While most people are talking about James, Messi and Robben, yesterday Germany’s ‘keeper, Manuel Neuer gave one of the performances of the World Cup.
However as the song goes, it wasn’t what Neuer did, but the way that he did it. Making as many tackles against Algeria as he did saves, Neuer showed the watching world how vital a good ‘sweeper-keeper’ can be.
While others, like France’s Hugo Lloris, play in a similar way, Neuer is the first to showcase this modern style with such a game-changing performance and he did it on the grandest stage of all too.
Time and again he made up for his center-halves’ sluggishness, regularly sniffing out attacks with breath-taking bursts from his goal line.
Last night Neuer touched the ball 19 times outside of his own penalty area, an almost unfathomable stat for a goalkeeper. In the first half alone he touched the ball 24 total times. Glancing at his heat map for the game, you’d be convinced he was a centre half if you didn’t know better.
But the numbers only tell half the story; just to witness his sheer athleticism and supreme poise was an experience in itself.
In the early stages of the match, a long punt down the left flank by Algeria saw Per Mertesacker caught out badly. Islam Slimani looked to be bearing down on goal, before the Bayern goalkeeper came roaring out – about 25 metres from the safety of his line – to chase the striker out wide and away from his goal, before lunging to block Slimani’s attempted shot. It would have been an accomplished play for a right back.
For a keeper it was astounding.
Then on 71 minutes, center-half Jérôme Boateng found himself losing a foot-race with the tormenter-in-chief, Slimani, only for Neuer to race out and head it clear.
Finally, with one of his final contributions of normal time, he again sprinted almost 30 metres to nick the ball away from the dangerous Sofiane Feghouli, who had made a menacing run. At the time the score was still 0-0. The clock showed 88 minutes. A mistake would have seen Germany crash out of the World Cup, but Neuer didn’t so much as flinch.
All this is impressive enough, but from a tactical perspective, Neuer’s performance takes on an even greater significance.
Playing a high defensive line is a real luxury for a team. It acts to squeeze the pitch, severely restricting the area in which the opponent can play the ball when in possession, potentially up to the halfway line. This makes it easy to win the ball high up the pitch (optimal for quick transitions into goal-scoring areas), while simultaneously limiting the number of chances on your own goal.
There’s usually a catch; the high line is vulnerable to balls played in behind, and thus requires quick centre-halves. Mertesacker, for all his on-pitch leadership and aerial prowess, at times looks like he’s running so slowly he could actually travel backwards in time.
But Neuer compensates for this, swiftly dealing with through-balls that breach the defence. He’s one of the few players both fast and intelligent enough to play as a ‘sweeper-keeper’, and without him Germany coach Joachim Löw would have to either ditch Mertesacker or the high line – quite the dilemma.
While Neuer’s opposite number on the night, the more orthodox Raïs M’Bolhi, also had an outstanding game, to watch the pair of them would be to think they were playing different positions. In a way they were. As well as playing in goal, Neuer is charged with effectively being a full-blown sweeper. His specific job is essential to the way his team play – he is arguably even more important to Die Mannschaft than Philipp Lahm or Thomas Müller – and yet his margins for error are razor-thin. On yesterday’s evidence, he has a strong case for being the best goalkeeper around, and could even be the World’s Cup decisive player.
Oh and here’s something trivia fans will enjoy: the last German to play as a sweeper in a World Cup was Klaus Augenthaler. The year? 1990. Perhaps Löw is a fan of history.