As I wrote this past summer, Manuel Neuer’s approach to goalkeeping is unlike the rest of the field. It was no surprise when he was listed in the final three for the Ballon d’Or. After all, Neuer anchored Germany to their fourth World Cup win, won Goalkeeper of the Year, was placed on UEFA’s Team of the Year, won the German Footballer of the Year, topped the Bundesliga and reached the Champions League quarterfinals with Bayern Munich all in the same year. Clearly Neuer was deserving of the finalist nomination.
Surely you’ve seen the videos. Neuer’s outrageous passing attempts that land like the FIFA passing assist is turned all the way on. Or perhaps you’ve seen him fly over the halfway mark to head a ball back into the attacking third. Neuer’s consistent outside-the-box adventures have has led some to dub him the first “false one,” a play on the cliched “false nine” position, meaning a goalkeeper who doesn’t really occupy the area of the field you expect goalkeepers to occupy.
In all of this, his greatest strength is in his risk calculation. When he escapes his box to play a ball, whether bounding or not, he takes the perfect angle every time. He does not run forward then stutter at the top of the eighteen. He does not underestimate his opponent’s speed. He arrives precisely at the time he means to.
As if that wasn’t enough, he’ll complete any type of pass directly on target or surprise you with a well placed Cruyff turn just yards from his goal. His shot-stopping abilities are fine as well but it is in his extracurriculars that he adds another dimension to a team that other clubs aren’t able to have.
If one were to boldly knock on Neuer, his reflexes and arm mechanics aren’t the sharpest. You’ll see him occasionally swing his arms behind his back as the shot is being taken. (Think of a skier pushing off the ground.) Or you could argue that he activates his feet and legs too much in tight situations, leaving the commonly accepted percentage plays for heroic, unimaginable saves. And of course, to be as forward as he is there is the obvious risk inherent in abandoning his designated area. This summer Neuer was under the microscope for his, ahem, aggressive challenge against Argentina’s Higuaín in the World Cup Final. In the second half of a scoreless game, Neuer raced out to the corner of his box to punch away a ball that Gonzalo Higuaín was also in competition for. Although Neuer was awarded the free kick there was still talk about just how far do the rules “protect” a goalkeeper.
But here’s the important thing: other keepers can not simply play as Neuer plays, because other keepers don’t play for Bayern Munich and Germany. The intellectual and athletic gifts that allow Neuer to read the play and intercept the danger are effective because his teammates are all on the same page, helping to maximize his talents.
It is a team mindset to collectively play true total football. When Neuer rushes out for an over the top ball, his teammates aren’t surprised and are already moving to counterbalance Neuer’s step. Everyone slides to a passing lane or drops to cover the net. The high pressure, both in Germany’s national team and Bayern Munich, allows Neuer to scoot up the field. If Neuer was playing with a team that sat back, waiting to counter, he would play a drastically different game, showing a much more conservative Neuer or one that gave up many more goals.
The difference between Lev Yashin and Neuer is that everyone has to play like Yashin, while everyone wishes they could play like Neuer.
Does that mean Neuer should have won the recent Ballon d’Or? Surely a goalkeeper can’t have a year where he has won more accolades, seemingly making it impossible for him to win any time in the future. The real question is, 50 years from, now will players be trying to play more like Neuer or more like Cristiano Ronaldo? Sure, Ronaldo and Messi will be remembered, but outside of pre-free kick stances, how much is Ronaldo changing the game? Neuer on the other hand, will have a lasting impression.