Manuel Neuer cleans up by being more than a sweeper
The Bayern Munich man has all the elements that make up a top goalkeeper
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany saves a shot from France’s Karim Benzema of France during their World Cup quarter-final at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Marcus Brandt/EPA
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany tackles Islam Slimani of Algeria during theIR World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match at Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
In second-half injury time during the France-Germany quarter-final last Friday, Karim Benzema broke free on the left of the German penalty area. My seat in the overflow press section was level with the 18-yard line at the far end, and everyone around me had to crane their necks to see the action. Benzema lashed in a shot and the ball bounced high away from the goal and back towards the play.
Everyone shouted things like “Ooof!” and “Aagh!” Had that ball come back off the bar? It looked like it had hit the bar. We waited for the replay on the stadium big screen. There are no TVs for replays in the Maracana’s overflow section. The journalists watching the game from there quite possibly see less of the action than people watching anywhere else in the world.
The replay came. The ball had not hit the bar. It had hit Manuel Neuer’s massive hand and bounced off it like it was the bar.
This was a rather impressive reminder that Neuer has some formidable basic goalkeeping attributes besides the sweeper skills that have been the talk of the World Cup.
“He’s exactly the kind of goalkeeper we want in our team,” Germany’s goalkeeping coach, the Euro 96 winner Andreas Köpke, told GQ in an interview. “He’s a great goalkeeper, but he can also participate in build-up play.”
Knowing that Neuer the sweeper can protect quite a lot of space behind the back four gives Germany the freedom to vary their tactical approach. Against France, Germany sat deep, and Neuer scarcely left his line. It was a complete contrast to the matches against Algeria and the USA, when Germany had tried to keep the opponents penned back in their own half. It was Neuer’s responsibility to guard the space behind that high defensive line, and his charges out of his area were crucial in snuffing out attempted counter-attacks.
This style of goalkeeping can be hard on the nerves. Nobody has lobbed Neuer yet, but he knows that every time he runs out of his goal he risks disaster: a missed challenge, a sliced clearance, maybe a red card.
A Schalke supporter all his life until he left them for Bayern in 2011, Neuer’s boyhood idol was Jens Lehmann, who had, he says, “the most modern goalkeeping style in Germany.”
There were times when Lehmann paid the price for that modern style. Arsenal’s Invincibles were knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea partly thanks to a goal Eidur Gudjohnsen scored after beating Lehmann in a challenge well outside the area. When Lehmann finally did reach the Champions League final two years later, he was sent off after 18 minutes for running out of the box and bringing down Samuel Eto’o.