Watching the decline of a great player is always hard, especially when that player is one of the greatest ever to step onto the field. When that great player is one of your guys though, it hurts. The pain is real.
Right now, it hurts to watch Manuel Neuer play goalkeeper for Bayern Munich and Germany.
Perhaps, this is a blip. While Neuer wasn’t great at the FIFA World Cup in Russia over the summer (including a major error in the final minutes of the match against South Korea that led directly to their second goal), he had a solid start to the current season with Bayern. Through the club’s first seven games in all competitions, Neuer had five shutouts while conceding only two goals. He was passing everyone’s “eye test” and looked to be back in top form.
So, what happened?
The Augsburg Game
Bayern were in the middle of a seven-game stretch in just twenty-one days. After pounding Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke in the Bundesliga and Benfica in the Champions League, Bayern returned to the Allianz Arena for a midweek match against Augsburg.
As Bayern clung to a 1-0 lead in the dying minutes, Neuer flapped at a corner kick and missed, and the ball eventually found it’s way in the back of the net. Bayern settled for the point, and the slide began. In five matches against Augsburg, Hertha Berlin, Ajax, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and the Netherlands for club and country, Neuer has picked the ball out of his net ten different times.
The last two matches that Neuer has played have been a personal disaster for him. Against Gladbach, Neuer’s poor pass on a goal kick directly contributed to Lars Stindl’s goal, giving Gladbach an early 2-0 lead. In the Nations League against the Netherlands, the Dutch got their opening goal when Neuer came out for a corner kick and again missed the ball, leading to a goal from Virgil van Dijk.
He’s been uncharacteristically poor lately, and it’s worrying.
So, what’s the deal?
Since joining from Schalke in the summer of 2011, there’s been one feature of Neuer’s game for both Bayern and Germany that has always stood out and left an indelible mark on the sport. Whether it was the 2013 UEFA Champions League Final at Wembley Stadium in London or the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, no player has displayed the same confidence in his own play as Neuer.
For the last seven years, Neuer has spent the majority of his time on the field for Bayern and Germany hovering just behind the midfield line. Both teams have held the bulk of possession over the years, so Neuer is rarely called upon to make saves; however, when he is asked to perform, Neuer has always been able to make the one or two big saves in a game that make the difference between a win and a draw or loss.
Most of Neuer’s play could be attributed to confidence as much as his shot-stopping ability. Neuer never doubted that he was making the right decision when he chased down a ball. Part of the reason the “Sweeper Keeper” moniker stuck to Neuer was because of his fearlessness in coming for the ball. Since returning from his injury, Neuer hasn’t been the same player. It doesn’t appear to be fear as much as a lack of confidence in his own decision-making. Perhaps it was foolish for everyone to think he would just assume his throne again as the world’s greatest goalkeeper.
And, as Neuer’s confidence appears to dipping so has his ability to stop shots. According to Kicker’s statistics (from AZ) for the 2017-18 Bundesliga, only Hoffenheim’s Oliver Baumann (57.7%) and Nürnberg’s Fabian Bredlow (46.7%) have a lower save percentage than Neuer (57.9%). They note that, in most previous seasons, Neuer’s save percentage has been around 80%, so this is a drastic decline.
Not all of the problems facing Bayern and Germany can be laid at the feet of Neuer. He has not been helped by the recent play of the center-back tandem of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in front of him. However, their mistakes had always been masked by the superhuman play of Neuer behind them. Without Super Neuer behind them, mistakes that previously came to nothing are now resulting in goals more regularly.
Where do the teams go from here?
For Bayern, there really is no Plan B. Last season, we saw the best that the club could get out of Sven Ulreich. The backup man was thrust into an unexpected starting gig when Neuer went down injured, and, for the most part, he thrived. Yes, there were some unforgettable mistakes, but Ulreich was brought into the club to be Neuer’s emergency backup, not a guy that’s going to start 29 games for you.
Perhaps next summer will be the time for Bayern to begin looking for the man the club wants to be the stopgap between Neuer and young Christian Früchtl. While the club sees Früchtl as the future in goal for both club and country, trusting an 18-year-old to carry the load in the Bayern goal seems like a risk that the club would not be willing to take.
Germany has options available to them from Marc-Andre ter Stegen to Kevin Trapp to Bernd Leno. However, opinion varies wildly among fans whether any of those options are currently better than Neuer. Still, it seems only a matter of time before Ter Stegen is favored ahead of Neuer in the German goal. While his performances for Barcelona have been stellar in recent seasons, he’s never been able to translate that over to the national team.
If Neuer can’t regain his form, one can see Jogi Löw making the move to Ter Stegen in 2019.