-like saves he’d make on two separate point-blank attempts from Renato and Diego Perotti.
Those two saves are terrific examples of just how fantastic of a goalkeeper Casillas was in his prime. Even in situations where he looked beat, Casillas was capable of pulling a rabbit out of his hat and stoning the opposition cold. It’s no wonder that the home crowd gave him an ovation following each of those miraculous stops.
But while those saves seemed to have involved a lot of luck (and to an extent, good fortune did play a part), when each save is broken down, it becomes clear that Casillas’s technical quality played a key role in the making of each of those stops.
Thanks to his mastery of things such as positioning and footwork, Casillas was able to put himself in the best possible position he could’ve been in to save those attempts.
Casillas’s first miracle save came towards the end of the first half.
In the 45th minute, Perotti found himself in acres of space on the right side of Casillas’s 18-yard box. The Argentine inched into Real Madrid’s box before delivering a left-footed cross towards the centre of Casillas’s goal.
Sevilla’s Renato met the cross with force, sending a powerful header at Casillas’s goal. But the 28-year-old goalkeeper could not be beat. As his body moved to his left, Casillas kicked out his right leg and stopped the ball with his knee.
For many soccer enthusiasts, this is a textbook definition of a lucky save. Renato heads this attempt from point-blank range, and it seems that the only reason Casillas even gets to this attempt is due to Renato heading the ball right at Casillas. Had the Brazilian aimed his header even just a bit more to Casillas’s right, it’s probable that the Spanish goalkeeper would not have stopped it.
In truth, they’re correct in suggesting that the proximity between Casillas and the ball following Renato’s header played a role in Casillas’s chances at saving this attempt. But I’m also a firm believer in goalkeepers creating their own luck, and I think this applies here through Casillas’s positioning and awareness.
Let’s take another look at the moment preceding Renato’s attempt. This time, pay attention to Casillas’s position.
Note that Casillas is not positioned immediately beside his near post. Although Perotti is attacking directly from Casillas’s right side, the Spanish goalkeeper does not take up a position directly beside his near post. Instead, Casillas positions himself a few steps behind his near post.
The reasoning behind Casillas’s position has to do with where Perotti is attacking from. While Perotti is free at the right edge of Real Madrid’s box, he’s in too tight of an angle to actually trouble Casillas with a shot. It’s unlikely Perotti will get any kind of a threatening attempt off from that angle — it would take a special shot of Roberto Carlos-esque proportions to beat Casillas from there.
Given that, it’s fair for Casillas to assume that Perotti won’t be shooting from his current position. Therefore, there’s no need for Casillas to commit to his near post, and he can set himself a few steps closer to a central position.
And if Perotti decided to have a crack at goal. Casillas would still be in a good enough position to stop the attempt given the tight angle (Perotti’s shot would likely hit Casillas straight-on), and because Perotti is quite a few yards away from the near post, Casillas would have more than enough time to react to a shot.
Perotti’s unlikeliness to shoot means that he will probably attempt to deliver the ball across the box and find a teammate for a header. This is something Casillas is well aware of. In fact, as Perotti enters the box, Casillas can be seen taking peaks to his left to get a sense of where Sevillas’s other attackers are.
It’s here that Casillas notices Renato’s run — something that his own teammates don’t pick up on — and figures that he will be a potential target for Perotti to aim his cross at.
With Renato’s run in mind, Casillas knows that he’ll have to position himself in an area where he’d be ready for a cross. Because a shot is likely to come from around his six-yard box, Casillas is aware that he will not have enough time to move across his goal, set himself properly and react accordingly. Instead, he must position himself in an area where the shot is likely going to hit him.
This is why he sets himself a few steps back of his near post, as it puts him in a position where he could meet Renato’s attempt without having to scramble across his goal.
It must be noted that this plays back to Perotti’s positioning. Casillas is only afforded this luxury due to Perotti’s positioning relative to Casillas’s goal. Had Perotti been positioned closer to the goal or at a better angle, Casillas would’ve had to give Perotti his undivided attention. But because of Perotti’s distance and tight angle, Casillas could afford to focus on Sevilla’s other attacking outlets and use those possibilities to shape his positioning.
There’s no denying that good fortune played a role in this save, but credit has to be given to Casillas for putting himself in a good position to nullify this evolving attack. Casillas’s positioning and awareness put him in a good spot to stop Renato’s attempt.
Had Casillas committed to his near post or showed a lack of awareness, he would not have been able to pull off this “goalkeeping miracle”.
For any other goalkeeper, the save on Renato would’ve been their highlight of the night. But San Iker was not done yet; he had one more miracle up his sleeve.
In the 47th minute, it was Perotti’s turn to get robbed by Casillas. In an almost identical build-up to the first save, Sevilla’s Álvaro Negredo carries the ball into Real Madrid’s 18-yard box, this time from Casillas’s left side. Despite pressure from Raúl Albiol, Negredo is able to maintain possession of the ball as he approaches the six-yard box.
Negredo then plays a low-ball across the six-yard box, which finds Perotti in point-blank range. The Argentine is only four or so yards away from the goal-line, and it looks like a certain goal. But Casillas scrambles from his left post and dives across his goal, extending both of his arms towards the ball.
Miraculously, Perotti’s shot hits Casillas’s hands and bounces away from the goal.
Three words: What. A. Save.
First of all, can we just appreciate the reaction of Casillas’s teammates? Sergio Ramos looks completely dejected as Perotti shoots this attempt…
…and Mahamadou Diarra is in a complete state of shock when Casillas stops it.
Similar to Casillas’s first stop, some critics might label this as a lucky save due to Perotti’s distance from the goal-line and the fact that Perotti actually shoots the ball in Casillas’s direction.
But also like the first stop, calling this a lucky save would ignore all of the steps Casillas took to stop this attempt. While there was a bit of fortune involved, Casillas made some excellent decisions in the build-up to the save, and those choices increased his chances of stopping the shot.
Before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at Casillas’s initial positioning on this save. As Negredo brings the ball into Real Madrid’s box, Casillas takes a position directly beside his near post (in this case, his left post). Unlike the first stop, which saw Casillas position himself a few steps behind his near post, Casillas has fully committed himself to guarding his near-post area.
This is due to the fact that, unlike Perotti, Negredo was in a good area to shoot the ball; he wasn’t in too tight of an angle and he was closer to the goal than Perotti was. Perotti was closer to the right edge of Casillas’s box — about 18 yards away from the goal — while Negredo was about six yards closer to the goal.
Given this, as well as the fact that Raúl Albiol and Pepe seemingly had a cross-box pass covered, Casillas assumed that Negredo would opt to strike the ball as opposed to passing it across the goal. This is why Casillas committed to his near post as opposed to positioning himself a few steps back. It’s also why he assumed his set stance; knees bent, body leaning forward and hands near his side.
But rather than attempt a shot at goal, Negredo plays the ball across the box. The pass evades both Raúl Albiol and Pepe, and it finds Perotti in a very dangerous area.
Casillas must react fast. Because the ball is moving from the left side of his goal to his right side, Casillas must transport his body across his goal in the quickest way possible. To do that, he uses a crossover step before diving into action.
It should go without saying that footwork is one of a goalkeeper’s most important skills. After all, it’s what moves a goalkeeper’s body across different areas of his goal, and good footwork can be the difference between a goalkeeper having no chance at stopping a shot and having a favourable chance at turning it aside.
This save is an excellent example of the final point, as Casillas’s footwork increases his chances of stopping what looked to be a sure-goal.
As the ball gains distance on him, Casillas uses a crossover step. This particular technique allows the goalkeeper to move over long distances as quickly as possible. If you want to get from one post to the other in a short timeframe — as Casillas wants to do here — you use crossover steps.
This is a big reason why Casillas was able to get to this shot in time. By using a crossover step, Casillas moved from his left post to near the centre of his goal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Had he used a different technique — a bounding step or a shuffle step — he would not have put himself in a decent position to stop this shot.
Furthermore, while Casillas was moving his body, he kept his chest square to the ball and his eyes locked on the ball at all times. This is one of the signs of a great goalkeeper; when proper footwork techniques are second nature to the point where the goalkeeper doesn’t even have to think twice about what technique to use — their body just does it naturally — you know you’re dealing with an elite ‘keeper.
But even with the crossover step nailed, Casillas isn’t done yet. The ball is still a few yards away from his grasp and Perotti is staring at a large portion of the goal.
With his options severely limited, Casillas has to get a good dive off to give himself a shot at the save. And after completing the crossover step, Casillas dives by pushing off of his right foot and extending both of his arms to his right.
The former is an important but underappreciated point. A goalkeeper’s push-off technique will make or break their dive, especially if they’re attempting to cover a large portion of the goal with their dive. A good push-off can help a goalkeeper reach a shot that seems impossible to stop, but a bad push-off can result in a goalkeeper conceding a goal he should’ve saved.
When pushing off into a dive, a goalkeeper should push off using the leg that’s nearest to the ball. This is because the goalkeeper aims to dive in the direction of the ball and his push-off will generate more power if he pushes off using the leg closest to the ball as opposed to the one furthest away from it.
Using the leg that’s furthest away from the ball will result in an awkward dive that likely won’t propel the goalkeeper to his intended target.
That’s why, in this scenario, it was important that Casillas pushed off with his right leg. Because the ball is on his right side, the push-off with his right leg generated enough force for Casillas to propel himself to the ball powerfully and quickly. Had Casillas pushed off using his left leg, he probably wouldn’t have reached this shot at all.
Speaking of this save after the game, Casillas said, “I suppose some of it was down to me.” And frankly, that’s an understatement. Had Casillas overlooked any of the aforementioned factors — his footwork and his push-off — it’s fair to say he wouldn’t have had a prayer at preventing this goal.
But, by using the crossover step and pushing off with his right leg, Casillas was able to boost his odds at stopping this shot.
Unfortunately, that’s where the miracles end for Casillas on this particular day. Sevilla defeated Real Madrid by a 2-1 scoreline, and Renato got the last laugh by scoring the game-winner in the 66th minute.
It was the start of what was a rather forgettable season for Real Madrid. Despite the high-profile additions of Ronaldo and Kaká, Real Madrid finished trophyless for the second season in a row. They finished runners-up in the league title race to Barcelona, were famously eliminated by third-division side Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey’s round of 32, and went out in the Champions League’s round of 16 thanks to Olympique Lyon.
Nevertheless, Casillas remained as consistent and reliable as ever. By the end of 2009, Casillas had won his first La Liga Best Goalkeeper award and was recognized by the IFFHS as the world’s top goalkeeper for the second year in a row.
And while he didn’t win any club silverware, he did captain Spain to their first-ever World Cup title in the summer of 2010, becoming only the third goalkeeper to captain his country to international glory.
Most Madridistas don’t remember much of anything from the 2009-10 season (anything positive, I should clarify). But one thing they do look back on fondly is the memory of prime Casillas; a goalkeeper who time and time again was involved in miraculous moments. And there are few moments more miraculous than the two saves he made in Seville in October 2009.