Revolution of One

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As documented in my book Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness, my career as a professional goalkeeper was relatively short and unsuccessful. But by virtue of my playing days spanning the introduction of the back-pass law in 1992, as well as my subsequent twenty years as a goalkeeper coach, I’m uniquely positioned to comment on the continuing evolution of the goalkeeper as footballer, the apex of this best epitomised today by Manuel Neuer.

In a recent story for FourFourTwo, Paul Simpson predicted that Neuer will, in ten years, be proven to be the most influential goalkeeper of all time. Simpson made many compelling points, most notably that Neuer is changing the perception of goalkeeping among young players, who may now begin to see it as something other than a punishment or chore, or indeed an indictment of their footballing and general athletic abilities. As a coach at the Academy and Youth level, I’ve seen this first-hand: young players (not just goalkeepers) excitedly recounting Neuer’s exploits outside the box, huddled together watching Vines on their phones. But ‘influential’ in this case implies more than just admiration; it suggests that future goalkeepers will play just like Manuel Neuer. It ignores what I see as the distinct possibility that Neuer is a very special, very rare outlier, and that most of those who seek to emulate him will fail.

Simpson admirably investigates the history of the sweeper-keeper, which by no means began with Neuer. He makes note of Leigh Richmond Roose, Gyula Grosics, Jan Jongbloed, and Victor Valdes, among others. The complete list of goalkeepers who have regularly ‘swept up’ behind their back four is exhaustively long, and includes a great many South Americans, most notably Ramon Quiroga and Hugo Gatti, dismissed at them time in Europe as ‘eccentric.’ The list also includes some keepers now remembered as ‘conventional,’ such as Ray Clemence. Simpson points to Jongbloed’s sweeper instincts being preferred to Jan Van Beveren’s spectacular shot stopping at the 1974 World Cup as proof of football’s progressivism, but it is somewhat undermined by Peter Shilton being picked ahead of Clemence eight years later. There are always going to be managers who simply want their goalkeeper to make saves.

‘Conventional’ keepers, those who stay in their box and merely make saves, are conservative, Simpson argues; and conservatism surely can’t last in the face of football’s ever-increasing generalization, where all players must fulfill a variety of roles. But this seems selective, ignoring, for example, the demise of box-to-box midfielders in favour of the specialized duality of attacking and holding midfielders. Simpson cites maverick and visionary managers such as Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, and Arrigo Saachi as the progenitors of the sweeper-keeper style, but herein lies another problem: none of these men are in football management anymore, while many of today’s managers value pragmatism above all else.

There is both reward and risk associated with Neuer’s play, and it has indeed gone spectacularly wrong on occasion. The salient point, though, is that many managers will consider a goalkeeper playing far outside his box to be a risk not worth taking. It is no slight on one of the most successful managers of the modern era, Jose Mourinho, to say that for all his personal charisma, he is at heart a pragmatic, risk-averse manager. The same could be said of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini, Diego Simeone, Roy Hodgson, Manuel Pellegrini, and many, many others.

Mourinho this season notably preferred twenty-two year old Thibault Courtois to the experienced Petr Cech. Courtois exemplifies the new generation of goalkeeper, comfortable with the ball at his feet and with taking touches outside of the box, but he is not radical or revolutionary. Courtois no doubt holds Neuer in the highest regard, but he doesn’t seem to see any particular reason to play like him.

Simpson, in his article, makes the valid point that a sweeper-keeper allows a team to play high up the pitch, all players compressed into a small area, with the space behind them ostensibly protected by the goalkeeper; but this is also true with today’s more conventional keepers, because playing outside the box when the ball is in the opposition half has been a goalkeeping standard for decades. I recently watched Jimmy Maurer, an American goalkeeper with the New York Cosmos, take up a position in the centre circle every time the opposition used all ten outfield players to defend corners. Modern goalkeepers fill available space behind their defenders, and have done so for years.

Neuer is different. In addition to filling space, he actively confronts opponents in possession of the ball in areas that are usually left to defenders. Neuer’s style, then, is not one borne of advanced tactics or football’s general progression, but of his own extremely rare qualities and impulses. It is therefore unlikely to be replicated in any great numbers. Every manager in the world would want Manuel Neuer in his team; but how many would want a goalkeeper merely like Neuer, but not actually him?

This is not to say that the brilliant German has had no impact. He has already influenced goalkeeper coaching at developmental levels, where there is a new emphasis not only on foot skills but on reading the game and anticipating play, and I have no doubt that keepers of every successive generation will become more and more adept with the ball at their feet. But football is different to, say, technology, and goalkeeping cannot evolve exponentially, because there is a point of increasing risks and diminishing returns regarding how far a goalkeeper can play from his goal. We are certainly going to see keepers trying to be Manuel Neuer, but will they succeed? In ten years, I would expect goalkeepers to be universally better as footballers, but not radically different. Neuer is as radical as we are likely to see anytime soon.

You can follow Justin Bryant on Twitter (@Keepers_Union)

Do you agree with Justin? Is Manuel Neuer a freak of nature, the latest in a long line of maverick goalkeepers or part of a wider trend? Is he simply a fraud? Let us know your thoughts: [email protected]

Revolution of One
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