It might look like the German keeper’s fancy-feet gambits are indicative of a spotty defense, but Manuel Neuer’s ability to come off his line and play outside the box is vital to Germany’s gameplan
In the 9th minute, Manuel Nuer came flying off his line to clear a ball out of bounds before Algeria’s Slimani sprinted onto it. If Neuer hadn’t gotten there, it would have been a certain goal and lead for Algeria. But, like so many other times, Neuer dealt with the danger. He ended the match with 21 touches outside of his goal box.
The German goalkeeper’s ability to play with his feet is a vital part of Germany’s game plan, but he makes it look much easier than it is. France’s Hugo Lloris is similarly capable—you’ve probably seen him come off his line for Tottenham Hotspur.
The whole team works together defensively, including the oft-awkward man in the back. When the Klose and Müller or whoever else pressures the opposing defenders, Schweinsteiger and Özil move forward with them. If they don’t, a gap will form between the lines, creating space for the opposing midfielders to receive the ball and release pressure. As the midfielders step forward, the defenders squeeze behind them. As all of the units move together, they limit the time and space for the opponent to play. As all of this happens, the space widens between the goalkeeper and his defenders.
The general rule is that if the opposition does get a second to play, the back four needs to drop. You want to keep the field compact, but even more important is preventing the opposition from bypassing the entire team with a single pass. The defenders limit the risk by not letting anything behind them. Their on-rushing teammates might be easily bypassed because there is a gap between the lines, but at least the play is still in front of the defense. In this style, goalkeepers don’t need to come out of the box as much.
A new trend, though, has defenders holding their high line to keep the field tight. They sacrifice the space behind to make sure the opponent can’t play in the spaces between them. It keeps the pressure on at all times and the tempo high.
The obvious risk of playing this way, however, is that it leaves space behind the defense. This is why the goalkeeper needs to stay connected. The farther the defenders push up, the more the goalkeeper needs to move off his line. He needs to be ready for a simple ball over the top.
A goalkeeper high up the field says We are coming to get you.
A coach can’t ask his team to press high if the goalkeeper isn’t equipped to play outside of his box. Neuer is perfect for this—he’s athletic, confident with his feet, and has a good instinct for the ball.
“If a team tries to play high the way we did against USA and Algeria the keeper cannot just stay in his box,” said Germany manager Jogi Low after the Algeria match, adding that his goalkeeper “has the same technical skills as the others, he could play in the midfield, he also has great awareness and that’s why we are happy for him to take these risks, and that’s why he’s so valuable.”
Few goalkeepers have these qualities. It seems simple for a goalkeeper to just sprint out and kick the ball away, but the margin of error is terrifying. If a midfielder misses a tackle or a defender is late to close space, a misplay by the goalkeeper will almost always result in a direct goal.
Sometimes coaches and teams choose to keep their goalkeepers back, and sometimes goalkeepers choose to stay back. It all needs to come together. France’s Hugo Lloris and Germany’s Manuel Neuer are two of the best in the world at helping their team defend high up the field. For both France and Germany, their ability to score starts with the goalkeepers’ defending at the other end.