Is that a net or a superhero's cape? Manuel Neuer makes a strong case to be regarded as the greatest goalkeeper of all time. - © imago images / Poolfoto
Is that a net or a superhero's cape? Manuel Neuer makes a strong case to be regarded as the greatest goalkeeper of all time. - © imago images / Poolfoto

Is Manuel Neuer the greatest goalkeeper of all time?


Manuel Neuer has won the treble of Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League for the second time after playing a starring role in Bayern's Munich's 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon, and added the UEFA Super Cup to his collection with some big saves against Sevilla. Is he the greatest goalkeeper the game has ever seen?

Headline act

First things first, let's get the blindingly obvious out of the way: Neuer had a brilliant game in the Champions League final. Kingsley Coman may have been awarded the official Man of the Match with his headed winner, but if Neuer hadn't made point-blank saves from Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Marquinhos - the former two the most expensive players of all time - Bayern might not have had a trophy to lift.

"We have [Keylor] Navas, but Neuer was in top form at the wrong moment," lamented PSG's Bundesliga-bred coach Thomas Tuchel after the game. "He took the goalkeeping game to a new level, unfortunately for us."

Manuel Neuer (l.) denied both Neymar (c.) and Kylian Mbappe (r.) from close range in the UEFA Champions League final. - MANU FERNANDEZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

But one good game does not the greatest goalkeeper of all time make. Navas was the Real Madrid No.1 when the Spanish giants won three consecutive Champions League titles between 2016 and 2018, so perhaps trophy hauls are a good place to start…

How cluttered is your mantlepiece?

Navas may be a three-time European champion, but his predecessor at Real, Iker Casillas, is the most decorated goalkeeper in Spanish football history. He also won the Champions League three times, as well as La Liga five times - four more than Navas - and was the Spain No.1 when his nation won UEFA Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010. On trophies alone, Casillas's argument is a robust one to say the least.

Across Europe's five major leagues as defined by UEFA coefficient, few have come close. Serie A stalwart Gianluigi Buffon is one, though. The long-time Juventus netminder won the UEFA Cup with Parma in 1999 before collecting a barely fathomable 10 league titles with Juve. Although the Champions League has eluded him, the three-time runner-up in that competition didn't have to settle for second-best at the World Cup in 2006, keeping five clean sheets on the way to the Azzurri's fourth world title.

>> Click here for 10 things you need to know about Neuer

"Maybe you're No.1 now, Manu" - Gianluigi Buffon (l.) is a big admirer of fellow goalkeeping great Manuel Neuer (r.). - Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Peter Schmeichel deserves an honourable mention here - a five-time English Premier League winner with Manchester United who won the continental treble in 1999 having also been part of the Denmark team who shocked the world to win Euro '92 - but there can be little question that when it comes to trophy hauls alone, Neuer completes the podium with Casillas and Buffon.

The Bayern and Germany captain sealed his second continental treble in Lisbon, and has now taken his trophy count to 21 at club level - including eight Bundesliga triumphs as well as two Champions Leagues. He was also the undisputed No.1 when Germany won their fourth World Cup in Brazil in 2014, keeping four clean sheets on that journey.

Football revolutionaries?

It may be difficult to separate Neuer, Casillas and Buffon in terms of trophies, so what about their styles of play?

All three are incredible shot-stoppers, absolutely world class at the traditional goalkeeper's job of making saves. Casillas, shorter than the other two at 6'0", had the wing-span of a 6'4" man, meaning that for all intents and purposes on a soccer field, he matched the taller Neuer and Buffon physically. All three goalkeepers in question would strike fear into the heart of an opposition striker when one-on-one.

But what about when your team has the ball? Even Buffon admitted that there was no matching Neuer when in possession. "He's physically strong and confident," he told German sports daily Kicker a few years ago. "He calms his team down with his aura, is great with the ball at his feet and makes impossible saves.

"He has his own era; is the best in the category 'modern goalkeeper' and has been for many years."

Returning to the most recent Champions League final briefly, Neuer effectively ran the game from his goal. As well as the headline-grabbing saves, the then 34-year-old custodian completed 13 long passes - a game joint-best with string-pulling midfielder Thiago Alcantara - and boasted Bayern's third-best pass completion percentage.

Other sweeper-keepers

The term "sweeper-keeper" also needs to be unpacked. It first came into popular usage in the 1950s thanks to Gyula Grosics, who was, at times, effectively an 11th outfield player for the great Hungary side who finished as runners up to West Germany at the World Cup in 1954. But this was also a time when back-passes were allowed; the goalkeeper able to pick up a pass from his own defender. Grosics wasn't trying to distribute - with his feet - through the eye of a needle and with opposition attackers bearing down on him in nearly the same way as Neuer is today.

Gyula Grosics (l.) - picking up a back-pass? - in Hungary's 3-2 loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final. - imago images / Ferdi Hartung

A later protagonist like Bruce Grobbelaar - who might object to Schmeichel's earlier trophy haul argument having won six English League titles with Liverpool in the 1980s - perhaps found a golden mean between eccentricity and excellence, but with the back-pass rule only introduced in 1992, the game he had to navigate was, in this regard, closer to Grosics's than Neuer's.

The 'modern goalkeeper'

That is not to say that Neuer is the only goalkeeper in the world adept with both his hands and his feet, with and without the ball. Borussia Mönchengladbach academy product and current Barcelona first-choice Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a worthy understudy for Neuer at international level; and Brazil - after decades of the position being a sore spot - now have two top-level protagonists in Alisson and Ederson, the No.1s for Liverpool and Manchester City respectively.

But none of the above have been doing it at the top for the last 15 years. Ter Stegen has won a European major league four times and a Champions League once. Ederson's tally is four leagues and nothing, as yet, in Europe. Alisson has one in each column. Neuer has eight league titles and two Champions Leagues. And for ter Stegen's FIFA Confederations Cup win and the Brazilians' Copa America in 2019, read one World Cup for Neuer.

Watch: Neuer, the best in the business

Even the players themselves admit they are playing the game in Neuer's image.

"I can't compare myself with Neuer," Alisson said before Liverpool met Bayern, their successors as European champions, in the Champions League in 2019. "He's one of the best in the last 10 years, maybe the best one. He's won everything and I'm just starting.

"He's a reference for me and is a great guy as well. I've played against him, playing against him is a dream come true."

The greatest of all-time?

Neuer has won it all, and redefined his position at the same time. Previous greats have done most of their best work with their hands. Other sweeper-keepers haven't scaled nearly the same heights in their careers. Goodness, Neuer was almost Bayern's best outfield player in the Champions League final!

When young goalkeepers today aspire to greatness, it is Neuer tactics videos they should be poring over.

To dip into English football one final time: Neuer may not say he's the best in the business. But he's in the top one.