Manuel Neuer and the Evolution of the Sweeper Keeper

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In 10 years’ time, the idea that Manuel Neuer is the most influential goalkeeper of all time will sound like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Neuer’s barnstorming performances as a sweeper-keeper for Bayern Munich and Germany could erode the mystique that surrounds his profession, change the way keepers are coached and, just possibly, convince millions of children in school playgrounds across Europe that going in goal is not, in itself, conclusive evidence of social inadequacy.

That might seem a bit much to hang on one player, even if that player happens to be the best goalkeeper in the world, playing for two of the most successful, fashionable teams in the world. Yet Neuer’s quality – Germany’s goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke recently said of him: “I’ve never seen a better sweeper, apart from maybe Franz Beckenbauer” – could revolutionise football’s most mythologised profession.

If every goalie swept up like Neuer, every manager would play a sweeper-keeper. Because so few of his peers are as consistent, athletic or decisive, more risk-averse coaches prefer keepers who produce what Packie Bonner calls, using capital letters to emphasise this magical aspect of their game,  “the Big Saves”.

How long can such conservatism last? In a game in which every specialist is increasingly required to be a generalist – a trend foretold by Rinus Michel’s Total Football in the 1970s – keepers who are shot-stoppers may become as rare as full-backs who only tackle and strikers who do nothing but score in the six-yard box.

The Pep Guardiola Factor

Neuer’s sudden leap from good to great owes something to the liberating effect of Pep Guardiola’s tactics at Bayern. Few other coaches are as happy to see their goalkeeper hover so near the halfway line for so long. Yet his development is also an expression of the player’s personality.

After Germany squeaked past Algeria 2-1 after extra-time in the World Cup quarter-finals, with Neuer sprinting to his team’s rescue so often he became a fifth defender, he was asked whether he was taking too many risks. “If I was afraid, I’d stay on the line,” he said. “I can’t start hesitating. When I make a decision, I have to see it through. Sometimes it’s close, but I have never been sent off so far.”

Alone in the middle of the woods hardly describes Neuer’s goalkeeping style, but the ability to handle the inevitable psychological pressures is implicit in Roose’s remark that the resources for reliably filling the post “are entirely in himself”.

For some, the psychic burden becomes unbearable. Think of poor Peter Bonetti, becoming a postman on the isle of Mull after being blamed for England’s 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final.

Or think of Brazilian keeper Moacyr Barbosa, regarded as one of the best in the world until Uruguay put two goals past him in the de facto World Cup final, in the Maracana in 1950. Once pilloried by a shopper as “the man who made Brazil cry”, Barbosa tried to exorcise his demons by holding a very special barbecue in 1963. The wood he burned to entertain his guests turned out to be the goalposts from the Maracana on that fateful afternoon, rendered obsolete by a change in FIFA regulations.

All this sturm, drang and eccentricity has given the goalkeeper’s role a romantic, almost philosophic aura, reflected in the title of Austrian writer Peter Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick. The price to be paid for such mystique was a certain alienation from the rest of the industry, an attitude captured in the title of Brian Glanville’s story Goalkeepers Are Crazy.

“When Bayern beat Roma in November, Neuer completed more passes than eight Giallorossi players”

Not just crazy but invisible, their presence not even acknowledged when formations are described. As Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen admits in the next Champions Matchday, “To put it in very black and white terms, you used to be a goalkeeper because you weren’t good enough to play outfield. Now you need to play some football.” To call what Neuer does “some football” is an understatement: when Bayern beat Roma 2-0 in November, he completed more passes than eight of the Giallorossi players.

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