Much like ice baths, blisters and a financially-motivated importance on punctuality, competition for places is an occupational hazard for a modern footballer.
However, no position suffers a more binary consequence from this aspect of the game than goalkeepers. No matter how many managers claim Manuel Neuer is good enough to play in midfield, no one is realistically going to deploy him there (apart from, perhaps, Stuart Pearce).
With the ink on Neuer’s contract extension still wet, this does not bode well for Bayern Munich’s imminent arrival, Alexander Nübel.
The 23-year-old keeper agreed to join Bayern for the upcoming season in January, crossing the same club chasm Neuer himself navigated when he moved from Schalke in 2011. Neuer and Nübel both spent sizeable stints captaining the Royal Blues before making the switch.
Although, Schalke did receive £27m for Bayern’s current number one while Nübel’s surprise move was made all the more painful as he is set to join the perennial title winners for free. (This is the second time in three seasons that Bayern have poached a Schalke star at the end of their contract following Leon Goretzka’s switch in 2018.)
While Nübel’s reputation with the Schalke fans has unsurprisingly tumbled, the wider perception of his talent has also taken (a harsh) knock since the transfer reveal.
Nübel hasn’t exactly enjoyed the fairytale swansong to his Schalke career this season but the troubles began before the move was confirmed. Two weeks prior to the announcement, instead of channelling Neuer, Nübel mimicked another German goalie in the form of Harald Schumacher.
That’s gotta hurt! ??
Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Mijat Gacinovic was on the receiving end of this karate kick over the weekend… ?
What was the Schalke goalkeeper thinking!? pic.twitter.com/odEC4UXFL5
— ?? Ja! Watch the Bundesliga live on BT Sport?? (@btsportfootball) December 16, 2019
Against Eintracht Frankfurt, Nübel charged off his line to snuff out a counter attack only to brutally clatter Mijat Ga?inovi?. Unlike Patrick Battiston at the 1982 World Cup, Ga?inovi? escaped with no broken bones and some bruised ribs, but this assault saw a clearly remorseful Nübel fined €12,000 and banned for four matches.
During the suspension his move to Bayern was somewhat bizarrely announced and hours later Schalke swiftly delivered an update of their own – Omar Mascarell was to take over Nübel’s captaincy with immediate effect.
Before being dropped for Schalke’s three most recent fixtures, the universal assessment seems to be that the transfer had a detrimental effect on Nübel’s performances and has somewhat clouded the overall perception of his ability. Admittedly, he did concede eight goals across his two most recent games for the club – one of which he inadvertently turned into his own net – but to judge the player on 180 minutes of football is simply ridiculous.
As a teenager with Paderborn, Nübel’s teammates nicknamed him ‘Manuel’, and while the ‘Manuel’ Nübel was making a name for himself with a breakout 2018, Manuel Neuer was somewhat struggling for form and fitness.
After an abysmal World Cup – which he was selected for despite missing eight months of the season with injury – Neuer had one of the worst individual campaigns of his career.
Based on Post-Shot Expected Goals (via fbref), a statistic used to evaluate the likelihood of an effort of target beating the keeper based on its placement and past precedent, Neuer let in five more goals than an average goalie, faced with the same shots, would have. This ranked him as the third-worst shot-stopper in the division that season.
Using the same measure, Nübel saved as many chances as he ‘should’ have that year – something he’s continued to do this season, despite the supposed psychological impact of his move.
Neuer, however, has seen a welcome return to form in terms of shot-stopping – although this is only one aspect of his game alongside the obvious benefits of his much-vaunted status as sweeper-keeper supreme.
And so the question remains, what will happen when the pair team up next season?
Prior to the transfer, Neuer hesitantly replied to the idea of Nübel replacing him as Germany’s number one in the future with: ‘he could be.’ But, rather more tellingly, Neuer went on to emphasis that “he needs the experience that he will definitely get, but he’s already developed really well.”
It seems that the ‘experience’ Nübel needs is likely to come from the training ground as, when Bayern announced his extended deal, the club’s CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described Neuer as ‘the best goalkeeper in the world’.
The idea of one keeper learning from his more experienced teammate before succeeding him is not exactly a new one. Juventus are currently reaping the rewards of this strategy as Wojciech Szczesny spent a season as Gianluigi Buffon’s understudy before seamlessly taking the legendary keeper’s mantle as the club’s number one in 2018.
However, Buffon was entering his 40s and left Juventus for Paris Saint-Germain as Szczesny stepped up. Whereas Neuer is 34 with a fresh deal running to 2023. The most obvious solution would be for Nübel to play Bayern’s German Cup games to begin with, but Neuer hasn’t exactly been willing to give up those appearances in the past.
In all likelihood both players will be forced to make sacrifices, yet, there isn’t much evidence to suggest Neuer won’t come out of the arrangement the happier of the two parties.