Since Manuel Neuer rubbed elbows with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as a 2014 Ballon d’Or finalist he has been untouchable. The World Cup Champion goalkeeper, newly minted German national team captain and Bayern Munich stalwart has been labelled as unquestionably the best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga and the world. The very thought of questioning any aspect of the keeper’s game has been nearly an unthinkable proposition. But after years of absolute dominance, it is worth asking, although he is undoubtedly great, is he invincible?
It needs to be recognized first and foremost that Neuer doesn’t need to be the best goalkeeper in the league for the Bavarian giants to win. True, last season he led the league with 20 clean sheets as Bayern allowed a league low 17 goals. That is impressive, but consider that in his 34 appearances Neuer made just 41 saves. That is just over 1 save per game and far fewer than his German national teammates Timo Horn (72 saves in 32 appearances for FC Köln) and Bernd Leno (79 saves in 33 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen) recorded in 2015-16. Even more telling is that if Neuer made 0 saves last season and every shot taken on goal against the Bundesliga Champions while he was in goal went in, only Borussia Dortmund would have a better goal differential than a Bayern Munich sans goalkeeper. Simply put, Sven Ulrich or you or I could have been between the sticks and Bayern may have still won the league.
In the first game of this campaign, Neuer had so little to do that Bayern fans at the Allianz Arena were heard sarcastically cheering whenever he made a touch. He collected another clean sheet in the 6-0 drubbing of a hapless Werder Bremen side. In the match, Neuer recorded two saves, neither of which would have troubled a U8 goalkeeper. This in a game in which the Bayern netminder was seen having catch with the ball boys to keep himself limber.
That is the Catch-22 for Neuer as he plays for the dominant Bayern and German national team. The frequent easiness of his task is what makes it so difficult. In 90 minutes of action, Neuer is often relied on for mere seconds per game to make a keen decision or pull off a split-second reaction. He among Bundesliga goalkeepers is unique in that he needs to maintain his concentration to a degree required of few others, during minute after minute of monotony, staying sharp for that rare threatening moment. Neuer’s ability to stay so sharply focused is, like his ability with the ball at his feet, part of the arsenal of skills that keeps the Bayern Munich man the gold-standard of modern goalkeeping.
But when that rare moment of threat occurs, Neuer has experienced some minor hiccups in a way you would not expect. His shortcoming is not his shot stopping, as he saved over 70% of the attempts at the Bayern goal last season.In comparison to his contemporaries, that is about 10% higher than Horn and Leno during the same period, albeit from a smaller sample size for Neuer. It is his judgment on crosses and long balls in and around his box where some issues have arisen.
An instance from the Friday season opener against Werder Bremen illustrates the issue at hand. After standing around for 77 minutes, having to do little more than roll the ball to his defenders, a diagonal ball over the top brought Neuer flying out of his box to fend away danger. The move culminated with a Bruce Lee style flying kick that, in addition to being very awkward to watch, resulted in Neuer not only missing the ball completely but also not making contact with the on rushing Sambou Yatabare. Luckily, for Bayern, Yatabare stumbled and the defense was able to recover in time to stifle the move despite Neuer being helpless outside of his box.
A single instant in an otherwise flawless Neuer performance, absolutely, but one that continues a bit of a pattern for the Bayern keeper. A spilled cross to the feet of Antoine Griezmann in the Euro 2016 semifinal eventually led to Germany’s exit from the tournament and a terrible misjudgment of a long ball resulted in an opening goal for Benfica in the 2nd leg of Bayern’s Champion’s League quarterfinal tie last season adds fuel to the flame that Neuer is struggling slightly in this aspect of the game.
Is a mistake like this going to cost Bayern a game against Bremen or the majority of the Bundesliga? No, it was already 6-0 when Neuer went flying out of his box. However, such mistakes could prove fatal in what may become a very tight title race against a much improved Dortmund side this season,, or against the heavyweights in the late knockout rounds of the Champions League next Spring.
Is Manuel Neuer still the best keeper in the Bundesliga? Yes. Is he still the best in the world? Again, few would dare put anyone above him. Is he the rightful successor to Bastian Schweinsteiger as captain of the German national team? Absolutely. If I had to win one game and could choose from any keeper in the world would I choose Neuer? Without a doubt. Are you getting tired of hypothetical questions? I know I am, but one more. Is Manuel Neuer invincible and beyond all criticism? I think not.
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