Is Manuel Neuer past it? Legendary keeper out of form for club and country
Everything about Manuel Neuer’s movement was wrong. A few indecisive steps off his line left the Germany goalkeeper in no man’s land, and after throwing himself to the floor chasing the first header, Neuer was left to flap helplessly at the second as Virgil van Dijk gave Holland the lead.
The 1-0 would later become 3-0. Neuer’s mistake had ushered in a humiliating fifth defeat of the year for Germany, and left them on the brink of Nations League relegation.
It wasn’t just him, of course. Germany defended atrociously in every respect, and yet Neuer’s desperate flapping seemed particularly emblematic of Germany’s current woes.
Was this really the same Manuel Neuer, the sweeper keeper with impeccable timing, positioning and shot-stopping, who four years earlier had led Germany to a fourth World Cup?
‘Holland’s first goal was a clear goalkeeping error,’ Neuer’s predecessor Oliver Kahn told Bild. ‘This phase (of bad form) is obviously a product of his injury.’ Never one to mince his words, Kahn was just saying what everyone was thinking.
Before last summer, Neuer had spent the best part of a year on the treatment table, a broken metatarsal restricting him to just four appearances last season. Since his return to fitness, he has not been the same player, and at 32 years of age, some will now question whether he ever can be again.
It is not just in a Germany shirt that Neuer is struggling. It was his mistake which kick-started Bayern Munich’s current run of miserable form a few weeks ago. Poor communication between him and Niklas Sule left him flailing at a corner, and ultimately allowed Felix Gotze to bundle in a late equaliser for Augsburg.
Bayern haven’t won since, and though Neuer did play well in a 1-1 draw with Ajax, there is a sense that he no longer commands the same authority behind the back line. The statistics seem to bear that out, with kicker recently reporting that Neuer’s saves-to-shots ratio has fallen from 80 per cent to 57 this season.
‘Neuer doesn’t have the form and the stability that he had before his serious injury,’ wrote Lothar Matthaus, another Bayern legend in a recent column. ‘He is no longer in the form that made him a four-time world goalkeeper of the year.’
Matthaus went on to demand that Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen be given the nod ahead of Neuer for Germany, and he is by no means the first person to voice that opinion. Many, in fact, were left baffled when Joachim Low picked Neuer ahead of Ter Stegen at the World Cup.
As captain and No 1, it seemed hard to drop him, but Neuer’s appearance in the opening game against Mexico was his first in a competitive match for nearly a year. The hope that he would somehow just return to his best form was always a little outlandish.
In the end, the Neuer issue was overshadowed by the debacle in general, and by more fierce arguments over Leroy Sane and Mesut Ozil. He was by no means Germany’s worst performer in Russia, and yet the signs were there.
Four years earlier, when Germany’s defence had looked equally ragged against Algeria, Neuer had been on hand to sweep up every loose ball and curtail every dangerous-looking counter-attack. There was none of that certainty last summer. When deciding whether or not to rush out, Neuer always seemed a step or a half-second behind where he would normally be. He looked mortal.
He certainly looked a worse goalkeeper than Ter Stegen, who has long been in excellent form for Barcelona. More than any other, the decision to overlook him in favour of Neuer seems indicative of Low’s struggles with a the generational transition. Several players are said to have voiced their discontent with the decision while the tournament was still ongoing.
Goalkeeping dilemmas are nothing new in Germany, and Low could have taken a leaf out of his own past. He was a fresh-faced assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann when Jens Lehmann succeeded Oliver Kahn in the Germany goal. It was a decision which famously infuriated Kahn, but ultimately proved to be the right one at the 2006 World Cup.
If things continue as they are, the same decision will have to be made when it comes to Neuer. Once the very best of modern goalkeepers, the 32-year-old now increasingly looks like yesterday’s man.
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