Bayern announced the signing of Alexander Nübel. The club intend to settle the matter of succeeding Manuel Neuer. What are the implications of this move?
There is no question that Alexander Nübel is the hottest young goalkeeper in Germany. At just 23, he already boasted the captaincy of one of the Bundesliga’s most historic clubs – until he signed for Bayern, that is. Since his debut in 2016, Nübel has accrued almost 50 appearances for Schalke. Nübel managed to replace Ralf Fährmann, who was sent out on loan to Norwich City last summer.
It is hardly a secret, as reported by various German outlets, that Bayern are currently in the process of renewing Manuel Neuer’s contract until 2023. Why sign his potential replacement now?
Ghosts of Christmas past
At first glance, it looks like Bayern are trying to learn from past mistakes. The club’s 2013 team has been slowly fading, and the suits haven’t always been very quick to react to that. Indeed, they took their precious time to find the ‘new’ Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry – a process that many would argue is still ongoing. As a result, the squad’s depth has suffered. We all know what the consequences are of not having sufficient depth in a team.
Make no mistake, generational changes are hard. Not only is it difficult to find someone with an appropriate balance of youth and baggage to fill the shoes of a club legend. Timing is fundamentally difficult. Sign a replacement too early, and you’ll wind up with an uncomfortable and unproductive overlap. Sign one too late, and your short-term prospects may suffer while a player adapts or improves to realise their potential. Naturally, there is no formulaic way to do it. It depends on the vision of the sporting director and other administrative figureheads.
So where Bayern made a mistake with previous replacements, they want to get ahead of the curve with the goalkeeper position. And therein lies a conundrum.
The goalkeeper problem
Stability is the name of the game when it comes to starting goalkeepers. It is statistically the less substituted position in football. Nobody expects a goalkeeper to be replaced mid-game, barring injuries, sending offs or some odd previous plan to actually waste a substitution on a goalkeeper. If a goalkeeper finds themselves in the Startelf, they will bloody expect to play the entire 90 minutes.
The same applies over the course of the season in general. Substitute goalkeepers may get a cup game here or there, but they are generally confined to the bench throughout an entire campaign.
This means that, if an incoming goalkeeper is to expect any game time, it will obey only to a pre-existing arrangement. X gets the league games, for instance, while Y gets the cup and European games. Alternatively, there may be an explicitly communicated competition. But that is even rarer.
There is precedent for a situation where competitions are assigned to goalkeepers. In his first year at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti designated Diego López as his league goalkeeper, while Iker Casillas served in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. Ancelotti inherited an uncomfortable situation from José Mourinho, who sidelined Casillas unexpectedly and pressured the club to sign López in the winter of 2012-13. Back then, it was clear to many that Mourinho benching Casillas was due to a strictly personal problem. After Álvaro Arbeloa injured Casillas in a game against Valencia, the Real Madrid captain was as good as dead to the Portuguese.
Madrid’s bitter rivals Barcelona have also dabbled with rotating goalkeepers in recent years. Luis Enrique implemented a similar programme between 2014 and 2016. Marc-André ter Stegen stood between the sticks in cup competitions while Claudio Bravo did the rounds in La Liga. The scheme left both keepers unsatisfied, and Bravo left for Manchester City in 2016.
The lesson is that rotation – and thus generational change – is not the same in goal as it is outfield. It’s even trickier.
Neuer: a competition animal
German media, especially Christian Falk at Bild, reported that the club intends to guarantee Nübel some playing time. This would entail Neuer, the club captain and a consummate competitor, to willingly give it up.
Having seen the impasse between Ter Stegen and Neuer unfold in the national team, I think we can all agree that this is unlikely, at best. Neuer sees himself as being world class and having much to offer yet. He’s not going to look down and relinquish his hard-earned playing time just like that. Mind you, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not exactly thrilled to hear a player is promised game time just because they’re there. To me, it would be good if the technical staff declares open season on the goalkeeping spot. Whoever performs better gets it.
Whatever the solution, it looks certain that it will make things uncomfortable for both Neuer and Nübel. The thing is, Nübel has already signed up for it. He knows he’s got one of Germany’s best all-time goalkeepers in front of him, and he still signed for Bayern. Neuer has had his extension talks somewhat ambushed by this development.
The need for a plan
This all goes to say: Bayern had better have a plan about this. There is no way that they can make this transition work without one, and especially one that both players are good to go with. As we’ve seen, this is true of almost any major generational change, but even more so when we’re talking about the goalkeeper position.
Nübel is by all means a fantastic signing, but it is now in Bayern’s hands to make sure he lives up to his potential and succeeds in, well, succeeding a legend like Manuel Neuer.