Know Your Enemy: Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer
As the countdown to the 2014 FIFA World Cup continues, SI.com is profiling two valuable players on each of the U.S. men's national team's Group G opponents at this summer's World Cup. The next in the Know Your Enemy series is Germany and Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Success came early to Manuel Neuer, so it's perhaps no surprise to learn that he was only 2 when he was given his first ball. He was born and grew up in Gelsenkirchen, attending the Gesamtschule Berger Feld, a school that has become famous for the number of footballers it has produced. Neuer was a classmate of Mesut Ozil -- which added a frisson when he saved a penalty from Ozil while playing for Bayern Munich against Arsenal in the Champions League this season.
He was just 20 when he made his Bundesliga debut, replacing the injured Frank Rost for Schalke 04 against Alemania Aachen in August 2006. When he was selected to face Bayern Munich that September, despite Rost being fit, it was clear he had surpassed him as first-choice.
After helping Schalke to the German cup in 2011, Neuer moved to Bayern, infuriating fans of his hometown club who saw the transfer as a betrayal. He wasn't universally popular among Bayern fans either, with a certain section of the support declaring that he could ever be considered a full Bayern member because of his associations with Schalke. After conceding once in his first match, Neuer kept 12 clean sheets in a row to break Oliver Kahn's Bundesliga record, which won over many who had been skeptical.
He has since been an essential part of Bayern's success as they won the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League last season. He was named in FIFA's team of the year for 2013, when he was also crowned Goalkeeper of the Year by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
Outside of football, Neuer provided the voice for Frank McCay in the German version of the Pixar film Monsters Inc, and he won €500,000 on the German version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire for the children's charity he established.
HOW HE FITS IN
Neuer isn't just a fine shotstopper who has become increasing adept at commanding his box. He is also adept at leaving his penalty area and sweeping up behind the defensive line, something that means that, if required, Germany can press high up the pitch, knowing its keeper is occupying the space behind them and so cutting out what would otherwise be easy passes into vast acres of untended pitch.
That is vital as Jogi Low attempts to modify Germany's style. At the last World Cup, it was a reactive side, sitting deep and striking on the counterattack. That led to an oddly imbalanced set of results (discounting the third-place playoff, which never seems a fully competitive game). In the three games in which Germany scored within the first 10 minutes - against Australia, England and Argentina - it went on to score four, picking its opponents off on the break. In the three games when it didn't, it struggled: in the 1-0 win over Ghana and the 1-0 defeats to Serbia and Spain.
There seems to have been a conscious effort since to make Germany more proactive, to play higher up the pitch and impose its style on opponents -- something that makes sense given how heavily the team is based on Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, two teams who press hard.
Neuer's ability to sweep behind the back four is vital to that. His role in that is twofold: he has both to initiate attacks -- as he did, for instance, against Turkey in qualifying for Euro 2012, setting up Germany's first with a long throw and the second with a long pass in a 3-1 win in Istanbul -- and to read the game to stifle opponent's attacks. Against Italy, for instance, in the semifinal of Euro 2012, there was a moment late on as Germany chased the game when Neuer stopped a nascent break with a diving header in the center circle.
It's probably fair to say that Germany hasn't exploited that possibility as much as it might have done and the defensive aspect is still a work in progress, but with the extended preparation time before the start of the World Cup, it should improve.
WHY HE POSES SUCH A DANGER
Such is the attacking strength of this Germany team that it often goes unnoticed, but it is defensively vulnerable; the evolution Low is attempting to effect is far from complete. Sweden scored seven against the Germans in two matches in qualifying and no other side that topped its European qualifying group conceded so often.
The loss of Sami Khedira has only exacerbated that weakness, as was shown in the recent friendly against Chile, when Germany was overrun in midfield. What Chile also found, though, was that even if you get a clear sight of goal, Germany has in Neuer a goalkeeper who, on his day, can seem unbeatable.