One definition of genius is when an individual makes a move that completely defies the body of conventional wisdom, but which turns out to work. If ever a footballer fit this description in the modern era – perhaps more so than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – it’s Manuel Neuer.
But to the uninitiated, it might not look this way. In his side’s 3-2 victory over Paderborn recently, Neuer dropped a clanger which captured perfectly the anxiety-inducing protagonism of the modern goalkeeper. Charging out of his area with the cavalier abandon that has become so synonymous with the World Cup winner, Neuer found himself less than ten yards from the left-hand side touchline. He was nutmegged by Dennis Srbeny and five seconds later the ball was in the back of the Bayern net.
Neuer’s career is littered with these types of unforced errors. A quick YouTube search will uncover a dozen compilation videos exhibiting his proclivity to scurry away from his goal-line so fast you’d think it was one of his Bayern teammates chasing him with a huge glass of Weissbier on the final day of the Bundesliga season. Some goalkeepers’ entire careers are defined by one or two such mistakes; one only need look at the replies to every single one of Loris Karius’s tweet to see that. And yet Neuer, who has glitched more often than most, is still lionised. Why?
The reasons are more elegant than you might think. It isn’t exactly a trade secret that the modern goalkeeper’s zone of influence has expanded tenfold. Whereas a goalkeeper used to be a bung in a drain, and how “good” a footballer they were rested solely on how effectively they stopped the leaking of goals, nowadays the position is more of a balancing act. Part of the reason Neuer is one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time – and certainly the most revolutionary in modern terms – is down to how well he spins the plates that are the dual responsibilities of the modern goalkeeper.
When Pep Guardiola was at Bayern Munich, Neuer executed the sweeper-keeper role so well, was so composed with the ball at his feet and had such passing prowess that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had to stop the Catalan from playing him outfield. Around that time, Neuer finished third in the Ballon d’Or, just 0.4 percent of the vote behind Messi. Had he not been pipped, there’s every chance Neuer would have become the first truly significant player in the history of the sport to not only blur the lines between goalkeeper and outfielder but to break them down entirely.
He has always trod the line between the batshit and the brilliant – that, more than anything else, will be his legacy. In doing so, Neuer tested the limits of what a goalkeeper could be. In this day and age, nearly every emerging number one is formed in his polymathic image. The keeper used to be something of an afterthought – they were the ones who got in the way of the goals and, by extension, the fun. They used to only be able to influence the game in a reactive fashion. Nowadays they are stars in their own rights and by their own design – just look at Liverpool fans’ adoration of Alisson.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Thiago Motta’s much talked about 2-7-2 formation. The first thing which strikes you about it is the sum of the numbers; they add up to 11, not ten as has been the case since the Victorians introduced the concept of the formation with the 1-2-7 in the 1870s. Motta’s thinking is based on a reimagining of the formation as being read left-to-right rather than back-to-front. The two 2s are the left-sided and right-sided wingers and full-backs and the 7 is the spine of the team, which, significantly, includes the goalkeeper. While Motta has hardly been successful in his young managerial career, his thoughts are indicative of a wider trend.
This centrality of the goalkeeper in modern football – in terms of strategy and, indeed, psychologically – is the brainchild of the great Johan Cruyff who in characteristically enigmatic fashion once said, “in my teams, the goalkeeper is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender”, sentiments echoed by Motta as well as all the great coaches of the modern era.
In many ways, the modern goalkeeper is the logical conclusion of Total Football where any player can play in any position. Football, which now more than ever is about overloads over every stretch of lush green grass, has finally realised that it’s a waste of a pair of feet for a goalkeeper to use only his hands.
When Neuer sauntered from the halfway line to take (and score) Bayern Munich’s third penalty in the 2012 Champions League final, it was not an example of some high-level tactical intellectualism. It was one very confident man who was very good at striking the ball stepping up to wrestle the limelight from the outfielders. But that he did and was allowed to do so was symbolic of the culture that he was a pioneer in creating. Goalkeepers are no longer just a preventative measure; they are a proactive force.
Whenever Hugo Lloris sweeps from his line to clear an overhit ball over the top or Ederson, as he regularly does, achieves a pass completion rate of over 85 percent, they do so as evangelists for the Church of Manuel Neuer – but there’s nothing like the real McCoy. Those in charge of the PA system at the Allianz Arena have, somewhat bizarrely, chosen Offenbach’s can-can song as their new goal music this season. And there is something of the cabaret about Neuer and the breathless, slightly absurd approach to playing football which only he can deliver.
There is genuine nobility in goalkeepers rejecting the insularity implicit in the position, throwing off the shackles that confine them to being guardians of the eight yards between the two posts and expressing themselves with the ball at their feet as well. And what’s more is that Neuer does not do so in the goofy style of René Higuita with goalscoring theatrics like Rogério Ceni, but rather as a central exponent of a genuinely sophisticated, boundary-testing doctrine.
Sadly, there’s no fourth wall to break in football, but if there was, you get the impression that Neuer would be able to explain everything he was doing, as he did it. In the most complimentary way possible, he is not an instinctual footballer. While his contemporaries might make mistakes because of a rush of blood to the head, Neuer is calculated. Even when he rushed from of his goal against Paderborn, a plan had formed between his temples; the only difference was that, unlike 99 percent of his other schemes, it didn’t come off.
A Japanese proverb declares that the protruding nail will always be hammered down. And in defying the prescribed wisdom, Manuel Neuer and his legacy is proving an increasingly difficult screw to sink. Every sugar-coated pass and madcap dash from the goal that football taught him he could never leave only serve to carve his name deeper into stone.
By Adam Williams