2014 FIFA World Cup, 32 players to watch, Featured, May 2014

32 Players to Watch in Brazil 2014: #26 Manuel Neuer

Germany's defensive weaknesses are often covered up by their spectacular goalkeeper.

Germany’s defensive weaknesses are often covered up by their spectacular goalkeeper.

Neil W. Blackmon

Our 32 Players to Watch at the 2014 World Cup continues today with the second goalkeeper in our countdown, Germany’s Manuel Neuer. Before you read about how Neuer may be the key to Germany ending its somewhat surprising 18 year international trophy drought, get a refresher on how these pieces work by reading our piece on Manchester United and Ecuador winger Antonio Valencia, who came in at #27 in our countdown.

Number 26: Manuel Neuer

Country: Germany

Position: Goalkeeper

Club: Bayern Munich

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins

Manuel Neuer has been destined for greatness since he was a young boy. Educated at the Gesamtschule Berger Feld- a school famed for producing footballers- Neuer made his Bundesliga debut for Schalke at the age of 20, and his German national team debut at 23.

It’s rare for a German goalkeeper to cement his place as the national team’s first option before his youth team eligibility expires, but that’s precisely what Neuer did when he kept goal for the Germans in South Africa. Some of that was fortuitous circumstance: Germany’s other prized young goalkeeper, Robert Enke, tragically committed suicide just before the 2010 World Cup draw, leaving Joachim Low with the choice of Neuer or Rene Adler, a steady but not spectacular keeper for Bayer Leverkusen. Adler won the job in friendlies, but suffered a serious rib injury just before the World Cup started- meaning Neuer was the first choice goalkeeper, somewhat by default, for Germany’s semifinal run in 2010. Neuer performed spectacularly, conceding only one goal (a close range shot by Serbia’s Milan Jovanovic) in the group stages, and turning in one of the great miracles of our time in preventing a Frank Lampard blast from counting as a goal despite the fact that it crossed the goal line in the Round of 16. (That last part was a joke. It’s okay to laugh.)

After the successful World Cup, Neuer guided Schalke to the German Cup in 2011, and then moved to Bayern Munich, where he kept 12 clean sheets in a row his opening season, breaking Oliver Kahn’s Bundesliga record many thought would stand the test of time. Since the move to Bayern, Neuer has been integral to Bayern’s success, as the club  won the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League in 2013 with Neuer earning FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year and FIFA Team of the Year honors. There’s an argument Neuer isn’t the best keeper in the world– that it helps he’s tested a bit less for Germany and Bayern Munich– but the still relatively young by goalkeeper standards player is also involved in any legitimate discussion about the world’s best at the position, and he’ll certainly be one of the top five goalkeepers in Brazil.

Neuer makes startling athletic saves- but is also a capable last-ditch defender.

Neuer makes startling athletic saves- but is also a capable last-ditch defender.

As Jonathan Wilson wrote for Sports Illustrated, Neuer “isn’t just a fine shotstopper who has becoming increasingly adept at commanding his box.” Neuer is also a capable defender and passer who will frequently leave his area to clean things up behind his defense. His ability to aid the defense is critical to Germany’s pressing, high-line defense– a tactical shift for the Germans Joachim Low has implemented in this World Cup cycle. In 2010, the Germans impressed with a frenetic counterattack- since, Low has been determined to play proactively, urging his defenders forward, pressing more aggressively and imposing its will on opponents. Neuer’s ability off-the-ball to function somewhat like a libero despite his position has certainly aided this effort. He’ll be asked to do that consistently in Brazil if the Germans are going to end their current run of 18 years without an international trophy– the longest such run in German soccer since World War II.

The Germans are far from perfect: the United States scored four against the German “B” team last July, demonstrating how little depth the side has defensively; and Sweden poured in seven goals in two qualifiers against the “A List” defense- meaning there are vulnerabilities at the back. Sami Khedira’s extended injury has also magnified concerns– he’s a ball-winner and positionally savvy presence in the midfield the Germans have missed– notably in their recent friendly against Chile, where the side was dominated in the center of the pitch. Khedira may return just in time for the World Cup, but how fit he’ll be is an altogether different question.

The good news- and something Chile found out– is that even if you beat the vulnerable German defense- Neuer is the rare soccer goaltender who can seem unbeatable. His special blend of athleticism, defensive awareness and understanding, and size mean that he can keep the Germans in games when other things break down– which is precisely what world class goalkeepers are asked to do.

Tuukka Rask is the Bruins rock and always in discussions about the best goalies in the NHL.

Tuukka Rask is the Bruins rock and always in discussions about the best goalies in the NHL.

In many ways, it’s this last characteristic that Neuer shares most with Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, his sporting soulmate. Rask is a few months younger than Neuer, but has been tabbed for greatness for a similar length of time. A first round draft pick in 2005, Rask was traded by the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Boston Bruins and spent only a brief time in the minor leagues before earning a chance with the big club in Boston.

Initially, Rask sat on the bench in Boston, biding his time behind veteran goalkeepers Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez- but like Neuer, Rask’s immense talent eventually won out. In 2009, Rask supplanted the Vezina trophy (Best NHL Goaltender) winner Tim Thomas as the starter and put together a season arguably more impressive than Neuer’s first at Bayern. Rask finished the year with a sub 2.00 goals against average and the NHL’s highest save percentage. Unlike Neuer, he wasn’t rewarded for this success, as Tim Thomas was given another season to prove he was Boston’s top goalkeeper. Despite this setback, Rask won the job back after the lockout and Thomas was traded to the Islanders. Rask rewarded the franchise’s faith by standing on his head throughout the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, guiding the Bruins to the Finals where they fell in six games to Chicago. For this effort, Rask was rewarded with a long-term deal.

Rask has responded with a monstrous year that has earned him Vezina Trophy consideration. He’s so good because in addition to being athletic and big, he’s a capable puck mover and a tremendous penalty stopper– he finished second overall in save percentage in the regular season and third among qualifying goaltenders in penalty shot percentage. Most recently, Rask did what goaltenders in the playoffs must do to aid winning: he stopped the bleeding against the Canadians and turned the tide of an early series possibly headed the other direction. 

While it’s very true that the goaltending position in the NHL is radically different than the soccer goalkeeper- the fundamental task of the great ones in either sport remains the same: Can you keep your team in a game against the run of play? Do you dramatically alter momentum of a game with one save? Do you compensate for defensive weakness? Tuukka Rask and Manuel Neuer are two young goalkeepers who can do all of these things for their clubs and countries, and probably will for a long time. Both will have a great deal to say about how deep into the summer each of their respective teams play.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.