Manuel Neuer, the World Cup's best?
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Three goalkeepers have been nominated by FIFA for its Golden Glove award: Keylor Navas of Costa Rica, Sergio Romero of Argentina and Manuel Neuer of Germany. Rarely has a choice been more obvious, and not just because Romero has no business being in the discussion. Neuer is more than the best keeper in this World Cup; he might be its best single player. He is that rarity of rarities: the man who can single-handedly change how even Germany plays the game.
Sometimes football reveals its truths only when you watch it live. It's easier then to see its rhythm and its space, to crack open its panels and peek into its subtler engineering. The quarterfinal between France and Germany was a game that, on TV, probably verged on excruciating. It wasn't much better in person, except that it gave us the chance to watch Neuer uninterrupted for 90 minutes and see what he does and how he does it.
His sphere of personal influence begins about 25 yards from his goal line. Even opposite Hugo Lloris -- another goalkeeper who pushes forward in ambitious lengths, a rook rather than a pawn -- Neuer looked as though he were playing a different position. Lloris saw the top of the 18-yard box as his most forward border. For much of the game, that marked Neuer's line of retreat. He routinely occupied the brown patch of grass worn out by a lesser side's central defenders. The way a fast man on base changes the dynamic of a baseball game, Neuer shifts the weight of everybody in front him.
"This is the class of Neuer," said Joachim Low, his admiring manager. "He has the feeling for long passes, and he is where we need him. He is the perfect player. He has the same technical skills as everybody else. He could play in the midfield."
Toni Kroos, one of Germany's actual midfielders, was even more effusive. "We know Manuel Neuer is an extraordinary football player and there is nobody better in the world than him. Having someone like him behind you gives you a great feeling. We know that he's there and we can rely on him 100 percent."
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It's that confidence that allows the Germans to play so relentlessly during every phase of the game. They are capable of the offensive outbursts they displayed against Portugal and Brazil in part because Neuer gives their attack such a big head start. But they can also shut down the game the way they did against France or the U.S. by using Neuer as a kind of dampener, funneling the ball back to him, where he can hide it for sometimes interminable stretches.
Low had a turn of translated phrase -- "He has such a feel for distance" -- that encapsulates Neuer perfectly. He can shorten or lengthen the field with just a small change in his motivations.
In a strange way, that's left Neuer underrated as a shot stopper even though he's allowed only four goals in six games. There are goalkeepers in this tournament who have made more dramatic saves or had more standout single performances -- Navas, Tim Howard of the U.S., Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico -- but Neuer has had his moments. Lost in the domination of Brazil was his second-half effort when he made several good saves. (I also liked how upset he was for allowing Brazil's single, mostly meaningless goal in the dying seconds of the game.)
More important is how Neuer prevents trouble from developing in the first place. Unlike Ochoa or Romero, who both play deep in their goals and rely on their reflexes to make occasionally remarkable saves, Neuer stops the shots before they become shots. His positioning and aggressiveness with corners and crosses don't register as saves, but watching him makes me wonder whether we should judge goalkeepers by a different statistic: opportunities prevented.
In Sunday's final, listen for how often the crowd begins to rise with the glimpse of an opening and then goes mute because of Neuer's hands -- or more likely, his feet. Argentina's only chance might be to take some early, long-range shots -- Lionel Messi sending in towering bombs from 40 yards out -- to try to push him back into his box. Otherwise Neuer will dig into that patch of brown grass, 25 yards out: a place where an ordinary goalkeeper would look lost, but where an extraordinary one can seem as though he's found a better way to play the game.