Year 2013: Manuel Neuer. Year 2014: Manuel Neuer. Year 2015: Manuel Neuer. Year 2016: Manuel Neuer. For most of the past decade, one thing has been certain: the best goalkeeper in the world has been Manuel Neuer.
Before him, Iker Casillas had been chosen in goal in the FIFPro World XI for five consecutive years, with Neuer taking over the number one jersey in 2013.
Gianluigi Buffon was selected in 2017 but many saw that as a lifetime achievement award which celebrated past glories as much as current ones. Neuer was still in contention to be the best. Until this year. David de Gea took the number one spot for 2018, but Neuer did not even make the final five.
Injury can be cited as reason for Neuer’s omission from the 2018 shortlist, but even when fit, the 32-year-old no longer looks as if he belongs among the world’s elite shot-stoppers.
The 2017-18 season should have been a landmark one for Neuer. Philipp Lahm’s retirement saw the goalkeeper take on the role of captain at Bayern Munich, meaning that he would wear the armband for both club and country. However, just four games into the season, he re-aggravated a foot injury which eventually kept him out for the entire campaign.
Neuer battled to come back in time to help Bayern challenge for the Champions League but suffered setbacks that even put his World Cup participation in doubt. A couple of friendlies were enough to prove to Joachim Low that Neuer was fit enough to be his No.1 in Russia, but there, Germany were humiliated as they suffered their earliest World Cup exit in 80 years.
With Germany trailing South Korea, the goalkeeper went forward in the hope of helping his team grab a late equaliser, but was dispossessed by Ju Se-jong, who set up Son Heung-min for an open-goal finish, with Neuer watching helplessly from the opposition half.
Both Bayern Munich and Germany have similar problems in 2018: they have plenty of possession, plenty of opportunities, but are just not scoring enough. Inconsistent goalkeeping is not their biggest problem. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
Calls for Marc-Andre ter Stegen to replace Neuer for Germany are dismissed with retorts that “goalkeepers don’t score goals”. They don’t, but in-form goalkeepers don’t give away sloppy goals either.
Neuer could not really be faulted for Germany’s World Cup disaster, but he is culpable for their Nations League form. After the Netherlands humbled Germany with a 3-0 defeat, local legend Lothar Matthaus was one of the loudest voices calling for Ter Stegen to take the number one jersey.
“Manuel Neuer doesn’t currently have the form and assuredness he had before his serious injury,” Matthaus told Sky.
“He’s not yet back in the shape that made him the best goalkeeper in the world four times. [Ter Stegen] has been world class at Barcelona for years. I think he’s gradually earned the chance to play an important match from the start, even if Neuer is available.”
Neuer strongly denied Matthaus’ comments, claiming, “I am in top shape. I think the guys on the team know I am in good form. I just did not have the luck in matches.”
If luck is Neuer’s problem, then it has deserted him for Bayern Munich as well.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Freiburg was the latest in a long line of poor results for the Bavarians and further extended Neuer’s own personal streak of goals conceded. The goalkeeper’s last great performance was in the 1-1 draw with Ajax in the Champions League, but since then he has conceded eight goals from just eight shots on target.
Bayern’s defence has been shaky this season, but even considering that factor, the eight-in-eight stat is damning. His other numbers are also indicative of a goalkeeper out of form.
His save percentage stands at a career low 50 per cent, down from last season’s previous worst of 71.4%, having stopped 79% of shots in the previous five seasons.
A three-year streak without a drop has also been ended this season, while he has already conceded 11 Bundesliga goals. His worst season at Bayern was 22 against in 2011-12 and he has conceded less than 20 in every season since.
Article continues below
Neuer claims that he is fully fit and in-form, but perhaps he would be better to claim that the foot injury is still causing him problems? That is the opinion of Germany legend Oliver Kahn, who told Bild, “This phase is obviously due to his injury.”
If it is not and this is the level we can expect from Neuer now, then it might not just be his place in the FIFPro World XI shortlist in jeopardy. Ter Stegen replaced him there last year and could be in line to do the same for Germany in the near future.
As for Bayern, Neuer’s place is not in doubt. But for how long will we be able to say that if his current form continues?