It was August 2014, a goalkeeper reshuffle was unfolding at Real Madrid and Marca was on the front foot. "Real have ended up signing a keeper they didn't need," wrote the Madrid-based daily, following the arrival of Keylor Navas and the subsequent departure of Diego Lopez to AC Milan on a free transfer.
Marca labelled it "a political solution to a footballing issue," declaring: "The only winners [in this situation] are Milan." It definitely was a political move, but it didn't actually prove to be a solution. The Iker Casillas debate rolled on.
The 2013-14 campaign had seen Carlo Ancelotti attempt to quell the uneasiness in the club's between-the-posts saga created during Jose Mourinho's final season, opting for a two-keeper policy that saw Lopez play in the league and Casillas play the cups.
"It was his way of pandering, either to the board or to Casillas himself," said Marca. Shunning Casillas, the adored club icon, would have represented dangerous political territory for the manager.
The summer of 2014 then saw the attempted remedy, the club forcing Lopez out the door—"I'm the best goalkeeper here and you know it," he reportedly told the club's directors on the way out—and signing Navas, who'd enjoyed a sparkling 12 months with Levante and Costa Rica and who would simply compete with Casillas on form.
The idea: There would be no politics and selection would be meritocratic. But that didn't work either. The incumbent held the No. 1 position regardless of form, and the newcomer was made to look like a pointless signing.
Now, David De Gea—and new manager Rafael Benitez—could solve Real Madrid's biggest headache once and for all.
AS English @English_AS
Big story via @rtve: Casillas has reached agreement to leave Real Madrid this summer. De Gea will sign soon, could be presented next week.2015-6-10 13:55:09
This week, the Spanish state-owned television broadcaster TVE reported that the Manchester United star's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu is imminent, with Casillas headed for the exits.
For Casillas, if the deal with De Gea eventuates, it would be a cold conclusion to a largely glittering Real Madrid career that began all the way back in 1990, when he joined La Fabrica at just nine years old.
The club and national icon is a five-time champion in La Liga, a three-time winner of the Champions League and has collected 18 trophies in his time at Madrid. He spans multiple eras and deserves immense respect, but Real greats don't often retire at the Bernabeu. Alfredo Di Stefano didn't. Raul didn't. Emilio Butragueno didn't. Casillas might soon join that list.
Yet, Casillas' forced exit to accommodate De Gea would, from a purely on-field perspective, solve the major issue that's affected Real Madrid's squad.
For two seasons or more, Los Blancos have watched the iconic goalkeeper endure a steady decline. In 2014-15 it continued, and though there was a collection of performances in which he wound back the clock (Villarreal, Almeria, Cruz Azul), his fragility in goal was evident as Real staggered their way through the critical second half of the campaign.
Iker Casillas: Only 4 GKs with 25+ apps in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season successfully claimed fewer crosses than Casillas (23)2015-6-10 14:17:58
De Gea's arrival would change that dramatically.
The Madrid-born keeper has risen rapidly into the upper echelon of European glovemen—a group that includes Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois—after a difficult first season at Old Trafford. His reflexes are outstanding, his athleticism is remarkable, he anticipates quickly and his distribution is silky.
De Gea is now one of those rare goalkeepers who can do more than keep his side in a game, he can actually win those games. In elite sides, it isn't often the case that the man in goal is the club's finest player across a season. But in 2014-15, that's what De Gea was for Manchester United.
Few will forget his performance against Liverpool when he made nine saves in a 3-0 win. But there were others: at home to Everton, away to Arsenal, at home to Stoke City, away to Queens Park Rangers, away to West Ham and away to Crystal Palace.
In a season in which the team's defence perpetually chopped and changed due to injuries and a lack of world-class options, Manchester United conceded only five more goals than Chelsea (a team renowned for defensive strength) across 38 games. That's a remarkable reflection on De Gea's season.
For Benitez, the signing of De Gea would represent an ideal start to his tenure in Chamartin.
After Real's campaign of underachievement, the former Napoli boss has a number of pressing issues to attend to, including devising a system, defining Cristiano Ronaldo's role, freeing Gareth Bale, altering the midfield's balance and addressing concerns over a lack of rotation. But it was the goalkeeping headache that seemed the most difficult.
For a new manager, the Casillas situation is delicate, and Navas, due to a paucity of playing time, has looked like a lesser keeper than the one he was when he arrived. It was an issue, therefore, that was hard to solve internally. While Benitez has options at his disposal to address the other areas of need, the goalkeeper headache was going to linger.
De Gea will solve that if he arrives.