Every player has that one game that we remember them for; that performance that trumps any other single-game show the player has put on. It’s not just one spectacular goal or gritty tackle; this is a performance where from start to finish, the player took the game by the scruff of its neck and delivered a showing that will live on for the ages.
Think back to some of football’s legends and I’m sure one performance comes to mind for each.
Diego Maradona? His double vs. England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.
Ronaldinho? His two incredible goals in Barcelona’s 3-0 Clasico win in 2005.
Cristiano Ronaldo? You’re probably thinking of his hat-trick vs. Sweden in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
And it’s not all about the goalscorers; the same applies to the goalkeepers. Just to name a few, Oliver Kahn played his best game against the United States in the 2002 World Cup, Marc-André ter Stegen had his best showing vs. Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champions League, and David de Gea’s greatest performance was his 14-save showing vs. Arsenal.
As for Manuel Neuer, the answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it? The first knockout round of the 2014 World Cup; Germany vs. Algeria.
Although Germany were the favourites going into the match, it was Algeria who looked like the better team for large parts of the game. Germany’s high defensive line was constantly exploited by Algeria, whose quick attackers — Islam Slimani & Sofiane Feghouli — were constantly too much to handle for Germany’s sluggish back-four.
But thanks to Neuer’s quick decision-making and swiftness sweeper-keeping, Algeria’s efforts were futile. They couldn’t solve Neuer for the game’s first 90 minutes, and when they finally scored deep into extra-time, it was already too late. Algeria were going home and Germany were eventually crowned world champions.
Many people cite this as Neuer’s peak sweeper-keeping performance, including yours truly. Several times throughout the match, Neuer intercepted Algerian passes and cleared loose balls away from his goal with ease. Despite the several runs Algeria’s speedy attackers made, they could not get a decent sniff of Germany’s goal thanks to Neuer’s all-encompassing defence.
Had it not been for the Bayern Munich number one’s gigantic performance, I think it’s fair to say that Germany would not have squeaked by Algeria like they did, let alone have been sipping championship champagne in Rio de Janeiro a couple of weeks later.
With that said, I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane and analyze some of the key plays from this exquisite Neuer performance. It’s probably the perfect time to do so; Neuer’s birthday was only a few days ago, and COVID-19 is keeping me locked in my house with nothing to do.
So, let’s throw it back to simpler times and analyze just what made this such a classic Neuer performance.
Neuer was a very busy boy right from the get-go. In the ninth minute, a long ball was played to Slimani. The Algerian attacker had evaded Germany’s Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng and he was alone on Germany’s goal.
With Neuer out of his box, Slimani attempted to round the German goalkeeper and fire from a tight angle. But Neuer just kept up with the Algerian attacker, and he blocked the shot with the tip of his boot.
At first glance, it seems like an unnecessary move by Neuer. When you look at Slimani’s run, it’s not a direct threat to Neuer’s goal. Slimani takes the ball wide, and it’s unlikely he would’ve actually shot from there had Neuer not left his box. Furthermore, two of Neuer’s teammates — Mertesacker and Boateng — are covering for him, so there’s seemingly no need for the goalkeeper to put himself into this situation.
But upon further inspection, I don’t think this is a valid assessment. On the contrary, I think this is a good example of Neuer’s awareness of the situation and his ability to influence an attacker into moving into a less dangerous area.
Firstly, take a look at the flight of the ball, from where the delivery starts to just about when Slimani receives the pass.
You’ll notice that the ball is being kicked towards Neuer’s box. The delivery starts from near the touchline and curves towards the centre of Germany’s 18-yard box. This delivery is not going wide of the box into a less dangerous area. This is a ball that’s actually being delivered into a decent scoring area. Therefore, contrary to what some might suggest, the delivery is actually a direct threat to Neuer’s security.
But in that case, why did Slimani decide to take a touch wide of the box? If the ball is being delivered into the optimal place for him to have a crack from, wouldn’t he want to continue with the ball into that prime scoring area?
This is where Neuer’s presence comes into play.
As Slimani sprints towards the ball, he takes a peek at Neuer’s position and notices that the goalkeeper is darting out of his box. Slimani knows he’s going to be challenged by Neuer, and because Neuer is approaching him from his right side, Slimani also knows that he if tries to take a touch towards the centre of the goal or into the box, he’ll likely run directly into Neuer and the chance will be snuffed out.
With that in mind, Slimani elects to take a touch wide of Neuer’s box. This is because he assumes he can beat Neuer in a footrace, so his pace would allow him to round Neuer and get a shot off.
Unfortunately for Slimani, Neuer was just able to keep up with the Algerian, and his last-ditch tackle got enough of the shot to deflect it wide.
Had Neuer not intervened, Slimani would’ve had a direct route into Germany’s box and he’d have been able to get a shot off from a dangerous area. There wouldn’t have been anything preventing Slimani from taking a direct run at Neuer’s goal, and Neuer would’ve been forced to deal with a high-quality scoring chance.
But, because Neuer intervened, Slimani took a different route into a less dangerous area and lowered the lethality of his scoring chance. Neuer then used his athleticism to completely extinguish the opportunity.
OK, but what about the two defenders behind Slimani? Is there not a chance Mertesacker and Boateng would’ve caught up to the Algerian anyway?
In my opinion, it was unlikely either defender was going to catch up to Slimani. Slimani is a quick attacker — in the group stage, he swiftly squeezed through two South Korean defenders to score this goal — and Mertesacker, who is the closest defender to Slimani, is a notoriously slow player. As much as I respect Mertesacker, there’s no way he’s winning this race.
As for Boateng, he is a fast defender; after all, he did the fastest in-game speed out of any Bayern Munich defender this season. But Boateng had considerable ground to make up for to catch Slimani who, as I mentioned, is a fast player in his own right.
Furthermore, Boateng was jogging as the ball entered Germany’s half, while Slimani was in mid-sprint. Boateng would’ve needed an extra second or so to accelerate to Slimani’s speed, which would’ve impacted how quickly he’d have been able to catch up to the Algerian.
Granted, it’s still possible Boateng would’ve caught up to Slimani. But given the distance between the two and the fact that Slimani was in mid-stride, I believe it’s unlikely he would’ve stopped Slimani either.
Case in point, this was a critical intervention by Neuer. The pass was directed towards his box and it was unlikely either of Mertesacker or Boateng were going to catch up to Slimani. The Algerian likely would’ve cut into Neuer’s box and taken a more dangerous attempt had the latter not inserted himself into this situation. Therefore, I think it’s fair to call this a good and necessary sweep.
Neuer was called upon again twice in the span of 12 minutes late in the first half. In the 28th minute, Mertesacker attempted to send a sliding back-pass to his goalkeeper, but instead severely underhit the ball. Feghouli, sensing an opportunity, ran towards the ball, but he was outpaced by Neuer, who attacked the pass from the opposite direction and cleared it away.
Then, in the 40th minute, an Algerian defender headed an arching cross into Germany’s box. Despite the heavy presence in his box, Neuer decided to attack the ball. He sprinted towards the delivery and used two fists to punch it away. The rebound landed at the feet of one of his teammates, who played it forward.
I’ve lumped these two plays together because, to be honest, I don’t think Neuer should be inserting himself into either situation.
For the first play, although Mertesacker severely underhits the pass, Boateng is in a good position to box Feghouli out and deliver a better backpass to Neuer.
As for the second play, although the Algerian is the only player other than Neuer to make an attempt to control the delivery, he is surrounded by three of Neuer’s unmarked teammates. So even if he gained possession of the ball, the likelihood that he wouldn’t immediately be pressured by a German or have his sight of goal blocked is slim.
Nonetheless, I think props should be given to Neuer just for the fact that he didn’t hesitate once he set his mind to the sweep. In these situations, some goalkeepers might start approaching the ball before hesitating and either staying put or scrambling back to the position they were initially in.
You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but this is one of the worst things a goalkeeper could do in these types of situations. This is because it takes the goalkeeper out of their initial position — which is often the goalkeeper’s optimal position anyway — and puts them in a substantially worse position to handle an attempt. Hesitating could trap the goalkeeper in no man’s land, and it leaves them completely exposed and useless.
Hesitating also eats away at whatever time a goalkeeper has to react to an attempt or a pass; time that a goalkeeper just can’t afford to lose.
This is why when a goalkeeper makes a decision — whether it’s to stay on his line or to attack a loose ball — they should stick with it. Even if it starts to look like a bad decision, at the very least you can say that an attempt was made to nullify the situation. And sometimes, it ends up working in a goalkeeper’s favour, similar to Neuer in these two situations.
Slimani and Neuer met again in the 71st minute. Slimani chased a deep delivery from Faouzi Ghoulam, and he was gaining speed and distance on Boateng, Germany’s last defender in this situation. This was a lethal opportunity for Algeria, but Neuer swiftly exited his goal and spectacularly headed the ball out of play.
This is an excellent example of Neuer’s awareness and ability to react to a quickly-changing situation.
As the delivery crosses into Germany’s half, Slimani appears to be just on the tail of Boateng, who’s the only defender back (Benedikt Höwedes is too far back to recover).
Neuer, although positioned near the top of his box, stays rooted inside of his box. This is because he knows Boateng is there and he doesn’t want to interfere with his defender. It looks as though Boateng might be able to intercept the pass, so Neuer puts his trust in his defender and stays in a position where he can offer security in case Boateng needs to head the ball back towards him.
But as the ball arrives at its destination, it becomes clear that Boateng will not be able to intercept the ball due to its height. Furthermore, Boateng is losing his step with Slimani; the Algerian attacker is gaining speed on the German and looks to be the favourite to receive the ball in this situation.
Side note: This is an example of why I think it’s unlikely Boateng would’ve caught up to Slimani in the first play.
Still, Neuer doesn’t interfere. Although Boateng is now in a sticky situation and could use assistance, Neuer knows that he’s not getting to the ball before Slimani since it’s too close to the Algerian attacker. It would be reckless for him to attack Slimani, especially if the Algerian attempts to round him again.
Instead, what Neuer does is readjusts his position along the edge of the box. He takes a couple of steps to his left so that he’s straight ahead of Slimani as the ball drops. This allows him to be ready for when Slimani takes a touch.
If Slimani takes a touch into the box, Neuer is in the best position to intercept it. And if Slimani takes a touch wide of the goal, Neuer can attempt to pressure him and block another wide-angled shot.
It’s only when Slimani fails to control the ball that Neuer springs into action. As the bounce forces Slimani to chase the ball, Neuer darts forward and heads the ball away.
Three things must be noted here. Firstly, due to its heavy bounce, Neuer has to time his sweep just right so that the ball doesn’t bounce over him.
Secondly, the ball’s high bounce means that Neuer cannot kick the ball away; he has to use his upper body, preferably his head, to clear the danger.
Thirdly, Neuer has to clear the ball away. Attempting to control the ball would only allow Slimani time to pressure Neuer, and as good of a ball-handler as Neuer is, it would be reckless of him to put himself in a one-on-one situation when he doesn’t need to.
Given all of this, Neuer spectacularly heads the ball out of play, allowing Germany’s defence to reset and giving him enough time to return to his goal.
In the 89th minute, it was Feghouli’s turn to test Neuer’s sweeping prowess.
Yet another ball was delivered over Germany’s high defensive line, and with Boateng caught pressing too high and Sami Khedira struggling to cover for him, Feghouli looked to have a clear break on Germany’s goal. But before he could get a touch on the ball, Neuer sprinted out of his box and cleared the ball away.
Again, it’s an excellent decision by Neuer to attack this ball. Germany’s backline were in shambles — Boateng was caught being aggressive, Mertesacker was too far away to have an impact & Khedira could not keep up with Feghouli. Had Feghouli gained possession of the ball, he would’ve had a clear route to Neuer’s goal.
Neuer was the only thing standing between Algeria and a miraculous late winner, and he played his role as party pooper very well.
What I want to highlight for this particular play is Neuer’s speed. In my opinion, this play is the best example of Neuer’s quick movement.
Take a look at the below screenshot, which was taken after the ball’s first bounce.
Neuer is not even in the picture, but you can bet he had already started his run. Note all of that empty space between the ball and Neuer’s box.
Now, take a look at this screenshot, this time following the ball’s second bounce.
Neuer is now outside of his box. He’s in the picture in full sprint mode. Still, he has quite a way to go before he can get to the ball.
Finally, here’s one last screenshot. This is of the ball following its third and final bounce before Neuer’s clearance.
Neuer is now well outside of his box and is in the process of kicking the ball away, which he does successfully moments later.
Note how much distance Neuer covered on this play. In a few seconds, he sprinted from within his box to well outside of it, and he got first to a ball that Feghouli was way closer to.
And it’s not as though Feghouli is jogging to the pass. He’s giving it his all to get to the ball first and only slows down once it’s clear that Neuer’s going to reach it first.
This is an incredible display of speed from Neuer, and he needs all of the pace and acceleration he can get to sweep this ball away.
Neuer’s lightning-quick speed is exactly why he’s such an effective and dominant sweeper ‘keeper. You need to be quick off of your line to be successful in this role. A slow step will more often than not just put you in a bad position and leave you vulnerable to an easy goal. But Neuer’s speed allows him to get to a lot of these balls first, and if that fails, it gives him an opportunity to keep up with them enough to block a shot (like he did earlier in the match).
Although Germany were unable to crack Algerian goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi (who himself had an incredible performance) in normal time, they ultimately clinched qualification to the next round off of extra-time goals from André Schürrle and Mesut Özil.
But it was clear to everyone who the real hero was that day.
“Neuer saved us from a number of very dangerous situations because he came out as a sweeper and cleared the ball at the last possible second,” said German head coach Joachim Löw. “His performance was outstanding and the way he came out to play in the field was great.”
German football association president Wolfgang Niersbach was even more pleased. On Germany’s plane back to their team-base in northeastern Brazil, he specifically praised Neuer.
“I think we can all say a big thanks to our number one today,” he told the German players via the team’s PA system. “Manu, your performance was absolutely world class. Absolutely world class.”
Indeed, it was a world-class performance; it might even be the greatest goalkeeper performance of the 21st century. Through swift feet, strong awareness and quick but thorough situational analysis, Neuer was able to nullify Algeria’s various high-quality attacking opportunities. The Fennecs could not find an answer to Neuer’s elite sweeper-keeping, and they were left frustrated time and time again.
On any other day against any other goalkeeper, Algeria’s plan would’ve worked and they would’ve progressed. But unfortunately for them, Neuer had the performance of his career.