Why Bayern Munich and Germany No.1 Manuel Neuer is still one of the world's best goalkeepers
It turns out being one of the world’s best goalkeepers and one of the greatest in history is just like riding a bike - well, at least if you’re Manuel Neuer.
After Neuer put two big hands and a pair of size 47s in the way of RB Leipzig’s attempt at a first major title in the 2019 DFB Cup final, bundesliga.com reminds the football world why the Bayern Munich and Germany No.1 is still one of the best goalkeepers on the planet…
Neuer has had his fair share of injury problems in recent years, but even at 33 - having won almost everything there is to win in football - his appetite for world domination remains as strong as it was when he was being talked up as the 'next Oliver Kahn' as a Schalke teenager. He recovered full fitness following a 41-day absence with a calf tear to make Bayern's DFB Cup final squad at the 11th hour, when most players - young or old - would have been halfway to Barbados. And he wasn't just there to make up the numbers.
Neuer was the picture of steely determination as Bayern survived a couple of serious scares en route to claiming a record 19th DFB Cup and completing the domestic double. A quite brilliant reaction save to push Yussuf Poulsen's bullet header onto the crossbar early in the first half coupled with an otherworldly one-on-one stop to foil Emil Forsberg after the restart underscored a vintage 'Super Manu' display, and paved the way for a 3-0 win. All he was missing was a red cape and blue bodysuit.
"I was gutted to miss last season’s final, so was highly motivated and wanted to play to the very best of my ability," Neuer said after his triumphant comeback in the German capital. "My team trusts me, the coach trusts me and I was feeling really good as I'd trained well all week. Whatever it is, you have to approach every situation from scratch, that's what being a professional is all about. What's 'normal' anyway?"
Not Neuer, that's for sure. Bayern's anomalous custodian has steadily redefined the very notion of what it means to be a modern-day goalkeeper since making his professional debut for Schalke in August 2006. Along the way, he studied past paragons of the position such as Kahn, Jens Lehmann and Edwin van der Sar, making a career-shaping distinction between who he believed to be the best of German and non-German goalkeepers at the time.
"In Germany, Jens Lehmann was a model style for a German goalkeeper," Neuer told Grant Wahl in 2016. "In the international style, my idol was [the Netherlands'] Edwin van der Sar. He was so modern, much more modern than Lehmann. He had another level. He could play with his left and right foot and go out of the box and go out to get crosses. He was present as a personality. Then there was Oliver Kahn: his reflexes, his ambition. So I have some different pieces put together. It’s like having a lot of coaches, and you save something from the coach that you think is good for you – and that becomes you."
Watch: Manuel Neuer's roots
It's goalkeeping alchemy at its finest. At 6'5", Neuer is a natural fit for the last line of defence. He combines the commanding presence and shot-stopping abilities of Lehmann and Kahn with the perception and distribution of van der Sar. There are also elements of, among others, Peter Schmeichel and Gianluigi Buffon.
Yet Neuer is more than just a replica of another world-class keeper. He thinks and plays like a footballer. The term 'sweeper-keeper' became synonymous with the Bayern giant following his adventurous displays during Germany's 2014 FIFA World Cup win in Brazil, where he participated in defending, building attacks and retaining possession almost as much as he protected his goal.
"I don’t feel the fear in my head in this moment," Neuer explained of the 11th-man tactic he had licence to hone at Bayern under Pep Guardiola and Joachim Löw for Germany. "I am always thinking positively. It’s all about the first step. If I think I will get the ball, I go out. I can’t stop halfway because the goal is empty and the player would have the opportunity to shoot. You make the reaction, and then, of course, you have to be sure to get the ball. But it’s years of practice. You can’t say from one day to the other: 'Now I will do it,' you know? You have to feel it."
Germany's World Cup win is one of myriad career highs for a player happy to live on the edge, driven by a hunger to be the ultimate best. His bumper-sized trophy collection is a monument to his greatness, and includes: the 2014 FIFA World Cup and Golden Glove, seven Bundesliga titles, five DFB Cups, the 2013 UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, four German Supercups, the 2009 UEFA U21 European Championship and two Germany Player of the Year awards. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo prevented him from becoming the first goalkeeper since Lev Yashin (1963) to win the Ballon d'Or in 2014 - not that the world's best goalkeeper needs an individual accolade to cement his legacy.
Having himself followed the teachings of Kahn and Co. in his youth, Neuer has seamlessly filled the role of gloved muse for a new wave of stoppers schooled the 'Manu way'. He has become the benchmark for modern netminders the world over, with contemporaries such as Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur and France) and Alisson (Liverpool & Brazil) among those to have voiced a proverbial "we're not worthy" when asked how they compare to the goalkeeping equivalent of Roger Federer.
Much like Federer, Neuer is still playing at the highest level, and could conceivably continue to do so for club and country long into his 30s - but that's not all he has in common with the indefatigable all-time tennis great. Neuer has changed the dynamics of his craft, forcing his opponents to adapt to facing him and his peers to think way beyond the realms of conventional goalkeeping in their attempts to be like him. His impact on football and goalkeeping culture as a whole has been seismic to say the least, and will stand the test of time.
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