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Why Manuel Neuer was the best player at the 2014 World Cup

German goalkeeper displayed remarkable agility, awareness and intelligence.

AFTER THE FULL-TIME whistle at the Maracana on Sunday, both Manuel Neuer and Lionel Messi were presented with individual accolades. Neuer’s looked like something found in a jumble sale. It said much about the lack of appreciation that still exists regarding goalkeepers.

Though there’s been much celebration of how shot-stoppers were the real heroes of the tournament, the praise has really only been heaped on their penalty shoot-out performances. Argentina’s Sergio Romero was lauded only after his semi-final saves against Holland while Keylor Navas will be remembered for his dramatic stop against Greece. Outside the United States, Tim Howard’s one-man show against Belgium has already been largely forgotten about. Guillermo Ochoa’s ‘Gordan Banks-like’ reflexes that caught everyone’s attention during the group stages is now a bit of a faded memory.

Neuer, in particular, deserves so much more. He has been a star of this World Cup and provided an incredible platform for his side.

Brazil Soccer WCup Germany France Source: Martin Meissner/AP/Press Association Images

Sometimes, statistics are misleading. Neuer conceded four goals in seven games, hardly an earth-shattering number. In comparison, Navas of Costa Rica shipped one goal in 510 minutes of football. Navas won three man-of-the match awards. By saving a penalty against the Greeks, he single-handedly pushed his side to the quarter-finals. But Neuer didn’t make as much noise and has suffered as a result.

In the aftermath of their 2-1 round of sixteen win over Algeria, German midfielder Toni Kroos said:

“He is very important because we can build from behind”.

Neuer sets the tone for the Germans. They can afford to push high because of their goalkeeper’s prowess in patrolling his area with the 28 year-old sometimes holding a position midway between his eighteen-yard line and the centre circle. Unsurprisingly, he covered an enormous amount of ground throughout the tournament.

NeuerCoverage Source: FIFA via New York Times

Incredibly, Neuer covered 38.5km in his seven games at the tournament. To put it in context, Mario Goetze covered 36.3 (the caveat is that Goetze started one game less but Neuer’s numbers, comparatively, are still staggering).

NeuerComparisonFinal Source: FIFA

Much was made of the riskiness of Neuer’s performance against Algeria. That Germany’s high-line was a cause for concern. But he failed to mistime any of his clearances or challenges outside the area. Everything was controlled and far from reckless. Instead of praising Neuer for his ability to read situations and distance so well so quickly, many questioned it as a madcap tactic that was bound to end in tears. But Neuer doesn’t entertain such behaviour on a whim. There’s a time and place and against Algeria, the Germans would’ve been eliminated if it wasn’t for him.

Neuer Clearances Source: FourFourTwo via Stats Zone

One of the key attributes of a goalkeeper that’s missed by many is distribution. How good is he at finding targets and launching attacks? Though the sweeper-keeper theory got lots of traction after the Algeria game, many missed an outrageous Neuer pass during the second-half. Having (just about) taken control of a corner, he didn’t dwell on the error but jumped to his feet, had a look up-field and pinged an impeccable pass right onto the foot of Andre Schurrle, who almost ran through to score.

NeuerSchurrle

Kroos also commented during the tournament that “having someone like that behind you gives you a great feeling” and the German players use Neuer as much as they can. They have no fear or worries including him in the play. In a worse case scenario, he’s the out-ball. But also, given his distribution skills, his team-mates know that by playing the ball back to him, possession won’t just be squandered. So technically gifted, Neuer could arguably make a decent outfield player at a lower level. In last night’s final, Neuer was constantly involved, his comrades utilising him at every given opportunity.

NeuerPassesReceived Source: FourFourTwo via Stats Zone

There’s also the small matter of his ability to make great saves. As France pushed for a late equaliser in the quarter-final game, Karim Benzema attempted to thump a left-footed drive high inside Neuer’s near post. It rebounded with such ferocity that many presumed the ball had smacked the crossbar. In fact, when the replays were flashed up, the confusion cleared. Neuer had stuck up a big right hand and diverted it from goal.

Brazil Soccer WCup Germany France Source: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP/Press Association Images

In the semi-finals, Brazil rallied early in the second half, desperately trying to salvage some pride. Neuer kept out Paulinho with a double-save, the second block displayed his sharp reactions and terrific agility.

http://vine.co/v/MPXFzHXuna7

Against Argentina, perhaps Gonzalo Higuain may have been affected by Neuer’s presence when he pulled his shot wide after 20 minutes. Maybe, like so many of the great goalkeepers like Schmeichel and Kahn (Neuer’s hero), the German has the ability to intimidate attackers through his reputation and his size.

http://vine.co/v/MxjZaQTEWV1

There’s no doubt that Rodrigo Palacio rushed his finish in extra-time as Neuer raced from his line to try and smother. The attacker panicked and he lofted his effort harmlessly wide.

Small details but a big performer and Neuer’s influence on this World Cup shouldn’t be underestimated.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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