Few footballers can claim to have revolutionised their position or brought about a new way of understanding the game. Johan Cruyff is certainly one, Diego Maradona another. Bayern Munich legend Franz Beckenbauer is a third, and Manuel Neuer's career so far justifies placing him in the same bracket.
Neuer, who joined record champions Bayern from Schalke in 2011, has redefined the role of the No.1. The 36-year-old can be credited with a playing method among custodians that is now widely used in modern times: turning the goalkeeper into an outfield player as much as a stopper. Seen by many as the original sweeper-keeper - a term that is now common parlance among football observers the world over - the Gelsenkirchen native set a revolutionary standard for those who followed.
Former Germany goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke went so far as to suggest that he'd "never seen a better sweeper [than Neuer], apart from maybe Beckenbauer."
Watch: Manuel Neuer, the best in the business
As any guerrilla worth his salt knows, however, you can't instigate a revolution without a good vanguard, or a solid initial base. Neuer built the requisite foundation of a solid technique and has always been among the world's elite when it comes to a goalkeeper's bread and butter: shot stopping and dominating his area.
Witness, for example, his stunning double stop against Werder Bremen in 2020/21 or, indeed, any of his greatest hits from a commanding Bundesliga career to date.
Neuer's size - he stands at 6'3" - and natural athleticism help in making these saves and, along with dominating his box, he has a knack of throwing opposition attackers off balance. "A lot of their players didn’t want to go into the one-on-one because I’m big," he told Sports Illustrated after Germany's 1-0 win over Algeria at the World Cup back in 2014. His Germany and Bayern teammate, Thomas Müller, meanwhile, recently explained of the keeper: "When he’s in goal, the opponent sometimes has a different mindset."
Watch: Manuel Neuer - 16 seasons, 16 saves
On top of his excellent grounding in the goalkeeping art, Neuer rarely – if ever – makes mistakes. While learning his craft as a youngster in the eye of the Schalke and Bayern spotlight, there was the occasional error. Those have since been eradicated almost completely from his game, which is no doubt down to the super shot-stopper's hard work on his positioning, concentration and saving on the training ground.
A further area in which Neuer excels is the penalty shoot-out – always crucial for a No.1, but penalty-saving skills are conspicuous by their absence in the armoury of many a goalkeeper. Perhaps because of his size, the Bayern supremo has an excellent record of saving from the spot, repelling almost a third (22 of 76) sent his way during his career at club and international level.
That figure does not include penalty shoot-outs, but noticeable in those crunch moments has been the typically Teutonic confidence with which Neuer has stepped up to take a penalty, as well as saving from the opposition, his mere presence often enough to put the taker off.
The 36-year-old memorably slotted in his spot-kick in the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea and said during UEFA Euro 2016 that "my job is primarily to stop the opposition scoring from the spot, but if others are nervous, then I'll definitely take one."
Such qualities command respect from teammates and opposition alike, and it was little surprise that when Bastian Schweinsteiger relinquished his role as captain of Germany following Euro 2016, Neuer was swiftly installed as his replacement.
"First of all he's a good goalkeeper, and then he's a great footballer," Schweinsteiger said of Neuer. "He's so fast, he was faster than me," the ex-midfielder continued. "With him at the back, you could just play higher up the field – you knew there was a man behind you who could play as a sweeper or the last man. Plus he dribbles sometimes against strikers and it's incredible."
Watch: Goalkeeping Goliaths - Neuer vs. Kahn
When Philipp Lahm retired in the summer of 2017, there was little doubt at Bayern about who would inherit the armband, despite the Bavarians boasting a squad replete with international stars.
As Neuer explained to Sports Illustrated back in 2017: “I’m a little bit risky, but [I offer] security and protection, and you have to give your teammates that feeling as well. It’s better for me to get the ball before the striker than to have a one-on-one situation in the box. If he can’t get the ball, he won’t get an opportunity.”
Tactically, Neuer's intelligence allows Bayern and Germany to play a high line and press high to win the ball back in the opposition half. The security of Neuer controlling the space behind the centre-backs – and the confidence with which he does so – has completely changed the options available to his teams down through the years, and effectively means they can reduce the opposition to feeling like they are a man down without anyone having been sent off.
Such intelligence also explains that while plenty try to imitate Neuer – and the German is almost always held to be the paradigm of the modern goalkeeper – few are able to succeed in emulating him.
Neuer's former coach with Germany, Joachim Löw, once said the keeper was so good he could play in midfield; this quote is often misrepresented to imply that Neuer's passing game is so good that he could play in midfield. It is, in fact, quite different: in the same way Lahm once thrived instantly when moved into midfield because of his intelligence and awareness, so would Neuer.
There is always the matter of what happens if opponents do take advantage of the high line. This is where Neuer's famed passing game comes into its own; with his high position the goalkeeper can sweep up any long balls aimed at opposition strikers, preventing any counters before they become dangerous, and then with his accurate distribution - honed by an upbringing in Schalke's famed Knappenschmiede academy – turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
Converting a goalkeeper into an outfield player in this fashion, then, is not a defensive move. It is, in fact, the beginning of an attack and Neuer's high position and passing game permit his side to take advantage of the opposition's lack of shape.
Accordingly, and to borrow a phrase from Cruyff, Neuer is perhaps the perfect subject for the Dutchman's maxim of the goalkeeper being the first attacker. It may sound simple, that bringing the goalkeeper off his line creates an extra man, thereby creating an overload elsewhere on the field, but it is a revolutionary break with prevailing orthodoxy, which dictates that keepers should be consigned to their box, shot-stopping their main task.
The mention of Cruyff leads to one of his best-known disciples, Pep Guardiola, who worked with Neuer at Bayern between 2013 and 2016. Neuer's pass accuracy shot up – and his number of long passes decreased considerably – while working under the Catalan tactician, whose meticulous tactical work laid the foundations for the Neuer we know today.
Bayern's current coach, Julian Nagelsmann, is equally impressed by the man who recently put pen to paper on a contract extension with the Bavarian giants. "In my eyes, he's still without a shadow of a doubt by far and away the best goalkeeper in the world," the tactician said. "He's got an extremely positive character and is always active. He's saved us points many times this season."
The day will eventually come when Neuer calls time on his immense career, even if he is still performing as brilliantly as ever at 36 years of age. And when he does finally hang up those famous gloves, the Bayern and Germany legend will go down as one of those rare footballing mavericks who changed the game as we know it.
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