As far as German football goes, there is no figure in recent memory more imposing than Oliver Kahn. Considered by many to be the greatest keeper his country has ever known, Kahn became the first and only goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball at the 2002 World Cup, where he single-(and double-)handedly dragged a struggling German side into the final. And alongside Khan stands Jens Lehmann’s rivalry and legacy: madness, yes, but miracles, too, in equal measure. These two giants cast a long shadow upon the generation that would follow them, and it would be a tall order for any young player to live up to their legends. But as another World Cup draws near, an impressive new generation of German goalkeepers are stepping up to the line, ready to catch the future in their gloves.
The German Recipe for Success
What is it about Germany that produces good goalkeeping in such abundance? National stereotypes? Duck-catching lessons with Sepp Maier? Jokes and generalizations about “German steadfastness” aside, there is nevertheless a distinctly Teutonic flavor to the art of goalkeeping — and it is not without reason.
Modern football is an evolving beast, and the goalkeeper position has evolved with the game. Since the 1990s, football has turned away from the one-trick pony school of goalkeeping, and instead looked to the likes of Edwin van der Sar and Victor Valdes. For rather than simply being a ball-stopper, the last negation of a striker’s forward run, the modern goalkeeper is an integral part of the team’s positive momentum. He must be not only comfortable stopping the ball, but also playing it. It shows through in the statistics: whereas a 90s goalkeeper might run an average of four kilometers per match, his modern counterpart may now run upwards of eight kilometers during that same 90+ minute span. This reflects how the modern goalkeeper moves forward more: he takes an active role in organizing the defense, he distributes the ball with intelligence, and is in essence an eleventh outfield player.
The versatility and intelligence required of this modern goalkeeping man add up to one big ask. And Germany came up with answers. From Maikel Stevens’ number-crunching to Jens Lehmann’s penalty shoot-out cheat-sheet to Andreas Köpke’s annual Goalkeeping Congress, Germans have elevated the existential crisis of goalkeeping into a science, and a dedicated art. Veteran keepers pass on their knowledge to the new generation, and new and innovative training techniques are incorporated to prepare young players for a brave new footballing world. Such is the system that produced Manuel Neuer, René Adler, Marc-André ter Stegen, etc. The list is long, and goes on, for Germany’s current generation of talented young keepers are just the latest chapter of an impressive history-in-progress.
A Golden Generation of Goalkeepers
Other national team coaches would give an arm and leg to have the selection problems Joachim Löw does, when faced with the current crop of young goalkeeping talent in Germany. The headlines go to Manuel Neuer, who was thrust upon the world stage at the 2010 South Africa World Cup. There, Neuer proved that he was not only a formidable shot-stopper but a modern goalkeeper who could play an integral part in the new Germany’s attractive attacking football. With that blistering third-place run followed up by an impressive season at his club, Schalke 04, the 25-year-old Neuer then made the momentous (and, in German football, almost inevitable) move to Bayern Munich last summer. Though the ill-fated Bavarians have yet to win a trophy with their new prize in goal, Neuer’s development has continued unabated and today he is indisputably Germany’s #1, if not on course to challenge for #1 in the world.
Right behind Neuer stands Ron-Robert Zieler, the 23-year-old goalkeeper from Hannover 96. Once a member of Manchester United’s reserves, Zieler’s spell in England was an unhappy one as injury and stiff competition barred him from regular play. Zieler returned to Germany in 2010 after a successful loan spell, and his intelligent play and commanding presence have already made him the obvious choice to defend Hannover’s goal.
More familiar than Zieler, however, may be the name of René Adler, who caps the elder end of this generation at 27. Fallen from grace due to an ill-timed injury that saw Neuer’s rise at his own career’s expense, Adler has had a tough time of it the past several years. But his latest move to Hamburger SV was a good one, as he reminded Germany why he was once so prodigiously loved. There are now more than a few voices calling for Joachim Löw to give this experienced goalkeeper a second chance to represent his country.
However, he will be facing stiff competition from the up-and-comers. Marc-André ter Stegen has already been added to the senior team as third-string keeper, while Bernd Leno also seems due a call-up from Löw. Ter Stegen was widely considered the best Bundesliga goalkeeper of 2011/12, over the likes of Neuer and Weidenfeller. Part of a surprise Borussia Mönchengladbach team that took the league by storm, Ter Stegen was a key ingredient in Lucien Favre’s counterattacking strategy. Not only did Ter Stegen stop 81% of all shots on his goal that season, but he played as an “eleventh outfielder,” placing key passes and reading the game to link up seamlessly with his teammates upfield. He is a modern goalkeeper par excellence, and it seems almost frivolous to point out that Ter Stegen is but 20 years old, and 2011/12 was his first full season in the Bundesliga.
That same season, another young goalkeeper also burst onto the scene. Bernd Leno, then age 19, went to Bayer Leverkusen in August 2011 as an emergency loanee for a team facing a goalkeeping crisis. Playing behind a constantly shifting back line, Leno made a name for himself with his stellar reflexes and a confidence beyond his years. Three months after he arrived in Leverkusen, Leno signed a permanent deal with Die Werkself and became their #1 goalkeeper.
And even here the list does not end. The Bundesliga is an endless reserve of great goalkeepers, with rising stars like Sven Ulreich, Kevin Trapp, and Lars Unnerstall unable to get even a sniff at the senior team — just to give some perspective on how strong German goalkeeping currently is.
Beyond the Bundesliga
It is a cruel irony, indeed, that today’s German national team remains in a perpetual state of defensive crisis while simultaneously boasting some of the greatest goalkeeping talent in the world. But the errors of hapless defenders are, in a way, necessary to showcase the brilliance of the keeper. For instance, without Leverkusen’s shambolic defending, Leno may have have gotten the spotlight he did. And Neuer, though still a great goalkeeper, appears distinctly less impressive behind an organized Bayern defense than he did at Schalke, single-handedly keeping shots out of a wide-open goal. In a way, Germany’s goalkeepers owe a debt of thanks to the dodgy defending so distinctive of the Bundesliga. This league-wide weakness ensures that the heroic figure of the goalkeeper rarely disappears behind an organized defense.
But bad habits of the domestic league are also wont to carry over into international matches, especially when the vast majority of the national team all play in the Bundesliga. Few Bundesliga teams can be considered good in the air, for instance, and it shows. Germany’s inability to keep clean sheets has haunted the team in recent tournaments; set pieces are their kryptonite.
Part of it may be a function of these goalkeepers’ youthfulness. Collectively, this generation of young talents averages only 23 years in age. Experience will come with time and study — and perhaps also with a change of scenery. The last German goalkeeper to find success abroad was Jens Lehmann. While outfielders such as Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, and Lukas Podolski are all currently making waves outside the Bundesliga, a goalkeeper is yet to follow their footsteps, to test themselves and to learn new styles of play.
Football continues to evolve, and goalkeeping with it. A bit of outside tempering may be just the thing for German keepers, to toughen them in the image of Lehmann and Kahn. With the World Cup coming around again and Euro 2016 on the horizon, this golden generation of German goalkeepers is poised to take the stage. How they leave that stage, then, may depend largely now on how they choose to continue their footballing education.