Manuel Neuer Completes Career Turnaround With Champions League Final Heroics

Grey Whitebloom
Aug 25, 2020, 2:05 PM GMT+1
Manuel Neuer hoists aloft the Champions League trophy after an imperious individual display in the final
Manuel Neuer hoists aloft the Champions League trophy after an imperious individual display in the final | MANU FERNANDEZ/Getty Images
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In the 90th minute of the Champions League final, the ball fell to the feet of an unattended Kylian Mbappé eight yards from goal. No sooner had Paris Saint-Germain's forward lifted his head than the colossal frame of Manuel Neuer charged out to block his shot.

The referee's whistle blew seconds later as Mbappé was clearly offside yet Neuer could not be deterred by the assistant's flag. Bayern Munich's captain raised both arms to strike a defiant pose, slowly swivelling his head as he reinforced his impenetrable status.

Manuel Neuer saved all three of the shots that came his way in the 2020 Champions League final
Manuel Neuer saved all three of the shots that came his way in the 2020 Champions League final | MIGUEL A. LOPES/Getty Images

Neuer formed a rather less imperious figure as he clumsily conceded possession against South Korea in the 2018 World Cup. With Germany trailing 1-0 and on the brink of elimination in the group stages, Neuer had abandoned his area in search of an unlikely equaliser only to lose the ball in South Korea's final third before Heung-min Son rolled in the game-sealing goal.

Going into the tournament, Neuer's long-held status as Germany's undisputed number one was in serious jeopardy. The Bayern sweeper-keeper had missed almost the entirety of the previous season with a metatarsal injury and played just 135 minutes of football (which came in international friendlies) in 2018 before Germany's opening game.

Yet, despite the clear concerns surrounding his involvement, Joachim Löw kept faith in Neuer.

The former Schalke player was hardly the sole reason for his nation's premature exit. The entire German squad endured a tortuous two weeks in Russia, finishing bottom of a group which contained Sweden, Mexico and the aforementioned South Korea.

Neuer losing the ball against South Korea at the 2018 World Cup
Neuer losing the ball against South Korea at the 2018 World Cup | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Back in Bavaria, Neuer captained Bayern to a league and cup double under Niko Kovac but the perennial Bundesliga winners were dumped out of the Champions League by Liverpool in the round of 16 - their earliest exit from the competition for almost a decade.

Alongside this disappointing European run, Neuer endured arguably the worst individual season of his career in 2018/19.

Neuer's exploits outside his penalty area often steal the focus away from his shot-stopping between the posts - which is, most of the time, superb. However, in the season following the World Cup, Bayern's domestic success was achieved almost in spite of their number one.

Neuer won his seventh-consecutive Bundesliga title under Niko Kovac in 2018
Neuer won his seventh-consecutive Bundesliga title under Niko Kovac in 2018 | TF-Images/Getty Images

An excellent way of assessing a goalkeeper's shot-stopping prowess is the difference between the number of goals conceding and the post-shot expected goals (PSxG) they have faced.

To calculate PSxG, every shot on target is assigned a number between zero and one representing the probability of that effort beating a goalkeeper based on the strike's trajectory, speed and other characteristics. The sum of these values gives an estimate of the number of goals the model predicts a keeper facing these efforts to concede.

So - deep breath - if a goalie is letting in fewer goals than their PSxG they're either lucky or good, and the opposite can be assumed if their goals against tally exceeds the prediction.

In 2018/19 Neuer conceded almost six goals more than his PSxG figure - the fourth-worst record in the Bundesliga when adjusted for minutes played according to Football Reference. This season, the tables have emphatically turned and Neuer has prevented between two and three more goals than the model estimates.

Neuer also kept a league-high 15 clean sheets this season
Neuer also kept a league-high 15 clean sheets this season | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

This turnaround - which was rewarded with a three-year contract extension - is also evident from Neuer's save percentage, which has rocketed from a career-low 61% in 2018/19 to 75% this term.

It was 100% in the Champions League final as Neuer proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for PSG's misfiring front line. In the 18th minute Neymar's fizzing effort almost squirmed under Neuer's outstretched leg before the German's left hand ensured he wasn't beaten.

Marquinhos was denied a surprise third goal in Lisbon later on but Mbappé spurned the Parisian's biggest chance on the cusp of half-time, limply sweeping his effort into Neuer's palms.

After the match which secured Bayern's treble, a jubilant Neuer cooed: "This is maybe the most fun I have ever had playing with a team." Having endured the lowest ebb of his career last season, Neuer's imperious display in the Champions League final may very well have crowned his highest high.

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