Stuart Rayner – The ‘safe hands’ that are allowing Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United to reach for the top
The Whites may be misfiring in front of goal at the moment, but conceding only eight goals in 14 matches has put them firmly in the title race, two points behind leaders West Bromwich Albion.
The Championship’s second-best defensive record belongs to the Owls, whose record of 10 goals conceded has provided reassurance in an early-season of upheaval. They sit a point behind their near-neighbours.
Defending is a collective effort, but the absence of key centre-backs in Saturday’s derby at Hillsborough highlighted the importance and form of both team’s goalkeepers.
With Leeds captain Liam Cooper limited to a cameo from the bench on his return from a groin injury and Julian Borner pulling out of Wednesday’s XI in the warm-up, both rearguards had a make-do-and-mend feel.
Two of Leeds’s starting back three – Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi – are full-backs by trade, while central midfielder Sam Hutchinson slotted in alongside Dominic Iorfa. It made for plenty of chances but thanks to the men between the posts, no goals for the first time in 50 years of rivalry.
Now in his sixth season at Hillsborough, Keiren Westwood’s qualities are well known, but Kiko Casilla is finally beginning to flourish after a slow start to his Elland Road career.
Both have kept 13 Championship clean sheets in 2019, a record only bettered by Dean Henderson’s 14, now playing Premier League football for Sheffield United.
The low reaction save Westwood made from Patrick Bamford’s first-half stoppage-time header looked pivotal to Saturday’s lunchtime Yorkshire derby, and to the immediate prospects of Leeds’s misfiring centre-forward, who was quickly substituted.
Casilla needed to be the busier and more impressive of the two, from his early save to keep out Liam Palmer to clawing away a late shot from Kadeem Harris, then keeping out Atdhe Nuhiu’s effort from the corner. In between time came the best save of the lot, a fingertipped reaction to Steven Fletcher’s effort.
Brought in from Real Madrid during the last January transfer window, Casilla has taken time to bed in to English football. The Football League can be a bigger culture shock for goalkeepers than most foreign players, and Casilla’s most notable contribution last season was arguably the error which turned the play-off semi-final second leg at Derby County.
There was the further complication of adapting to Marcelo Bielsa’s style of play, which requires Leeds’s sweeper-keepers to be better with their feet than even Real Madrid’s stoppers.
“At Madrid and Espanyol (his last two clubs) they also rely on the ball but not as clearly,” Casilla told a Spanish newspaper last month. “Bielsa makes me participate a lot in the game. He asks me to take the ball and help the defence a lot, and that forces me to be out of my area.”
According to WhoScored.com, no Championship goalkeeper has made more accurate short passes than Casilla this season.
Bielsa is loyal to those he has faith in, and rather than go looking for an established senior goalkeeper to push Casilla this summer, he loaned France Under-20 international Illan Meslier and sold Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Casilla is now starting to justify Bielsa’s belief, showing the “good character, good personality” his coach referenced in the Hillsborough press room on Saturday.
The 33-year-old was named Championship goalkeeper of the month for October after 18 saves and three clean sheets in five matches. Leeds have only conceded three goals in the month, keeping them in the title race.
Westwood is now working for the manager who tried to sign him while at Middlesbrough, and Garry Monk showed his faith by recalling the 35-year-old at the first available opportunity despite Callum Dawson only being beaten once in the two games the senior man missed with an ankle injury.
“That was a tough call but Westy did fantastically,” Monk was able to reflect afterwards.
Westwood’s form has won him a place in the Republic of Ireland’s provisional squad for next month’s crucial Euro 2020 qualifier at home to Denmark after being left out of October’s matches. Manager Mick McCarthy will have his spies at Ewood Park on Saturday.
Footstats say Casilla has saved 81 per cent of the on-target shots he has faced in the league this season, the highest in the division. Collectively, Wednesday’s goalkeepers are third, having kept out 77 per cent.
With Owls captain Tom Lees back in training yesterday and Cooper in line to make his first start in five matches at home to Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, there is reason to hope both teams could be even meaner in November than October, but they are already in safe hands.