MSR Awards 20/21 Season: Backstop of he season
Okay, okay, I will admit it: This award was not planned nor intended. Manuel Neuer is neither eligible for the award for best young player nor newcomer. So when he was, to my great surprise, comprehensively defeated in our internal vote for player of the season, it was like saying: unfortunately no prize for you this year, Manuel. But I just did not want to accept that, so I decided to give him the entirely facetious award of the backstop of the season.
(Image: Imago Images)
Why I was so eager for Manuel Neuer to get an individual award this year is easy to explain. There is a worldwide consensus that Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in football history. He is honoured worldwide for the way he has been able to expand the skill set and activity profile of a top keeper over the course of his career.
And although he had already established his reputation long before this season began, this year he reached a level that in my eyes even he had never been able to reach before. In my opinion, the Manuel Neuer we saw from August 2020 to January 2021 was nothing less than the best Manuel Neuer there ever was. It was the best phase of possibly the best goalkeeper in history.
I would even go one better here and also include all the outfield players in this as well. In the autumn and winter, outfield players around the world were gasping under the weight of the COVID-19 calendar. There was a game on all the time, and consistent performances were few and far between. Even a Lewandowski continued to score goals at a brisk pace, but got involved in the game less than he did the year before.
Throughout this period, only Manuel Neuer managed to shine every three days in any competition. The good friend of this blog Lukas Tank in his own search for the best players of their time once coined the term “transcending world-class” to indicate that a player was even better than world-class. From August to January, I saw exactly one player in the world whose performance in all areas was above the simple bar of world class and who consistently showed unbelievable things week after week: Manuel Neuer.
Firstly, we have here the most classic discipline of goalkeeping, shot stopping. At first glance, FC Bayern have played a significantly below-average season defensively, having conceded 44 goals. But one should not let this sway one’s assessment of Neuer’s performance. Anyone who remembers the first half of the season will remember how FC Bayern conceded surprisingly few goals – precisely because of Manuel Neuer. In almost every game – and this is no exaggeration – he saved his often wild defense by stopping an unstoppable shot.
Against Sevilla shortly before the game ended he even saved the legendary sixth goal. His save here is particularly exemplary because it combines everything in Neuer’s classic goalkeeping game. He has barely had to save a shot for over 80 minutes, but then Sevilla break through after a bungled Bayern set piece and immediately it becomes clear that it there is going to be a one-on-one of the striker against the keeper. Neuer realises that coming out would be committing hara-kiri, so he positions himself wide-legged at the perfect distance from his goal – not too far out to be dinked over, but exactly in such a way that he covers the angle in the best possible way. He does not blink until the end, forcing the striker to take the initiative, and then unloads all the pent-up focus in a world-class save.
A few days later, after a very similar moment in the German Super Cup, Erling Håland would to this day acknowledge with great astonishment that he would have scored against any other goalkeeper in the world that day.
This was also reflected in the statistics. Please bear with me, this sounds more complex than it actually is: The so-called Post-Shot-Expected-Goals-Minus-Goals-Allowed value is the relation between expected goals from shots and the actual goals conceded. With the acronym PSxG-GA, it actually shows us quite simply how many more or fewer goals a keeper concedes than would be expected from the shots he faces, calculated per 90 minutes.
Usually, really good keepers will come in at somewhere around zero over a season; Wolfsburg’s Koen Casteels, for example, is listed here with +0.04 over the past Bundesliga season, while in Spain Marc-André Ter Stegen comes in somewhat below average with -0.03.
At the end of November, Neuer had an incredible +0.41 per 90 minutes. This means that, statistically, he was able to prevent approximately one goal more every two games than the quality of the shots he faced actually indicated.
For comparison with what is generally regarded as a weak Neuer season: In the entire 2018/19 season, he recorded -0.21 goals.
Another particularly nice thing about this season was that Manuel Neuer was finally able to show his classic Neuer skills again. He became famous for his excursions in front of his goal, as well as his precise passes, but under conservative coaches like Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovač he could show that extremely rarely. Hansi Flick, however, again used the full spectrum of Neuer’s manifold skills.
Almost in every game he went all in with daring clearances in best libero style, and only in the second half of the season did he make mistakes. With so many last-ditch clearances, that was only inevitable. He was also more decisively involved in his team’s passing game than ever before. Gone were the days when some mockingly compared Neuer with Oliver Kahn after his injury.
Hansi Flick’s high line with the focus on a goalkeeper as the deepest-lying playmaker had reached its limits. Without Neuer and his various skills, however, it would have broken down completely.
But it is also true that in the second half of the season he dropped off somewhat from the very high level at which he had started the season. If we look at the same statistic as above, his value for the total season including the period after January falls just below +0.1 (which still makes him the best Bundesliga keeper). Even in the big Champions League game against PSG, he was uncharacteristically soft. Something like the opening goal he concedes is something you very rarely see from him, especially in top games.
All in all, it was anything but a weak second half, he did not fall from transcending world class to mediocrity. It was more a descent from demigod to mortal hero. Still very good, but a shade below the period from August to January I singled out on purpose.
Part of the history of Manuel Neuer in this phase of his career is that nobody could have expected this explosion of performance. It was barely more than a year and a half ago when Uli Hoeneß scolded the “West German press” for writing Ter Stegen into the German national team’s goal. A year and a half ago when he was accused of a clear loss of quality compared to his pre-injury time.
That Neuer would succeed in regaining his former strength given time is not that surprising. But nobody could have expected that people would now quietly nod in agreement when Joachim Löw says that Neuer is better than ever before. At 35, keepers at best manage to preserve their previous levels for a few more precious months, but who is going to improve?
We are blessed to be able to witness a very special moment in the career of an extraordinary goalkeeper right now. One might almost call out to the finicky Bayern audience: Do not get used to this maniac in goal! He will not be there forever. Let us enjoy it while it lasts.