As featured on Guardian Sport
There is often talk about the 12th man. Whether that is the fans singing their hearts out in the stands, the referee who appears to be giving everything to the opposition or a rogue beach ball that has bounced on to the pitch and has yet to be removed, it is said, this 12th man gives you the advantage. But it’s a strange term to use when the teams are not even utilising the 11 they have on the pitch.
When Germany faced Algeria in the 2014 World Cup, many were quick to condemn their high defensive line and over-reliance on Manuel Neuer. The pundits were also critical when Germany played France in the next round. Alan Shearer seemed especially shocked and appalled, voicing his dismay that one ball over the top was all France needed to create a goalscoring opportunity. However, France did not exploit this apparent weakness and Germany progressed.
Die Mannschaft have taken over Spain’s mantle. Their team is youthful and energetic, they often play with no out-and-out striker and they have a wealth of technically gifted players. The Spanish model has not just been replicated, though, it has been improved.
The improvement has come through using the 11th man. The man who is almost always overlooked as a footballer, the one position on the pitch where, as a kid, you did not need any skill or ability, you simply needed to be big. This 11th man is, of course, the goalkeeper.
On a football pitch you are looking to gain any advantage you can. Like the opposition, you only have access to 11 players so you must use these players as efficiently as possible. If one of them has no role other than babysitting the net, then you’re already at a disadvantage.
Football is a lot like chess. You have the same number of pieces as your opponent, you face-off on the same playing surface and you both have the same aim. The great chess players know they need to get the most out of each of their pieces to win. This gives rise to the maxim: “The King is a fighting piece – use it.”
With the king being the weakest and most important piece on the board, it would seem logical to ignore the maxim and do nothing but protect him at all times. But if you are to do that and your opponent uses their king as an attacking piece, essentially your opponent has one more piece than you. In tight games, against similar opposition, this small advantages can be the difference between victory and defeat.
By using your goalkeeper not just to protect your own goals but to actually participate in defending, building attacks and keeping the ball, you are utilising your 11th man. If your opposition are not doing this, you immediately have a man advantage.
There are teams that utilise the 11th man; in fact, almost every team does, but you only see it for a very brief period of time. When a team is desperately hunting for a goal and the clock is ticking down to full-time the goalkeeper will become more involved in the game.
He leaves the safety of his six-yard box and lingers on the edge of his area; he sweeps behind his defenders who are camped on the halfway line; and he plays long, raking, diagonal balls to those further up-field. If he is able to play the role at this point in the match, why is he not able to do it earlier?
The conservative traditionalists within football see the reliance on a sweeper-keeper as a sign of weakness. The high defensive line and the involvement of the goalkeeper appear to be the last move of a desperate manager with nothing left to throw at the opposition. Perhaps the tactic has this reputation as it is only used in the dying moments of matches.
If anything, the use of the goalkeeper in the sweeper-keeper role is the opposite of desperation. Utilising the 11th man is a tactically intelligent innovation that is going to become more and more popular in the coming years.
Manuel Neuer’s heat map in Germany’s match against Algeria shows the extent to which he was involved. Covering almost an entire third of the pitch, he was anything but a bystander.
Neuer is not only a world-class goalkeeper but he is a footballer as well. In the sweeper-keeper role, he is more than just a net guard. His defensive skills, covering any through balls and sweeping up behind his back line, allow the defenders to push forward. This in turn restricts the space the opposition have in the middle of the pitch and forces the game into the opposition’s half.
The tactic might not work for every team but Germany and Bayern Munich have a goalkeeper to revolutionise what it means to play between the sticks. Joachim Löw says Neuer could “play in midfield” and Toni Kroos, who occupies one of those midfield positions, calls him the team’s “11th outfield player”.
Credit should not only be given Neuer but also to the most progressive and revolutionary manager in the game today, Pep Guardiola. A while ago Andy James wrote about the evolution of Neuer and how Guardiola was turning him into a footballer, rather than a goalkeeper. I bet even James is surprised at the extent and speed of the evolution.
The tactic is both dangerous and brilliant. Guardiola has a philosophy, and every player, position and move has to fit into that philosophy and compliment it as a whole. It is a grand design, with each individual cog aiding the movement and progression of the other pieces around it. You could not remove this sweeper-keeper tactic and simply install it at say Chelsea, for example, because it would not work. The team needs to be geared towards an aim, and each position allows the team to function.
After inheriting a treble-winning team it was hard to imagine what Guardiola could possibly do. His former club, Barcelona, revolutionised club football, so expectations were high. Guardiola is not content with stability and continuity. As a manager he looks to push the boundaries, radicalise and perfect. Morphing Philipp Lahm into a defensive midfielder and having Neuer play as a sweeper-keeper are just two examples of how he is constantly looking to develop new tactics.
What we saw against Algeria was the future of goalkeeping. A player whose main task is to keep a clean sheet must also now hold other responsibilities. The future of football is a future where each position has a variety of functions. Defensive midfielders will not only break up attacks, strikers will not just score goals and goalkeepers will not just prevent the opposition from scoring. Neuer may be the first modern, complete sweeper-keeper, but he will not be the last.
By Paddy Vipond