Is Manuel Neuer the best goalkeeper in football history?
Having won almost every single trophy available, Manuel Neuer’s claim to the throne of Goalkeeper Olympus is already pretty solid, even with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Lev Yashin also vying for the crown. Bayern Munich’s No.1 will captain Germany this summer in Russia, where a successful World Cup title defense would elevate his status in history even further.
Yet silverware is not the only argument to determine who “the best” is or was (ask a certain Lionel Messi). In order to pin Neuer’s place in history down, we need to dig deep and look at the different aspects that separate the good ‘keepers from the monumental shot-stoppers. Is he a better leader than Iker Casillas? Is he more imposing than Peter Schmeichel? bundesliga.com investigates…
After consultation with experts on all matters between the sticks, we’ve learned that there are four areas on which a goalkeeper should be judged:
- Technical: Their basic skill set.
- Tactical: Their ability to read the game.
- Physical: Their bodily attributes.
- Psychological: Their mental attributes.
Having gone through the annals of The Beautiful Game and exhausted our capacity to watch highlight clips on Youtube, we’ve established the four titans who have set the benchmark in each of these categories throughout the game’s history. How does Neuer stack up to them? Scroll on to find out!
Watch: The entire story of Manuel Neuer’s road to the top!
Technical: Neuer vs. Gianluigi Buffon
Goalkeeping according to Buffon:
“You need to be a little masochistic to be a goalkeeper,” said the Juventus legend talking to The Guardian about the hazards of his trade. “When you play in goal, you know the only certain thing in life is that you will concede goals. And you also know that conceding goals is not something that brings you happiness.”
The importance of technique in goalkeeping:
The towering Italian managed to turn that inevitable pain into an endless highlights reel of masterfully frustrated surefire goal attempts. However, Buffon’s legacy goes beyond last-gasp thrills. His success stems from the execution of finely tuned and deftly applied goalkeeping techniques.
Before the shot even comes off the striker’s boot, he already knows exactly how far off his line he needs to be, which hand will primarily block the ball and how much surface he will cover with his body. Reflexes kick in later for dramatic effect.
While it’s not uncommon for goalkeepers to have longer careers than their outfield colleagues, age can naturally dampen their natural attributes like reflexes or flexibility. Buffon’s bullet-proof grasp on the technical tricks of the trade allow him to remain amongst the very elite even at 40 years of age.
How Neuer compares:
His feet; and we’re not talking about his daredevil excursions outside the box here (more on that later). Modern goalkeepers have had to expand their basic skill set to include proper passing technique in their repertoire. Buffon is more classic in this sense and has often been critical about this outfield-focused shift for the men between the sticks.
Neuer’s passing game is not just “good for a keeper”, it’s good full stop. Also, the Gelsenkirchen native is second to none when it comes to the more traditional aspects of shot-stopping. We could go on for pages about his virtues, but we’d rather let the man’s saves do the talking.
Watch: Manuel Neuer’s top 5 saves in the Bundesliga!
Tactical: Neuer vs. Lev Yashin
Goalkeeping according to Yashin:
“What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed?”, the great Black Spider once asked. “He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future.”
The importance of tactics in goalkeeping:
This quote, one of the most widely reproduced by the Soviet icon, gives us a glimpse into the mind of a revolutionary player. While Yashin was without a doubt the best keeper of the 1950s and ‘60s – and his bravado earned him the respect of everyone on both sides of the iron curtain – it was his tactical cunning which put him on the map.
At the time, it was taboo for a goalkeepers to step outside their box and concern themselves with much more than blocking incoming shots. Yashin changed that and showed the world that well-timed jumps to cut off long balls, punching the ball away instead of catching it and excursions outside of the area could be a powerful defensive weapon.
It was precisely this level of impact on the very nature of the game which earned him the 1963 Ballon d’Or, a feat which no other ‘keeper has been able to match. Dino Zoff, Oliver Kahn, Buffon, Casillas and Neuer himself have all come close by making the podium of the world’s best player award, but we just might never see another one take that golden ball home.
How Neuer compares:
In Neuer’s defense, he might well have won it in 2014 were it not for the fact that the other two candidates were Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While having those two aliens in circulation effectively automatically precludes anyone else from dreaming about the award, Germany’s current captain took Yashin’s revolution to new heights, deeply impacting the overall game.
When we talk about “sweeper-keepers” (goalkeepers who act as an additional defender in open play) in years to come, Neuer’s face will spring to mind immediately. Especially around the 2014 World Cup, he showcased a completely new dimension to the role of the goalkeeper by extending his area of action to basically his team’s entire defending half. In the age of possession football, an additional outfield player with outstanding passing is a major advantage.
Watch: The tactical advantage of having Manuel Neuer in your squad!
Physical: Neuer vs. Peter Schmeichel
Goalkeeping according to Schmeichel:
“To be a part of a football team, you need to work collectively to win games, but as a goalkeeper you also have to be an individual and a very strong-minded person because most of the time you’re on your own” The Great Dane once philosophised. “You are facing the other way to your team-mates for long periods, and whenever you make a mistake, there is no one there to help you.”
The importance of physicality in goalkeeping:
To avoid any misunderstandings, we are not reducing Peter Schmeichel’s heroics to the Dane’s imposing 6’3” in frame. We rather want to highlight how his mere physical presence and his way of exploiting it was one of the factors that made him into a true legend. His trademark “star jump”, where he would save shots by extending his arms and legs to cover a larger area (a move he picked up playing handball) is a prime example of this.
Bravery also plays a huge role in this aspect of goalkeeping, as stoppers are constantly asked to choose between the integrity of their net or their own body. It’s no secret that it takes a special kind of personality to take up the gloves and Schmeichel proved time after time how this fearlessness can be exploited to deliver outstanding performances in goal and even help your team out offensively.
He was up in the opposition box during the 1999 UEFA Champions League final in the move that led to Manchester United’s late equaliser against Bayern Munich, which opened up spaces for his teammates. Prior to that, in 1995, he bagged a late equaliser for United in the UEFA Cup against Rotor Volvograd and had a scandalous bicycle kick disallowed for offside against Leeds in the FA Cup: All wonderful moments from a player who knew the value of his presence and when best to use it.
How Neuer compares:
For all the technical praise we can throw at Bayern’s keeper, he is not lacking in physical stature or bravery. He is taller than Schmeichel at 6’4”, but he’s also constantly proved that he’s not afraid of physical confrontation. Neuer’s style requires him to be bold and daring in his duels with opposing forwards if he wants to lay down the sweeper-keeper law in his defensive half.
Neuer’s most prominent display of bravado took place during the last World Cup when Germany had to suffer in order to beat Algeria 2-1 in extra time. Most of his teammates were focused on besieging the rival box and Neuer often found himself taking defensive matters into his own hands – and feet – with some supreme tackling way outside his box. The only thing missing to fully close the circle is a goal of his own.
Psychological: Neuer vs. Iker Casillas
Goalkeeping according to Casillas:
“I called Xavi because it was my duty and my responsibility as national team captain”, Casillas once explained talking to EL PAIS. “It was the right thing to do because we [Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s Spanish players] were wrong by three country miles, because I represent a whole country and I defend an ideal. We talked in order to patch things up because we were badly messing it up.”
The importance of psychology in goalkeeping:
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain were one of the favourites to take the tournament on the back of their Euro title in 2008, the rise of Barcelona at club level and perhaps even an overall surge on confidence with Rafael Nadal in tennis and Fernando Alonso in Formula 1 joining their compatriots at the pinnacle of sport. Casillas’ duties as captain during that tournament went beyond La Roja’s squad.
He was responsible for the hopes and dreams of 46 million people in a country that was always among the favourites only to book an early flight home every four years. Casillas’ leadership to deal with the outside pressure and Iniesta’s extra-time screamer against the Netherlands in the final put an end to that misery and ended with a massive celebration throughout the streets of Madrid with the World Cup trophy as the guest of honour.
However, the keeper’s resolve was put to the test in 2013, as the rivalry between his club Real and bitter rivals Barca reached a boiling point on and off the pitch. In order to keep national team harmony, Casillas approached Barcelona captain Xavi Hernandez to mend the divide, a move which strained his relationship with then coach José Mourinho and ultimately led to his exit from the Bernabeu.
How Neuer compares:
While Neuer will never be faced with such a complicated situation, his leadership skills are beyond question. During his time at Schalke, he learned to cope with the responsibility of carrying a team on his shoulders as the Royal Blues constantly finished in Champions League positions thanks in no small part to their young goalkeeper’s miraculous saves. No wonder he was made captain by age 24.
He has inherited Philipp Lahm’s armband with both Germany and Bayern. Although he has spent most of the current season injured, it’s clear that he enjoys the full support of his colleagues and bosses. Despite losing 2-1 to Austria in his first game back in action for Germany, Neuer was impressive and coach Joachim Löw went as far as saying that “you couldn’t tell that he’d been out for so long.”
Having the resolve to recover in time for the World Cup is a huge feat in itself and seems to have had a morale-boosting effect on his teammates, who will look to their last man on the field for inspiration to defend their world crown. If Neuer gets to lift the trophy, he’ll be only the second starting goalkeeper to win multiple World Cups. Yet another argument for his greatness in a seemingly interminable list that just keeps growing.
As physically imposing as Schmeichel, technically talented as Buffon, revolutionary as Yashin and important to team spirit as Casillas, we are enjoying a legend in our own life time. Danke Manu!
Jaime Duque Cevallos