Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich and Germany international shot-stopper, is currently the world’s best goalkeeper. Forget Spain’s Iker Casillas, Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois or even USA’s bearded Tim Howard: Neuer, the Germany number one, is in a whole bracket above his closest rivals.
NUMBER ONE: Manuel Neuer gives instruction to his fellow Bayern Munich players.
In fact, he was recently named on the final, three-man shortlist for the 2015 edition of FIFA’s Ballon D’Or alongside outfield players Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. This is no mean feat, particularly for a goalkeeper.
But, you see, Neuer is so much more than just a goalkeeper. He is a footballer, too. Ever since he emerged from the youth setup of his hometown club, Schalke 04, in 2006, Neuer has adopted a unique playing style that has truly captivated fans, managers and pundits around the world.
Often seen darting some thirty yards from the goal line to halt on-rushing players, Neuer has successfully redefined the very role that goalkeepers are expected to play in modern day football. Allow me to introduce the “sweeper-keeper”.
If you are slightly perplexed by this term or are currently scratching your head in bemusement, I’ll explain. A “sweeper-keeper” is the modern term used to describe a goalkeeper (namely, Manuel Neuer) who is able to engage attackers, intercept the ball and assist defenders outside of the 18-yard box.
A “sweeper-keeper” will actively leave the safety of the six-yard box and linger on the edge of the area; sweep behind defenders who have pushed on to the halfway line; and play long, raking, diagonal balls to those further upfield. Bayern Munich and Die Mannschaft, the German national team, have championed this tactic in recent years by deploying the not-so-secret weapon that is Manuel Neuer.
SWEEPER KEEPER: Yes, that really is Neuer slide tackling an Algerian forward near the halfway line.
Conservative traditionalists within football consider the reliance upon a “sweeper-keeper” as a sign of desperation. When a team is hunting for a goal and the clock is ticking down to full-time, it is not uncommon for the goalkeeper to become more involved in the game.
When Germany faced Algeria last summer in the Last-16 round of 2014 World Cup, for example, many were quick to condemn their high defensive line and apparent over-reliance upon Manuel Neuer.
And while former Arsenal defender Martin Keown was keen to heap praise upon Neuer’s performance, asking the question ‘has there ever been a better “sweeper-keeper”?’, fellow BBC pundit Alan Shearer was comparatively shocked and appalled by his outlandish antics.
Of course, this particular style of play will not necessarily work for every team. Bayern Munich and Germany have exclusively benefitted from a player who has revolutionised what it means to play between the sticks. Joachim Löw, the Germany head coach, once suggested he could even “play in midfield” and Toni Kroos often refers to him as the team’s “11th outfield player”.
Can we therefore expect to see other professional ‘keepers adopt a similar style of play over the next few years? Yes. In fact, certain goalkeepers are already trying (and failing) to emulate Neuer’s trademark approach.
Fraser Forster of Southampton FC, for example, took inspiration from the World Cup winning ‘keeper during a Premier League fixture against Aston Villa earlier this season. With Gabriel Agbonlahor bearing down on the Southampton goal, Forster charged out only to watch in horror as his rash decision quickly backfired. The Villa striker elegantly nipped around a sprawled and rather hapless Forster to slot the ball into an empty net.
Wojciech Szczesny, the Arsenal and Poland number one goalkeeper, has also tried to follow in Manuel Neuer’s footsteps (but has failed miserably…on several occasions). His most recent blunder, however, came in Arsenal’s Premier League trip to Southampton on New Years Day.
DISHEVELLED: The moment Arsenal goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, realised he definitely wasn't Manuel Neuer.
Szczesny was at fault for both Saints' goals after needlessly coming off his line in typical 'sweeper-keeper' fashion only to be lobbed by Mane, before inexplicably passing to Tadic who converted easily.
While Szczesny and Forster may still need to work on their Manuel Neuer impersonations, let’s just remind ourselves that even the world’s best “sweeper-keeper” sometimes gets it wrong. Cue a long distance headed clearance, an incredible halfway line volley by Dejan Stankovic and a rather shocked and dishevelled looking Neuer. Enjoy (it doesn’t happen very often).