Inside the SuperClubs: Bayern Munich GK Manuel Neuer is in his own class
All week Planet Futbol will delve into the SuperClub that is Bayern Munich, covering the German franchise's celebrated past and present while profiling some of its legendary players and biggest names. This is the second part of the series.
PORTLAND, Ore. — As Manuel Neuer repeatedly charged out of his penalty area in the World Cup round of 16 against Algeria, opinion oscillated between whether it was genius or lunacy. By the time he continued the pattern against France in the quarterfinal and Argentina in the final, hardly anybody noticed anymore.
By then, it was clear: Germany’s No. 1 is unlike any other goalkeeper in the world — and possibly in the history of the game.
Neuer, 28, combines the delightful madness and technical ability of past German goalkeepers with the modern mindset of attacking football. As players push forward in ever greater numbers, Neuer does the work that two players would have done in past decades.
He’s the best “sweeper-keeper” in the world, allowing Bayern Munich and Germany to attack without overt concern for what happens if the other team wins the ball. As he showed against Algeria, Neuer can break up counterattacks by himself by reading the weight and trajectory of passes and with his aggressive starting position.
“I always want to play [so] that the defense is protected, to be with them, to have the confidence and to give them the confidence that I am there,” Neuer said before the 2014 MLS All-Star Game. “I am the last person on the field, and they have to trust me.”
As Germany pressed to break down a difficult Algerian back line, the Fennec Foxes countered dangerously. The initial ball to speedy attackers Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli sprung them past lumbering center back Per Mertesacker, known for his size but not speed.
Suddenly, Neuer appeared, closing down with the aggression of a player far higher up the pitch than the last line of defense. He never failed to win a ball outside the area, even when he chased Slimani into the corner after a heavy first touch and slid to block his cross.
During the World Cup, the heat map of Neuer’s touches extended beyond the usual 18-by-44-yard rectangle. His chart against Algeria became particularly famous, as he took anywhere between 17 and 21 touches outside the penalty area, depending on the source.
Soviet great Lev Yashin began the evolution of the modern goalkeeper in the 1950s, organizing players in front of him and intervening in novel ways. Instead of draining the clock every time he picked up the ball, Yashin began counterattacks with quick throws. Rather than limit himself to playing with his hands, he intercepted passes outside the area.
Yashin remains the only goalkeeper to have won either European Footballer of the Year or the Ballon d’Or, when he took both in 1963. He finished his career four decades ahead of his time, and his intrepid style is ingrained in every modern professional between the sticks.
Changes to the Laws of the Game after the 1990 World Cup precipitated more changes. Goalkeepers could no longer move around the penalty area, alternating between dribbling and picking the ball up to waste time, as Pat Bonner did for Ireland at Italia 1990. They could no longer pick up direct passes from teammates.
Since then, pure shot-stopping is not the mark of a good goalkeeper — it’s a bare minimum. Dominating the penalty area on crosses, organizing the back line and jumpstarting attacks separate average from world-class players, and nobody embodies the new age of goalkeeping better than Neuer.
His technique seems improvisational at times, not helped by a gangly 6-foot-4 frame, but he still makes world-class saves at will. He maintains his cool despite the speed at which modern football is played, especially the counterattacks that he constantly smothers by playing outside the penalty area. Beyond the technical side, it takes a calculating soccer IQ and an almost mocking disregard for danger to play as Neuer does.
He is sometimes jokingly referred to as a “false 1,” similar to Lionel Messi’s “false 9” role adopted under Pep Guardiola at FC Barcelona. Guardiola, now the Bayern manager, also had a goalkeeper on that team in Víctor Valdés whose footskills rivaled those of the players in front of him.
Neuer takes that a step farther by playing almost beyond his reach. The sweeper-keeper style carries with it an inherent risk, particularly in its seemingly audacious nature and the fact that it often ends in a crucial 1-on-1 battle.
Win it, and the danger is cleared. Lose it, and the headlines scream of goalkeeping gaffes, the video on loop thanks to the immediacy of YouTube and Vine.
Still, Neuer pushes forward.
“I know that mistakes will happen, and I have to play my game,” he said. “I will not switch to another game. I know what is important for me and for our team, and I want to help them.”
He got his reward for disregarding the percentages and playing with intelligent recklessness in Brazil. He won the Golden Glove as the tournament’s top goalkeeper and was voted the German Footballer of the Year. He was a finalist for the UEFA Footballer of the Year award, and FIFA named him to the Ballon d’Or shortlist in late October.
In 50 years, Neuer’s legacy could be similar to Yashin’s today. His consistency across all competitions in 2014, as well as the way he revolutionized the position, make him not only worthy of the shortlist but also of winning the award outright.
Ronaldo scored goal after goal, but an injury hampered his World Cup performance, and his style hasn’t been as innovative as Neuer’s. Future generations of goalkeepers will be modeled on Neuer, just as they were modeled on Yashin when he forever changed the position.
Neuer could easily be overlooked for more awards because of the position he plays, but he has proven his status as the world’s best individual player. For now, he’ll have to settle for being on the best team in the world and a Weltmeister (world champion), which Yashin could never claim despite playing three tournaments with the Soviet machine.
“It’s hard to say that [life] is back to normal,” Neuer said in August. “I think the holidays were great. I was very happy to stand up every morning and to know that we are the world champion.”
In January, he could also have the paramount individual award to cap a fantastic year.