‘I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy’ wailed Bob Marley on his famous song. Why not Bob? Why not? Why was the deputy spared? Well perhaps the deputy was an alright guy, doing a fine job and standing in for the sheriff admirably. A bit like Sven Ulreich you could say.
Manuel Neuer (the Sheriff here) is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world (cue Manchester United fans screaming ‘David de Gea’) but when he is injured, you need someone with a safe pair of hands capable of filling in and guarding the goal. In Bayern Munich’s case, Sven Ulreich is proving this season to be just that man.
When Bayern surprisingly signed Ulreich from VfB Stuttgart 2015 many queried why a player in his prime would opt to move to Bayern only to be a bench-warmer for Manuel Neuer. The fact that Bavarians were paying him more to be a second-choice goalkeeper than the Swabians were paying him to be their first-choice may go some way to explaining it. The huge lure of FC Bayern is another.
Neuer wasn’t ready to start thus season following his injury carried over from the previous campaign, but did return on matchday 2 only to suffer a broken bone in his foot during training. That meant Ulreich was called in to deputise from matchday 5.
Things didn’t start well for the 29-year-old though with a bad mistake against Wolfsburg leading to a goal and ultimately the loss of two points in a 2-2 draw. His flap at Maxi Arnold’s free-kick was one for the end of season goalkeeper bloopers DVD.
There was also criticism of him following Bayern’s hugely disappointing 3-0 defeat to Paris St Germain in the Champions League where he was said to be responsible for one of the goals. Some Bayern fans were looking at Manuel Neuer’s long-term injury prognosis and fearing the worst and contemplating the options of either 36-year-old Tom Starke or 17-year-old Christian Früchtl.
Since those lows however, Ulreich has not only stabilised his performances, but he has taken himself to another level. His contribution to Bayern’s resurgence under Jupp Heynckes has been noticeable and his new nickname ‘Sven the Wall’ is not undeserved.
In the DFB Pokal clash with RB Leipzig he was the hero saving the crucial spot-kick from Timo Werner in the penalty shoot-out. But his save earlier in the game from Emil Forsberg was equally as important for Bayern in the long-run.
Another top display was to be seen in Brussels when Bayern faced Anderlecht in the Champions League. Ulreich once again pulled off a number of very impressive saves and he’s carried that form into the Bundesliga. He leads the league in clean sheets (five).
There was another top performance in the eagerly awaited Klassiker against Dortmund with Ulreich producing vital saves to deny both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Andrei Yarmolenko at crucial stages of the match.
Speaking at the launch of Bayern’s new partnership with Audi in October, Ulreich said: “If you let in a goal, you know people are thinking Neuer would have saved it.”
“Manu is the world’s best goalkeeper so it’s not easy to replace him. But I’m not Manuel Neuer, I’m Sven Ulreich. I always give everything, but it is normal that I cannot keep out every shot on goal. I’ve learned so much from him in training. I’ve improved my technique, my kicking, my shot-stopping and my reactions.”
If Ulreich received criticism after the first game against PSG, the critics (Lothar Matthäus chief among them) were made to eat their words after this week’s return at the Allianz Arena. Bayern’s 3-1 win proved just the revenge they were after, but once again Ulreich had a big part to play in the success. An early save denied Kylian Mbappé and there were further important saves from Neymar and Julian Draxler.
Manuel Neuer is out until at least January, but with Ulreich currently more than satisfactorily deputising, there will be no need to rush him back prematurely. That will give ‘the Wall’ time to continue impressing and potentially impressing other clubs.
Ulreich’s contract is up at Bayern at the end of the season and on current form there will be more than a few clubs elsewhere looking to bring him in as their number one. There will also be speculation of an outside chance of making the World Cup squad.
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