Unorthodox Bookends Leading the Germans
World Cup 2014: Germany Needs Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer to Play Well
RIO DE JANEIRO — It has been a hot and cold World Cup for Germany: from its bold statement match in steamy Salvador against Portugal to its botched lines and opportunities in the chill and drizzle of Porto Alegre against Algeria.
Despite fluctuating form and Manager Joachim Löw’s concern about seven players with mild flu symptoms, the Germans are, as usual, in contention with the World Cup reaching its business end.
The next obstacle amid national angst: Friday’s quarterfinal against resurgent France.
Germany is hard to read and difficult to categorize, and its protean nature is particularly evident at the front of the attack and the back of the defense. Thomas Müller, again its leading scorer, is an unconventional, unusually versatile forward. Manuel Neuer is an unconventional, unusually versatile goalkeeper.
The two players cover enormous ground inside and outside the penalty areas. Even on a rough night in the Round of 16 victory over Algeria, their confidence and resourcefulness under pressure were pivotal.
Müller kept missing shots or connections, even stumbling on a free kick — either a big gaffe or an ineffective ruse — late in the second half. But he never stopped hustling and eventually picked the lock, sliding a pass through traffic to André Schürrle in the opening minutes of extra time that Schürrle spun into gold with a back-heel flick.
By then Neuer, roaming free and taking big risks, had already snuffed several promising Algerian attacks far from the usual zones where goalkeepers operate.
“He is certainly the most complete keeper in the world,” Hugo Lloris, his French counterpart, said on Thursday.
Müller and Neuer at their best will most likely be needed if Germany is to end what is now a serious drought, with no World Cup title since 1990 and no major trophy since the European Championship in 1996.
Müller and Neuer are not short on trophies. As two of the many national team members who play their club soccer for Bayern Munich, they won the German Cup, the Bundesliga and, above all, the Champions League in 2013.
At age 24, Müller is no longer the Wunderkind who, in barely a year, went from playing in Germany’s third division to becoming the leading scorer of the 2010 World Cup.
Louis van Gaal, the former Bayern coach and a fine talent spotter who is managing the Netherlands, was the man who gave Müller his big break at the club after Jurgen Klinsmann had tested him briefly without recalling him during his days running Bayern.
Müller, raised in Bavaria and married at 20, is happy to have recently signed a contract extension with Bayern through 2019. He was an attacking midfielder in 2010, usually operating on the right and sniffing out opportunity after opportunity. He scored five goals and has four more in Brazil. In light of his age and craftsmanship, it is no stretch to imagine him finishing his career with more goals than any man in World Cup history. With nine for now, he is still well behind his German teammate Miroslav Klose and Ronaldo, who are tied at the top with 15.
“Müller’s a player who’s honest and genuine and keeps getting in there and keeps arriving on the scene,” said Chris Waddle, the former English star working here as a BBC analyst. “He gets his chances because of his honesty and endeavor. If you make 20 runs, you might get one chance, and he’ll make every one of those 20 runs.”
He is being used as a striker this time, but he is no pure No. 9. He has played all over the attacking map during his club and national team career and is doing more of the same in Brazil, sometimes retreating deep into the midfield to try to create a new threat. And it is hardly all about his own goal count.
“He is a very generous player who makes a lot of defensive efforts,” said Didier Deschamps, France’s manager. “He’s an engine for their team.”
With his long stride and endurance, he likes his open space, and one of his gifts is finding it at just the right time. He might not be a playmaker like his teammate Mesut Ozil, but he undeniably has vision.
“He’s the only player in the world who manages to see, at the same time, the space around him, the ball, his teammates and his opponents,” van Gaal once said of Müller.
And Müller’s view of himself? “I know I don’t have the most elegant style; I’m not a magician,” he told the magazine France Football last month. “But I’m unpredictable, and I know what needs to be done: Go where it hurts, never give up, and play with lots of spontaneity.”
Lots of cool precision as well. Consider his goal against the United States, beautifully struck off a rebound past the diving Tim Howard, a goalkeeper who has since proven to an even larger audience just how hard he is to beat.
Howard is an aggressive, acrobatic keeper. But he is old-school compared with Neuer, whose play far off his line here has been the ultimate expression of the 21st-century goalkeeper’s expanded role in the flow of play.
The catalyst was a rule change in 1992 that prohibited goalkeepers from handling the ball when a teammate intentionally kicked it to them. Intended to open up the game, that new rule gradually put more emphasis on foot skills for goalkeepers and ultimately helped produce a man like Neuer, who has been called a sweeper-keeper.
Already inclined to venture outside traditional boundaries for Bayern, he took his style to new extremes against Algeria, when he touched the ball 19 times outside the penalty area, and not only with his foot. In the second half, with the Algerian striker Islam Slimani bearing down on a long, high-bouncing through ball, Neuer sprinted outside the area and snuffed the danger with a leaping header. On other occasions, he played with the ball at his feet, visibly enjoying the joust at one stage in the first half as he fooled an Algerian forward and only then delivered the pass upfield.
“Manuel has the same technical skills as the others; he could play in midfield,” Löw said Thursday. “He has a good sense of orientation and a good sense of distances, and that’s what makes him so valuable. And that’s why he is welcome to take this risk.”
Others in Germany get more nervous, including Franz Beckenbauer, a former German star and manager who played plenty of sweeper but not as a goalkeeper. “Yes, Manuel Neuer saved us in some situations, as an outfield player would do, but he threw caution to the wind,” Beckenbauer said at a news conference this week. Beckenbauer added, “I would prefer that he remains in goal against France.”
That might be wise, particularly when it is difficult to imagine Löw asking his defenders to play quite as high a line against France as they did against Algeria. That should leave less open space that Neuer will feel obligated to patrol.
France’s Lloris is also an aggressive keeper with a lesser case of Wanderlust, so there should be plenty of new-age goaltending on display.
Plenty of new age Müller, too. Germany, in this time of trouble, is counting on it.