Manuel Neuer's Struggles Are Hurting Bayern Munich
This is awkward, but we really need to talk about Manuel Neuer. He’s a legend of a keeper. For a decade he’s been a unique and special player. His ability with the ball at his feet gained him a cult following, but it was the fact that he paired that with some of the best fundamental goalkeeping ability in the world that made him truly special. He was great at the basics. And then sometimes he’d also dribble the ball around just for fun. But the basics seem to have abandoned him.
Bayern’s dominance means Neuer isn’t often called into action. The team only gives up 7.61 shots per match. That’s the best number in the Bundesliga. They are incredibly good at stifling opponents’ attacks. And, even when they do ultimately give up shots, those shots tend not to be dangerous ones. Opponents, on average, take shots from 18.49 yards away from Bayern’s goal. That’s the furthest out of any side in the Bundesliga, and they’re worth 0.09 expected goals per shot, again the lowest average volume. The shots Bayern are giving up don’t seem to be bad shots. And, yet, they keep flying into the net.
It is of course possible, that Neuer has simply run into a string off awful luck. That despite having a mediocre collection of shots, strikers just keep hitting the ball outstandingly and picking out corners in ways that Neuer couldn’t hope to stop. Except that post-shot xG suggests this isn’t the case. The post-shot value of the shots Neuer has faced is almost exactly the same. The model spits out 11.0 expected goals conceded from open play. Neuer has conceded 16.
There is one interesting statistical wrinkle here. As the two charts show, relatively few of the shots that Bayern have given up have found their way on target, and of those that have, they’ve been mostly the most dangerous shots. The result is that despite the fairly innocuous profile of shots that Bayern have given up on the whole, the ones that Neuer has ended up facing have been quite dangerous. His job has been harder than it might seem at first glance. His expected save rate is only 69.7%. That’s the seventh lowest in the league.
The problem is, that even when you adjust for all of that Neuer is still failing miserably. His save percentage is only 59%. Among first choice keepers that’s the second lowest total in the league. Worse, the difference between his save percentage, and his expected save percentage, that 10.7% gap, it’s also the second worst in Germany. There’s no way to sugar coat it. Neuer has just been bad.
The fact that Bayern themselves are quite good has gone a long way to masking his performance. They’ve only conceded 19 total goals. Only two teams have conceded fewer, and they’re on 18. Bayern’s defensive record is close to the best in the league, so how bad could Neuer really be anchoring it? Well, when you graph goals conceded against the goals save above average percentage it becomes clear just how large an outlier Neuer is.
What this makes crystal clear is that the defense is carrying Neuer right now. He’s conceded a stingy number of goals despite the way he’s played. The defense deserves the credit for not allowing more dangerous shots for Neuer to struggle saving.
It’s not like Neuer is dominating in the air when it comes to commanding his box either. Here’s the heatmap showing how likely he is to come for claimable balls in his box. He faced 212 total balls, and came for 12 of them, a little more conservative than the 13.6 our model predicts. That makes him, by our model, only the seventh most aggressive keeper in and around his penalty area in the Bundesliga.
It’s also true that he’s faced very few balls that a keeper would frequently claim. Only five balls into the box all season where the type that a keeper would come for more than 30% of the time. He came for two of them (an exactly average frequency given the balls faced), but he missed one. The fact that his overall success rate on claims is 92% and fine, exists in concert with the fact that he’s only one for two on the more meaningful ones.
In a different context maybe these stats wouldn’t be so alarming. Players have bad stretches, even great ones. Keepers have bad years, or half years, and bounce back all the time. But, taking a step back actually makes the situation look worse, not better. Neuer isn’t young, he’ll be 33 in March. Keepers often have longer athletic lives than outfield players, but 33 is still pushing it. It’s an age where, in a vacuum you’d expect a keeper to get worse not better. Then there are the injuries. Neuer missed the vast majority of last season with foot problems. His performance still hasn’t recovered. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it doesn’t rule it out either.
Put it all together and this is a four-alarm fire for Bayern. Neuer used to be a star, now he’s facing a life comes at you fast crisis. All of a sudden he’s become an old keeper coming off an injury who hasn’t come close to recovering his form half a season after getting back on the pitch. If Bayern don’t rally over the last half of the season and catch Borussia Dortmund, Neuer’s deterioration will be a large part of what went wrong. A year ago it would have been sacrilegious to question Neuer’s place. Now? Unless he improves dramatically over the second half of this season it’s clear Bayern will need to upgrade the keeper position going into next year. The keeper might be a legend, but eventually father time comes for legends too.