In the Counterparts series, Mouhamad Rachini takes a look at some soccer goalkeepers and hockey goaltenders that share similar styles of play, career paths, or goaltending attributes.
In 1990, the New Jersey Devils drafted 18-year-old goaltender Martin Brodeur in the annual NHL Entry Draft. The native of Montreal, Canada, was the third-highest ranked ice hockey goalie prospect in the draft, and he was taken 20th overall in the first round.
One year later, in 1991, five-year-old Manuel Neuer was registered into Schalke 04’s youth academy. The child originally joined as an outfielder, but he’d soon make the switch to goalkeeper.
These two athletes, based on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, had no connection to one another. They were born on different continents, in different eras, and played different sports.
But fast forward to 2019 and their impact on ice hockey and soccer was nearly indistinguishable from the other. They reached similar heights, had their talents recognized by fans across the world, and most interestingly, revolutionized their positions by playing an identical style revolving around interception and distribution.
From an honours perspective, it’s easy to see where some of the similarities between soccer goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and hockey goaltender Martin Brodeur lie.
Both goalies have won practically everything there was to win in their careers. Neuer is a seven-time German Bundesliga champion and a UEFA Champions League winner at the club level, and he won the FIFA World Cup with Germany in 2014. Brodeur is a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils and has two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup of Hockey to his name too.
Neuer and Brodeur have also won a truckload of individual awards each. Neuer is a four-time IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper winner, a FIFA World Cup Golden Glove champion, and almost became the first goalkeeper in over 50 years to win the Ballon d’Or in 2014. Brodeur is a nine-time NHL All-Star, was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1994, and was recognized by his peers as the NHL’s Goaltender of the Season four times.
But aside from them being arguably the greatest goalies to ever play their sports, there’s one commonality Neuer and Brodeur share which really separates them from the rest of their peers; their elite ball-/puck-handling skills.
For decades, goalies were a team’s weakest player when it came to distributions. Goalies were not expected to be as keen at passing the ball/puck as their more technical and skilled teammates. Aside from saving shots, goalies just didn’t serve any tactical significance. But the position has evolved, and goalies in both soccer and hockey are now expected to be adept at playing the ball/puck. They have to be comfortable breaking up opposing plays, and they must be equally comfortable starting their own attacks.
This shift in perception largely comes down to Neuer and Brodeur.
Let’s look at Neuer first. The German goalkeeper was initially an outfielder when he registered in Schalke 04’s academy in 1991, and it shows in how he plays. Neuer is very comfortable delivering a variety of different passes, both with his feet and his hands. The 33-year-old is one of only four starting goalkeepers (10+ Bundesliga appearances) to have completed more accurate long passes than inaccurate ones this season. He also the league’s current leader in accurate short passes made (290), and he led the Bundesliga in that same category in his last full season (30+ appearances) in 2015-16 (719).
Neuer’s key is his composure on the ball. While most goalies would feel pressured into making a pass by an approaching attacking player, Neuer will often use his close control or his peak physical frame to elude opposition players and open space up for him to work.
Take a look at the below clip from a June 2019 match as an example.
After taking the ball off of the Belarusian attacker, Neuer found himself in a very difficult situation. On one side, he was being pressured by his Belarusian opponent. On the other, he was completely boxed in by the touchline. He also well out of his penalty box, so he couldn’t pick up the ball with his hands. Any turnover would’ve given Belarus an unguarded goal to shoot at.
In this situation, the average goalkeeper likely would’ve kicked the ball out of bounds or attempted boot it as far down the field as possible. But Neuer, using his strength, boxed out his opponent from the ball while moving to more open space. He then used a quick turn to drop the attacker, thus giving him enough time to play a pass to his teammate and return to his post.
Neuer’s comfort when distributing the ball has opened him up as an 11th attacker on the soccer pitch. You will often see him exit his box to serve as another passing option for a player in distress, such as in this 2016 match vs. PSV Eindhoven.
You’ll also see Neuer rush out of his penalty box to cut off long balls played by opposing teams, or to tackle attackers who are breaking onto his goal. This is called playing as a sweeper ‘keeper, and although Neuer isn’t the first goalkeeper to play this way, he’s often credited with perfecting the style.
As an example, here’s one of Neuer’s finest sweeper ‘keeper performances; Germany’s round of 16 match vs. Algeria in the 2014 World Cup.
In this clip, Neuer rushes out of his box several times to cut off high balls played to Algeria’s attackers. Algeria were left frustrated by the German’s play. They kept exploiting the high-line Germany’s defenders were playing, but not once in 120 minutes of action could Algeria’s speedy attackers outwit Neuer. Algeria would lose the game 2-1, and Germany would go on to win the World Cup.
Neuer’s sweeps aren’t brainless runs though; they’re calculated, thought-out plays in which Neuer considers his starting position, his speed, and the best course of action to take to nullify the play before he decides to do anything.
Similar to Neuer, Brodeur is also famous for (what I like to call) sweeping, but in a different way. Instead of rushing out in front of his net, Brodeur was known for skating behind his goal and intercepting dump-ins, then playing the puck to his teammates or into the opposition’s goal.
Every ice hockey team will employ the dump and chase tactic multiple times during a game. The method sees a player, often in the neutral zone of the ice, dump the puck into the corner of his or her opponent’s side of the rink. The puck will then be contested by some players or will ring around the boards.
Although it might seem like a pointless execution to non-hockey watchers, dumping and chasing moves the puck over a large part of the rink in a short period of time. It also puts the puck as far away from your own net as possible while allowing your skaters an opportunity to change or forecheck the puck in a good offensive area.
In dump and chase situations, almost all goalies at the time of Brodeur would stay in their net, opting instead to let their teammates do the dirty work. Occasionally, they might skate out of the goal, but that was usually if they already had enough space to work in.
Brodeur was different. He would frequently leave his crease and stop the puck from bouncing around behind his goal. He would stop these dumps, skate to the side of his goal or back to his crease, then start a counter-attack by launching a pass to a streaking teammate.
Brodeur would also attempt to intercept dump ins before they could hit the boards behind his goalline. As an example, let’s look at this assist he provided to David Clarkson in 2010.
Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins attempts to dump the puck into the opposite corner of New Jersey’s zone, but Brodeur intercepts it with his trapper. But instead of freezing the puck and stopping the play, the Canadian drops it onto his stick, then launches a pass to Clarkson, who breaks in on Boston’s goal and scores.
Brodeur’s quick thinking caught Boston, specifically their defencemen, out of position, and it allowed New Jersey to turn a situation in their own zone into a very dangerous chance and a goal.
It’s quick, intelligent plays like this one that helped Brodeur rack up 45 career NHL assists, the joint-third most in league history. It also played a part in New Jersey being one of the toughest teams to break down during his time in the league.
Brodeur’s sweeper style and puck-handling skills were so effective that they not only infuriated his opponents, but also the National Hockey League itself. In 2005, before the start of the new NHL season, a rule disallowing goalies from handling the puck outside a trapezoid-shaped area behind the net was passed. This rule was supported by most of the league’s general managers, and it was specific to the NHL — it’s not used in the Olympics or professional European leagues.
The rule was viewed as an attempt to single out and limit Brodeur for his superior puck-handling skills. To this day, the rule is referred to as the “Brodeur Rule”.
Johan Cruyff, the great soccer player and coach who was synonymous with Holland’s Total Football style of play, once said, “In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker…” And in the history of professional sports, there are no two goalies who exemplify this line better than the sweeper ‘keeper Manuel Neuer and the puck-handler Brodeur.