Spare a thought for Manuel Neuer. Bayern Munich’s superstar Torwart may well be a World Cup Winner, have a Champion’s League medal and multiple Bundesliga titles, but he is also the loneliest man in Germany.
So far this season he has played all 13 games in the league, keeping an impressive 10 clean sheets in the process. During these 13 games he has only had to make 28 saves in total – just over 2 a game, or one every 45 minutes. The teams in the Bundesliga may not be among the most lethal attacking forces in Europe, but the story is similar in the Champion’s League. Although Bayern conceded three against Man City last time out (with Bayern down to 10 men for 70 minutes), Neuer had only been beaten once in the previous four group games.
It’s not just that he is a clean sheet machine. He just so happens to ply his trade for the world’s best national side and one of the top 3 club sides in Europe. When Neuer was at Schalke he was incredible, making save after breathtaking save. His form made him one of the most sought-after keepers in Europe and, as is so often the way in Germany, Bayern soon snapped him up.
In Munich he is still incredible – just underused. Bayern don’t really need a goalkeeper most of the time. As a result Neuer tries to keep himself occupied by other means, and in recent weeks Bayern fans have been treated to Cruyff turns, diving headers, strolls to the halfway line, back flicks and all manner of showboating. Furthermore, he has probably been involved in more of Bayern’s goals for than against this season with his raking, precise passes.
At the World Cup Neuer showcased his new interpretation of the role of the keeper, regularly thundering off his line to tackle onrushing forwards 30-40 yards from goal, or leaping like a big blond missile to header the ball into touch.
Recognition of his talents has come in the shape of a Ballon d’Or nomination alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. On the face of it, he doesn’t really stand a chance. For one, Messi and CR7 play at the fun end of the pitch, banging in goals and getting fans off their feet. What’s more, over the last few seasons these two have forced us to rethink what constitutes success for forward players and skewed goal scoring statistics beyond all recognition. If one of them notched only 30 goals this season, it would be seen as a blip.
However, there is an argument to be made that Neuer is doing comparable work, just 60 yards or so further back on the field. I say 60 yards because most of what makes him so special happens some distance away from his goal line. He’s not an Elfmeter-Killer (penalty ‘killer’), or maybe even the world’s best shot stopper – but he is a forward-thinking keeper. Many in his position would be happy to hang out in their area and wait for the opposition to approach; not Neuer. In Brazil he often operated more as a sweeper and for Bayern he is as much an outfield player as he is a keeper. You will rarely see him simply put his foot through the ball and hope one his teammates gets a head on it. No throw or kick is wasted. In fact, he doesn’t kick – he passes. Just like Ronaldo and Messi, Neuer is redefining what is expected of someone playing in his position.
Not satisfied to simply spring into action when required, he instead follows the game intensly, looking to be proactive wherever possible. This is not all down to the player himself. With Guardiola and Joachim Löw, Neuer is working under two of the most progressive coaches in the game. Nevertheless, it takes a special player to be able to take on new responsibilities that are largely foreign to someone in his role.
Had he stayed at Schalke, Neuer arguably wouldn’t have had the freedom to do this. He would still have become one of Europe’s top keepers, just not as inventive. His evolution has been borne out of necessity. He has been forced to rethink and adapt his role in the team in order to keep himself physically and mentally involved in the majority of games he plays.
Bayern’s current number two keeper is Pepe Reina. It is fair to say that Bayern would still be top of the league with the Spaniard between the sticks and would possibly even have a similar number of clean sheets – after all, Reina is more than capable of making two saves a game. However, I do not think we would see his name mentioned in the same breath as the two superstars from La Liga.
Manuel Neuer may often cut a lonely figure on the pitch, be he has been doing his upmost to make Bayern and Germany a team of 11 players rather than 10 + 1.