‘Damn you Manu Neuer!’ While Bayern Munich keeper Sven Ulreich won’t be caught uttering these words out loud, it’s a fairly safe bet that he’ll be muttering them to himself inside his own head. After the most successful season of his Bayern career, where he was voted the Fans Player of the Season and was a key figure in the club turning around a dodgy start, he now looks set to return to his former role as understudy to Manuel Neuer. Thanks for all you’ve done, but……
It must be a bitter pill for the 29-year-old to swallow having filled in so admirably last season in Neuer’s prolonged absence. Having joined Bayern from VfB Stuttgart in 2015 Ulreich notched up just six Bundesliga appearances in his first two seasons in Bavaria with Germany’s number one firmly ensconced between the posts at the Allianz Arena.
However, with Neuer suffering a recurrence of his metatarsal injury at the start of the season, Ulreich was called upon by Carlo Ancelotti to fill in. Things didn’t start well with a goalkeeping howler from Maxi Arnold’s free-kick handing Wolfsburg a share of the points on matchday 6 and another nervy performance against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League leading some to question whether veteran Tom Starke or youngster Christian Früchtl might be a better option.
Lesser men may have crumbled, but Ulreich showed great resilience to silence the doubters and prove that Bayern could cope with the absence of their talismanic keeper. Against Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park on matchday 11 he enjoyed his best game to date and quickly the hashtag #SvenTheWall began trending most weeks.
He was instrumental in Bayern overcoming RB Leipzig in the DFB Pokal with an important penalty save from Timo Werner in the penalty shoot-out. Indeed across the whole season he also saved spot-kicks to deny Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim), Chadrac Akolo (Stuttgart) and Niklas Fullkrüg (Hannover).
Bayern’s able deputy kept 17 clean sheets across season and such was the level of respect and appreciation he built up, that he was quickly forgiven for his error in the Champions League semi-final which allowed the Spanish side to score their second goal in the 2-2 draw.
Such were the consistent level of his performances that he was also being seriously tipped for a place in Joachim Löw’s World Cup squad. In the end Manuel Neuer proved his fitness and the Bundestrainer opted to take Kevin Trapp as the third-choice behind Marc Andre Ter Stegen, but a case for Ulreich’s inclusion would have been easy to make.
The less said about the Russian debacle the better, but for Ulreich it now looks like he will have to return to his role of Manuel Neuer understudy seeing action mostly in the pre-game warm-up.
He has however not given up hope of more game time having got a taste for it and proved his worth last season. “I know what my role at Bayern Munich is” he told Bild in a recent interview.
“I’m the no.2 behind the best goalkeeper in the world. I accept that otherwise I would never have extended my contract. But I also hope that after the performances I gave, I’ll get this or that game more than before, even if Manu is fit.”
Yes Neuer is the undisputed no.1, but few Bayern fans would begrudge Ulreich a few more appearances thanks to his superb 2017-18 campaign. To be voted Player of the Year ahead of Joshua Kimmich, James Rodriguez, Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski is testament to his achievements last year.
With new Bayern trainer Niko Kovac starting with a clean tablet, the aspirations of Sven Ulreich may have a decent chance of being met. From bridesmaid, to bride and then back to bridesmaid is not an easy thing to accept, but Bayern have not seen the last of #SvenTheWall.