If Manchester City want to sign a goalkeeper this summer, the very best they can do would surely be today’s birthday boy: Bayern Munich and Germany’s number one Manuel Neuer.
Seen as probably the best in the world, Neuer is also a major exponent of what Pep Guardiola seems to want his goalkeepers to be – midfielders who are decent with their hands.
Manuel Neuer's position when Toni Kroos crossed for Mustafi to put Germany 1-0 up!
— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) June 12, 2016
Often seen on the halfway line, the German is surely an extreme version – even before the arrival of Guardiola at the Allianz Arena, Neuer was already a maverick. When he burst onto the scene at boyhood club Schalke 04, Neuer was clearly still one of a kind. His long throws became such a weapon that Schalke would leave Peter Lovenkrands upfield when defending corners just so they could use Neuer’s throw to launch a very direct counter-attack. Though, as always, the fact that he seems to see his ‘area’ as including grass beyond his box, too, can see him caught out:
Clearly Guardiola sees these things as risks worth taking. If he’s caught out once, that’s a small price to pay for the contribution he brings to the team’s attacking play for most of the season. But because of this we should probably start to think in a more nuanced manner when it comes to goalkeepers.
If Guardiola wants a keeper to fit into a side who will gain 60% of the game’s ball-possession, then he shouldn’t really be looking for the same sort of keeper who excels at stopping shots for teams further down the league. The reason is simple: dominant clubs need goalkeepers with a different skillset to clubs who will face more pressure and attacking onslaughts from the opposition. The more shots you have to face, the better a shot-stopper you’ll need to be; the fewer you face, the better you’ll need to be at the less obvious elements of goalkeeping – concentration, organisation, positioning, distribution and probably aerial ability, too.
What’s interesting about Neuer, too, though, is that he has all of those things. He is probably the most well-rounded goalkeeper in world football, even if he gets criticised for his shot-stopping ability or the fact that his defence is so good that he doesn’t need to make many saves.
When West Germany beat England at the 1990 World Cup, it was Peter Shilton who took some of the flak from an English press desperate for a scapegoat, or at least a reason why they didn’t win. It was Andreas Brehme’s deflected free-kick that looped over Shilton and equalised for the Germans, but as Shilton couldn’t backpedal quickly enough, he was seen to be at fault.
But Shilton argues that most goalkeepers wouldn’t have been anywhere near getting to the ball, and as a result, it wouldn’t have looked like it was their fault.
“The journalists who wrote such things revealed just how little they understood about goalkeeping. In similar circumstances, I have seen the majority of goalkeepers rooted to the spot in no-man’s land. They are never criticised for it because TV commentators and a good many supporters think ‘He had no chance of getting that’… If I had remained rooted to the spot and looked on helplessly as the ball sailed over my head, I’m sure not a word would have been said.”
And perhaps the same has been said of Neuer throughout his career. When goalkeepers make a mistake there’s nowhere to hide. When a goal is scored, a keeper is always beaten. Just a few weeks ago at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal scored the first goal of what turned out to be another embarrassing night up against the German champions. When Theo Walcott blasted the ball into the roof of the net from close range, co-commentator Martin Keown talked after the replay about how he felt that Neuer should have saved the shot – beaten at his near post after getting a hand to the ball was the argument. No one ever comments on how hard it is to get your hand near the ball in the first place.
If City are to sign a goalkeeper this summer, it is highly unlikely they can sign Neuer, and it is near-impossible to sign another goalkeeper who is just as good. But it’s a skillset that City need – good enough with his feet to rival Claudio Bravo in that department, and good enough at stopping shots to do a better job than a wet piece of cardboard.
But either way, there’ll be criticism. At big clubs, you can’t avoid it as a goalkeeper.