The State of the (Goalkeeping) Union is a new series I will be starting where I look at a club’s goalkeeping situation, be it good or bad. This series goes along with “The DNA of:”, where I take a deep dive into how a team was built, and a future series that looks specifically at players.
As we enter the January transfer window, one of European Football’s biggest questions is “Who will replace Manuel Neuer?”. The veteran superstar is out for the season due to a leg injury in a skiing accident, meaning Bayern must address who they feel they can trust to see out their Champions League and Bundesliga ambitions. As reported by Bild, Bayern Munich has set an internal deadline of January 6th, 2023, to have a replacement for Neuer finalized and brought in. With less than a week to complete the signing, I wanted to go through the rumoured options as well as some possible answers to key questions.
Filling in for an Icon
There are two lines of thought that are commonly being discussed for Manuel Neuer right now. The first is Neuer was performing at an elite level prior to his injury, so when he returns it can be assumed he will immediately resume his number 1 role. On the other hand, Neuer will be 37 when he returns from injury, which is old in the world of football. Back around 2017, when Neuer suffered his previous severe injury, we saw a slow recovery for the veteran that was lined with incredibly poor performances. If he struggled to return to form when he was younger, how long will it take him this time? Will we ever see Manuel Neuer at his normal high level again?
Looking at data (see below), we can see that Neuer is no longer the sweeper he once was, but rather he has changed his game into being a shot-stopper frequently on the ball. Manuel Neuer averaged 0.212 prevented goals/90, which is significantly above average for goalkeepers in the top five divisions of Europe (-0.06). In terms of distribution, Neuer is involved in 55.39 passes/90, compared to an average of 34.96. To comfortably replace Manuel Neuer with minimum transition pains, Bayern needs to find a top shot-stopper who will be able to take on a significant role in distribution.
The Reported Options
Alexander Nübel (Monaco, on loan from Bayern)
Perhaps the most obvious option is the return of Nübel from Monaco. He is an in-house option, meaning there is little to no cost, and he was hailed as the next-best goalkeeper in Germany when he was younger. The problem is his career has been plagued by inconsistent performances and he doesn’t want to end his loan early to return to Bayern, saying to Bild “It doesn’t make much sense for me to come back.” And “I’m very happy here and I still have a lot of games ahead with Monaco.”
Having a player who doesn’t want to join the team is never ideal for a number of reasons, and it also has been reported in the past that Nübel has a poor relationship with Bayern’s goalkeeper coach, Toni Tapalovic. Red flags aside, we need to at least consider the data of Nübel to evaluate how he might fit for a return to Bayern.
As we see above, Nübel is a more balanced goalkeeper leaning toward being a shot-stopper in his style of play visually. When we look at the raw numbers, Nübel is performing well in goal prevention (0.142/90) but actually is below average in sweeping and ball-playing involvements. The concerning aspect is his 16.17 passes/90, which is below average. While anyone at this level can adapt their game, Bayern needs someone who doesn’t need time to adjust to performing.
Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach)
Yann Sommer has performed as one of the best in the Bundesliga for the past few seasons, so it only makes sense that Bayern would want him. The 34-year-old Swiss goalkeeper would offer a high-performing solution for the short term, but Bayern signing him is not a guarantee. Sommer spoke to ‘Gladbach’s club website around Christmas, stating contract extension negotiations will begin soon – and Transfermarkt suggests both Manchester United and Tottenham are also interested.
As the style of play visual below shows, Sommer is perhaps a more balanced option for Bayern. When we look purely at the numbers, we see that Sommer in 2022 was the most involved in Europe’s top leagues, with an average of 65.76 passes/90. Obviously being a distributor doesn’t translate to being ideal for Germany’s best club, but fortunately, his 0.136 prevented goals/90 is enough to say he can handle the shot-stopping duties comfortably.
With a contract expiring in the summer, Sommer should be available for a reasonable fee – but Bayern must ask themselves who they see as the number one when Neuer returns. Given the data, Sommer would be a great fit for Bayern.
A new hero of the World Cup, and someone I’ve raved about for years much to the annoyance of friends, Livakovic is the Ferrari of the reported options. He will draw a high fee coming off his World Cup showing and is in his prime, not to mention he is a very close stylistic fit to what Bayern already have in Manuel Neuer. Looking at just the numbers, Livakovic is preventing 0.077 goals/90 and is involved in 32.36 passes, which is lower than Neuer but close enough that he could adapt with less of a challenge than other candidates.
Livakovic could easily be the long-term replacement for Manuel Neuer, but he isn’t someone who should wait for Neuer to bow out. This means Bayern must ask themselves if they are ready for life after their iconic goalkeeper.
An Alternative Solution
Obviously, I am not a decision-maker for Bayern, so the following opinion does not mean much, but in my experience as a technical analyst and my education in sport management/directorship, this is what I would consider.
The January transfer window is known for inflated fees and none of us can say how Neuer will return, but given his legacy, it is safe to assume he will get a fair shot at resuming the starting duties when he is fit. Rushed decisions are also an easy way to make mistakes, but Bayern does not have the luxury of time here.
I see Sven Ulreich as the deputy, as someone who has stepped up in a strong enough capacity in the past to maintain Bayern’s domestic dominance. The downside with Ulreich is he showed vulnerabilities in shot-stopping in 2022, underperforming expectations with -0.233 prevented goals/90. If the realistic goals of this season, considering the squad and the competition, is to say this probably isn’t Bayern’s year to win the Champions League, then Ulreich could be a simple option to see out the season without broadly damaging the team. If there is a belief that this Bayern side is capable of winning the Champions League, then I would explore the loan market for a goalkeeper.
As we see with the visual above, an interesting option could be Keylor Navas, who had a strong world cup showing and has fallen out of contention at PSG. Navas is now 36, so he is at the end of his career, but has shown he is still a top shot-stopper. However, Navas is perhaps the opposite of Sven Ulreich, with his weakness being his lack of involvement at anything beyond shot stopping, suggesting there might be a harder time adapting to Bayern’s demands of play.
With the likes of Keylor Navas being an option, bringing in a goalkeeper on loan will allow safety for the remainder of the season while also allowing Bayern more time to address Neuer’s recovery and figure out if it is time for a long-term replacement or someone to share duties with the legendary goalkeeper.
The Pros and Cons Summary
Alexander Nübel doesn’t appear interested in returning from loan, but he is a strong enough shot-stopper that he might have developed past his previously shown inconsistencies.
Yann Sommer is a short-term elite option that is proven in the Bundesliga, but his arrival can also lead to a headache and unhappiness for someone when Neuer returns.
Dominik Livakovic is in his prime and matches what Bayern are looking for, but he will be the most expensive option and could likely cost more than what Bayern are hoping to spend for what could be just a bandage filling in for an injured Neuer.
Sven Ulreich is already at the club and would be the easiest solution, but his shot-stopping abilities are concerning and probably not good enough for Bayern in continental competitions.
shot-stoppingKeylor Navas is still an elite shot-stopper who is available on loan, but he does not fit Bayern’s style of play, meaning there could be adjustment difficulties at a point in the season where there isn’t time for adjustment difficulties.