Trends in football are nothing new. Whether it’s the revival of a back three, the use of a false nine or teams set for high-intensity pressing, styles come and go, with the 2014 World Cup being no exception.
Manuel Neuer was already a star heading to Brazil after his exceptional performances for
Bayern Munich, so it was no surprise he was a key player as Germany claimed their fourth triumph in football’s biggest competition. Yet it was the way Neuer went about his business that made the world sit up and take note.
Described as a revolutionary following his cavalier exploits in South America, Neuer
reintroduced fans into the term ‘sweeper-keeper’ with unmitigated success, although as his career has proven, it’s something that comes naturally for him.
Origins of the art of of sweeper-keeping stem from the 1950’s and 60’s, with the legendary duo of Gyula Grosics and Lev Yashin deemed by many as the pioneers for this brave concept of goalkeeping; combining a strong starting position to claim crosses and intercept through balls with a proactive mindset and ability to quickly distribute the ball to start attacks, with their ingenuity helping shape the ‘keepers of the future.
By the 1990’s the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, Fabian Barthez and Peter Schmeichel all embraced the style, with trophies inevitably following in the shape of a World Cup, European Championships and Champions Leagues. Although the latest torchbearer has arguably taken sweeper-keeping to an even greater extreme.
While those aforementioned characteristics, alongside an adeptness with the ball at his feet, make Neuer a unique case. Arguably his greatest trait is his belief in what he does, regardless of mistakes. Despite Dejan Stankovic in 2011 and Marco Reus in 2012 famously
punishing the imposing German after making errors as a direct result of his sweeper-keeping, the fact that Neuer has the confidence to continue with his style is what stands him out as world class, as Schalke and Bayern Munich fans will testify.
Prior to 2014, Neuer captained Die Knappen to an unlikely Champions League semi final and German Cup in 2011, before a move to the Allianz Arena. The highlight of his club career was undoubtedly being part of the first German side to win the treble during 2013/14.
Neuer gave glimpses of an exuberance that the 2014 World Cup would be partially remembered for as Germany coasted through Group G, with a 2-2 draw against Ghana sandwiched between wins against Portugal and the USA, but it wouldn’t be until the last 16 when the full extent of Neuer’s sweeper-keeping style could be witnessed.
Facing Algeria in Porto Alegre, it took little over eight minutes before the domineering German was playing right back for Die Mannschaft, tackling Islam Slimani to prevent a cross as Joachim Low’s side persevered with a high line. As a result, Neuer’s starting position throughout the game had to be high in order for Low’s tactics to work, which helped the ‘keeper as he successfully continued to vacate his area to snuff out any Algerian attacks, whether it be with foot or head throughout the game.
Not only was his defence play showcased against Algeria, Neuer almost produced a stunning counter attack merely seconds after defending a corner, picking out the run of Andre Schurrle that couldn’t provide a goal the play richly deserved, but it needn’t matter as Germany edged past the African side 2-1 after extra time.
While the spectacle of Neuer racing out the confides of his 18 yard box is always a sight to behold, that can only be built on the strong foundations and appreciation for the fundamentals of goalkeeping that the German has established throughout his career, which he showcased in the quarter final against France.
Neuer made two stunning saves in that game to help Germany to a narrow 1-0 win. After denying Mathieu Valbuena with a strong left hand in the first half, it would be a firm right that palmed away a fierce drive from Karim Benzema in the second; not the flashiest of saves, but just a crucial.
The now infamous semi final against tournament hosts Brazil was soon to follow in Belo Horizonte, yet while the 7-1 scoreline took all the headlines, the performance of Neuer slipped under the radar. Afforded too much time on the ball by the Selecao, Neuer was able to start many passages of play for Germany as they dominated the game. When the game was at 5-0, he made a fabulous double save to deny Paulinho, before berating the referee seconds later over a decision, highlighting a man who refused to let standards waver.
The final against Argentina at the Maracana would be a worthy stage for Neuer to leave his mark on the World Cup, as Gonzalo Higuain found out following a hefty collision with the German, who took both man and ball with one of his trademark dashes from his line to snuff out an Argentine attack.
In what was a tight game decided by a Mario Gotze goal in the second period of extra time, Neuer was coolness personified throughout the game, with the greatest example coming minutes before the final whistle. Rushing off his line once more, he calmly palmed the ball over the head of a marauding Marcus Rojo in what looked to be a dangerous pass before claiming, exuding composure in a critical moment, as Germany were confirmed as World Cup winners for a fourth time minutes later.
Proving to be a special tournament for Neuer, conceding only four goals while completing more passes and having a better pass success rate than the likes of 2014 Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi and Wesley Sneijder, he was rather poignantly awarded the Lev Yashin Golden Glove Award for his performances; performances that were shaped by groundwork put in by Yashin himself as the sweep-keeper of the present was accredited by one from the past.
Humbled by the experience, Neuer spoke after the World Cup success, stating:
“It’s incredible, we really are world champions now. A dream has come true for us Germans and we’ve finally won the trophy again. We’ve wanted it for so long. It was our time again.”
He also opened up about his style of play that he has adopted, claiming: “For years, I’ve understood that my goalkeeping style is the one I employ today. My game hasn’t fundamentally changed – it was just that the global attention that comes with the World Cup gave it a completely different platform.”
Former Germany number one has given Neuer a glowing review in the past, stating: “Manuel is a sweeper-keeper who has taken the game to a new level, always takes plenty of risks and has made himself an 11th outfield player,” so it would come as little surprise that his 2014 would finish with even more awards.
Finishing third in the Ballon d’Or awards that year to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neuer would also win a second IFFHS and third UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year award respectively, with the German taking his place in that year’s FIFA FIFPro World XI and UEFA Team of the Year, planting his name amongst the greats of goalkeeping in the process. His exploits have helped paved the way for the likes of Hugo Lloris, Ederson and Neuer’s compatriot Marc-Andre ter Stegen to become the latest versions of modern day sweeper-keeping.
With Neuer captaining Germany at this summer’s World Cup – a tournament he almost missed due to injury – he is expected to play a major role for the reigning champions should they become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to retain the trophy, while the footballing world can enjoy the nuance of the present day sweeper-keeper in all his glory.