Bruin Sports Analytics
How Manuel Neuer Revolutionized the Role of No. 1
By: William Pan
For most of the time in soccer history, goalkeepers are the most overlooked players on the field. They spend most of the game inside the penalty area, and you can only see them making actions when the opponents are shooting or during goal kicks. However, in the game of Germany vs. Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, many people were amazed by the performance of Manuel Neuer due to his very unconventional playing style. You could see him rushing out of the penalty area and winning the ball from the opponent or making numerous passes to his teammates like a midfielder. This kind of playing style that lasted throughout his entire career is not only regarded as bold, but also effective and now very popular in the soccer world. This article is aimed to demonstrate this revolutionizing style statistically and in order to accomplish that, we will compare the statistics of Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon, one of the best goalkeepers in history but more of a traditional style player.
The most prominent part of Neuer’s playing style is his being the sweeper-keeper. A sweeper refers to the player positioned behind the defensive line and is usually responsible for clearing the ball. Although sweepers like Franz Beckenbauer are no longer popular in modern soccer, Neuer has successfully integrated this role with the goalkeeper, making him an extra defender on the pitch.
The first plot shows the defensive actions outside of the penalty area per 90 minutes for Neuer (2018-2021, same below) and Buffon (2017-2020, same below) in their respective domestic leagues. According to the plot, Neuer makes more defensive actions outside of the penalty area per game in all four seasons and Neuer makes 1.4 defensive actions outside the box per game on average while Buffon makes 0.7.
The second plot shows their respective average distance from the goal of all defensive actions. The black line indicates the boundary of the penalty area, which is 18 yards away from the goal. Neuer makes defensive actions out of the box for most of the seasons, with an average of 18.4 yards. In comparison, Buffon chooses to make defensive actions inside the box, with an average of 15.1 yards. This statistic suggests that Neuer is playing like an extra defender that wins and clears the ball from the opponent in the gap between the last defensive line and the goalkeeper and that explains why he is constantly rushing out of the penalty area in the game. His playing style is extra helpful if the team plays a high line, which refers to the team formation with a high defensive line. Although this kind of playing style can effectively oppress the opponent by limiting their space and passes and be very dominant when attacking, it becomes extra dangerous when the opposition is launching a counter-attack due to the large space between the defensive line and goalkeeper. This is the time a sweeper-keeper would be a key role in the game due to its decisive defense actions outside the box (for instance Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich).
The First Attacker
John Cruyff once said, “In my team, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.” Neuer is more than a sweeper-keeper to a team, he is also the initiator of attack in the defensive third.
The first plot shows Neuer and Buffon’s passes attempted per game (excluding goal kicks). Neuer makes far more passes in all four seasons, with an average of 35.5 passes per game in comparison to 21.5 passes.
The second plot shows each player’s touches per game in the defensive third (excluding the penalty area). Again, Neuer has far more touches (9.8 touches on average vs. 3.3 touches) in all four seasons. Another interesting statistic that’s not shown on the plot is that Neuer makes around 5.4 throws per game while Buffon makes 4.4 throws. All these statistics imply that compared to traditional goalkeepers, Neuer is more integrated with the defensive line and the team’s tactics by playing as an organizer in the defensive third. His abilities to participate in the defense and make the passes make the defense system more resilient when facing the opposition’s attack and press. His active control of the ball outside the penalty area and his preference to throw the ball also make him the initiator of attacks and counter-attacks and could enhance the team’s ball possession, as a result, it makes a goalkeeper like him an important part of a team’s attacking tactic.
Besides quantities, accuracy is also crucial. The above plot shows the long pass (>30 feet) completion percentage. Both players have very high accuracy (Neuer 70.2%; Buffon 66.8%). An accurate long pass is the key to a high-quality counter-attack, and this statistic further testifies Neuer’s reliability of being the first attacker on the field.
The fundamental role of a goalkeeper is still preventing the opposition from scoring. Although Neuer has actively participated in the team’s defense and offense, he’s still one of the best in terms of goalkeeping.
The first plot shows the player’s average save percentage across 10 seasons (2010-2020). Neuer has a save percentage of 75.1% and Buffon is 77.6%, while an average goalkeeper from the top 5 leagues is 67.0%.
Similarly, Neuer’s excellence in goalkeeping can also be shown by the clean sheet percentage, which is 49.6% compared to Buffon’s 44.2% and the average player’s 22.7%.
In conclusion, Neuer has redefined the role of the goalkeeper by being an extra sweeper behind the defensive line; an organizer in the defensive third, and an attack initiator for the whole team while still possessing amazing goalkeeping techniques. His playing style is now revolutionizing the soccer world’s perceptions of the role of NO.1 and is adopted by many players including Alisson Becker and Ederson. Neuer has also pushed forward the evolution of soccer tactics and become an inspiration for the new generation.